mourning

The Jewish Mourning Ritual That Left Me Surprisingly Cold

A young woman wearing a hooded coat is walking on a dramatic beach in the winter

For as long as I can remember, the Yizkor service, held on the most important holidays, has always been shrouded in mystery and superstition. I was never allowed to be inside the sanctuary during Yizkor, for fear of provoking the evil eye and bringing bad fortune upon myself or my family. That feeling, instilled in me at a young age, remained with me as an adult. So since I wasn’t mourning, I never stayed inside the sanctuary during the Yizkor service, even when different rabbis encouraged congregants to stay in and offer prayers for all who have died and to offer moral support to friends and family. I just couldn’t do it. I never even looked through one of those separate Yizkor books.

I stayed far away.

But recently, four months after my mother’s death, I had a reason to stay inside for Yizkor. Before it began, I was incredibly nervous. Several rabbis and friends had warned me that the Yizkor service is a very emotional, jarring experience, and I should be prepared for it to be difficult and deeply moving. This warning caused my anxiety to increase exponentially. I couldn’t even bring myself to do any research to find out more about the Yizkor prayers. I figured I would find out when I needed to, when I was in the service, and not a moment before.

And then, standing there in the sanctuary among others who lost loved ones, finally on the other side, I felt…nothing. It wasn’t an emotional experience for me in any way. The build-up, the anticipation, and the superstitions suddenly seemed absurd. When I read the translations of the prayers, I felt that the main purpose of Yizkor is for the person saying the prayer to give money in honor of the deceased. I felt that I’d been duped. All these years I’d been led to believe that Yizkor was an incredibly special, moving, deeply spiritual service, and all I felt was…nothing. I confess that was even bored.

While I was inside the sanctuary, other congregants outside in the hallway were loud and laughing as they socialized, and I was distracted. I knew I was supposed to be affected, I knew I was expected to be shaken and crying, but instead I was just bored, and a bit annoyed, if we’re being honest. I understand that the belief behind giving tzedakah in memoriam is that the good deeds of the living elevate the souls of the deceased. I want to honor the memory of my mother, I really do. But for me, all of the preparation I received for a “meaningful” experience was an almost inevitable set-up for disappointment.

Perhaps if I had not experienced decades of mystery and superstition surrounding Yizkor, if I had not been warned by so many that I should expect to be overcome with emotion, perhaps if I had not been so afraid to do a bit of research, I might not have reacted the way that I did. I think that if I had been participating in the Yizkor service for years, saying only the prayers for all departed and standing in solidarity with those around me, it might have been different. Then, attending after my loss, if I had recited the specific prayer for a deceased mother for the first time, maybe that moment might have been significant and meaningful for me.

I can’t be sure. I will continue to participate in the Yizkor service four times each year, but really, I am dreading the experience. I know that there are many rabbis and other religious figures who believe that it is time for some changes to be made in the way that we think about Yizkor, and I couldn’t agree more. To begin with, let’s stop shrouding it in so much mystery and superstition.

The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. Comments are moderated, so use your inside voices, keep your hands to yourself, and no, we're not interested in herbal supplements.

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