Momentum Memories: Passover Storytelling

By Dr. Ronit Ziv-Kreger

I cherish childhood Passover memories of hearing my mother and grandmother’s stories while cooking together, bringing out the ping-pong table and setting it with holiday tablecloths, and lighting candles with my grandmother. I still sing her unique Bukharian melody for blessing the candles every Shabbat and holiday. The power of these memories has propelled me to work with a team supporting thousands of mothers around the world to experience and share meaningful Jewish memories with their children.

I didn’t appreciate the significance that memory has to identity-formation until the darkness of memory-loss progressively deprived my mother-in-law of her attention and ability to communicate.

The Torah speaks of memory no less than 169 times according to historian Yosef Yerushalmi. What’s the significance of this repetition and the Torah’s invitation on Passover to teach our children through stories?

Contemporary research teaches us that the resiliency of children is bolstered by their knowing family stories. Hearing stories of parents and relatives going through challenging situations is important. Jewish tradition understands the importance of revisiting core memories and sharing them.

Rabbi Soloveitchik notes that the word in Hebrew for story, “sipur,” has the same root as scribe, “sofer,” one who writes a sacred scroll. On Passover, he suggests, parents and grandparents are scribes writing not on parchment, but on the hearts and souls of our children. In doing so, we foster their resiliency and connect them to the Jewish family.

“Narrative connects children to something larger than themselves,” writes Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. “It helps them make sense of how they fit into the world that existed before they were born. It gives them the starting point of an identity. That in turn becomes the basis of confidence. It enables children to say: This is who I am. This is the story of which I am a part.”

Some of my grandmother’s stories were frightening; she had a challenging childhood, but her stories aroused in me a resolve to stand up for what’s right. Effectively sharing stories can help transform difficult and even devastating experiences into memories which nurture courage and commitment to a better future. Elie Wiesel said, “The challenge of our generation of survivors was, what would we do with our memories? Would we allow them to drown us in despair, or would they somehow give us the strength to respond to other people’s suffering?”

After the destruction of the Temple, the rabbis orchestrated a remarkable transformation of the biblical Passover holiday; one that I’ve taught to business executives as a “case study” in change management. Much of the Seder that we know was conceived by rabbis after the destruction.

To use the language of Kurt Lewin’s change theory, the rabbis “unfroze” the Biblical model of Passover. They looked with fresh eyes at what the Jewish people needed in the new reality and then solidified a new structure for the holiday. They gave us a gift that continues to give – a holiday that invites us to look at our past, consider what we might be avoiding, and share stories that help us spring forward with new insights and patterns.

It’s not easy for parents with insubstantial positive Jewish memories or access to Jewish wisdom to offer a rich experience for their children. We’ve seen the research. Avrahm Infeld claims that “assimilation is living someone else’s memory.” Our texts show that throughout Jewish history Jewish leaders found ways to reinstate our collective memory when it was in peril. The Talmud teachers: “…in ancient times when the Torah was forgotten from Israel, Ezra came up from Babylon and established it. [Some of it] was forgotten and Hillel the Babylonian came up and established it. Yet again [some of it] was forgotten, and R. Hiyya and his children came up and established it…”

The Momentum experience continues this tradition of rebooting Jewish memory focusing on parents. With funding from the Israeli Government, foundations and individuals, Momentum engages thousands of parents a year from 28 countries in a year-long exploration of self and the value of connecting to our Jewish roots and sharing those with our children. At the center is an eight-day trip to Israel, during which groups of mothers or fathers travel throughout the country, engaging in powerful experiences of Jewish learning and community and appreciating the value Judaism brings to them and their families’ lives.

I will never forget my first Momentum experience of dancing at the Kotel with 400 Jewish mothers from all over the world – Cuba, Hungary, Australia, Russia – every kind of Jewish mother yet with so much in common; all taking a break from our daily routines, laughing and crying together, and having the revelatory experience of belonging to the global Jewish family. It was the closest experience I can imagine to the joy of the ancient pilgrimage holidays.

Over 17,000 participants have taken part. Participants report returning from Israel surprised at how much they enjoyed the Jewish learning, and at how much they bonded with each other and with the land. Data show parents are sharing more Jewish values and stories of Israel with their children a year later.

May we be blessed this Passover to share meaningful memories. May we create a warmth that “unfreezes” patterns of thoughts and emotions that have outlived their usefulness. May we foster our individual and collective resiliency to be a blessing to each other and to the families of the world.

Dr. Ronit Ziv-Kreger serves as the JWRP Director of Education and Leadership Development, oversees the evaluation of Momentum, and is the author and editor of Year of Growth, the Momentum year-long curricula resource (here’s a link to the Passover session). She is a graduate of the Pardes Educator’s Program and earned her Ph.D. at MIT’s School of Management.