For all the efforts of the great Jewish thinkers to develop
a systematic exposition of Jewish beliefs, Judaism is primarily defined by
narrative theology, the telling of a sacred story that gives meaning to our past
and momentum to our future. Each morning during prayers we retell a précis of
our sacred saga. And on Passover, we devote significant attention to the
In The White Album, Joan Didion captured the importance of narrative when she wrote, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live... We… [impose] a narrative line upon disparate images… the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.” In his illustrations for a haggadah with commentary by Elie Wiesel, Mark Podwal imagines the pyramids of Egypt as the matzah that we consume, providing a visual and gustable theology that joins the ancient to what is yet to come.
In a recent interview, Dara Horn, the author of the new novel, A Guide for the Perplexed, similarly reminds us that the past is “a sequence of events that, once it’s gone, can’t be objectively accessed and can only be retold, in countless ways—and the way we choose to tell that story becomes our identity. People who lived through the same experience can understand it in wildly different ways, and that difference is what distinguishes one person’s soul from another’s. There’s a double helix of free will and fate that defines our lives—the circumstances we find ourselves in, and how we decide to remember those experiences.”
Her novel offers a contemporary recasting of the biblical story of Joseph and his brothers (featuring sisters), in which a new technology, named Geniza, enables people to archive their lives. Of course, the ancient geniza in Egypt was a repository of “sacred trash” that became sacred treasure (including a letter signed by Maimonides) when discovered by two British spinsters and exhumed by Solomon Schechter in 1896. It is noteworthy that Maimonides and Schechter also had significant sibling relationships. In Horn’s novel, one of the 21st century
sisters, Josie, is captured during the recent revolution in Egypt, while the other, Judith, both deceives and defends her imprisoned sibling. As readers, we are led to reflect on what to save and what to shed, how these judgments affect our perspectives on people and the past, and how “selective memory [is] absolutely necessary in families and in all relationships.”
The importance of narrative and memory is the subject of two recent National Jewish Book Award winners: Yossi Klein Halevi’s Like Dreamers and Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land. Halevi follows seven paratroopers who were involved in the liberation of Jerusalem in 1967 as a means to explore the divergence of contemporary political views in Israel. While these soldiers had shared an intense and personally significant experience, their post-war perspectives led to divergent visions for the future of Israel. One dreamt of spiritual renewal through a renewed national spirit that would be inspired by the religious Zionist West Bank settlement movement, while a former kibbutznik planned the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and was part of the growth of Israel’s entrepreneurial economy. A survivor’s son gave practical direction to the settlement movement, while another kibbutznik gave music and voice to a generation adrift. One remained committed to socialist ideals and became a leader in Peace Now, while another became part of a Syrian spy system. Halevi describes how they each looked back at the Six Day War, but with discordant narratives, exposing the Israeli soul and contemporary civic culture.
Shavit’s book is more controversial and personal. He tells the story of his family and emphasizes the practical decisions that early Zionists and later Israeli leaders made to create a thriving, dynamic state. Using individual stories, Shavit describes the Zionist purchase of land and the cultivation of orange groves, the development of the Masada myth and the upheaval of the war of 1948, the Holocaust survivors whose children became leaders in the new State and the engineer responsible for the Israeli nuclear program, the religious Zionists who became part of the post Yom Kippur War settler movement along with the high tech entrepreneurs of the “startup nation”, the Tel Aviv clubbers and the military and security personnel responsible for their safety.
Along with his awareness of the facticity and accomplishments of Israel, Shavit also recognizes its precarious fragility and the counter-narrative of Palestinian Arabs. This darker chronicle exists with the celebratory one, just as the Exodus story lives with the acknowledgement that many Egyptians suffered for our ancestors to gain liberation from bondage.
After Passover, we turn to the three days which are the most significant on the calendar of Israeli civic life, representing the Jewish narrative of the 20th century. For many Jews, these are the equivalent of the spiritual Days of Awe. Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom Hashoah), Israeli Memorial Day (Yom Hazikaron) and Israeli Independence Day (Yom Ha’atzmaut) will be marked at Beth Tzedec in special ways. We shall be chanting the Holocaust Scroll (Megillat Hashoah) on Sunday evening, April 27; hosting the communal memorial gathering for those killed in the defence of Israel on May 4; and offering special prayers and sharing an evening of celebration on May 5 to mark the 66th year of Israeli independence.
As I helped to lead the multi-faith Path of Abraham study mission in March, I could not help but be aware of dueling narratives. The faith traditions of Muslims and Christians offer different understandings of sacred events. The Palestinian perspective is a reverse image of the one we are most familiar with from Israel. We have the capacity to listen to the competing voices and learn from them. But we also have a responsibility to respond, sharing the experience of our own story, remaining loyal to the narrative of our people and celebrating our accomplishments. That too is part of the miracle and remains a central mitzvah of Passover.
Resources and Sources
Rachel Gordan of the University of Toronto conducted the
interview with Dara Horn
Dara Horn, A Guide for the Perplexed
Yossi Klein Halevi, Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation
Ari Shavit, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Modern Israel