Yizkor – A letter to my father


This is the text of a Yom Kippur sermon Rabbi David Wolpe delivered at Sinai Temple on October 12, 2016.


 

Dear Dad,

You've been gone 7 years. I remember when you cursed at me.  

I remember because I had never heard you curse, and you only did it once in my life, and it was funny.  But I didn't dare laugh.

I was 8th grade and I had misbehaved in class, again.  Made too many jokes, or clowned around.  The teacher called the house.  I was upset because you believed the teacher about my misbehavior.  Of course, he was 100% right.  You probably knew that.

But I was upset you believed him.  And I ran away from home.  I had threatened to do it once before, when I was five years old, and told mom that the only reason I wouldn’t was because she would miss me too much.  But this time I did, and went and sat in the abandoned house down the block feeling sorry for myself. 

I didn’t last that long.  I called my best friend from a payphone near the drugstore and he told me you were both frantic and I better get home right away.  When I walked in the door as the sky was turning dark, you stood on the stairs furious, and told me I had worried my mother, the unforgivable sin, and acted like an “ass.”  But you said it in your elegant Boston accent and I almost laughed.   An “ahhss.”  I was shocked you used such a word and a laugh almost rose to my lips.  But I couldn't laugh because your eyes were blazing.  

And I remember the first time I saw you cry.  I was twelve and we went on a trip to Israel.  It was the first time you had been back since the 67 war, and on every previous trip you had only been able to look at the wall from a distance.  Now you walked up to it, touched it and began to cry.  Many years later I saw you cry again when mom had her terrible stroke.  I'm grateful that the first time I saw you cry was out of love. 

I am writing to tell you that everyone you love is doing well.  Mom is struggling, and will until the day she joins you, a day she eagerly anticipates, when she will be free again of the shackles of this world.  A day when I pray she will once again be able to speak, and move easily, and be the woman she once was.  Your oldest granddaughter Ariel got married this past summer to a wonderful young man — there is lots of news, but either you know that or cannot hear it.  

Each day I have an experience that lets me understand you better. Sometimes I sit in my office and simply think — this is what you did, for years, and I never really knew. A congregant will come to see me and ask me a question about life, or Judaism, or tell me what they fear or hope and I will know you heard these questions.    More than a few of them you heard from me. 

Now and then when I speak, I hear your voice coming from me, or through me.  In the middle of a sermon, I will suddenly hear you.  A word you would have chosen, or the way my voice rises or falls.  There you are. 

And I remember so many things you said.

Most of your stories my brothers and I heard from you in the pulpit and at the dinner table.  You stood before the congregation and we sat with mom playing with her jewelry or when we got older, making knots in the strings of each other's tallis.  And you would talk, and everyone would listen, and we would feel so proud that even though you belonged to all of them, you really belonged to us.  Now and then you would look down and we would know.  And we heard your words, and over the years some of them sank deep into our souls. 

If you ask what I miss most about my childhood it isn't the field or the basketball court, it's the dinner table.  That's when we would get stories– everyone from Samuel Johnson to Rebbe Nachman to your teachers at the seminary.  Just the other day I told someone your story about Alexander Marx and Louis Ginzberg and the elevator.  How Ginzberg, whom you and your  classmates called “the old man” and you always thought of as the greatest scholar you had ever known, invited Marx for Shabbat.  And Marx realized that he lived on an upper floor so he asked Ginzberg if it was permitted to use the elevator on Shabbat and Ginzberg said “no.”

So Marx dutifully trudged up all the many flights of steps only to see Ginzberg stepping out of the elevator. “I thought you said it was not allowed!” exclaimed Marx.  “But I didn't ask,” said Ginzberg.

You loved that story.  But you loved so many stories, relished them, rolled them around your tongue.  One would lead to the next.  Having told one story about Ginzberg, you would tell another and another.  Like about the time a woman at a party was arguing with him — the greatest midrash scholar in the world–  about a rabbinic midrash, a legend in the Talmud.  And he asked her if she would accept the Jewish Encyclopedia as an authority to see who was right.  She agreed.  They pulled the volume off the shelf and when it showed Ginzberg was right, he said, “Yes, that’s what I thought I wrote.” 

So many stories.  About growing up as an only child with a huge family of cousins and aunts and uncles in Boston.  Going to NY at 16 to study. How you started off as a golden gloves boxer and almost got kicked out of the seminary for punching someone who made an anti-Semitic remark in a movie theater.  And how Louis Finkelstein, the Chancellor, told you “We don't behave that way here.”  But he was a little proud, too.  How you were engaged when you met mom and she helped you pick out your fiancee's engagement ring.  Mom used to smile very wisely when you told that one.

