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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Filed under American Jewry, Family history, Jewish identity

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