Selective Memories

Anyone who constructs a family tree for himself ends up choosing which branches he would like to hang from and which he would prefer to ignore.

This week I saw a full-page ad in the literary supplement announcing the publication of Hadassah Mor's new book, "Ya'arat hadvash mikhtav preda." The book, so I learned from the ad, recounted the affair that Mor, then a long-legged soldier, had with Moshe Dayan, then a former chief of staff and a figure of international standing.

I've written once before about Mor's part in the sexual education of some of my contemporaries, and about the very real scar her book left on me when, while in hot pursuit of my brother who had snatched the book away from me at the very moment the beautiful heroine's bra was being unfastened, I collided with the glass door of his room.

That book came out in 1963 (Kotz Press, edited by Aharon Amir) and was a thinly veiled, first-person account containing quite detailed, erotic descriptions. Even though Mor changed the names of the bedroom protagonists, everyone in the country - which was still a small and intimate place - knew that the hero was none other than the wearer of the world's most famous eye patch, a bit of knowledge that did wonders for the book's popularity. The difference in Mor's latest book (she's written a few more in between), so I learned from the reviews, is that this time the two protagonists are called by their real names.

By my calculation, Mor must be over 60 by now, and I hope very much that her life has included other events apart from that affair with Dayan. I won't deny, though, that I can understand why she is reliving this particular memory. Like Mor, anyone who constructs a family tree for himself ends up choosing which branches he would like to hang from and which he would prefer to ignore. We all remember King David, or the relative who personally spoke with the Golem of Prague, or the other one who was a Hussar cavalry officer, or the grandmother who drained the swamps or had an affair with Alexander Penn, and the aunt who could make delicious patties out of mallow plants. But we tend to forget the grandfather who was a drudge and worked with the water company or the great aunt who was a housewife and could whip up a torte from just one egg.

We're all selective when it comes to our memories. If we're lucky enough to have a healthy personality (and who among us is?), then we tend to remember the good moments and to forget or forgive ourselves the more difficult ones. In the Harry Potter series, there's a wonderful invention: the "pensieve." You store all your oppressive memories and burdensome, tormenting thoughts in it, to be retrieved only if needed.

When I was in the second grade, I was given the role in a school play of "Scatterbrained Vered" (I was chubby and wore glasses), and I was supposed to say to "Crybaby Ronit" (a freckle-faced redhead): "Get yourself a very big cup, in which to collect all your tears." At the time, in second grade, I thought that such a cup would be an excellent thing to get, since if I could hide my tears in one, my big brother would stop calling me a crybaby.

Two years later, when my ability to cry spontaneously on the stage of the municipal theater in Haifa won me a part in "The Caucasian Chalk Circle," I was glad I hadn't stored all my tears in a cup, and that for three months I could burst into totally authentic tears night after night, on stage.

I'm also left with the memory of the play in the wonderful theater of Yosef Milo - a memory in which actor Haim Topol is teaching me to slide down the teak railing in the wings, in order to forget the terrifying figure of Zaharira Harifai, who starred in the role of a divorcee, who screams at me because she can't stand having children scurrying about backstage.

It's easy to imagine what would have become of writers, artists, actors and all consumers of literature, movies, theater, music or television, had we really been able to rid ourselves of all the negative experiences accumulated in our memories. Works of art, and the ability to genuinely experience them, originate in pain, in the ability to also remember the most difficult things, to relate to them and to go back to being a child.

Yes, it would be terrific if memory could be set aside like a picture in which we could erase any feeling of pain, or if we could toss into the "pensieve" all the memories we had no need for at the moment, only to pull them out again when we were prepared to deal with them and to use them for our benefit. Were we able to do so, we could surely become prime ministers and chiefs of staff and send people to their deaths without batting an eyelash - or even just remarry, for that matter.

On the other hand, we certainly benefit from the inability of artists to throw away their memories. This is how such memories become masterpieces like Saul Friedlander's "When Memory Comes." And as for Hadassah Mor, I intend to get hold of a copy of her new book as soon as possible.