Mourning in our tradition is both private and public. When we visit the graves of our loved ones, as many of us did this past Sunday for Kever Avot, we generally do so privately. And of course, each of us come here today, with the personal memories of family and friends whose lives have impacted ours. Yet Yizkor is the public observance for the community of bereaved.
Originally, Yizkor was recited only today on Yom Kippur. Its purpose, as the words of the prayer say, was to honor the deceased by committing to giving tzedakah in their memory, on the theory that the good deeds of the survivors elevate the souls of the departed. This also enhanced the chances for personal atonement by doing hesed, a deed of loving-kindness. (MyJewishLearning.com)
This morning I am going to share the story of one of the people for whom I recite Yizkor.
When I was two years old, my mother, Meryom Dvorah died due to a cerebral aneurism. She was 29. Needless to say I never knew her. Yet thanks to my Aunt Judy, her sister, and some artifacts and personal possessions that they have given me over the years I feel like I do. My mom’s far too short life, and her death, have impacted me greatly in ways I think I sometimes understand and in other ways I am certain I do not.
About fifteen years ago my Aunt Judy, her younger sister, gave me this. (Show diary) It’s her diary from her first trip to Europe and Israel, June 28 to September 15, 1960. She was 20-years-old and a student at the University of Pennsylvania. It was four years before she would meet and marry my father and seven years before I would be born. My aunt had found it while she was “purging” her apartment while doing some renovation. I am grateful that she wanted me to have it.
I was in my mid-thirties and it just felt too weird to read my mother’s diary. I was just not ready. So I put it in a drawer and promptly forgot about it. Until it came time for Jody and me to go through our own possessions and “purge” our stuff to move here to Toronto. It was one of those awkward moments, you know them: “Oh what’s this?” And then you sit there, frozen, realizing what it is. You open the cover and read your mother’s diary all the way through; getting lost in its pages, the style of her handwriting, the descriptions of her experiences, and imagining her voice as best you can narrating what you are reading.
For my mom, this was a significant trip. It was three months traveling across the Atlantic to Europe, and then through Europe to Israel, and then back over the ocean to home. It seems to have been sponsored by some sort of student group, probably through Hillel or Federation, because there was folk singing, Israeli dancing, classes and seminars. The itinerary included England (she liked), France (which she thought was filthy), Switzerland (which was gorgeous), Italy (where she seemed to love the history and art), Greece (which was too hot) and Israel (which was “like coming home.”)
My mother took notes on every single day. Most of her diary entries are descriptive in nature, which left me feeling a bit sad, because I really wanted more. I wanted to explore more of her emotions and reflections on this experience. Nevertheless, this past year, reading and rereading her diary, I have learned quite a bit about my mother.
Swimming, for example. My mother really, I mean really, liked to swim! In Israel she swam at every opportunity there was to swim. She swam in the Mediterranean (several times), in the Dead Sea, in the Galilee and in pools at hotels and kibbutz guest houses. On August 6 she and her group arrived late in the evening, traveled to Tel Aviv, checked into their hotel near the beach and “first thing we did,” she wrote, “was swim at 11pm.”
The next sentence reminded me why I didn’t want to read her diary fifteen years ago and why I am still having some trouble reading it today. “We attracted quite a crowd. Met Eddie from Ramat Gan — 37 but very nice — had coffee. I love Israel — wonderful people!” The next morning she apparently saw Eddie again, swimming at the beach, and at night went on a date with some guy named David. She described him as “dull” and came back, as she says, “rather early, before midnight.” Which of course means that most nights she didn’t get back until well after midnight! (I have to remember what I was like at 20.)
When I read this I wondered how on earth she ended up with my father just four years later. My mother was my father’s first date that wasn’t a book!
Mom was apparently very popular. She made friends with everyone. On August 9 while touring Old Yaffo and Tel Aviv, she reveals a very important part of her character. She wrote, “Saw many buildings today, but they don’t interest me. I am trying to learn about the people and their history.” When I shared this with my daughter Hannah she said to me, “so you obviously got that from her.” I too, am more interested in meeting people and learning their stories and their histories. My kids rolls their eyes constantly as I talk to people wherever we are, listening intently to their experiences.