One thing I knew would happen and could not change is that every day there are things I want to ask you.  Sometimes I think I might know the answer but would still like to ask you. 

I want to know things about life, now that I am at a different stage and so are the people we both love.  

I wonder about your sense of isolation.  You were a truly present father, but there was also an inaccessible core that I think developed when your own father died one month before your 11th birthday. As you grew older, did that get harder?  Given her stroke and disability, it was not possible for mom to be a full partner; so did you find comfort in the fortress or were you lonely?  With each passing year I understand you better and understand you less, because you are not here.

And then there are sudden glimmers.  How often since you are gone have I opened a book in my library and discovered your notes or underlining on the pages? It brings me closer to you, although it is agonizing sometimes that I cannot ask —  what were you thinking when you wrote this?  Why did you read this and did you like it?  And now every time I underline a book I wonder as well: will Samara have the same experience one day, open this book and wonder what I was thinking? She's a voracious reader Dad, like both of us, chews and swallows books like bread and loves to talk with me about them.  Among my sorrows is that she was not old enough for you to know her well when you left us. 

I am glad you lived long enough to see grandchildren and see your sons do well.  I remember when Steve turned 13 or 14 and he was uncomfortable that now he was taller than you and what you said to him — Steve, no father is ever upset when his son grows taller than he.  I knew you rejoiced in everything we did well and encouraged us when we didn't, sometimes with a stern word or two.

I told my brothers, your boys, that I was writing this letter and asked for anything they remembered that was important to mention.  Danny told me that he once found some Playboys in the room of one of his older brothers (which one will go unmentioned) and you walked in on his looking at them.  He was pretty young at the time.  You said:  “Danny, two things. First of all, it's time to wash up for dinner. Second, don't let your Mother see you looking at those.”

I wish I could talk to you about your serenity.  You chose to keep your career at a certain pitch and not to grow it.  You were Rabbi of a major synagogue and for you that was enough. When they asked you to take national office for the rabbinical assembly you refused, since it meant going to NY and not being home with us for dinner.  Dinner — at 5:30 in case you had to go back to shul — was sacrosanct.  If for nothing else, you make it into heaven for those dinners. 

But I once asked you, are you sorry you didn’t write more, or  travel more?  And you told me that early on you came to understand your gifts.  And you shaped your life so that you could do what you did well and were satisfied with that. You were serene.  And you told me you had only one goal in your professional life.  

Because when your father passed away, they found uncollected bills and unpaid bills in his dresser drawers.  He was a singer, a dancer, a happy man who when he got married was forced by your mother out of show business and into the catering business.  In the depression era being a vaudevillian was no security for a family.  But he was never cut out for account books. So after his death you heard people in the family talking about him as a failure.  A failure — this father whom you loved so deeply.  And you told us all that you were resolved that Ben Wolpe’s son would be a success.  For him. And you were Dad.  You really were. 

You tried to help us be successful.  Once you wrote us a letter saying the most important quality to success was stamina.  You had to do it again tomorrow, and the day after that.  And I remember once, in high school when I was a tournament chessplayer, you told me I’d never be an outstanding player.

I was upset and resentful – you didn’t even play chess.  And you said something I never forgot.  “No” you said, “I don’t play chess.  But I am certain that in chess, as in everything else in this world that one can master, there is a part that you just have to learn that is demanding and not fun.  And you have the habit of only doing what comes easily to you.  Without application to the hard things, you will be good at many things, but you won’t be outstanding at anything.”

You were so right, and so wise.  And I never forgot. It was then I started keeping notebooks of words and definitions and quotations to learn more.  Because I heard your voice in my head. 

All of us miss your voice.  At your funeral everyone who spoke about you talked about your voice, its beauty, its tone, the magic you had with a person or a crowd.  It is no wonder that when you began in the rabbinate there was a successful lawyer in Charleston, where you started, who offered to put you through law school just to plead his cases to the jury.  That is why when the time came for us to put something on your gravestone the choice was clear — “He was the voice of his people.”  You were.  For me and for many others, you still are. 

Of course I wonder where you are, if you are. A few years before your death you and I took a walk along the river in Philadelphia.  I reminded you of the first death I had ever experienced, when I was 5 or 6, my aunt Bessie.  How I cried and you told me that often, when people cry they are not crying for those who are dead, but crying for themselves, because we miss the people we love. 

