Keep Saying Their Names

It has been a little more than six months since my last Yizkor service—I missed it on Shemini Atzeret, but attended two back-to-back Yizkor services on Yom Kippur—and I still remember every detail of Yom Kippur afternoon: the gorgeous music expanding to reach the heavens, the names of those no longer on this earth shrinking the space that separates the dead from the living. As we stood to recite the mourner’s kaddish, I felt the comforting presence of our deceased relatives and friends in the room.

Planning the Passover Yizkor service, I anticipated a different experience of remembering in this time when we’re all grieving—not only those who have recently suffered personal losses, who are grieving the death of a loved one. We’re also grieving the loss of proximity; it’s been many weeks since we’ve gathered as a group and felt the comforting presence of one another in our sanctuary. 

I learned from my experience at our virtual Shabbat Torah Study session in March that it’s possible to create a sense of being together using Zoom, that seeing each other’s faces on screen fosters a feeling of connection, provided that one’s internet connection is stable. I also learned it is possible to hear each other while reciting kaddish, despite the time lag that makes speaking or singing in unison not optimal on any virtual platform. 

We asked people to register to ensure there would be a minyan and I wasn’t expecting a large turnout.  I anticipated we’d fit on a single screen in the gallery view; I planned to use the share-screen function so that everyone could see the prayer book and follow along at home. I planned to mute everyone or ask everyone to mute themselves, to facilitate silence during the personal prayers of remembrance. 

Before mourner’s kaddish, rather than using the chat screen to create a list, I planned to go “around the room” on my screen, asking participants to unmute themselves and inviting them to say the names of those they were remembering, one at a time, so we could hear all the names. This seemed like a good way to offer kavod, honor, to the deceased and nihum, comfort, to the mourners. 

My father likes to remind me of the Yiddish saying, “Mann Tracht, Un Gott Lacht.” We plan, God laughs. No amount of careful planning can prevail over the unpredictability of our lives.

From the moment the Zoom meeting started, the bell began chiming as participants asked to be admitted. By the time everyone gathered there were more than forty tiny screens in my gallery, and some had more than one person at a single device. I wondered if I needed to devise a new plan for saying the names and quickly decided to stick to the original plan. 

It wasn’t as awkward as I’d feared. Everyone appeared to wait patiently and listen attentively as they kept saying the names. It was sobering to hear the names of those who died of AIDS more than twenty years ago and heartbreaking to hear the names of those who died from COVID-19 in recent weeks. As more people unmuted and shared names, we could hear soft gasps and quiet murmurs, sounds of collective grief and consolation. It took nearly ten minutes until we were ready to stand and recite the kaddish, not in unison but united in our act of remembrance.

No one can predict what our situation will be in six weeks, when we’ll gather for Yizkor on Shavuot. Whether we are standing in one room or in many rooms, I hope we’ll keep saying the names and sharing our strength with each other, bearing our losses together as one community.

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