Of all the Jewish big holidays, Sukkot is my favorite. Not the first and last two days that are Yom Tov, but the in-between days of chol hamo’ed. At minyan, there is lots of singing, a bit of parading with the lulav and etrog, and a general feeling of camaraderie and thankfulness. Congenial and convivial. It’s nice. It’s long for a morning minyan, but it’s still nice.
Even though my dad said waving a lulav and etrog around is about as pagan as you can get and refused to do it, I find myself sneaking a sniff of etrog when the opportunity presents itself. (Etrogs are citrons and they smell really good.) I love the sound the lulav makes as it’s shaken during Hallel and other parts of the service. And on the last day, Hoshanah Rabbah, the BIG prayer for rain is recited and then you beat willow branches on the ground in a symbolic attempt to free ourselves of any remaining sins that might cause G-d to allow a drought. Clearly, we have some serious praying to do here because we are in a terrible drought cycle in this country.
But there’s serious part of the holiday cycle that cannot be overlooked. Granted, the cycle itself is a bit intense; besides the High Holy Days of Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, the three harvest festival holidays come with their own idiosyncrasies. Passover has matzah, crazy cleaning, seders, Uncle Davey’s death, and Yizkor. Shavuot has all night study, cheesecake, a week later, Ziggy’s death, and Yizkor. Sukkot has sukkot in the backyard, lulavim and etrogim, Grandma Bessie’s death, and Yizkor. Each one of these joyous holidays, as happy as they are, is tempered by the recitation of Yizkor, the memorial service when we recall the lives of our loved ones. Used to be, kids were not permitted to stay during Yizkor…it’s bad luck according to my own mother, so I never stayed for Yizkor until a year after Ziggy had the poor form to leave me upright and breathing.
We don’t really need Yizkor to remember those we loved; most of us do it regularly, like breathing. No one has to remind us of their names, those names are engraved on our hearts and on our souls. Or on plaques in the shul. Jewish death rituals begin with caring for the body, then move to care for the survivors. The seven-day mourning period runs concurrently with the 30-day mourning period that also runs concurrently with the 11-months of mourning. On the surface, it may sound excessive, but if you have ever grieved for a loved one (and who amongst us has not) you already know grieving takes time. Letting go takes time. Learning to breathe again without that other person takes time. Death is a rupture in the fabric of our lives, regardless of how you felt about a particular person.
The recitation of Yizkor 4-times each year (the three harvest holidays and Yom Kippur) gives the living a contained chance to recall those who had a part in shaping us, for good or for bad. Doesn’t matter. What matters is that we recall the sum of that life. I cannot speak for others, but my remembering lets me revisit the things I want to keep and the things I need to let go…without being mired in endless grief. It’s as much about searching my soul as remembering the souls I’ve lost. In the sacred space of the sanctuary, I wrap myself in the sacred time that is Yizkor. I let myself remember, I let myself feel. For me, that’s a big deal because I’m not good at that. (Just ask my sons.) When I was a kid, I did not understand the weepy exodus from shul after Yizkor, what we called The Tissue Brigade. Now, however, I am overwhelmed by the power of those sacred moments and thankful that the grief part is contained in the context of Yizkor.
The older I get, however, the more I crave that feeling of connection between me and those who came before me. I retell the stories: the ones about Grandpa Ben who died when my mom was a kid, tales of Great-grandma Nechama and Great-grandpa Tzadok. Their pictures just don’t hang on my wall, they hang on my heart. I pass them every morning, and their names roll through my head as naturally as the names of the ones I knew up close and personal. Their stories matter because they are part of our family story. Both my grandmothers told me on numerous occasions: when you talk about them, they live.
And in the context of family history, I want them to live.
When Little Miss barrels through the front door and says, “I need a Grandma Don’t story,” my heart sings because she may not have known my Grandma Bessie, but oh, how she loves her anyway! I tell and retell the stories of challah covers embroidered by Grandma Sarah, kiddush cups that belonged to my father, my Grandpa Moishe, and my Uncle Sam. And just as I tell the stories, Little Miss has her own to tell Young Sir. They all begin with “You didn’t know Bubbe, but…” I feel my mother’s smile in my heart.
Yizkor isn’t necessarily about the past; it’s about carrying our history forward. Not all important histories end up in textbooks. Most are simple day-to-day stories about how we lived, how we loved, how we survived, how we endured. Torah tells us only part of the big story. A bigger part is the stuff we actually remember ourselves. Both are important, but the stuff we carry forward needs to be passed to the next generation so they don’t have to reinvent our wheels. And if we’re lucky, they will learn from our mistakes and do stuff better.
For the record, I do remember the ugly and the painful. We all have those less than stellar memories. Those are recalled, and if one is lucky, one uses them in constructive ways. That’s the best you can hope for.
The rest of it? It’s who we are.