And I asked you, do you believe in a life after death?  And you told me there, as we looked out over the river, that you did not believe that people disappear.  That you had faith that something in us was eternal and survived.

I believe that too, Dad.  

And I think of a moment years ago, when we were little.  We had rented a beach house on the Jersey shore and we were all lying on the floor, reading, playing games.  And you looked at all of us and said, “they say when you die, your life flashes before your eyes.  This is the moment I want to see.”  

I hope you saw that moment.  

I think about you every day.  The twinkle you had, the teddy bear quality of warmth that was so embracing, the astonishing memory that held more historical facts, nuggets, routes, battles and personalities than anyone I have ever known.  How fiercely you cared for mom after her stroke, becoming for years a caretaker of genuinely saintly devotion.  How when I called you from California to say I decided to go to rabbinical school, I heard you cry over the phone. 

When you were a boy and your father died you told me how your mother used to sit and look out over widows walk, the pier near Boston harbor where so many waited for sailors who never came home.  And you both knew that your father was never coming home again.

Thank God, we had you for much longer.  But it still hurts that you are never coming home again. That I won't hold you, or hear you, or smell you, or feel your arms around me.  You were a wonderful father and a wonderful human being.  Just yesterday Paul sent all of us a fragment of a diary you had written to us when you were a Rabbi in Harrisburg, younger then than I am now. Danny had not yet been born.  You say that you wrote it out of the hope that when in the lives of your children, “the challenge does appear, I like to think that there is the influence of their father's written word if not the actual sound.” 

Yes, the sound too is there, it is here.  You taught us Torah, you taught us life, you told us stories, you listened to our stories.  You took each of us to our first baseball game and we took you, each of us, to your last resting place. 

I heard you speak so many times on Yom Kippur growing up.  On this Yom Kippur, my beloved father, I speak to you. For you gave me more than just life.  You showed me the way, and gave me the words. 

May your memory continue to be a blessing.

Love,

David


David Wolpe is The Max Webb Senior Rabbi of Sinai Temple

Power of Yizkor


I suppose that Kol Nidrei is still the best-attended service of the Jewish calendar, but surely the memorial service known as Yizkor is a close second. After all, Yizkor — which means “May God remember…” — is the moment when we are invited to recall in solemn prayer the loved ones who have passed away, a deeply poignant and sometimes painful experience that stands out in sharp relief from the other services during the High Holy Days.

“Memory is dear to the Jews,” explains Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, editor of “May God Remember: Memory and Memorializing in Judaism — Yizkor” (Jewish Lights, $24.99). “As Isaac Bashevis Singer is said to have commented (I wish I could remember where), ‘We Jews have many faults, but amnesia is not among them.’ ” 

The origins, meanings and uses of Yizkor are explored in depth and with powerful insight by the contributors to “Yizkor,” whose perspectives variously include biblical scholarship, linguistic study, mystical musing, theological speculation and feminist aspiration. The book is an ambitious and illuminating work of midrash on a single prayer service, and no one who reads this book will experience Yizkor in quite the same way again. Indeed, the book itself will inevitably enrich the experience in shul.

Like so much else in Jewish history, the liturgy of Yizkor originated with a tragedy — the slaughter of Jews by the Crusaders in the Rhineland in 1096 — and was gradually embraced by Jews throughout the Diaspora who suffered their own martyrdoms over the centuries. For that reason, the Yizkor service is a relatively recent addition to Jewish observance, a fact that Hoffman describes as “an anomaly, in that its prayers were matters of custom more than they were of law.” The prayer called El Malei Rachamim (God, full of compassion), for example, was added only in the 17th century, after the massacre of Jews by the Cossacks under the Ukrainian warlord Chmielnicki.

Yizkor exerts a unique power over those who attend the service. “Traditionally speaking, the time taken to recite the prayers in question was not great — not more than 15 minutes, if no sermon was attached,” Hoffman observes. “But the emotional ambience of that quarter of an hour was enormous, especially because of the superstition attached to the occasion.” One measure of that power is found in the tradition that required congregants whose parents were still alive to leave the sanctuary during Yizkor: “It was felt that they might prematurely become orphans so as to have to recite the prayer in earnest next year.”

