Sacred Memory

Martha Hurwitz (Barre, MA)

This past Yom Kippur I was invited by the Rabbi of our synagogue to share memories of someone I loved as a segue into the Yizkor service.  I immediately thought of my mother because my memories of her are happy ones and I credit her for any good and admirable qualities I may have. 

However, I heard an internal nagging voice that said, “What about your father? What memories would you share of him?”  This was not a question that I wanted to hear or to answer.  My father was not an easy man to love or to live with.  Personal relationships and sharing emotions were very difficult for him.  He needed to be the center of attention and the one who was always right.  He believed that women should take a supporting role and made it clear that, while I should aspire to become educated and “polished,” it was in order to become a suitable spouse to a professional and successful husband, not to showcase any accomplishments of my own.

In the 20 years since I became a Jew, I have struggled with the liturgy surrounding memory of loved ones because it seems to be about the excellent examples of those who have died and how their memories are a blessing.  Clearly, memories are not always positive or, at best, may be conflicting and difficult, but in a Jewish context are considered sacred.  How can memory be a blessing or be considered sacred when it still causes sadness and confusion? I waffled back and forth, trying to convince myself that it would be just fine to go with the positive and glowing eulogy that I had prepared when my mother died.  In the end, I gathered my courage and decided to risk being vulnerable and share my struggle with the memories of my father.   I calmed my fears by assuring myself that I certainly could not be the only one who wrestles with this question.

 As the Rabbi prepared the congregation for Yizkor, I sat in a heightened state of nerves, barely able to absorb what he was saying. Fortunately I managed to retain his statement that alav ha-shalom is meant as much (or perhaps even more) for the living than the dead.  With shaking voice and trembling knees, I shared my struggle and memories of my father.

In the end, of course, it was a powerful experience both for me and for the members of my congregation.  It is clear that I am far from the only one who struggles with memory and how to integrate it into the sacred liturgy.  I ended my thoughts with “Dad, I forgive you and I love you.  Alav ha-shalom.” My father died in 2001, but it was not until that day, 14 years later, that I was able to begin to mourn for him. 

Since then I have thought a great deal about the liturgy surrounding memory and what may be the purpose of such ritual. I have begun to see that it is not so much to suggest that memory by itself is sacred or that those who have gone before us were perfect. Rather it is an opportunity to take all memories, difficult or not, and place them into a sacred space.  I know there are some memories that may be too painful and negative to ever be resolved in this way.  But remembering within the context of Jewish ritual and tradition is a way that sadness and confusion can be eased and even those who were flawed and left hurts behind can rest in peace within us.

Martha Hurwitz grew up on a farm in upstate New York and was raised in the Society of Friends (Quakers). She married into a lively Jewish family in 1983, converted to Judaism in 1996, and has enjoyed learning and studying Torah ever since, both in study groups and by reading various sources at home.  Having always enjoyed writing, she recently started a blog called “The Golden Years Revisited,” (www.cultivatingdignity.com) to explore and share the experience of getting older and poke fun at some of the myths and stereotypes regarding old ladies!

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Rooms on the Left, Rooms on the Right

by Janet R. Kirchheimer (New York, NY)

This poem began when I heard a woman speaking to her children.  I thought my heart would break.  During the Shoah, so many mothers and fathers had to make the unbearable decision whether or not to separate their families.  The decision was life and death.  This poem is dedicated to those forced to endure such choices.

I see spotlights and fences and people standing in lines
to go into rooms on the left and rooms on the right,
and I hear a woman tell her children, “Stay with me,
we don’t want to get separated,” and my heart
begins to pound, and I walk out of the lobby
of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum
and look up at the sky in Washington and try to find the sun.

Janet R. Kirchheimer is the author of How to Spot One of Us (2007).  She is currently producing BE•HOLD, a cinematic poetry performance film. (https://www.facebook.com/BeholdAPerformanceFilm)  Her work has appeared in journals and on line in such publications as Atlanta Review, Limestone, Connecticut Review, Lilith, Natural Bridge and on beliefnet.com, and she is a Pushcart Prize nominee. Janet is a teaching fellow at CLAL –  The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. 

