One of the least official and most observed Jewish traditions, I’ve always thought, is the Yizkor break. In the synagogues I have attended since adopting a Torah-observant lifestyle about twenty-five years ago, the rabbi or a shul officer makes the simple announcement, “Yizkor!” in the middle of yom tov services four times a year, and an exodus ensues. The worshippers, mostly young, whose parents are both alive, walk out of the sanctuary while the remainder, mostly older, stay behind for the brief recitation of memorial prayers. Halachah does not dictate that those with two living parents leave, but strong tradition does—to prevent an ayin hara.
To me, Yizkor always had a certain mystique. As an outsider, I wondered what it was like to stay inside. From studying, I knew the prayers, and I knew the procedures. But I tried to imagine the mood. What is it like to remember, in such a somber setting, loved ones you had lost? How do you feel entirely in a fraternity—on my male side of the mechitzah—of mourners? What goes through your mind the first time you take that step from outsider to insider?
Other congregations treat Yizkor differently, I have learned from friends. In these congregations, Yizkor is a group experience. Everyone there is enjoined or requested, I hear, to stay for at least part of Yizkor, to pray communally for the souls lost in the Shoah, or for victims of terrorist attacks, for example.
That inclusive practice has a certain appeal. No one is singled out. There is no distinction, come Yizkor time, between outsider and insider. Everyone is a mourner for someone. But the minhag that is most practiced is clear—if your parents are alive, you leave when Yizkor begins.
When you stay for Yizkor, I always think, your life has changed; but I have never asked anyone about his or her experience; too intrusive, too personal, maybe too painful, I think.
All I knew was my experience as a Yizkor outsider. Every year we—there are often many unfamiliar faces among the mitpalelim (worshippers)—would linger in the lobby of the shul or wait outside the building, weather permitting.
Usually the Yizkor break is an opportunity for small talk. People would form into small cliques to discuss the news, the sports scores, the day’s fashions or other topics that I, a loner by nature, consider of little interest. Instead, I would stay by myself.
Each year, while the people inside the sanctuary would remember their relatives who are no longer living, I, outside, would offer a silent thanks for my parents’ continued lives. I used those few minutes to think about specific memories.
I would think about Dad taking me fishing as a kid, sitting quietly in the pre-dawn hours on a silent lake and waiting for a fish to bite, teaching me the value of patience.
I would think about Mom putting me, as a child, on a Trailways bus with a small snack and a change of clothes in hand, sending me to more traditional relatives an hour’s ride away for the occasional Shabbat or Rosh Hashanah.
I would think about Dad raising punctuality and gratefulness to a religious obligation, reminding me to never be late, to always send thank-you notes.
I would think about Mom telling me how she and her sister became the talk of their insular Jewish community when they, seeing a patriotic duty, enlisted in the armed services when World War II began.
I would think about Dad, who also signed up for the United States Army, telling me how, a few years after he escaped Nazi Germany, he got into trouble at his base down South when he spoke up for a persecuted African American soldier.
I would think about Mom driving downtown with a hot meal when I was working day-long shifts on my previous job and didn’t have time to eat during the day.
I would think about Dad taking me for driving lessons and keeping his temper in check when I backed into a neighbor’s car across the street the first time we set out together.
I would think about Mom and her sister going to the funeral of a distant, out-of-favor relative, and being the unfortunate soul’s only mourners in the funeral chapel when no immediate kin bothered to come.
I would think about Dad picking out a car for me while I was away at graduate school and driving the vehicle to me, three states away.
I would think about Mom taking care of her older siblings as they spent their final declining years in institutions that were always painful to enter.
I would think about Dad, who had escaped Nazi Germany as a teenager with the help of his family’s Protestant friends, instructing his children not to condemn an entire people, an entire nation, an entire religion.
I would think about how fortunate I was to be outside, while others were inside at Yizkor.
Which is, I think, what Yizkor is all about. Remembering—the purpose of Yizkor—is not done only in sorrow. Perhaps it is not only a matter of what was, but of what, God willing, still is.
On Yom Kippur and the shalosh regalim (Sukkot, Pesach and Shavuot), when we gather in trepidation or in joy, we recognize God’s providence by thanking Him for what He takes away as well as for what He gives.
For all its majesty, Yizkor is surprisingly short. Maybe five, ten minutes. Often I would find my fellow outsiders filing back into the sanctuary before I finish my mental exercise.
At the shul where I usually daven on Yom Kippur, you don’t need a watch to know when it’s time for Yizkor. The hall quickly fills up beyond its legally recommended capacity. Most of the people filing into the sanctuary are “Yizkor Jews,” senior citizens, mostly émigrés from the former Soviet Union, who learned little about Yiddishkeit in their homeland but know that Yizkor transcends the intellect. Yizkor is in their kishkes. Schmoozing in Russian or Yiddish, they adopt a proper mien of solemnity when the rabbi says it’s time to remember.
Yizkor is, they understand, a prayer of the spirit; through connecting to the memories of their mothers and fathers and other deceased relatives, they stay connected to their faith.
When they came in each year, I would go out.
This year, on the last day of Pesach, Yizkor was no longer a mystery to me. I joined the Yizkor insiders when I recited the memorial prayers and pledged charity in memory of Pinchas ben Abraham, my father, Peter Lipman, who died on Cheshvan 25, 5766.
Steve Lipman, a native of Buffalo, is a staff writer for The Jewish Week in New York. He is the author of Laughter in Hell (New Jersey, 1991), a study of the spiritual role humor played during the Holocaust, and of Common Ground (New Jersey, 1998), a book of questions and answers on the weekly Torah portion.