Once upon a time in my life, Yom Kippur was a day spent at my grandparent’s home in Brooklyn, New York. It meant a day with cousins, a long walk to the home of my other grandparents, and challenging my brother to fast, long before we were old enough to be thus obligated. While Yom Kippurs in Brooklyn did not include services, they did include a synagogue. Every year, around 11:00 a.m., the family walked a block and a half to the synagogue. My grandparents would go in, and we would stand around while the adults who stayed outside socialized with childhood friends. This was Yizkor, the mysterious service attended only by those who had lost one of their parents.
We stopped going to Brooklyn when I was a teenager, after my grandfather, stricken with Parkinsons, was in a nursing home and my grandmother passed away. We attended Yom Kippur services at our local synagogue, but my memories of this auspicious holiday are firmly rooted in Brooklyn.
After college, after I had chosen to live a more traditional religious life than my family, I became a “wandering Jew,” spending the holidays in a wide variety of communities. The services I attended now blend together, but the mass exodus from the sanctuary when Yizkor was called remained the same.
I was 28 when my father passed away. By then, I lived in a Jewish community and was part of a congregation. Those around me knew of my loss, but that first Yizkor, when I did not leave the sanctuary with the rest of the crowd, was surreal and distinct reminder of my new status as a mourner.
Among the many emotions I had that first Yizkor, there was a small sense of anticipation. The mystery of Yizkor was going to be unveiled. What was this “closed door” service?
The Yizkor service was certainly not what I had expected. I had anticipated reciting moving piyuttim (religious poems) and Psalms of comfort. In fact, the bulk of Yizkor is a formulaic vow to give charity in the merit of the deceased.
Yizkor is actually recited on Yom Kippur, Shemini Atzeret, the last day of Passover and Shavuot. During the Jewish holidays, the gates of Heaven are open to accept the collective prayers of the Jewish people, and they are therefore the perfect days on which to say an extra prayer for the departed. Praying for the deceased and doing mitzvot, such as giving charity, in their merit is meant to elevate their neshamot (spiritual essence, often translated as soul). In the “next world,” a soul cannot grow spiritually, perform mitzvot or earn a better place – basically, the soul reaps what it has sown in “this world.” However, those who are still among the living may gain merits for them through our good deeds.
Shemini Atzeret, Passover and Shavuot are the three festival holidays, and they are busy days with many mitzvot to complete and meals to be prepared and enjoyed. Yom Kippur is quite different. It is a serious day dedicated to prayer, and it seems to me, reciting Yizkor on Yom Kippur has specific poetic beauty.
On Yom Kippur, each person stands before God asking to be forgiven for their misdeeds of the past year. The acts we have done cannot be undone, we can only hope for forgiveness and clemency. Our loved ones who have passed away – and specifically our parents who did so much for us – are no longer available to advocate for themselves, and so we step outside our prayers for ourselves and recite Yizkor in their honor.
Several years after my father passed away, my family moved to Portland, Oregon. We had two small children and the synagogue was a significant walk from our house. For the first time since my father’s passing, I was not able to attend the Yizkor service. At first I was quite troubled by this fact, since going to Yizkor was such a deeply-rooted part of my sense of the holy day. Yizkor, however, does not require a minyan, and I used the opportunity of reciting it on my own to focus on what I had done and could do to elevate his neshama. I was able to reflect both on how sad I was that he had never met his grandchildren, and how grateful I was for all he had done for me.
Each person’s Yizkor experience is different. After my father’s sister passed away, I added her to my Yizkor prayers as she had never had children of her own and had shown me great kindness. In the Torah, the word Toldot refers to both generations and the effect one’s actions had on the world. Yizkor provides me with a beautiful opportunity to thank those to whom I can no longer speak for all that they gave me. While they may no longer be in this world, their presence in my life continues to have an impact upon me.
It has been 12 years since I lost my father. Busy with caring for my family, I once again spend more time on Yom Kippur outside the synagogue rather than inside it. Nevertheless, mid-morning on Yom Kippur I will don Crocs (or whatever non-leather shoe I find handy) and head to the synagogue for the merit of my father, for the merit of his soul.