To the ancients, history was a blend of story, myth and deeds; facts were not really necessary, and were used only to add a bit of proof to the tale that was being told. Accordingly, Achilles was a real person who fought at Troy – and the gods could talk to people and direct their actions.
Greek historian Herodotus used stories to describe the peoples of faraway countries. In the Middle Ages, magic had a large presence in history. In the medieval mystery “Play of Daniel,” an angel picks up the prophet Habbakuk and brings him to Daniel in the lion’s den, where Habbakuk gives Daniel lunch (which was supposed to be for Habbakuk’s workers!). Even in the Age of Reason, Zacchia, physician to the pope in the mid-1600s, ascribed certain cures to miracles, while referencing Galen and Hippocrates.
In our modern age, history is a collection of “facts ” (although we know that much of what is on the internet is really fiction).
No matter your place on the timeline, history is anything that occurred before today. Julius Caesar, writing in the Gallic Wars, used the phrase patrum nostrorum memoria, “in the memory of our fathers,” to describe how far back personal history extended. For him, that was up to 60 years prior to his life; for us, it can be even further in the past, perhaps 90 years ago.
With that definition, some of us view history as ending around World War I; for others, it might be the Great Depression of the 1930s or World War II.
Our children and grandchildren might view the end of history as the Vietnam War, or even the Gulf War (it is interesting to note that we often date things from wars or other upheavals, not from pleasant events). Regardless of where we see history ending, we consider anything after that date as modern or current events.
But history is all around us. Here in Rhode Island, we see history at every turn: From the Colonial period, in the Touro Synagogue in Newport; to the oldest Providence synagogue still in use today, the Sons of Jacob Synagogue on Douglas Avenue; to Temple Sinai, built in 1963 in Cranston. The Jewish cemeteries in Rhode Island, such as Mosshasuck in Central Falls and Lincoln Park in Warwick, are wonderful openings into the past.
At the Rhode Island Jewish Historical Association, we view history as everything that has happened up until today. Perhaps Judy Collins says it best in “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow”:
Yesterday is gone, it’s all remember-when
Yesterday is past, it never comes again
….For yesterday’s tomorrow has become today
With that in mind, our mission at RIJHA is to keep knowledge of all periods alive and well.
When RIJHA was founded in 1951, history was the late 19th and early 20th centuries; what happened in the 1950s wasn’t history, but rather “today.”
For us now, in 2017, 1951 is history, as are the 1960s and 1970s, and, in fact, everything right up through yesterday.
We each have a unique role to play in preserving and honoring our history. If you have artifacts or papers from your family that relate to the Jewish experience in Rhode Island from any period, we would love to see them. After all, very soon, today will be history!
RUTH BREINDEL is president of Rhode Island Jewish Historical Association.