Category Archives: memory

Structured Memories

I’ve often wondered why the tradition is so invested in our remembering the losses of our lives.  Think of it for a moment.  Yartzeits are marked, and people come to services on those days to recite the kaddish.  The unveiling ritual, often scheduled a full year after someone has died, brings a family back to the cemetery right about the time their grief may have been diminishing.  And four times a year, on Yom Kippur, Shemini Atzeret, Passover (the 8th day), and Shavuot (the 2nd day), the liturgical calendar asks us to come to services to recite Yizkor prayers.

But why the frequency and emphasis?  Would we not, organically, on our own, day to day (let alone on such scheduled occasions), think of those we’ve lost?  Don’t they come into our minds even without any special prayers or scheduled moments?  Aren’t our losses with us every day?  And if so, why all of these kaddishes?  These yartzeits and Yizkors?

Perhaps one answer is that we need to be reminded that time is passing by.  I have countless times over the years had the following conversation with a congregant who has come to shul to observe a yartzeit:  ‘How long is your loved one gone?’  ‘Rabbi, I can’t believe it, but it is 5 years!’  Or 10, or 20, or 40.  Yes, how the time goes by, and there is something important about marking its passage, about reflecting on the fact that we have bravely journeyed onward after our losses, that the sun has continued to rise and set, the moon to wax and wane, the years to pass.

There is also something to be said for connecting grief and loss and remembering to a sacred community.  In that community we understand our experience is shared.  We rise for Yizkor each remembering our own losses, but we rise together, surrounded by friends, supported by our fellow worshippers, comforted by a common liturgy and history.  And in that moment we also honor the memories of those we’ve lost through the lens of the Tradition, so commonly an important part of their lives and the legacy they’ve left behind for us.

And also we need to carve out intentional moments in the course of our lives dedicated to remembering, reflecting, understanding, thinking, and wondering.  Moments when we can feel grief, or gratitude, or often both.  Moments when we can reaffirm, in a formal way, how important memory is in our lives, how deeply we feel life’s losses, and how connected we remain to the people with whom we’ve shared the journey of our lives.  Even when the journey of their life has ended.

May their memories always be for a blessing!

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Filed under Beth El Congregation, celebration, grief, Jewish festivals, Jewish life, loss, memory, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, Uncategorized, Yizkor

To the End of the Land

‘To the End of the Land’ is the English language title of David Grossman’s 2008 best selling novel about Israel, family, love, war, hate, fear, loss, and the sacred quality of land.  This book is no beach read.  Weighing in at close to 700 pages, it asks the reader to wrestle with dark and difficult themes and challenging questions, and it does not offer easy answers or happy endings.  Having just finished the book last night, I find its narrative and even more so its characters haunting me this morning.  There is nothing else I have read that so truly captures the modern Israeli experience, namely the challenge of living with hope and love under the constant shadow of the knowledge that life altering tragedy is a moment away.  In Grossman’s Israel, it is not a question of will tragedy strike, it is a question of when.

There is a deep sadness at the heart of the book’s narrative.  It stems from the bitter, unendurable, and yet necessary and seemingly eternal entanglement of the Israelis and Palestinians.  Like Jacob and his angelic antagonist in Genesis 32, the two sides both wrestle and embrace at the same time, pulling one another closer and closer, unable to disengage even when both are damaged in the process.  The difference between a strong hug and a smothering is only a matter of degree.  A fine line indeed.

And in that kind of world, with that kind of pressure, with that much at stake, both personally and nationally, how is it possible to maintain one’s moral equilibrium?  Is it possible for anything to stay pure and true, can anything – a people, a land, a sacred promise – escape corruption?  Even a child?  Perhaps particularly a child?  Or does life, by its very definition, require moral compromise.  And if so, where are the lines?  When does the compromise take you too far, so far that you can’t ever find your way back?

