Nostalgia – Yom Kippur 5780/2019

Oct 9, 2019 | Rabbi Scott Fox, Sermons

I actually hated the song when I first heard it. Everyone was playing it,
it was all over the radio, and at the local high school a dozen teenagers
covered the song decked in clothes carefully selected to look
nonchalantly thrown together from a thrift shop wardrobe. I knew they
got them at the mall. Knowing that the over marketing of the tune
really irked me my dear friend Curtis got me the album for my birthday,
grinning from ear to ear as another friend snapped a photo of us
holding the vile disk. He was always doing things like that. He loved to
push the boundaries, joke around, and try to keep things from getting
too serious. I guess I had taken my boycott of the song a little too far.
B ut I hadn’t thought of it for years until I turned on the car the other
day and the radio opened up mid verse on the old recording. More so
than the cool factor of the singer, ears pierced and slack mouthed, or
the memories of dancing in my room to the pounding rhythm, Curtis
came back to me. I don’t know where that album is today, but I bet it
still has his fingerprints on it. Many years ago, unexpectedly and very
suddenly, he passed away. I think about him all the time, but on that
day it was as if he was in the passenger seat, knocking me on the arm
and asking me what I wanted to do that weekend. That song brought
him back so powerfully, he was right there. And then the DJ faded the
tune out and by the time his voice came on, the seat next to me was
empty.

Nostalgia seems to do this, to give us back what has been lost. It’s
more than just a gesture, it transports us, returns something long gone
to us, or rather returns us to where those things, people, existed. And
it does it so powerfully. Why does that feeling, that experience pull us
so deeply? How does it reach the ache in our bones?
Perhaps every story ever told uses nostalgia, the magic of transporting
us to a moment that is not exactly right now, but that we are fully
immersed in. Thrown into that moment the way we are thrown into
our lives. A snapshot of the experience of existence.

This is the stuff of religion. So many of our holidays are centered
around the act of telling a story, around sparking nostalgia so that we
can re-enter that moment in time. Our sages tell us that on Passover
each one of us should feel as if we personally were freed from Egypt,
and on Yom Kippur we rehearse a moment in the future when we too
will die and look back on our lives lived and memories not made yet.
Hopefully we will appreciate the time that we have a little more, and set
ourselves on track for a year that we will look back on fondly. But
there’s more. We also sit in chairs surrounded by people who are no
longer with us. Many of us return to this space on Yom Kippur because
of nostalgia. We want to sit with loved ones again, tuck under the wool
of their tallis, hold their hand. We remember this place, and when we
sit here and crank out the magic formula again, special clothes, old
melodies, the tinge of hunger, we bring ourselves back to when we
were here in the past, who we were with, even who we were five or fifty
years ago. This brings us back and it reminds us not only of who we
were, but who we could be, what dreams have been set aside that can
now be reexamined and pursued.

Ironically, nostalgia gives us a sense of hope for the future. Looking
back on a time in the past where a memory shines brightly lets us know
that that moment can shine again. It can be a beacon during a time
when we are desperate, a map when things around us seem to fall
apart and we lose our way. When we are lost.

And we need the things that ignite nostalgia in us, we can’t remember
everything, there are too many memories to hold onto them all. We
need help, so we secret them away into books and places, in rituals and
people who bring us back to where we were at a certain time. That visit
with an old friend, when it felt like no time had passed since you last
talked, those memories stored safely in a friendship.

Mark Twain loved to play with nostalgia against the Americana
backdrop of his novels and then poke holes in the memories. Tom
Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn begin as pleasant jaunts in friendly
neighborhood shenanigans and a revisiting of childhood as an adult
with a sigh and a wink to the reader, but after the first few pages they
weave a thread that forces the reader to confront a history of poverty
and racism that has been clouded over, airbrushed.

Nostalgia can also be a dangerous thing. In recent years and in the
past it’s been used as a way of clouding over the difficult things in
history, marginalizing and silencing voices today that we have fought so
hard to hear but are suppressed again through the idea that a piece is
period correct. TV shows that objectify women today, in order to show
how they were treated in history, are still objectifying women. Movies
that echo racial stereotypes are spreading these stereotypes further.
Nostalgia runs the risk of bringing back what was cast off for good
reason. In our own tradition nostalgia can cloud out voices as well. The
other day someone asked me to name 10 great women scholars from
Jewish history. I could name 8.

And we see this in the United States today. Our country is in a period
of economic decline. Wages remain stagnant while the cost of living
continues to increase. Most of the country grows poorer as jobs shift,
disappear or move overseas and the middle class slowly disappears.
Malcom Harris, in his book Kids These Daysnotes that the generation of
workers now in their 20s and 30s are workin g more hours today than
their parents’ generation, and when you adjust for inflation they are
doing so for less pay. He writes “Being under thirty -five is now
correlated with poverty wages.”

