Jews and Memory: How Judaism Perpetuates Memory And Activates Our Neural Networks

In the age of iPads, Blackberries and Google, a mind-boggling array of technologies allows us to easily organize and access information so that we no longer need rely solely on memory. But this has not always been the case. Joshua Foer’s fascination with the techniques that people once used to retain vast amounts of information led him to enter and win the 2006 U.S. Memory Championship and document the experience in his recently published Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything. Moment Editor Nadine Epstein sits down with Foer to discuss the historic relationship between Jews and memory, and the role that memory plays in shaping the Jewish mind.

Jews are known as the “People of the Book.” Before scribes began to write words on scrolls, were we the “People of Memory?”

Much more than being the “People of the Book” we remain the “People of Memory.” The Hebrew word for remember is in the Torah 169 times. There is a terrific book called Zakhor, by Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, in which he argues that we are the only people on earth who elevated the act of remembering to a religious imperative. We are commanded constantly to remember this, remember that, don’t forget this, don’t forget that.

How did we remember before literacy became widespread?

Memory was highly valued in all cultures before there was literacy. Jews had an entire oral tradition that was passed down through memory. In fact, for a long time it was forbidden to write down the oral laws. There were actually individuals who were charged with remembering. Rabbis would consult with them and say, “Help me out, I’m missing this one piece of text” or “What did someone say once upon a time?” These guys would circulate from academy to academy just to make sure everybody had the same texts in mind.

Did rabbis welcome the advent of writing?

One of the unique things about the Jewish tradition is that the value of remembering was maintained even long after it was possible to write things down. We still had this notion that it was better to have the oral tradition alive in memory, rather than on parchment or papyrus.

Were there any people who worried that writing might interfere with memory?

Socrates was concerned about the role that writing would have on people’s memory and cognitive capacities. He thought once people started taking memories and ideas out of their minds and putting them down on papyrus, they would become forgetful and the whole culture would be headed down this treacherous slippery slope that would end no place good. Fortunately, somebody had the good sense to write this down—thank you very much, Plato. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have any knowledge of it. But the thought that ideas have to live in the human mind to have true richness, and to sometimes change and evolve, I suppose that’s kind of a Jewish idea.

Is there scientific research that supports this Jewish notion?

At the neurological level, the act of remembering involves re-actualizing. Every time we recall a memory, we are actively re-engaging that memory at the level of the neuron and re-contextualizing it ever so slightly in light of who we are in the present.

You mention in your book that scrolls were meant to actually serve as a memory prompt. How so?

Most texts were actually read aloud until well into the Middle Ages. You had to be familiar with the text in order to read it because scrolls—such as the Torah—are not easy to read. It’s not like there are page numbers or column numbers. You have to know the story in order to find the place that you’re going to be reading from.

Are scrolls still read like this today?

One of the last places where this kind of reading survives is in the chanting of the Torah every Saturday in synagogues around the world. And I suspect that in the same way that we’re the last people left on earth who still read from scrolls, we will be the last people on earth who still read from printed books. Until they invent a Shabbos-friendly Kindle, observant Jews are going to be stuck reading from old-fashioned paper.

What is the most important Jewish memory technique?

Ritual is specifically meant to make us re-engage with collective Jewish memories. During Sukkot we don’t just remember what it meant for our ancestors to wander in the desert, to experience homelessness, or to sleep under the stars; we actually do it. We build these flimsy huts in our backyards and re-actualize this memory. The Seder is the quintessential act of Jewish remembering. We all get together and sit around a table remembering, collectively, this event that happened many thousands of years ago. Crucially, we are commanded to re-engage with this memory in the present context of who we are today. We don’t just eat matzoh, we are commanded to have a conversation about what it means to eat matzoh. We don’t just say, “This is the bread of our affliction,” we actually inflict it upon our intestines for eight days. Dayenu! That’s a very Jewish kind of remembering.

So the Seder uses mnemonics, the devices for remembering that you discuss in your book?

The Seder itself is a kind of mnemonic. And it’s loaded with them, starting with the order of the Seder, which we sing so that we will remember it. The Seder plate is filled with symbols that are hard to forget: The shank bone, the egg, the charoset; each exists to call to mind something else.

Are there mnemonics in Jewish texts?

The Talmud is rife with techniques for remembering. They may be acrostics—the first letter of different things that you’re supposed to remember—or words to inspire mental imagery. Things that you can visualize are always easier to remember than mere words.

What about chanting?

As anybody who has ever had a bar mitzvah or stood up to read Torah can tell you, the fact that you’re singing makes it easier to remember. That’s in part because song is one of the best ways of structuring information to make it memorable. It provides more hooks. When you know that a line is going up and going down, you can actually feel it and that helps cue you as to what comes next. Almost every oral tradition around the world has used song as an element to make things memorable.

Let’s talk a little bit about the relationship between intelligence and memory, which you touch upon in your book.

There are savants who remember a ton but cannot process it, just as surely as there are old professors who can’t remember a thing but obviously are very intelligent. That said, what we call intelligence—the ability to put two ideas together, to structure information in a meaningful way, to organize one’s thoughts—is actually related to remembering. Our memories are kind of like a spider web, and the bigger that spider web grows, the more it can catch, and the more it can catch, the bigger it grows. Memory and intelligence go hand in hand like a muscular frame and an athletic disposition.

You talk about memory palaces—structures to hang our memories in so that we can easily retrieve them. Is Jewish thinking a vast structure, similar to a super memory palace?

In a way. Jewish education provides a set of foundational ideas and sensibilities with which to move through the world. It’s a kind of structure that shapes our perceptions and how we think about things. It shapes what we pay attention to, what we remember, and what kind of people we are.

Could we look at Judaism as a giant memory system of sorts?

As Jews we have ritualized the act of remembering to remember. We don’t just put the Shema, our holiest sentence, in the mezuzah on our doorposts and in the tefillin on our arms. We also put in another paragraph, the V’ahavta, which says, remember to put these words on your doorpost, remember to put them in your tefillin. The instructions on how to remember are so holy that we have inextricably paired them with the line that we are supposed to be remembering.

Is there a collective Jewish memory?

There are collective Jewish memories. We’re all stuck with the same basic narrative, and as Jews—no matter where you fall on the spectrum—we’re all involved in its transmission. But obviously we all filter the narrative in our own way. The entire Jewish enterprise is, in the most reductive sense, one big act of maintaining a set of collective memories.

Is there a relationship between Jewish memory and creativity?

We tend to think of memory as though it were some vault that we drop things into and pull stuff out of, but that’s not the way memory actually works in our lives. Memories are always there, and they’re constantly shaping how we perceive the world. This is part of the genius of Jewish memory: Our present is constantly being informed by this set of collective memories we possess as Jews. We are always supposed to be taking something new from them.

Are Jews born with better memories than other people?

I don’t think Jews have genetically better memories than anybody else, but clearly something is happening in the Jewish tradition that makes the act of remembering so important to us. It’s something instilled in us from a very early age.

There is a lovely kabbalistic story that before we are born we possess full memory and full understanding and full knowledge of the world, and once we are born it vanishes. Is that something that you’ve thought about?

It’s not—until you just mentioned it—but it is a beautiful idea. The notion is that it is our job as individuals, as Jews, to gather up the shards of creation and return the world to completeness. That’s also true of our memories, that we enter the world totally naïve and part of our obligation as Jews and as humans is to build up our minds and gather in the shards of memory.