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Remembering How to Live

Yizkor, Yom Kippur, 5778

Walter Benjamin, the German-Jewish writer and cultural critic, wrote that great storytelling is, always, centered around death.  He wrote this, after World War I, in his classic essay, The Storyteller.  He began seeing soldiers returning from the battlefield, shell-shocked and what we now know as symptoms of war or PTSD.  He wrote that these young men had “grown silent—not richer, but poorer in communicable experience.”  He points this out because, most often, a storyteller is someone who has traveled, been to remote places, seen and lived unique experiences.  He understood that these young men had survived experiences that were unique but that their audiences were unable to hear them; those tales of death were not romantic but raw and too real, which rendered their craftsmanship obsolete.

Most of us have been lucky enough to be spared the searing experiences of stepping out onto the battlefield, yet nearly 100 years after Benjamin wrote that essay, we are too afraid, often treading lightly when it comes to addressing death and memory.  Maybe we cannon summon a memory personally, maybe we feel comfortable sharing a story with a friend or a small group, but rarely are we able to ask others about their loved ones.

One of the great pieces of practical advice I have ever gotten was to be told to give people a formal invitation at a funeral to be uncomfortable and how to cross the threshold of discomfort at a shiva.  Tell people, “I know it is awkward, it is for everyone, but go up to a mourner and ask them to tell you a story.”  This advice has been endlessly helpful for me and it speaks to the CRZ tradition, that began at a shiva around the time I began, of sharing stories in between the mincha-maariv services at the mourner’s home rather than learning the traditional rabbinic texts.  Memory should be a dynamic activity; it should be a generative act.  We should not be afraid to ask because conjuring a memory allows both the storytelling mourner and listener, to drive down a two-way street of meaning, with the person who passed away as a passenger.  This has been on my mind all year because someone who I cared very much about passed away last month.

Ira Lavinsky, taught me many things and had many stories to tell.  Ira was the de facto cantor at my student pulpit in Fitzgerald, Georgia.  Ira, despite being a teacher by trade, became their cantor for three very clear reasons:  First, he had a good voice.  Second and third was simple math—he grew up on Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn and everyone else grew up on or near Magnolia Street in Ben Hill County, Georgia.  Ira did not know all of the Shabbat liturgy nor most of the High Holidays liturgy; but he belted out what he knew, and it was impossible not to feel the pride he got out of davening nor the pride the life-long members of the community felt by having him as their cantor.  His davening and command of Hebrew was imperfect, which was clear, but he taught me that leadership comes not from expertise but what others grant you, from what they can see in your heart.  And his heart was pure, filled only with a desire to further what he loved—singing and his community.  These were gifts that Ira gave me in life, but he gave me something far greater in death.

Right after the holidays last year, we got an email from the leaders of the community, telling us that Ira had late-stage cancer and that he had weeks not months to live.  It had been over a year since I had spoken to him, but I called him and he told me that he was dying.  Yet he seemed uplifted by the communal awareness that emerged from his diagnosis being announced to the large network of people who counted themselves as members of this tiny synagogue.  Like his knowledge of traditional hazzanut, of being a cantor, you cannot measure a community by member units.

We began talking every few weeks.  As we did, money began pouring from all over the country to help with the looming funeral bills, for his future widow as well as his medical bills.  And weeks turned into months, one bad report was followed be several good ones; he was winning some battles even though it was clear cancer would, ultimately, have the final word.

As conversations continued it was clear that I was not the only one to have picked up the phone, and each Shabbat service that he was able to make it to became a cause for celebration.  A monthly Shabbat service is always special when most of the people drive an hour each way but these Shabbatot became extraordinary.  It was not just the excitement of hearing him daven, nor was it that they got to see a dying man one more time—but that they got to live together, even it is was only for as long as the Shabbat candles burned.  Sadly, Ira passed last month, leaving a community rudderless before what they refer to as their Superbowl.

A few weeks after Ira died, I officiated at a funeral for a man I had never met, whose family I only vaguely knew, at a cemetery I had never been to.  On my drive to the funeral I passed several cemeteries before I stumbled upon the correct one, since, like in living, our preprogramed GPS often takes us to the wrong entrance.

