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Yizkor (YK 5778)

Yizkor was originally only done Yom Kippur as we will do shortly. It was a communal remembrance, rather than the individual one we do when we observe a Yahrzeit, the anniversary of a death. It explicitly mentions giving tzedakah so that we would be engaged in both prayer and action in remembering our loved ones. In the Middle Ages it was expended to the Festivals as well in response to the Crusades, they would read lists of martyrs as part of their Yizkor service. They picked the Festivals specifically because the Torah reading we do on the last day of each Festival says that when we come before the Lord we should not do so empty handed (Dt. 16:16) so it tied into the idea of giving tzedakah as a part of Yizkor. There were some rabbis at the time who were concerned that someone might say Yizkor and then not give tzedakah thereby violating a vow made to God and so preferred people to not say it unless they were willing to follow through on their pledge. Words have meaning and we should mean what we say, so if you recite the words, be ready to follow up with the tzedakah.


One of the questions I am frequently asked at this time of year is when do I begin to say Yizkor? There is a widespread belief that one not recite Yizkor for someone until after their first Yahrzeit, but most rabbinic authorities decry that as a minhag shtut, a silly custom based upon superstition or misunderstanding that should be abandoned. If one has a family tradition of waiting until the first year is over, then you can do so; but otherwise the answer I give people is to begin with the first opportunity to participate in Yizkor.


Another minhag/custom is that one not stay for Yizkor until you have someone for whom to say Kaddish, some say for a parent, and some say until both parents have died and you become an orphan. Often people think of an orphan as a child without parents, a waif of the streets of London as portrayed by Charles Dickens in Oliver Twist comes to mind; but technically an orphan is anyone who no longer has parents. What we refer to in English as the Mourner’s Kaddish in Hebrew is called the Kaddish Yatom, literally the Orphan’s Kaddish. In the Ashkenazi tradition, which was based in superstition, staying in for Yizkor while your parents were still alive was at best inviting the evil eye and at worst wishing your parents dead. The Sephardim had no such notions and everyone stays in for Yizkor, I and most of my colleagues embrace the Sephardic custom and encourage everyone to stay in for Yizkor, but having said that I know that some of you will leave, again there is nothing wrong with following a family custom, even one I don’t embrace.


When I was a new rabbi doing funerals was simply part of my job. I would meet with a family, prepare the eulogy and if they were members go to the shiva as well. It was much the same as any other lifecycle event. After a number of years here it began to change, suddenly I found myself doing funerals for families that I knew well, I may have already done a wedding, a baby naming or a Bar Mitzvah with them. I was doing funerals where the deceased was someone I knew well. I was still called on to be a professional, to be the “rabbi,” but the experience was different, more personal. Now after more than 20 years here, every funeral is fraught with significance; the ties that bind us together grow stronger and more intimate. I think about the funerals I’ve done this last year for some of you in this room, not only the relationships I have with you, but often I have known your loved through our interactions over the years. Often sitting together in hospital rooms, sometimes being present at or shortly after the time of death, standing together in cemeteries and spending time together during shiva.


And I think about our member Sol Schwartzbard, who died this year. The years he came to the synagogue with Sally, their relationship with one another; going to Emeritus with Sol on Fridays, the jokes he would tell and then after Sally’s passing, his becoming a resident of the very institution where he used to help out. His illness, time spent with his family and his funeral; and in a short while we have the unveiling. He was an active and integral part of our congregational family; he was known by and adored by many. He is missed.


Each year at this time we look around and notice the people no longer in the room who used to be here with us. For people with recent losses, Yizkor can be an especially difficult time. And this year I am one of you. I stand here today and cannot help but think about my father and his unexpected passing. He was debilitated by dementia, but could have gone on like that for a long time. While I mourn his passing, I know that it was what he wanted; he hated what he had been reduced to, he had lost his zest for living and my father had quite the zest!

I can’t begin to express the appreciation I feel for the support given to me by this community during my shiva. I always talk to our active members about the importance of making a shiva call not only to your friends, but to members whom you don’t know simply because you are part of the same congregational family, that the way we build ties to one another is by supporting each other. So my experience reinforced for me, why I do what I do and why I will continue to teach and to encourage us to do things that may make us uncomfortable because they are important.


So for the first time on Yom Kippur, I too am a Yatom/an orphan, it is a strange thought for me. I’ve been up here participating in Yizkor for so many years, but initially only as the rabbi, now I am one with everyone else who will remember their parents in just a few moments time. As I reflect, I think of the life lessons learned from my father, Zichrono Livracha, May his Memory Be a Blessing. He taught me the importance of being present, if I can foster the same relationships with you that he did with his patients, then I will be a very successful rabbi indeed. He was adored by the nurses in his office and by the many people called him their doctor. He did his best to give them the time and attention they needed when they came into his office or he saw them in the hospital.


