‘Strange’ and ‘powerful’ Yizkor at home presented new opportunities

‘Strange’ and ‘powerful’ Yizkor at home presented new opportunities

Shuttered synagogues force community members to recite memorial prayers at home. For several individuals, it was the first time doing so in 40 years.

A custom in Judaism is to kindle a light on the anniversary of the death of a loved one. This special light is traditionally a thick wax candle held inside a clear, glass jar. Photo by leah613 / via Istockphoto.com
A custom in Judaism is to kindle a light on the anniversary of the death of a loved one. This special light is traditionally a thick wax candle held inside a clear, glass jar. Photo by leah613 / via Istockphoto.com

Tempering the joy of several Jewish holidays is the traditional Yizkor service, a solemn remembrance of loved ones now deceased. As last week’s Passover festival concluded, Jews in Pittsburgh and elsewhere found themselves saying the memorial prayers mostly alone, as social distancing orders have forced synagogues to cancel gatherings, including services. For some, it was the first time ever having to say the mournful prayers without the comfort of fellow worshippers in a sanctuary.

The situation presented a “unique challenge,” said Rabbi Mendy Rosenblum, spiritual leader of Chabad of the South Hills.

During an April 14 pre-holiday online gathering, Rosenblum encouraged participants to reframe their perspective on the experience and to avoid certain mental obstacles placed by social distancing.

“This will hopefully be the only year we’re forced to say Yizkor alone at home,” said Rosenblum. “Instead of seeing it as a challenge, see it as unique.”

Rabbi Mendel Rosenblum (Photo provided)
Rabbi Mendel Rosenblum. File photo

Yizkor, a service that is typically accompanied by removing a Torah scroll from the ark, is a time of great spirituality, explained Rabbi Shimon Silver of Young Israel of Pittsburgh. There is an idea espoused by the Talmud and the 13th-century rabbi Zedekiah ben Abraham Anav that on the last day of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot, the souls of the departed are given reprieve and that the souls descend “and are here with us,” said Silver.

Since the soul is spiritual and enjoys no benefit from consuming festive meals, its place is typically within a synagogue, which is a spiritual domain, but because of this year’s situation, an “unusual” opportunity presented itself in that the Jewish people were able to “convert our homes into spiritual places and welcome” the souls into our residential spaces, he said.

Leading up to April 16, the date of the most recent Yizkor service, Silver had considered the significance of the event, as well as its relationship to the holiday of Passover. On April 14, the rabbi emailed congregants several reflections, as well as applicable Passover instructions, after receiving requests for words of “inspiration,” he noted.

The same day, Rabbi Daniel Yolkut sent a similar message to members of Congregation Poale Zedeck along with suggested readings, and mentioned that “Yizkor does not require the presence of a minyan or a sefer Torah, but may be said from your home.”

Rabbi Levi Langer of the Kollel Jewish Learning Center noted that along with reciting Yizkor on specific days, it is traditional to give charity in memory of the deceased, as doing so is connected to the days’ dedicated Torah portion.

During the holidays of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot, “they shall not appear before the Lord empty-handed but each with his own gift, according to the blessing that the LORD your God has bestowed upon you,” notes Deuteronomy 16:16-17.

Historically, “this scriptural reading made the last day of the three holidays a suitable occasion for soliciting gifts from each member for the support of the congregation,” wrote Solomon B. Freehof, the former rabbi of Rodef Shalom Congregation and president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the World Union for Progressive Judaism, in “Hakzarath Neshamoth.”

Naama Lazar was reminded of that communal charge last week, she said.

After reciting the Yizkor passage, and memorializing her parents, other relatives and fallen members of the Israel Defense Forces, Lazar turned to her husband, praying nearby, and said, “I need to send a check to the shul.”

Although tying the recitation of Yizkor to thoughts of donating money wasn’t unusual, pairing the two at home was a new experience, explained the Squirrel Hill resident.

Naama Lazar holds a book of her mother’s letters that gives life to one woman’s struggles in early Israel. In the photo below, Tmima Bar Ilan sits surrounded by her “tribe,” which includes 50 great-grandchildren. (Photos provided by Naama Lazar)
Squirrel Hill resident Naama Lazar recited Yizkor at home. She holds a book of her mother’s letters. Photo provided by Naama Lazar

Nearly 40 years ago, Lazar began reciting Yizkor after the death of her father. Last week marked the first time she wasn’t inside a synagogue to do so.

Saying the prayers at home “surely brought my relatives back,” she said. “I had more time to think about the people I was saying Yizkor for. There were no distractions. When you’re in shul, you see other people praying. Here, there were no distractions. It was just me.”

Reciting Yizkor in the absence of other synagogue-goers was “definitely a bit strange,” echoed Smadar Parness.

The Congregation Poale Zedeck member, who quietly uttered the prayer while her husband did so elsewhere in their Squirrel Hill living room, noted it was her first time saying Yizkor at home.

“It was strange, but in a way for me I was more focused,” she said. “There were no distractions. Of course, during Yizkor in shul no one talks, it’s usually a solemn time, but it was easier for me to focus on it here.”

Like Lazar, Parness recited the memorial prayer for her parents, other relatives and fallen members of the Israel Defense Forces.

Parness also credited Yolkut with emailing out a special text dedicated to the memory of those murdered at the Tree of Life building in October 2018.

Memorial prayer for those murdered at the Tree of Life building in October 2018.

Although Yizkor has a certain personal element whereby the individual calls to mind the memory of those departed, there is a larger responsibility associated with saying the prayer, said Rosenblum.

“The soul has a certain journey,” and the first yahrzeit is a marker along that path. For that reason, the memory of Lori Kaye was important to keep in mind, he said.

Kaye was murdered during an anti-Semitic shooting at the Chabad of Poway in 2019. Last week marked the first yahrzeit of her death.

Mentioning the names of the departed enables the living to celebrate the holiday with the neshamas (souls) of the deceased, said Silver.

Passover has a “particular energy,” and at the holiday’s conclusion people are asked to look back at the past but also toward the future, noted Rosenblum: This year, because of the pandemic, there was a certain disruption of familiarity. People were away from loved ones or regular settings, and although many individuals had to say Yizkor away from a synagogue, the “privacy” that’s shared between the living and the dead wasn’t absent. In fact, by focusing on the experience of saying Yizkor, even when done so at home, and seemingly alone, “it can be very powerful.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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