For the first 33 years of my life I was lucky enough to be expelled from the synagogue during yizkor services, when congregants pray for the souls of loved ones who have passed on, and those with both parents alive leave the synagogue.
I never probed the reason for this custom. As a child, even as an adult, I was happy to be legally expelled from the synagogue, to catch a fresh breath of air and enjoy a schmooz with a fellow yizkor-evacuee. As children, it often meant that my friends and I could return an hour or two later without our fathers getting angry.
All of that changed this year for me. My father, a pioneer of the Yiddish press in America, died at 70. Two weeks later came the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, when we commemorate the giving of the Torah at Sinai. It is also a day when synagogues throughout the world hold yizkor services.
Synagogues, unlike churches, are often noisy. The synagogue I attended for that holiday and yizkor service was small, but particularly diverse, opinionated and loud. One hundred people filled this humble, 60-year-old synagogue in Brooklyn, and at every pause in the prayers they were engaged in vibrant conversation and debate. As the congregation was finishing the reading of the Torah, the arguments — typical Jewish arguments — reached a crescendo. In one corner, a fierce debate ensued about Israel’s pending withdrawal from Gaza. In another corner, an item of religious law was being heatedly argued. Children were kvetching, older men were getting annoyed. Others were attempting to concentrate on their prayers with closed eyes and open hearts.
Then came time for yizkor. More than half the people in the synagogue left. The sacred Torah scroll was brought to the center of the room. One of the worshippers made sure all that all who had to leave left and that the door was solidly shut so no one could enter. He then gave a knock on the table to signify that the yizkor service would now begin.
Suddenly, an eerie silence filled the room. A vibrant space, just moments ago pulsating with social zest and heated debate, was transformed. A sense of mystery, awe and dormant pain surfaced. You could cut the rawness of the emotions with a knife. Something profoundly authentic united all those standing in the room.
My heart shifted to my late father, whom I loved and adored so deeply. My flow of tears found solace in the knowledge that his was a life well lived. My dad was a man who utilized his journalistic wisdom and skills to become a voice for causes others left behind; he was a man of conviction, and a truly original personality, one hell of a guy. I recalled my father’s last hours and the dignity with which he departed on his final journey. And I wept for my children who would not have the privilege to know the unique grandfather they had.
I lifted my eyes and gazed around at the people in the room. Near me stood a young man, my age, who lost his mother at the tender age of 5. Life without yizkor was inconceivable to him. Near him, stood others who lost parents in their teens or in college and needed to struggle to fill the unfillable void. Then there were the older men, in their 70s and 80s, whose parents perished more than six decades earlier in Stalin’s gulag or Hitler’s crematoriums. They are in a class of their own. Then of course there were the majority of middle-aged worshippers who at some point in their lives were forced to confront the reality of loss.
A strange oneness pervaded all of us standing in that room during yizkor. The connection did not need to be articulated in words; you could see it when you peered into the eyes of the person standing near you. It took me some time till I put my finger on what that connection consisted of: A piece of each of us was not to be found any longer in this world. An integral part of each of our hearts was elsewhere.
I understood why for 33 years I was asked to leave the synagogue during yizkor. Life for those who stay behind in the synagogue has a very different meaning, one that cannot be shared by those who have not seen the earth close up on a loved one.
This Yom Kippur I will again stand in the synagogue during yizkor. I will think of my Dad, which will make me both laugh and cry at the same time. I will ask him to look out for me and my family. And I will pray that I merit to internalize my beloved father’s zest for life and for truth.