Collective Memory Today

Recent historical events have lead to new archetypes.

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The minor fast days are an example of how collective memory is given expression in Judaism. In his first article "Collective Memory," the author explored how the Jewish mandate to remember was expressed throughout Jewish history. In the following article, Roskies tackles modern events and how they have affected collective memory, wondering whether the traditional paradigm for addressing collective memory  is still valid today. He looks at a number of issues and responses that have shaped modern Jewish life: 1) Emancipation and the repercussions it has had on Jewish thought and culture, 2) the trauma of the Holocaust and whether that has called for new paradigms, and 3) how contemporary dependency on visual imagery has influenced Jewish culture which traditionally depended on the written word. Reprinted with permission of The Gale Group from Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought, edited by Arthur A. Cohen and Paul Mendes-Flohr, Twayne Publishers.

Scholars are divided as to the continued viability of Jewish group memory in the modern era. Some, pointing to the fragmentation of art and consciousness in the high culture of Western Europe, conclude that group memory suffered an irreversible blow with emancipation. Others, drawing on the folklore, literature, art, and politics of Jewish eastern Europe, argue that group memory was transformed and revitalized in a secular mode.

The anti-traditionalist revolt--launched in Eastern Europe by such intellectuals as [the writers] S. Y. Abramowitsch (Mendele Mokher Seforim) and Hayyim Nahman Bialik--rejected the theological premise of sin and retribution as the guiding principle of history, but continued nonetheless to disassemble the czarist pogroms, the expulsions, and the mass exodus in terms of the ancient archetypes. An apocalyptic mode of response gained momentum during and after World War I and the Bolshevik revolution, especially among cosmopolitan writers drawn to radical politics. These latter-day apocalyptic writers revived the mythic approach to history, reclaiming Jesus, Shabbetai Zevi [a 17th-century false Messiah], and Solomon Molcho [a 16th-century false Messiah], as prophets of the millennium… Events deliberately suppressed by the rabbis, such as the siege and defeat of Masada, took on mythic significance in this period of revolutionary upheaval….

At the same time, a neoclassical trend also took hold among those writers and political thinkers who focused on the fate of the Jews. The normative past yielded material for a spate of historical novels and family sagas, enormously popular in the interbellum period, while new meanings were discovered for the collective archetypes of kiddush ha-Shem [dying to sanctify God's name]and the kehillah kedoshah (the holy congregation). Even when used ironically, as in the work of S. Y. Agnon, these archetypes rendered the immediate crisis of European Jewry transtemporal.

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David G. Roskies

David G. Roskies is the Sol and Evelyn Henkind Chair in Yiddish Literature and Culture and professor of Jewish Literature at The Jewish Theological Seminary.