Memory Is My Story

History is his story or her story—an event that happened to someone else at some point in time. Memory is MY story. Memory is something that happened to ME and is a part of who I am—I own it. Memory shapes us. It is part of our identity. My memory is solely mine; your memory is yours. We could be together at the same time and place—at shul, at a baseball game, or at the same meal—but no two people share the same memories. We all have different experiences, influenced by many factors, both internal and external.

During chagim, holidays, we work hard to create so many wonderful memories. Memories of attending shul together, being with family and friends, taking the time to savor the rituals of each particular holiday. Perhaps at times you can practically taste the apples and honey from Rosh Hashanah, maybe you can hear the blast of the shofar from the end of Yom Kippur, or maybe you can smell the sweet etrog from Sukkot. These multisensory memories of chagim can bring us back to a certain time and place in our lives.

For me, so many of my memories of chagim are associated with Hallel. I have always felt a strong connection to Hallel since I was young — for as long as I can remember. I am not sure why I have always felt this way — perhaps it is because of the familiar words of Hallel or maybe it is because of the beautiful music, or maybe Hallel simply reminds me of joyful holiday celebrations with my family. My children know that on any given chag, I push them out the door to get to shul on time for Hallel. Hallel conjures up memories of years and years of holidays — sometimes it brings me back to my childhood synagogue in Monroe, New York, where I am surrounded by the people who literally watched me grow up. Other times, I am back at my Pesach seder table with my grandparents, parents, siblings, my aunt, uncle, and cousins. It was at this seder table where I truly learned the words and some of the melodies of Hallel. My memories bring me back to those experiences as if I am reliving them. They are part of my story. These memories of Hallel continue to influence me and they are part of my identity both as a person and as a Jew.

I have a more recent, very vivid memory of Hallel that is a bit more complicated than the sweet memory of a holiday. It was Shavuot six years ago. My husband, Matt, z”l, had recently been diagnosed with leukemia just weeks prior. He was still in the hospital for his first round of chemotherapy — he also happened to be sick with a fever at that time. During the weeks surrounding Shavuot, my community in Riverdale, New York, spearheaded and was actively involved with bone marrow drives to help find a match for the stem cell transplant that Matt would need. Needless to say, that spring was a very difficult time for my family. I arrived at shul on Shavuot with my four young children shortly before we came to my favorite part of davening—Hallel. I stood there, frozen, surrounded by people who were supporting me in so many ways, but rather than feeling loved, I felt alone, lonely, and very much afraid. We had so many questions and so few answers.

I was trying to sing the words of Hallel, but for the first time that I could recall, I could not say, sing, or even read anything…my voice could not produce any sound and my eyes could not focus on the familiar words. It was as if I was breathless. I felt paralyzed. A few minutes passed and I was able to catch my breath again, but I was still unable to participate with the congregation. Instead, I focused my eyes on the English translation, and I was struck by the meaning on that particular page: “In my distress I called to G-d . G-d answered me and set me free. G-d is with me; I will not be afraid…”

I have gone through most or even my entire life feeling a strong connection to G-d, never doubting my faith or G-d’s existence, feeling grateful for the blessings I had—this moment was no different despite the adversity and the questions we faced. I knew G-d would answer me, but I was trying to figure out HOW G-d would answer me. I was trying to figure out HOW I could “thank G-d” at this challenging time. I tried–through the words of Hallel, I tried to understand and to find comfort, but it felt nearly impossible. I continue to be reminded of this difficult memory each time we recite Hallel today—it is very different than my childhood memories of joyful chagim, but this is my memory; it is part of my story and who I am now. This memory has helped shape me, and it has influenced my relationship with G-d.

Fast forward to another vivid memory, about 18 months later. Matt had died six months earlier, and I was davening at my children’s school, where I recited Kaddish each weekday morning. It was Rosh Chodesh on that particular day. Once again, I came to my favorite part of davening, Hallel. I was standing among eighth graders who graciously welcomed me each morning. Their beautiful voices filled the shul at school, but once again, I was not able to join them. This time, I was mesmerized by the commentary in the Koren Mesorat HaRav Siddur that I was using.

This is an excerpt of what I read:

“When the Torah decreed, “And you shall rejoice in your festival,” it referred not to merrymaking and entertaining…but to an all penetrating depth-experience of spiritual joy, serenity and peace of mind deriving from faith and the awareness of G-d’s presence. Now let us visualize the following concrete situation. The mourner, who has buried a beloved wife or mother, returns home from the graveyard where he has left part of himself, where he has witnessed the mockery of human existence. He is in a mood to question the validity of our entire axiological universe. The house is empty and dreary; every piece of furniture reminds the mourner of the beloved person he has buried. Every corner is full of memories. Yet the halakha addresses itself to the lonely mourner, whispering to him: “Rise from your mourning; cast the ashes from your head; change your clothes; light the festive candles….join the jubilating community and celebrate the holiday as if nothing had transpired, as if the beloved person over whose death you grieve were with you.” The halakha suggests to man, broken in body and spirit, carrying the burden of an absurd existence, that he change his mood, that he cast off his grief and choose joy.”

