I missed Yizkor today.
I linked to a more formal definition of Yizkor above, but I’ll also give you my own spin on it: four times a year (which coincide with the main pilgrimage holidays on the Jewish calendar) there is a special prayer service which is added into the regular liturgy for that day. Yizkor, which literally means “will remember,” is about just that — remembering those immediate family members and friends who have died. It’s a very brief service which spans a couple of pages, and it comes right in the middle of the regular service. It consists of a few psalms (including the ever-so-popular Psalm 23), several individual devotions, and a main prayer with a haunting melody. Oh, and the Mourner’s Kaddish at the end.
I’m not as observant a Jew as I could be, so while others chose to take the holiday of Shavuot off completely (yesterday and today), I had to make a decision as to what I should do with my precious few annual leave days. I chose to do something I had done over the past two years since my mother’s death — which is to come to work dressed for synagogue, take a few hours off in the middle of the day, drive to a nearby synagogue (not my own, but one where I know several folks including the rabbi), join the service already in progress (including Yizkor), stay until the end, grab some lunch on the way back, and return to work. It’s less time off, more of a meaningful experience for me, and coronaries for my management team who gets to see me dressed in a nice suit and leaving for “an appointment” in the middle of the day. It’s fun to watch them until they realize that it’s likely one of Shiny’s wacky Jewish holidays again and not a job interview.
Today was pretty much the same with a few differences. First of all — no suit. Not even a tie. Just a nice shirt and khakis on a day which called for a heat index of 102. But still nicer than what I usually wear.
Second, I left my office with what I thought was plenty of time to get there. Last year at a similar service for the holiday of Sukkot, Yizkor began at about 11:15. I was there by 10:50 this time.
Yizkor, however, had ended at 10:45 apparently. I noticed this when I found some other congregants trickling out while I was going in. When I heard the part of the service they were on when I went through the front door, I had realized right away that I had just missed Yizkor. I had completely blown it. The entire service was moving ahead of schedule, ending at 11:15.
To his credit, the rabbi was watching out for me. One minute after I entered the sanctuary, I was greeted by a woman who whispered to me that the rabbi was concerned that I had missed Yizkor, and that I could “make it up” by reciting some of these passages individually and joining in with the Mourner’s Kaddish at the end of the service, usually reserved for those who are mourning someone more recently departed or observing the anniversary of one’s death. I did this. My eyes welled up with tears (as they usually do during Yizkor) when I got to the individual recitation about remembering my Mom. I recited the main prayer, El Malei Rachamim, to myself in tune — a prayer I’ve chanted for hundreds of people at services in the past.
It wasn’t the same. I had missed it.
It feels a bit stupid writing about it. It’s as if I’m describing a window to my mother’s memory which opens only four times a year. And this year it opened and closed a bit too early. I’m well aware that my memories of her are not restricted to a specific day or time. So — why did the notion of me missing this sting so badly?
There’s a custom regarding Yizkor in many congregations. Immediately before this mini-service begins, there’s a mass exodus of people from the room. Why? Because some felt that it was in poor taste to be in the room for Yizkor if you weren’t obligated to say it. So people (and most kids) would leave en masse and return once the all-clear was given.
However, that custom didn’t apply to my family — because of my Mom. She was a strong proponent of staying in the room to be the support for those who were remembering a parent, or a spouse, or a sibling or a child. It always disappointed me because I couldn’t step outside with the other kids. And I wasn’t even supporting my parents — whose own parents died when I was well into my twenties. It was in that room where I saw the camaraderie of people who took this time to concentrate on remembering together. It was where I saw the tears of strong, burly men a generation older than my own dad. It was a safe space, in a way. A place where you could look around and just not feel alone.
I missed it this time around.
I’m sorry, Mom — I know how much you valued being there for others during this time. And now, as one of those remembering myself, I can see why.
I’ll do my best to be there next time. On time.