I got there early and wandered around the cemetery—I love being in cemeteries and seeing the dates and names on each headstone.  After the funeral and having walked through the cemetery, hearing stories of a previously anonymous man as well as thinking about Ira, I realized that in each of these graves lies not only a person—a mother or father, brother or sister, widow or orphan—but a trove of stories.  I never had thought about it before, but six feet below the earth I was standing on lies someone who had lived a life; and regardless of what characterized that life, their lives were full of stories and humanity.  By thinking of them simply as a memory, we trample the grass that provides them shade, doing them, but also ourselves, a tremendous disservice—they, still, have a story to tell and if we are willing and able to listen, then our life will be better, and our story will be enriched.

Last week there was an article in the New York Times whose headline was "An Obituary Written From Beyond the Grave" that dealt with the question of when a headline outlives the byline.  That day in the obits section there was an obituary written by someone who had died several years before the subject passed away.  The article was addressing the common practice of writing a famous person’s obituary before they die, which means they can outlive the journalist who wrote it.  In many respects this is what Ira did; he did not have an obituary in the New York Times, but he outlived his death.  It was not that God granted him more time than the doctor had, it was not that he possessed greater fight and inner strength than was expected, both of which may be true.  But what Ira did, in his final year, was listen to his eulogy, which allowed him to fill in the blanks.

He got to do what we all want, to hear how much we are loved, to know that we impacted others and what that impact meant.  He got to die guilt-free, and those close to him got to express their regrets, so that he was not buried while we were left to shoulder the guilt and what ifs.  He got to tell stories, to remember his childhood and reflect on how his life had been lived alongside many of the people who gave expression and depth to that life; he did not need to die to hear how he lived.

He taught me that those people who get half-page obits, who are often referred to as Giants, that that is a relative term.  Ira was giant of his community.  While that impact may not have gone beyond a small Jewish community in South Central, Georgia, impact is weighed in meaning and quality not in quantity—he had a larger than life impact on those who entered his orbit and so do each of us.  We should all learn from Ira; we are all giants to those we love and those who love us.

As I strolled through the headstones in this small but old cemetery on the north side, Ira came to me in the faceless headstones I was looking at—Yizkor is not for dead but for the living.  Memory is not about taking a step back and remembering those who are no longer here but taking a step forward, living a life that demonstrates that they are still here.  The greatest gift, the most sincere act of memory is living with the full impact of those who died yet live inside of you, with the awareness that their story is still unfolding.  Very few people are granted the gift of hearing their eulogy or even conducting its music; but if we choose meaning, choose to tattoo our lives with the memory of those who created that life, then we live by furthering both their story and ours.

In his essay Walter Benjamin wrote that death has slipped from our storytelling fingertips and has been replaced by the sharing of meaningless headlines and information.  That we have become far more comfortable with this form of dissemination while increasingly unable to address the things that gets at the heart of living and dying.  We need to yield to his insight, and live a purposeful life, which means our lives will not be silent, and that will, inevitably, give voice to stories from beyond the grave.

We are all storytellers; we need not have experienced the misery and destruction of war nor to have traveled to remote villages in order to tell one.  We need only to tell our story.  In between our date of birth and the date of death is the greatest story of all.

What I am not saying is not new; it is something we all know, but we need to be reminded—the purpose of Yizkor is to remember how to live.  Yizkor is not here as a separate entity, a service divorced from what came before and after.  Davening, our Torah readings, schmoozing in the atrium, and Yizkor are all attempting to do the same thing:  to help us live better lives.  Sitting on a couch or hearing the laws of The Scapegoat may not conjure the memory of your parents, brother, daughter, or dear friend, but Yizkor will.  We need Yizkor because it provides the blow to davening’s subtle push.  We need Yizkor to tell us that, in order to fully remember a loved one, we need to live a life that they would be proud of—that is the active daily form of remembering.  If done properly, there is nothing routine about it—it is divine.  We summon the memory of those who died to prompt us on how to live, and that is an enduring gift.

Rabbi David Minkus

The Pulpit Shelf

Tue, February 20 2024 11 Adar I 5784