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Karen and I saw the movie, “Woman in Gold,” recently. As you may know, the film tells the true story of a Jewish woman during the Holocaust, Maria Altmann, played by Helen Mirren, who steals out of Vienna just before the Nazis made it impossible to do so.
She came from a wealthy and cultured Viennese family who were friends of the artist Gustav Klimt who gave the world the paintings, “The Kiss” and what was to be known as “Woman in Gold,” among many others.
In fact, “Woman in Gold” was actually the painting of Maria’s aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer, who acted like her second mother when she was a child. The Nazis stole the painting and it became the prize work of art that hung in the revered Belvedere Museum in Vienna. The movie is all about Maria’s fight to get the family painting returned from the Austrian government and back into the family’s possession.
The movie’s narrative switches from the modern day when they are going through the legal wrangling to wrest the painting from the Austrians, and then showing Maria’s life in World War II Vienna.
One scene made quite an impact on me. Life for Jews was getting more and more difficult in the city. Through a series of circumstances, Maria, in her early 20s, found a way out of Vienna. But leaving her parents was painful for her. Just before she escaped, she went to her beloved mother and father to say goodbye. At that point, all the Jews in Vienna knew what the future was going to be for them. Her parents, in deep despair, were happy that Maria found a way out. They all knew that they would not ever see each other again.
At the end of this moving farewell scene, her father said to her, “Maria, I only have one request of you,” “What is it, papa” said Maria. He looked into his daughter’s eyes with great pathos and said, “Please remember us.” In that moment, I imagined all of our departed loved ones saying that from the grave. Remember us.
On one hand, you might think, Remember us? How could Maria ever forget her very parents!
But memories can fade.
That’s why we Jews, have rituals in place just for the purpose of remembering those loved ones who are no longer with us.
Today is yizkor. Today is one of the days that we are told to remember our loved ones. And it is, coincidentally, also Memorial Day, a time that all Americans should be remembering fellow Americans who died in order that we may enjoy the freedoms of this great country.
I say “should be,” because Memorial Day seems to be more about picnics and heralding the first day of summer than it does remembering and paying homage to our fallen heroes.
We Jews live by lots and lots of rituals, rules, and customs. Some of them are really crazy and frankly embarrassing. Many Jews are so frustrated by these arcane and endless rules for living, seemingly for an age many decades before, that they have left the religion completely.
But one aspect of Jewish life that makes absolute sense, even today, is the set of rules and laws surrounding death, dying and mourning. It’s really brilliant. Mental health professionals look at the rules devised thousands of years ago and are astounded by how appropriate they are to our modern understanding of grief counseling.
Just think about it: Burying the body quickly, a daily Shiva for one week with your friends, relatives and congregants, and saying Kaddish for one year following the death in the presence of other Jews. It’s the original support group.
And then there's yahrtzeit and yizkor. For Yahrtzeit, on the Hebrew date of the death we light a candle and go to shul to recite kaddish, and also doing so on four additional times throughout the year on yizkor – during Yom Kippur, and the three pilgrimage holidays of Sukkot, Pesach, and Shavuot – a holiday that today doesn’t have much of an identity in modern Ameren Jewry.
Yizkor means, “May God Remember.” We know it is unlikely that we will ever, really, forget our loved ones. But coming to yizkor, at least for me, is a profound and moving experience. I am not remembering my departed loved ones in a fleeting moment, now and then, I am spending a body of time saying prayers and thinking about them only – and thinking about them in a Jewish context.
Yizkor and yahrtzeit are both private and community experiences. We light the candles at home and think about our loved ones in silence by ourselves and then we come to our synagogue and do it with all of you, our chevre and our friends. And KI’s tradition of reading every name of our collective loved ones, by each one of us, is yet one more way of linking all of our lives and our mourning together. And it is also one more way of building community.
And we also have a specific thing to do in the memory of our loved ones – giving tzedakah in his or her memory. Again, we have to think about them, about what their thoughts and dreams were and what they would want us to give money to.
In the rush to make Judaism more modern and more inter-faith we sometimes throw away the baby with the bath water, as the saying goes. Yizkor is one example This mourning ritual speaks to us in our daily lives in a very real way and strengthens our ability to remember our departed loved ones and also help us deal with the loss.
I value this custom. No, it’s not in the Torah. In fact the yizkor observance, other than the one on Yom Kippur, is only a few hundred years old.
But seriously, I don’t know what I would do without any ritual to help me to remember my father, my mother and Daniel at particular times throughout the year. What non-Jews are missing by not having these customs and rituals! How rich we are by having them.
Thank you for being here, with me, in this synagogue to perform this mitzvah.
So, even though it was a very impactful dramatic moment in the movie “Woman in Gold” for the father to say to his departing daughter who he’ll never see again to “Please remember us,” it didn’t have to be said. In reality we Jews will, by law, remember our loved ones. That’s what millions of Jews are doing right now, today, in synagogues all over the world.
May 5775 (2015)
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