Tag Archives: memory

Virtual Visitation – Shemini Atzeret 5779 / Yizkor

We, the Jews, are good at memory. It’s an essential part of our tradition. What are the ways that we remember people who have passed from this world?

  • Reciting Qaddish / other Yahrzeit (anniversary of death) observances
  • Yizkor (memorial services observed four times per year)
  • Book of Remembrance
  • Plaques

We are thorough at remembering. I think that might have something to do with our history. For much of the last two millennia, the Jews have moved around a lot, and every time we had to pick up and move to a new locale, we had to leave the cemetery behind. (Yes, the book of Shemot / Exodus records how the Israelites took Yosef’s bones with them as they fled Egypt, but that was an unusual circumstance.) It could be that we developed these regular rituals for remembrance.

When I look through our list of yahrzeit names, I often see that those who are observing yahrzeits are far away – who have since moved to Florida or Texas or New York – but their mother or sister or cousin is buried here in Pittsburgh. My grandparents are all buried in the Boston area; I don’t know if I will ever get to their graves again to visit. But I of course carry my memories of them, and I have shared some of those memories with my children. My grandmother, who, when she left her shtetl at the age of 8 in 1921, left her grandparents behind in the earth of Volhynia, Ukraine, could never have even thought about going back to visit them after she arrived in Boston. (For years, my mother and I have been thinking about traveling to the Ukraine to see if we can find them. BTW, I am captivated by the fact that I can see my grandmother’s little town on Google Maps. It’s nothing more than an agrarian crossroads, and the likelihood that the Ukrainians have maintained the Jewish cemetery there seems pretty slim.)

As the Jews were uprooted throughout history and went from Israel to Iraq, to Rome, to Spain, to France, to Germany, to Iran, to Yemen, to Morocco, to India and China and Jamaica and Chile and the Lower East Side and all the other places they went, they did not have the luxury of going back to visit.

So we developed virtual visitation. We carry the names, the faces, the memories of our departed loved ones wherever we go. We carry with us at all times those who have left us behind, and we take those memories down from our mental shelves from time to time. One of the great things about how we Jews mourn is that we force ourselves to remember. We are never entirely healed by a loss, but all that active remembering brings us comfort.

A couple of weeks ago on Yom Kippur, as we dedicated the new memorial plaques to be placed on the walls of Beth Shalom, a name caught my eye: Melaku Allen. Usually, the names that I see enshrined on plaques are drawn from the traditional Eastern European canon of names: Bernstein, Cohen, Levine, Shapiro, and so forth. Lots of Irvings and Idas and Morrises and Minnies. Not too many Melakus.

I actually wasn’t sure even how to pronounce the name.** The plaque was being dedicated by our member Dan Schwarcz. So I asked him about it at kiddush on the Shabbat between Yom Kippur and Sukkot. This is the story he told me.

Melaku Allen was the son of an Ethiopian Jewish father and a Christian, African-American mother, and he grew up in New Jersey. His father returned to Ethiopia when he was young, but Melaku, captivated by the traditions of his absent father, was drawn to Judaism, and underwent no less than three conversions: first by a Reform rabbi, then a Conservative rabbi, and then an Orthodox rabbi. He met Dan when they became roommates; Dan was in graduate school, and Melaku worked for NJ Transit. That was in the mid-1980s, and Melaku was not young then – he had already served his country in Vietnam, where, among his tasks was the spraying of the toxic defoliant Agent Orange. Melaku told Dan that he had been regularly covered with the stuff.

Dan and Melaku became very good friends, although they came from very different cultural backgrounds. Melaku occasionally referred to the two of them, jokingly, as the Schwarcz brothers. And they used to daven together at a little shul called the New Freedom Synagogue, so named because it was sponsored by an organization that was helping to resettle Jews from the Soviet Union, who were arriving in greater numbers in the 1980s.

But eventually, the Agent Orange exposure caught up with Melaku, and in 1987 he died of cancer. His funeral, Dan said, was unusually awkward, because his mother’s family was Christian, but it was a Jewish service. The synagogue members wanted to physically bury him, according to Jewish practice, but Melaku’s mother’s family was shocked by the practice. The officiating rabbi, who must have been a skilled communicator, explained gently that this was Melaku’s wish, to be buried according to Jewish tradition, and that the Jews consider it one of the highest forms of hesed, loving-kindness, to bury our deceased loved ones as a community, each of the assembled mourners helping out. So the Jews began the process of burying Melaku, and the assembled group seemed very tense and awkward, until Melaku’s mother stepped forward, picked up the shovel, and put some earth into his grave. There was a feeling of relief, and the Jews and the Christians all buried Melaku together, shoveling the earth together in fellowship while they remembered this man who died too young.

