April 19, 2024 -

Signs That Say What You Want Them To Say

This reflection,  Signs That Say What You Want Them To Say, was shared by Rabbi Robert A. Nosanchuk on Yom Kippur, September 25, 2023, as part of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple’s worship held at Severance Music Center in Cleveland.


A year and a half ago, we were touring the Guggenheim on NY’s Upper East Side. Several exhibits drew our attention, including a large-scale installation of abstract paintings from Russian artist Vassily Kandisky. But what struck my eyes were photos taken by avant-garde artist Gillian Wearing, 30 years earlier. The exhibit was called: Signs that Say What You Want Them to Say and Not Signs that Say What Someone Else Wants You to Say.

To fulfill her vision, Ms. Wearing had approached 500 complete strangers on the 1993 streets of London. She asked them to discern what words expressed what was in their hearts at the moment of their encounter. Wearing instructed each London pedestrian to be sure their words were what they wanted to say of their own volition. They were told to write down their words on a small sign and Gillian Wearing snapped a photo of them holding the sign in the city.

We aren’t streetside, nor are we strangers. We are in the midst of this most sacred holiday. I am one of your clergy and you are my congregation. At this tender moment, I am keenly aware that although we are generally acquainted…I could not adequately testify to what resides in your heart nor you know what’s in mine. How could we?  How could anyone know whose isn’t our soulmate or student, our child or our parent, our lover or our dearest friend?

None of us your clergy claim to hold a super-power to see all the notes you’ve written in journals. Your heartfelt truths remain yours. I may have stood beside you at a demonstration for a more just, equitable and peaceful Cleveland, America or Israel, but I’d still be guessing as to what you are standing for right now. But because we are here for Yizkor on Yom Kippur, I am betting that you are willing to say what you want and not what others want you to say.

On Yom Kippur, most especially when we name aloud or let our eyes touch the names of our deceased loved ones, honored in our Books of Remembrance, we are pressed into a vulnerable corner. No matter how reassuring our presence, unless we’ve proven it to one another before, none of us can just speak into the other’s heart and fashion a trust that it will be alright. It’s human. For many long now to scream against an unbearable loss or abuse you’ve sustained.

In some ways life was easier this morning. It was easier for me when all I asked of you and your children was to rise when it was time to rise. It was simpler this morning when Rabbi Muhlbaum asked you to examine your ideal compassion and see if it is present in the current status of laws in Ohio. It was better less than a half-hour or so ago when Rabbi Caruso asked you to not to oversimplify a story about a fabled man swallowed whole by a whale. It has felt simpler all day to listen to Cantor Lapin’s voice soar in this hall In song, he asked Avinu Malkenu, a sovereign ruling presence in the universe to write our lives’ stories into a Book of Forgiveness and a Book of Life Well Lived. Yet most of us don’t feel certain that some kind of divine force takes notice of our actions. Maybe you are certain. I’m not.  But because of the beauty, intention, grace and power of Cantor’s presence with sacred Jewish music, it is less of a hardship to believe in the truth his songs convey. Music will do that to you. Musicians and recording artists reach us with compositions that touch us in the sweet spots, grow our optimism, even when you thought it would never return.

Gillian Wearing wasn’t a musician nor a recording artist. But as a path-breaking visual artist. The photos she took in her Signs exhibit were based on a silent agreement between people on the streets and a stranger approaching them. She grabbed their truthful yearnings and then walked away from the person holding up to the world their joys over what they wanted to say.

Perhaps it worked so well just out of this promised anonymity eliciting deadly honest responses. But I hope you each will find a moment to google  Gillian Wearing’s “Signs That Say What You Want Them to Say.” You’ll be drawn in by the images. Many have stayed indelibly in my thoughts 1 year and 1/2 after I first saw them.