Along with Hoffman, 30 rabbis, scholars and authors from around the world have contributed essays to the anthology; most of them are scholarly in tone and content, but some of them are also morally challenging. Rabbi Ed Feinstein, senior rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom, reflects on the subversive quality of Yizkor in a provocative essay titled “The Age of Amusement.” 

“American culture has accomplished what neither Kierkegaard nor Kohelet could conceive,” he writes. “We have cultivated a culture of such powerful distractions, entertainments, diversions, that today one actually can fill a lifetime with amusement.” In such a culture, he proposes, Yizkor can be dangerous to our complacency: “The spirit of Yizkor embarrasses us,” Feinstein explains. “Yizkor reminds us of our finitude — the startling truth that not one of us has an infinite number of tomorrows … it compels our attachment to matters of eternal significance.”

Many of the essays contain more than a little sermonizing, which, after all, is a standard accompaniment to the liturgy during a Yizkor service. Sometimes, however, the moral stance of the sermonizer is disruptive. Author and novelist Catherine Madsen, for example, is courageous enough to confront the question of recalling in prayer a deceased parent who was hurtful, and she cites an addition to the liturgy by Robert Saks, which appears in a new Conservative machzor.

“The parent I remember was not kind to me,” goes the revisionist version according to Saks. “His/her death left me with a legacy of unhealed wounds, of anger and of dismay that a parent could hurt a child as I was hurt. I do not want to pretend to love, or to grief that I do not feel, but I do want to do what is right as a Jew and as a child.”

Madsen — and, in a larger sense, the book in its entirety — calls us to experience Yizkor in a much more powerful and life-changing way than sitting dutifully in shul and mouthing the words. “People know what they feel about their dead; the liturgist need not supply them with adjectives or attitudes,” she writes bluntly. “The point of Yizkor is to generate an act: to establish a reflex, a neural pathway, from your own loss to someone else’s survival.”

Note to reader: I have had business dealings with the publisher of this book.


Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal. His latest book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris” (W.W. Norton/Liveright), published in 2013 to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch can be reached at books@jewishjournal.com.

The Meaning of Memory: A Yizkor Reflection


I grew up in a home filled with food and love and laughter and music and Yiddishkayt and stories. I was the youngest of four kids and we were part of a tribe in Boro Park, Brooklyn, with my uncle Nat’s family living on the floor above us, my uncle Ruby’s family living next door to us, and my grandparents living above them. Nobody ever knocked on the door and nobody ever needed a key, everybody was always barging into everybody else’s home.

My parents were soul mates. They were constantly singing in harmony, walking hand in hand. As I grew, one by one my older siblings moved out and went off to college. And pretty soon it was just me, my mom and my dad. It was quieter, but it was beautiful.

One night when I was 15, my parents went out. They were walking on the street when a man held them up at gunpoint. My father was shot, and he died. And now it was just me and my mom. As you can imagine, the two of us became unnaturally close, the way two broken hearts have to figure it all out together. When I was in high school I tried so hard never to cry; I didn’t want to add to my mother’s sorrow. Instead, I threw myself into my studies. I was such a studious kid, such a nerd. I’d always work myself into a tizzy before an exam, and then I’d turn to my mom on the day of the test and I’d say, “Mom, bless me before the test. And bless my pen, too.” And she’d say, “Nomeleh, don’t you know I’m a good witch. I know how it is, and I know how it will be.” And I would take my blessed pen and scurry off to school.

[More from Rabbi Naomi Levy: A Memorial Prayer for Yom Kippur]

And then it came time for me to go to college. Honestly, I don’t know how she found the strength to send me off to college. How do you send your fourth child off when you have nothing at home but memories of a life that once was? I don’t know how I left, but I did.

And I hated it. It was a culture shock to go from Boro Park and an Orthodox Jewish yeshiva high school to Cornell University. It was so gentile. And preppy. I’d never seen so many headbands and Topsiders in my life. And they kept saying that the ideal Cornelian is a scholar and an athlete. Some Greek ideal. Well, I was no athlete, and I didn’t see myself as a scholar. So I started calling my mom every night, crying hysterically, “I want to go home. I don’t like it here.” And she was so strong. She’d say, “I want you to stay. Trust me, I’m a good witch.”  And then she’d bless me for my upcoming test.

And she was right. After six months and 15 pounds, I did learn to love college and I made new friends and I loved the learning. Though I never did get into athletics.

She was right about so many things. She knew my husband was the right man for me even before I knew it. “Trust me,” she said, “I’m a good witch. He’s a keeper.” And she walked me down the aisle at our wedding. Just the two of us.  Me and my mom, hand in hand. And she gave me away again. It was hard for her to let me go and live so far away from home.

