Saying Yizkor

I shove the lasagna in the oven and glance at the clock. It’s 9:45. If I want to make it to shul in time for Yizkor, I’m going to have to hurry. I already know what I’m going to wear, a long black dress with the flattering princess seams. Is it upstairs hanging in my closet? Or downstairs in the laundry?

I run upstairs; it is neither, it is in a heap on my chair where I keep clothes that have been worn once, but are not dirty enough to throw into the laundry. I pull it over my head. No time for makeup, but I need a hat. I have two black straw hats on a shelf in the entryway. It’s October. Do people still wear straw hats in October? If it’s black, I can probably get away with it.

I run downstairs, plunk one on my head, then survey my choice of shoes. The ballerina flats that the dog chewed on? Or the not-quite comfortable espadrilles? No time, no time! I wiggle into the espadrilles, grab my reading glasses and hustle out the door, hoping mightily that I haven’t missed it. As I dash through the living room, I catch a glimpse of the yahrtzeit candles, four of them, flickering in a row on the silver tray that holds my candlesticks.

Red and yellow leaves litter the sidewalk. A steady stream of women are walking down my block towards shul. All morning, I could hear the rhythm of heels click-clacking past my house. Head down, I scurry across the street. My heart is like a fist, tight with tension.

I yank the door open and stride through the lobby. My heart bangs against my chest when I see people loitering outside the sanctuary. Have I missed it? No, I’m just early, I’ve arrived during the Torah reading. Quietly, I take a seat on the aisle. We are at the end of Devarim. The Baal Koreh is singing the blessings Moshe bestowed on each of the twelve tribes. In the next perek, Moshe dies.

I think of the candles burning in my dining room. My father-in-law passed away in February. Between my husband and myself, he was our last living parent. He came to our daughter’s wedding a few months before he died. In the pictures, he seems fine. It’s always a shock to realize he’s no longer with us.

Somehow, people know when it’s time to leave. Children, teens, young and middle aged, they rise from their seats, put their machzors down on their chairs, and file out. Their glances land on me, then flick away.

The trickle of congregants swells into a murmuring river. I watch them go. When the door closes behind them, it is silent.

At this point, I glance furtively around. Empty seats, a scattering of somber congregants. We are part of an elite club, a club no one wants to join; the people who say Yizkor.

The chazzan begins to chant the pesukim leading up to the prayer. We chant after him. Man is like a breath, his days are like a passing shadow…Thus the dust returns to the ground as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.

For most of my life, I was part of the crowd hastily leaving. Yizkor was shrouded in mystery. What were they doing in there? What prayers and rituals were they performing? Why was everyone dabbing at their eyes when we came back in? Yizkor is a prayer that doesn’t actually need to be said in shul, yet we all go, Jews who never otherwise step into a synagogue standing beside Jews who daven three times a day. When I lived in Park Slope, I remember bus drivers, postal workers, uniformed policemen and old ladies with shopping bags coming into shul, staying only as long as Yizkor lasted, then slipping out as soon as it ended.

The first time I said Yizkor, it was for my mother, and the empty space she left behind was still raw. The Tehillim we recited, about God protecting us when we are surrounded by our enemies, was beautiful and comforting. I whispered the words, May G d remember the soul of my mother, my teacher, who has gone on to her world, because I will–without obligating myself with a vow–donate charity for her sake. In this merit, may her soul be bound up in the bond of life with the souls of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, and with the other righteous men and women who are in Gan Eden; and let us say, Amen.

Was that it? I wondered. This brief prayer? This was what made people cry? I was puzzled. It was nice, and I liked the idea of giving charity in my mother’s honor, and that her soul would be bound up with the souls of all who had gone before her — but it didn’t describe her. It wasn’t about my mom.

The sanctuary was very quiet. The sound of the people around me barely rose to a hum. I closed my eyes and conjured up a picture of my mother.

I remembered her gleeful laugh. I remembered the way she walked, always hurtling forward. I remembered how good-natured and cheerful she was. She had lived through the Holocaust, had experienced the worst atrocities humans can inflict on one another. And yet, she was happy, generous, full of wonder, overwhelmingly positive, joyfully anticipating the next yontif or the next simcha. She was a woman who put everyone else’s needs before her own, too busy to worry or hold a grudge or stay angry. I remembered the sound of her voice, her charming accent.

I told her how much I missed her. I listened to her say my name. Could she hear me? Was she near? Did she know I was saying Yizkor for her? I hoped so, with all my heart.

By then, the congregation was filing back in, bringing a whiff of the outside world with them. The world of the living.

How often do we stop during the year and remember, really remember, our parents, and other loved ones who have “gone on to their world?” In Yizkor, the time is ordained, hollowed out of the morning prayers, sanctified, for exactly that purpose.

Since that first Yizkor almost ten years ago, my father has passed on, and so has my father-in-law. Our four parents lie next to each other in Eretz Hachaim cemetery, a stunning coincidence none of us were aware of before my mother’s funeral.

Four times a year, in the company of the other mourners in my shul, and all of Bnai Yisrael, I reach out to my parents, conjuring them back to life inside my head. I hope they are happy. I hope they forgive me for not being a better daughter. I hope they approve of the job I am doing as a parent. I hope they are looking down at me with love.

There was a time that I dreaded Yizkor. Now I long to feel that connection again. But I must wait until Pesach for that.

About the Author
Helen Maryles Shankman is an artist and author. Her book, "They Were Like Family to Me," originally published as "In the Land of Armadillos," was a finalist for The Story Prize in 2016 and won an Honorable Mention for the 2017 ALA Sophie Brody Medal for Achievement in Jewish Literature. Her stories have been published in many fine literary journals, including The Kenyon Review,, Gargoyle, and Cream City Review. She is a columnist at The New Jersey Jewish Standard.
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