 

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In the Matter of Seders

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

In the matter of Seders,
unfortunately, I get impatient.
As the story of the Israelites unfolds,
I keep looking at the sumptuous food
arranged across the table,
and wonder if I can exist
on a diet of matzoh for the week.
What a poor desert wanderer
I would have been, trudging,
searching the sand hills and oases
for the local 7-11 or Dunkin’ Donuts.
I am chided for suggesting
that certain prayers be skipped
to shorten the time before a full stomach.
The famous Four Questions are three too many
as I restlessly await the first course,
and the reading of the Ten Plagues reminds me,
what’s the weather report for tomorrow?
I am not proud of my lack of decorum,
and beg forgiveness from my ancestors,
who were much stronger than I,
waiting patiently until the Promised Land
of brisket, kugel, and matzoh ball soup.

The author of twelve books for young adults, Mel Glenn has lived nearly all his life in Brooklyn, NY, where he taught English at A. Lincoln High School for thirty-one years.  Lately, he’s been writing poetry, and you can find his most recent poems in the YA anthology, This Family Is Driving Me Crazy, edited by M. Jerry Weiss.

If you’d like to learn more about his work, visit: http://www.melglenn.com/

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The Search for Chometz

by Richard Epstein (Washington, DC)

He gave me a saucer containing eleven, neatly cut
pieces of bread:  each about a quarter-inch square.  I placed one
on the edge of the washing machine in the first floor
powder room, the kitchen counter, the dining room table,
the leather-topped lamp table in the living room,
and on the corner of each dresser in the upstairs bedrooms.

He waited downstairs.  When I came back to the kitchen,
he unwrapped a cloth covering a wooden spoon,
the white-feathered wing of a chicken, and a Shabbos candle.
The search for the chometz was about to begin.

I led the way to each piece of bread by candlelight, my hand
cupped in front of the flickering flame as we walked up
the darkened wooden stairway.  Melting wax dripped
onto my hand as I watched our shadows high on the wall.

Dad gently nudged each morsel of bread onto the spoon,
then brushed twice with short sweeping strokes
of a chicken wing.  He cradled the spoon on his forearm
as if it were a fragile doll and wrapped it within
the cloth before leaving each room.

Dad followed me down the stairs and back into the kitchen.
He whispered a prayer and blew long and slow
across the candle flame.

All things are done with prayer,  he said.  The candle tried
desperately to hold to its light. Like hoarded silver,
he wrapped the wooden spoon and bound it tightly with twine.

It is done.

Richard Epstein lives in the Washington DC area and is active in the Warrior Poets sponsored by Walter Reed Medical Center, the Veterans Writing Project and he hosts an open mic venue for veterans and friends of veterans on the National Mall.

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Finding My Jewishness

by Anna Banasiak (Lodz, Poland)

I’m wandering in life
searching for my promised land
I see their faces
emerging from my dreams
hear the trains
in the forest of thoughts
my eyes are full of light
hands are dancing in the enchanted circle
like the Tzadikim
I hear the melody of the Hebrew alphabet
there is something strange in me
when I’m with people
I tremble
like a frightened bird
trapped in the past

Anna Banasiak, a poet and literary critic, lives in Lodz,Poland. She studied Polish philology and culture studies at the University of Warsaw, and served as the editor in chief of Kamena in Lodz. Her poems have appeared in numerous literary journals around the world.

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Heaven, Seriously?

