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.