Yizkor

Yizkor

A few days ago, one of my favorite bloggers, Rachel Mankowitz, posted a poignant piece about the Mourner’s Kaddish.  In the Jewish faith, this is a hymn of praise to God recited in synagogue by the recently bereaved.

I particularly enjoyed Rachel’s post in light of the fact that I have recently been thinking about Yizkor, the Memorial Service for the Departed that we Jews read at certain times of year in honor of lost loved ones.  The word yizkor is generally translated as “remembrance,” derived as it is from the Hebrew verb yizakher, “to remember.”

Unlike the Mourner’s Kaddish, the Yizkor prayer directly addresses our relationship with family members who have passed on.  My Hebrew is not very good, but the English translation mentions the fond memories of times we have shared together and the influence that our loved ones have had on our lives.  Specifically, the prayer refers to the ways in which the sterling qualities of those whom we have lost have inspired us to reach for the ideals for which they stood.

As a child, I was always told to step out of the sanctuary when the Yizkor prayer was being read.  It is a very sad prayer indeed, and I can certainly understand why some of us choose to insulate children from death, particularly references to the idea of the eventual deaths of their moms and dads.  Later, as an adult, I learned that many congregations subscribe to a tradition of having all those with two living parents step out during the Yizkor prayer.  Not just children, mind you, but adults as well.  Even old curmudgeons like myself who still have both father and mother.

On the other hand, I have listened to some rabbis pooh-pooh this tradition, encouraging congregants of all ages to participate in the Yizkor prayer.  Even the young among us have some distant relative or friend who has died, right?  And then, of course, we can always remember the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust.

A few weeks ago, we celebrated the holiday of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement and our holiest day of the year.  It is a very solemn occasion on which we completely abstain from eating and drinking (even water) for more than 24 hours.  In addition to listing our sins, asking God for forgiveness and vowing to do better in the coming year, we think about the poor, the lost and lonely in our communities from whom we have turned away despite their desperate need of our help.  One effect of fasting is seeing what it feels like to be hungry, at least for one day.

Traditionally, we spend the entire day in the synagogue praying on Yom Kippur.  Around the middle of the service, after the Torah reading, we take a break to say the Yizkor prayer.  We not only think of family and friends who played important roles in our lives in years gone by, but we also acknowledge that we ourselves are headed the same way, sooner or later to fade into history.  The idea is that we shouldn’t think so highly of ourselves when we all end up moldering in the grave.

My father, who is either an agnostic or an atheist (depending on whom you ask), despises organized religion and despairs when he is reluctantly dragged to synagogue by my mother on Yom Kippur and other holidays.  This year, my mother reported, he was delighted that she agreed to stay home because they both had bad colds and they didn’t want to end up sicker.  In past years, my father would spend a short time in the sanctuary (perennially dressed in shorts, much to my mother’s dismay), then head outside to sit in a folding chair between the front door and the kids’ playground.  Before long, he’d be fast asleep.  One year, when I was down in the Central Valley visiting with my parents for the holidays, the rabbi came out and asked my father why he had left the service during the Yizkor prayer.  “Surely both your parents are not still alive!” he said incredulously.  Dad explained that it is true that his father is no longer with us, but that he was well loved and respected by all who knew him, lived a long life, and would not appreciate people saying prayers for him.  My father spoke the truth.  My grandfather harbored an even greater aversion to organized religion than my father does.  In fact, Grandpa used to make fun of me any time I donned a yarmulke or said a blessing over the food.  He felt it was all a bunch of hocus-pocus.

This year, I spent Rosh Hashannah (Jewish New Year) with my parents, but was unable to travel to be with them for Yom Kippur due to having to work the day before and the day after.  Attending synagogue in a suburb of Sacramento, I left the sanctuary during the Yizkor prayer in accordance with the tradition in which I grew up.

Even without the Yizkor prayer, I couldn’t help thinking about family.  My grandmother died when Mom was still in her twenties.  Dad, however, had his father until the age of 62 and his mother (who died following a fall at the age of 97) until he was 73.  As fortunate as he was, and as lucky as I am to still have both parents, I can’t help recognizing the fact that I am rapidly approaching those ages myself.  And as the strains of the Yizkor wafted out of the open door of the sanctuary, I found myself thinking of how many more Yom Kippurs are left before I, too, will stand and face the holy ark with my little paperbound copy of the Book of Remembrance and tears streaming down my face.

