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.