And so, ‘to the end of the land.’  To a place of no return, to a place where the land itself, or perhaps the meaning of the land, is no longer what it once was.  ‘Tiyyul’ in Israel is a powerful idea, to this very day.  It captures the idea that the land should be walked, experienced, slept on, lived in, worked.  And Grossman’s writing beautifully captures that Israeli sensibility with its vivid descriptions of the dusty dirt roads, of the spare and beautiful flowers that bloom in the arid wilderness, of the ancient mountains and biblical landscapes.  The ancient Israelites walked the land, and the modern Israelis are still at it, still absorbing its essence in the most physical way possible.  The land IS sacred, soaked in Jewish history, the place where Israelite kings ruled and Jewish scholars recreated their faith and Jewish soldiers fought for freedom and a Jewish nation was born anew after two thousand years.

At the same time, what the land demands is so high.  The loyalty and sacrifice, the difficulty and determination, the toughness and moral compromise.  The Hebrew title to Grossman’s novel is strikingly different from its English counterpart – אשה בורחת מבשורה – A Woman Flees from News.  The book’s protagonist, Ora, walks into the wilderness of Israel as a way of escaping from what might happen in the real world.  But in the end she must of course return.  The ideal, mythic land of Israel exists only in imagination and religious text.  It can be visited for a time, but the real Israel is where one’s day to day life must be lived.  And the real Israel is like any other place in this world.  It is both breathtakingly beautiful and filled with dust and debris, glorious and delicate, but at the same time dreary and difficult.  It can rip one’s heart away, and make one’s heart sing.  Grossman’s wonderful, poignant, powerful novel is exactly the same way.

 

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Filed under Bible, books, Israel, Jewish thought, loss, memory, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, Uncategorized

The Kaddish

The young man stood with his grandmother as she recited the words of the Mourner’s Kaddish.  It was her husband’s yartzeit, the anniversary of the date of his death.  Tradition had called her back to the synagogue, had asked her to sit through a service in which God’s name was praised, to bend and bow, to speak the old and often arcane words of prayer.  And now, after her husband’s name was read, tradition called on her to rise and say the ancient words which marked this day and her loss.

He had been gone many years.  The grandson, now in his twenties, barely remembered his grandfather.  He knew his name, of course.  Had heard stories, oft told by family members.  “Do you remember the time when…?  Ah, that was Joe, that was Joe.”  He knew what kind of work his grandfather had done, how much he meant to his family, even what the substance of his personality was.  But he could not remember his voice, or the feel of his rough hands, or the wrinkles in the corners of his eyes when he smiled and laughed.  Still the grandson stood, feeling a sense of familial responsibility in his heart, and also a deep respect and love for his grandmother.  Not to be underestimated, the latter.  So the young man also said the words – Yitgadal, v’yitkadash..

And what odd words they are!  The prayer for grief and loss and heart rending sadness is simply a litany of praise for God.  Death is never mentioned.  Grief is never acknowledged.  Sadness and loss and anger are so strangely ignored in these ‘kaddish-words.’  But of course the prayer is now more than the words.  The words and letters have flown off the pages of ancient prayer books, and then somehow returned to their very place, letters in the same order, words on their proper lines, and yet the meaning, the feeling of them, has changed.  They are not what they are, but rather what they have come to be through long years of grief.

There is something intensely sacred about that moment.  Not in any God related way, not in anything otherworldly or supernatural.  But intensely humanly sacred.  A quiet chapel and a late hour.  A small group of Jews gathering from some sense of responsibility, creating by their presence the minyan.  Darkness softly falling outside.  A flickering candle.  Twinkling stars glimpsed through a window in the distant sky.  And a young man standing with his grandmother, intoning ancient words, linked by history, tradition, family, and faith.  And love.

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Yizkor – Past, Present, Future

a text version of my remarks before the Yizkor service on Shemini Atzeret 5778 –

One thing rabbinical work gives you is a powerful sense of the passage of time.  It is not just the holidays, how quickly they seem to come and go, how quickly one HHD season seems to blend into the next.  It is also the life cycle events that you are involved with – the weddings and funerals, the baby namings and brises and b’nai mitzvah.  I have discovered over the last couple of years how powerful that can be, how lucky I am to have served the congregation for a long enough period of time that I am officiating at weddings of young men and women I’ve known since even before their bar or bat mitzvah.  I am now officiating at b’nai mitzvah of children whose parents I married.  Let alone the fact that when I first came to Beth El, I was around the same age as the couples I was marrying, even younger than some of them.  But today, when I work with couples to prepare for their wedding, I am often – surprised – to realize I am close to two decades older than the young man and woman.  Time certainly does go by.

