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Memory and History
Introduction Learning Activities Materials Bookmarks Standards
Learning Activities
Defining the Terms, Setting the Stage
Possessing and Re-Possessing Life Stories
What Happens When a People's Way of Life is Stripped Away?
What Memories to Carry Forward?
Jewish Musicians at a Polish wedding in Lachwa. (YIVO Institute for Jewish Research)
Learning Activity 2: Possessing and Re-Possessing Life Stories

In this activity, students will consider Dr. Sacks's notion that each of us is influenced by the sum total of our experiences, and that without memory it would be almost impossible to function. We would be incapable of forming human relationships - an underlying rationale for recording history. Sacks also believes that individuals are capable of "recollecting," or retaking ownership of their life stories. This activity will explore some of the ways that cultures ritualize the passage of time and, through these rituals, contribute to the establishment of individual and collective memories.

Introductory Discussion
1. Have students share their ideas about the role of memory based on the passage by Sacks. Do they agree or disagree? Did Sacks's ideas bring up any questions or thoughts?

2. Set the stage for the activity by telling students that they are going to look at how people, societies, and cultures find meaningful ways to mark important moments in their life stories. Explain that people around the world historically have followed their own unique calendars, reflecting different ways of marking time. Ask the class, "What do calendars reflect?" Student responses may include: years, months, dates, days, holidays, memorials, commemorations, etc. Introduce the Jewish calendar as an example of the Jewish people's marking of time. Have students view the multimedia presentation Heritage Bookmark The Jewish Calendar: The Yearly Cycles of Life.

Look at the Time
1. Hand each student a copy of the handout The Jewish Calendar (PDF) and have them consider the following questions:
  • Why is it so important to have a formal way of marking time?
  • What can we learn about the Jews of this time from their calendar?
If possible, have students explore the interactive graphic that follows the multimedia presentation in small groups. If your classroom does not have enough computers, view the graphic as a class. Make sure to spend ample time exploring the segment on Festivals. Then, have the class gather in small groups to respond to the questions on the handout.

Remember, this calendar was established in Babylon while the Jews were in exile from their homeland - it isn't an "all inclusive" current calendar. Encourage students to consider the Jews' rich religious life, their desire to forge a link from the past to the present, the meaning of their daily life, and how the cycle of their annual calendar reflects meaningful communal rituals.

2. To extend this concept, ask your students to compare the Jewish calendar to other cultural calendars, such as the Mayan, Islamic, Indian, Chinese, or Gregorian. The following Web resources may be helpful:
3. Ask students to share the answers they wrote down on their handouts, and use these answers to lead into a class discussion of how we mark time. Ask students: Aside from annual calendars, how do we chronicle the passage of time? Mark important events? Highlight milestones? Have students come up with their own ideas, but make sure that the following are articulated:

  • Creation of meaningful rituals for life-cycle events
    • Religious
      (bris, baptism, bar or bat mitzvah, communion)
    • National
      (Fourth of July fireworks, Thanksgiving feasts and football, Memorial Day picnics and visits to cemeteries, Labor Day parades)
    • Family
      (birthdays, anniversaries, academic achievement, weddings, funerals and memorial services)

  • Seasonal passages
    • Harvests
    • Solstices
    • Plantings

  • Recording of events
    • Photographs and videotapes
    • Journal entries or diaries
    • Articles written for formal press
    • Memory boxes
4. Next, distribute copies of the handout Remembrance of Things Past (PDF) and ask students to read a passage from Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past (available online at http://www.kensmen.com/catholic/proust.html). Explain that for Proust, the smell of a cookie he dipped in tea prompted him to relive a moment in his life. It's an extraordinary passage in literature. Once students have read the passage, ask them to respond to the questions in the handout:

  • What can trigger a memory?
  • How can an object reconstruct the past through memory?
As an alternative or additional assignment, ask students to read the Proust passage for homework and have them respond through journal writing to the above questions. Or give students an opportunity to give examples from popular culture - movies, songs, etc. - of memory triggers.

5. Distribute copies of the handout Leone Modena (PDF) and ask students to read Heritage Bookmark A Jewish Author Fears the Censor. Have students reflect on the handout's questions, either in small groups or in written journals:

  • What are some of the challenges inherent in using written words as a way of recording information or events?
  • What do you think was Modena's purpose in writing the book about Jewish practices?
  • Why did he fear "the censor"?
  • What is the danger of state-sponsored censorship to individuals? Communities? Cultures?
  • Consider the impact of self-censorship as a way to avoid condemnation and retribution. What are some historical examples? Current examples?
6. Distribute the culminating assignment (PDF) to the students. Explain that they will have one week to work on it and that they will be required to present their completed work to the class. Students may choose from the following two options:
    OPTION ONE: Family Calendar
    Create a personal/family calendar that reflects important annual events for your family. Be as creative and thorough as you can be. You might want to interview your family members to make sure that each member's "important dates to honor" are indicated on your family calendar. Include an explanation of your dates and your reasons for choosing them. For example: "Thanksgiving is a time when our family comes together to share our good fortune and to determine a collective charity to support for the coming year." Consider using artwork or photographs to enhance your calendar. Excellent work will be characterized by creativity, attention to detail, organization, thoughtful explanations, thoroughness, and neatness.

    OPTION TWO: Family History
    Create a family history that reflects important events in your family's past (up to the present day). You can do this as a written document, a multimedia presentation, a timeline, etc. Be creative. Use a variety of resources to help make your project as thorough as possible. Interview family members and read diaries, journals, or letters left by family members. Consider asking older relatives these questions: What are the five most important events in our family's history? Will you tell me stories of our family's ancestors? Include an explanation of pivotal events and your reasons for selecting them. Excellent work will be characterized by creativity, attention to detail, organization, thoughtful explanations, thoroughness, and neatness.

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