October 16, 2018

Yom Kippur Yizkor: Lessons From Monty Hall

burning memorial candles on the dark background

Editor’s note: Below is a condensed version of a talk Sharon Hall gave before the Yom Kippur Yizkor service at IKAR. 

Ten days before my mother [Marilyn Hall] died last year, my sister, brother and I were gathered at her bedside singing the Beatles catalog. She strained to look at us as we  harmonized and she seemed to smile when we broke into “Here Comes the Sun.” One of her nurses pulled me aside and said, “You need to let her go. All the attention has her attention and she can see that you don’t want her to leave and she doesn’t want to disappoint you. So figure out a way to say goodbye.”  

This was a gut punch. I couldn’t do it. Neither could my siblings. I said, “Mom, we know that you’re still going to be the helicopter mother you’ve always been, you’ll just be
here in spirit. Pick your sign to let us know you’re still around. Are you going to be a random white feather? Flashing lights? Ringing bells?” She nodded her head and we leaned in.

“Lights,” she said weakly. And so it was settled. My mother’s presence would be known when lightbulbs flickered. 

A few days later, at her shivah, we asked Hillel Tigay, our chazzan at IKAR, to play some Beatles music during our silent prayer. My Orthodox cousin from Israel turned to his sister and asked, “Is this a shivah or a summer camp?” At that very moment, a string of fairy lights embedded in a hedge of ficus trees, lights that had not worked in eight years suddenly came alive. The bulbs flickered in glittering syncopation. Our entire family freaked out. We told the guests about my mother’s deathbed agreement. We were all in awe. If my Israeli cousin could have crossed himself, he would have.  

In the ensuing days and months, I became strangely attached to that hedge. There were more flashing-light moments. It was like a party trick. It got a little weird. I would embrace the ficus branches like Kevin Costner in his cornfield, trying to conjure her. 

Talking to the ficus had become my ritual. It wasn’t scary or depressing. It was about light and chlorophyll and oxygen and life. Even with no lights, it was a practice that created a space to see and feel Marilyn Hall’s presence — not her absence.    

“Many told me that dying on a Yom Kippur Shabbat was reserved for holy men. Now, Monty Hall was an amazing guy, but I think he chose that moment to go because he was trying to dodge Yizkor.

My father [Monty Hall] died exactly one year ago. On Shabbat. On Yom Kippur. Right after Rabbi [Sharon] Brous’ sermon. My phone blew up. I made my way past 1,300 Jews in white when it all faded to white. I don’t remember how I got to my father’s house to meet the mortuary van. I don’t remember much at all about that day.  

Monty and Marilyn Hall (Photo provided by Sharon Hall)

Many reached out to tell me that dying on a Yom Kippur Shabbat was reserved for holy men, for the pious and exalted. Now, Monty Hall was an amazing guy for lots of reasons, but if you want to know the truth, I think he chose that moment to go because he was trying to dodge Yizkor. 

My father was allergic to grief. He was from the “buck up” generation. I never heard him recite the Kaddish out loud. It barely escaped his lips as a whisper. He couldn’t metabolize his grief over the death of his beloved wife of 70 years. We understood but we were frustrated that this final chapter would be filled with denial and anger, and for him was devoid of spirituality.  

So when I was asked to stand here today, I thought, yes! I want to embrace this ritual. I want to take my dad’s yahrzeit as a day to make space for grief.

So, Dad, we’re not going to dodge Yizkor. You made this day all about you and so you will never miss it again. And you’ll get to see Mom, because at IKAR, Neilah always ends with a light show.


Sharon Hall is a television producer, mother of two sons, wife of Todd Ellis Kessler, and proud daughter of the incomparable Marilyn and Monty Hall.