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

We Jews are a bit vague when asked
about the actual parameters of heaven.
Many believe the souls of the righteous
go directly to a place similar to heaven,
or will be resurrected when the Messiah comes.
The Torah provides little expansion on the topic,
but bound as I am by earthly existence
I’d like some geographical reference points.
Is an after-life someplace west of the moon,
catty-corner to the Milky Way?
Should it not come equipped
with a signpost or a GPS?
I have trouble accepting
this life is but a mere foyer
to the Grand Ballroom of heaven,
believing instead that dancing
is to be encouraged terrestrially,
with feet grounded in the here and now.
Would that I had the comfort of knowing
where my soul will pirouette past time,
given the lack of clear and present instruction.

The author of twelve books for young adults, Mel Glenn has lived nearly all his life in Brooklyn, NY, where he taught English at A. Lincoln High School for thirty-one years. Lately, he’s been writing poetry, and you can find his most recent poems in the YA anthology, This Family Is Driving Me Crazy, edited by M. Jerry Weiss.

If you’d like to learn more about his work, visit: http://www.melglenn.com/

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Sensing Spiritual Synchronicity

By Susan L. Lipson (Poway, CA)

As I settled in at temple services on a recent Saturday morning, taking a deep breath to focus my spiritual intentions, I looked around our sanctuary and suddenly found myself appreciating anew the beautiful artifacts wrought by artistic hands blessed to uplift spirituality.

My eyes lingered on the section of a Torah scroll, rescued from Holocaust-torn Europe, and restored and mounted within a protective acrylic case now hanging on the wall beside the bimah—a scroll whose sofer (scribe) never dreamed that his painstaking, holy work would survive a murder attempt to receive new life and a new purpose in a California temple.

Beside the ark stands a 6-foot-tall metal menorah, welded by strong hands that clearly desired to inspire. Did that welder-artist envision the sanctuary that would someday house this symbol of Jewish light?

And the actual light—the ner tamid—that glowing, multi-colored flame of glass, drawn out of some artist’s blazing oven to reflect in the artist’s eyes for the time it took to shape it, is suspended now before light-seeking eyes who look upward, over the ark, before closing their eyes in earnest prayers.

The ark itself inspired me as a kind of giant mezuzah, housing precious, handwritten scrolls inside the once-living body of God’s most majestic plant creation—the tree, ha’etz, appropriately protecting the Etz Hayim (Tree of Life, a.k.a. Torah).  

So many hands, divinely empowered, suddenly touched my heart through their offerings. 

My epiphany filled my head and heart with this spontaneous prayer:

“Dear God, bless all of the hands that worked so earnestly to create this beautiful environment in which to feel your presence, to add goodness to our community through their own artistically blessed hands. May they continue to feel inspired and to inspire others.”

Then I inhaled, exhaled, and opened my prayer book to join my fellow congregants in reading, chanting, and singing.

When a bar mitzvah began chanting the weekly Torah portion from the scroll, I felt chills of confirmation of my connection to God and Torah when, to my delight, I read the English translation in the book version: the teenager was reading the precise design directions for the building and beautification of the holy Temple in Jerusalem, describing the sizes and colors of every holy object to be built, even the artistic inclusion of pomegranate and gold bell motifs.

In the past, hearing this portion read, I never understood the purpose of such detailed design directions in our holy text. I had always considered this passage cryptically verbose. I had wondered why the objects in the worship space mattered so much. But now, the coincidence of my “object lesson” and the “objectification of spirituality” in the weekly reading struck me as bashert, meant to be.

Synchronicity is God’s way of reminding us that we need to look in order to see the connectedness of our world.

Susan L. Lipson (a.k.a. “S. L. Lipson”) has published books for children and teachers, as well as articles and personal narratives, curriculum materials, and poetry (www.sllipson.com). Recently, Lipson’s short memoir “Connections” was published in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Dreams and Premonitions.  You can find more of her work on her blog, “Writing Memorable Words” (www.susanllipson.blogspot.com) and  www.susanllipsonwritingteacher.blogspot.com ). You can also find her on Twitter and Instagram (@sllipson), as well as on her Facebook Author Page: “S. L. Lipson, Author & Writing Teacher.”

 

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