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Yizkor: Remembering Forgotten Stories

10/28/2022 01:01:17 PM


Rabbi Ezray

In a most recent Hadassah magazine article, journalist, and author Carol Saline writes poignantly about Yizkor. She writes that, “This will be the 41st time I’ve said these prayers for my father, the most important man in my life. He took me to parades and double-feature movies in two different theaters on the same afternoon. He instilled in me a love of books and language and a duty to give back to my community. He taught me to stand up straight. I’ve recited Yizkor 17 times for my mother, and I still want to call her every time I come home from a trip to report that I’ve returned safely. And for the last 12 years, I’ve prayed for my beloved baby sister. We had vowed to spend our old age in the same nursing home, side-by-side in our rocking chairs, but breast cancer prevented her from keeping her end of the bargain. Even after all these years, when the service ends, I will once again be sobbing into my very wet handkerchief, still surprised at how I can be overwhelmed by grief. How true it is that death ends a life, but it does not end a relationship.”

I read those words and could feel my eyes begin to tear up.  While I am blessed that my closest relatives are alive, I know the sadness of loss and grief, as I recount the precious memories of loved ones who I miss.  Lifting stories, character, and memories large and small, allows grief that is real to lift up. Lifting up grief creates bits of healing. On Yizkor we revisit these precious stories and being together in shared grief we strengthen one another.

This year I have lifted the prayer Unetane Tokef, interpreting it not as God deciding our fate based on behavior, but as our experiences and acts being a book that God opens and reads. The prayer asserts: V’tif’tach et sefer ha’zichronot–you open the book of remembrance, U’mai’alav tik’areh –and read from it, V’chotem yad kola dam bo–for our own hands have signed the page. A piece of the book we author, sealed by our hands, is full of memories of loved ones that empower, inspire and teach. The memories we hold onto to, or figuratively write about, are not always the same from moment to moment. Bruce Feiler writes in Life is in the Transitions: “Memories are breathing entities that change with each summoning.  Every time we recall a memory, we recall it in a slightly different way.”  The Book of Life each of us author is full of stories of loved ones; their impact, shared moments, longing, sadness.

As we allow memory to rise to the surface, pieces that may have been forgotten re-surface and makes the story and impact even more powerful.  There is another line in Unetane Tokef: v’tizkor kol ha’nish’ka’chot–you recall all that is forgotten.  Yizkor is a chance to recall that which has been forgotten, unearthing more and more memories that may be buried inside of us. Sometimes we need help with that; for those who lost loved ones when young, it is the stories of others that allows us to remember that which has been forgotten. And sometimes at Yizkor, stories and memories pop into our consciousness that we have forgotten were there. Recalling the forgotten gives Yizkor even more power. This year I tried an exercise to access that which had receded from my active memory. I wrote down the names of people I remember during Yizkor and allowed their stories and memories to sit in my heart for a while.  I found that my initial memories were the big things, but then little moments I had forgotten would come to me and it was moving. I found that as I opened my heart and mind to memories, people popped into my consciousness who were not even on my list. 

And there is another aspect to remembering that which has been forgotten. Sometimes as we think about the emotions a particular person brings up and feel the feelings connected to that emotion, either positive or negative, we allow new memories to surface because we have begun to deal with the emotions that override other memories which might emerge. This year let’s help memories surface. Let’s embrace the God-like behavior of, “remembering that which is forgotten.”

As we remember, we often re-shape, deepen, or celebrate pieces of our beloved who we are remembering. Over the years I have shared stories of our housekeeper Ann Sherrod with you, a beautiful woman who was like a second mother to us. Ann was righteous and gentle and loved us deeply. We knew it and felt it. I wrote Ann’s name down and memories flooded in, some I had not thought about in years. I remembered her ironing with a little transistor radio on the played gospel music. The memory became so vivid. Suddenly, I could hear the gospel music Ann would listen to and watch her sing along. The songs of her soul lifting a love of God touched me. Would that I could emulate such faith…

That memory brought up another memory of her funeral, where the pastor talked about how when the choir she sang in would burst into song praising God, you felt God’s presence filling the room. And the people in the room lifted their voices; “Hallelujah!”  I had remembered and recounted that as I gave a eulogy talking about Ann being on the train that carries the righteous and the holy, from a Limelighters song, that I was sure Ann was on it, and the Hallelujahs I received disoriented, excited, and affirmed me. I had forgotten the Hallelujah of God’s music filling the sanctuary as Ann’s choir sang. As I let forgotten memories emerge, the memory of those Hallelujahs filled my soul.

Forgotten memories cannot be forced. But creating space and time to allow the forgotten to emerge is a powerful addition to the book you will author this year.  It is a beautiful part of Yizkor. When we tell the stories of our loved ones, the blurry memories that emerge alongside the dominant memories that are always there, emerge. We etch new stories into the books we write that deeper the meaning and purpose of the book. We feel love. Our shared tears change us.

And I want to stretch this theme of allowing forgotten memories to emerge beyond the personal to the communal past. A piece of Yom Kippur is remembering the martyrs of the past so that their courage and values live through us. There is a specific prayer in the Yizkor service for martyrs. Let’s find people worthy of memory and take their stories into our hearts, sharing it with others and letting it live through us. The New York Times began a series called Overlooked No More, which brings obituaries of remarkable people, who for a variety of reasons, often because they were women, did not have their deaths reported in the Times. One obituary in the series was the extraordinary story of Regina Jonas. She was a religious pioneer: the first woman in Jewish history to hold the title of Rabbi. She was ordained in 1935, but her story was lost when she perished in Auschwitz at age 42.

Growing up in Berlin, Regina Jonas was not satisfied with the traditional gender roles she encountered as a young woman. She wanted to be a Rabbi at a time only men served as Rabbis. Listen to her words: “God planted in our hearts skills and a vocation without asking about gender. Therefore, it is the duty of men and women alike to work and create according to the skills given by God.” She wrote a thesis analyzing Jewish law about women becoming Rabbis, concluding that Jewish law allows women to serve as Rabbis and it was only custom and tradition that limited ordination to men. Luckily there was a Rabbi willing to ordain her, Rabbi Max Dienemann, and she became the first woman Rabbi in history.

She taught and inspired, an amazing teacher and orator. She never wanted to be a trailblazer and said in an interview: “For me it was never about being the first. I wish I had been the hundred thousandth!” Her life was tragically interrupted by World War II. Though given the opportunity, she chose not to leave Germany and instead felt called upon to remain. One quote about her said: “She wanted to stay where her people were, just like her teacher Rabbi Leo Baeck.” She was deported to Theresienstadt in November 1942 and worked to create humanity in the direst of circumstances. She greeted new arrivals as their trains pulled in, orienting and encouraging them. Her sermons urged prisoners to find meaning in their lives, even amidst the terror, thereby denying the Nazis the power to define Jewish life. 

She was deported to Auschwitz on October 12, 1944 and it is believed that she was killed that day. Let her important lessons touch our souls and inspire us to follow our calling, love the Jewish people, find courage and resilience in the face of adversity. Forgotten memories change us.

As we say prayers for our loved ones, try to allow forgotten memories to emerge. Let that work continue following this service. Think about members of this community who you may not have thought of in a while. Grieve their losses. Think about old friends. Carry and nurture their memories. Look at the prayer for martyrs that is part of the prayers and add in names like Regina Jonas. Let memories fill you hearts as we grieve and reflect. Let them be part of the extraordinary works of art that is the books we write that give us light, strength and inspiration.

Wed, December 7 2022 13 Kislev 5783