The endless journey of history
History Is ...
The inaugural exhibition at the Greenwich Historical Society’s reimagined campus opens Oct. 6, which is the date of the official opening of this spectacular new campus.
Spectacular. This word came to mind as I experienced the nearly completed entrance building with its archive and gallery spaces. The commanding view of the campus, seen through so much glass, creates a dynamic relationship with the past.
Construction, with sounds of hammering and drilling, was in its final stages during my visit. I was there to be interviewed by exhibit designer David Lackey.
The History Is ... exhibition explores seven different avenues for viewing and interpreting the past: history is ... measured in time, told in the news, people on the move, found in places, remembered in small things, passed through generations, and personal.
I am one of several Greenwich residents, of all ages, invited to lend a small object for display in the section of the exhibition that focuses on history as personal. We were asked to select an artifact that illustrates a memorable personal experience, something we may have collected in the course of our life, or something passed on from a friend or family member. A narrative, part of the display, would emerge during the interview with Lackey.
After accepting this invitation, the challenge was to select an object. There were many possibilities, each pointing to different stages of life, relationships, types of narratives. I found myself increasingly drawn to one particular object on my desk: a small ram’s horn, known as a shofar.
I had no long-standing personal connection to this particular shofar. It was something I’d acquired on one of more than a dozen trips to Israel, probably sometime in the 1990s. I remember selecting it from among many shofars in a barrel-like container in a Jerusalem shop. I’d felt a need to have a shofar, not necessarily this specific one, rather a generic shofar.
That’s because the shofar is an integral part of my spiritual journey.
The opening chapter of my as yet unfinished memoir about this journey takes place in September 1976. Inexplicably attracted to all things Jewish, compulsively clipping from newspapers, buying books, going alone to an Erev Rosh Hashanah service at the Friends Meeting House on Rutherford Place in New York, where I knew no one and had never before attended a Jewish service, I thought I was losing my mind. I now know this was the first step in my journey home. In hindsight, this interpretation seems simple, an obvious conclusion, given my commitment to Jewish life. But 42 years ago, it was neither simple, nor obvious.
In my memoir, I eventually attribute the strange happenings in those waning days of the summer of 1976 to the fact that it was the Jewish month of Elul. According to Jewish mystical tradition, Elul is a time of elevated consciousness and revelation, during which the gates of divine mercy are opening, and the pathways to these heavenly gates have strong connections to the earthly world.
Orthodox Jews sound the shofar every morning throughout the month of Elul as a wake-up call. Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgment, is approaching. It’s time to repent. According to the Jewish sage, Maimonides, these shofar blasts call upon us to awaken from our sleep and search our deeds that we can return in repentance.
The Hebrew word for repentance, teshuva, literally means return.
I’ve come to believe that contained in this Jewish mystical tradition, there’s a plausible explanation for the strange things that were happening to me before the start of the Jewish year 5737 ... I’d like to believe my behavior could have been an unwitting response to the call of a heavenly shofar, rousing me from my slumber, shaking me up and beckoning me home in teshuva ... I’d like to believe this. Then again, it’s equally plausible that I was just plain crazy.
All during my interview, which was taking place in Elul, I caressed the little shofar that I held in my hands. As the narrative unfolded, this object acquired its own special meaning, soon to be on display.
History is ... always in creation, I thought, as the narrative came to life. It was real. I was not crazy.
Alma Rutgers served in Greenwich town government for 25 years. Her blog is at blog.ctnews.com/rutgers/