I am reading corrently a biography of one of the most remarkable women of Jewish history in the XX Century: Golda Meir. Nobody will question that she was a key player in the establishment of the State of Israel and in several of its governments, including her being elected to the office of Prime Minister.
There are many stories about Golda, some real and some invented, but how did Golda herself looked at who she was? The biography I'm reading tries to explore this question. So far (only on page 200 of 794) it seems that she defined herself by her dedication to Labor Zionism and the Jewish people, even above her roles as a mother and grandmother. She didn't see herself as a good mother, and blamed herself for the failure of her marriage to Morris Meyerson. Her self-definition as a party woman was so strong that it even colored her memories...
In many occassions she mentioned (many years after the fact) how when she was living in America before making Aliyah she represented the Poalei Zion (her Zionist Party) at the first meeting of the American Jewish Congress (When the Congress was still elected by popular vote). It turns out that that first meeting was held in Philadelphia the week before the convention of the Labor Zionist Movement. The documentation shows that she was indeed a delegate of her Milwaukee Poalei Zion chapter at the Labor Zionist convention, but never participated of the American Jewish Congress Convention. Did she then lie? Depends how you look at it...She saw herself as a strong activist and lobbied very strongly for the creation of the American Jewish Congress, so in her mind the Congress Convention and the Labor Zionist Convention became conflated into one and she actually believed she was at the Congress.
If Golda herself could make that mistake, any of us can. Golda had enough documented accomplishments not to need another - so she probably truly believed she was there! If we look at our individual lives with a critical eye, we might find that when we look back we do so through the lense of who we are today. Events in our lives which at the time did not look so important may have become events we see as defining points in our lives. Conversely, events which at the time appeared like momentous landmarks have now receded to the back of our minds as minor events.
For example, we may have met our spouse at a chance encounter which at the time didn't feel important - yet as life went on and she/he became our spouse, that chance event grew in importance to become a defining moment.
Or we had a minor part on what at the time looked like a routine event, but as time went by that routine event came to be seen as a major historical event, and our role (which we saw as minor at the time) became magnified in our minds to become an important one - because it suits our need of connecting with the event.
There is also the family lore. A story told from one generation to the next becomes magnified or trivialized depending on its meaning to us. For example, my family lore talks about how my grandfather was forced to leave the country during the first Presidency of Peron for printing books for the Communist Party in his printing shop. The family had to leave Argentina for Uruguay, where they spend a few years - during which the german cruiser Graf Spee was sunk in the River Plate in sight of Montevideo, where they were living at the time. Every person who repeated the story (my mother, my aunt, my grandfather, my grandmother) was absolutely convinced of that precise sequence of events. What happens when we look at the historical documents? We get into trouble...
The Graf Spee sank on December 1939, and ther crew sough refuge in Buenos Aires. First problem: Peron came to power in October 1944. While my grandfather was in fact forced to leave in 1946, the Battle of the River Plate had already been fought by then. In the family's memory, their opposition to Peron became conflated with their opposition to Hitler, bringing together two events into their personal history. The Battle of the River Plate was fought in sight of both Buenos Aires and Montevideo, so they probably did see the battle in the horizon as they said - but not from UIruguay but from Argentina because in that way the two villains (Peron and Hitler) could be seen as part of their personal history. To this day, my mom is convinced they were in Uruguay during the battle, event when the documents show something different.
Memory can be plastic and mold events to our pesonal needs. Take the case of Joel Teitelbaum, founder of the Satmar Hassidim. Documents show that he was rescued from Hungary during World War II by the Jewish Agency and taken to Israel (then Palestine), where he had a hard time adjusting. He eventually left for the United States, where he became a notable leader. The way he refered to the events in his memoris say that the Jewish Agency would not let him get on the train used for the rescue, but that God himself intervened, getting them to accept him. He was then forced to go to Palestine against his wishes, and remained there only as long as it ws necessary to secure his entry into the United States. His (later) Anti Zionist activism colored his perception of the pivotal events of his rescue.
The way we see ourselves today, colors the way we look at our own past; and many times our own past gets conflated with historical events we witnessed or we were close to, maybe because those historical events became, in retrospective, events with a great impact in our personal lives.
All this brings to mind the words of Emmanuel Ringlenblum, a Jewish historian who died in the Warsaw Ghetto. He was once asked how he would define Jewish history. His answer was that Jews do not have history... they have memory. It also reminds me of a long lasting argument about the Biblical stories... Are they true? Did the Red Sea REALLY part? did Abraham REALLY tried to sacrifice Isaac? did David REALLY killed Goliath? The truth is that whether those stories are literally true of not is irrelevant. It is the meaning they bring to our lives that matter, and it is that meaning that makes them important. The fight between historian, archeologists and theologians over whether the Bible is an historical document or not is in fact irrelevant. The impact of those stories on our culture and on our identity is what really matters.
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