When I stepped through the doors of my old high school, I felt as though nothing had changed. I walked down those same halls, passed the classrooms that were once my own, and waved to old, familiar faces. Everything was the same, and for a moment I felt myself slipping back into the past.
As I looked around, I instinctively felt shocked that I wasn’t heading to class like the other students, that I wasn’t still a part of this world but instead a visitor. The physical reminder that I had moved on was only slightly jarring; for the most part, I was thrilled. I was reminded of my new life, of my future, and I felt grateful that I had moved forward to such an exciting next step, one filled with opportunity and promise. Yet standing in the halls of my high school, I still felt a true connection: a sense of belonging that could not be denied.
The mingling of past and present that I confronted over winter break was unexpected. I have always been careful to establish a clear distinction between where I am and where I am going. I attended a Jewish day school from 1st grade to 12th, and my education was unique: I received an extraordinary dual education of both secular and Judaic studies, acquiring fluency in Hebrew and a comprehensive understanding of the Bible. My Jewish education shaped my life for 13 years; it was invaluable to my growth, and I knew that I would always carry it with me.
Yet as my high school education drew to a close and I began to plan my future, I focused on what was next. I took advantage of the opportunity to fill in the spaces that I felt were still blank to seek out an expansion of my intellectual and social horizons, and to experiment beyond the world in which I had grown up. In comparison to the time and thought that I dedicated to the expansion of my world, I gave my current world surprisingly little attention. I was so focused on all that I had yet to do that I began to set aside what I had already done, not fully comprehending the crucial connection between the two.
When I finally entered the college world, opportunities to use my past knowledge and experience jumped out at me everywhere I looked. As I began to take advantage of these opportunities I also began to understand the beauty of doing so. I studied Hebrew literature, shared my personal experiences in conversations about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and became a part of the Jewish community on campus.
I realized that none of these actions detracted from my commitment to expanding my horizons. My ability to inject my own unique voice into this greater, diverse community did not minimize my ability to be a part of that very community. On the contrary, by incorporating my past experiences with my present ones, I gained the ability to enrich both worlds that much further. I have been able to reevaluate past perspectives on the basis of my new experiences and to utilize my past endeavors to add a unique point of view to current conversations.
My past has informed my present, and my present has informed my past. Yet this close relationship between then and now seems unnatural to many of us at times. We live in the generation of “next.” Our attention is always on the next accomplishment, the next goal, the future. We are forward-thinking, and we value innovation and progress. These goals are undoubtedly noble, but as we focus all of our energy on pursuing them, we are at risk of forgetting that honoring our individual pasts, and the past in general, does not threaten these ideals. By drawing upon past thought and experience we become better-equipped to engage with current issues. Whether we view our backgrounds as positive or negative, they have brought us to where we are today, and for this reason they will always remain relevant.
The pasts that we honor should extend beyond those of our own physical experiences to encompass personal histories and family legacies. Though the experiences of our ancestors may seem inapplicable to present-day issues, they influence our lives in tremendous ways. By learning about and respecting our unique histories, we not only protect the legacy of worlds that may soon dissipate from collective memory; we also contribute a point of view to current conversation that may very well be particular to us, a unique understanding that only we can express.
The concept of the “generation gap” has become all too popular. We are convinced that there are insurmountable differences between generations. This mindset prevents us from making the most of our opportunities to learn from those who are more experienced than ourselves and whose stories provide insight that is crucial to our successful navigation of the present.
The feeling that enveloped me as I stood in the halls of my old high school was not simply nostalgia. It was a very real sense of the relevance of my experiences inside that building to my life beyond it. I was not a guest; I never would be. Now, as I mentally translate the Hebrew and Yiddish phrases in my Jewish history reading for this week, aware that I am unique in my ability to do so, I feel proud. I am honoring my family, my historical legacy, and my own personal past; yet, at the same time, I am enriching my present.