  • There was a picture of a black British man standing before the camera, stoic in his police uniform. The photo of him holding up a sign said: Help Me.
  • Remember she took her photos in 1993. You couldn’t take for granted 30 years ago, the faith and hope held by another man who was willing to be in Wearing’s photos holding his sign that confessed: I am Queer and I am Happy. Telling the world now in words or proclamations that you are LGBT or Q remains is a special truth to tell and feel safe.
  • I remember two middle-aged women in Wearing’s photos, holding a sign together, one was black-skinned and the other white. They looked like strangers who may have met for the first time when pictured. The sign they shared was aspirational. I wanted to follow their lead. They wrote: Work Toward World Peace.
  • I recall signs reminiscent of prayers long seen as living testimony to our people’s history. In Jewish life, the prayers I’m describing were called techinnes. Written mostly in Yiddish, these were heartfelt memories and cherished reflections of women explaining their inner experience of spirituality. Women wrote these writings while braiding the dough to bake special Shabbat challot. They wrote these prayerful words and innermost truths before making love to the people they loved and after they’d immersed in a mikvah. These prayers came to mind when I saw a picture Wearing took of someone who’d drawn a beautiful symbol next to four words: I seek more love.
  • That photo wasn’t more than a foot from another one in the installation, depicting a woman with a cheerful half-smile. I smile back at the woman’s pic.. Then I saw her sign. She said what many confess to me: She wrote: I hate this world!

Wearing’s exhibit was an open-space interpretation of a famous quotation many of you have seen and contemplated and shared. Late 19th century writer Ian Maclaren in a magazine essay wrote: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.” This reminds me to tell you about the environment in our synagogue on Yom Kippur. It is that we promise to be kind and trustworthy to confide your answer to the following five-word question: What would your sign say?

Yizkor is a fair time to be asked a question that underscores mortality. After all, if this may be our last Yom Kippur to atone, then which of our truths would we convey on a sign? What would your sign say? Unless you reveal it, how could any of us praying beside you possibly know the battle you are fighting.  I get that I’m asking you a weighty question in what unfamiliar surroundings to pray. We aren’t in our sanctuary in Beachwood where we’ve prayed Yizkor clear since 1957. But the embrace of this community transcends what side of town on which we pray and the gravity of a holiday.

So if your observance of Yom Kippur allows it, take sometime today, or perhaps later tonight before you lay your head to rest, take out a pen or a pencil, and use the inside cover of your Book of Remembrance as a journal or a sign to write out the truth in your heart. You don’t need you to take a photo. Your regrets and your realizations are yours.  What I’m asking you might in fact go beyond your capacity. If you feel troubled and confounded and don’t know where to start, then begin by remembering who you came to this service to honor.

It is Yizkor. This is the time on Yom Kippur to honor the people in our families and community who have died. So, what would your dad or mine write on their signs if Wearing took their photo? What might your cousin, the one who was estranged from the rest of your family say that was what they wanted to say without being contradicted or interrupted?

It is Yizkor. This is a time when it is most healing to remember the nearness we felt when we’d sit by our dads, moms, cousins, siblings, friends and neighbors. Remember their presence when it could make you feel secure. Remember, too, the friends of your parents or the parents of your friends! Hold the people of that generation, a sustaining presence, very close to you.

For me, Yizkor is also a time to feel buoyed by influential teachers or mentors who conveyed to me that they believe in me. These same people sensed there I was fighting a battle I couldn’t explain or that I was shooing away pain that needed to be felt and put into perspective. When such forces of love and encouragement go into the earth, Yizkor begs us to remember the extra miles they traveled in this world just back us up. What would their signs say?

I know. This is hard to see – the list of people we miss grows each year. It’s upsetting when we realize that the people who used to pick us up at the airport when we came to their city or when we arrived back here in Cleveland are no longer waiting outside baggage claim. We miss our eyes meeting theirs and knowing we were home because someone was looking out for us. Remembering this may seem too wistful for you. Praying Yizkor may be just too damn hard, like not something you don’t want to do. So here’s another way to make a mitzvah from Yizkor.

When I ask what would be on your sign, remember that you don’t have to write an original poem or formal tribute or toast. But look around you and see yourself joined together with others. What joins us together at Yizkor isn’t something we possess. It is in the air of every memory of the culture and era when we were raised. What might therefore find its way into our signs are salient messages from art, passages of literature and notes of music that have touched your soul. Look to poetry or song lyrics that seem to express your truth.

