This year, for the first time, I blanked. I totally and completely blanked. I couldn’t for the life of me remember the names of all my great grandparents. Which meant that I could properly insert the full Hebrew names of my grandparents during the Yizkor (memorial) prayer during Shavuot. I couldn’t use the traditional Hebrew formula, naming the person according to his or her parental lineage.
For a second, in that totally sacred room, quietly humming with the sacred murmurings of names and the equally sacred sounds of memory, I panicked. I felt lost. I felt like I lost my family. And I felt like I was letting them down.
I remembered my own father’s name, of course, and his parents’ names as well. That formula has been long repeated, and sits in me with an immediacy that is easy to access. I did that first. But (and many people forget this, or never knew because they don’t stay inside), the Yizkor prayer is for all loved ones and family members, not just those for which the traditional mourning rituals are enacted.
There are even dedicated paragraphs in the prayer for grandparents. I like that. It helps me feel connected. It reminds me that memory is not just about mourning but also, as the Rabbi of our synagogue pointed out this year, celebrating. Yizkor comes at some of the joyous points of the year, and that’s no accident: there is joy in memories, and there can be joy in remembering.
There wasn’t, for me, a lot of joy in forgetting. I knew, of course, that I could just say my grandparents’ names. It would be fine. The sheer act of recalling them would do what it was supposed to, would honor and respect and connect. But dammit, what the hell were all of their names?
Look, I know my great-grandparents’ names, I swear. (I’m not a terrible person, I swear.) Especially the one I had the great fortune to know. But in that particular moment… gone.
But then…back. No, not because I remembered them per se, but because something equally if not more powerful happened. I remembered my name. My brother’s name. My brother Mayeer is named after my mother’s zaide, Meyer. I remembered the names of my cousins. I remembered that I held one of my great-grandmother’s names (my middle name, Chaya, was my maternal great-grandmother’s name ).
I didn’t need to claw at the back of my brain. Like my own father’s and grandparents’ names, they were right there, accessible, easy at hand.
They were our names.
Because that’s another joy of memory, of ritual, of tradition and continuity. They live. They live on. They live on our names, in the names we give our children. They names they will give their children. One day my own kids will be reciting these t’filot (prayers) for people they have known and loved and lost. And they too will have the names of their great-grandparents, and grandparents close at hand, because it is their names as well.
That’s the best and most joyous way of remembering.