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26th Elul -Yizkor - we remember and God remembers



I like Yizkor. That time in the service when we remember those who once lived - and who no longer live. It is a quiet time in a day filled with liturgical noise. Walls of sound crash from the choir, children chatter, adults murmur, the door slams as people go in and out...... but at Yizkor all is quiet and calm and the only people there are the ones who want to be there. They know why they are there and they see no need to disturb each other.

Yizkor....... the prayers are few, but deep. The music is slow, quiet. For years I have stood on that bimah during Yizkor on Yom Kippur. Each time the prayers tear a layer of scabby crust off my heart. “Circumcise your hearts”, it says in the book. Kids giggle at that. But it’s true - you can feel it, if you try. The heart grows heavy, the weight of the past lies upon it, with tears and loss and emptiness..... and then you can cut around it and open it up, let the pain out and share it and all grows lighter again.....

So I stand and look around during the pauses, the times for silent remembrance when I can lift my head from the book and allow the silence to thicken. There they are, all in their regular places. So familiar now.

Ronnie always sits in the front row, his head bowed. His wife died so many years ago, and yet he grieves for her still. Gerda from Breslau remembers her whole family. She was only a girl when they were taken away - she has told me the story, how she made her way westwards, worked on a farm. After what happened to her there, she never wanted to marry. Just worked with other people’s children, as a paediatric nurse. Sid - old Sid - many’s the argument I’ve had with him in the past but however much he might shout, there’s no way I could bring his son back, Rick, Rick with the friendly grin, Rick the daredevil, Rick who drove his motor bike into a signpost on the Ring Road one foggy November night. Sid’s brother never came back from Cassino. Stories, so many stories. When you’ve been here a while, you know so many - and yet there are still so many you don’t know and never will. Eddie’s wife Suzy killed herself, after the baby died. No-one thought her depression would get that bad. Till it did. Till Eddie came back from work to find an empty house and his empty wife slumped over the empty cot. And emptiness all around.

Yizkor. Remember. There is so much to remember. So much. Far too much. So we try to shut it out, until this service, when we can sit back and let the memories come flooding back. Wrenching back. There in the back corner, old Mrs. Davidowicz, hair tied in a neat bun. Bent forwards, as if trying to hear something. Who is she trying to hear? Next to her, Mr. Cohen, then the Levensons, then Paul Smith, then Henry who used to be Heinz, then Roddie Jacobs, then - oh, rows of them. Rows and rows. And those are just the ones I recognise.

It’s the power of Tradition that makes people come back for Yizkor, makes them sit here and recall, year after year, while we read the list of names, chant 'El Maleh Rachamim', dirge our way through the Kaddish. We are but flesh, and the flesh is but as grass, and as a flower in the field, and the wind blows over it, and it is gone.... those verses from Psalms and Job, reminders of our own limits, our own fragility, our weakness, our transience... like a cloud we come, like a cloud we are blown away, and what is left to show where we have been?

Yizkor. The service draws to its close. Soon doors will be opened and the rest of the congregation will come in. The atmosphere will change. Yes, here they come now.

And suddenly, they are no longer there. Not Mr. Cohen, not the Levinsons, not Gerda, not Ronnie, not Sid, not Roddy, not Paul, not Hyman, not Barbara, not Henry, not Eddie, not Mrs. Davidowicz, nor all the rest. They go. You never see them come, you never see them go. But you see them there. If you are concentrating, if you are remembering.

It is time to continue with the service. There are still hours to go before the day will end. I must keep going. We are all, still, under judgement.

But they will be back. I know they will be back. In their normal places. Next year, at Yizkor. I like Yizkor. The only ones who are there, are the ones who want to be there. And that’s fine by me.


Rabbi Walter Rothschild. LBC 1983 Berlin


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