Main content

Forms of Memory

Rabbi Shoshana Boyd Gelfand examines our differing forms of memory, collective and individual, and explores the role of memory in helping us construct our identities.

Rabbi Shoshana Boyd Gelfand examines our differing forms of memory, collective and individual.

Citing the work of neuroscientist Steven Rose, who states "lose your memory and you, as you, cease to exist", Shoshana discusses the identity crisis sparked by memory failure resulting from medical conditions.

We hear the words of Oliver Sacks who described a patient with a memory span of five minutes. We also hear Shoshana emotionally recounting the story of how her father, once a radiologist, now sits at home reading his own scans which document the slow deterioration of his brain due to Alzheimer's.

While individual memory is clearly vital to the construction of identity, there is another deeper collective memory available to us. Shoshana argues that, in addition to our personal history, we can seemingly tap into larger shared narratives of love, faith, art and spirit.

Collective memory underlies many of the rituals that we use to transmit our shared values through the generations. One of the best examples of this is the Passover Seder, a dramatic retelling of the Exodus story. Every year on the eve of Passover, Jews gather to re-enact the very first Passover when the Jewish people fled from Ancient Egypt.

The Exodus is only one of many expressions of collective remembering in religious tradition. Christians remember the resurrection on Easter Day, Muslims re-enact Mohammed's journey when they go on pilgrimage to Mecca, Hindus recall the victory of light over darkness on Diwali. Shoshana argues that one of the great powers of religious traditions is that they allow us to access these collective memories.

Presenter: Shoshana Boyd Gelfand
Producer: Max O'Brien
A TBI Media production for BBC Radio 4.

18 days left to listen

28 minutes

Music Played

  • The Kingston Trio

    Try To Remember

  • Ilan Eshkeri


  • David Gray


  • Jim Croce

    Photographs and Memories

  • Rabbi Reuven Frankel

    Avadim Hayinu

  • Paul Robeson

    Go Down Moses

  • Victoria Clark and Howard McGillin

    I Remember it Well


Title: The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat


Author: Oliver Sacks


Publisher: Picador



Title: Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything


Author: Joshua Foer


Publisher: Penguin



Title: The Gates of the Forest


Author: Elie Wiesel


Publisher: Schockem