Dan did not have to take upon himself the obligation for remembering Melaku. He was not a relative.

But Melaku did not have anybody else to recall him in the Jewish way. So Dan took the virtual visitation upon himself. And then he went a step further to recall him with a plaque, which will now sit on the wall in Beth Shalom as long as this building stands.

One of the wonderful things about Judaism is that remembrance is all-encompassing. We remember and grieve for all those whom we have lost. The sibling from whom one was estranged. The abusive parent. The stillborn child*. Those that perished in the Shoah, and of course for many of them there is nobody to mourn. Those that gave their lives to defend their country, and in particular those who gave their lives for the state of Israel.

That is one reason that I urge people not to follow the old Ashkenazi custom of not staying in the room for Yizkor. We need more remembrance. We can always offer words of Yizkor. The need for recalling those for whom there is nobody saying qaddish is far greater than old-world superstitions.

And even for those for whom there is no plaque, and no living relative, we continue to recall them. Just as Moshe fulfilled the promise that the Israelites made to Yosef, hundreds of years prior, to take his remains up from Egypt with him, we fulfill that obligation to all who came before us, carrying the spiritual remains, if you will, of all Jews who came before.

There is a Jewish cemetery in Berlin, which I once visited on a tour of Jewish sites there, where Moses Mendelssohn is buried. Mendelssohn, of course, is the father of the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment that began in the 18th century, as Jews stepped out of the shtetl and into Western society. Mendelssohn was, arguably, the first modern Jew: he lived an observant life and wrote extensively on Jewish topics, but also entered the salon culture of Berlin, wherein he schmoozed and sparred with non-Jewish German philosophers of the time, most notably Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. He is one of the three great Moseses invoked in the piece of Jewish intellectual folk wisdom: From Moses [the biblical one] to Moses [Mendelssohn], there is none like Moses [Maimonides].

The Nazis destroyed the cemetery, and as you walk through it you see fragments of the matzevot (gravestones) in the ground. But when I visited in 2001, there was one matzevah standing: that of Mendelssohn. It’s a recreation, of course – it’s not the original. But it’s a stark, powerful statement of memory.

MosesMendelssohn 2

Does Mendelssohn need a marker? No. We recall him every time a contemporary Jew acts like a citizen of the world: dressing like an American, or studying at a French university, or voting in a democratic election in the State of Israel, or recording a hit rap album (with a nod to Mac Miller, z”l). Our virtual visitation of Mendelssohn consists of living proudly as Jews who are welcomed into the broader society.

We continue to mark Moses Mendelssohn’s passing, and Melaku Allen’s, and all those whom we recall today, as we make our way through life, virtually and physically. But the essence of remembrance is not what’s on the wall, or in the Book of Remembrance that you all hold, or even in reciting Qaddish or lighting a candle. It is in what is in our hearts as we remember them, the things that they gave us, the moments we shared, the times we hear their voices coming out of our own mouths. Those are the items that sustain and honor our beloved parents, sisters and brothers, wives and husbands and partners, our sons and daughters and friends and all those whom we recall, as we continue through life.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shemini Atzeret 5779, 10/1/2018.)

* Yes, some have the custom not to mourn children who do not live past 30 days. But first of all, that is because in the pre-modern world, many, many children died this way. Also, it’s just a custom. If it helps you heal to mourn for a miscarriage, a stillbirth, a baby who died soon after birth, then you have every right to do so.

** Dan tells me that while his mother accented the first syllable, “MEL-a-ku,” his Jewish friends accented the second and turned the k into a khaf: “mel-A-khu.” I cannot confirm this, but my suspicion is that it is an Amharic (Ethiopian) cognate of the Hebrew melekh, meaning “king.” Amharic and Hebrew are both in the Hamito-Semitic family of languages.

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The Memory Machine – Second Day Shavuot, 5776

Remembrance of those who have passed from this world is a universal human desire; we all feel the need to recall our family members and friends who are no longer with us.

Two decades ago, when I was an undergraduate at Cornell, I recall reading a statement about memory that has stuck with me.  It appeared in the campus newspaper, the Cornell Daily Sun, in the middle of a tongue-in-cheek article about something that I can’t remember.  But the statement that struck me read as follows:

“[So-and-so] is still trying to cope with the realization that he is a function of every person he has ever met and every book he has ever read.”