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A Prayer of Thanks

What is your family’s Thanksgiving tradition for giving thanks at the table?  Do the assembled family and friends bow their heads while one person says a prayer?  Do you have everyone hold hands in an unbroken chain while grace is said?  Do you go around the table and have everyone describe what he or she is thankful for this year?  Or do you dispense with the formalities and just dig in as soon as the turkey is carved?

As a moderately observant Jew, I come from a tradition where there is a blessing for everything.  Although the Hebrew prayers over different types of food were ingrained in me as a child, I did not begin saying an English language prayer over meals until after I got married and my wife started to encourage this.  I was delighted, but this meant that I had to come up with some brief, appropriate words to use for the occasion.

The blessing that I now use before we eat is pretty much the same on Thanksgiving as it is on any other day.  The only difference for a special occasion is that I might add a reference to my appreciation of particular individuals among us, particularly if we have been blessed by the presence of one or more honored guests.

My basic prayer goes something like this:  “Thank you, Lord, for the food we are about to receive and for the many gifts you have bestowed upon us.  Thank you for the blessings of our home, our health and our family.  Thank you for all your help at my job.  And thank you for all the work you do in our lives every day.  Amen.”

Admittedly, it’s a fairly plain vanilla prayer.  But I think it covers the important things.  Of course, if a particular family issue happens to be going on at the moment, I feel free to add a divine request for the complete recovery of a sick person (I still get an incredible kick when my wife refers to this by its Hebrew name, refu’ah shlemah), the safety of one who is away on a trip or the success of someone at school or work.

Among my favorite things about this prayer is the “innocuous factor.”  Over the many years that I have been saying this blessing (including in public), I have never heard anyone object to it on religious grounds.  I believe it reflects the gratitude that we all feel, regardless of one’s faith or lack thereof.  Who isn’t grateful for having a roof over his or her head, food in his or her stomach, a loving family and meaningful work?  As one who recently suffered through a year of unemployment, this last one hits close to home for me.  “Establish the work of our hands for us — yes, establish the work of our hands.”  Ps. 90:17 (NIV)

I suppose an atheist might object to this blessing, but then any type of prayer at all might be offensive to one who prefers that I do not address the Lord.  There’s not much I can do about that.

True, some Christians might object that I make no reference to Jesus, but everyone is of course free to add the flavor of their religious preferences at the end.  All I ask is that those assembled remain respectfully silent for the 30 seconds or so that it takes me to pray over our food.  I have never experienced anyone doing otherwise.  Some dirty looks from fellow diners in restaurants, yes.  The occasional flummoxed server who brings over the iced tea at just the moment that I am praying and doesn’t quite know how to behave, sure.  There will always be those who will roll their eyes at the holy roller over there.  And there will always be those who believe that praying over the food is a quaint relic of the past that has little relevance today.

Thankfully, many of us realize that, in these difficult times, prayer arguably has more relevance than ever.  And fortunately, gratitude is a universal language that all of us can understand.

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Something Good About Facebook

My wife and I are sitting at a gray Formica top table in the tiny diner that we always seem to find our way back to, the one with the black-and-white diamond parquet floor, a vague nod to the middle America of the mid-20th century.  We already know what’s on the menu, but we listlessly take a cursory glance anyway.  The only thing that’s changed over the years is the prices.

I order a salad with oil and vinegar (no croutons) and a baked potato — no butter, no sour cream.

“You want it plain?” the server asks quizzically, uncertain whether she didn’t hear right or whether I’ve lost my mind.

“Yes, please.”

The salad consists of a small pile of lettuce in the center of a glass plate, flanked by two cherry tomatoes and two slices of cucumber.  The gold and red shakers that are my salad dressing appear in their little silver holder.  We bow our heads and say grace.  We are quiet about it and most often no one notices.  Occasionally, out of the corner of an eye, we catch someone at a neighboring table gawking or making a whispered remark to his or her dining companion.  But we’ve been doing this for years and we’ve long ago ceased to care what anyone thinks.

We each have our iPhones out, swiping and scrolling at our tiny screens in between bites.  Watching us seated next to each other but bent over our phones, seemingly transfixed by the characters and images, people often get the wrong impression.  They don’t understand what they are seeing any more than they understand what they are hearing when we pray over our food.  We are not holy rollers, but we do worship God, and not the god of technology either.  We are not using our phones to avoid talking with one another, nor are we using them to text each other about the garish outfit of the woman sitting alone near the door or about the bratty kid misbehaving at the next table.  Quite the contrary, our phones have become the source of subject matter that has made for some of our most interesting conversations.  The medium of choice?  Facebook.

