The Names of Yizkor

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The names of my dead come to me at night. The women are always first: Anna, Corina, Gladys, Miriam C. and Miriam R. Grandmothers, aunts, the closest of friends. They’ve been gone a long time, some of them for decades, yet it feels as if they have vanished suddenly. I hope they have come back as stardust.

Memories of the men begin with Dennis and end with a jolt of Z for Ze’ev. In between are Jacobo, K. Harold, Mac and William. Father, grandfathers, uncle and friend. They band together to tick off the decades of my life. The initial K of my father’s name casts a long cool shadow in my life.

The Yizkor service, the service of remembrance, is a liturgy of names. The impromptu prayer book for Yizkor is a customized booklet of those names that congregants in a given synagogue have memorialized. These are the names of people who were loved or feared or even hated in their lifetimes.

Every year I read each of the names in the booklet, my lips moving slowly, deliberately, as if I’m praying. I did the equivalent in the wake of 9/11 when I read every victim’s short biography in the newspaper. Every life deserves intense concentration. On the first anniversary of 9/11 the names of all the dead were read out loud where the towers stood. It took hours, but was that enough to grieve for them?

In some ways, the Yizkor service is the ultimate one-size-fits-all ceremony. There are options in that service in the form of many fill-in-the-blanks. Check off if you’re mourning a mother, a father, a wife, a husband, a partner, a sister, a brother, a daughter, a son, other relatives or a friend. Anchoring that list is a blank space for “others.” So little space for so many people. Who are the “others?” Are they the people who populate our daily lives? Teachers, servers, commuters. Versions of us, versions of our families — people we might eventually notice were missing from the fabric of our days.

At its core, Yizkor means to remember. My dead walk out of my darkest dreams into the clarity of day. These spirits are the honor guard of my life. The first time I encountered Yizkor, it was an accident. My grandmother clamped down on my shoulder and told me to leave immediately. At that point, I had not known anyone who died. My grandmother’s superstition meant to protect me from death. Years later her spirit perches on my shoulder. She knows that I’ve been staying for the Yizkor service for over two decades.

Towards the end of Yizkor, mourners are asked to make room in their hearts to remember the martyrs and the six million. The heart is asked to expand again to remember all the dead. That’s when the service gets noisy. So many names to gather in the heart, so many names to whisper in ad hoc prayer. “Each of us has a name given by the stars and given by our neighbors,” writes the Israeli poet Zelda. When my father was dying, I indulged in the magical thinking of the rabbis and changed his Hebrew name. I did it so that my dad was hiding in plain sight from the angel of death. It’s not a physical image like blood on the door indicating that the angel “passes over” the household. Altering his name was a quiet game of hide-and-seek — a game the angel eventually won.

The Mourner’s Kaddish is the capstone of the Yizkor service. It’s a prayer for the dead that does not say a single word about death. Instead, God’s name is magnified and sanctified and exalted. All of God’s traditional names: Father, King, Master of the Universe, Divine Spirit (that one is feminine) indicate what I suspected all along: God is gender non-conforming.

This is the time of year that names that were cremated, names that were murdered, names that were buried at sea, names that were buried under a thwack of dirt are directly acknowledged. Some of the names I weep for, some of them I no longer remember — names that went with faces I tangentially recognized. The swirl of names dances and jumps off the tip of my tongue. “So many names,” writes the poet Billy Collins, “there is barely room on the walls of the heart.”

Yet there is always room for one more name.

 

 

 

 

 

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Dialoguing with God: A High Holiday Reflection

Since this is the season of confession, I want to admit to two things. For many years, I have been jealous of people who can not only pray but also get into the groove of prayer. And I’m terrified of the High Holidays. Rosh Hashana is an odd time of the year for me. My father died two days before the holiday after a long illness and was buried on the eve of the Jewish New Year. Somewhere in the midst of his sickness, I lost my will to pray.

