Yizkor Drasha

What is the purpose of remembering?

By Ittay Flescher

In a few minutes, the tone and the mood in this room will change quite dramatically. In a short moment, we will transition from joyful singing and prayer, to a serious amournful time of the service called Yizkor. 

This Yizkor service first appeared in the Machzor during the Middle Ages in Europe, where it was recited on Yom Kippur in order to remember the many martyrs slain during the Crusades. Such a memorial list was first recited in Nuremberg in 1295, and the custom soon spread. 

Later, the practice began of saying it on the festivals as well. There were those who opposed this, since grieving over the dead is not in the spirit of the festivals, which are days of joy and gladness. Over time, popular custom and desire overcame rabbinic reluctance, and the recitation of Yizkor became strongly rooted.

For me when I was young, I always associated Yizkor with playing down ball at St Kilda shule. Yizkor back then, was wondrous adult free time for kids to run and play outside the shule for hours until the end of musaf. As a young child, I had imagined that perhaps the reason all the adults asked the children to leave was because they were doing a special ceremony to honour the dead where everyone would one-by-one, public share stories of their loved ones. 

Since my father Reuven Getzel z”l passed away when I was just 21 years old in 1999, Yizkor time has been very different for me. Now that I say the prayer, I have learnt that:

1) It only takes about 5 minutes to say

2) At only two sentences, it doesn’t say much, and is more of a promise to givetzedaka in their memory, rather than a retelling of the person’s life story, which is what I had imagined as child. 

I think this is shame. Given the large amount of time we spend in shule on Yom Kippur, I think there should be a more unscripted part of the tfilla where each of us does get an opportunity to share and honour the past of our loved ones. However, with Yizkor being the way it is, I’d like to take a moment to consider what purpose the Yizkor should be for us today. Why do we need to remember our loved ones, or the holocaust, or the crusades on Yom Kippur? And does this act of remembering have any impact on our present and future?

As a first step to answering this question, I’d like to draw your attention to a book written in 1982 by Yosef Yerushalmi called Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory.”

“Zakhor” is an examination of the conflict between the collective stories that Jews share as a culture and the verifiable chronicle of history itself. 

In the book, Yerushalmi observes, ''Many Jews today are in search of a past, but they do not want the past that is offered by the historian. Such Jews often turn instead literature and ideology.'' 

In the modern age explains Yerushalmi, “learning history from classical Jewish Scripture has been replaced by history as the validating arbiter of Jewish ideologies and the replacement has yielded chaos… since it cannot credit God’s will as the active cause behind Jewish events, and it cannot regard Jewish history as being unique.”

Sociologist Uri Ram of Ben-Gurion University gives an example of how the replacement of Jewish history with Jewish memory happened in the years preceding the founding of the Jewish State.

“The Hebrew culture that was created in Palestine before the establishment of the state was a far cry from the Jewish culture elsewhere. Jews immigrating to Palestine were rapidly socialized into it, and their “Sabra” offspring contrived a narrative founded on settlement, community and soldiering. They spoke only Hebrew and were ignorant ofHalacha, they were oblivious to the culture of their parents, let alone their grandparents. Regarding the diaspora, theirs was a culture of pure amnesia. They forgot the diasporic Talmud but remembered the biblical stories, they forgot Jewish names and choose Hebrew names for their offspring, they forgot the rabbis of Yavneh and remembered the rebellion of bar Kochba, they forgot the Holocaust, but remembered the heroic ghetto rebellions (Yom Hashoah veHagvurah).”

Israeli writer Haim Hazaz who was the first recipient of the Israel Prize in 1953 depicts this desire of many of the early Zionists to replace history with memory in his 1942 book, "The Sermon."

The main character, Yudka, whose defining characteristic is a reluctance to speak in public, asks to deliver a statement before the committee of his kibbutz to discuss the school curriculum. At first Yudka has trouble articulating even the beginning of his idea, but then he gathers himself to declare,

"I want to state . . . that I am opposed to Jewish history . . . because we didn't make our own history, the goyim made it for us. . . . What is there in it? Oppression, defamation, persecution, martyrdom. And again oppression, defamation, persecution, and martyrdom. And again and again and again, without end. . . . Just a collection of wounded, hunted, groaning, and wailing wretches always begging for mercy. . . . I would simply forbid teaching our children Jewish history. Why the devil teach them about their ancestors' shame? I would just say to them: 'Boys, from the day we were exiled from our land we've been a people without a history. Class dismissed. Go out and play football.'"

