The invitation went out today.
You don’t need an invitation to show up. But I’ll tell you why I sent it.
I have this theory. People want to remember their deceased. They need – and maybe even want – to mourn, too, but our society messages otherwise, saying “You’re fine, get back to life.” Couple that with some general Jewish liberal uncertainty about too much ritual or things that feel too religious. Add on a broader societal discomfort with the uncomfortable – like death. Consequently, when someone dies many of us observe little or no Shiva, and we jump back into life when our souls are still needing space to grieve and be. A month or two later we might assure friends or acquaintances we are fine and keep going.
Sure, we are fine, but, if we are honest, often we are still mourning. We’ve jumped back into life, putting the grieving aside or ignoring it. Here’s the thing – there is more that we can do to care for ourselves and honor the deceased. And so comes the other part of my theory: Judaism (still) has something to say to us as mourners. Traditionally observant folks know this and live it. The rest of us, I’m not so sure.
Jewish mourning rituals are rich and wise. Time is marked in ways that allow us to acknowledge stages of grief: Shiva, Sheloshim, first year of mourning, Yahrzeit. And ritual actions allow us to be surrounded by community, comforted at home and connected to tradition. All provide steps when we are not sure what to do.
Then there’s Yizkor, a prayer ritual known much better to older and more traditionally observant folk, and often left by the wayside of late. Yizkor or the Memorial Service seems to have entered Jewish tradition at the time of the Crusades.[i] It was a small ritual consisting of three prayers and a promise to give tzedakah[ii]. Over the years, the Reform Movement innovated, expanding this ritual, adding psalms and other readings, and impacting the practice in other parts of the Jewish spectrum as well.[iii] Liturgy scholar Rabbi Jakob Petuchowski writes, “this innovation of Reform Judaism, first introduced in the Hamburg Temple, was an immediate success…experience has shown that the memorial service will bring people into the synagogue who worship on no other occasions throughout the year.”[iv] This ritual became custom on Yom Kippur and the last day of the festivals, Sukkot, Passover and Shavuot.
When I was little, Yizkor was part of the Yom Kippur afternoon service that the adults went to. As a rabbi, I co-led it for years, but it wasn’t until my father died that I felt its significance in a deeper way.
Today Yizkor fascinates me at the same time as I wrestle with it. For 22 years as a rabbi I have seen huge numbers of people participate on Yom Kippur and dwindling numbers at the other times. At the same time, I’ve been aware that many more people were remembering loved ones who had died.
And I wondered: there are all of these people who have been mourning, and presumably at least some seek to remember, yet so few come to Yizkor. I could enumerate any number of reasons — too much ritual, too Jewish, thinking you don’t know enough, work-day timing, not their thing, no need, or, simply, never heard of it, the once-felt sense of obligation is gone. I understood and, frankly, found Yizkor only somewhat fulfilling when I was mourning. But, still, I was curious. Informal conversations and utterly un-statistical research left me with this gnawing feeling that there was a need and an opportunity. But, what was it?
I decided to try something new: lower barriers to entry and create a new ritual that might draw folks in. I created Alternative Yizkor. It happens at 7.30 am, before a workday. It is a stand-alone ritual, separate from a morning service. The low-key ritual includes space for quiet reflection and memory, singing, and, for those who wish, a chance to share aloud a small piece of memory. The text is a mix of contemporary English readings and traditional offerings including Mourner’s Kaddish. The setting is one of natural beauty, either outside in the sukkah or in our sanctuary overlooking Lake Michigan.
And the invitation. A few weeks before, I send a letter to those who have suffered a loss since the last Yizkor service, a letter of invitation naming explaining this as a gift, a quiet time to remember.
Our numbers are small. Some come because this catches their interest, others, no doubt, are too polite to say no to me. Either way, I will take it, as slowly we open the door a bit wider to a Jewish frame for remembrance, with some newcomers each time. Have I gotten it “right”? It’s still a ritual- in-process. Meantime, you are cordially invited to mourn…
[i] “Kaddish and Memorial Services,” Rabbi Jakob J. Petuchowski, PhD (z”l) in May God Remember Memory and Memorializing in Judaism, Lawrence A. Hoffman, Editor, p.99.
[ii] Giving charitably on behalf of the deceased. Ibid.
[iv] Ibid, pp. 102-103.