This spring, I was writing an article and I wanted to look up some background from something I had written when I was editing the Rockland Jewish Reporter. I went to the Jewish Federation of Rockland County’s website, where I had always been able to reliably search for these things, only to find that at that point there was no way to access these past articles.
I learned that the content management system hosted by Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), the umbrella organization for federations across the continent, was launching a new platform for federation websites. Any articles that were not manually brought over to a federation’s new website would no longer exist. Since most federations don’t have the kind of manpower to move hundreds, if not thousands, of pieces of archived content over to a new site, much of what any federation had stored since it began using Fedweb (and likely prior to that) would be gone.
As Jeffrey Dorfman, the head of digital marketing and senior client services at JFNA put it, “We’re trying to tackle archiving old pages. But it is a challenge since content is contained in multiple databases.” Indeed!
I realize that for most people this is something of a shrug; but for me, it meant seven years of my own work was no longer readily accessible. And while everything I wrote is stored in a cloud, it is not the most user-friendly and searchable place to find it; nor does it contain the work of the freelancers, rabbis and heads of Jewish organizations who contributed to the newspaper during that time period.
But this represented something more than not being able to search online for my work; for me it was a loss of community history. I know that none of it detailed anything all that earthshattering or momentous, but it did give a framework and a timeline to the monthly goings on in the Rockland Jewish community over nearly a decade.
From the merging of the Reform Temple of Suffern with a congregation in New Jersey, to the disbursement of funds from the now defunct JCC of Spring Valley, to the deaths of community leaders such as Rubin Josephs and Mike Rosen, the archive gave shape to life in this particular Jewish community. The opening of the Rockland Jewish Community Campus, the burning of West Clarkstown Jewish Center; the closing of Reuben Gittelman Hebrew Day School; and the decision to open the Rockland Jewish Academy at the campus were all chronicled. From the hosting of Shalom Rockland and the JCC Maccabi Games; to the reaction to JCC Rockland opening on Shabbat; to local takes on Israel’s second Lebanon War; and the demographic shifts taking place in the county; you could get a snapshot of the life and times of our Jewish community in the early part of the 21st century.
On the other hand, I couldn’t help but laugh at the irony that something online had completely disappeared. This isn’t the way the internet is supposed to work, is it? Take a nude selfie in Amarillo at midnight and it’s going to end up posted in some online community in Borneo by noon, right? As any parent will tell their teenager who posts some unfortunate photo of herself dancing on a table, red cup (or worse) in hand, “The internet is forever!”
Except when it isn’t. We are taught that our online pasts are going to haunt us into eternity, and that there is nothing we can do about it. For those of us in the United States, that may be true. The European Court of Justice may have ruled in favor of a plaintiff seeking to bar Google from linking to information he no longer deemed relevant, but Americans have no similar right to be forgotten.
So although I imagined that one day the backlog of Jewish Reporter articles might only exist in heavy binders in the federation’s offices, I had nonetheless taken it for granted that it would all be easily available, floating forever in the ether, searchable through keywords. Having since had the summer to reflect on this, it made me realize just how ephemeral is the past. What we choose to remember and the ways in which we do so only last as long as the paper on which it is printed. Or as technology has marched on, it remains only as permanent as is the microfilm, microfiche and now online database where the information resides. Face it, even these articles I’m referring to only represent a time period from 2005 through 2012. There was clearly a past to Jewish Rockland that existed prior to that.
During Rosh Hashanah, which the liturgy refers to as Yom Hazikaron, or Day of Remembrance (not to be confused with Israel’s Yom Hazikaron for fallen soldiers and victims of terror), we reflect on the nature of memory. As Jews, we have always been preoccupied with it; in many ways remembrance guides our existence. As the People of the Book, we have always valued the act of recording our past and the stories it comprises. What is the Torah but a grand homage to our roots, turning it from oral history into a recorded collective memory?
During the Days of Awe in particular, we are preoccupied with the act of remembrance. We ask that God secure us in the book of life, recalling all the good we have done, while not remembering our less stellar moments. Yet if God remembers all, well, how on earth does the Almighty then forget? (Perhaps the European Court and Google can hash that one out.)
On Friday night we begin Kol Nidre. What began with remembrance on Rosh Hashanah ends with atonement on Yom Kippur, the day set aside for repentance and return. For as we remember, so too do we seek to remedy. But what do you do when memory becomes so fragile that it breaks? What happens if the evidence of the past is wiped clean? Does that mean the slate never existed?
We say that on Rosh Hashanah we are written in the book of life, and on Yom Kippur we are sealed. As someone who writes for a living, I’ve always been taken with this idea, that that the act of recording is a signature one of our faith. Through this imagery of inscription, we give or deeds weight and meaning. The year is recorded and then marches forward, a sealed mystery waiting to be discovered as the days unfold.
During these Days of Awe, we recognize that writing and memory are intimately bound. We record the past to grant it importance and to create a sense of permanence. Through written words we collect and preserve it, giving it both shape and meaning. When we are unable to access the ideas and events of our past, the path ahead becomes a harder one to navigate, as it sets the course through its turns and bends toward the future.