Remembering and Forgetting

Sermon by Rabbi Joel M. Mosbacher on Yom Kippur 5784
September 25, 2023

Rabbi Mosbacker’s recommended books:

How the Word Is Passed by Clint Smith
1491 by Charles C Mann
Learning from the Germans by Susan Neiman

Sermon Text:

The date is July 4, 1976, and the entire elementary school is gathered around the flagpole to celebrate the 200th birthday of the United States of America. 

There is a brass band from the middle school mangling a rendition of the star-spangled banner; the mayor of my hometown gives a speech, and then, our parents pick us up for the town parade, and to take my brother and I to the most amazing fireworks show I had ever seen (keep in mind that I was just 6 years old). 

I didn’t know the word at that age, but what I now know is that what I felt that day, as we remembered and celebrated America’s history, was a heart-exploding level of patriotism.

I can’t honestly recall any memories from my early life as vividly as I remember standing in the sun for what felt like an eternity, being both in awe as the American flag was raised, and being hot and sweaty, and wondering when it would be over.

There’s only one problem with this memory. 

Actually, two, but I’ll come back to that.

As I thought about it some years ago, I realized that, of course, school wasn’t in session in July of 1976. 

Maybe we had a full-blown commemoration in June while school was still in session, complete with brass band, but there’s no way that we went from school right to the Fourth of July parade or the fireworks.  

Now, I have no idea what to do with this mash-up of memories; admittedly, the stakes are fairly low. It doesn’t matter a whole lot if I can solve this mystery of conflated memory. But it is mysterious to me that a memory so clear in my mind could actually be so blurry in reality.

We as humans, individually and collectively, stumble through our memories. We remember, we forget; we misremember, we try to reclaim memories; we conflate them, we think we remember things that we ourselves didn’t actually experience.

At times, we choose what we want to remember and what to block out; we decide what memories to share with others and what memories to bury, sometimes even from ourselves. 

Especially in the high holiday season, we are obligated to remember the good and the bad in our past, in hopes that we can do better, and live better in the future.

Human memory is mysterious. We remember facts, like the capital of Portugal (Lisbon), and the number of cards in a standard deck of cards (52). 

We take photos, keep journals, get autographs, and create and appreciate art of all kinds, just so that we can remember. 

Our bodies learn and then unconciously remember to salivate at the sight of our favorite foods, and to tense up when we see a tiger.

As Jews, we’ve got yahrzeit candles and plaques to help us remember; mini-Torah scrolls at consecration, ketubahs at weddings, and so much more- these help us hold on to our memories as part of a people. And today of all days, we will remember our loved ones in our Yizkor service– may their memories be a blessing.

We can, of course, also decide to try to forget elements of the past.

When we tear up a photo or delete it from our phone; when someone asks us about a thing that happened and we tell them that we don’t want to talk about it; when we throw away our journal or refuse to ever play that song that reminds us of that moment or that person, we are making a conscious choice to try to forget whatever the thing is. 

Sometimes we seek to forget the past because we’ve been through a traumatic experience, and sometimes those traumatic experiences even keep us from moving forward, keep us from creating new memories in our lives.1

This season of memory relies on our brain’s ability to remember, and then to be honest about what we’ve done in the past so we can be our best selves in the year 5784.

And what is true for us as individual homo sapiens also holds for people when we gather as groups, as organizations, as political amalgamations, even as nation states. 

As a Jewish people, we read the Torah over and over again. We read the Haggadah on Passover every year, even if we know the story of our exodus from Egypt by heart. We come back to the same machzor every high holidays. We have communal rituals around birth, rites of passage, death. We celebrate holidays that help us hold on to memories of the triumph and survival of our people. Together we mark tragedies in the long history of our people’s memory with museums and historical markers of all kinds.

And, too, we Jews sometimes forget- at times intentionally, like when we are commanded on Purim to blot out the memory of King Amalek, who attacked our people from behind when we were wandering in the wilderness. 

And, in our celebration of the heroic Maccabees on Chanukah, we conveniently forget how the power the Maccabees accrued as a result of that story corrupted our heroes in ways we don’t teach in religious school. 

