Tag 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

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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Filed under America, community, liminal moments, memory, mindfulness, Uncategorized

The Room

It can be seen, or maybe even more so sensed, in the barely noticeable details.  The books resting on shelves, spines worn and tired from restless hands pressing their pages.  Some have bookmarks where the reading stopped, others highlighted sentences that were read again and again preparing for some test.  There are ticket stubs carefully tucked into the seams of a mirror, each one representing a new adventure, exciting moments shared with friends that gradually settle into a vast collection of past experiences.  Pictures of those friends and of family lie everywhere, on dresser tops and the bedside table, on the desk and a chair. Each one tells the tale of time’s passage.  Here she was an eager and smiling 3rd grader, suddenly there beginning high school, and just next to it a photo of her graduation.  A family wedding, a first boyfriend, a best friend, siblings and cousins and travels, even parents!  A picture board story, randomly organized, but conveying love and life, tears and laughter, things both bitter and sweet and everything in between.

Of course there are beloved stuffed animals, gently resting in place as they have now for years, patiently waiting for a living presence to return to their cozy dwelling.  Somehow these loyal companions are now twenty years old, some older!  They have weathered over the years, collecting dust and memories, representing time gone by.  Some have names, others toil in obscurity, some faithfully comforting and snuggling, others tasked with simply watching events unfold, that age old job of witness.

Do not forget the bulletin board.  Classic cork, heavy with hand written notes, with stickers and birthday cards and beads and even a feather is there, light and delicate, gently moving when the window opens to the world outside.  Proud accomplishments are quietly displayed, reminders of past successes.  Who knows what strict criteria must be met in order for an item to find its way to that board?  It stands as a visual narrative of past events, of highlights and sweet memories that will forever be infused with the hope and heartache of youth.

These days the room is occupied less and less.  High school graduation was followed by travel, then college in a distant northern town.  Summer jobs away at camp, visiting with friends in the big city, the incredible hustle and bustle of a busy young life. Before long she’ll have another home, another room where new pictures will accumulate, where a strangely empty bulletin board will hang, ’til it also begins to fill with memories.  But the old room will always exist, permanently engraved on heart and mind, its tapestry of the past informing the future, the starry nights and sunrises yet to be seen, the winter storms and warm springs that lie ahead.

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Community, Healing, and Hope

This a text version of yesterday’s introduction to Yizkor (Shavuot 5776) –

Judaism has long understood that one essential component of coping with loss is community.  From the very moment that a family loses a loved one community is there.  Friends begin to gather at the home, to offer comfort, guidance, and help.  The funeral is a communal moment structured to honor and remember the life of the person who has died.  Shiva is a paradigmatic communal exercise – at least 10 people are required for each service held in the shiva home, the days of shiva are filled with visits by friends and family members, the mourners are guided from one conversation to the next, from one moment to the next, always surrounded by people who care about them.

And then there is the period of saying the kaddish, for some 30 days, for others who have lost a parent a full eleven months.  The minyan is again required because the kaddish is only fully valid when said in the presence of community.  The services, morning and night, bring the mourner out of the home, into the synagogue, into the service with its sense of communal life and connection.  I have watched many times as mourners have connected with our minyan, making new friends, finding a sense of purpose and resolve, finding in the community a reason to get out of bed and begin a new day.  People are waiting here for you, they call when you don’t come, they care, they understand where you are and how you feel, because they’ve been there and they’ve felt those things, and they somehow made it through.  And they will tell you that the community helped them do it.

We saw this in Orlando yesterday, that terrible, unimaginable, unthinkable tragedy that we will long wrestle with as a nation.  Immediately community came together.  People set aside political divides and racial differences and religious perspectives, and came together as one, came together as community to support and console the families of the victims and also one another.  There was a powerful sense of fundamental humanity – it didn’t matter if people were black or white, gay or straight, young or old, Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, conservative or liberal.  There is a powerful picture on the front page of the Sun this morning, a black clergyman embracing a white man and a white woman, the three of them weeping together.