And then the widow with the broken heart became a bubbe with a full heart and a full schedule of friends and grandchildren and volunteering and studies. And her Bat Mitzvah at age 80.

At her 70th birthday celebration, just when we thought she was going to make a speech, she turned around to me and she said, “Nomeleh, I want you to bless me.”

All those years as a rabbi I spent giving blessings to others, all those years she’d been blessing me, and I had never blessed her.  So I placed my hands on my mother’s head, and I blessed her. How can I describe what passed between us?  From that day on, it became our ritual. She’d call me every single night and ask me for her blessing. She had trouble sleeping, so I’d bless her. I’d say, “Mom, I bless you with peace, I bless you with sleep through the night, sweet dreams.”

She had various ailments: her eyes, her legs, her feet, her asthma, her stomach. I’d call her, and I’d say, “Mom, how are your giblets doing?” She’d laugh, we’d talk, and then she’d say, “I need my blessing.” And I’d bless her. “I bless you with peace, I bless you with sleep through the night, sweet dreams.”

Over the last several years I found myself saving her voicemails. People were constantly complaining that my mailbox was full, but I couldn’t erase my mother’s sweet messages: “Shabbat Shalom,” “Happy birthday,” “Shanah tovah,” “Happy Mother’s Day.”

Over the last few years, I’d say we spoke on the phone about six times a day.  She wanted to know the details. If it was a Friday of Nashuva (the Jewish community I lead), she’d call first to bless me and wish me good luck, and then she’d ask, “What are you going to talk about tonight?” And then there were the wrap up calls, “So, nu? How was Nashuva? How did it go? How was your sermon? Was it well received? How many people came?”

If I was traveling to speak out of town, I’d get a call in the taxi on the way to the airport. We’d talk and then I’d say, “I’ve got to go, Mom, I’m going through security.” And she’d say, “OK, call me on the other side.” I’d call, we’d chat, I’d board the plane:

“I’ve got to go, they’ve closed the cabin doors.”

“OK, call me when you land.”

A Memorial Prayer for Yom Kippur


I haven’t forgotten you, even though it’s been some time now since I’ve seen your face, touched your hand, heard your voice. You are with me all the time.

I used to think you left me. I know better now. You come to me. Sometimes in fleeting moments I feel your presence close by. But I still miss you. And nothing — no person, no joy, no accomplishment, no distraction, not even God — can fill the gaping hole your absence has left in my life.

But mixed together with all my sadness, there is a great joy for having known you. I want to thank you for the time we shared, for the love you gave, for the wisdom you spread.

Thank you for the magnificent moments and for the ordinary ones too. There was beauty in our simplicity. Holiness in our unspectacular days. And I will carry the lessons you taught me always.

Your life has ended, but your light can never be extinguished. It continues to shine upon me even on the darkest nights and illuminates my way.

I light this candle in your honor and in your memory. May God bless you as you have blessed me with love, with grace and with peace. Amen.

From “Talking to God” (Knopf, 2002).  Reprinted with permission.

Student group attacks leftists in revised Yizkor


An Israeli student group distributed a Yizkor memorial prayer with an additional passage that attacks leftists and conscientious objectors.

Im Tirtzu, a right-wing grass-roots group that calls itself the “Second Zionist Revolution,” distributed 15,000 pamphlets in Israeli synagogues in time for Memorial Day, Haaretz reported Monday.

“Let the people of Israel remember those from within it, flesh from their flesh, who participated in claims against its officers and soldiers,” the additional passage reads. “Those who during the time of the battle to defend Israel stood at protests and called their soldiers war criminals. Remember those in deep darkness befriended the worst enemies of Israel in order to harm the holy ones delivered their souls for the sake of the nation.”

The pamphlets are part of Im Tirtzu’s renewed attack on the New Israel Fund, which it accused in a report released in February of funding most of the groups that made claims against the Israeli army that appear in the Goldstone Report on the Gaza war in the winter of 2009. The report accuses Israel and Hamas of war crimes and possible crimes against humanity.

A controversial Im Tirtzu advertisement that ran in several newspapers in February showed a caricature of Naomi Chazen, a former member of Knesset and head of the New Israel Fund, with a horn on her forehead for the word keren, which means both a fund and a horn in Hebrew.

