September 19, 2012
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.”
We’d talk in the taxi on the way to my hotel, “Tell me about your hotel room. Is it nice? What are you going to talk about tonight?” And then the wrap-up calls. “So nu? How did it go? What did you talk about? Was it well received? How was the crowd?” She enjoyed these wrap-up calls so much that I found myself telling little white lies:
“How was the crowd?”
She’d say, “Standing room only?”
I’d say, “Yes, Mom, standing room only!”
“Were you a hit?”
“Yes Mom, a big hit!”
“Was it a wow?”
“Yes, a definite wow.”
A couple of years ago, I taught at a retreat for rabbis. They asked me to come and teach them about prayer. At the end of the session, I said, “I want to teach you how to bless each other.” I said, “We rabbis spend our lives blessing other people, but who blesses us?” They said, “What are you talking about? How do we bless each other?” I said, “Me and mom do it every single night.” I told them, “You can do this.” And you should have seen these grown men put their hands on each other’s heads and melt into puddles of tears.
Afterward, my mom called for the reviews. “So, nu? How did it go with the rabbis? Were you well received? Was it a wow? Standing room only?”
And then she was dying. The truth is, for a woman who was so intimately involved in the details of her kids’ lives, her grandchildren’s lives, her friends’ lives, I don’t know how she found the courage to let us go. I said to her, “Mom, bless me.” And she said, “Nomeleh, you’ve already been given the formula, all you have to do is live it.” And then I blessed her. I said, “Mom, everything you needed to give, you’ve already given. You can go now.” And I stroked her hair, and I said, “I bless you with peace, I bless you with sleep.” And I sang her a lullaby. And after she slipped into unconsciousness, I whispered to myself, “Call me when you get through security.”
You wake up on Yom Kippur morning, and as a reflex you reach to pour yourself a glass of water or you reach to make yourself a cup of coffee, and you have to remind yourself, you have to catch yourself, “No, it’s Yom Kippur today. I can’t do that.”
When someone you love dies, there are so many reflexes to retrain. You set the table for three, and then you forget, “Oh, there’s only two settings now.” And for me, it was training myself to stop reaching for the phone. Ten times a day, I’d reach out to call my mom, and then I’d have to remind myself, “Oh, I can’t call.” I’d think of something I needed to tell her, and then I’d have to sit on my hands. I’d have a Nashuva service and I’d find myself asking her questions to myself, “So, nu? How did it go? Was it a wow? Standing room only?”
With time, you stop reaching. When my mother first died, a rabbinic mentor of mine said to me, “Naomi, the Kaddish that you say in April, it isn’t the same Kaddish you say in November.” A friend of mine overheard this, and she asked me, “Are there really two different Kaddishes for different months?” I said, “No, same Kaddish, but you’re in a different place.” At first it’s a Kaddish of anguish, of an open wound and an empty ache, and with each passing month it takes on a different tone and color. Some days I said Kaddish like a robot, some days I felt a tug, some days I felt such a sweet feeling, sitting in the morning prayer service wrapped in my mother’s tallit, the one she wore at her bat mitzvah, saying Kaddish for her.
When someone close to you dies, the world says, “Get back to normal.” But we all know better. “No, you’re not normal. You need time to heal, take it.”
Time does heal. And somehow you learn to stop relying on those you lost for wisdom and comfort. You learn to stand on your own two feet. We learn to take care of ourselves. We learn to channel them: “What would he have said?” “What would she have told me to do?” But Yizkor, the service for remembrance, comes and old wounds reopen. We miss someone who should be with us, who should be sitting with us at our holiday table.
The world may expect us to be strong, but we don’t have to be strong all the time. You don’t always have to stand on your own two feet. There are days when we need to give ourselves permission to reach out and to feel that tug and to remember sweet memories. We don’t need to contain ourselves; we don’t need to refrain from reaching out. We can just let go and feel whatever it is that we need to feel. We can say what we need to say, hear what we need to hear.
Yizkor is a time for sweet memories. For remembering those who cared for us, loved us, touched us, taught us. They all come to us, those we’ve loved and lost, whose spirit and memory and light will never leave us. This Yom Kippur, take a few moments to just to close your eyes and welcome them all. Try to picture him beside you. Look into her eyes. Can you see his smile? Breath in. See if you can remember her smell. Take his hand, and just sit in silence. Remember a sweet moment you shared together. When you’re ready, ask for your blessing. And now, offer your blessing.