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Many years later, I’ve belatedly come to understand that their occasional appearance, come yizkor, was an expression of yearning, of seeking meaning, of losing themselves in something larger, of situating personal memories of a loved one within a collective context. What they were up to was nothing less than the sacralizing and ritualizing of memory.
People in my business like to fret — a lot — about the distinction between memory and history. History, they say, is color and line; memory is volume. Or this: History is the critical engagement with the past; memory is its more selective cousin.
But no matter. Judaism makes a point of blurring those distinctions. It knows that you can’t have one without the other and that history and memory complete each other, like a lulav and an etrog or a hand and a glove.
Judaism not only accommodates them both, it places a premium on the intersection between them, calling Rosh Hashanah “yom hazikaron,” the day of remembrance, and setting aside time on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, for personal reminiscences.
Yizkor, after all, represents the confluence of a prayer and a people. Its parameters humble rather than grand, this constellation of prayers doesn’t invoke the miraculous or the farfetched. Rather, it is unabashedly grounded in the here and now, set within the grooves of daily life. It is performed publicly, within the parameters of the community, where individual identity meshes with that of the collective, enabling the idiosyncratic and the personal to take shape and accrue meaning against its backdrop. Yizkor is a prayer within reach.
The “yizkor ladies” of yesteryear knew all this instinctively. They may not have known the history and language of the prayer, the sociology of the Jewish community or, for that matter, when to sit and when to stand. But they knew that saying yizkor somehow mattered and that when Yom Kippur rolled around, synagogue was where they needed to be, if only for a couple of minutes.
I will miss them — and what they represented. Their gradual disappearance from the scene not only underscores the passing of an older generation of American Jews, but also marks the end of a particular kind of Jewish identity, one that translated being Jewish into an emotional idiom.
Although the “yizkor ladies” are gone and have now become a part of Jewish history, I hope we can learn something from them about the elastic bonds of community.