November 20, 2019

Maturity in Remembering

Today marks the end of the eleven month period, in which my mother has said Kaddish (the prayer for mourners) for my Gramma Fay.  For eleven months my mother attended three prayer services daily and stood and publicly recited Kaddish in her mother’s memory.  I had the great honor of being present and reciting it with her at Adat Shalom.  Today to end the process, my parents returned to Chicago where we are all from and attended services at the synagogue in “the old neighborhood” where Gramma Fay’s plaque will be placed alongside my Papa Nathan, for whom I am named.

I thought about my mother’s accomplishment of rememberance this morning during the prayer service as I recited a line in the Tachanun section:
חוסה ה עלינו ברחמיך, ואל תתננו בידי אכזרים.
God, pity us in Your mercy and do not hand us over to foreigners.

My attention was caught by the Hebrew word for foreigners — אכזרים.  The root of the word is זר (pronounced “zar” in Hebrew), meaning foreign or strange – “un-Jewish.”  In the Torah, two of Aaron’s sons are killed by a strange foreign fire, pronounced “esh zarah” in Hebrew (Lev. 10:1).  The three letters together כזר means “like a foreigner.”  But, if I rearrange the letters it turns into זכר, the Hebrew root for remembrance, the single most Jewish act.

Jews read the complete Torah every year in order to remember the narrative of our people.  The Passover Seder features a scripted book to help us remember the story of Passover.  Jews remember what the world wants to forget.

The two letters that need to be switched are the kaph “כ” and zayin “ז” in order to move from כזר, or behaving like a foreigner, to זכר, behaving like a Jew.  And if you love Gematriya like I do (the belief that every Hebrew letter has a numerical value, meaning aleph is 1 and bet is 2… then zayin is 7 and kaph is 20), then you know that the difference between kaph and zayin is 13, which is the age when a Jewish adolescent reaches maturity and accepts the Mitzvot. 

Jewish adulthood means acting like a Jew.  There is no more iconic Jewish behavior than standing in one’s community and remembering publicly, even when it’s personal and painful.  Remembering is Jewish.

Tradition tells us that Gramma Fay’s soul has completed her journey by now and I suspect (and hope) that she is now seated at the card table with the rest of our family, speaking Yiddish, and playing Kalooki for penny and nickel antes in the great Catskill Resort in the beyond.  May Gramma Fay’s memory always be a blessing for our family and for all who loved her.  And may my Mother’s fulfillment of the eleven months serve to inspire all of us to keep a beautiful tradition from the distant past into the infinite future.