It did not help that my shiva was truncated to just a few hours and then the needs of the community took over—that is, the power of coming together as a community was first and foremost. And so I stood up in front of hundreds of people and publicly said the Mourner’s Kaddish for the first time in my life. I was hardly comforted. Instead, I felt raw and even more grief-stricken. Here I was when immersion into prayer is at its most intense, and I could barely utter a word to, or toward, God. But I continued to say the Kaddish for my father throughout the year. Mostly I did it to reconnect with him posthumously. “Do the deed and the feelings will follow,” said a wise friend. I waited.

The story of Hannah https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/hannah-bible, for whom spontaneous prayer—praying from the heart—was said to have originated, has some significance for me. Hannah’s grief generated an outpouring of supplication to God for a long-awaited child. She spoke directly to God, summoning God’s presence for a deep conversation.

I took my concerns about my inability to pray to my rabbi, and she said Rabbi Nachman of Breslov had the same apprehensions about prayer. He would walk in the woods and speak out loud to God. She said I should not think of talking to God as a one-way conversation, but to think of God as a sounding board. I tried it. As my rabbi predicted, it felt awkward. And then it turned into something I decidedly did not want to happen: it became a litany of complaints. It turns out I was angry with God. And so praying to God was still a non-starter for me.

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Although I am mostly unable to pray, I frequently attend synagogue on Saturday mornings. I let the words, which have been with me since my day school days, wash over me. I once stood with others and recited the Amidah or the standing prayer with kavana—intention. Now I glance at the 18 blessings that comprise this longish prayer. Many phrases jump out at me, but I don’t utter them in a coherent pattern. As for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, another learned friend told me that if a machzor or High Holiday prayer book is doing its job, I could turn my attention to the margins and read the commentaries—modern and ancient—to engage with the holiday. That sort of worked, until it didn’t.

This year I went in search of something that would not exactly replace prayer, but would heavily supplement it for me. I found the “Hebrew College High Holiday Companion” published by the college, and it offered me something I didn’t even know I was searching for: accessibility. Rabbi Daniel Klein, editor of the Companion, confirmed my feeling. In a recent telephone interview, he told me, “The Companion is intended to be an actual companion to the machzor as well as to accompany someone who is yearning through the holidays.”

Yearning. The word resonates. It’s Hannah praying. It’s the subtext of Dr. Judith Kates’ beautiful micro-essay on Hannah and her groundbreaking outpouring to God. Kates writes: “We can be grateful that the rabbis of the Talmud chose to include the story of Hannah, the beginning of the biblical book of Samuel, for us to read as the haftarah for the first day of Rosh Hashana. It plunges us into an experience of heartfelt, individual prayer, which can guide us toward finding our own voices in the midst of community.” With that observation, my small still voice—the voice that shakily said the Kaddish publicly for my father a day after he was buried— had resonance and value.

But there is still the terror of the holidays for me. The drama of “Who Shall Live and Who Shall Die?” makes me anxious. In her essay on U’netaneh Tokef, the prayer that directly asks those dreaded questions and gives us no choice but to face our mortality, Rabbi Suzanne Offit presents words of comfort and redemption in a lyrical prose poem. She asserts, “Perhaps there is a quiet moment amidst all the words we say/ on these days/ When we allow ourselves to come more fully into this awareness./We imagine that the judgment of our lives will be sealed at the/end of Yom Kippur./And in facing death, we face the limits of our own lives./We are beckoned to become our own judge./There is time./And now is the time.”

Klein offers a further observation: “The holidays are like various forms of prayer. For some people reciting all the words of the liturgy on a given morning or afternoon resonates with their souls. Other people are more calibrated for silence.”

Silence. All of my adult life, the inability to pray has been partly about my discomfort with God’s silence. Indeed, prayer can feel like a monologue. But what if it is a dialogue with a strong, silent God? It takes imagination and faith to believe that. This High Holiday season I will reconcile with God and not be afraid of jumpstarting my faith with an out loud conversation with Him/Her/Them. God is listening, and I am too.

