Some of us with young children are blessed with the opportunity to be wide awake and preparing breakfast on a Sunday morning at 6:30 a.m. Such is my life. For the uninitiated: At that hour, NPR in Chicago airs funky documentaries on a program called Re:Sound, part of the Third Coast International Audio Festival. This is the stuff that will one day become Ira Glass, but which is today oftentimes just out there, in both senses of the phrase.

Lo and behold, this morning (or yesterday morning, by the time many of you read this), they’re airing a documentary interviewing what sounded like a bunch of American World War II vets. I tuned in mid-way through. They’re telling their stories about their ship being stopped, something about the British and the French and the Germans. I wasn’t paying much attention. I was more focused on brewing my coffee. But then my ears perked up, as they mentioned they were on a ship full of Jewish refugees bound for Palestine. Slowly but surely, it turned out they were telling the story of the ship Exodus 1947, made famous by Leon Uris and Paul Newman. So of course they got my attention.

The story is worth listening to. (Here it is.) What I found particularly interesting, however, was the short interview afterwards with the creator of the documentary. Specifically, he wound up dwelling on the question of whether or not any of these young men were aware of what they were getting into when they signed up. Most of them claim they were, but one of them says the others are mis-remembering, that in fact none of them knew that they were going to be attempting to run a British blockade and be part of a story that would turn the tide of history. The producer reflects on the way in which we tell our stories, and how our narratives don’t always jibe with history, even though they are true to us now.

One reaction is to point out the poetic symmetry between this moment of mis-remembering and the more famous conversation around the fallibility of Holocaust testimonies, which Daniel Mendelsohn explored in his book Lost. What does it mean, and what does it matter, to say that this kind of thing is counter-factual? It doesn’t do a great deal to the story itself, but it tells us a tremendous amount about the human psyche. At the same time, it calls into question our notions of objective historical truth in ways that may be troubling.

Related to this is the broader question of the relative value of history and memory, a timely question as Passover fast approaches. In his seminal book Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory, Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi makes this very distinction (he was an emininent historian at Columbia), arguing that it is memory and not history that preserves the Jewish people. I have reflected on this before in relation to the Exodus (from Egypt, that is): the historical question (did the Exodus really happen?) is not nearly as meaningful as What can we learn from the story of the Exodus? As anyone who has read the book of Exodus knows, it is an account full of gaps and questions–the stuff of midrash. And as anyone who has read the Passover Haggadah knows, we don’t even read the story of the Exodus at the seder! Instead we cut straight to the gaps and questions and midrash. (As the Mishnah tells us: “One begins in shame and ends in praise. And one expounds–creates midrash–on the passage [from Deuteronomy 26] ‘My ancestor was a wandering Aramean’ until its conclusion.”)

We are too close to the events of Exodus 1947 to stop being interested in the facts. They matter too much for present-day politics. But as the producer of the episode said, he aimed to sidestep those questions for the purposes of this story, and instead chose to focus on the enduring human questions within the story as it is told by its participants. This is an essential move for a twenty-first century consciousness–for those of us drawn to religous narrative and all of us striving to be human.

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