In community there is hope.  In community there is healing.  In community there is a sharing of difficult burdens, a sense that one does not have to walk alone on a path of sadness and loss, and perhaps sometimes even despair.  Not that there is a magic formula, not that there is a secret ritual that will wipe the grief away.  But there are people who will share the journey with you, and you are not alone.

The people in Orlando are not alone.  They are surrounded by the thoughts and prayers of an entire nation, 300 million strong, a nation that believes in equality, in peace and freedom, and in the common human dignity that unites us all.  In the months ahead they will come to see how this powerful sense of communal caring and sharing helped to ease the burden of their grief.  They will gradually rediscover how beautiful it is when the wind blows gently through the leaves of a tree on a warm summer day.  They will one day realize that they have begun to laugh again, to sometimes feel joy, to emerge from the darkness and the shadows to go back out into the world with purpose and courage and hope.  This is the journey from loss to life, from sadness to meaning, from darkness to light, and it is a life long journey.

In Judaism part of that journey is Yizkor.  A stopping point along the way that brings you back to community, to tradition, to the shul, to the minyan, that reminds you of the pain of loss but also, as time goes by, of the sacred power of life.  As we rise together for this last Yizkor service of the year, as we prepare to say our personal Yizkor prayers, we also pray for hope and healing and peace, in our own hearts, in our lives, in our communities, and in the world.

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Filed under America, Beth El Congregation, civil rights, clergy, community, gay rights, grief, Jewish life, loss, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, ritual, sermon, Uncategorized, Yizkor

We Remember

this a text of comments made this morning (9/20) at my congregation’s annual Memorial Service –

It is a long standing practice to visit the graves of loved ones during the holiday season.  In part this speaks to the memories we have of shared sacred time.  On Rosh Hashanah the family dinners and lunches, on Yom Kippur the break fasts, the time sitting together in shul, the conversations and dynamics and interactions that marked our family gatherings.  It is only natural at this time of year to think of the people we shared that time with.  But also the reflective mood of the holiday season, the impulse to look inward and think about our own lives and characters, reminds us that so much of who and what we are is formed through our relationships with others.  Parents who raised us, imparting their values and giving whatever they could give so our lives could be better.  Spouses we shared decades with, raised children with, made a home and a life with.  Children who brought joy to our hearts.  Siblings with whom we shared common bonds that connected us.  Friends who helped us, cared for us, guided us, supported us, laughed and cried with us.  In our season of memory, we remember them all, and we come today to acknowledge again the pain of their loss, but also the continuing joy of their lives.

One of my favorite metaphors for understanding loss is the image of a ship that leaves from the port.  Those of us on this shore watch the ship gently sail out to sea, its sails billowing in the wind.  It takes a turn or two, but ultimately heads for the horizon, that point in the far distance where water and sky meet as one.  She grows tinier and tinier, and then the moment comes when she reaches that distant blending, and suddenly she is gone, no longer visible to our eyes.  “She is gone,” we say, as we stand together on this shore, looking out into the distance.

But tradition teaches us that there is another shore, the farthest shore, beyond our vision, beyond our horizon.  And on that shore, at the very instant that the great ship disappears from our view, she can be seen by those who are already there.  On their horizon she appears first as a tiny dot, moving in the waves, slowly but surely coming ever closer.  At the very moment when we say ‘she is gone’ those on that distant shore exclaim ‘here she comes.  Let us welcome her in peace.’  And those who travel on the ship know they will be welcomed home.  As the shore comes into their view they see its white beaches, and beyond that a far green country under a swift sunrise.

And there are moments when we are blessed with a clearer vision of that other shore, when we can look out to the horizon and see just a bit further, when the shore we stand on and the shore they’ve gone to come just a bit closer to one another.  At those moments we feel a stronger presence, and in that presence a keener sense of absence.