 

 

 

 

Back to School

My husband Ken has come to Mineral, Washington, to help me bust out of the eponymous Mineral School. I’m a student of sorts here, but now I’m not sure I want to leave the place. I’ve been at the school for two weeks as the Erin Donovan Writing Fellow where I have had precious time to write and think and to write some more. And I’ve been treated like a queen thanks to the magnificent Jane Hodges, Mineral School’s founder, and her incredible team.

This is Jane’s fourth year running the school’s residency program. She bought the building in 2013 expressly for the purpose of transforming it into an artist’s retreat. She’s pretty much a one-woman show who will tell you that the Mineral School works because she has an incredible board by her side. Practically speaking, this means Jane has a cadre of amazing, can-do volunteers. I have to pause here for a moment to tell you that Jane cooked almost all of gourmet-style meals for me and the three other residents who lived and worked in these old-style classrooms.

Yes, you read that correctly. We lived in classrooms with wood floors and several feet of chalkboard. This could have been triggering, but it wasn’t. It was mostly amusing and always cool. These classrooms are their own counties—800 square feet that tempted me to do cartwheels. It’s a shame I don’t know how to do them. I mostly doodled on my blackboard, but the visual artist here used his board efficiently to tape his drawings in progress accompanied with descriptions of the work. Another resident finished her novel and another is almost done compiling her poetry manuscript. And as for me, revision was the watchword during my stay. I’m deep into the next round of edits on my memoir.

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I have to point out that the chief feature of my room, and I am including my large bed in this accounting, was the rocking chair. I’ve been self-soothing in rocking chairs for most of my life. As soon as I saw the rocker in my room, I knew everything was going to be fine. That implies that I had my doubts. Not about the Mineral School, but about me roughing it in a sixty-year-old schoolhouse that hadn’t been in use since the early 2000’s. I am not a great traveler—flying across the country by myself was not something to which I was looking forward. Flying to a place that I heard had intermittent Internet and no cell service was downright frightening to me. Never mind that I don’t like to do things like share a bathroom down the hall or have to find it in the middle of the night, something I haven’t done in almost four decades since I went to college. (The Mineral School to the rescue on that one: they provided a flashlight!)

Many of my neuroses fell away the moment I saw Jane. She hugged me and I knew I would be comfortable and productive in this place. All Jane and her volunteer staff wanted were for my fellow residents and me to be our best, creative selves. It turns out this meant something beyond just producing work—it meant reveling in our work. And how I’ve reveled. I read books that fed my soul and stimulated my brain. I have started on revisions that I know will revitalize my book and me, and I have been preternaturally calm. Calmness does not come easily to me. Nor does contentment. But content I have been these past two weeks.

After I received the notice of the Mineral School residency, Ken and I planned to go to Seattle together afterwards. That entailed him coming to the school and rescuing me after two weeks. He arrived this morning, and I could not be happier to see him. But I hardly needed saving. In fact, I wanted a few more days here to keep working on a knot of an essay that I’m just beginning to untangle. I have this big classroom where he can easily stay out of my way and hang out with me when the spirit moves me. I was devising a plan as he and I lay in bed staring at the acoustic tile ceiling and the fluorescent lights. Although he was trying to nap, I asked him if this was the oddest place to which I had ever brought him to stay. “It’s the coolest place,” he said sleepily.

I’m not quite ready to leave for the big city yet—the city being Seattle. But maybe it’s time. I admit that I have a touch of homesickness and I miss my family and friends back home. But the Mineral School has given me incredible gifts: direction and independence. And the Wi-Fi connection; I only told everyone back home it was intermittent so they wouldn’t bother me in my beautiful, spacious classroom.

 

To the Mountain and Back

I have been to the mountain and back—to the magnificent Mount Rainier in Washington State. I have a picture of me taken with the mountain in the backdrop, which I promptly published on Facebook. Someone responded to my post with a funny question: Was the mountain real? The question didn’t surprise me. I have to admit the backdrop looked a bit staged—like something in a Sears photograph. But no, it was real and goose-bump spectacular.

