An oddity of Classical Hebrew is the lack of a word for the term “history”. While contemporary Hebrew appropriates the European word, Classical Hebrew utilised the term “zikaron” or memory, as an approximation of the concept. I say approximation because the notions of memory and history are conceptually very different. History presents a veneer of objectivity whilst memory is understood to be a subjective recollection of events. That said, historiography has taught us that we cannot take the “story” out of history and the agreed narrative is often the convenient version of the more powerful or the victor.
There is something beautiful in the notion of the Hebrew language pushing us into our ancient story by insisting that we “remember” past experiences. This is emphasised in our Pesach Seder rituals and also in the weekly Shabbat Kiddush where we “remember the exodus from Egypt.” This is also understood to be one aspect of the implied commandment in the first of the Ten Commandments: “I am the almighty God who lead you out of Egypt, out of slavery.” Implied here are a belief in the divinity and also a direction to remember where we have come from.
Arguably, this institutionalisation of memory through religious ritual, is why we Jews typically resonate emotionally with the stories of the Exodus and with the testimony from the Shoah in very different ways to how we remember the Spanish Inquisition which tends to studied more dispassionately.
The exploration of how we memorialise important events is exceedingly important now that we are clearly living in our own historic times. Throughout my lifetime there have been significant world events that we would consider historic – these often become the “where were you when?” moments that we retell others. I recall where I was when I heard about Princess Diana’s death, Yitzchak Rabin’s assassination and 9-11 to list a few that stand out in my memory. I also remember viewing the National Apology to the Stolen Generation and the leadership ballot that led to Julia Gillard’s appointment as Australia’s first female Prime Minister with my classes at the schools I was teaching at when these events occurred. On these occasions I was conscious that it was crucial for my students to be able to actively notice the way that the world was changing around them.
This is clearly the case now, when our way of life has been significantly altered from our usual patterns. It will be fascinating how this period is remembered in future years. I am certain that the technological advantages that have provided near universal access to video production and photography will facilitate the archiving of an extraordinary amount of documentary material of this period.
It is interesting to think of how we will tell this story and what lessons we will glean from it. I know that our Year 9 students have been busy working on an audio visual “time capsule” to document the experience. I wonder if some of the new ways of being – including shopping and driving less, exploring new hobbies, interacting more with immediate family and taking deliberate opportunities to connect with loved ones over video conferencing will change the way we see the world.
There is a beautiful video circulating on Social Media called “The Great Realisation” by Probably Tomfoolery which imagines a future retelling of the COVID 19 period in the form of a rhyming bedtime story which a father reads to his son at bedtime. It frames the COVID 19 crisis as a juncture in which we collectively decided to change our ways and embrace a less consumption-oriented, competitive and hostile reality. Near its conclusion the father reads: “And so when we found the cure and were allowed to go outside, we all preferred the world we found to the one we’d left behind.”
My hope is that when we are finally able to emerge from our homes we will do so with renewed vigour and focus to build the world that we wish to live in and that one day when we explore the “zikaron” of this period it helps us to cherish our freedom, human connection and the preciousness of life in a meaningful way.