Passover, Memories, and the Power of Storytelling

It was exactly two years ago that I opened the door to a meeting of the Keshet Beit Midrash for the first time. I had moved to Boston a few months previously and, as Pesach (Passover) drew closer with its promise of spring around the corner, I was feeling the sting of isolation in the dead of winter in a strange city where people can’t pronounce their own French last names and nobody says good-morning. I had moved here from Louisiana in search of place to call home.

Creative Common/Hawk Sugano

Creative Commons/Hawk Sugano

It was in that room that our small group, in honor of the approaching Passover, examined a passage from
Torah Queeries
. We read a piece written by Jason Gary Klein in hevruta (pairs) and discussed the ritual of storytelling, which Klein notes happens in a very ritualized way at the Passover seder, and which also happens less formally but with equal frequency in queer circles, where we are so fond of telling coming out stories. And, as Klein pointed out, our own narratives of oppression and liberation nicely parallel the story we tell each year at the Passover seder. During the discussion, my first time ever sitting among other queer Jews, I felt cogs turn in my brain that had been rusty from years of disuse. I felt sinews in my heart grow taut that hadn’t been stretched in a lifetime. I didn’t understand those feelings at the time, but in the two years since that beit midrash, I haven’t stopped thinking about our topic that night.

Storytelling is an incredible feature of the human animal. We are unique creatures in many ways, but it is our capacity to translate experience into memory, and then to transmit that memory to another through the act of storytelling that strikes me as nothing short of magic. We can know things that we have not ourselves experienced. This is how humans empower one another, how communities make each individual member stronger.

If you ask a neuroscientist, they won’t use the word magic. But they might tell you something surprising nonetheless. I was introduced to the work of neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux through NPR’s RadioLab hosts, who interviewed him for an episode on memory and forgetting. According to LeDoux, scientists have known for decades that memories are physical entities. When we store a memory, we are folding a tiny sequence of proteins in our brains. Our memory is like a giant linen closet. And each time we pull a memory off the shelf, we fold that protein chain a little differently before putting it back. That’s a stunning piece of neurology, that every time we recall an experience we alter it slightly.

Posted on March 22, 2013

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