And we tend to experience that passage of time in a linear fashion.  We think of time as moving in one direction, from past to present to future.  But life cycle events blur that distinction.  At weddings and baby naming and b’nai mitzvah past present and future seem to blend together.  I’ll give you an example – a baby naming or bris is largely about the future – we give the baby a name that she or he will bear in the years ahead – we often say, ‘this is the name that the child will be called to the Torah with at their bat mitzvah,’ or ‘this is the name that will be written on their ketubah one day!’  That is all about the future!

But the truth is, a baby naming or bris is also very much about the past.  We might pass the child through the generations of the family, the grandparents and great-grandparents, if the child is so lucky.  We might use a kiddish cup or tallit that belonged to a grandfather or great-grandfather, evoking the family’s history.  And we name after people in the family who have passed away.  So in reality what happens at a baby naming or a bris or a bar or bat mitzvah, or even a wedding, is that there is a strange kind of blending of time, a moment in our present when the past and the future come together.  Even the emotions that people experience at those moments are a blending the past and the future – the tears that you often see when a parent explains a baby’s Hebrew name are coming from the hope that parent feels for his or her child’s future, but at the same time those tears come from the act of remembering the past, of thinking about a grandparent or other loved one who is no longer in this world, and whose name the child will bear in the years ahead.

You may remember that a year ago or so there was a movie playing in theaters called Arrival.  It told the tale of a young linguist, played by the actress Amy Adams, who is called upon to try to communicate with aliens who have landed on earth.  The idea is that every species must communicate in some way, so there must be some kind of recognizable language pattern that a trained linguist can distinguish.  What she ultimately learns in the course of the film is that the Aliens experience time differently than we do.  They experience time more like a life cycle event – as a blending of past, present, and future.  Sometimes they exist in the future, sometimes in the past, and sometimes in the present.

And in the film, as the Amy Adams character begins to understand how the aliens communicate, she also begins to experience time in the same way they do.  This makes the film confusing and wonderful at the same time.  Confusing because it is hard to tell, at any given point in the movie, if she is in a past, present, or future moment.  But wonderful, because it asks a fundamental question – were we to know what the future holds –  the pain that it will hold, even the losses that we will inevitably one day suffer –  would we still move forward with our lives?  Would we still marry, become parents, be devoted children and siblings, work so hard to deepen our most important relationships, knowing that one day they will be taken aways from us?

Yizkor is an answer to that question.  When we rise to say the yizkor prayers we are in part saying that despite the pain we feel when we so vividly remember our losses, we would do it all over again.  Even knowing what we know now –  how hard it is, even after experiencing the pain of loss, the depth of sorrow, the sadness and the grief, we would begin it all over again if we could.  That is one of the things we affirm when we rise for Yizkor.

And of course Yizkor also is a moment when our past, present, and future come together.  The memories we recall today come to us from the depths of time, from years gone by, from experiences shared, from lives that were intertwined.  That is the past.  But we again experience the pain of our losses in this present moment, on this Shimini Atzeret, in this service with this congregation.  And as we do we make a promise for the future – to keep the memories of those we honor today alive in our hearts and in our families in years ahead.  May those memories now, then, and always be for a blessing –

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Filed under Beth El Congregation, High Holy Days, Jewish festivals, liminal moments, loss, memory, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, sermon, Uncategorized, Yizkor

What a Swing Set Measures

For almost twenty years the wooden swing set had been standing in our back yard.  The wood beams and metal jousts gracefully and patiently bore the passage of time, the vagaries of the weather, the hot sun of summer, the cold and snow of the winter months. For many years the swing set was busy.  It would creak with delight when children were swinging on its bright blue swings, laughing and trying to reach the sky above them.  Its crow’s nest was host to various clubs and secret societies. Meetings took place there where important topics were discussed, like the best way to eat a grilled cheese sandwich, or what might be the perfect container for a pine cone collection.

