The Safe Deposit Box of Memory: A Yizkor Teaching – Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk, Yom Kippur 2012


The remarks below were shared by Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk as a Yizkor Memorial Service teaching on September 26, 2012 as part of Yom Kippur worship at Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple. They were partially inspired by performer Billy Crystal’s life’s story, 700 Sundays (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2005.) We encourage you to share this link to Rabbi Nosanchuk’s Yizkor teaching, share comments below, and allow these teachings to inspire you to remember.

Yizkor is about the most precious thing one can trigger for another, our memories After all the dread, the awe, and the severity of our words and rituals during these days of awe, Yizkor is something quite different. It is about being held and supported by one another’s company. Yizkor is not about sin, forgiveness or repentance. There is no beating of our breasts or hearing a ram’s horn blow. It is about being willing to pray for a few moments in a space where a thousand or more are doing nothing but remembering. At Yizkor, on each Jewish holiday we remember the love of family and the sweetness of their being present in our lives.

This Yizkor I find myself remembering when it appeared I had all the time in the world to explore and discover the lives and the actions of those around me: my brothers and my parents, my friends and my teachers. I was just a little boy, and I remember how if my parents went out on a Saturday night, I’d try to wait up just to see them, to hear them, to know what they’d done or what they were going to do next, while I was still awake.  Yet for some reason, when my mom or dad would enter my room to check on me, I’d close my eyes and try to fake them out that I was really sleeping.  Did you ever do that? Did you ever try to fake your parents out, that you were asleep when you were actually super-attentive to their every sound and move? I did.

But it wasn’t a game! What I wanted to know then is the same thing I want to know at Yizkor of those who came before me. I wanted to connect with them and to discover something about them. I wanted and still want to draw a line between the waking hours we’d spend together and those the resting hours when they thought I could no longer hear what they were saying or see what they were doing. It is the same craving my mom describes to this day, of wanting to just have an opportunity to call her mom, my grandma, wherever she is- beyond this life, just to check on her.

“What would you say, mom?” I ask. “What would you want to talk about?” My mom says she’d want to talk about how much my niece loves jewelry like Grandma did, and how tall my daughter is. She’d want to call her the night of the Oscars, so they might talk about a dress or a set of pearls worn by an actress walking the red carpet. She’s aware my grandma had a long life, and of course, my mom wants grandma to rest in peace. But somehow, even when you know a loved one is at rest, there is always that part of you that craves the sound of their voice and the interest in their eyes in living and giving once more.

In his life’s story, a book called 700 Sundays, comedian Billy Crystal speaks of an image like mine, but in reverse. He remembers growing up on Long Island, New York, and quietly opening the door to his parents’ bedroom every Sunday morning “and there they would be, Mom and Dad, lying there, looking so quiet, and so peaceful together. And I would just sit in the doorway waiting for [Dad] to get up, just to see what we were going to do together that day. I just couldn’t wait for Sundays.”

Do you remember that feeling? Today at Yizkor, do you remember that kind of anticipation, for someone, anyone, to get up and begin a Sunday with you? Billy Crystal remembers his dad’s Sundays because his dad’s two jobs kept him so busy that the 700 Sundays they spent together were just about all the time they’d ever have to discover and understand one another.

Sunday he says, was a day to go to the boardwalk, or to the batting cage, or bowling, and always to go out to eat together. “We’d always go out,” he says,” for Italian…or Chinese food, because on Sunday nights, Jews are not allowed to eat their own food.  That’s in the Talmud. On the seventh day, God rested and went out to Twin Dragons for dinner, because He loved the ribs….” Then he jokes: “Have you ever seen a Chinese family at a deli on Sunday having pickled herring and chopped liver? It doesn’t happen.”

That’s the thing about Yizkor. If it works right, during this memorial hour, we don’t concentrate on all the momentous things we shared. For they already stand out. You already have pictures of your dad walking you down the aisle at your wedding, or your husband holding your new baby in gratitude. You have degrees on your office walls that remind you of the graduations you shared with your grandparents or your grandkids, and you wear a favorite scarf of your aunt or a special watch or pair of cufflinks from your father-in-law. These things belong to us every hour of our daily life.

