Yizkor: Personal Glimpses
Editor’s note: Tishrei brings many of us a chance to spend
time with our families by going home for the high holidays. For others, Tishrei
means experiencing college life on a different level – the spiritual plane.
Either way, Tishrei comes with many opportunities for personal growth. One
aspect of "the high holiday season" that has always interested me is yizkor, the
memorial service, since I’ve never stayed in the sanctuary during the
recitation. We here at KOACH thought it would be thought-provoking to provide
the college community with two views of this important set of prayers. Another
concept surrounding yizkor is the idea of being a proper mourner, and a proper
comforter. Ari Saks and Debi Horowitz have been generous with us in sharing
their very personal feelings on both issues. If you’d like to respond, please
email me at AudsKOC@aol.com.
My Sister Leah
by Ari Saks
JTS / Columbia
Yizkor is probably the most controversial of all prayers in
the siddur. Yizkor, the prayer of remembrance, which is said four times a year
on Yom Kippur, Shimini Atzeret, Pesach and Shavuot, epitomizes many of the
issues concerning prayer's role in Judaism.
There are the "Yizkor Jews," who
only come to shul when Yizkor is said in order to show respect to their deceased
There are "Yizkor-is-not-for-me" Jews who either come to shul
regularly or once in a while who leave during Yizkor because either their
parents are alive and they don't want to tempt the "evil eye" (ayin hara) or
they think they have no one for which to say Yizkor.
Then there are the "Yizkor-is-not-for-me"
reformers who used to walk out of shul for Yizkor but when someone in their
family unfortunately passed away they felt an obligation to say Yizkor.
the last group is made up of Jews who, even though their parents are still alive
and do not know of anyone to say Yizkor for, say it nonetheless.
I used to be a
member of the "Yizkor-is-not-for-me" group. I was young and I did not know
anyone in my family who had passed away so for me the prayer did not seem
necessary to say. However, when I was 10 years old that sentiment changed
My fifth grade year was the most difficult year for my
family. On September 19, 1992 my beautiful baby sister Leah Miriam was born. However, we knew right away that there was a problem. She was having difficulty
breathing and we noticed that her septum (the bone in her nose) was missing.
Because she was born at home she was rushed to a local hospital. We later learned that she was
diagnosed with a fatal brain disease called holoprosencephaly and because she
did not have a septum she could only breathe through tubes. The doctors said
that they did not expect Leah to live a month.
Approximately three months later, on December 10, little
Leah was still with us but our family was dealt another blow.
My beloved sabba
had a heart attack and passed away when he and my safta were at my aunt and
uncle's house for my cousin's brit milah. There really are no words to describe
the loss that our entire family felt when he died. Probably the best way to
explain our situation is what happened at my sabba's funeral.
Leah was at home
living off of a machine at the time of my sabba's death and my parents were
unsure of what to do for the funeral that was going to take place in South
Orange, New Jersey, which was an hour and a half away from home in Philadelphia.
They could not leave her at home with a nurse and they did not want to leave her
in a hospital, so they decided to bring her with us to New Jersey where she
would stay at my safta's house with a nurse while everyone was at the funeral.
During the funeral my father carried a beeper that the nurse
would call with a specific number to tell my dad that Leah was being brought to
the hospital because she had gotten worse. I was only 10 and did not really
understand much at the time, but looking back on the whole ordeal it blows my
mind that my parents had to worry about death while at the same time grieving
for another death.
Luckily the beeper never beeped and we buried my sabba in
peace. We sat shiva and we went back home to our normal everyday lives, even
though they did not feel normal, with Leah still with us.
On February 25, 1993, at 5 months old, Leah passed away,
having blessed us with her life for a full four months longer than the doctors
gave her. During those torturous but special five months my family rejoiced in
the time we could share with little Leah Miriam.
We made a video of her that we'll always keep, my mom tried
to breast-feed her like she would for all of her children, and we played with
Leah and we laughed with Leah and even though she could not say anything we knew
that Leah could understand us when her big, dark, beautiful eyes lit up each
time we played with her.
It is those memories that I think of when I say Yizkor or
Kaddish for my sister. It is the wonderful memories of my Sabba, of him sleeping
in his chair 10 minutes before he is supposed to go upstairs to sleep, of him
teaching me chess (and always beating me!) and of sitting up on the bimah with him on Shabbat mornings,
that I think of when I say Yizkor or Kaddish.
So, for me, saying Yizkor and
Kaddish is truly special because it gives me an opportunity to remember the
lives, not the deaths, of Leah and my sabba. However, I would not have this
opportunity without my Jewish community.
I had the pleasure and the privilege to recite the Kaddish on
my sister's yahrtzeit with the List College community. There were at least 30
members of that community who came to an early Sunday morning minyan to help me
fulfill my obligation of saying Kaddish.
It also gave me the opportunity to share my
sister's story with them, as I am doing with you. It was a special feeling for
me, to share that with people who cared enough to help me. It is that same
special feeling that I get when I daven Yizkor because I am apart of a community
who has come together to remember our loved ones and to cherish their memories
and those who are not immediately related to us.
There are prayers for the martyrs of Israel and the six
million that everyone, even those who have not lost someone in their family, can
say. This is why rabbis everywhere, including my father, are telling their
congregants to stay for Yizkor: there is always someone for whom you can say Yizkor.
vehemently disagree with this idea. Death is a very sensitive subject for most
people and it is extremely difficult change a person's ideas on how to deal with
it. It took the deaths of my sister and my sabba for me to realize the
importance and special significance of Kaddish and Yizkor:
We should cherish the opportunity we have now as
college students to be apart of a vibrant, Jewish community because we may not
have this same opportunity again.
Looking to learn more about losing someone? prayers for the
living and the deceased?
Rabbi Elyse Winick recommends: