Saying Yizkor for the First Time as a Mourner

When I said Yizkor for my mother this past month, I understood why it should be an 'Adults Only' service.

Among Jewish communities there remains a split as to whether children who have not lost a parent should stay in the service for Hazkarat Neshamot (popularly called Yizkor), the memorial service for the deceased that is recited on major Jewish holy days.

I do not think there is any hard and fast rule about what kind of Jews follow what custom, but it seems that among more traditional families and communities, children are encouraged to leave the sanctuary during Yizkor. In recent years, however, and in particular following the Shoah, there has been an admirable movement to persuade everyone to participate in the recitation of Yizkor to memorialize all of the Holocaust victims who do not have descendants to recite Yizkor for them. In addition, many prayer books have even added a special Yizkor paragraph to recite for Holocaust victims.

After I was ordained, I too had begun questioning the notion of going outside for Yizkor. As a child and a teenager I was always told by my parents - much to my own rabbi’s chagrin, as every year he would give at least one Yizkor sermon about why everyone should stay in for Yizkor - that we needed to leave the sanctuary, because it was a privilege to have both of our parents still alive. My superstitious parents were also concerned that being present in the sanctuary would give them a kan-ahura, the evil eye.

Further reflecting on my childhood, I can still recall how leaving for Yizkor created an awkward scenario at synagogue. Dozens of children would quietly shuffle in a procession into the hallway, and then we would then get yelled at for talking too loudly and distracting the service. Not having actually been in the room for Yizkor also created an even more awkward scenario later in life when I became a rabbi and had to lead a Yizkor service without having seen one myself.

However, this past month I said Yizkor for the first time as a mourner. Now I understand why my parents’ wisdom was correct, and why Yizkor, from my vantage point, should remain an “Adults Only” service.

This past month, leading up to the holiday of Shavuot, my mother passed away suddenly age fifty-four. My mother was the bedrock of our family and our spiritual role model. In particular, when it came to Jewish holidays, my mother was instrumental in making sure that the food was ready and that we all felt welcome at home. Had it not been for generous congregants who purchased meals for us, we recognized that preparing for this first holiday in Livingston would have been a logistical nightmare, as we were still emotionally exhausted from the prior two weeks of mourning.

Sitting in shul two weeks after her passing and coming off the bimah to sit with my family during Yizkor was both more meaningful and difficult than I ever imagined. As a rabbi, I am used-to assuming the position of the comforter, but now I was the one seeking comfort from others. Looking around the room and not seeing any children, teenagers or many young adults, I became painfully aware that my siblings and I were the youngest mourners in the room. This underscored the tragic nature of my mother’s passing at such a young age. I was clearly too young to be a mourner.

However, I was also able to take some comfort in knowing that I was not alone in my mourning, as for thirty minutes that day our sanctuary was transformed into a community of mourners; for the first time I felt that the rabbi’s sermon that had brought all of us to tears was being spoken to my pain, and not to someone else’s. Seeing an entire room full of people in mourning I realized that every person in that room at one point had stood in my shoes and could relate to the depths of my pain. Somehow, they had come out the other side, and so would I.

And that is a pain that I don’t think people who have not lost an immediate family member - a parent, a spouse, children, or siblings - should want to understand, or could even pretend to understand, until they need to sit in Yizkor as a mourner for the very first time.

Given that my mother played such an important role in making Jewish holy days for us, I feel privileged that for the rest of my life, I will have the opportunity to reflect on her life and the impact that she had on me at Yizkor time each year. And I hope that God willing, when I have children named after her that those same memories will come alive again, nizkor, only in other contexts: the joyous life-cycle milestones we will celebrate together.

Rabbi Dan Dorsch is the Assistant Rabbi of Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, N.J., and is a board member of MERCAZ-USA, the Zionist arm of the Conservative movement.