The Arty Semite

Author Blog: Transmission of Memory

By Yehuda Kurtzer

  • Print
  • Share Share

Yehuda Kurtzer is the author of “Shuva: The Future of the Jewish Past.” His blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:


When my son Noah was about 3 or 4, he came home from school one day and asked me, “Abba, who are the Jewish people?”

Thrilled by this opportunity to begin in earnest my son’s Jewish education, by the depth of this questioning at such a young age, I replied, “Why, Noah – we are the Jewish people!”

Whereupon he burst into tears, inconsolable. When I finally calmed him down, I asked him why he was so upset. “Because I don’t want Pharaoh to hurt me!”

I was conflicted about how to answer him. My parenting instincts inclined me to disabuse him of the myth altogether: to tell him that it was just a story from a long time ago, that he was safe, that maybe the story wasn’t even true.

Goodness knows a toddler does not need to be terrified by Judaism in general, much less that fear be a catalyst for his sense of belonging to a story he is learning for the first time.

At the same time, I was proud to see that he had unwittingly internalized the mandate of the Passover Haggadah: that in every generation a person is obligated to see themselves as though they left Egypt. Pharaoh was alive for him, a source of genuine terror. The non-parental, Jewish educator side of me wanted to shrug my shoulders and tell him, “Shver tsu zayn a yid.”

This is a defining question in Jewish education, as it goes to the heart of what it means to create, cultivate and transmit memory.

Not facts, not history, and not just values and ideas that are critically important as part of the texture of an intellectually credible Jewish education, but memory – that sense of belonging to a narrative that precedes you and will outlast you. The set of stories and visceral experiences in which you may not have physically participated, but are part of the identity to which you belong.

But is there a workable way to transmit the power of traumatic memory, without creating post-traumatic stress?


Yehuda Kurtzer is the president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. His first book, “Shuva: The Future of the Jewish Past,” is now available.


The Jewish Book Council is a not-for-profit organization devoted to the reading, writing and publishing of Jewish literature. For more Jewish literary blog posts, reviews of Jewish books and book club resources, and to learn about awards and conferences, please visit www.jewishbookcouncil.org.

MyJewishLearning.com is the leading transdenominational website of Jewish information and education. Visit My Jewish Learning for thousands of articles on Judaism, Jewish holidays, Jewish history and more.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Yehuda Kurtzer, Trauma, Memory, Parenting, Jewish Education, Children

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • Aperitif Cocktail, Tequila Shot, Tom Collins or Vodka Soda — Which son do you relate to?
  • Elvis craved bacon on tour. Michael Jackson craved matzo ball soup. We've got the recipe.
  • This is the face of hatred.
  • What could be wrong with a bunch of guys kicking back with a steak and a couple of beers and talking about the Seder? Try everything. #ManSeder
  • BREAKING: Smirking killer singled out Jews for death in suburban Kansas City rampage. 3 die in bloody rampage at JCC and retirement home.
  • Real exodus? For Mimi Minsky, it's screaming kids and demanding hubby on way down to Miami, not matzo in the desert.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.