I remember thinking, hey, that’s me too.  I am also a function of every person I’ve ever met and every book I’ve ever read.  And here, the word “function” is used in its mathematical sense.  Perhaps some of you recall from junior high school algebra:

f(x)

or the diagram of the function machine:

function can be visualized as a "machine" that takes an input x and ...

A function is a box that performs some kind of action on data that is entered, such that what comes out is modified in a particular way.  So if f(x) is x-squared, then if I put in 2, the function turns it into 4.  If I put in 3, it becomes 9.  And so forth.

To say that we are functions of our life experience is a vast oversimplification, of course.  Our own function machines would have to be very, very complicated.  But on some level, this is not far off.  We are shaped by our experiences, from the moment we emerge from the womb, through schooling and relationships and work and success and failure and loss and happiness and sadness.

Perhaps a better way of understanding ourselves, then, is that we are  memory machines — sacks full of memory — that not only process our experiences through those memories, but also allow us to dig into our past, to re-examine, to think of the beautiful moments as well as the awkward ones that we wish had never happened. What we carry with us is invaluable; it is in fact who we are.

And it is really hard to wrap our brains around that.  We often measure people by the superficial stuff: how they appear, what car they drive, where they go to synagogue, when they go to synagogue, and so forth.

But what really makes us who we are is our own, personal, individual sack of memory. And in particular on a day like today, when we reflect back on how our lives were touched by those whom we remember.

The proper name from Yizkor, by the way, is Hazkarat Neshamot, the recalling of souls. What we do on this day is to attempt to bring up those shards of memory of those who have left us: who they were, what they stood for, what they taught us.

Perhaps this endeavor serves as a reminder on an ongoing basis of our obligation to treat others well, to remember that every interaction that we have with other people is logged in somebody’s memory.  And not only that, but also that many little actions can add up to a tidal wave of memories, memories that cross over from individuals to peoples.  Memory shapes not only individuals, but also cultures, politics, and nations.

I’m going to share with you a few examples from my own memory machine, memories that have shaped me as a contemporary Jew, as an American, and as a rabbi.

When I was in cantorial school, and before I had a cantorial position that required me to be at the same synagogue every Shabbat and holiday, I used to do a lot of “shul-hopping.”  That is, I would walk to different synagogue in Manhattan to listen to different hazzanim, to hear them practice their art.  One year on Shemini Atzeret, I walked to Fifth Avenue Synagogue, an Orthodox congregation on the East Side, to hear Cantor Joseph Malovany.  Unfortunately, he was not there that day, and his substitute was unremarkable.  But I was treated to something else that day: the author Elie Wiesel was there, sitting quietly in the front row on the rabbi’s side.  I did something that day that I was not accustomed to doing at the time: I stayed in the sanctuary for Yizkor, mostly so I could watch Elie Wiesel as he stood up to recite his own personal Yizkor prayers, recalling, I imagined, all of the things that he had recounted in his books: the loss of his family, his Romanian village, the loss of his faith upon arrival in Auschwitz.  He stood with his eyes closed, gently rocking side to side, his head cast slightly upward.  Where is he?  I wondered.  Where is he right now?

A different story: The summer of my seventeenth year I visited Israel for the first time.  I spent eight weeks there on an academic program called the Alexander Muss High School in Israel, where we learned Jewish history from ancient times until present day, and visited relevant sites all over Israel to put it in context.  It was amazing — much of what I learned that summer I have carried with me and used again and again.

Of course, when you have 40 seventeen-year-olds living together in a dorm for eight weeks, you learn a whole lot about the complexity of human relationships as well.  One thing that I remember from that summer was learning about how mean one Jew can be to another for the sake of one interpretation of Judaism.  One weekend, we had some free time in Jerusalem, and one of my female friends was caught inadvertently among a mob of Haredim (so-called ultra-Orthodox Jews, although I prefer not to use that misleading term) who were protesting the opening of certain cinemas on Shabbat.  She was wearing something that someone in that crowd deemed inappropriate, and so he spat upon her.  She was, as you can imagine, more than taken aback; the Jews among whom she had grown up and lived with and traveled around Israel with did not behave that way.

That was a memory that I am sure that she carries with her to this day, and so do I by proxy (even though I was not there when it happened).

