Invited to Remember

An Alternative Yizkor Service

It’s 7:30 in the morning, not my time of day, and yet I love it. Twice a year I awaken excruciatingly early and lead a Yizkor (memorial) service, on the last day of Passover, and on Shemini Atzeret, at the end of Sukkot.  In the Fall, a small group stands in our synagogue sukkah, overlooking Lake Michigan, often seeing the sun climb over the lake. In the Spring, we gather inside our sanctuary looking out over the water.

I call the ritual Alternative Yizkor because it is not the standard — though there really is no one standard for Yizkor.  It is a stand-alone time for reflection, to pause and remember those who have died, with traditional words of psalms and prayer, with evocative poetry, with quiet space, and with places to speak of the legacies given us.  

I created this new ritual because, after my father died, I realized that Yizkor is a gift, an opportunity to pause and remember.  Yet, it is a gift that remains unopened, unacknowledged and even unknown by many.  And yet there is a need; in countless conversations I I hear folks who are mourning and remembering wrestle with the societal nudge to get on with their lives.  

So I thought about making an accessible ritual at a doable time of day.  A few years ago we offered the first early morning Alternative Yizkor; I invited all who had experienced a recent loss to participate. Now, each time I send an invitation, an invitation which is a means to teach, too. I explain what Yizkor is and that Judaism offers four opportunities during the year — on Yom Kippur and the three festivals.  

Interestingly, Yizkor is a tradition that, has no one format (not that any Jewish practice does), and yet has experienced great change.  The Yizkor prayer itself dates back to the time of the Crusades when many Jewish lives were lost.  By the 13th century, there is the record of a memorial ritual on Yom Kippur that includes the prayer El Male Rachamim, too, and is a family memorial.  By the 16th/17th centuries, there is the record of a ritual that included three prayers and the promise to give tzedakah on behalf of the deceased.  And by the 19th century, the Hamburg Temple, a leading Reform synagogue in Germany, further developed the practice, creating a separate service that included Kaddish, psalms and other readings. Over time there have been liturgical, timing and theological changes reflected in Yizkor, visible if you compare different machzorim, holiday prayer books.

A focus on family continues with Yizkor, explicitly and in its associations.  The connection to tzedakah remains for many, though likely with different meanings.  In earlier times, there was the understanding that this act of tzedakah guaranteed continued life (as in afterlife) for our loved ones. That is not the belief of all in our times, nor for that matter is tzedakah associated with mourning for all today.  

With no judgment, I say that losing the connection to tzedakah is a loss, as is the lessened observance of Yizkor.  Our lives are busy.  Giving ourselves pause to reflect and remember is a gift. And it is continuity.  Yizkor is as much about ourselves as our deceased.  Our memories bring us insight and wisdom, and the life lessons of our family and friends challenge and inspire us — if we let them.  In the words of my dear friend Rabbi Aaron Panken, z”l, “Yizkor is, in the end, not a prayer for the dead, but a promise by the living.”

I invite you to remember, and we promise.


[1] The source for Yizkor history in this essay is found in multiple 
articles in May God Remember Memory and Memorializing in Judaism, 
Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, PhD., Editor.

[2] “Prayer for the Dead; Promise by the Living,” 
Rabbi Aaron D. Panken, in May God Remember Memory and Memorializing in Judaism, 
Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, PhD., Editor.

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