The space between | Scatter and remember: Jewish lessons for an endangered planet

Last month,just after the Pew Research Center’s study on American Jews came out, I was seated in the Berkeley Repertory Theatre auditorium, waiting to hear science and culture writer Annalee Newitz. She was a headliner for the inaugural Berkeley festival of ideas called Uncharted, and recently published a book called “Scatter, Adapt and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction.”

I was dubious about the premise of the book: Doesn’t extinction mean you don’t survive? But in her very short talk, which was more upbeat than most chats about the apocalypse, I began to understand her point. From a scientific perspective, mass extinction means a significant but not total destruction of Earthly life. And survival doesn’t mean passive acceptance of a new reality, but an active re-creation of sustainable life.

The real surprise came, though, when I read the book. And here I found that a template for future human survival is none other than Jewish history.

“When I was the youngest kid at Passover gatherings, I was given the job of reading some questions that are a crucial part of the prayers,” she writes about her Jewish-Methodist household in Southern California. The Four Questions, along with the odd, symbolic foods, didn’t compel her attention until she understood that “Passover had nothing to do with dinner, and everything to do with memory. … It’s become such an important ritual for Jews because the allegorical stories in Exodus mirror actual catastrophic events in Jewish history. The story of survival in the Bible became, in a sense, a template for survival in the real world.”

Although the bulk of her fascinating, lucid book focuses on the science of planetary change and the deep time of species adaptation, the lessons of the Jews appear again and again. And by highlighting the experiences of this one people — the quintessential scattering, adapting and remembering people — Newitz asks us to reconsider the space between death and survival, calling into question what we mean by both words.

Let’s take it one step at a time. Throughout Earth’s history, animals — including humans — have scattered and/or adapted because of changes in their environment, from cosmic rays to volcanoes to asteroids. Sometimes a majority of one kind of species perished; other times it’s the majority of species that disappeared. Newitz explains that over Earth’s history there have been many mass extinctions, defined as events (which could last millions of years) that wiped out “more than 75 percent of the species on Earth.”

In other words, even “mass extinction” doesn’t shut the door on life, something Jews in the post-Holocaust era understand. Newitz puts it simply about the Jews:  “They’ve survived several deadly episodes of persecution in part by scattering and escaping in the face of adversity, rather than allowing themselves to be extinguished.”

If the appearance of death prompts a scattering, then the promise of life comes from adapting and remembering. The link between these two, certainly for humans, is storytelling. Newitz explains that in ancient times the human ability to use “symbolic communication” — language that described poisonous plants, or directed people to safe havens — allowed them to accelerate new, more productive behaviors. Remembering how they survived, and turning those memories into stories, gave the next generation a leg up.

Apart from writing articles for the New Yorker, Washington Post and Wired, Newitz runs the blog io9, which explores science and science fiction. She brings these two interests together in her book, where she talks about the inevitable need for humans to move into outer space. Just as she asks readers to reflect on the “deep time” that created the world we now know, she wants us to consider the far future, in which a “space elevator” (already in a very early design phase) would ferry people and goods out of the Earth’s gravity much more easily than rockets.

Once again, Newitz points to the Jewish ability and willingness to wander rather than be “extinguished” as a model: “Just as Jewish communities managed to ensure their legacy by fleeing to new homes when they were in danger, so, too, can all of humanity,” by actively planning for space travel.

So if scattering, adapting and remembering is the Jewish lesson for the planet, what are the lessons of the planet for the Jews now? What is the difference, as Newitz describes humanity’s choice, between “survivalism and survival”?

Here’s the question she poses: “Before we understand the nuts and bolts of survival strategies … it’s important to take a short philosophical break and think about why we’re doing this in the first place. What is it that makes life worth saving? How do we hope to improve humanity over the next million years, and what would that look like?”

This, essentially, is the question brought to the surface by the Pew report. What is it that Judaism means, that we should work so hard to ensure its continuation? For some, “mass extinction” is only a slight exaggeration, at least for today’s formal Jewish institutions. As Rabbi Edward Feinstein said at the recent national convention of the Conservative movement: “The Pew report is an atomic weapon. There are so many details of that report that they make your hair curl. If we continue what we are doing, our house will burn down.”

By the same token, the study suggested a record number of Jews feel connected to, and positive about, Jewish life — despite decreasing affiliation with Jewish institutions, movements and traditional rituals. Jews may have scattered out of the ghetto and the synagogue, but they are adapting, and they are remembering. Extinction is still a long way off.

For the Pew Research Center 2013 Survey of U.S. Jews, see www.pewforum.org/2013/10/01/jewish-american-beliefs-attitudes-culture-survey.

Dan Schifrin

Dan Schifrin is a teacher, writer and creativity consultant in Berkeley.