My wife has an account on Facebook; I do not.  I was once on Facebook for a spell, before backing away about four years ago.  For a little while, I had been thrilled with the prospect of keeping in touch with former coworkers, former subordinates, college acquaintances whom I hadn’t spoken to or thought about in 30 years, and all those “people you might know” — mostly members of churches that my wife attended as a teenager.  My initial enthusiasm waned as I became increasingly disappointed with everyone I knew on Facebook, most especially myself.  I find it convenient to say that what finalized the divorce between me and Facebook were the profanity-ridden, hateful comments posted by my nieces and nephews.  I like to say that I was tired of feeling as if I were back in junior high, a voyeur to an endless stream of bickering and vitriol.  But I know better.  That wasn’t it.  It was me!  I could no longer tolerate the way I had begun to treat Facebook as a talisman, the first thing I did when I opened my eyes in the morning and the last thing I did before going to bed at night.  I was so embarrassed with the way that I had allowed myself to be sucked into entirely too many games on Facebook.  And I became disenchanted with the superficial quality of my online relationship with people whom I barely knew, and in some cases, never knew.

These days, I take every opportunity to point out the downside of Facebook.  My wife says that my antipathy toward Facebook is no different than my promotion of vegetarianism; in both cases, I act as if I am better than everyone else.  She’s right, of course.  I do tend to harbor a rather smug attitude.  But I also believe that it is everyone’s right to pick his or her poison.  Although I no longer waste my time on Facebook, I now waste it on other things (like what I’m doing right now, for instance).

In spite of the above, I am pleased to relate that my wife and I have found a use for Facebook that we can both agree on.  And it is this in which we were engaged at the little table in the diner as we munched our dinners.

First, my wife opened her Facebook feed and passed me her phone so I could read about what’s going on with several members of our family.  This led to discussions about nieces and nephews, our little grandniece and upcoming plans.

Then she flipped to a screen on which she showed me a photo of a little old lady at a sewing machine, explaining her devotion to the charitable organization Little Dresses for Africa.  This is a woman who spends her time making one dress per day for penniless African children.  She hopes to reach a total of 1,000 dresses by the date of her upcoming 100th birthday.

But not all the stories that my wife shares with me from Facebook are so encouraging.  Next, she showed me the photo of a grisly auto wreck in our former hometown of Fresno.  Apparently, a woman strung out on meth had stolen a car and ran a red light, crashing into three vehicles.  26-year old Matthew Harkenrider was killed on his way to work as a radiology technician at a local hospital.  He had recently graduated and purchased a house; his wife had announced her pregnancy that very day.  Then my wife showed me the Go Fund Me campaign taken up for the man’s widow, an effort that has already raised thousands of dollars.

Whether inspiring or tragic, family-related or world news, my wife has probably read about it on Facebook.  And she shares it with me on her iPhone over a meal at a little diner, often leading to some of our deepest conversations.

And that tells me that there is indeed still something good about Facebook.

On Seeking Forgiveness in a Mexican Restaurant

Earlier this week, friends of ours drove out from Los Angeles to provide new homes for our big screen TV and our antique china cabinet.  We are moving 641 miles north at the end of this week and “everything must go.”

I thought it was cool when our friends texted my wife a photo of the china cabinet in its new location in their house.  It’s a little easier to say goodbye to an old friend when you have a visual of it settled comfortably into its new digs.

We took our friends to dinner during their overnight visit, which also afforded us an opportunity to say goodbye to our favorite little Mexican restaurant here in town.  Husband, who pastors a church in the South Bay, sat across from me as we tucked into our burritos, tacos and chile rellenos.  Wife began gushing over the delicious Rosh Hashannah dinner that her beloved prepared a few weeks ago, complete with all the traditional dishes and the traditional blessings.  This was a bit awkward, as I’ve been a practicing Jew for more than half a century, and I am not familiar with any traditional Rosh Hashannah dishes other than tizmmes and apples dipped in honey.  I also don’t know of any traditional Rosh Hashannah blessings beyond “l’shannah tovah” and “may you be recorded in the Book of Life.”  The blessing to which she referred had something to do with salvation, she told me.  Salvation?  Hmm, primarily a Christian concept, I responded.  She reminded me of the salvation that occurred when we were freed from slavery at the hands of the Egyptians.  True, I said, although I don’t normally think of the Exodus in terms of “salvation.”

