When I was a child, I was exiled from the Yizkor service at Yom Kippur—the service in which we recall our dead and attend to mourning them formally. Call it superstition. Call it avoiding death. My grandmother would point towards the door, and out I would go with the rest of the kids until it was safe to return to the service.
I’d like to propose a new model: make the Yizkor service a family affair. Our children should learn early on that to be a Jew is to be deeply attached to memory. Jewish literature has championed memory from time immemorial. According to Rabbi Shoshana Boyd Gelfand, the verb lizkor — to remember — appears 228 times in the Torah. It’s associated with subjects and events as disparate as Shabbat, Miriam’s leprosy and Amalek’s attack on the Israelites. Gelfand’s essay appears among a wonderful collection of pieces in an anthology called, May G-d Remember: Memory and Memorializing in Judaism.
No doubt, our children see that we are a people that constantly references our time as slaves in Egypt in liturgy and worship. We are also a people for whom remembering is not abstract, but rather an active part of our identity. Rabbi Gelfand quotes Joshua Foer, author of a lovely memoir called Moonwalking With Einstein, who notes in his bid to become the 2009 USA Memory Champion that:
In Judaism, observance and remembering are interchangeable concepts, two words that are really one…. For Jews, remembering is not merely a cognitive process, but one that is necessarily active. Other people remember by thinking. Jews remember by doing.
The Yizkor service is somewhat of an anomaly to me. In a tradition that places so much value on communal life and the benefits of sharing memories of our dead, Yizkor is a highly individualized ritual that takes place within a congregation or at least among ten Jewish adults.
Rabbi Gelfand examines how memory morphs over time through Foer’s take on the neuroscience of the subject:
Memories are not static. Somehow, as memories age, their complexion changes. Each time we think about a memory, we integrate it more deeply into our web of other memories, and therefore make it more stable and less likely to be dislodged. But in the process, we also transform the memory and reshape it—sometimes to the point that our memories of events bear only a passing resemblance to what actually happened.
If you have an analytical kid like I do, the neuroscience of Yizkor not only appeals to his intellect, but also balances thinking about death with the malleability of memory. Perhaps as parents we can work our way up to Yizkor by sharing our children’s namesake with them. The idea resonates with my work as a memoirist. Yes, memories fade and mutate over time. But in some ways Yizkor is a bulwark against that phenomenon. In its methodical accounting of our dead, there is an explicit reconstruction going on. Yizkor is the time that I clearly remember my father, my grandparents. It’s also the only time of year that I can conjure my dad’s voice. For me, Yizkor is a dedicated time and space that momentarily defies biology and psychology.
Yizkor, notes Rabbi Gelfand “provides us our own private ongoing relationship with a loved one. It encourages an evolution of that relationship as opposed to allowing it to be frozen in time. Remembering someone over and over again enhances the parts of that relationship that prove sustaining but allows us to forget those characteristics that are not.” I like the way Rabbi Gelfand points out that forgetting is a crucial part of remembering. I think she’s on to something that approaches a neuroscience of the soul.
In that spirit, I’d like to offer a customized Yizkor in which my son Adam might meaningfully participate. When Adam was born I shook off Ashkenazic tradition when I gave my son my father’s Hebrew name, Akiva. Unfortunately, the relative after whom Dad is named is forever lost. His predecessor’s name is without context. But Dad shares his Hebrew name with a martyr. Rabbi Akiva died in the second century, flayed alive in the hippodrome of Caesarea. His last words were the Sh’ma—Judaism’s signature prayer. Even an assimilated, lip-synching Jew like my father knew the six words of Judaism’s central prayer.
I want Adam to know that I’m certain my father would have liked Rabbi Akiva’s story. Akiva was a poor illiterate shepherd until the age of 40. Like my dad he married late. Like my dad he couldn’t recognize a single Hebrew letter until someone taught him as an adult.
My father’s story is an integral part of Adam’s life story. Showing him the door at Yizkor, before he has a chance to remember my father, is the antithesis of the Judaism I want to impart to him.