The words of Yizkor, the memorial prayer, offered four times a year, on our pilgrimage holidays and on Yom Kippur, are some of the most powerful words our tradition offers. Many in our communities who do not attend services religiously, attend Yizkor. They join in the community's prayers in order to honor those they love and have lost. They do this just as it was done before. They saw the generations before them sit and remember those they had lost, now we sit and remember.
As we look through our texts we'll wrestle with the following questions:
- Who remembers?
- Who do we remember?
- What power is there in remembering?
So, let's dive in to our learning!
Zakhor, by Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi (1982)
At the very heart of this book lies an attempt to understand what seemed a paradox to me at one time – that although Judaism throughout the ages was absorbed with the meaning of history, historiography itself played at best an ancillary role among the Jews, and often no role at all; and, concomitantly, that while memory of the past was always a central component of Jewish experience, the historian was not its primary custodian.
These significant dualities have often been obscured by rhetorical flourishes and a certain semantic confusion. The Jews, after all, have the reputation of being at once the most historically oriented of peoples and as possessing the longest and most tenacious of memories. Yet such accolades can be profoundly true or completely false, depending upon what one means by "history" or "memory." If they are not to be completely meaningless, we should at least want to know what kind of history the Jews have valued, what, out of their past, they chose to remember, and how they preserved, transmitted, and revitalized that which was recalled. (xxxiii)
It may help to point out...that in repeatedly employing such terms as "collective memory" or "group memory" I do not have in mind some vaguely genetic endowment, not an innate psychic structure analogous to the Jungian archetypes. Contrary to a theory widely held as late as the seventeenth century, a child left in the forest to its own linguistic devices would not speak Hebrew spontaneously, not even if it were a Jewish enfant sauvage, and neither would it "remember" that Abraham journeyed from Ur to Canaan. Only the group can bequeath both language and a transpersonal memory. It was the abiding merit of Maurice Halbwachs...to have insisted to psychologists and philosophers alike that even individual memory is structured through the conscious efforts and institutions of the group. (xxxiv)
That was a lot of heavy academic language, but let's break it down to its core components:
- Judaism is a religion with a deep connection to history.
- Yet, historians are not the keepers of our history.
- More so, whether what we pass down is history or something else is a matter of great debate.
So, look to your own experience. What does the term "History" mean to you in your Jewish context? When we remember, what are we remembering? People, history, a myth?
Now, let's look at the words of the Yizkor prayer
An act of charity is often connected with prayers that we hope will have some immediate impact on the world. When we ask for healing, it is customary that we do so with the accompaniment of a mitzvah, often charity or blessing the Torah. Traditionally this is done so that the mitzvah will give merit to the request and make it likely to be granted.
Here, in the Yizkor prayer, charity or another mitzvah is also offered. Why? What impact are we hoping our words and actions will create?
Now, let's focus on a favorite Jewish family pastime: Generational Storytelling!
The Value of Generational Storytelling
Researchers have begun to establish a causal link between storytelling and thriving. In 2001, psychologists compared children's psychological health with their knowledge of their own family history. They measured this knowledge on a "Do You Know?" scale using questions like:
- Do you know where your grandparents met? Your parents?
- Do you know of an illness or something really terrible that happened in your family?
- Do you know what went on when you were being born?
The results surprised even the researchers. They found: "The more children knew about their family's history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem, and the more successfully they believed their families functioned. The 'Do You Know?' scale turned out to be the best single predictor of children's emotional health and happiness." Two months after this study was conducted, the September 11 attacks occurred. The psychologists went back and studied how the same group of children responded to that trauma. The results were the same: "The ones who knew more about their families proved to be more resilient, meaning they could moderate the effects of stress."
To explain the connection between story and resilience, the psychologists coined the term "intergenerational self." It's a sense that you're part of something bigger, that your life is an episode in a larger narrative. Marshall Duke, one of the study's authors and a professor at Emory University, who also happens to be Jewish, compared this idea to a bubbemeise, Yiddish for "grandmother's tale." In his family, Duke recounts, the grandmother will say, " 'You're having trouble with math, kid? Let me tell you, your father had trouble with math. You don't want to practice piano? Boy, your aunt Laura didn't want to practice piano, either.' Whatever problem the child has, the grandmother has a story for it—even if it's made up!"
More than just to entertain and amuse, these cross-generational stories serve a higher purpose. Family stories let children know that they're not alone, and that those who came before them celebrated triumphs and overcame struggles, just as they do. The researchers define three types of family narratives. The ascending narrative says, we came from nothing and now we've succeeded. The descending narrative says, we used to have it all and now we have nothing. Finally, "the most healthful narrative . . . called the oscillating family narrative,"5 says we've had ups and downs, and we've persevered, as a family. This third narrative is, indeed, the story of the Jewish people. When we sit around the Passover seder table each year, we invite the next generation into the Jewish family story. As the Mishnah (P'sachim 10:5) teaches, "In each generation the individual is obligated to see himself as though he [himself] left Egypt, as it is written: 'And you shall explain to your child on that day, 'It is because of what the Eternal did for me when I went free from Egypt' (Exodus 13:8)."
(Rabbi David Segal, Ten Minutes of Torah, URJ, http://www.reformjudaism.org/learning/torah-study/vayigash/our-stories-ourselves)
Let's focus back on our own experiences for a moment.
