I would like to share an essay I wrote on the subject of memory. I wrote it on the 10th anniversary of my husband’s, z”l, passing. As I mentioned in my previous blog, my husband, Rabbi Joseph H. Wise, fought a battle with dementia for more than 14 years. Memory is, of course, the missing link in that battle. He passed away on January 2, 1996, the 10th of Tevet, in the Hebrew calendar.
The observance of Yom Kippur begins tonight. It’s a day of prayer and introspection, a day of doing repentance and for asking forgiveness from Gd and from our fellow human beings. It includes the recitation of Yizkor, the prayer of remembrance for our loved ones. The word Yizkor is from the Hebrew word, zakhor, to remember. I thought it would be appropriate at this time to highlight some of the ways in which we remember, as well as the role of memory in our daily lives.
Those who knew my husband may recognize some of the references in my essay. For those who didn’t know him, I hope that reading it will give you a small “window” into the person he was.
The Light in the Window: How Memory Shapes our Lives
by Marge Wise
In Remembrance: Cherishing the Gift of Memory, A Woman Recalls Her Husband’s Life
I experienced something last week which made me think about how human beings remember. Whether it is sad or happy events – facts, figures, names, places, feelings, and more – our lives revolve around the often taken-for-granted act of remembering.
It may not seem like a very profound observation, but memory is the key to how we process everything in our lives. Speaking as the widow of a Rabbi who suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease, I would first like to share with you the Jewish “take” on memory. In Judaism, there is a service called “Yizkor”, which is recited four times during the year. “Yizkor” means “He will remember”. It is a particularly significant experience to say “yizkor” since we only begin reciting it when we have lost a close relative. It almost instructs us to “remember” the departed. To remember, however, we need to have the capability of remembering.
I am probably more sensitive than most to the subject of memory, having lived through a loved one’s 14-plus years’-long l battle with Alzheimers’ Disease. As we all know, no one wins that battle. Care-givers are in the unenviable position of being able to see firsthand what the absence of memory can do to a person – it virtually takes away one’s past, one’s present, and one’s future….
The experience which I referred to in the first paragraph of this essay relates, of course, to my late husband. Joe was the Rabbi of Northeast Jewish Center in Yonkers, from 1966 until his passing on January 2, 1996. Because of his failing health, he became Rabbi Emeritus in 1987. During his active rabbinate at Northeast, he would often work late into the evening in his Study in the synagogue. The way that the synagogue is constructed, there are floor-to-ceiling vertical strips of windows the entire lengths of both sides of the sanctuary. When you drive past the synagogue at night, and there is an event taking place inside, all the window panels are illuminated. The last panel, or the highest one off the “bimah”, or stage, forms the windows of my husband’s former study.
There is now a Rabbi’s office on the lower level of the building, so the lights in the room that was my husband’s study are only used when the room is used as a robing room on the Sabbath or holidays. On two different occasions in the last few months, when I had occasion to drive past the synagogue at night – as I often do, coming home from work or from meetings – I noticed that only the one strip of windows in my husband’s office was lit. The light in that room was probably left on after Shabbat a day or two earlier. A nostalgic, sad, somewhat empty feeling wafted over me as I thought of years passed, and another time in my family’s life, when things were different. I could almost see Joe working there….preparing a sermon, the Centerletter (the weekly Bulletin), writing an article….
That was before the onset of the disease – I try hard to remember how my husband was before the illness. Alzheimers’ so eclipsed his persona that it is difficult to remember how he was before it ravaged his functioning…. In the early stages of the disease, my husband couldn’t understand why he couldn’t remember…. At first it was a missed word or phrase, then a name or a date. He knew he was slipping, he even knew the name for it. As the illness progressed, he couldn’t remember where objects were, then he couldn’t remember where he was, or why…. In the final stages, he didn’t know who we were, nor could he understand what we said.
The “light in the window” symbolizes for me how I will always keep the example of my husband’s life a source of illumination in my life, how I will always strive to emulate his kindness and caring, to share the knowledge and insights that he taught me, to keep the torch of learning and mitzvot (commandments) – by which he lived his life – alive and aglow. It is my desire to continue the teaching and the outreach which he did so well, so that his influence and example will always live on – both in my life, and hopefully in the lives of all who knew him and loved him, and in all whose lives he touched.
Rabbi Marge Wise