Memory men will never be forgotten

'Before there was Wikipedia, I went to shul for answers'

September 18, 2020 13:37

Before there was Wikipedia, I went to shul for answers. One row behind me sat Aharon Lizra who knew the whole Hebrew Bible by heart, from In the beginning to the last of the begats. Once, while preparing a eulogy, I asked him how many times the name Miriam appeared. Aharon gave a slow blink and, in less time than it takes Google to find a kosher restaurant in north London, said “Twelve”. Just like that. Memory, in those days, was not something you bought. It was a life well lived.

In front of me sat Professor Raphael Loewe, who knew all the near-eastern languages, ancient and new. Hearing that my daughter had won a place to study history at Cambridge, he offered to teach her Christian Aramaic, “which might come in useful”. All knowledge was useful, in Raphael’s view.

Aharon’s father, orphaned soon after his barmitzvah, walked from Meknes in Morocco to the Land of Israel. Growing up in Haifa during Arab riots, Aharon’s memory saved his life when, seized by a murderous gang, he reeled off verses of the Qu’ran that he had heard chanted on his street. His memory was formed by the old-fashioned method of being whipped on bare feet with a leather strap if he mispronounced a word, but he felt no resentment. He only ever complained to me once, saying they should have let him lead the Seder at four years old because knew the text by heart.

Raphael must have been the shyest man ever to win the Military Cross. He had a good war, chasing the Germans out of Tunis and liberating the great synagogue with an immaculate Sephardi prayer. In Italy, an officer called for volunteers to crawl out under heavy fire and bring back the wounded from a minefield. Time after time, Raphael went out and returned with a comrade on his shoulders. When the last casualty was safe, he was asked if there was anything he needed. “A cup of tea would be nice,” said Raphael, the perfect Anglo-Jew.

Nothing gave him greater pleasure than a question he could not answer on the spot. I dared once to suggest that a phrase in the Ashkenazi New Year’s liturgy was grammatically more correct than the Sephardi text. When I entered synagogue on the second morning, Raphael was chortling in triumph. “The Sephardi phrase is immaculate,” he cried. “It’s composed of three micro-quotations!”

It was not so much knowledge that gave these men joy as the opportunity to share it with a younger person who might transmit it to an unborn generation, as humans have done with wisdom from the dawn of time. These scholars used memory like a fast bowler’s arm or a striker’s foot, a limb to be kept at peak fitness for the moment when it is needed.

Although I have met many great thinkers, I have only once come across another memory of this calibre. In summer 1983 I spent a day and a night talking to the Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer, whose wife kept him idle on a Swiss Alp for six summer weeks, “for his health”. Bored, he agreed to meet a young journalist from London. As I checked in at the hotel he exclaimed, “from The Times, they send me a yeshiva bochur”. We talked late into the night beneath the stars. One phrase of Singer’s — “man is a Nazi to animals” — turned me into a lifelong vegetarian. Another, published in the Sunday Times, was quoted by rabbis in Kol Nidre sermons and archbishops on Christmas Eve.

“Tell me,” interjected Singer in the middle of a discussion about God. “What do you call the insect that infests old books?”

“A bookworm?”

“Exactly. So tell me now: what is man? Man is a bookworm living in a copy of War and Peace. He is sitting on a letter trying to get some nourishment. You expect him to be a critic of Tolstoy?”

He was about to publish a new novel, Der bal-teshuve (‘The Penitent’ in English) which anticipated a religious revival among young American Jews. Singer was from the Old Country, growing up in his father’s Bet Din where all human miseries passed before the bench. He had forsaken religion before he migrated to New York in 1935 but he remained steeped in its sources.

At two in the morning, I quoted him a talmudic phrase. Without hesitation, he finished the sentence and carried on to the bottom of the page, adding Rashi’s commentaries and concluding with his own exegesis. I tried another passage, and he 
ran down the blatt, word perfect. How was that possible, I wondered, when he had not opened a Talmud in half a century?

Why am I writing this now? Rosh Hashanah, it’s the Day of Memory.

September 18, 2020 13:37

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