Yom Kippur always struck me as one of the constants in modern Jewish life. While virtually everything outside of its precincts seems to be in a continuous state of flux, this holiday holds its own. The rushed pre-fast dinner and the elaborate post-fast fete, the majesty of the Kol Nidre prayer and the intrusiveness of the Yom Kippur appeal — so many elements of the Americanized celebration of Yom Kippur appear intact, even robust.
But this year, I realized with a jolt that something that had long characterized Yom Kippur, especially within an urban context, had all but vanished, and with barely a fare-thee-well: the sudden flurry of non-regular worshippers when it came time to recite the yizkor or memorial prayers. A cultural phenomenon that had at once defined a moment, a sensibility and a generation — perhaps even two — this was gestural Judaism at its most basic. And it’s no more.
With a sixth sense not unlike that deployed by migrating birds, the yizkor sayers would materialize — poof! — at approximately 12:00 or 12:15 on Yom Kippur, swelling the ranks of my synagogue on the Upper West Side of Manhattan as well as those of other urban congregations. Whether an artifact of demography or a function of simply having more leisure time, they invariably numbered many more women than men.
Whatever their composition, their presence was quite disruptive. Fiercely clutching a handbag rather than a ticket, they created quite a commotion as they searched for an empty seat — a search compounded by their unfamiliarity with the topography of the sanctuary.
These occasional shul-goers, or what I had taken privately to calling the “yizkor ladies,” not only did not know their way around the sanctuary; they didn’t know their way around a machzor, either. They seemed lost, ill at ease. Unfamiliar with the rhythms and meanings of the prayer, they fumbled.
And then, presto! No sooner did they complete their prayers than they left. Just like that. Having created quite a stir by their appearance, the yizkor sayers created quite another by their departure.
Back then, I found the “yizkor ladies” a real annoyance, a distraction from the business at hand. I wondered what they possibly got out of the service and, more to the point, why they came at all. Was it superstition that drew them? Sentiment? Guilt? Penance?