Ladies and gentlemen, as a people we came through the Shoah together, laden with horrible memories, with martyrdom an essential feature of the modern Jewish psyche.  We established a Jewish state in our historical homeland.  We have empowered women to participate fully in Jewish life and mitzvot.  Many of us in this room remember all of these things personally, because you were there.  Our memories have shaped us as a people. And they will continue to help us move forward as a people into the bold, inchoate Jewish future.

Many of you have been to parlor meetings with me over the past year, and you know that part of the process is to tell a story about a Jewish memory, a meaningful Jewish experience. My goal in asking you to do so is not so that the others in the room might simply say, “Now that’s nice.” Rather, it is to (a) remind us of the power of memory, (b) create a sense of community through shared stories, and (c) try to connect who we are and how we live today as Jews with our past experiences. We fire up those memory machines to connect them with each other, and then with Congregation Beth Shalom.

On this second day of Shavuot, this day of remembering, it is upon us to look back not only on the people that have created deep personal memories for us, our parents, our siblings, our teachers, our friends, but also those among our people who have created salient cultural memories for us as Jews, and the community that we have inherited.

Memory makes us collectively stronger as individuals and as a qehillah. Turn on those memory machines; now is the time to actively remember.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, second day of Shavuot, 6/13/2016.)

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Memory and Compassion – Shemini Atzeret / Yizkor 5776

This is a day of memory, a day when we recall those who shaped us, who gave our lives meaning by their presence and wisdom and love.

We Jews excel at remembering. There is a reason for that: through centuries of exile, persecution, dispersion, displacement, forced conversions, and so on, we had to cling to our history, because often it was all we could take with us.

Memory is what drives the Jewish world. It is what keeps us Jewish. Our past sustains our traditions; our ancient stories have nourished us and comforted us and granted us joy for thousands of years. When we had no homeland, when we had no safe haven, when we were being burned in autos-da-fe or tried for treason or marched into gas chambers, we could always take with us what we held in our hearts, the words of our tradition, our rituals, our ancient stories. We could always take with us our own personal tales of struggle and faith, of our poor yet pious great-grandparents who came from a far-off land to build a new life where they were free to be Jewish.

We are our memories. To borrow from the language of Birkat Shehehiyyanu, which we say upon reaching any milestone, our memories have kept us alive and sustained us and enabled us to reach this day. And that’s a good thing.

But it may not be enough today. It may not be enough for our children and grandchildren, because the world is changing so dramatically. Our memories are catalogued extensively, yes. Today we are blessed to have huge libraries containing millions of volumes about the Jewish world that was, Jewish studies departments at universities all over the world, Jewish scholars and Jewish artists and Jewish websites and archives and museums.

And we have the greatest set of Jewish resources before us in history, resources that would make Rashi and Rambam green with envy, had they foreseen these things in the 11th and 12th centuries. We have electronic resources, instantly searchable, with which you can find virtually anything on the Jewish bookshelf. We have fantastically footnoted and interpreted translations that make the Tanakh and Talmud and midrashim and halakhic codes instantly accessible. We have databases in which you can easily peruse all the great works of the Jewish bookshelf.

And yet, as we move forward, I see the lights of Jewish memory fading in the eyes of our children, lost in the din of billions of gigabytes of information. As we integrate our devices into everything we do, we run the risk of losing sight of what the important things are.

There are rabbis in this world who rail against the use of computers and smartphones and the evil Internet because they are corrupting influences that draw us away from God and Judaism. I am not one of them (as you may know, my sermons are all accessible online). But I am concerned that our electronic interconnectedness has the effect of de-emphasizing distinctiveness, of flattening everything out so that every piece of information is the same value as every other.

So one irony of today’s Jewish world is that while we have more tools at our fingertips thanks to the Information Age, the noise and distractions with which these tools come make our ancient messages, our holy memories, harder to hear.

How do we cut through the noise to ensure that our tradition of memory is carried on? We have to change the tone.

My inspiration here comes not from Rashi or Rambam, but from a contemporary spiritual leader of tremendous importance: Pope Francis. Francis, who is the first Jesuit pope and the first from the Americas, has been masterful in changing the tone of the Roman Catholic church, something that the church sorely needed. In his tour of the United States that coincided with the Ten Days of Teshuvah / repentance (as well as the annual Muslim hajj festivities), the Pope spoke in several venues to re-affirm what has become the trademark of his papacy: to focus less on standard church doctrine and more on the many good things that the church and that religious people of all sorts do all over the world: acts of compassion.