And today is one of those moments.  The holidays, the coming of fall, the turning of the leaves, the deep sense of moving time, the presence of our loved ones here in this hallowed space.  We remember today, and in doing so we honor their lives in the beginning of a new year –

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Filed under grief, High Holy Days, loss

Missing Mentors

A double entendre.  Missing as in they are gone, and also missing as in missing them, feeling their absence in our hearts.  There is something about the holiday season that deepens both meanings.  Maybe because it is a family oriented time, a time we shared with them.  Maybe it is because of the memories of holidays gone by, of sitting with a loved one at the table, or in shul.  Maybe it is because so many of the holiday’s themes are tied to loss, mortality, the fragility of life.  But that sense of absence is keenly experienced when the nights become cool and the leaves begin to fall.

I have a private ritual I enact every year a week or two before the holidays.  I make sure to get to our synagogue’s cemetery to visit the graves of the clergy who served Beth El over the years.  I visit the grave of Rabbi Jacob Agus, whom I never met, but whose presence is felt in the halls of the synagogue every day as a source of guidance and wisdom.  I linger at the tombstone of Cantor Saul Hammerman, a golden voiced Hazzan with an old world sense of humor and a deep love of the Jewish people, with whom I was lucky to share many a conversation.  And always last I visit the grave of  Rabbi Mark Loeb, my senior rabbi for more than a decade, and a true mentor and friend to me and to many others.

It is at the last grave where I crouch down, where I brush my hands over the metal letters, where I again read the words that I’ve read hundreds of times.  What I wish I could share!  What I wish I could ask!  The void can be sensed, almost palpably, but it cannot be breached.  And yet.  There is meaning in the visit.  A sacred sense, an honoring of presence, an affirmation that the connection still exists in some mysterious and inexplicable way.  And in that there is comfort and strength.  And purpose.  What  I do I do not do alone.  Where I go, others go with me.  And in that sense of permanent presence I find blessing and grace, courage and hope, laughter and longing, sadness and celebration.  I find life.  And a new year begins.

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Filed under clergy, High Holy Days, loss, memory, mentors

The Good Old Days

In yet another summer reading list detour, I am about half way through a wonderful little book called The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks.  The book is part memoir, part ode to England’s Lake District, part tribute to the ancient farming culture that has existed there for hundreds and hundreds of years.  Rebanks is a wonderful writer with an eye for the little details that fully immerse the reader in the story he is telling.  The book has been well reviewed, and as I make my way through the pages I understand why – it is an evocative portrait of a family and a culture in which we can see ourselves and our own lives.

The Shepherd’s Life is also a book soaked in nostalgia.  For childhood.  For a simple life of steady work and uncomplicated days.  For a lost grandfather, the patriarch of the Rebanks family.  And of course, like all things nostalgic, for the past, in this case an ancient farming culture that slowly but surely gives way in the face of modernity.  There is a wistfulness to the carefully composed sentences, a longing for things gone by and memories long cherished.

We are all familiar with that feeling, in one way or another.  And it seems to me that summer is a particularly nostalgic time, perhaps the most of any season of the year.  Vacations and visits often bring us back to places we’ve known for many years, often reunite us with family and friends who have known us from the time we were children.  The old haunts, the old activities, games, rituals, stories, jokes, conversations, even feelings!  They can flood back into our minds on long summer days and warm summer nights.  There is often a sense of mystery in the remembering.  How did we get here from there?  Where have the years gone?  I came to this place when I was a child, or a young adult, or first married.   How is it that now my children or grandchildren come here?  This great line from the John Prine song Angel from Montgomery comes to mind:  But that was a long time, and no matter how I try, the years just flow by like a broken down dam.

The key, of course, is to remember the past but not to be trapped by it.  The old places and memories and thoughts and feelings remind us of who we once were, but also of how far we’ve come in the intervening years.  We can’t go back, not all the way.  But the past is with us, part of who we are, coloring the way we see the world, the thoughts and feelings we have, the sense of where we’ve come from.   Each day is truly a new day.  But soft summer breezes remind us that new days are built on old ones.

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