In those days the swing set was a hub of activity.  When the locusts swarmed one summer, its crow’s nest provided shelter from their flying, buzzing bodies.  One winter the snow piled so high the swings disappeared, and the children built a snow man to guard the old wooden structure until spring came and the snow melted away.  In the fall, when we built our sukkah, the swing set was just a few yards away, a welcome escape from the confining walls of our temporary harvest tent.  One year, in a high storm, the swing set watched stoically as our entire sukkah was blown over by a strong wind, almost laughing at the sukkah, as if to say ‘Look at me, I’ve been standing here for years, and this wind can’t even move me one inch.’

As the years went by trees grew up around the swing set.  A cherry tree’s branches intruded on the crow’s nest.  A strong maple grew up just behind the swings, so that children might feel they were swinging high up in the branches of a magical tree.  Finally a great willow grew swiftly, its massive branches blanketing the old structure in perpetual shade.

There were fewer and fewer visits to the swing set as the years passed.  Its crow’s nest was mostly silent and empty.  Squirrels scuttled across its top beams, but children rarely visited.  They were grown, too big for the swings, to old for such things as ‘crow’s nests’ and ‘secret clubs.’  The swing set became a kind of artifact.  It told stories.  Of a broken arm from swinging too high and landing too hard.  Of aimless summer days.  Of intricate projects and plans that were made and made again, but never implemented.  Of back yard barbecues and tie dye birthday parties.  Of watching young children grow.

We took the old swing set down this week.  Its time had come and gone, but it was a bitter sweet moment.  All of those memories wrapped up in its grooved and worn boards, its tattered canopy.  As it rested in the front yard, waiting for someone to come haul it away, a young woman drove by with her three young children in tow.  She noticed the aged crow’s nest, still proudly standing strong, bravely awaiting its fate.  ‘Were we getting rid of it?’ she wondered.  ‘And would we mind, if she could find someone to bring it down the street, if she gave that crow’s nest a new home?’

Just yesterday we walked around the neighborhood in the late afternoon.  It was an end of summer day, the sun warm and high in a bright blue sky, but the trees already starting to shed their leaves.  There at the bottom of the hill we saw the crow’s nest, tucked neatly away in a new back yard.  It was again surrounded by trees, not the old willow and maple, but evergreens that will guard it from the wind in the cold winter months.  Our neighbor scrubbed at the wood, working to sand it smooth so it would be ready for bare hands and feet.  It won’t be long.  Soon children will be playing there as they once did, and we will hear their laughter, as we walk by wondering where the past has gone, or if it has gone at all.  FullSizeRender 3

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The Car

It was a 1979 Peugeot 504 diesel.  A nondescript brown/grey color, stick shift, manual sunroof, four door.  It was slow as molasses, the diesel engine struggling to propel the car up any incline of even moderate degree.  The back of the car – bumper, rear window, heck even the side windows – entirely covered in Grateful Dead stickers.  I remember at one point counting them, and there were more than twenty.  I actually had a debate with my dad about whether there was still enough room to see safely with the rear view mirror because the stickers blocked your view.

I drove that car my senior year of high school and freshman year of college.  It was no frills.  No AC.  Hand crank windows.  No power steering or power brakes.  It got great mileage – I could make it from Boston to Binghamton NY on a half a tank of diesel fuel.  The trunk was not huge, but I could get everything I owned in that car – everything – including my Polk Audio speakers, always stacked in the back seat.  One time I even had a keg of beer in the trunk that made loud clunking noises every time I turned or accelerated.  I had installed an Alpine cassette deck/radio in the dash.  It played through the tinny speakers, and I kept a small wooden box filled with Maxell cassette tapes on the carpeted mound between the driver’s  and ‘shotgun’ seats.

That old Peugeot rarely started in the winter.  There was a heating element for the engine that you turned on before you tried to start it in the cold, but it didn’t work well.  In cold weather I always parked at the top of a hill, and would gather 3 or 4 hearty friends to push me out into the road.  If you kept your foot on the clutch, and the car managed to get to 10 or 15 miles an hour drifting down the slope, you could ‘pop’ the clutch (suddenly release it)  and the engine would cough its way into running.  Sometimes you had to do it a couple of times before it would start.  If you got to the bottom of the hill and it didn’t go, you were out of luck.  Wait until spring, I guess.