An Im Tirtzu ad published Sunday for Israel’s Memorial Day read, “We remember, they persecute. Fact: The New Israel Find betrayed IDF officers to international courts.”

In a strange turn of events, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, which is funded in part by the New Israel Fund, is currently representing Im Tirtzu in a case in which ACRI says the student group’s freedom of expression has been curtailed in its campaign against the New Israel Fund.

Selma’s Sermon


This is a big time of the year for sermons.Last year at this time, I wrote a column called “Words of Awe,” comparing the different styles of Orthodox, Conservative and Reform sermons.I even previewed some of the sermons we could expect to hear here in the hood — and I discussed the Orthodox tradition called Shabbat Tshuvah, which is the biggest and most anticipated sermon of the year, on the Shabbat afternoon before Yom Kippur.

The thing is, though, all these big, important sermons are usually given by rabbis.

They’re not supposed to be given by young, pretty, career-driven single Jewish women with a weakness for Italian shoes and vintage Jaguars.

But that is exactly what happened four years ago, on Yom Kippur of 2003, when a rabbi’s daughter named Selma Schimmel got up to speak. She didn’t speak in a shul in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, but this is a story that can play in any hood.

Selma spoke right after the Torah reading, and just before Yizkor, in a Studio City shul called Beit Meier. Her sermon, as she recalled it the other day in my dining room with kids playing in the background, didn’t focus on High Holy Days themes like spiritual renewal, forgiveness and personal atonement.

Instead, she spoke about ovaries, genetic testing and the BRCA gene mutations.

You see, Selma had an announcement to make that day. A week earlier, she had undergone a seven-hour operation to treat advanced ovarian cancer, which no one knew except her now-late father, the founder and spiritual leader of the Beit Meier shul.

So she and her father had huddled together and decided she had to say something. This was a small community, and the Schimmel name was revered. People worried easily. Twenty years earlier, Selma had been diagnosed at an unusually young age with breast cancer, and three years before that, her mother, the rebbitzen, had died of ovarian cancer.

This was not a time for family secrets. So there she was, in her tailored suit and Italian shoes, recovering from surgery and groggy from pain medications, in front of a standing-room-only crowd that was waiting for its annual Yom Kippur sermon — and she was telling them about her second cancer.

She explained that about 10 percent of ovarian cancer cases have been linked to genetics, typically through susceptibility genes. As part of the genome project, the two BRCA genes, located on chromosome 17, were the first to be identified as carriers of a predisposition to breast and ovarian cancers. When a woman has a mutation in either BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes, like Selma has, she is at higher risk of developing one of these cancers.

Then she got personal.

She explained how about one in 40 American Jews of Ashkenazi descent — who make up about 90 percent of American Jews — is believed to carry the mutant genes, compared with one in 400 for the general population.

According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, researchers speculate that the genetic mutations arose by chance among the Ashkenazim over several centuries, starting as far back as the 1100s. Under assault by ethnic attacks, millions of Eastern European Jews contracted to a group numbering in the thousands, then expanded again into a population of millions — a “genetic bottleneck” in which random mutations in the small, largely intermarried group are passed down to many descendants.

Selma was one of those descendants, and as she went on with her “sermon” that Yom Kippur day, she seemed to forget that she was in a shul and not a school of medicine. But she was going somewhere with her lecture on mutant genes.

She wanted the people of the community to open their eyes and start asking more questions. She wanted them to look more carefully into their families’ medical histories, and if they suspected anything, to immediately make the necessary appointments.

She also offered to help. As the founder and executive director of Vital Options, an internationally renowned nonprofit cancer support group she started during her first bout with cancer in 1983, she could help answer a lot of questions.

But still, what did any of this have to do with the Days of Awe, the Book of Life or the Day of Atonement?

Selma admits today that when she got up to speak on that day, she came with an agenda. She knew she was about to go in for long-term treatment. She didn’t like the idea of rumors flying around about the rabbi’s daughter. She wanted to put everything on the table, while also enlisting the community in her efforts to help others with cancer prevention and early detection.

In other words, she didn’t really have your basic High Holy Days sermon in mind.

If you ask me, though, I think Selma’s not giving herself enough credit.

Is there a better day than the one when we abstain from all physical sustenance to reflect on the sanctity of the human body and honor the Torah’s injunction that “You shall guard your being”?

During these Days of Awe, when we are instructed to reflect deeply on ourselves and seek personal rectification, is there a better time to be reminded that the miracles that God has given us — which include the human body — also include the gifts of human knowledge, and the obligation to use that knowledge to help care for God’s physical miracles?

