There are different ways you could look at the Jewish people–who share an official but not an actual language, a vast history spanning from the Levant to Morocco, Spain, India, China, and New Jersey, and a cuisine defined only by dietary laws most of us do not follow. I am curious about our shared memories, and I am reading cookbooks.
I am reading the intro to the cookbook from the best restaurant in Philadelphia, Zahav, which the author Michael Solomonov was spurred to write partly to commemorate the awful loss of his little brother at the very end of his army service, in Metula. He wanted to give everyone the chance to taste a welcoming, joyful, hybrid Israel, a “barely melted” melting pot, “that had nothing to do with politics or what you see on the evening news.” Despite the fact that I was warmly welcomed there and had far and away the best eggplant of my life there, this Israel does not exist for me. Although I lived there for four years on and off I could not possibly have such a memory of it although I agree that the cooking that people like Solomonov, Tamimi and Ottolenghi are bringing the world is one of the best things going. This is in key ways because unlike Solomonov I never ate with my brother there and my brother did not die there.
Other cookbooks, like the often surprising vegetarian Jerusalem by the Palestinian-Israeli team of Sami Tamimi and Yotam Ottolenghi, or the global ethnographic reminiscience The Book of Jewish Food by Claudia Roden, would lead other directions.
The notion of “memory” was helpful in attuning us to the creativity with which people relate to or create their past. But in my own field of Biblical Studies it was hard to separate from goalpost-moving, vagueness, or just plain cheating: precisely how do people “remember” things they never saw or participated in? Is “memory” (like the faves it displaced, “orality” and “tradition” (h/t Jacqueline Vayntrub for this crucial point) just any story we can’t verify?
Max Weber offers a discussion that raises the bar for memory: “The community of political destiny, i.e. above all of common political struggle of life and death, has given rise to groups with joint memories which have often had a deeper impact than the ties of merely cultural, linguistic, or ethnic community. It is this ‘community of memories’ which constitutes the ultimately decisive element of national consciousness”*
The implication: that to be a memory, not just a story, requires some in-person teeth, some rubble or scars. Something one person can point out to another. ‘Im ‘eshakhekh, Yerushalayim, tishkakh yamini “If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right arm forget (how to move: to write, to play music, to fight)” (Psalm 137) Then again why should they all be scars? As with ritual sacrifice, which is often a lot less bloody than we imagine it, political memories may have more under the hood.
Maybe memory by itself is nothing. But the “community of memories” might be something else: Culture mediated–concretely and materially brought from the past into the present–along kinship lines. Weber and Benedict Anderson may limit it too narrowly when they see the state’s as being the only life or death struggles forming peoplehood. My one-line theoretical definition of the modern nation was: kinship instrumentalized in the shape of a state. But even now there are peoples formed or forming–black, native and perhaps others within the territory of the US–with a community of memories that do not dovetail with and want to take further forms than just state lines. For most of the history of the Jewish people, it was a community like these, and very different forms of memory make it remain vitally so today alongside its nation-state form.
*I stumbled across this in Gopal Balakrishnan’s great essay on the reissue of Anderson’s Imagined Communities, where many more fertile suggestions lie.