The Yizkor service. Recited on Sukkot, Pesach, Shavuot and Yom Kippur. Like a magnetic field gone haywire, it pushes us away, then pulls us in.
When I was a little girl, my bubbe always shooed me out of shul before Yizkor began.
“Go,” she’d whisper. “You still have, thank God, a momma and a papa. For you to be here isn’t right. Go outside with the other children. Go.”
One Yom Kippur, in my rush to leave, I pass by my playmate, Sammy Traub. Sammy the Orphan, some call him. Only 7, he’s already a figure of mythic proportions. I squeeze around his scabby knees and feel — what — (Guilt? Shame?) for I have pink-cheeked parents, when Sammy does not.
Outside the synagogue, I wondered what was going on inside that we children weren’t yet old enough to see or hear.
“We can’t be in there because they need the seats for all the dead people who come back,” explained my slightly older cousin, Aaron.
His reasoning made perfect, spooky sense. When I returned to my seat, I looked for small clods of earth — one thread or piece of lint — some sign to prove shroud-wearing ancestors had visited.
Did Sammy’s mother come and hold him on her lap? Did his father smooth Sammy’s hair and say, “Sha, sha, mine kaddishel.” It’s all right, don’t cry.”
The possibility gave me goose bumps. Delicious shivers.
As a teenager I was still excused from Yizkor, even though by then I’d lost my bubbe, my other grandparents and some innocence, as well, and knew that dead people did not need my seat.
By then I’d heard the shtetl old-wives’ tales. Leave, leave, lest you arouse the jealousy of the orphan. (Had I avoided the wrath of Sammy Traub…?) Leave, lest you say Yizkor by mistake and tempt the Evil Eye. (Like step-
By then I also knew Yizkor means remember. That’s why my parents stayed behind. Remembering the past was their obligation, not mine, and I left them to their duty.
Outside the synagogue I flirted with my current crush. Watched him puff Pall Malls (Oh, how sophisticated we were!), confident no adult would find us since they were all inside (Struck dumb with grief? Rending their garments?) doing whatever remembering required of them.
Soon, I was a wife and mother. Even then, before Yizkor began, I’d leave my parents in the synagogue, grab my children by the hand and flee.
When I was 38, my mother’s younger sister, Betty, died. Betty, my favorite aunt. The one who wore red high-heeled pumps, smoked, told slightly raunchy jokes. The aunt who, against my mother’s wishes, bought me my first lipstick when I was 12.
After Betty died, I stayed for Yizkor (How could I turn my back, go, not remember her?) and said the prayers with my mother. Four months later she, too, was dead.
The evil eye? A brain stem insult? Both claimed responsibility for the attack. In either case, Yizkor legitimacy was mine.
It’s now 30 years that I’ve recited Kaddish for my mother. Ten for Poppa. Like Sammy Traub, I am an orphan, a Yizkor veteran. I know the drill.
Yizkor. May God remember the souls of my parents who have gone to their eternal home. In loving testimony to their lives I pledge charity to help perpetuate ideals important to them. Through such deeds, and through prayer and memory, are their souls bound up in the bond of life.
May I prove worthy of the gift of life and the many other gifts with which they blessed me. May they rest eternally in dignity and peace. Amen.
Yizkor is a stone thrown in the moving river. The circles spread. May God remember the souls of my mother and father. Of all my relatives and friends. May God remember the souls of all the departed in this congregation. The souls of our martyrs. The 6 million. (Sha, sha, in chorus. It’s all right, don’t cry.)
But inevitably, before the Yizkor prayers comes the parade. Children march, tumble out the door. Their antennae pick up signals from distant galaxies, and still we try to shield them. (From what?)
Grown men and women stride up the aisle (Have they lost no one? Do their parents lie in nursing homes?) Grown men and women leave, slowed only slightly by the heavy drag of superstition, its teeth clamped to their trouser legs, their hems, like a tenacious hound. (From what do we try to shield ourselves?)
Ah, that’s a question. And there are more.
Am I worthy of the gift of life and all the other blessed gifts my parents gave me? Have I passed my values to my children, as my parents did for me?
Will my children gain inspiration from my life as I have from my parents’ lives? Will my children do good in my name? When they are orphans, will they remember me?
Ozzie Nogg is a freelance author who lives in Omaha.