We will all hear many sermons during these Holy Days, and I’m sure many will touch on our need to become better Jews and make the world a better place. In the middle of all these noble sermons, however, I hope we’ll remember a simple Holy Days message from a fearless Jewish woman with an antique Jaguar who’s just been diagnosed with her third cancer.

Take good care of what God gave you.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

Turn Memory Into Blessing


Holidays bring up feelings and memories about people who have died. They also offer opportunities to address unresolved issues. The four Yizkor services and the themes of their days correspond to different tasks of mourning.

Yizkor provides temporal focal points where the new people we are becoming meet again with those we have lost, allowing us to continue the relationships and keep them growing and healing. Yizkor allows us to assess our individual growth in a world without those we’ve lost.

Each day provides a unique window on the nature of grief, encouraging us to approach healing from a different perspective and address a different task or season of mourning. Each creates a context for continuing relationships with our dead, helping to make peace as relationships transform from physical to spiritual connections.

Continuing our conversation with those we have lost is essential to healing. These conversations are central to our emotional lives. Yizkor engages memory for healing. The pain of our history becomes less of a burden. Memory becomes a blessing. The conversation is restored.

Each day of Yizkor provides a distinctive frame of mourning issues. At Yom Kippur, we settle accounts with others and with God. We put right our relationships with the people who are gone, asking them for forgiveness.

We focus on unresolved issues, feelings and guilts we may carry. It is also a day to forgive those we mourn. Also called in plural form, Yom HaKippurim, the day of “atonements,” it is a day when we atone not only for our own sins but also for those of others. This contextualizes a dynamic connection that remains between the living and the dead.

Shemini Atzeret, Yizkor’s day two, ushers in the winter season. It is marked by adding to the liturgy a daily prayer for rain. This prepares us for sadness, bringing us closer to mourning’s cold and brittle aspects.

This time of the broken heart is necessary to healing, just as the time when the earth lies fallow — absorbing moisture — is necessary to bring forth the buds of spring. Our tears connect to the rain and necessity of winter to prepare us for spring. Thus, we honor the need for change and contemplate what it means to let go of the past.

The third day of Yizkor, Pesach’s eighth day, commemorates the Exodus from Egypt and calls for a release of bondage to grief. It acknowledges the difficulty of yearning for freedom as we seek a new life, as we celebrate spring and the budding of hope!

Finally, Shavuot, the summer harvest festival, commemorates the giving of the Torah and the establishment of the covenant between God and Israel. These themes encourage reflection on gifts given and what they taught, commemorating these gifts with acts of thanksgiving.

For Pesach, the commemoration of the Exodus and the release from the grip of winter and its tears provide powerful healing metaphors. Mourners have insight into bondage as they are held by the grip of grief. Pesach’s Yizkor can move the mourner from concern about the deceased to concern with his or her own healing.

The Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitzryiam, means narrow places. Pesach Yizkor might focus on finding the passage from the tight places that remain in the mourning process, restricting peace of mind and enjoyment of life, to the freedom to remember the deceased as a blessing.

Each year, the Passover story is told anew. In re-telling the story, we see how it has changed. Through each year’s lens, we monitor how time has moved us from the bondage to the blessing of memory.

Passover begins with the elimination of chametz, which inflates food and causes bread to rise. Chametz also threatens healing, for when we inflate or idealize the dead, we lose their reality. Healing relationships becomes harder.

The four children come to the Passover table with different attitudes that correspond to the seasons of mourning. The Simple Child represents mournings’ unbearable yearning. The Angry Child is enraged by bondage to past issues and pains. The Mute Child is simply stunned by loss and unable to articulate feelings. The Wise Child has moved on to healing-wholeness.

With whom do you identify? Has the story changed since last year?

Mourners’ bondage may appear as guilt over unresolved issues. They may be bound to live the agenda of the deceased and not their own, like the slaves in Egypt, living in someone else’s land. This exercise may help you, as you move toward freedom.

Bondage to the Past

We may be tied to something fulfilling and unable to let go. We may have unresolved issues. How are you in bondage to the past or living in someone else’s kingdom?

Pharaoh: How is your loss a tyrant holding you in bondage — a taskmaster, as you do its bidding and not your own?

The Plagues: What punishments have you endured because of this bondage?

Matzah: What have you failed to give proper time, attention and nurture due to mourning?

The Sea of Reeds: What obstacles impede your freedom?

