It doesn’t hurt me anymore.
Standing quietly as I prepare for Yizkor, the memorial prayer, I watch most of the synagogue file out (quietly, respectfully—until they pass the invisible barrier and then, of course, there’s laughter, chatter, and why not?). It doesn’t hurt me anymore. I’m used to it. I’ve been witnessing this peculiar and almost ritualized procession for over 25 years, since I first started ducking out of junior congregation services to join the big shul for Yizkor. I expect it.
But I still hate it.
I hate that we do this to our mourners. I hate that we, as a community, who are usually so good at comfort and taking care of each other and really, have both the death ritual thing and the historical memory thing down pat, continue to have this giant blind spot when it comes to standing by those who are remembering loss. Some of us are veterans in the Yizkor ritual, but for others the wounds are fresh, giant, and gaping. For others, this first or second or third or 30th Yizkor is painful, and terrifying, and heart-wrenching.
And what do we do for those people, those members of our community whom we’ve been standing beside in prayer for moments and hours during Yom Kippur, and Shemini Atzeret, and Passover, and Shavuot? What do we do to support them as they publicly revisit their loss, itself an act of courage and Jewish commitment?
We get up, we walk past them, and we leave.
In many communities, particularly those filled mostly with younger people, the mass exodus leaves behind just a scant few, standing solitary and standing out in once heavily-populated rows. We say to them: You have lost, and you have been made to feel lonely. And we will leave you lonely again. And we do.
Look, I understand that many families have the strong tradition of honoring two living parents by leaving during Yizkor. I understand there is a powerful superstition for some about staying inside when no one near to them has died, a tremendously lucky situation that ought to be defended in every way. I get it. I respect it. If that is a custom that has existed in a given family across time and space, that may well supersede the recapitulation of loss that leaving engenders.
But not everyone who leaves has that strong tradition. And for those who don’t, I think we ought to pay a little more attention to what, and whom, we are leaving behind when we exit. There are the people in the room, alone with their memories, perhaps, but, as we should remind them, not alone in their Jewish community. Never entirely alone. And there are the people in the Yizkor prayer itself, the historical Jewish martyrs, the Holocaust victims, the soldiers who have died in our defense. When we leave, we leave them, too. We say they are not ours to memorialize.
But they are. Because community means support for those around us, and support for those who came before.
I know that some synagogues (including my own) have the more recent tradition of inviting the congregation back for the communal memorial prayers, and still others have followed the lead of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism in recommending strongly that people remain inside. And these are, I think, the right recommendations. These are helping.
But I still see the people file out at the end of the sermon (as Yizkor always is), desperate for a chat and a quick break, desperate to get out before the service begins, desperate to leave. I watch, and I turn to my siddur and my memories, and I move on. But as I remember my father, my grandparents, and others I have lost, I also remember myself, so many years ago. I remember what it felt like then to have everyone walk outside. And I remember that it felt like they were walking away from me.
There is another Yizkor service coming up soon, during Shemini Atzeret. Another chance for us to visit our individual and communal memories. Another chance to build new ones. And I urge us all to pause as we prepare to file out, pause for just a moment and think about whom we are leaving behind, and what kind of memory that might create. And maybe, instead of leaving, we stay. Instead of walking away from our mourners in their moments of vulnerability, we stand with them.