Every year with the approach of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, a certain anxious reluctance creeps over me. It’s not the introspection that worries me, nor the solemnity, nor the fasting, nor the hours of services. It’s not even the making of peace with anyone to whom I might owe amends.
No — what gives me pause is the Yizkor (memorial) booklet that’s compiled for the afternoon service on Yom Kippur. For a small donation to my synagogue, I can include my parents’ names inside. Given that I’m a longtime congregant whose parents are deceased, this would appear to be a straightforward matter. Yet I struggle each year as if newly faced with a baffling choice.
When I was growing up, domestic violence wasn’t thought to exist in the Jewish community. But my father was a batterer, physically attacking my mother, me and my three sisters on numerous occasions. Dad also had trouble tolerating me personally. A college dropout, he was irked by my devotion to school. Perhaps more to the point, Dad didn’t appreciate my chronic sullenness toward him for his violent outbursts.
Mom was also destructive. During my childhood and adolescence, she’d cry bitterly after my father’s explosive attacks, but she didn’t seem to grasp that we girls also needed protection and comfort. She, too, would impulsively hit and condemn us. Apology was not in her range, nor in Dad’s. Since neither parent was a drinker, there was no sobering up afterward.
I’m sure neither Mom nor Dad would mind my skipping the Yizkor booklet; they put little value on Jewish practice. Besides, they’d both understand my balking at the pamphlet’s florid italics: “In loving memory of … ” heading the lefthand side of each page, “Remembered by … ” on the right. My parents knew they weren’t easy people.
But I want to acknowledge their passing in the Jewish tradition. Having grown up without much that was emotionally grounding or orienting, Jewish belonging is deeply important to me. I just don’t want to have to don a false self in order to belong. I don’t want to pretend to have come from a loving, nurturing family.
My parents divorced when I was a teenager. As a young adult, I still longed for some kind of family repair, so I kept in close contact, calling and visiting often. Later, I invited my parents to my holiday gatherings, included them in my kids’ events, took them to medical appointments and helped my mother move five times.
Mom remained bitter, critical and defensive. Everything she’d ever done — including abandoning us kids after the divorce — had been justified; though she knew she’d been a hurtful mother, she would always invoke the excuse of having been Dad’s victim. One time when she accompanied me to a Yom Kippur service, she told me there was nothing in her life she needed to atone for.
My father remained judgmental of my choices: college, marriage, Jewish identification and writing for publication were all evidence of my small-mindedness. He never acknowledged that he’d been violent or inappropriate; when confronted, he denied it. He had no regrets, he said; regret was a waste of time.
Why did I soldier on? Because Mom and Dad loved my children. That was more important than my own personal feelings, I thought. It was worth it; I could afford the emotional cost. It never occurred to me I was “overspending.”
Last year, when confronted once again with the Yizkor booklet conundrum, I hit a wall. In the past, I’d felt vaguely ashamed of my ambivalence. Now I resented the ostentation of “in loving memory.” Why was the flaunting of this kind of “wealth” — the wealth of having come from a loving family — not only tolerated, but encouraged? “Check your privilege,” I wanted to shriek, thinking of the Tumblr idiom.
I emailed my rabbi and explained that I wanted my authentic self to be accepted and welcomed in my community. Might she consider tweaking the booklet’s wording, I asked, so that the headers would read simply In memory of … rather than In loving memory of … ?
My rabbi wrote back and, to my delight, said she thought my suggestion made the Yizkor pamphlet more inclusive. She’d already implemented the change. She thanked me.
At the break-the-fast in the social hall, I saw a fellow congregant with whom I’d had conversations in the past about our hurtful deceased parents. I told her what had happened with the wording of the booklet. “Wow, that’s great!” she exclaimed. “Next year, my parents can go in.”
A few weeks later, my synagogue mailed me an announcement of the upcoming anniversary of my father’s death. “The yahrzeit of your loved one … ” it began.
I had to laugh.
Lisa Braver Moss of Piedmont is an essayist, novelist and the co-author of “Celebrating Brit Shalom,” for Jewish families opting out of circumcision. She is a member of Oakland’s Temple Sinai.