This causes an overall look back to a time of greater economic
prosperity, when there were more jobs and better paying, a more
stable economy, a collective nostalgia. And rather than own the
challenges today, frightening as they are, we have collectively dug our
heels in. Solar panels are shunned as we dole out state subsidies to
coal companies even as the industry declines of its own accord.
Our tradition warns of the pitfalls of nostalgia as well. Rabbi Yose was
walking in Jerusalem one day. The city was in ruins, destroyed by the
Romans, slaughtered in a flood of violence and raised to the ground. In
Rabbi Yosi’s younger years, the city was a vibrant place, one that he
looked back on with fondness. For Yose, his home was not just
Jerusalem but a certain time in Jerusalem, a time when the great
institutions of the capital brimmed with learning that spilled out into
the streets. The great teachers had their followers, and people would
flock to this school or that to hear the brilliant ideas of the day. But
that time, was sadly in the past. This story, retold at the very beginning
of our Talmud remembers that time with Rabbi Yose, as he walked
down the same streets, now in ruin. I imagine him lost in thought,
piecing together remnants from that past for the day’s lesson. Walking
down the road he passes by an old abandoned building, long since torn
down, but some of the foundation and a doorway still holds. Just as he
steps beyond the entryway he hears a still small voice. He stops and
hears it again. Intrigued he turns and steps through the doorway and
now the voice is louder, it is a bat kol, a voice of God. Moved to tears he
begins to pray.

The prophet Elijah comes and stands in the doorway of the old ruins
while Rabbi Yose finishes his prayer. He turns to the great sage, fully
immersed in the sweet memories of the golden age of his life, having
received a bat kol, the voice of God. “We do not pray in ruins,” the great
prophet reminds the sage, “no matter how dear they are to us.” We do
not get lost in the past.

Walter Benjamin was a thinker’s thinker. He had a way with words that
seemed to place a mountain of meaning in a single sentence and he
had a mustache that could rival Poncho Villa. He lived in Berlin at a
time when it was the cultural hub of the Western World. Walter
Benjamin did most of his writing as he watched the edifice of Berlin
culture crumble around him in the fires of World War II. Himself a Jew
he fled from one city to the next as the Nazis broadened their borders.
Perhaps because he could then only visit his beloved cultural capital by
recollection, Benjamin often thought, talked and wrote about memory.

He once wrote, “This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is
turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees
one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage
and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the
dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing
from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the
angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into
the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before
him grows skyward.”

A humbling reflection on the motion of history. We too fly, back toward
the future, watching the aftermath of history gather before us and at
our feet. I think Benjamin is suggesting something else here as well,
not just that the past is so often viewed with remorse, but also that we,
each of us, have a limited view. We are not able to see many of the
things in our world even if we suspect that they are there. Benjamin
notes that we cannot see into the future, even though we are traveling
in that direction, even though the winds of history push away and into
the horizon of the future. And we can’t look around us either, as our
sight is locked to where we have been. We can’t know the future, we
can’t even fully understand what is happening now, when we are in the
middle of it. The only thing that we can see with any clarity is the past,
and so we let that grip us fiercely, as the only truth we have. The only
map of our days charts the ones we have already traveled. Nostalgia,
memory, shines so brightly because it is the only knowledge, flawed
and imperfect as it might be.

The rabbis placed a set of peculiar words in our liturgy. Chadesh
yameinu kekedem. The word kedem has a bizarre set of meanings.
Much like the word shalom, which means both hello and goodbye, the
word kedem means to move forward and it also means the past. It’s a
word tha t seems to embody nostalgia more so than any other, in that it
takes the presence of a past thing and imbues it with a future hope. On
the High Holy Days we ask God to renew our days, chadeish yameinu, as
kedem, as of old. In the Jewish mindset, we ironi cally hold the past
always before us, knowing that it is both a motivator for progress and a
reminder of the potential of our world. This too is the act of nostalgia,
it reminds us of what things have been in the past, how far we have
come, and that we ha ve the potential to be better.

And what could more embody the task of teshuvah on Yom Kippur? It
is the act of looking back, of turning to who we once were, and of
returning to that self for the future. As Jews we see the year as a circle,
that’s why our challahs are round this time o f the year, to remind us
that it is human and inevitable to drift away and then come back to who
we are. So this year, I invite us to return, to taste that sweetness of the
year past, the days that have led up to today, and let ourselves be
renewed.

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