I have never associated the concept of salvation with Rosh Hashannah, but perhaps that is a way of establishing a connection that would make our holiday more relevant to Christians.  To me, the concept of salvation is inextricably entwined with Jesus, who, let’s face it, sought to “save” the people from many of the very things that we Jews hold dear.

What really took me aback, however, was when husband brought up Yom Kippur.  “Did you afflict your soul?” he asked.

Why, yes, I did, I answered.  I suspect his question was asked with sincerity, although (at least to me) it came off as tinged with sarcasm at the time.  I have to assume that, as he is a pastor, he was not attempting to belittle my beliefs.  But if he was trying to make me think, it worked.

This was one of only a handful of times that my rear end was not planted firmly in a seat in synagogue for most of the day on Yom Kippur.  Being our holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur is a time when I generally find my way into shul regardless of where my wanderings take me.  Out here in the desert, however, it’s not so easy.  Two years ago, we trekked to makeshift services in a hotel ballroom 2½ hours away in the Phoenix area.  Last year, we attended Rosh Hashannah services in San Luis Obispo on the central coast and Yom Kippur services in Palm Springs.  With no Jews to speak of in our little desert oasis, our choices consist of either traveling or making do.  This year, there was no way for me to get out of work early enough to travel, eat before the fast and still make Kol Nidre services.  So the “make do” option was the order of the day.

This meant that I sat on the sofa in our living room (our beautiful red sofa, now sold… did I mention that I hate moving?) with my mahzor and, wearing my frayed purple kippa, spending hours chanting the Yom Kippur service.  Just like in shul, I stood for as much of the Shmonah Esrei (silent devotion) as my back and knees would allow.  The remainder of the service I chanted aloud, alternating between the Hebrew and the English, doing my best to correctly pronounce the bits that are in ancient Aramaic.  My wife sat in the chair opposite me as I droned on for hours in a language that means nothing to her.  God bless her for being so patient with me.

My favorite part of the Yom Kippur service has long been the reading of the Biblical book of Jonah, which we do late in the afternoon.  Before we reach that point, however, we recite the vidui, the ancient formula for the confession of sins, over and over during various parts of the service.  Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu (we have been guilty, we have betrayed, we have stolen), and on and on goes the list of our transgressions.  Whether I recite this in the Hebrew or the English, it makes me feel dirty.  Positively filthy with sin.  It’s like a physical thing; I imagine sin covering me with a sticky stink as if I had just stumbled out of a miasmic swamp.

And indeed, I have.  The miasmic swamp is our day-to-day lives in which we are more concerned about ourselves than about others, in which we “do what we have to do” to get ahead, crushing the spirits of those upon whose backs we tread without a thought.  The vidui ends with “we have gone astray, we have led others astray,” as poignant an indictment of our misdeeds as one could imagine.  The fact that we have debased ourselves to every kind of sin should be bad enough.  But let us not forget that every action in which we engage, every word that we speak, consciously or unconsciously influences others.  Someone, sooner or later, is going to follow our example.  Because that’s what we, as human beings, do.

The Avinu Malkeinu (“our father, our king”) is the other prayer that I have trouble with.  This lengthy list of our personal failings goes on for two pages of printed text and never ceases to get me choked up with emotion.  For the sin which we have committed in spurning parents and teachers.  (My parents are about to celebrate their eightieth birthday.  How much longer are they going to be around?  Why don’t I give them more attention?)  For the sin which we have committed in speaking guile.  (I am not known for holding my tongue, or my keyboard for that matter.  When am I going to learn to speak more kindly, to recognize my employees for the little miracles they create every day, to tell my wife how much I love her more often?)  For the sin which we have committed in eating and drinking.  (I can’t even begin to enumerate my sins on this score.  But since Yom Kippur I have (mostly) kept my resolution to eat a more healthy diet, so perhaps there is hope for me yet.)

The final verse of Avinu Malkeinu is sung in unison by the congregation, a moving plea to the Almighty to forgive our human frailities and to give us another chance to be the better people we are capable of being rather than executing the severe decree that we so justly deserve.  I love the tune of this particular hymn, but I can’t get to the end of it without my voice cracking.  I am overcome with emotion every time.

So I think I was telling our friends the truth when I answered that yes, I did afflict my soul on Yom Kippur.  I only wish I had taken time to go into the details of the vidui and the Avinu Malkeinu so that my response didn’t sound so facile.