But Yizkor is something very different. Yizkor is an expedition. You’ve got to find the smallest key on your ring and drive to the bank across town. You’ve got to find the time and the energy because what you find at Yizkor is not the memories that surround you in your home, they are the memories you hold preciously protectively inside the safe deposit box. Indeed Yizkor holds in a very small space the little things that make you feel most connected and most enriched. At Yizkor, you concentrate not on why your loved one died, but rather you come to a place of peace because you remember why they lived. You remember right now, I pray:

  • How your husband ordered his hot dog at the ballpark or chose his bets at the horse track
  • The way your daughter fiercely looked at the batter when she pitched softball in high school
  • What your uncle used to say when he’d call to be the first to wish you a happy birthday
  • What your mom looked like when she wasn’t posing for a picture, but was just caught in between pretend smiles. You remember how beautiful she was when you’d catch a glimpse of those in-between moments.

Rabbi Harold Schulweis writes in an echo of Jewish theology that our moments of memory experienced in the community are the times when we truly experience God. In his poem, “Between,” he tells of the powerful energy that resides “not in me nor in you but between us. God not in me or in you or in Godself… God known not in isolation but in relationship. Not revealed through lonely power but through kinship, friendship, healing, binding, and raising up of each other.”

“Kinship, healing, binding, raising up.” That’s what Yizkor is for – it is a time to remember the kinship, the friendship, and the healing bonds we’ve shared. We make this moment possible for one another, by driving one another to the bank, by staying at close distance, or at least by waiting for one another at the car, while our loved ones and friends both enter emerge from the vault of the bank where the most holy memories are stored, the ones we hold for safe-keeping, the ones that make us feel so full when our loved ones are alive and yet often so empty when a special holiday or a birthday anniversary comes and goes after their death.

Billy Crystal published his book in 2005, more than forty years since his dad stopped having Sundays for his son to anticipate with such joy. As the book draws to a close, he talks about a time in 2001 when he was on the way back home after a Yankees-Arizona home game in the World Series. Then what he describes metaphorically as a “bank robber” broke in to steal whatever he had saved up in the bank vault of precious memory.

He was getting onto the West Side Highway when his brother called and said: “Billy, listen. We have a big problem. Mom had a stroke…I found her in the living room. The doctor said she’s going to make a complete recovery, but it’s bad. She’s really confused. We’re at the Long Beach emergency room so get here as soon as you can. Alright?”

When he later that night opens the E.R. curtain on his mom, he says to her what we’d all want to say to reassure a confused loved one. “I’m here now. We’re all here. Mom, I spoke to your doctor. He said you’re going to make a complete recovery. Isn’t that wonderful news?” But she looked back at him with confusion in her eyes, she looked “beat up now, worn out.” All she could say was in the voice a little girl might say, “my head hurts.”

“I bet it does, ma. I bet it does,” he said and began to massage the back of her head. “I will always take care of you, Mom, always.” “Thank you,” she murmured. Then she stopped talking. No speech, just staring straight ahead…the rest of that day and well into the next day.

So Crystal ran to the doctor, anger and fear in his voice… “Did you tell me everything? She’s not speaking.” The doctor replied, “Billy, calm down. Your mom can speak if she wants to. But she doesn’t want to right now. Her brain is making new connections, trying to figure out what happened to it. And right now… she’s angry…And I heard you tell her she’s going to make a complete recovery, which I believe she will, but she doesn’t want to hear that now.”

“How can I talk to her?” I asked. “Just talk about everyday things. Try to engage her that way. Just talk about everyday things.” So Billy Crystal wandered his way back to his mom and started to speak to her and to tell her everyday things.

“Mom, this game last night was unbelievable. The Yankees are losing three to one, ninth inning, two out, O’Neill is on first, Tino’s up, and he hits a home run. Ties it up. The Stadium went nuts! Then later, Jeter also hit a home run and they win it. It was great!” And his mom suddenly turned her eyes to her son and said, “Well, it’s about time. Jeter hasn’t been doing anything.”