I still remember standing on the bima at my own Bar Mitzvah and his quoting Shakespeare to me, “This above all: to thine own self be true” (Hamlet 1:3) He really believed that you didn’t need to worry about the opinions of others, but you had to know yourself and follow your own heart. He often did things the rest of the family found outrageous or audacious, but that never stopped him. He believed in himself and that was enough for him. He also believed in us, but didn’t want that to be a major factor us; he wanted us to stand on our own too, independent even from him and his influence. I have tried to follow my own heart and mind in making the decisions that have guided my life. I encourage you to do the same.


At this time we remember the loved ones connected to members of our community who have died since last Rosh Hashanah:

  • Sol Miller father of Lisa Schwarz
  • Bette Spodek mother of Rob Spodek
  • Gertrude Lorch mother of Carol Willner
  • Miriam Friede mother of Zev Friede
  • Ruth Miller mother of Diane Lepp
  • Faye Julie mother of Ed Julie
  • Louis Kramer father of Leslie Fischgrund
  • Aaron Mark father Rabbi Randy Mark
  • Anita Gastwirth mother of Steve Gastwirth
  • Stanley Wertheim father of Marlene Korngold
  • Shlomo Sawday father of Orly Jalowicz
  • Jack Cohen father of Jackie Cohen Helfand
  • Morris Merker father of Alan Merker
  • Jean Dodds mother of David Dodds
  • Edith Bodnar mother of Anita Skolnick

We are not only members of individual families and Shomrei Torah, but also members of the Jewish people and citizens of the world. Therefore, at this moment of Yizkor, we also remember the following people whose lives made a difference to the world:


  • Jack Greenberg, civil rights attorney who argued and won the landmark case Brown vs. Board of Education before the Supreme Court.


  • Janet Reno, first women to serve as attorney general of the United States.


  • Leonard Cohen, whose Jewish infused poetry and songs drew inspiration from Bible and Jewish history.
  • Otto Warmbler, American student tortured to death by North Korea.


  • Ruth Gruber, trailblazing journalist, best known accompanying and protecting 1000 Jews from Italy to the United States through U-boat infested waters during WWII.


  • Florence Henderson, the greatest TV mom of all time.


  • Fidel Castro, Cuban revolutionary and dictator whose approximately 50 year reign made him the longest serving non-royal head of state of the 20th and 21st centuries.


  • John Glenn, Senator from Ohio, the first Mercury astronaut to orbit the earth, and the oldest man to go into space.


  • Henry Heimlich, who saved the life of a fellow resident of his senior living community from choking with his eponymous maneuver.


  • Vera Rubin, the physicist who proved the existence of Dark Matter.


  • Carrie Fisher, may the force be with you.


  • William Christopher, who, as Father John Mulcahy, served as the moral compass of the TV show MASH.


  • Mary Tyler Moore, who defied stereotypes and gender norms with laughter from Minneapolis no less!


  • Joseph Wapner, the judge who presided with dignity over “The People’s Court.”


  • Chuck Barry, who used his trademark guitar licks to define a brash attitude that became Rock ‘n Roll.


  • Chuck Barris, the game show developer of The Dating Game and The Newlywed Game and goofy host of The Gong Show.


  • Don Rickles, king of insult comedy.


  • Erin Moran, who will forever remain everybody favorite little sister Joannie Cunningham.


  • Roger Moore, 007 with a wry smile.


  • Frank Duford, philosopher of sports.


  • Adam West, whose Batman reminded us to wear seatbelts, brush our teeth after every meal, and fight crime.


  • Helmut Kohl, the longest serving chancellor of West Germany and the architect of German reunification.


  • Simone Veil (Vey), a Holocaust survivor who became a pillar of French politics, as France’s minister of health and president of the European Parliament.


  • Glen Campbell, who, with his beautiful tenor and crystal clear guitar sound, outsold even the Beatles in 1969.


  • Israel Kristal, a holocaust survivor who beat Hitler by dying of natural causes at the age of 113 as the world’s oldest person at the time.


  • Jerry Lewis, the quintessential Jewish comedian - manic and kinetic.


  • Hugh Hefner, founder of Playboy and advocate of the sexual liberation.


All these do we remember, together with the ones who were so close to us, for they too are a part of our world. ALUASA!


At this time we will turn to page 290 in our Mahzor Lev Shalem for Yizkor

Fri, September 25 2020 7 Tishrei 5781