For the first time, I had entries in my synagogue’s Yizkor book. I hadn’t planned on doing this. Every year in whatever shul I attended, I had looked through the book, reflecting on those being remembered and those remembering. While I think about my mother daily since she died at 63 in 1984, I never connected her to a Yizkor book. Other people did that with loved ones, but I felt distant from the book aspect, a milder version of the wicked son at the Passover seder, who asks, “What does the ritual mean to you?” As with all aspects of Judaism, I had no role models growing up. If anybody honored their parents in a yizkor book on their side of my family, I never heard about it. My mother had no external involvement in Judaism and had a Christian funeral, reflecting the staunch faith of the older sister she lived with during her last years. I remembered her during the Yizkor prayers, but that act remained private, me and her.
This year, however, something changed.
My father outlived my mother by 34 years. They divorced when I was young and ill feelings between them ran very, very deep. The idea of “co-parenting” did not apply in the early 1960s, as my mother stayed in Texas and my father wound up in New York. I only saw them together when my father visited us for a weekend in 1970. So great was the animus that for years I fretted about their interaction at my Princeton graduation in 1980. Their resentments became my problem and it never entered my mind to say, “You work it out like adults.” Finally, I found a solution: my younger brother and I met my father and his wife at a part of campus a distance from where my mother, brother and other Texas relatives waited.
Flash-forward almost 40 years. My father and I drifted through an on-and-off relationship, as years of silence alternated with more social periods. In the last decade we met for occasional family brunches and a trip to a local museum. I got him together with my son when I could arrange it. When my father died this March, at the age of 92, I told my rabbi, but I couldn’t get myself to sit shiva for him.
I did attend an April memorial service at a VA cemetery in a New York suburb. My thoughts honored a shared Jewish identity. Here’s what I said, with a nod to our relationship:
My father lived 92 years and he lived each day fully. Like Frank Sinatra sang, he did it his way. Along the way, he had a tremendous influence on me—my interest in the Ivy League, my interest in Judaism, and blues music and even opera. I’m also a camera guy. I didn’t name my son after a car, however. So, a lot of what I am today is a reflection of what he was and what he imparted to me. His legacy will linger on and may his memory be a blessing. Baruch Dayan Emet—Blessed be the True Judge.
Afterward I met his widow and his old soldier friends (my father was a Navy veteran of Okinawa) at the American Legion hall in Nyack, NY. Over lunch, the men related stories from World War II my father had shared with them—stories, one veteran said, “that soldiers only tell each other.” I learned a lot from them that afternoon. The day wasn’t exactly shiva, but the memorial service and lunch gave me a badly needed sense of closure. My father had slipped beneath the waves of mortality, and we gave him a heartfelt Godspeed.
When the Yizkor book notice from Chabad of Bedford arrived in early September, I thought of my father. After saying Kaddish four times for him at Shabbat services, I realized the time had come to make the Yizkor book my own, something that happened to me, not just to those other people suffering loss. I decided to reserve space for a mention of my father.
Then I thought, well, why not Mom? While not religious in any outward sense, she’s the one who taught me the Sh’ma, kept a menorah on our RCA television, the Union Prayer Book on a coffee table and a bottle of Manischewitz in the fridge. Day in, day out, she shaped my spiritual and moral development.
Then I wavered, yanked back into those old anxieties about the two of them. I never thought of them as a couple, or even as civilly divorced parents; could I memorialize them together? That sensation overlaid my emotions. I didn’t have to think too long to remember that this is the season of Rosh Hashanah, a new year, fresh ways of approaching life’s issues. I filled out the form for both of them, those two utterly different souls who improbably merged for a few years, the practical dollars-and-sense daughter of small-town Texas and the Missouri son of Russian immigrants turned Manhattan bon vivant. Or, as I read their names in the Yizkor prayers, Shira bat Chava and Moshe ben Rivka.
Arriving at Yom Kippur services this past Wednesday at Chabad of Bedford, I picked up the Yizkor book. The explanation of Yizkor began with words I found electrifying:
The ancient custom of recalling the souls of the departed is rooted in the fundamental Jewish belief in the eternity of the soul. When physical life ends, only the body dies. The soul ascends to the realm of the spirit, where it regularly attains higher levels of purity and holiness.
The book’s presentation showed a simple equality of remembrance. Rich or poor, man or woman, contented or cantankerous, differences so crucial in life no longer matter. Each entry looked the same. My entry said,
Dedicated by the
in loving memory of
I read the prayers for a departed mother and father. The meditations in memory of a mother—included the sentences “What I am, I have become through you. Though you are no longer physically present, the lessons that you imparted unto me shall ever remain with me”—both comforted and grieved me. I started thinking about what charity I could pledge in their memory, an essential part of Yizkor.
Thoughts about my father on Yizkor? The same as at his memorial service: he influenced me in ways both good and, to be honest, not so good. Being a camera guy like him, I spent an hour between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur scanning long-ignored slides from my parents’ 1955 wedding. That I digitized the images in the days before Yizkor could not be a coincidence; my parents were together, in a way, in death through Yizkor, as they were not in life. I wanted to see them side-by-side in a joyful phase of their life, at the dawn of their marriage under the chuppah of Temple Emanuel in McAllen, Texas—my mother petite and lovely as a bride, my father in a baggy 1950s suit looking a little wry at the proceedings. I also liked seeing my mother’s parents, native Texans who both died in 1959, and my father’s parents, Coral Gables retirees then in their mid-50s and younger than I am now.
So in my own variation on Yizkor, I recalled my parents on Yom Kippur through photos showing them as young and looking to the future. They’ll be in the book next year. As for the donations to charity in their names for their merit, I’m working on that, too. I’ve got something permanent in mind, something that the generations to come can see and touch. I just need to figure out what to say in two lines of 18 characters each on a memorial brick at my shul’s new building.
I’ll think of something.