Memory is a particularly powerful faculty. It helps us learn, it can provide a guide by which to judge future actions and, along with emotions, serves as the foundation upon which human experience is built.
Memory is frequently passive, but in a Jewish context it is seen more in terms of a positive act. That’s why the Torah exhorts people to remember the Exodus, to remember Amalek, to remember what transpired in the desert.
But how can someone be commanded to remember? Psychologists speak of a subconscious effort by those suffering abuse to not commit certain events to memory and of a conscious effort to keep certain memories locked away. But the tradition invoked during the fast-approaching holiday of Passover to recall the deliverance from Egypt is not addressing such concepts.
How is memory preserved, accessed and used? Through the sensations that defined the experience in the first place. That’s why the mere sounds of the tiles clicking together bring back so many memories of grandmothers and great-grandmothers sitting around card tables over drawn-out games of mah jongg. For some people, the sight of the tiles’ elaborate and colorful designs evokes — like the smell of matzah balls simmering or the taste of a particular recipe of charoset — a longing for the past, a desire to reclaim the feelings of childhood and the embraces of a community of yesteryear.
Perhaps that’s why a national resurgence of mah jongg has made the game so popular. Today, there are cruises devoted to the game. There’s even an exhibit devoted to the game and its cultural significance at the Jewish Museum of Maryland, which you’ll read about in this week’s cover story.
Could it be that the best way to reach back to the past, the best way to preserve memories of departed loved ones and bygone eras, is to bring it into the present?
That’s exactly what every Passover Seder, from the Haggadah and the cups of wine to the Seder plate and the matzah, is designed to accomplish. While each year’s experience is an opportunity for families to create their own memories, Passover as a whole demands that every participant re-create the events of thousands of years ago. That collective reliving is a defining characteristic of the Jewish people, because it’s only through re-experiencing the formative moments of our peoplehood that we can face the future recharged and re-energized. It’s what preserved our identities long ago, and it’s what will enable us to survive a barrage of assaults from without and within.
The beauty of matzah is its stark simplicity. Whereas the outside world is a cacophonous mess, matzah is quite distinctive. It has a signature crunch, a signature sound when broken, a signature feel and a very simple taste. The whole experience of eating it — and baking it, if you happen to be among the many kids traveling to the model bakery in Columbia this week — screams, “Remember!”
As we all rush to clean our homes and polish our Seder plates — or mah jongg sets — let’s all take a moment to cherish the memories.