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I don’t like really big things like mountains. I’m a megalophobic, meaning I fear large objects. I’m also afraid of gigantic statues that look human like the Statue of Liberty. This makes me an automatonphobic. I’m not crazy about skyscrapers either, which sounds odd coming from someone who lived in New York City for almost a decade.

It didn’t surprise me either that I was a bit afraid of Mount Rainier. The closer, though, I got to the mountain the more majestic it was. Its majesty impressed me to the point that I was awed rather than terrified. And it had me thinking: How many times in my life have I seen something in nature that is majestic?

I’m not a nature gal. Never have been. As I FaceTimed at the Vistors Center with Ken who was back east, he jokingly said that Mount Rainier was not Fifth Avenue. True, but it was the Fifth Avenue of Nature. Despite my overall laziness and my bum knee, I could not leave the park without taking a bona fide hike. The thought of hiking on my own brought on another old phobia: mazeophobia—fear of getting lost. I am someone who once could not negotiate her way out of a circular path near the beach. Each time I asked for directions, people exclaimed: “How can you be lost? It’s a circle!!” Even though the trail at Rainier was dotted with signage, anything was possible. One of my companions came to the rescue and found a hike for me guided by a ranger.

Ranger Savannah was in her twenties—tan, blonde and fit. As we gathered around the flagpole, she looked me up and down as if I might be trouble. The others in the group were dressed in appropriate hiking clothes and sensible shoes. I was clad completely in black as if I were indeed hiking Fifth Avenue. I wore my Danskos to stave off the pain from my torn Achilles tendon. (Yes, another injury). I also didn’t look like I would do well in subalpine conditions, meaning that I was between 5000 and 7000 feet above short-of-breath sea level. While I’m not a total aerobic disaster, I’m not in the best shape either. Nevertheless, I persevered going up and down the trail and pretty much kept up with the group.

Ranger Savannah’s goal on the hike was to teach the eight of us about the wildflowers we would encounter. She was prepared for boredom by having us play “Wildflower Bingo.” She was equipped with laminated cards of wildflowers and dry-erase markers to check off the flowers we saw and happened to have on our cards. The game not only engaged me in nature (surprise!), it also made me fiercely competitive. I kept asking Ranger Savannah to identify every wildflower that caught my eye. (I guess I was trouble, after all). Specifically, I needed the subalpine buttercup or the cinquefoil for the win. I never found them on the nature hike, but no matter—everyone is a winner at Wildflower Bingo. We each received a pin that said: Protect Fragile Meadows. Stay on Trails. That was another lesson from Ranger Savannah: No walking into the meadows. It destroys decades and decades of slow, steady growth.

The mountain was on our right as we hiked. Ranger Savannah said that we were lucky. Last week the smoke from the wildfires in California and Canada was so thick that there was no visibility. The Rangers were forced to cancel hikes and improvise indoor programs. People who signed up to summit the mountain months ago and more had to postpone their plans.

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After Ranger Savannah snapped my photograph against the backdrop of Mount Rainier, we walked down towards the Visitor’s Center. She told me her next National Parks gig was at White Sands Monument in New Mexico. I tried to picture myself as a nomadic park ranger. Alas, it called up another fear for me—rootlessness.

On the Border

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I hear the thousands of hearts beating wildly on the southern border. Children are separated from their parents, and love and terror combine into its own arrhythmia. I also hear echoes of the Holocaust: children to the left; parents to the right. In Brownsville, Texas, 1,400 young boys are warehoused in an old building constructed of concrete and indifference. How many of them cry out in the deepest part of the night for their parents?

And for that matter, where are our girls?

A generation ago my family fled from firing squads, bread lines and black markets. They came to the United States with hope for amnesty. My family speaks Spanish, which makes this latest tragedy on the border so disorienting to me. I share a language and costumbres—customs—with these people. I am a Cuban-American, but I am also a Jew.