Manna: What has sustained your journey?

The Golden Calf: What has distracted you from the tasks of healing?

Moses and Miriam: Who are your role models and teachers in this wilderness?

The Promised Land: Describe your hope for the future.

God: Envision a healing power to carry you to freedom and the Promised Land.

Anne Brener is an L.A.-based psychotherapist and spiritual director. She is the author of “Mourning & Mitzvah: Walking the Mourner’s Path” (Jewish Lights, 1993 and 2001) Brener is also a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and a faculty member of the Academy for Jewish Religion.

Your Basic High Holiday FAQ


Every year they roll around, and every year you’re not quite sure what to do. Go ahead, ask us. After years of answering readers’ questions, we’ve compiled the most frequently asked ones below:

Why do synagogues charge for High Holiday tickets?

Hate to say it, but this is the most frequently asked question of all. The answer, in a nutshell: There’s no free lunch. The High Holidays are traditionally the time most Jews go to synagogue, so the ideal time to raise money to keep the synagogue afloat the rest of the year. Lights, payroll, heating, rabbis, ads in The Jewish Journal — none of it is free. See listings on page 40.

OK, so, now tell me what these holidays mean, anyway.

“Rosh Hashanah” literally translates as “head of the year.” It celebrates the creation of the world. The holiday is observed on the first day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, which usually falls in September or October, and marks the beginning of a 10-day period of prayer, self-examination and repentance, which culminates on the fast day of Yom Kippur. These 10 days are referred to as Yamim Nora’im, the Days of Awe or the High Holidays.

Synagogue services give us time to reflect and resolve, but prayer and meditation are not enough to bring repentance. The only way to atone for sins we commit against others is by sincerely apologizing, making good our transgressions, and asking for forgiveness.

What are Selichot?

Selichot, meaning forgiveness, are penitential prayers recited by Jews prior to the onset of the High Holiday season. They prepare us for 10 days of reflection and self-examination. Sephardim begin them in Elul, and Ashkenazim on the week before Rosh Hashanah. And you can do them in any synagogue — for free.

What is Tashlich?

Usually performed on the first day of Rosh Hashanah after the afternoon service (unless it falls on the Sabbath), Tashlich is the symbolic casting away of our transgressions. We go to a flowing body of water, perform a short service asking for forgiveness and throw bread into the water (some throw rocks).

Why do we dip an apple into honey on Rosh Hashanah? And what’s with pomegranates?

Sweet apples dipped into sweet honey equal a sweet year. The numerous seeds of the pomegranates — which just happen to reach ripeness this time of year — symbolize our good deeds. Other traditional foods for this time of year are round challahs (symbolizing a complete, whole year) and, among Sephardic Jews, whole fish.

What is Yom Kippur?

Yom Kippur means “Day of Atonement.” “The tenth of this seventh month shall be the Day of Atonement for you” (Leviticus 23:27). Yom Kippur is observed by abstaining from work, by fasting and by attending communal prayers.

Why do we fast on Yom Kippur?

The Torah commands us to afflict our bodies on this holiday.

Why do we blow the shofar?

The shofar is made from a ram’s horn. It is sounded every morning during the month preceding Rosh Hashanah, on Rosh Hashanah itself and again at the conclusion of Yom Kippur. Its piercing sound is a “wake-up call” to repent.

What is Kol Nidre?

Erev Yom Kippur services begin with Kol Nidre, the opening prayer and also the name of the evening service. Kol Nidre is an Aramaic declaration that nullifies all the vows and promises that each person will make to God and to him/herself in the coming year, an acknowledgment of the weakness of human resolution. Wearing white is common on Kol Nidre as a symbol of purity.

What is Yizkor?

Yizkor is a service that recalls loved ones who have died and is recited on Yom Kippur.

How do we atone for our sins?

Yom Kippur atones only for sins between humanity and God, not for sins against another person. To atone for sins against another person, you must first apologize, righting the wrongs you committed if possible. This must all be done before the conclusion of Yom Kippur.

What is the Jewish definition of sin?

In Judaism, the word “sin” has different connotations than it does in our wider culture. “Sin” in Judaism is generally not something for which a person will be punished in the afterlife, but is rather an improper act for which one can ask forgiveness — not just of God, but of other human beings, as well.

If I skip services on the High Holidays, will a lightening bolt strike me?

Yes. Just kidding. For more information, link to sites like urj.org/holidays and www.askmoses.com visit www.jewishjournal.com. — Staff Report