The story concludes with Yudke explaining that what he does want to teach our children to remember is the “great deeds and stories, heroes, bold spirited fighters andconquerors. In a word, I want them to remember a world full of heroism.” Yudke conceived of Zionism as a revolt against Jewish history 

One could understand why adopting such a narrative of history, one that saw Jews as heroes rather than victims, as agents rather than actors in history, would have served a purpose in for the early Zionists like Haim Hazaz in 1942. As Rommel’s Nazi troops were in Egypt and heading towards Palestine, the yishuv in Palestine was not just facing an existential crisis, but also a physical one. Adopting a new memory of the past, and a new way of being Jewish was essential to both their survival and to the success of the Zionist enterprise.

In responding to this story, the historian Yosef Yerushalmi acknowledges that Yudkawho wants kibbutz history classes to jump from the tanach to the plamch, still does have a past “only with an intermission of almost two millennia.”

Why does this matter? Why are we still arguing about our history? Why has the act of memory we do on Yizkor become a religious imperative for an entire people?

Yerushalmi explains the question of whether the voice of Yudke’s memory or voice of the historian is the one heard is not without consequence. “There are myths that are life sustaining and deserve to be reinterpreted for our age. BUT, there are also some myths that lead astray and must be redefined. Others are dangerous and must be exposed.

Yerushalmi generalizes that that "many Jews today are in search of a past, but they patently do not want the past that is offered by the historian"

With that in mind, what should we remember this Yizkor?

For those of us who will stay in the room now to remember our loved ones during thisYizkor we all have to make a choice about what we remember.

Will we try to think less of the times when our parents or children challenged us, criticized us, or didn’t have time for our company? Or will instead remember thetimes they showed kindness and love towards us, the meals and holidays we shared together and the life cycle events we celebrated as families.

Will we remember the arguments and broigeses that divided our friends and family? Or the values of respect and humility that we learned through imitation that remain with us long after our loved ones are here no more.  

And what of other events in our lives in the past year. Should we remember them accurately as history, a more romantically as a memory?

Having being blessed with witnessing the birth of a beautiful son four month ago, when I look back on the past year, this event will undoubtedly be the defining one ofmy year. Over the past four months, I have been asked constantly asked, How’s the baby? In the corridor at work, at shule, by random passers by in the street. Everyone asks, How’s the baby?

There are many ways to answer this question. Should I talk about the sleepless nights, the vomit on every piece of clothing I wear, the smelly nappies or the absence of quiet time in my home?

Or should talk about the fun of dancing with Eitan on my chest during kabbalat Shabbat, the glow I get I see him laughing with his big sister Nava, the warmth I get from his cuddles and joy that radiates from his beautiful smile.

In other words, should I describe the last four months through the prism of history (what actually happened) or memory (how I’d like it be remembered).  

The choices we all make in regards to how we talk about the past and present of our family members in public will not only impact on we relate to them now, but will also influence their reputations and character by the rest of the community.

The choice we make to questions like these matters. Because what is remembered, which means the pictures and stories we share of our life moments on Facebook or place and the walls of our homes, often become far more important that what actually happened.

Historian Deborah Lipstadt makes this point beautifully in the following teaching. “When we remember, irrespective of whom we are remembering—a parent, a grandparent, a sibling, an aunt or uncle, teacher or mentor—these memories become part of us. As we internalize these memories they change us and we evolve, we grow. So, too, those who will follow us and remember us may be changed by their memories of us.

Memory is not just a link from generation to another. It also has its lateral aspects. Every human action, as Yerushalmi notes, “elicits certain inevitable results.” If I remember something and am changed by it, that change may, in turn, elicit a reaction from those around me. In other words, the impact of remembering travels down from generation to generation but also cuts across all generations.

Memory is an act done in the past present and future.

With that in mind, may all your memories, from those you have at Yizkor, to those you consider during the rest of the year, create a future for you that leaves us all tzurara be tzror hachayim, Bound up in the bond of life.

And for all of us in this room who will one day be remembered by a future generation, I wish you one thing, again in the words of Deborah Lipstadt.

"May we live lives of such privilege and security, be blessed with the wisdom and humility to live in a way that is worthy of not just being remembered, but of being emulated by those who follow us.

Shana Tova and Gmar Chatima Tova


Sources and Further Reading

Yizkor: Yom Kippur and Remembrance - By Deborah Lipstadt


Culture and Collective memory – By Leon Wieseltier


The Sermon - By Haim Hazaz, 1942


Fiction and Memory: Zakhor Revisited By Sidra DeKoven. Ezrahi


Yerushalmi on memory & history


Yizkor: The Memorial Service – By Rabbi Dr. Reuven Hammer


Posted on September 27, 2012 .