Yizkor – Creating an Enduring Legacy

A gift of memorabilia leads to the greatest gift of all: the gift of family, memory and strong sibling bonds.

Yesterday, I was given a few things that belonged to my father when he was alive: some artwork that he and my mother collected during the years of their marriage (he and my mother had been divorced for over 35 years by the time they both died six years ago), a tallit one of my brothers had worn for his bar mitzvah 36 years ago, old baby photos, his college diploma from Boston University, miscellaneous Judaica, some silver-plate items that belonged to my grandmother, my bat mitzvah invitation that I designed myself, three copies of a Hadassah Yizkor Photocookbook my grandmother had spearheaded (many of the recipes inside belonged to her), tzchachtkes that my siblings and I gave him from our various trips around the world, laminated copies of his obituary, the pages of the memorial book from his funeral – with my mother’s signature (that was the last time we would see my mother alive, as she died 10 weeks following my father’s death).

None of the items are particularly valuable. But as I looked through them, they evoked memories: of my childhood, my parents, my grandmother and my siblings.

As I assessed these things, I realized that the items say a lot about what my father valued most in life: his family, his Jewish heritage, art, cooking, memory and having a sense of fun (there were some humorous items included).

I photographed everything so I could easily show them to my four brothers and my sister. I wanted them to be able to choose what they wanted to keep.

Later in the evening, we convened a Sobel-sibling conference call. The six of us each live in different parts of the country and don’t have an opportunity to see each other often. We stay in touch through email and individual phone calls. We get together when we are able (we had a fabulous family beach vacation this past summer!) but we don’t often speak all at the same time.

The items from my father were really only a pretext for connecting with each other. We briefly caught up on each other’s lives, we spoke about our nieces and nephews. We reminisced about our father, our mother and life in general.

The only thing that anyone really wanted out of everything I received yesterday, was my grandmother’s cookbook. We are a family of cooks. We all relish memories of my grandmother Florence’s gourmet cooking. She was a huge influence on all of us in so many different ways. She cooked for Shabbat and holidays. Her table was where we gathered as a family. The cookbook represents more than just food: it represents hospitality, family, heritage, love of Israel and so much more.

And it dawned on me – the timing of this gift of my father’s things is perfect: we are at the end of Passover and getting ready to observe Yizkor, our time of remembrance of our beloved dead.

My brothers, sister and I remembered and will always remember – nizkor. We laughed, we joked, we shared stories. We continue the legacy of our grandparents and our parents, who no longer walk this earth. And when we honor their memories with our actions and aspirations, by sharing of memories and deeds of love, we are creating for them an enduring legacy.

My parents would be kvelling (bursting with pride) to know that yesterday each of us feels we received a gift that can’t be put in a box, or hung on a wall: the gift of memory, the gift of family, the gift of love for our brothers and sisters – a bond unlike any other. We will continue our regular sibling conference calls. We’ll continue to stay in touch and keep the bond strong. And we will continue to remember in each of their names.

A Yizkor Poem

by Menachem Rosensaft

I used to be part of you
belong to you
the extension of your being
but now
you live within me
are the spark of my consciousness

I say Kaddish for you
with you
sing your melodies
speak your words
hearing your voice in mine
and my eyes
too green
have somehow started to reflect
the blue of yours

I used to be part of you
protected by your presence
by your light
but now
the time is mine
and alone

I must be more than myself:
your child
has become your heir
has become you. Mishkan Tefilah: A Reform Siddur (CCAR Press 2007), p. 581

Unpacking Boxes…New Year’s Lessons from My Grandfather, Harry Sobel

Today is December 31, 2014. At midnight we will usher out the year that “was” and welcome in the year that has yet “to begin”.

This is the time of year when people begin to unpack their “boxes” from the past year (or two, or three…)

Some of the “boxes” are metaphorical. They represent the events that took place in our lives over the past year.

For some of us, these events are life-altering and bring us joy, sorrow or growth. We want to take these events out of the box, place them in their proper perspective and use them as inspiration and motivation for the year ahead.

Some events are so difficult, we bury them deep inside the “box” and can’t think about them, or don’t want to think about them for a very long time. So we keep them packed away for a very long time.

And yet, this act of “unpacking boxes” and reflecting on their contents is a very Jewish notion. As a Jewish people, the gift of memory is important to us. It’s important for us to reflect on the past. Our spiritual life does not only consist of reactions to the present and hopes for the future, but also what we can recall in our minds and hearts of what has been. And not only to reflect, but to turn our reflections into actions and deeds of love.

