December 14, 2018

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