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Pesach Yizkor 5780

04/13/2020 11:34:55 PM


Yael Keller


In a small coastal town in Japan on a grassy hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean there is a small room made entirely of glass panels.  It contains only a disconnected rotary phone and a chair.  Itaru Sasaki installed his phone booth to connect with a cousin who passed away. He told This American Life that he knew his thoughts could no longer be communicated through regular means, rather he wanted them “to be carried on the wind.”  A short time later, after the tsunami and earthquake in 2011, the booth became a popular place for others to connect with a lost loved one.  According to local reports, there were over 10,000 visitors in three years. During the face of senseless tragedy people were looking for a connection with those they had lost.

Yizkor, the communal prayer we would have said in shul on Thursday, is meant to serve such a connection.  It too, was rooted in communal trauma, much as the popularity of the phone booth ritual was in Japan after the tsunami. Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman explains Yizkor emerged in Germany after the Crusades and would gain widespread revival at times of communal persecution - notably in the 14th century when Jews were blamed for the Black Death and In the 17th century in Poland/Ukraine during the Chmielnicki massacres. Today we have added prayers for victims of the holocaust and fallen Israeli soldiers as well. 

However, unlike the phone booth, Yizkor lacks a personal feeling. Each prayer is formulaic and brief, just 40 words. It doesn’t formally invite the person praying to reflect on their personal relationships and loved ones.  For me, Yizkor doesn’t usually help me find the connection I am looking for. In this current climate where everything feels different, I wanted to explore another way to think about how to use the Yizkor time. Turning to Jewish Renewal sources, I found an approach that I hope will enhance my experience davening yizkor this Pesach. 

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, a Chabad shaliach who became one of the founders of the Jewish Renewal movement, used to speak of Yizkor as a “holy Skype call.”  It was not just a prayer offered on behalf of the loved one, but an opportunity to actively remember the person one has lost.  Reb Zalman would suggest that you retreat under your tallis or below the brim of your hat and imagine your loved one is beside you. Talk to them, say whatever it is that one most needs to say to that person right then and there.

For me, personally, this does not always come easily.  I am often distracted by the others in shul or wondering if I remembered to put all the food on the blech.  At this moment, although I will miss the communal experience, I want to take advantage of having the space and time to say Yizkor at my own pace. A way to step into the phone booth and actively remember those we have lost.  Even for those who are blessed to be able to leave normally during Yizkor, I would encourage you to think of a grandparent, a friend, someone who you have loved with whom you could connect. Find a quiet spot in your house or your yard.  Bring a picture or a prop if that helps you. I found the thought exercise below to be very helpful, written by Rabbi Simcha Raphael, The founder of the Da’at Institute.  Take a breath.  Talk to your loved ones. Take this moment to listen to their legacy. 

This year, when we don’t have the option to be in shul, the inability to say yizkor together, as a community, feels like an extra loss layered upon all the other losses during this hard time.  However, I think it also affords us a unique opportunity to transform our yizkor experience from one of sitting in the sanctuary to sitting in the phone booth.  

Perhaps, when we return, we can share our personal Yizkor experiences to enhance our communal tefillah. 

Chag Sameach. 


Yizkor creates a sacred space and time wherein we can open our hearts and minds to the possibility of a genuine inter-connection with beloved family members and friends who have left behind the world of the living. Yizkor is a window.  Prepare to open that window...

As you recite Yizkor prayers let your senses and imagination serve as the vehicle of inter-connection.  For whom are you saying Yizkor today? Can you imagine that person’s face before your eyes? See their smile, visualize how they might be carrying their body standing next to you.  Do you recall the sound of their voice? Hear their words as you stand in prayer.

Feel their presence right in this moment.  In your mind, in your heart, allow a conversation between the two of you to unfold.  What needs to be communicated this year? What’s the message you need to hear today? What are the silent prayers of the heart? What remains unspoken?  Speak. Listen. Take your time. There is no reason to hurry. This is a timeless moment. Let all the radiance of their love to be with you right now.

Yizkor teaches us to remember the dead.  Long after people die, their legacy lives on inside of us. Within the wellsprings of our infinite souls we find the window of connection between the living and the dead.

Thu, July 25 2024 19 Tammuz 5784