My mom loved people. On July 21, 1960 she met a Ruth West from Toronto on a train from Interlaken to Zurich. Ruth was on her way to Israel. They apparently spent the whole ride talking. Ruth, if you’re here, come find me after services!
My mom also loved to learn. She signed up for French and Italian classes on board the ship. She attended discussions on the impact of the then 12-year-old State of Israel on the Diaspora and on religion in society and government and elections. In Israel she went to the Weitzman Institute in Herzliyah for the opening of the International Science Conference for Under-Developed States, where she heard from Ben Gurion, Ben Zvi, Abba Evan and others.
She apparently didn’t like Kibbutz life very much. She called the Kibbutz “a wonderful idea — communist community — but not for me.” I don’t think she liked the work either. The group spent a week at Kibbutz Barkai where she would get up at 4:30 am and pick apples all day. Not only did she complain that “Apples are coming out of my ears!” and “Whoever coined the phrase an apple a day keeps the doctor away” never worked at an orchard, but she also didn’t like working in the field in the hot sun and “never felt so dirty.” (I think part of what she didn’t like about this experience was that at the end of the day she and her friends were so tired they went to bed at 9:30pm. Way before midnight!)
The people she was most excited to meet and learn about, however, were family members that no one from our side of the family had ever met. My grandmother, Meryom’s mother, was born in England, but her mother, my great-grandmother, also Meryom Dvora, emigrated there from Eishyshok, near Belarus toward the end of the 19th century. Eishyshok is the shtetl featured in the US Holocaust Museum based on the seminal work of Dr. Yaffa Eliach, There Once was a World. 900 years of Jewish life in Eishyshok was extinguished in a Nazi massacre of the men, women and children late September 21, 1941. Zikhronam livrakha.
While in Israel, my mom connected with members of our family, survivors, who made it to Israel after the war. She had a hard time finding their home, but these particular entries she wrote with great care and detail. She noted with sadness the poverty with which they live, their clever improvisation and how much gratitude they had despite it all, to be alive and living in Israel, helping to build the Jewish state. In meeting our cousins she records how they each cried upon meeting a “new relative from America” and she in meeting them. Special attention was evident in her recording our relatives’ stories and experiences both before and after the Holocaust – those who survived and who did not. Thanks to the help of neighbors who translated and interpreted the Hebrew and Yiddish, my mother learned our family history. Including to her surprise, our relationship to Yitzhak Ben Zvi -- Israel’s second president.
My mother, not the shy type, sent the President of Israel a telegram explaining her discovery — that his mother and my great-grandmother were first cousins — and wondering if she might be able to meet him. On September 6, a week before she was to depart Israel back to the US, she received a response inviting her to the President’s Residence in Jerusalem. She agreed and Ben Zvi sent a military escort to fetch my mom from Haifa. When she arrived they sat her in the waiting room and promptly forget about her. After hours and hours of waiting, my mom finally decided it was time to leave when Rahel Ben Zvi noticed her and inquired about who she is and what she was doing there. Totally embarrassed she brought my mom to meet Yitzhak who was entertaining his part of our family visiting from England!
When it was finally time for my mom to leave, Ben Zvi, a historian, gave her this (show Family Tree) as a gift. It is a history of our extended family dating back 11 generations to the Bet Midrash of the Vilna Gaon in the mid-1700s. I can imagine my mother being overwhelmed with connection and accomplishment; at the end of her trip to Israel she met the people and learned the history that was hers; that is mine and my children’s.
