Remarks shared at GW Hillel graduation event / 5.14.21
The day I graduated college, the sun shone down on Washington Square Park in the West Village of Manhattan. If asked to remember the most notable thing about that week, it wasn’t the fancy meal I had with my parents. It wasn’t the outfit I wore. It certainly wasn’t the commencement address, shared by a tech executive I had never heard of.
All I remember was an earring.
My mother, in her goodness, gave me a pair of beautiful earrings that she wore a lot. Having lost her mother too young to cancer, shaped forever by that loss, she made a choice to pass along her belongings in good health and not when she was gone. She wanted her cherished gifts to be given in a moment of joy instead of as a result of a moment of sorrow. I put on the earrings for my last big night out before graduation and late in the evening, reached to my ear while telling a friend the story of such a precious gift. And lo and behold – one of the earrings was gone.
I panicked. I dragged a friend to retrace my footsteps, walking from south of Washington Square Park up Fifth Avenue and back again. I went back to the party, grappling with how I would tell my mother the news on graduation day. My heart was sinking, my head was down, and just as the evening was coming to an end – I caught a little sparkle on the floor. Wedged below the X shaped legs of the table was the earring.
Memory is a funny thing. Why was that recollection of graduation so much more significant than any other and why have I held on to it over all these years more than the others? Was it the fear that sat in my heart when I thought the earring was gone? The memory of such a deep parental, layered love that inspired such a gift? What makes a mark on our psyche – and what slips away?
It’s an apt question for this moment in time, and one I’ve been considering a lot on your behalf lately. You sit here at this magic, holy moment and are hopefully doing some reflecting on the past years, full of memories. I highly doubt any of you began your time on-campus and thought we’d end it here. When you are a partner or a parent or a rememberer of these moments of your life one day, what will you share? The hopeful start or the weird finish? The college life interrupted or the silence when you likely thought there’d be much joyful noise?
Many of us might look at our history and assume it is marked and finished, put in the past with no chance to change it. But if I’ve learned anything from being a proud Jew, it is not that memory is a passive set of experiences that are either with us or not. To remember is to make an intentional and powerful choice. We have a whole holiday each spring, filled with matzah and a commandment to remember. We recall our sad history of Europe and are told, NEVER FORGET. We remember our ancestors when we choose names for our children, remember our creation story when we light Shabbat candles each week. We choose to remember and how to remember every day of our Jewish lives.
I remember taking a pottery class as a child and to begin, the teacher would get out a string that looked a lot like dental floss. She would chop off a chunk of fresh clay and hand it over, ready for me to dig my little fingers into. Much like that clay, memory is moldable. You can tell future generations of the loss or of the gain, of the sorrow or of the pain. Many of you will look back at this time and choose to see a lot of sadness, a lot of moments that could have been. The semester abroad that didn’t see it’s natural end, the in-person meetings with professors that might have shaped your professional trajectory, the love affair or internship or graduation on the Mall that never was.
Others will look at this collegiate moment as one of deep clarity. The excesses of existence were stripped away, the pressure-filled moments that never had to be. You will remember your bubble, your cherished family, to never take for granted the simple joy of a hug with one you’ve missed.
Today, I want to ask you to not just remember with intention but to do so with a complex heart, as this lesson of memory is what the world needs from you now. Don’t force yourself to remember only the happy stuff, sweeping your sadness from these days under the rug. And don’t just feel horrible that you missed so much, for we all also gained so much growth from this moment. Choose to not just look back on this time in your life with an intentional heart, but also with an open one. Let all the good and all the bad be true, living beside one another.
Pain and loss are a deep teacher of growth, as is Joy a deep teacher of gratitude. This bifurcated world you are inheritors of NEEDS you to be uncomfortable in grey spaces, to embrace with vulnerable hearts and open minds that life can be sad and happy all at once. I choose to remember that earring so clearly because it was filled with the love of my mother and the fear of disappointing her, with the joy of a lifecycle moment and the knowledge of a careless mistake. My memory of graduation is not a memory of a perfect, Insta-worthy moment; the most important of our memories rarely are. It is an honest assessment of the love I’m surrounded with, of luck and privilege, of my mess-ups and my victories. Your memories have been, and your life will continue to be full and imperfect, and I pray it should always stay that way – teaching you along the way.
I recently learned with Donniel Hartman, who spoke about the myth of stability. In our every day lives of plenty, we do not question our very existence. But crisis invites us to think critically about who we want to be, the gift of crisis at our door. I simply cannot think of any graduating class more prepared to encounter this world. Your chuppah glass was cracked this year, your wine cup at Passover slightly spilled. You saw George Floyd and far too many Covid deaths and you’re seeing the Middle East on fire – and still, we are blessedly, gratefully, here to celebrate. It is all true and it is yours to make what you want with it. I pray you show yourself grace, you hold yourself accountable, and you do your part to make the world a better place. On behalf of our Hillel staff, your loving parents and siblings, those who love and cherish you – we couldn’t be prouder.