Not an easy task to undertake—six months after I buried my husband, or even now, five years after I buried him—to cast off my grief? But, somehow I felt even more connected to Hallel in a way that I had not previously experienced. I felt like this explanation was speaking directly TO me, empathizing with me and validating my emotional state, while, at the same time, giving me some comfort and direction. I carry this memory with me each time I recite Hallel. In fact, I need to tightly grasp onto this memory because the reality is that chagim and even any random day can be really difficult after we have lost loved ones, but this memory reminds me of G-d’s presence and that G-d, at least the G-d I know, understands and accepts me for where I am at any given moment. And yes, through the words of Hallel, I am able to thank G-d for being with me.

A few months ago, Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO, delivered a commencement address at the University of California at Berkeley. Her husband had suddenly passed away just a year ago earlier, and as she addressed the graduates, she said, “Today is a day of celebration, of thanks, of reflection.” She explained that her address would be different than other commencement speeches because, she said, “I am not going to tell you today what I learned in life; today I am going to try to tell you what I learned in death.”

I would argue that Sheryl Sandberg is not unique in this sentiment. Many of us learn through death—we learn more deeply about love, G-d, relationships with others and within ourselves, community, priorities, and gratitude. We learn that joy and grief can exist simultaneously, BUT that the sadness of loss never goes away. Time does not really heal, BUT we can be grateful for our blessings. I have always felt tremendous gratitude, a value and mindset that I learned from my parents through example. Judaism gives us the opportunity to express our gratitude to G-d (and to others) throughout each day–when we wake up in the morning with Modeh Ani, before and after we eat, in davening Shemoneh Esrei. Gratitude is not a new idea to me, BUT it was through Matt’s death that my gratitude exponentially grew and continues to do so. I learned to understand and appreciate the gratitude we show towards G-d, family, friends, and community. G-d did not answer me in the ways that I would have chosen, but He did answer me with strength, family, community, and clarity. “In my distress I called to G-d . G-d answered me and set me free. G-d is with me; I will not be afraid…” Yes, G-d is indeed with me.

During Yizkor at my synagogue, we recite Psalm 23, lines of extraordinary poetry that show us that even in the darkest of times, in the loneliest of moments, even as we lay dying, we can search for
G-d and find that He is with us, and we can feel gratitude. In his book, The Lord Is My Shepherd: Healing Wisdom of the 23rd Psalm, Rabbi Harold Kushner writes, “Instead of cursing a G-d who permits our loved ones to die, it [Psalm 23] introduces us to a G-d who is with us in our pain, and who leads us through the dark valley back into the light. It summons us to live bravely, to go forward with our lives in the confidence that we are not alone.”

Shortly before Matt died, he added his own commentary to Psalm 23:
God is my shepherd, I shall not lack. [I never have lacked.]
In lush meadows He lays me down, beside tranquil waters He leads me. [ This year I have been able to feel a peace that I had not previously known — in Hebrew, “nachat ruach.”]
He restores my soul [ which I believe is eternal].
He leads me on paths of justice for His name’s sake.  [I can only hope that I have followed these paths more often than I have shunned them.]
Though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me.  [Throughout this ordeal, I have never been afraid. Perhaps it is because I am a person of faith? Or maybe I am too simple-minded to recognize the magnitude of the loss that I am facing?]
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. [I interpret God’s “rod” and “staff” to be my family and friends, respectively.]
You prepare a table before me in view of my tormentors.  [ I think about the tables in my life. . .  my childhood dinner table . . . breakfast before school with my kids at a cafe table . . . the seder table . . . the table from which I read the Torah in synagogue.]
You anointed my head with oil [ I was brought up to believe I was special and could accomplish anything that I wanted], my cup overflows [a phrase I have uttered to myself each Friday night before the words of Kiddush].
May only goodness and kindness pursue me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of God for eternity.  [Although I am saddened by what I will miss, the days with which I have been blessed have been full.]
A final thought: Walk with your G-d. Identify what is important to you, go after it, and when you have tasted success, be thankful for it.

In Matt’s statements, we can imagine and hear some of his memories that shaped him. We can hear HIS story—the tables in his life, the influence of his parents, his gratitude for life itself. He demonstrated ultimate faith in G-d during his darkest days, and we can continue to learn from his intimate relationship with G-d.

It has been several years since the Hallel memories I shared with you here, and I can now take a step back and analyze how these memories have shaped me. I relive them in my mind as if they were yesterday, or even today. Mine and Matt’s story did not end the way any of us had hoped or even imagined, but this is OUR story. These are MY memories. Hallel continues to resonate with me—it helps me to find simcha in the chagim, and it reminds me that even on the loneliest of days, I am not really alone. G-d is with me—I can clearly see that as I look at my four children standing beside me during Hallel, and I feel grateful and blessed. “In my distress I called to G-d. G-d answered me and set me free. G-d is with me; I will not be afraid…” Or, as Matt would say, “כוסי רוויה, my cup overflows.”

During the upcoming Yamim Noraim, may we all be blessed with meaningful memories that strengthen our faith, gratitude, and joy.

Shana tova.

About the Author
Jennifer Fenster lives in Riverdale, New York, with her four children. She currently works at SAR Academy, a Modern Orthodox day school in Riverdale, as the Director of Communications and as a Middle School Science teacher.
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