My mother was able to return to Israel only once more. My parents lived there for my dad’s rabbinical school year abroad in 1964. Fortunately I’ve been to Israel too many times to count. This year, my daughter, Ziva Meryom, named for Jody’s mother Zivia, and my mother Meryom, made Aliyah. She is now an Israeli citizen. On September 17 she cast her vote for the Knesset. She posted on Facebook, “I have waited my whole life for this. When I made Aliyah I was fulfilling a promise I made to myself, and part of that promise included the understanding that I wanted and needed to be a part of the election system as I needed to put my fate, the fate of the Jewish people and the fate of Israel in my hands. I could no longer stand on the sidelines. Am Yisrael Hai!” My mother would have been so proud. Jody and I certainly are. And I can’t help but think that part of this outcome is a result of her grandmother Meryom’s trip to Israel in 1960.
Thank you for letting me share with you a little bit about my mother and her trip to Israel. The wisdom of our tradition is that it recognizes that on our most important holy days we will naturally remember those who are no longer with us. We note with sadness those whose seats next to us are empty and those whose presence is missing. Yizkor is for remembering.
Except in my case these are not my own memories, these are my mother’s. I know that I am not the only one in the room who remembers family members with the help of others. This diary is a gift. I feel privileged to have it and to have an opportunity to learn about my mother’s passions, pursuits and relationships. In doing so I feel as if I can confidently say that the “apple doesn’t fall far from the tree;” it falls directly under it.
Though I will never be able to learn from the wisdom of her old age, that which comes from the experience of living, I am truly blessed to have her sister, my aunt, who has taken upon herself the responsibility to lift me up and support me in my mother’s stead. When Ziva was 4-years-old, she came home from preschool and wanted to know who her Mom mom and Pop pop were. (That’s Philly for Bubbe and Zayde.) Clearly this stemmed from a lesson or discussion or something that happened in school that day. Jody and I were at a loss. So we started to explain that my mom and Jody’s parents had died and were in heaven. She understood that, but insisted that she had to have a Mom mom and Pop pop as if it were a job. So I asked her, I don’t know why, but I asked her who she would like her Mom mom and pop pop to be. She answered my Aunt Judy and Uncle Lou. So we called them and Ziva told them what their new titles were and explained the job that went with it. And then we all cried. My aunt and uncle have lovingly filled those roles in our lives every moment of every day.
Before we turn to Yizkor Dr. Mayim Bialik has a piece that was published Monday on kveller.com. She called it: Everything I’ll Never Know Because My Father Died. Her father died four and a half years ago and she laments all the information and life lessons that are lost as a result of his death. I get it. Everything I have learned from my mother I have learned vicariously through others. Everything that is, except for one important life lesson. The meaning of Psalm 103 that we recite as part of Yizkor.
Enosh k’hatzir yamav — Mortals, their days are like those of grass, they bloom like a flower in the field. A wind passes by and it is no more; its own place no longer knows it. But the steadfast love of God is for all eternity for those who revere the Eternal; and God’s beneficence is for children’s children.
I learned at a very early age this truth of life. Rambam teaches us “to seek and grant forgiveness one day before we die.” Since we do not know when that day is, he says, “We should repent every day.” For me, Rambam’s teaching is also a comment on the Psalm. Since I do not know when I will die, I try to live each day to the fullest making it a priority, like my mother, to pursue my passions, build meaningful relationships, be present, enjoy, and reflect on the meaning and purpose of my life.
The Yamim Noraim, these Days of Awe, are designed for us to learn this lesson. As we discussed on Rosh Hashanah we cannot know Mi yiheh umiyamut – who will live and who will die. But we can take every opportunity to learn about ourselves and our families, collecting and recording the stories of our parents, grandparents and even our own, beyond the perfunctory family tree projects. We can ask about diaries, keepsakes, photos and old movies, now, not tomorrow. We can record oral histories to gain insight and wisdom into who each one of us is and, to some extent, reduce future regrets.
By having these stories of my mother’s life, of which there are far too few, and by her teaching me through her death to cherish every moment of every day of life, my mother, Meryom Dvorah bat Dov Bear VAda, has contributed deeply to the core of who I am. Her influence, her beneficence has been a blessing for her children and her children’s children. That is her Yizkor.