What role did inter-generational storytelling play in your family?
How did those stories, or lack thereof, affect your identity, personality, and sense of self?
What stories do you hope to pass on to your family and/or friends?
The following text is one that is often offered at a funeral. How do the words of this memorial prayer differ from those offered above in source 2?
In source 2, the prayers were being offered for groups of people. Above, in source 4, the prayer is being offered for one individual. Jews have been through a lot as a community and have many communal traumas to remember. Yet, here we focus on the memory of one individual. What import is there in creating space for individual memory within communal memory?
Yizkor: Remembering Through Forgetting
BY: SHOSHANA BOYD GELFAND
May God remember for ever my dear ones…and may my life always bring honor to their memory.
—Yizkor service, Gates of Repentance
From its beginning, Jewish literature has focused intently on the subject of memory. Yizkor, meaning “to remember,” appears in the Bible 228 times, referring to such diverse elements as Shabbat, Miriam’s leprosy, and Amalek’s attack on the Israelites.
Judaism also embraces the idea of collective memory. The Torah’s oft-repeated rationale, “because you were slaves in Egypt,” draws on collective memory to promote moral behavior. The assertion that we all stood during the revelation at Sinai is a profound statement that all Jews are bound together in a shared autobiographical experience.
This focus on communal memory makes the Yizkor ceremony all the more striking, for Yizkor is the one moment in the Jewish liturgical calendar when what matters is not communal but individual memory, each of us standing personally consumed by singular memories of relatives and friends who have died. Unlike a funeral or shiva, where individual memories are shared publicly to fashion a collective mosaic of the person being remembered, Yizkor provides a communal space for inward memorializing. Why is it that Judaism, a religion so fully dedicated to communal memory, makes this regular exception when it comes to Yizkor?
Jewish tradition doesn’t offer us a reason—but neuroscience may help.
“Memories are not static,” writes Joshua Foer, a contender in the 2009 USA Memory Championships, inMoonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering. “Somehow, as memories age, their complexion changes. Each time we think about a memory, we integrate it more deeply into our web of other memories, and therefore make it more stable and less likely to be dislodged. But in the process, we also transform the memory, and reshape it—sometimes to the point that our memories of events bear only a passing resemblance to what actually happened.”
In other words, the very act of remembering alters the memory itself!
Neuroscientist Eric Kandel explains that long-term memories actually change their molecular structure over time. One class of memory molecules, prions, seem virtually indestructible, yet are surprisingly “plastic” in their ability to easily change shape. Science writer Jonah Lehrer elaborates: “Every time we conjure up our pasts, the branches of our reflections become malleable again. While the prions that mark our memories are virtually immortal, their dendritic details are always being altered, shuttling between the poles of remembering and forgetting. The past is at once perpetual and ephemeral.”
Neuroscience is describing what we all know from experience: memory is inaccurate, malleable, imperfect. In recalling a memory, we do not replay an exact mental recording of the event, but draw upon our subjective experience of it. This act of recollection physically alters the brain so as to change the memory itself. Ironically, the very act of remembering changes what is remembered.
This may be the key to understanding a Jewish memorial ritual that is profoundly individual—the Yizkor service.
The psychological logic behind the Jewish funeral and shiva rituals is unmistakable: having just experienced a loss, we conjure whatever precious imprint we have as a means to hang onto the person who has died. At the funeral, we listen to eulogies; during shiva, we share photos and stories to solidify our impressions of our loved one.
Yizkor works differently. It is not intended as a time to sharpen our memories, for there is no corrective of physical evidence or balance provided by others’ recollections. Instead, Yizkor encourages an evolution of our own private ongoing relationship. Each time we recite Yizkor and remember, we deepen the parts of that relationship that sustain us, while forgetting those characteristics that do not.
In some ways, then, Yizkor (“remembering”) should more accurately be called Yishkach (“forgetting”), as forgetting is a necessary part of the process by which we maintain meaningful memories.
Daily, we successfully forget most of the mundane details of our encounters with others. Much of the time we focus instead on the meta-level of experiencing people as whole human beings; losing the detail, we gain in richness and depth. In like manner, after a loved one dies, through the evolving experience of Yizkor, we are able to focus on his/her essence.
Strikingly, how our brain processes memories facilitates this ability. “The fading, mutating, and disappearance of memories over time,” says Foer, “happens in the brain at the cellular level.” As memories are being recalled during our individual recitation of Yizkor, our brain cells change.
And so, even though we can no longer have an actual relationship with the people we have lost, we can have a dynamic and changing relationship through our memory of them. In this way, our memories of our loved ones literally keep them alive.
Rabbi Shoshana Boyd Gelfand is director of JHub and former chief executive of the United Kingdom Movement for Reform Judaism. This article was adapted from May God Remember: Memory and Memorializing in Judaism—Yizkor, edited by Lawrence A. Hoffman (Jewish Lights, 2013).
This year we cannot be physically together to remember those we have lost, but we can pull from our religion's rich traditions and teachings to connect meaningfully with those we have lost. Take a moment, focus on someone who is no longer with us, find a memory, and ask God, ask all of us, to remember them.
May their memories be for a blessing!