As Americans, too, we practice collective retelling of national memory on Memorial Day. We have a celebratory version of our nation’s founding that we retell on Independence Day. We have a song we sing before every sporting event that was written to commemorate a great battle with bombs bursting in air.  And, too, we as a nation mark moments of tragedy with memorials of all kinds, like the 9/11 memorial at Ground Zero designed by architect Michael Arad, who will be speaking this afternoon at 3:30 p.m. right here. 

We have collective moments of silence, moments when we are taught to remove our hats and caps, moments when we lower the flag to half-mast to recall those who gave their lives for our freedom. 

And sometimes as a nation, we seem to want to forget the past.

Right now, school boards and libraries in 32 states2 are banning books that provide historical perspectives students might not otherwise encounter. And state legislatures across the country are attempting to prevent schools from teaching the very history that explains to a great extent why our country looks the way it does. Right at this moment, we as a nation are wrestling over how much of our nation’s darker history we might want to remember, and how much we might wish we could forget. But more on that in a moment.

This summer, all of these thoughts were swirling for me as I made my fourth pilgrimage to the places in Germany where my family lived for 300 years until 1938– to the places where hundreds of years of memory came to a crashing halt, and to the places where the traumas of the holocaust nearly ended the future not only of my family, but of the Jewish people.

On this trip I took our oldest child Ari with me, and other family members as well. We were going to trace our family’s history, to walk where they walked. But for me, at least as emotional as reclaiming family history that unfolded for centuries before the Holocaust, was meeting non-Jews who have dedicated huge swaths of time and energy to ensuring that Germany and Germans also remember what came before the trauma, in hopes of learning from the terrible mistakes of the past in order to build a more just future.

They are committed to remembering that Jews not only died in Germany, but that we lived in Germany for 2,000 years.

This summer, we witnessed the installation of two bricks in the sidewalk, called stumble stones, or stolpersteine in German, to commemorate the place where my grandfather Henry and my great-grandmother Elena last lived in Darmstadt, Germany. 

German artist Gunther Demnig began installing these stones 31 years ago in front of homes and businesses where Jews had lived and worked before and during the Holocaust. 

So far, Demnig and his team of volunteers have installed over 100,000 such stones in 30 countries across Europe– perhaps you’ll begin to notice them now as you travel.

Witnessing the installation of the stumble stones at number 10 Kassinostrasse where my ancestors lived until they fled Germany one week before Kristalnacht, 85 years ago this fall, was an overwhelmingly emotional experience. It was heart rending to remember that at least five of my grandfather’s aunts and uncles and all of their children were murdered in the Holocaust, and to learn that the Jewish family that moved into the very same apartment when my grandfather and his mother fled, all died in the camps.

A local woman named Michaela Ruetzel, a retired school teacher and one of 12 volunteers who runs the local Stolpersteine committee in Darmstadt, was our contact on the ground.

On the afternoon I arrived, she and I spoke for some 3 hours, first as I told her about the journey of my family since the war, and then as she shared what she had learned about my family’s history before they fled. She must have spent 100 or more hours researching everything she could find before we arrived. 

She brought a huge binder that she gave me of photos and letters and documents that she had uncovered in city and state archives and town hall records. As I realized the magnitude of her work, I was overcome with emotion. This German non-Jewish woman knew so much more about my grandfather and great-grandmother than I or my father or his brothers ever knew.

In many ways, Michaela filled in huge gaps in my family’s memory.  

I now have so much more knowledge of where and how they lived; and all that learning, painful though some of it is, helps me understand my family in the present, and will help me carry me into the future.

We had come to see our family’s history from 1640-1938, and we did see so much. The amazing people we met helped us reclaim memories that might have been forever obliterated by the Holocaust. 

But what I didn’t expect was that we gave a gift to our hosts, too. When they have the rare honor of welcoming some families back, they appreciate knowing that at least some stories didn’t end with the Holocaust. They know that beyond the unimaginable trauma, our story continued; the Jewish people’s story continues. And that fact has made them ever more committed to both honoring the memory of the past, and to building a more righteous future for Germany.