“We cannot overstate our debt to the past, but the moment has the supreme claim.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Letters and Social Aims, 1876)

As we unpack our metaphorical boxes at this time of year, some of us are also unpacking physical, actual boxes. Yet, what’s inside represents so much more than the actual contents themselves. Contents which can inspire us for the year ahead. 

Earlier this week, my sister and one of my brothers both sent me an email (ok – my sister will correct me: she sent me a text message. My brother sent me an email.) Unbeknown to the other, they had each decided to finally unpack the boxes they had from five years ago when both my parents died, 10 weeks apart from each other (my father died first, on December 26, 2009 and my mother died 10 weeks later, on March 15, 2010. They had been divorced for 37 years).

As they each unpacked their boxes, they found a treasure-trove of items. Memorabilia, family photos, artwork, books (my beloved copy of the book “Harriet the Spy” by Louise Fitzhugh, held together by Scotch tape, since I read it so many times. My sister’s eight-year old will now read it!), silver, china and so much more. Things that have meaning to our family.

One of the items my brother unpacked, however, was a newspaper article that was written in 1949, just after my paternal grandfather, Harry Sobel, died at the age of 45.

Newspaper article about my paternal grandfather, Harry Sobel, z"l (of blessed memory)
Newspaper article about my paternal grandfather, Harry Sobel, z”l (of blessed memory)

He died from a rare form of Juvenile Leukemia, after being ill for only 8 days. My father was 12, his brother was 9 and his sister was 6. All of a sudden, my grandmother was left alone with three young children to raise. We knew my grandmother as a strong, capable woman.

She was the epitome of a modern woman, who was audaciously hospitable, philanthropic, charming, artistic, generous, loyal and kind. She was also very modest about her achievements and did not like to accept accolades for her work. She was a role model for all of my siblings, my cousins and me.

And apparently, my grandfather was a similar kind of person, modest and unassuming. But this article about my grandfather reflects for us how very special he truly was.

It shows that our years on earth may be many or few, but what ultimately matters is what we have done with our time to make a difference while we are here.

So here are the important lessons for each of us to take into the New Year from my grandfather Harry Sobel, z’l (may his memory be for a blessing).

  1. Be a good friend
  2. Become involved in your community
  3. Be fair and honest in business
  4. Open your door to others: Embody the notions of “Audacious hospitality” and a welcoming home – especially if you know others don’t have a place to go.
  5. Have a fair and generous spirit (tzedakah – literally means “justice” – helping those in need)
  6. Help others to help themselves so they won’t need to rely on the assistance of others any longer (according to Maimonides, the great Medieval Jewish philosopher, this is the highest level of philanthropy).

As I read this newspaper clipping and reflect on its message, I feel connected to my family, those who are with me only in heart, mind and memory and those who are still present. I feel inspired to continue in the path they walked before me and hope I can achieve the heights they scaled.

Happy New Year!

9/11 – Nizkor – Let Us Remember

9/11.

Two numbers that will always carry heavy significance for those of us who remember.

How can we ever forget that dread-filled day when the United States was subject to multiple acts of terrorism?

We will not forget – we will remember: Nizkor – Let us remember.

Remember
Remember

I’m sure each one of us has our own memories of where we were when we heard the unbelievable news of what happened. But rather than evoke images of the destruction and the horror, let us evoke memories of the PEOPLE:

  • those who died
  • those who were injured
  • those who were heroes
  • those whose lives were irrevocably changed.

This is our time for conjuring those memories – for giving life to our memories, because it is those memories which will help sustain and nurture us.

The author Philip Roth once wrote: “You mustn’t forget anything. To be alive, is to be made of memory – if a man’s not made of memory, he’s made of nothing.”

To be alive is to be made of memory. We remember our dead to show that we have grown up and arrived. It enables our loved ones to remain part of us, even though they have parted from us. Our spiritual life does not only consist of reactions to the present and hopes for the future, but also what we can recall in our minds and hearts of what has been. This gives us a mechanism for coping with the pain, the loss and allowing ourselves to live our lives to the fullest.

If we were to attempt to crystallize the flood of memories, thoughts and feelings that now envelope us as we remember those events from that horrendous day 13 years ago, we realize that we best honor those who died, by affirming our own lives and how we choose to lead them.

Yesh Kochavim – There Are Stars, by Hannah Senesh

There are stars up aboveso far away we only see their light long, long after the star itself is gone. And so it is with people we have loved – their memories keep shining ever brightly though their time with us is done. But the stars that light up the darkest night, these are the lights that guide us. As we live our lives, these are the ways we remember.

Nizkor – We will always remember.