Each week, Jewish tradition teaches us to “remember the Sabbath day.” Four times a year, we are instructed to recite Yizkor, a prayer of remembrance that honors family members who have died. Every Passover, we are asked to retell the story of the Exodus from Egypt as if we ourselves were being freed from slavery. Every direction you turn in Jewish tradition leads to some sort of memory or remembrance, including the holiday we celebrate around this time of year, Chanukah. Memory, whether personal or collective, seems to be a central feature of Jewish practice.

For a people who has been threatened or persecuted so many times over history, keeping the memories alive enables us to move into the future with hope and optimism, as well as caution that we don’t repeat mistakes of the past. Memory brings meaning to the story of the Jewish people, whether we were physically there to be a part of it or not. But how does memory work? Why are we able to feel a connection to ancestors from long ago that gives our tradition meaning? How can looking at science and religion in tandem help us to create more memories moving forward, memories that engage individuals, transform communities, and add meaning to our lives? 

Many of us can recall specific memories from our childhoods. But explaining how those memories get encoded into our brains, and then accessed for years to come, often confuses us. Modern neuroscience offers potential answers to that broad question, both in terms of the physical changes occurring within the brain when memories form, and then the prime conditions under which we recall a specific piece of information.

This vast field offers a rich opportunity for exploring scientific biomedical advances and practice, ranging from the minute changes happening to molecules inside of brain cells like neurons and glia, to the psychology of memory. For example, one phenomenon named “state-dependent memory” shows that recalling the physical or psychological environment during which a memory was formed helps recall that memory much later.

This type of memory is directly relevant to our experiences of Chanukah. Latkes frying, Chanukiyot glimmering, dreidels spinning, sufganiyot filled with delicious jelly – each of these described memories includes a sensory experience. 

If you think again about the dreidels spinning or the heat and sounds of lighting the candles – the physicality of the action of striking the match or flipping on the lighter – you can see that there is a pairing between the memory and a physical experience. Hence, the sensations of candles burning, latkes frying, sufganiyot, and glimmering chanukiyot can all help trigger other memories associated with Chanukah celebrations, hopefully good things like the love of a family member, or the joy of celebrating the story of a memory of a miracle passed down from generation to generation (l’dor v’dor!) long before the birth of anyone eating latkes at that party!

Thus, Chanukah is not really about history per se, but more about positive memories and storytelling, paired with the sorts of experiences that would directly accentuate retention of those memories across time, to help them, in turn, to be passed down to the next generation. This example of the conjunction of Chanukah sensations and memory shows that if we understand even a little about the science behind memory formation and recall, then Jewish educators can creatively approach programming in our synagogue communities. In short, when in doubt, think about Chanukah (and a little bit of neuroscience) and pair the lesson with some sort of sensory or physical experience.  

(This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. Leah Citrin is Associate Rabbi at Temple Beth Or in Raleigh, NC, and John Meitzen is a professor in the department of biological sciences at North Carolina State University).