On the plane home, I began to think about what lessons I had learned that might be relevant to us here at the corner of 79th and 2nd– how what we choose to remember and forget, no matter how joyous or how painful, can inform how we choose to live.

Earlier this year, I read an article in the Atlantic by Clint Smith, who had spent time in Germany studying how Germans had dealt with the legacy of the holocaust, and what might be applicable for us as Americans as we wrestle with our own complicated history.

Having seen stumble stones and other memorials in Berlin, Smith wondered, 

“What if there were stones in front of American businesses marking places and dates where slaves were held, bought and sold. The streets would be packed… When I think about the size and location of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, I’m trying to imagine thousands of stone pillars in lower Manhattan as a monument to chattel slavery, or on Constitution Avenue in Washington, DC to commemorate the victims of indigenous genocide.3

I think that we, here in America, have much to learn about memory from the Germans. 

We as a nation have memories that many Americans don’t like to remember or acknowledge– ugly truths that have, in many ways, made it possible for this nation to thrive. 

Ours is a country that is, in the main, consciously and unconsciously, in denial about much of its history. 

Our country has often consciously chosen to ignore, forget, make excuses for, hide behind, and blame others for a 400 year legacy of enslaving human beings. 

Here in New York City, we’re not banning books, but there’s so much more we haven’t come to terms with.

For starters, how many of us have been to the African Burial Ground in Lower Manhattan?

How many of us have been to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, or to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC?

How many of us know the name of the Native American tribe who lived for hundreds of years on the land on which our synagogue stands? And for those of us who know the name of the tribe, the Lenape, what do we know of their rich history, and of how some of our forebears obliterated this tribe and its future?

This season of the year is essentially about us, as individuals, coming together to remember our past so that we might have a better, more honest, more whole future. 

We tend to think about Yom Kippur primarily as a time of individual repentance, and it most certainly is that. But it can be even more than that. It can be a time for us to think about and talk about the memories we might rather intentionally blot out as a nation. 

I had a conversation at Eisner Camp this summer with a group of really smart Jewish kids, and it became clear that these really smart kids didn’t know that slaves weren’t just bought and sold and repatriated below the Mason-Dixon line; they were bought and sold and captured when they escaped their enslavers right there in Great Barrington, MA. 

In 1660, coincidentally at just the same time my family opened its butcher shop in Eschau, Germany, Peter Stuyvesant supervised Manhattan’s first public auction of human beings. And I assure you– that wasn’t the last such auction held here on this island.

And when slavery was finally abolished here in the state, white New Yorkers turned to the indentured servitude of African Americans to build this city and drive its economy forward. 

Our nation, the land of the brave and the home of the free, dragged 12 million Africans from their homes. Two million of those human beings died and were thrown overboard off of their ships during the Middle Passage. 

And those who reached American shores were rewarded with a lifetime of hard labor, abuse, degradation, and violation for 400 years by slave owners– Jews included.

We can decide not to talk about these facts lest they make us feel bad, but that intentional act of amnesia will not make this a more secure or more just nation for all of its inhabitants.

Slavery and Jim Crow created inequities that we can still see today in rates of mass incarceration, economic inequality, racial disparities in education, and more.

Wiping our childrens’ textbooks clean of this painful reality will not make this a more perfect Union.  

White people can tell poor black and brown people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, ignoring the fact that for hundreds of years, white people, specifically white men, were advancing their educations, furthering their careers, and building generational wealth on the backs of those black and brown people.

But that will not promote the general welfare.

As Americans, we must do more to conquer our collective amnesia about the most painful parts of our local and national history.

Some here in the United States have undertaken efforts reminiscent of those in Germany. 

In Connecticut, a group of educators started the Witness Stones Project, modeled after the Stolpersteine in Germany. The group works with schoolchildren in five Northeast states to help them more intimately understand the history of slavery in their town. 

In Camden, New Jersey, a local historical society has erected markers in places where enslaved people were sold, echoing the memorials to deported Jews at train stations in Germany. 

And in Montgomery, Alabama, civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson, who often cites Germany in his work, has built the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which commemorates the history of slavery and the oppression of Black Americans. 

Now, none of these projects, whether in the United States or Germany, can ever be commensurate with the history they are tasked with remembering. 

