Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Rabbi Jeremy Gordon: selective memory

Rabbi Jeremy's eulogy at Ester's stone-setting ceremony on 9 September 2007

My memories of Ester don’t behave themselves.

In preparation for this address I went to Ester’s blog.
It’s an incredible collection of memories, poems, drawings, letters, sermons even. I know many of us gathered here today have posted on it.

I went to the blog with the intention of printing the whole thing up and dramatically unfurling it today, before us all.
I went to the blog, selected all and pressed print.
And 63 pages in, my printer gave up and became capable only of producing a stream of numbers,
line after line and page after page of incomprehensible babble until I managed to get it to stop.

My memories of Ester don’t behave themselves and, for me, they have this strange tendency to collapse into a stream of babble, devoid of meaning, or at the very least meaningful only in a way beyond any human comprehension.

Perhaps the problem is the sheer impossibility of a life so short, being so full.
‘Ester, you changed my life,’ opens one blog posting.
There are tributes from many involved in the important work of the London Detainee Support Group applauding Ester’s incredible gifts and commitment as a visitor to asylum detainees and as a supporter of other visitors.
There are postings from detainees from Harmondsworth. Who’s visiting them now?
There is a posting about the Ester Film Club, set up to show films to unaccompanied refugee children. The equipment and funds for the Club were raised at an evening Ester organised and led.
There is a posting about Ester’s work in Ghana, for Tzedek.
There is announcement of a day of learning on refugees, in Ester’s memory.
There’s a mention that a seat at the Tricycle Theatre, where Ester performed with the Jewish & Muslim Youth Theatre Group, has been named in her memory.
An announcement that a Torah mantle and ark cover are to be commissioned in her honour for her prayer community, the Minyan Hadash at New London Synagogue.
Rabbis riff off various Biblical verses: You Shall Be Holy, for I God and Holy. You Shall Not Wrong The Stranger, For You Were Strangers in the land of Egypt. Act Justly And Love Mercy.
There are postings from Imams, from Christians, from people of all religions, and none.
There are postings from old friends, ‘I first met Ester when she was Angela’s bump.’
And postings from those who met Ester only once, and still she made an impact most would struggle to match in a lifelong friendship.
There are postings about her empathy, her generosity, her dancing, her powers of debate, her encouragement of so many.
There are postings about purple, about Barbie dolls and Picasso, Ivor the Engine, and immigration minister Tony McNulty, and Kylie Minogue and learning Twi, and leyning and …

And the printer gives up and spews out only a stream of numbers
Maybe that’s the problem, for my printer and I.
Maybe the problem is that Ester just crammed too much life into her 24 years to be held even on a blog.
But in honesty, I think there is a different problem.

Another problem that blows out my printer and my heart when I think of Ester.
The problem of the sheer horridness of it all.
There have been many ways, many days, this past year, when Ester’s memory has come to mind, motivated me and my work, but sometimes it all just brings me to a juddering halt.
And I am visitor to this grief.
There are so many more of you here who knew Ester far better than I, so many of you here for whom the terrible loss of Ester, that horrid night last year, is far, far more constant.
And these memories have the power to render everything meaningless
Or if not meaningless then meaningful only in ways beyond human ken.

Angela, your extraordinary strength, today and every day this past year is beyond my ability to know.
Your commitment not to give up.
Your commitment to a day of learning on refugees, in memory of Ester.
Your commitment to your surrogate family of conversion candidates and wanderers at New London Synagogue and so many other places.
This commitment is almost unfathomable and a huge testament to everything that Ester stood for.
It’s very special to see so many of those who you, Angela, have touched this year, here to commemorate and mark this day with you.
I don’t know how you do it.
For to dwell too long on the memories of Ester threatens to overwhelm us all.

My memories of Ester don’t behave themselves.
But then, I am not sure they should.
I don’t really believe in accurate memory.

In just a few days the Jews among us will mark a festival known best as Rosh Hashanah.
But the festival has other names. The Rabbis call this Festival – Yom Hazikaron, the day of memory.
And at the heart of our prayers on this day we sing of God’s memory
Ki zocher kol hanishkachot atah – For You Remember All that is Forgotten.
That’s God for you.
Atah zocher masei olam ufoked kol ytzurey kedem – You Remember Every Action of the World, Every Inclination from the most ancient of days.
What mortal could remember everything?

The great writer Jorge Louis Borges has a tale about a human who remembered everything, who forgot nothing.
Funes the Memorious who gained his most prodigious memory as a result of riding accident.
‘While, at one glance,’ Borges says, ‘we can perceive three glasses on a table, Funes, all the leaves and tendrils and fruit that make up a grape vine. He knew by heart the forms of the southern clouds at dawn on 30 April 1882 and could compare them in his memory with the mottled streaks on a book in Spanish binding he had seen only once, and with the outlines of the foam raised by an oar in the Rio Negro the night before [some long forgotten] uprising… It was very difficult for [Funes] to sleep’ Borges tells us ‘lying on his back on his cot in the shadows he could imagine every crevice and every moulding… In the teeming world of Funes there were only details, all most immediate in their presence.’
Funes is paralysed, paralysed by his accident, but also, surely, paralysed by his memory.
Borges has his most memorable invention die of congestion.
Too much memory, too much accuracy can drown

Maybe this is the biggest danger of what we do here today.
Maybe we are in danger of drowning in too much accurate memory.
Too much accurate memory can paralyse us and stop us from living out the lessons of personal engagement, empathy and kindness, the lessons that are the true charges of Ester’s life.

I don’t really believe in accurate memory.
I’m not sure Jews are supposed to.
In that part of the section of the Rosh Hashanah service when we sing of God’s memory we recite a verse from Jeremiah.
And God said, ‘I [God] remember the kindness of your youth, the love of your days of courtship, how you [the children of Israel] followed me into the wilderness, to a land unsown.

It’s nonsense, of course.
Or at the very least it’s a desperately selective way of telling the story of the wandering of the Children of Israel in the wilderness.
The accurate version of events would recall a lot of complaining, whinging, idol building and rebellions.
But somehow in the five hundred years, or so, between the Exodus with its whinging and grumbling, and the time of Jeremiah, all the failings, all the moments of darkness have faded.
And we are left with beautiful memories, hesed neuriach – the kindness of your youth ahavat kalulotaiyich the love of your days of courtship.

This is my kind of memory.
Losing particularly some of the pain and the darkness.
Losing the memories that are too much to hold.
Losing the memories that paralyse.
Remembering the moments of triumph, delight, love.
The memories that can motivate me today and into the future.
Ester’s joy, her tremendous successes, all the lives she touched, changed for the better.
The way Ester would look at me and make me want to do better, be better, a better citizen of the world, a better Jew, a better person.
I can live forward with these selective memories.

These are the memories to carve in stone.
These are the memories we should pledge ourselves to hold dear.
For today and for our future commemorations and celebrations of one extraordinary life.

And the other memories.
The memories that crash my printer and result in a stream of meaninglessness.
I hereby let them go.
God – zocher kol hanishcachot – you can have them.
I, instead, commit myself, for the year ahead, and whatever gift of life I am to be blessed with,
I commit myself to selective memory.
Provocative, inspiring, life-bettering memories indeed, but selective memories nonetheless.

And may these memories,
Ester Bracha bat Moreinu Harav Tzvi Hirsh v’Elkah,
Ester Adjuah Elizabeth Gluck,
May these memories always be a blessing!