One primary teaching in Jewish culture is that the study of Torah is a way one generation touches another. But many texts are sorrowful and bitter. Other sources from previous eras feel confoundingly sad when we tell them. Who wants to leave our encounters with Torah in despair or confusion? When that happens, remember there is a Jewish tradition to follow that is an asset on a day such as Yom Kippur. The tradition is called: finding a nechemta.

nechemta is described by Rabbi Caruso as a place to land, a word of comfort or a note of consolation. In Judaism, a nechemta most often refers to additional passage added to our study packets when the first set of sources would leave us in a dispiriting place. If there is such a thing on this holiday, it is most definitely the concluding worship service of this day. The rituals of our concluding worship on Yom Kippur celebrate the still-open gates of repentance. After hours of standing soberly, each admitting serious faults, the concluding worship on Yom Kippur is a delight to behold.

I love that Judaism gives us a device such as a nechemta to find hope and peace and a place to land on days that could have ended with our feeling hurt or raw. For me, my nechemta is often found in the music on my iPhone playlist. When darkness descends,  it is music that reaches me with perspective when I feel like I can’t do anything right. Music becomes my nechemta.

The yearsince last Yom Kippur has been largely uplifting for me. We are together in community, and this makes me proud. Many of us are traveling somewhat more freely and discovering new vistas to see. My children and my spouse are in good spirits. We are each earning a living and learning.  This temple I serve is filled with wonderful people, carving a path toward an enduring future for our values and our practices. My cancer scans remain stable with no new metastases. These happy blessings enrich most days with hope.

But we all have days that end with us feeling raw. The worst one for me in my whole career was April 13, 2023. That day I stood out on the sidewalk of Fairmount Boulevard, torn inside by the sight of black billowing clouds, flames and growing damages and wreckage affecting our congregational home.

I know you saw my trying to make a nechemta, to formulate words of consolation in front of news cameras. I did say what needed to be said. But inside, I was trembling. I knew it could be worse. But as the day concluded, I didn’t know if it could or would get better. Twice that night I kept leaving to drive up to Fairmount Boulevard, nervously making sure with my own eyes that I saw the police presence on the grounds, keeping temple safe from intrusion or calamity.

That was a long night when I barely slept. I needed something to bring me a note of hope. A nechemta doesn’t erase the pain of what we’ve lost. No, the sadness, the hurt, the loss of most of my belongings at temple, that remains. But a nechemta does help us process pain and put it into perspective.

About 5 in the morning, I stepped quietly down our stairs to the living room. I laid there on our couch in meditation. I contemplated how we’d get from that day to this day. Failing to be still enough to meditate, I put my airpods in and clicked shuffle on a favorite playlists.

The words of the first song I heard on shuffle were exactly what I needed to hear. The lyrics were composed the year I was born, by the least famous musician in the most-world-famous band in history. I was even told that the composer wrote it during the worst year of his adult life. Early that year, he’d quit the Beatles, later rejoining the famous British foursome without ever clearing up their differences.

Guitarist George Harrison had even been arrested earlier that year for drug possession and had a loved one diagnosed with disease.  Things that used to bring him simple joy in his tours with a band, famous world-wide, that winter everything felt like business, transacted with partners who no longer get along. Harrison wrote that winter in 1969 seemed longer than others.

There was once a documentary where Harrison is confessing how dispirited he felt. He hadn’t played a lick of music in weeks. Then, in late April, one day he decided to play hooky from an important Beatles recording session. Instead of making music with Paul, John and Ringo, he sat outside in the  garden of Eric Clapton’s home in England. On a day and in a year and when any one of us would have only written a dirge, Harrison grabbed one of Clapton’s acoustic guitars and sat in a garden outside. There he poured out the truest aspirations in his heart. He wrote words I’m longing us to hear, five months after a fire traumatized our spiritual home. He wrote words that echo the meaning engendered right now.

At Yizkor, all we really want to know is that this long and lonely winter won’t last. We want to know if smiles will return to our faces. We need to know the ice will slowly melt. It’s Yizkor, and even if it seems like years since it’s been clear, I say, it’s all right. For here comes the sun. Here comes the sun. Sun, sun, sun, sun, here it comes.