As a Jew whose family experienced multiple exiles, I once had a contingency plan for my children when they were little. It was shadowed by the memory of the Holocaust. The Nazis never persecuted my immediate family, but the Jewish people are my extended family. I imagined scenarios in which my children would survive a possible Holocaust in this country, only if they separated from me. I planned to send them to colleagues of my husband’s in Australia. They would grow up just enough to be able to handle the trip by themselves. I would order them to hold hands and never let go. Did the parents of the children imprisoned in Texas and beyond tell their children to do the same? Never let go—nunca dejar ir.

Every hour more hell comes over my newsfeed. I see pictures of children crying as their parents are searched; children who will be ultimately wrenched from their parents. Children who will be caged like animals.

When I was little, space travel was the news of the day. I was frightened of the astronauts bulked up in their layers of nylon and spandex and oxygen. Their mirrored helmets reflected barren, unknowable landscapes. This is what today’s border must look like to these children. It is a strange world made stranger by the fact that they no longer have their parents to navigate it for them.

Images of the astronauts holding on to a tether connected to their capsules as they floated in space caused me great anxiety. Nunca dejar ir. I now understand the tether functioned like an umbilical cord. The capsule provided nourishment and life itself to those astronauts. But it all felt so tentative, so fragile, as if the tether could break and the astronauts would be lost forever in time and space. The potential for a deadly free-fall kept me hyper-vigilant. I wouldn’t be surprised if the children on the border feel the same sort of hyper-vigilance—anxiety that strains their last nerves. Anxiety that makes them feel as if they are in their own crazy free-fall.

I’ve read that after their children are separated from them, some parents can hear them crying on the other side of a wall. Some parents are tricked. The authorities tell them they have to have their pictures taken, and when they come back their children are gone. Or they say the children need a bath. Need a bath? Remember when Jews were sent to showers? I don’t mean to say there is a full-blown Holocaust happening at the border. But these actions are close.

There is nothing worse for a parent than to be unable to protect her child. The first time I held my daughter, I knew I would die for her. More Holocaust-stained fantasies—something dark and dangerous and inhumane has been unleashed in this country. Children are no longer children; they are hostages. And the people who detain them, handcuff them, separate them from their parents, they’re ordinary people who got up in the morning and went to their jobs. It’s what Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil.”

In 1938 the Evian Conference took place in France. Many have never heard of it, but what happened there is eerily pertinent. Thirty-two countries came together to decide what to do about the persecution of German Jews. None of the participating countries, except for the Dominican Republic, were willing to provide safe harbor. The Jews were sent back to Europe on ships, detained and then deported from various borders. That kind of handwringing is happening again. It’s happening as some parents are scheduled to be deported without their children. “I can’t go without my son,” pleads a mother.

Remember the Evian Conference.

A couple of weeks ago someone’s son was deported to Mexico. He was a teenager who had been in the United States since he was 3 years old. He was raised in Iowa and spoke English more fluently than Spanish. A few days after he was forced to return to Mexico, he was gunned down on the street. We are sending migrant children to their deaths.

Martin Niemöller, a Protestant pastor and outspoken critic of the Nazi regime, wrote a poem that has been often quoted. Some might dismiss it as cliché. But in these times, it is relevant all over again.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Speak out for the children. Speak out for the migrants. Speak out until you can’t. And then speak out again and again.

This essay originally appeared on JewishBoston.com

Bobby Kennedy and Me

1968 was the year I learned about death.Martin Luther King, Jr. and then Bobby Kennedy, the two anchoring figures of my childhood, were gunned down in seconds that I will forever remember as soaked in blood and tears.

The giant Sylvania at my house in Connecticut was always tuned in to WTIC AM early in the morning. It was June 6, a Thursday, and Bobby Kennedy had just died. Bob Steele was the voice I woke up to every morning—a voice that was nasally and giggly as he joked his way through newspaper headlines and traffic reports. That morning he announced, “Bobby Kennedy is dead,” flatly and somberly—a tone that frightened me.

