As we recall our loved ones who have passed from this world, I’d like to share a brief story I heard recently on Public Radio International’s program, “This American Life.”
It comes from the town of Otsuchi, nearly 600 km north of Tokyo, which was devastated by the tsunami in 2011; many there died, over 400 are still classified as “missing.” In this town, a local man built a phone booth in his garden, on a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean, so he could “speak” to the relatives he lost in the storm. He called it the “Wind Telephone.” It’s an old-fashioned sort of booth, with a black, rotary phone inside that’s not connected to anything. But this man, Itaru Sasaki, would sit in the booth and speak to his dead relatives.
Soon, word got out that this was a kind of magic phone. Other people came to sit and speak with their deceased family members. They dial the phone, and talk. Mr. Sasaki’s phone became a national phenomenon.
Japanese society is extraordinarily reserved; the Japanese are not inclined to talk with others about painful things. And what this Wind Telephone allowed people to do was to pour out their hearts, alone, in view of the ocean that destroyed their lives, and in some sense “speak” to those whom they missed so much.
A recent documentary about the phone on Japanese state television captured some of the conversations:
One man says, “If my voice can reach you, please listen to what I have to say….”
Another: “Come back fast, wherever you are. I hope you are alive.”
One writes in the guest book: “Where are you, mother? I’m sorry I was not a good child. I miss you.”
A woman brings her grandchildren: “Hi, Grandpa. How are you? I’ll be in 4th grade next year. Grandma is fine too.”
An older man, a farmer, says: “Nobuyuki, is Mom with you? Sorry to ask this, but take care of her, and Grandma and Grandpa too. I’ll be back.”
It’s heartbreaking. You can feel the grief of their words, hear the pain of loss and devastation echoing in this booth as it sits alone in the wind.
As Jews, we remember those whom we have lost in multiple ways – we light candles, we recite qaddish, and we gather four times per year for the ceremony of Yizkor. Most of our rituals associated with mourning and remembering are communal; as with much of Jewish life, we do these things together, as a community. The gathering of our people in the synagogue is our Wind Telephone; the community itself functions as the conduit through which we remember, through which we grieve.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Yom Kippur 5777, 10/12/2016.)