You can imagine how elated Billy Crystal was, when an everyday thing like wondering who’d make a clutch hit at a Yankees game alerted his mom’s continued life-giving vivacious spirit, her loyalty and her essence as a person.  Crystal says he was filled with joy but it only lasted a few hours because a “cunning, nasty illness” was taking his mom from him, and striking her down each time she’d make a sign of progress.  One day his mom would be resilient and persevere in her recovery, and the next day the bank robbers would come and steal another piece of her vault of strength and memory, the very things she needed to ever make progress.

Several days later, a previous obligation pulled Billy across the country to perform. He couldn’t get out of the commitment, so he flew out and did his shtick, but called his mom at the hospital right afterwards. “How did the show go?” she asked. “How many people were there?”

“Mom, it was a big joint. You know it was like Radio City Music Hall… Do you remember Radio City?”  Then he went into great detail how the show worked for him, where the laughs flowed, and she just stopped him mid-sentence, saying “Billy, were you happy?” “Yeah, Mom.”

“Well darling, isn’t that really all there is?”

To which Billy was speechless. And he promised: “Mom, I have one thing I can’t get out of tomorrow, a big meeting in LA, but I’m going to make the red-eye in. I’ll be there Tuesday, mom. We’ll have breakfast.” And his mom reassured him, “don’t worry about any of that. I’ll see you when I see you.”

I’ll see you when I see you. Are you happy? Isn’t that all there is? These were the last words and phrases he ever heard his mom say during her lifetime.  Because the very next day, “the bank robbers broke in again.” Then his mom was gone. She had died.

So often that is just how it is. If we are lucky, there is a last conversation as memorable as this one. If we are blessed, there are a few days, or a few hours out to dinner with good friends, or a few minutes to hear our loved ones express to us their thoughts and feelings. If we are blessed, such lucky moments remind us that if there is a God, then God’s holiness is not inside of either of us, but rather God is in between us, Godliness and immortality revealed not through lonely power but through kinship, friendship, healing, binding, and raising up of each other.”

Most of the time, we are not that lucky. Most deaths I see are not blessed with one last Sunday, another phone call, another walk by the lakeside, or another chance to watch the Oscars, or to tell about the dramatic finish to a great ballgame. We ask for such blessings. We ask for wisdom and strength and teachings to help us build up our resilience to loss. But the answers provided in Jewish tradition aren’t in whether or not we were lucky enough to know such beautiful moments of interchange before someone died. The answer in Judaism to what gives us wisdom and strength and resilience at a time like Yizkor are the moments we are about to share right now. On the holiest days of the year, in the presence of an Anshe Chesed, a good and kind people, we take time to remember.

Yizkor is the key to the safe deposit box.

Yizkor is what guards the door and keeps us safe from the bank robbers.

Yizkor is what we do to remember our kids and our ancestors, holding them close at the very same time.

Yizkor says, don’t think of the hurt they sustained, or the odds they faced. No one wants to be recalled for how they appeared after a stroke, or how they sounded while enduring chemo, or even what a tumor or an accident or an embolism did that took them from us, that robbed us of them. They’ll be other days to remember the pain, and like Billy Crystal’s doctor told him, our loved ones don’t want to hear that right now.

No, Yizkor is a time to imagine that our loved ones are – for a few playful moments, faking us out. Their bodies are at rest, but their spirits are like a child waiting up for his parents on a Saturday night, watching us and listening to us. What they are waiting so excitedly to hear are our everyday things. They want to know we are still pursuing our everyday pursuits no matter how often we’ve failed in the effort. They want to know that when we miss them most, we are going to make the effort to go to the safe deposit box of memory, and for a few moments hold them close.  For we are alive, alive, and it is our gratitude for having made sweet memories that leads our lives to joy and our hearts to wisdom.

They don’t have big questions for us. They have just two everyday questions. They want to know: “How was it?” and “Were you happy?” For isn’t that all there really is?