Waking skies at sunrise, ev - ry sun - set too, Seems to be bringing me memories of you.Here and there, ev - 'ry - where, scenes that we once knew,And they all just re - call mem - o - ries of you.
How I wish I could forget those happy yes - ter - years;
That have left a ro - sa - ry of tears.
Your face beams in my dreams, in spite of all I do,And ev - 'ry - thing seems to bring mem - o - ries of you.
(Memories of You, music by James Hubert (Eubie) Blake, lyrics by Andy Razaf,from the score of Blackbirds of 1930)
A number of weeks ago, I don’t remember how many, as I was about to check my e-mail, I noticed an intriguing article on my Yahoo home page (one of those articles which appear for fifteen minutes, and, by the time you look for it later, it’s gone) about a man with perfect memory. Now I don’t mean memory as in the ability to memorize something ridiculous, like a string of 100 five digit numbers in the space of half an hour. This man – his name escapes me – remembers every moment of his life. Every detail. On a good day, I might remember what I had for breakfast yesterday. You might remember that you ran into your friend X at the bus station last Wednesday. This man could tell you what he had for breakfast on September 3, 1996. He would know who performed the ceremony when his friend Joe’s sister got married on June 22, 1989. And he’s not alone; there are a few others like him, and some others who can remember almost everything. Needless to say, scientists are examining this phenomenon.
My first reaction was: “that’s amazing!” Then, upon contemplation, I thought: “how awful.” We all know people who have had very difficult periods in their lives. But even for the Average Joe, everyone has had something happen that you’d definitely want to forget. Maybe even need to forget to retain your sanity.
Understanding the relationship between memory and personality is a fairly recent concept, I believe from around 1900. It is surely not a coincidence that the two greatest works of twentieth century literature, James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” and Marcel Proust’s “À la Recerche du Temps Perdu” (In Search of Lost Time) deal in very different ways with this phenomenon. It seems that René Descartes’ renowned notion “cogito, ego sum” (I think, therefore I am) was replaced by, as pithily described in one of Fred’s famous aphorisms, “You are what you remember.”
I have always been amazed by the many things that seemingly I should remember but I don’t, and the few things that for no apparent reason I do remember. Case in point: in the seven years I lived in Teaneck, almost every Friday evening, I walked to shul (Congregation Beth Aaron) taking exactly the same route: up the hill on Cranford Place to Red Road, turning left one short block to Grayson, making a right turn to Queen Anne Road, dodging traffic crossing the street and turning left to the shul. Depending on how late I was, it would take from seven to ten minutes, and fairly often I would run into somebody I knew. But most of these forays are just a blur in my mind. But on this specific Friday evening, as I was turning onto Red Road, I saw three people whom I did not recognize walking on Grayson Place, and for whatever reason, my antennas went up. I caught up with them, and they definitely needed my help. A college student was returning from a school project somewhere in New York or New Jersey to his home in Staten Island, taking with him a fellow student (whom at the time I thought was his girl friend, but was in fact just a passenger). They got terribly messed up in traffic, and there they were, close to an hour away from home, and it was, indisputably, Shabbos. (The nightmare that none of us who are “observant” ever want to be caught in.)The two of them knew that there were Jews in Teaneck, but they didn’t know any, and there were synagogues, but they didn’t know where. They just stopped the car, got out, and started walking – in their Friday dungarees. They chanced upon a fellow Jew who was not “observant,” but knew where Beth Aaron was. Then they saw me, and made the reasonable assumption that I was heading to shul. Now the young man was reluctant to go into Beth Aaron in his dungarees. So we agreed that the two of them would wait outside, and I would arrange hospitality for them. I ran up to Rabbi Kanarfogel, who directed me to … (anyone in Teaneck knows the answer!) Jeff Glazer, the local version of Avraham Avinu (the patriarch Abraham.) After the davening, Jeff and I left, looking for these two young souls. They were not near the synagogue, and we were about to give up looking for them when we found them wandering several blocks away. Jeff took them home, found them more appropriate Shabbat clothing, and they stayed with Jeff and June for Shabbat. And that was the last I saw or heard of that young couple, and I have no idea why this incident stuck in my mind, when so many things more critical to my life are totally gone. But it did.
Fast forward five or six years. A few weeks ago, Barbara and I were having dinner with Jeff and June Glazer in a little restaurant in the basement of Heichal Shlomo, a facility next to Jerusalem’s “The Great Synagogue” on King George St. We were planning to attend the taping of “Tuesday Night Live,” a new program which can be seen on Arutz 7 internet “television,” hosted by two of the station’s internet radio broadcasters, Ari Abromowitz and Jeremy Gimpel. As we were eating, Jeff began to tell us an “amazing story” about a young man whom he had met through Rabbi Kanarfogel. I interrupted Jeff and asked him why he was telling me the story; I knew all about it because I was the one who found this young man wandering the streets of Teaneck. Jeff had absolutely no recollection of my admittedly limited involvement in this incident. But why was Jeff telling us this story now? Jeff and June had gone to a previous taping of “Tuesday Night Live” and found this same young man, Yosef Adest, now also an oleh, playing the keyboard in the house band for this show. (After the show, we went over and Jeff introduced me to Yosef, who also had no recollection of my admittedly limited involvement in the affair! A few years later, still wearing jeans, Yosef realized how foolish it was of him to have been afraid to enter our synagogue that Friday night. As I put it, “Better to wear the wrong clothes in the right place, than to have on the right clothes in the wrong place.”) Come to think of it, that could apply to where you live, not just where you pray.