Yom Kippur may seem like an anachronism to some, but I am one of those who take its message personally.  Which, of course, is what Yom Kippur is all about.  But suffice it to say that it is difficult to explain this adequately in a Mexican restaurant over chile rellenos.  And I can’t begin to fathom how I might translate this message into terms that would be meaningful to a committed Christian.

 

The Last Day of the Year

Elul

In the coming year we will sit on the porch
and watch the flocks of migrating birds
Children on vacation
will be merrily running between the house and the fields
Oh, how wonderful life will be in the coming year!

                                   — Approximate translation of the Hebrew folk song Od Tireh

Today is the last day of the Hebrew month of Elul and hence the last day of the Jewish year.  And just as on December 31, the close of one year and the start of another leaves me in a reflective and introspective state of mind.

Most of us approach the new year with a sense of hope and anticipation.  We like to think of the new year as a clean slate, a fresh opportunity to do better, reach higher, love stronger.  But I recently became aware that, just as many approach the Christmas holidays with a sense of dread and even depression, not everyone enjoys Rosh Hashannah.  For some of us, the apples and the honey, the singing and the shofar and the big holiday se’udot (dinners) just don’t cut it.

One reason for this, I believe, is that if taken seriously, the High Holy Days can be an emotional roller coaster.  Rather than engaging in the riotous merrymaking and drinking of 12/31, on Rosh Hashannah we very somberly admit to our shortcomings, try to figure out where we went wrong and commit ourselves to making changes that will help to make us into the people we really want to be.

Admittedly, this is not exactly fun!  If we are honest, for example, about how we have wasted our time and money, or about some of the awful things we have said and done to those we supposedly love, it can be difficult to look in the mirror.  Everyone wants to think the best of themselves; none of us wants to admit that we’ve done wrong.  Wouldn’t we have a lot better time if we were to play dance music, drink champagne, scream and shout and kiss at midnight?  What is wrong with this type of behavior is that it is geared to help us forget our troubles, not to do something about them.  Inevitably, morning comes and we’ve gained nothing but a hangover.

But why beat ourselves up?  We are not evil people who deliberately set out to do wrong.  Sure, we mess up from time to time.  We’re human.  Can’t we just accept that we’re not perfect?

The answer is that God accepts that we are not perfect.  But since we are made in His image, He also recognizes that we could be much closer to perfection than we are today.  So you’ve made mistakes?  Yes, the Lord forgives, but not so that we can forget about it and then make the same dumb mistakes again.  He forgives so that we can move on, remember where we went wrong before, and do better the next time.  God accepts that we are works in progress, but He does expect us to actually make some progress.  Saying “oh well, I did the best I could” is not acceptable.

So, yes, soul searching is not exactly a source of kicks and giggles. What we are called upon to remember is that God knows all and sees all; nothing can be hidden from Him.  We may as well admit the error of our ways, as they are already known by He who determines our fate.  And indeed, the reason that our holiday season is known as yomim naro’im, The Days of Awe, is that in the Jewish tradition, “on Rosh Hashannah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.”  In between these two holidays are ten days of prayer and repentance.  The “eraser” is still in play; the Lord has pity on us when we are honest about our misdeeds and genuinely commit to turning our lives around.  In the liturgy, we pray that “repentance, prayer and charity avert the severe decree.”  God believes in second (and 128th) chances.  But if we are hard-hearted, aver that we have not done wrong and refuse to change our ways, then we have only ourselves to blame when the fate decreed for us in the new year is grim indeed.

The end of the Biblical book of Deuteronomy that we read at this season riffs heavily on the theme of choices and free will.  God has given us the ability to choose whether to do right or to do wrong.  Whichever path we take, we must accept the consequences.  For we are also choosing whether to bring the blessing or the curse into our lives.  If we close our eyes to the suffering around us, ignore the needy and the lonely in our communities, make excuses for not giving liberally of our time and our money, then we have willingly given up the blessing and have no one to blame but ourselves when our prosperity and security comes crashing down around our ears.

I do understand why the gravity of our holiest of seasons makes some people depressed and causes others to dislike Rosh Hashannah.  Yet if we vow to correct our mistakes and to improve on what we’ve done right, we have nothing to fear.  It is then that we can, as in the Hebrew folksong quoted at the start of this post, bring peace, contentment and happiness into our lives all year long.

Hag sameakh and may you be inscribed in the Book of Life for a sweet and fulfilling year.