Exit Ramp: Yizkor for the living

Exit Ramp: Yizkor for the living

The death of those we now remember left gaping holes in our lives. But we are grateful for the gift of their lives.”

We recite these words during the Yizkor service on Passover, Shavuot, Yom Kippur, and Shemini Atzeret. It’s a prayer that I never heard as a child.  

When I was growing up, my parents and other congregants shooed their children out of the temple when Yizkor was about to begin. The custom (superstition? Bubbe mayseh?) was that if your parents are alive, you should leave the sanctuary. The concern was that if you stayed for the prayer while your parents were alive, it would result in their death in the coming year, and then you would have to stay for Yizkor.

But my rabbi at the time, and many I’ve heard since at Congregation Ohr Shalom–The Summit Jewish Community Center, made heartfelt entreaties prior to the service for all to stay. There were Jewish martyrs who died leaving no one to say Kaddish for them. As he talked about Holocaust victims, congregants who had passed, and other relatives who should be remembered by the congregation, those assembled would sit quietly and solemnly. Then, the rabbi would say, “…and now please rise,” and the mass exodus would begin.  

I exited with the crowd for 32 years, until 1986 when my father died. The time had come when I had to stay.

In the many years since his death I have remembered my father every day, so I didn’t think I needed a special 20 minutes set aside four times a year to do so. But a few years ago, the words of the prayers affected me and took on a deeper and more immediate meaning.

I was at the Yom Kippur services in 2014 with my mother, who, every year since my father’s death, would come to New Jersey from Pittsburgh to be with my sister and our families for the High Holy Days. My mother was one of those “young” seniors whose age no one can believe. She swam, she exercised, she traveled. She was happy. But I noticed that she was getting tired more easily.  

The Yizkor prayer in memory of a father reads, “In loving testimony to his life, I [will] help perpetuate ideals important to him. May I prove myself worthy of the gift of life, and the many other gifts with which he blessed me.”

My father was a gentle, loving, kind, man. He was active in the community, and worked hard to support his family. As I said the words, I thought, “Dad, how am I doing? Am I making myself worthy? Do I need to change? Am I like you?” And then I thought, “Why am I asking you now? Why couldn’t I ask when you could answer? Why couldn’t I take those 20 minutes four times a year to tell you that I’m proud of you? That I want to perpetuate ideals important to you, because I’m proud of you. Because I honor you.”

Growing up, I’d sit between my mom and dad at the now-shuttered B’nai Israel Congregation in Pittsburgh. When we stood, I would place my hand on top of the seat in front of me. Mom would cover my hand with hers, and squeeze.   

Circling back to Yom Kippur in 2014, when my Mom and I rose for Yizkor she held the top of the seat in front of her to steady herself. This time I placed my hand on hers, and whispered my feelings of love, gratitude, and pride. I thanked her for contributing to who I am and what I’ve become. I told her that I am trying to live up to the ideals she taught me. She lifted her hand, squeezed mine, and smiled.

Perhaps there should be another Yizkor service, immediately after the traditional one. A short service. Everyone who left could go back inside to sit with their parents or other loved ones to say prayers of thanksgiving. Though they may have stayed for Yizkor for those they have lost, they can be thankful for and remember those still living who enrich their lives.

My mom passed shortly before the following Yom Kippur. I say Kaddish. I remember. Yizkor for the living — perhaps the time has come.

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