I went downstairs hoping that if I were closer to the radio the news would change. I expected to see my father sipping the Sanka he chemically sweetened with tiny pills of saccharine. But his plastic, wobbly mustard yellow mug was empty. His sensible, healthy cereal untouched. His head in his hands. It was odd for me to see my father upset. He was rarely emotional or affectionate. He never told me that he loved me.

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I had already pinned my RFK campaign button, the one with Bobby’s glossy black and white picture, to my pajama top. Bobby’s hair almost fell into his eyes. His toothy smile made me smile too. For months, I wore giant, circular RFK buttons that my cousin Kathy had given me. Kathy was an impressive sixteen-years-old to my puny seven-years-old and I liked anything that she liked. But my love for Bobby was deep and mine alone. Bobby had set up camp in my imagination.

The Kennedys conjured the perfect families I saw in sugary cereal commercials wedged between the Saturday morning cartoons. I wanted nothing more than to spend long summer days on the beach in Hyannis instead of the pool at Eisenhower Park where the water was laced with stinging chlorine. I wanted to play touch football on a grand front lawn instead of horseshoes in my weedy backyard. Like my father, I always wanted to be someone else. The morning of Bobby Kennedy’s death, my father asked if I wanted to sit on his lap. His question embarrassed me. I needed to mourn for Bobby on my own.

**

Bobby Kennedy was the most charismatic man I had ever seen. He was young and sporty—attributes I desperately wanted in a father. My father was so old, so routinized, so strict.

“Bobby Kennedy was shot by a bad man named Sirhan Sirhan,” my father said with his head still resting in his hands.

“Why does that man have two names?” It was the first question that came into my mind.

By now my mother had walked into the kitchen, robed in frilly nylon that matched her nightgown.

“I should have named you Jacqueline,” said my mother another Kennedy worshipper like me.

I was born a few months before Jackie would come to mesmerize my Cuban mother. But I had the wrong J name and I would never be part of Bobby and Ethel’s clan.

At my request, my father drove the aquamarine Chevy Malibu to school with the headlights lit to memorialize Bobby. Like reciting the Jewish prayer of mourning, my mourning was mobile. It was a mourning that was illuminated. A mourning that was magnified. A mourning that was sanctified. And my hero Bobby Kennedy was dead.

Some Advice Upon Your Graduation

  1. You will always be the correct weight.
  2. Don’t fill out questionnaires anonymously.
  3. Someone once told me that boys are like buses. You miss one and another one eventually comes along. Don’t think about anyone that way.
  4. To be discerning is not the same as being judgmental.
  5. Study with empathy. Otherwise you learn nothing.
  6. Love your children more than anyone, including your parents.
  7. Some fool down the line will tell you that you are not the prettiest in the room. Trust me you will always be the most beautiful in the world.
  8. When you are scared, remember that you are most afraid of being afraid.
  9. Don’t be afraid of passion. It’s the electricity of the soul.
  10. Don’t listen to someone who tells you to get over it. You will get over it in your own way and your own time.
  11. Think three-dimensionally: no one is completely heroic or totally villainous.
  12. Picasso said I never paint red—I paint the suggestion of red. Remember that when you’re solving a particularly thorny problem.
  13. If a sign says that a parking lot is full, move the cone anyway and go in. I promise you there will always be a space.
  14. When you are very upset talk to God. Out loud. You’ll get over the initial awkwardness.
  15. Remember that a coincidence is a miracle in which G-d chooses to remain anonymous.
  16. Don’t be frivolous with money. But don’t be afraid to spend it either.
  17. Work hard.
  18. Work steadily.
  19. Have fun.
  20. Don’t worry if you’re not having fun. It’ll pass.
  21. When you feel stuck or frightened, dance.
  22. Don’t regret falling in love. There’s a piece of Jewish wisdom that says there is nothing more whole than a broken heart.
  23. I’ll end with one of my father’s favorite sayings: God made the world, but the Dutch made Holland. I have to admit that baffled me as a child, but I think I get it now. Give God something to work with by shaping your destiny because in the end it’s all about free will, kiddo.