Yizkor On Memorial Day: The Layering Of Memory

Like most people, I would imagine, my first thoughts upon learning that the Memorial Day weekend here in America would coincide with the festival of Shavuot this year were not happy ones. Three-day weekends are a precious commodity, even for rabbis. Giving one up for three days of Shabbat and Yom Tov was simply not a fair exchange. I’m sure that I like being in synagogue a little more than the average bear, but really… on Memorial Day weekend?

I was, of course, totally wrong. It would most certainly have been wonderful to have the three-day weekend to play with, but I could never (though, in retrospect, I should have, I guess) adequately have predicted the enormous emotional wallop of reciting Yizkor– Judaism’s sacred exercise in ritualized memory- on America’s day that is all about memory, and loss.

In the slice of the Jewish world in which I grew up, Yizkor was a uniquely Jewish practice that had absolutely nothing to do with the world at large. It was recited in synagogue, on Jewish holidays, only among other Jews. It seemed to me that we reserved those memories most painful to us for sharing only amongst our own. I had some vague notion of Holocaust-related losses that were recalled when these memorial prayers were recited, but they were as mysterious as the ritual itself. And whatever tears were shed during Yizkor were largely invisible to us as children, since, following the dominant Ashkenazi custom, those of us whose parents were still alive were sent out of the synagogue when Yizkor was recited.

Though my parents were alive for the first twenty or so years of my rabbinate, I obviously remained in synagogue for Yizkor, and was introduced up close and personal to what it represents. As grieving tends to mitigate against community- the mourner is so often tempted to withdraw, to want to be left alone- Jewish mourning practices pull him/her back into a communal context. Shivah essentially forces community on a mourner, surrounding him/her with the embracing support of friends and family. Kaddish cannot be recited alone, as a solitary act of fidelity to the dead. Its mystical words can only be intoned within the context of a minyan of ten Jews. Again, the most sacred acts of our tradition demand community. But the community is there to reinforce the inherently Jewish nature of the very act of memory. Shivah, Kaddish, Yizkor… these are as Jewish as it gets. It’s not about the outside world. It’s about us, about Jewish memory, and Judaism’s idea of memory.

During this past decade of my rabbinate, both of my parents died. Once again, the ritual of reciting Yizkor was transformed for me. This time it morphed from an exercise in facilitating other people’s memories into processing and dealing with my own. Yizkor days became entirely different for me, obliging me to confront my own memory and loss within the context of helping my congregants deal with their own pain.

Enter Memorial Day.

I suspect it is because I have a son-in-law in the military now, but never before has it been clearer to me that Memorial Day here in America has been allowed to veer far away from its original intent. Unlike in Israel, where Yom Hazikaron is a universally observed day of solemn ceremonies and visits to graves, our Memorial Day has become- as I myself fell into the trap of characterizing it- just another three-day weekend. The unfortunate tag line of “the unofficial beginning of summer” has made it a beach day and barbecue extravaganza, and the average American pays scant attention to the sacred meaning of the day. It may be true that, since the traumatic events of September 11, 2001 and the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, we have moved the pendulum back just a tad in the more appropriate direction, but hardly enough. How many people do you know who attend a Memorial Day event? How many attend a Memorial Day parade?

The rare juxtaposition this year of Memorial Day with the recitation of Yizkor provided me- both personally and professionally- with the opportunity to once and for all expand the parameters of Yizkor beyond the parochial walls of the Jewishness of the medium. This had happened- memorably- during the Yizkor services of fall, 2001, but those circumstances were extraordinary and unique. This year- thankfully- there was no horrific catastrophe confronting us. But what did confront us was the unavoidable reality of the enormous sacrifice made by so many young men and women to secure our freedom, and the pain that their deaths had left their loved ones with. The overwhelming majority of those who made the ultimate sacrifice were not of the Jewish faith, reflecting the population of this country. Some were of no faith tradition at all. But the fact that it was Memorial Day truly made their loss our own- as, of course, it should be- not just when Memorial Day and Yizkor coincide.

One of the realizations that I come to again and again as I grow older is that it’s never too late to learn how to do things better- even things that you’ve happily been doing the same way for a very long time. I don’t take to change very easily, but when it’s right, you just know it. Making America’s day of memory the central focus of our Yizkor this year felt right in every important way, and I sensed that the congregation thought so as well.

Honoring those who have fought and died for our freedom and security is not only “right;” it is a sacred obligation. It was deeply gratifying to me that we were able to honor that obligation is such a significant way. I’m sure that it will remain a sacred element of our Yizkor service for years to come, side by side with the processing of our own personal memories.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.
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