We had all kinds of adventures in that car.  There was the time in the snowstorm, when my friend reached from the back seat and released the sunroof, allowing 6 inches of snow to tumble into the front seats.  Yes this was while we were driving.  There was the drive back from Baltimore in 1982, having seen the Dead at the Civic downtown, when the windshield wiper fluid ran out.  It was early spring, the Pennsylvania roads were covered in brown slush and dirty, melting snow.  As I drove, my friend reached out the window with tissues and tried to wipe it clean every few minutes.  One New Year’s eve in a heavy snow storm the car slid 5o yards down a steep road, gently and softly settling into a mound of snow before sighing to a stop.  There were late nights and early mornings, full moons surrounded by bright stars, hazy sun rises, trips to the beach, long rides alone singing along to a favorite song or gazing out at the beautiful rocks and trees of western Massachusetts.  Dozens of Grateful Dead shows.  Stops in Buffalo and Saratoga, in Harrisburg and Hartford, in Portland and Syracuse.  Endless miles.  The road does indeed go ever on and on.

That car transported us.  Physically of course, taking us from place to place, that unimaginable sense of freedom, of knowing you can pretty much go anywhere at anytime.  But also metaphysically, transporting our minds and hearts, our souls and spirits, those shared moments of joy and laughter and struggle and adventure that would never happen again.  Eventually that old Peugeot gave up the ghost.  Some irreparable, fatal flaw developed – the engine block cracked, I think.  It was put to pasture in a junk yard somewhere, rusting in the summer rains and cold winter snows of upstate New York, Dead stickers slowly fading over time.  It wasn’t a great car – slow, difficult to drive, mechanically flawed.  But it was a classic.  And they just don’t make ’em like that anymore.  car

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The Window

The window was right there, just a couple of feet to my left.  I was in fourth grade, Mrs. Cronk’s class (yes that was actually her name!), Thomas Jefferson School.  My classmates and I sat and squirmed, stared at the chalk board, poked at one another when the teacher’s back was turned, sometimes sighed with boredom, sometimes learned something new and surprising, still remembered to this day.  We watched the clock at the front of the room, the minutes ticking by at a painfully slow pace, three o’clock our magic hour of release.

But my view from the window called to me.  In the late summer the leaves of the trees were still green.  Just beyond that blue house on the corner with the worn front step was a field where I often played football.  And at the end of the street, at the edge of my vision, was a yard where a friendly dog lived.  He would be sleeping just a about now, in the shade of that tree in their front yard.

In fall the leaves turned, and I watched this miraculous process unfold through my classroom window, day after day.  I knew as I sat at my desk that acorns were collecting at the base of an old oak tree, that the wind was blowing fallen leaves along the sidewalk, that a leaf pile I had jumped in just yesterday was waiting for another chance.  The air was crisper, and out in the school yard a gym class played kickball.

In the winter mounds of snow piled up in the school parking lot.  When I stole a glance out my window I could see the largest of those piles to my left.  We had played king of the hill on it that morning, reluctantly entering our classrooms wet and cold, with flushed cheeks, numb hands and feet.  There was unfinished business on that greying mound of snow, if only the clock would somehow find its way to ‘3.’

In early spring my window framed a view of melting ice and snow, of grey trees silently and inscrutably watching the length of the days, feeling the temperature, their tops bare and exposed to the still cold wind.  A fifty degree day was a revelation!  Looking out my window I knew what the walk home would be.  We would shed our jackets, kick stones down the street, poke at the melting snow with sticks fallen from the trees during the winter, stomp in a puddle or two just for good measure.

For school might hold us for a while, but outside the window was an adventure waiting to happen, each walk home a journey of exploration, with a sense of freedom and independence, of possibility, of becoming.  The window looked out on my small home town, the narrow streets, the neatly trimmed lawns, the cracked sidewalks and running rows of hedges.  But it also looked out on a big world, grand and open, mountains, rivers, hills, vast plains.  A day would come when I would go there, too.

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