On Passover, Jews are told to ?remember? that they were slaves in Egypt. I have often wondered what kind of an act this remembering is supposed to be. It has an important purpose: memory is motivation. At many points in the Bible, when justice or kindness is commanded, the command is followed by the injunction: Remember that you were slaves (or strangers) in Egypt.
But what does this mean? I have no personal memory of Egyptian slavery. I remember being told the biblical story. I remember reading about it. But the memory is collective, not personal. It is sustained by ceremonies and rituals and by texts that are read in gatherings, not in solitude. We remember that we were slaves. Individualism is ruled out here; no one embroiders on his or her experience of slavery. We all remember the same experience and are (supposed to be) led to the same acts of justice and kindness.
Is this a practice that might be extended? Americans are taught something like this: Remember that you were immigrants from a foreign country. That doesn?t apply to all Americans but to most of us, and the act of remembering is possible for the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the immigrants. It would help in opposing anti-immigrant politics if we had some ceremonial enactment of that remembering.
And what about: Remember that you were laborers in fields and factories? After all, few of us are the descendants of aristocrats. We are, overwhelmingly, the children of men and women who did the backbreaking work that ?civilization? once required. But that deep truth has been repressed. It is never the subject of collective memory; we are not commanded to remember the labor of our ancestors. Upward mobility is founded on forgetfulness. But how different would American politics be if we gathered once every year and ceremonially remembered our working class past?the tiredness, the sweat, the bent backs, the hungry children? I am sure it would be harder to attend a tea party.