Where Have All the Yizkor Ladies Gone?

Wonders of America

The Mourning After: During the recital of the yizkor prayers, women always seemed to outnumber men.
Getty Images
The Mourning After: During the recital of the yizkor prayers, women always seemed to outnumber men.

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

Published October 12, 2012, issue of October 19, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 2)

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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.