It is impossible for any memorial to slavery or to the genocide of indigenous peoples of this land to capture its full horror, or for any memorial to the Holocaust to express the full humanity of the victims. No stone in the ground can make up for a life. No museum can bring back millions of people. 

And, too, no memorial combating local or national amnesia can, in and of itself, prevent future generations of people from inflicting unimaginable trauma on future generations of other people.

But just as the Jewish community and the world demanded that Germany remember 2,000 years of Jewish life in Germany as well as the 12 years of the Holocaust, so must we demand of ourselves to remember the extraordinary history of the true natives and builders of the land on which this synagogue, this city, and this nation now rests. 

That’s why I hope you’ll read a book this year– perhaps a book like “Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil,” by Susan Neiman, or “How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America,” by Clint Smith, or “1491” by Charles C. Mann, and then come talk to me or your fellow congregants about what their words made you think and feel.

That’s why I hope you’ll take time to visit the African Burial Ground on Duane Street here in Manhattan, and share your impressions with me.

That’s why I’ll be asking the 11th and 12th graders in my senior seminar class, in addition to spending most of our time thinking deeply about their Jewish identity, to help me do research into the Lenape people who lived and worked and worshiped on this very piece of land for 3,000 years before we did. 

That’s why I hope you’ll join Cantor Kipnis and I in May on an Adult Civil Rights journey to Atlanta, Georgia, and Selma, Montgomery, and Birmingham Alabama. The registration opens very soon.

The Haftarah reading this morning is from the book of Isaiah. Isaiah challenges the people of his time, and of our time as well, asking rhetorically, “Is this the fast I desire? A day to afflict body and soul? Bowing your head like a reed, covering yourself with sackcloth and ashes? Is this not the fast I desire? To break bonds of injustice and remove the heavy yolk… to never neglect your own flesh and blood?”

My friends, as the pangs of fasting settle in on this Yom Kippur, we must ask ourselves what these hunger pangs are for. Today, let us demand of ourselves to look back into national memories that have become blurry, to remember the original sins of our nation. 

For the sins we have committed by committing genocide against the native peoples of this land

For the sins we have committed by failing to fully remember how our forebears enslaved millions of our fellow human beings

By ignoring the legacy of pain and suffering those sins have bequeathed to subsequent generations

And by acting as if allowing for continued structural inequities, racism, and amnesia had no benefits for us and no impacts on surviving generations

We ask of you, Oh God, slach lanu, m’chal lanu, kaper lanu.

Wake our hearts up. Help us recall and remember our national sins. Help us commit to the long process of remembering and to not forgetting, and to the long process of bringing liberty and justice for all.

I know enough now to know that my memory of Independence Day 1976 is flawed. 

It’s flawed. 

But not only because July 4, 1976 wasn’t a school day. 

More importantly, it’s flawed because the story that we Americans told about our history on July 4th 1976 was flawed. It was flawed because the patriotism we might feel at age 6 is different from the patriotism we might feel as adults. It’s time to tell, and to teach the fuller story, and to act with that new understanding as we seek to build a more perfect union. 

As author Gevin Reynolds writes, “It is up to us to do more than just denounce and condemn [our[ flaws, because we have an opportunity to pitch an affirmative vision for the future we want for America: a future in which all students fully know their country so that they can love their country in full. And with that knowledge and love of country, [we can] take steps to move our nation forward like true patriots.”

In this season of repentance, we as individuals have a choice to make: shall we confront the mistakes we’ve made in the past so as to become more whole in the future? Or will we bury our mistakes, our personal and national ones, deeper in our psyches, hoping all will be forgotten, without us needing to do the hard work of teshuvah?

As individuals and as a nation, we can try to blot out our painful history, naively thinking that such a decision will not have any consequences now or in the future. 

Or we can get honest about that history, no matter how humbling that will be, and thereby pave the way for a much brighter future. 

The memories and the choice and the future are in our minds and in our hands.

G’mar chatimah tovah.

1 National Geographic, “Human memory: How we make, remember, and forget memories,” March 4, 2019.


3 “Monuments to the Unthinkable,” The Atlantic, November 14, 2022