Francis is the Conservative rabbi’s favorite pope. He is a good friend of a Conservative rabbi from Buenos Aires, the rector of the Seminario Rabinico Latinoamericano (the JTS of Latin America), Rabbi Abraham Skorka, with whom he co-authored a book on faith and frequently appeared for public lectures and discussions. Dr. Eve Keller, a good friend and former congregant of mine from Great Neck teaches at Fordham University, a Jesuit school, and she refers to the the Jesuits as the Conservative movement of the Catholic church: dedicated to academic scholarship, progressive, and committed to tradition.

While there are some in the church want to hear the pope speak against abortion, contraception, homosexuality, and the hot-button issues of our time, Pope Francis uses every opportunity to remind the world that there are poor, needy people everywhere who lack the essentials for a decent life. He has placed the concept of mercy front-and-center. While he has not changed significantly the church’s position on anything, he has changed the tone, changed the discourse.

When he spoke before the joint session of the United States Congress on September 24th, he quoted the principle that appears in the Christian scriptures (Matthew 7:12) and is known widely as the Golden Rule, but we in the Jewish world know it as the sage Hillel’s advice to a potential convert as the summation of the Torah. The pope said the following:

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you…

Let us treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated. Let us seek for others the same possibilities which we seek for ourselves. Let us help others to grow, as we would like to be helped ourselves. In a word, if we want security, let us give security; if we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities. The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us.

This was a reminder, in the most public forum that the pope had during his visit, that the social and political flashpoints that divide us are not, as we say in Hebrew, the ‘iqqar, the central principle of the church, or of any religious tradition, including ours. Rather, the essential message is, to use Hillel’s phrasing (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 31a): “Do not do unto others what is hateful unto you; all the rest is commentary. Now go and learn it.”

Ultimately, we will be judged not on our devotion to halakhic minutiae or the dogmatic details of religious belief, but on how we have treated others. Have we made compassion the default option? Have we allowed only the holiest words to emerge from our mouths? Have we really worked to change this world for the better, to improve the lot of the poor, of the disenfranchised?

In the book co-written by Rabbi Abraham Skorka and then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the rabbi cites a midrash about the Tower of Babel. The Torah tells us one story of God’s objection to the tower. But the midrash suggests that the real reason that God foiled the builders’ plans is that they were more concerned about bricks falling out, and thus slowing down the work, than if a worker were to fall and be killed.

The big picture was lost in the focus on the small details. The sanctity of life, the holiness of our relationships became obscured by the noise of the construction site, the business at hand.

What is our big picture? Is it Jewish law? Is it the performance of mitzvot / commandments? Is it the lifelong commitment to Jewish learning? Is it ritual, services, holidays, waving the lulav/etrog, sitting in the sukkah, etc.?

Those things are all important; they are the behaviors that define us as Jews, and have maintained our distinctiveness and our relationship to God. But the central message to which all of these Jewish activities should lead, the one that we must recall on this day of memory, is compassion.

Each of us has the potential to play a special, sacred role in this very fractured world: to do good works for others, for the sake of those who have come before us.

My grandfather, my mother’s father, alav hashalom, became a ward of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts at age 3. He grew up on a farm near Boston with a foster family, Jewish farmers who were decent people. He did not finish high school. But he was a good person who always took care of the people around him. He operated a candy store during the Depression, but lost it because he gave free stuff away to anybody who came in and asked. I never heard him say a negative word about anybody, except about the people who once sold him some stock that ultimately tanked. My mother tells me that he complimented his wife, my grandmother, on her cooking, no matter how badly dinner was burned. When I think of this sweet, sweet man, I remember how essential it is to be kind and gracious to everybody, to give all people, strangers or loved ones, a fair shake in life.

The memory of our ancestors, of the people they were, of the good things they did, of the hard work that enabled them to survive and us to thrive, should inspire us to continue to do good works in this world, to practice acts of passion and compassion.

That is the essential message, the one that Pope Francis and I hope will rise above the din of all the chaos in our lives, the one that previous generations gave us and that we will pass on to those who come after us.

As we turn now to recall those who endowed us, the living, with the ability to effect positive change in this world, we should not forget that remembrance is not a momentary prayer. It is a daily choice. Let our prayerful moments today translate into good works for others tomorrow.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shemini Atzeret, Monday morning, 10/5/2015.) 

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