I grew up in The Jacksonville Jewish Center, at the time a pretty traditional Conservative shul. The rabbi was a rebel from the yeshiva world, drawn into Conservative Judaism in part by the writings of Abraham Joshua Heschel. He would regularly give 20 minute introductions to the Shabbat Torah reading. Before Musaf he would preach for 40 minutes citing Jewish texts and secular sources with equal ease. The cantor fled Austria before 1938, a graduate of Vienna’s famed Conservatory of Music. He could have graced any operatic stage in the world. Clearly the High Holy Days was a serious time at “the Center.” During those days, no time was more serious than the Yizkor service on Yom Kippur.
We’ll get back to the Center in a minute. When you think about the span of Jewish history, Yizkor is a relatively recent innovation. German Jewry developed it as a special Yom Kippur prayer after the Crusader massacres of Rhineland Jewry in the 11th century. It was their way of responding to the destruction of entire communities at a time. About 300 years later the Black Plague devastated Europe. Jewish communities from France to Switzerland were blamed for it; many were attacked. In the face of their communal losses, these Jewish communities began reciting Yizkor. Let’s move ahead about another 300 years; Polish Jewry was regularly slaughtered by the Chmielnicki cossacks in the mid-17th century. At that point Polish Jewry also adopted the recitation of Yizkor, and added a new element: the El Maleh Rahamim prayer. The Polish Jewish community also extended the recitation of Yizkor beyond Yom Kippur and added it to the liturgy for the three Pilgrimage Festivals. This is the traditional practice even today.
Let’s return to the 20th century. It was the custom at the Center to announce the imminent start of the Yizkor service. Those with parents living would leave the sanctuary. This is based on a folk belief. At some point the fear arose that someone who not obligated to say Yizkor stays present for the prayers, then the Evil Eye is invited on them and their families and the next year they would be saying it “for real.”
I feel it is time to Reconsider Yizkor, especially the practice of leaving the sanctuary. In many communities the entire congregation stays together, in part to offer support to those keenly feeling a sense of loss during these holy moments of memory. I admire and respect this compassion-based decision.
When I consider the Shoah and its impact on modern Jewish life, I feel even more compelled reason to reconsider Yizkor. The dedicated Nazi attack against innocent Jews annihilated entire families and entire communities. Truly, only God knows how many victims of the Shoah had no-one to mourn them. I have come to feel there is a theological imperative for us to honor their lives by remember their deaths. This position is in part inspired and informed by the work of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. They regularly teach Shoah educators that soon, the last of the youngest survivors will themselves be gone; it is only a matter of years. When no-one who survived the Shoah is around to tell their stories, Yad Vashem urges educators to embrace and to teach their students that we have to tell their stories. Tragically, there are stories of entire families and communities that can never be reclaimed or memorialized. At Yikor we have the opportunity to stand up in honor of their memories, and testify to the fact they walked this earth.
I know that some will still prefer to exit the sanctuary for Yizkor, and some specifically at their parents’ behest. I understand, and do not judge. Even so, I urge everyone else not obligated to these particular parental preferences to stay in the sanctuary. It is a time to remember all nature of lost family and friends, even beyond the ones for which we have traditional obligation to do so. It is a time to support friends in the community in their time of sadness in acts of loving compassion. Finally, let’s remember that Yizkor was created to memorialize the loss of entire communities; we have suffered no loss greater than the 6 Million. The Nazis gave their best efforts to annihilate their victims. I can think of nothing more appropriate than to use our act of sacred memory to insist on the vitality and vibrancy of these Jews, and deny the efforts to erase from history. It seems to me that it is the least we can do for them.
I wish you a New Year filled with the blessings of goodness, sweetness, life, and peace.