Since my retirement three months ago, I’ve spent a large chunk of time in an industrial-strength cleaning frenzy, culling files (paper and digital), writings, books, newspaper clippings, pictures. What began as a slightly (?) obsessive attempt to cope with clutter and to relegate boxes to the attic (and at least some, but never enough, unnecessary items to the trash) has transformed itself into an unintentional journey into a personal and professional past, simultaneously and paradoxically well-remembered and half-forgotten.
Instead of writing sermons for the High Holidays, I have been experiencing a perpetual Elul, acknowledging past accomplishments, mistakes, choices, regrets, joys, sorrows over a period of years, beginning with childhood letters from camp (yes, my mother never discarded enough memorabilia, either!) extending through college and rabbinical school, trips to Israel, marriage and children, various stages of my professional life. I have saved too much, and yet it is hard to regret coming across a letter from an old friend now-deceased or a child’s scorecard from a baseball game or a particularly gracious thank-you note. The task is bittersweet; were I to analyze and sort every item, there would be no time to live my current life; were I to re-read every note and letter, I could not continue to create in the present; were I to save every document, I would in effect be unable to savor what is truly special and unique and—dare I hope?—eternal (or at least of some value to the next generation).
And because my personal and professional life overlaps with the acceptance of the first class to include women at Yale (class of 1973) and the first classes of women in the rabbinate (I was ordained in 1980), I discover items of more general historic value (thank you, American Jewish Archives, for your collection of women rabbis’ memorabilia, to which I will happily contribute). These provide a matrix in which to place my individual life, a unique context to which I can feel and see that I made a contribution. Being an ima (mother) and writing the book IMA ON THE BIMA intersect in these dusty files to form a pattern of which I am both grateful and proud.
The sifting and sorting go slowly. I will not be done by Yom Kippur, nor even by Shemini Azeret, the date to which the rabbis extended the possibility of repentance. I am more selective these days about what I save, and of course, as everyone constantly reminds me, one can retrieve everything now on one’s computer (Bahya ibn Pakuda must have contemplated this moment back in the 11th century, when he wrote, “days are scrolls; write on them only what you want remembered”).
Who really needs two huge file folders on “God” or one on “Elian Gonzalez” or another on Mel Gibson’s ‘Passion of the Christ’? But I am of an age when a loved one’s handwriting on stationery evokes presence in ways that e-mail can never match. When the rustle of real and yellowing newsprint (now augmented by my hearing aids) jog my memory about events long past but forever documented.
Today, thinking about Syria (particularly in light of my son having just returned to his home in Tel Aviv), I found my file on “Syrian Jews”, with articles and information from the 1970’s to 1990’s. What I found teaches me much about what I cared about, and what our community cared about. Just recently, I re-discovered files about the 20th anniversary gathering (1983) of the “March on Washington”, at which my husband and I were carrying our then-three-month-old daughter under a “New Jewish Agenda” banner, and stories about the controversy over whether and which Jewish groups would participate (I had not remembered all the fuss). This week, that daughter, now 30, began working at the Civil Rights division of the Justice Department.
And so it goes. Our lives do indeed weave a pattern, and our tradition values memory. We can’t remain forever locked in Elul, as tempting as that may be. We must discard, repent, forgive, and even sometimes forget in order to move forward.
We are indeed flowers that fade, but it is lovely in the twilight of summer to review the seeds of a future yet to be experienced. What began as a housekeeping task became an Elul epiphany and the promise of new content for still-empty files for a New Year.
Rabbi Mindy Avra Portnoy is the Rabbi Emerita of Temple Sinai, in Washington, DC, and is the author of the groundbreaking children’s book, Ima on the Bima.