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Reconstructing Yahrzeit

How could I replace an empty exercise with something meaningful?

I confess I don’t think about my dead loved ones very often. That’s why I find our custom of observing yahrzeit, the anniversary of a death, of great value. It allows me the opportunity to remember and think about the person who is to be commemorated that day. 

During the first year after my father’s death, I attended shul on Shabbat, and mostly concentrated on reading the translation of the parshah and reciting Kaddish at its time(s). I would recite the Shema and Amidah with the congregation, although it was an act of rote recitation. As a member of a Reconstructionist community, I subscribed to the idea of the divine as a process rather than a human-like entity to be addressed in prayer. After hearing my cousin, a yeshivah student in his youth, and a fast reader, complaining that he would never win the race of recitation with the “old timers,” I realized that in my davvening I had been racing them also.  

How could I replace an empty exercise with something meaningful? I would use the silent standing Amidah as a time to bring to consciousness memories of my father. At first my mind was awash with feelings of loss, grief, and regret, images of sickness and suffering. I attempted to wipe these images away, replacing them by forcing myself to bring up pleasant images and memories. At first it was difficult, but gradually, each week I added to the collection. Eventually, a full rich “tape” of memories developed. Over the years I’ve been able to build up a repertoire of memories that come easily to mind: welcome, happy, filled with warmth. There is a tape for my mother and my brother as well. During a silent Amidah, a tape of warm imagery filled with meaning plays in my mind.

My personal Mourner’s Kaddish is a variant of the traditional version. In the variant, I change the focus from glorifying God’s great name to glorifying a great peace and expressing an aspiration to make peace between us and all that live on earth. This I can affirm with sincere intention and enthusiasm within my community… with an Amen and L’hayyim!

In our congregation, B’nai Havurah in Denver, Colorado, Rabbi Evette Lutman introduced a custom that I find very meaningful and valuable: During Kiddush after service, before we say the Motzieach person observing a yahrzeit is invited to make a brief statement about their loved one, recalling the tikkun olam which they performed during their life, keeping family connections strong, supporting one another. Many times the statements go on into biographical details and anecdotes. We listen patiently. Often these are tender moments. An important element is the stating out loud of the dead person’s name, keeping their memory alive. In terms of energy, this brings forth neural imagery and new sound waves transmitted to the universe. The recent movie “Coco” expressed a similar custom based on acknowledging and refreshing memories by viewing photos of the dead on El Día de los Muertos. In these ways, we have reconstructed the custom of yahrzeit, bringing a renewed vitality to the sacred practice of remembering.

Ed Towbin grew up in Denver, CO, in a Conservative congregation. As an adult he learned of Reconstructionist Judaism, which was a comfortable place for his developing theological awakening. Ed has been writing “variants” to Reconstructionist liturgy for the past 40 years, emphasizing his understanding of principles of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan. His work stresses values such as considering the divine as a process not a human-type entity; the importance of Jewish peoplehood; recognizing the human authorship of Scripture, with consequent questioning of miracles, revelations, and imperatives; and rejecting ideas such as the chosenness of the Jewish people and divine kingship.
“My liturgy variations grew out of my desire to participate in congregational services with enthusiasm and joy, singing and reciting words that resonate with my aspirations, expressing the meaning I want to affirm, rather than quoting traditional phrases [that usually do not resonate with me], without being too disruptive to my neighbors, especially my wife.”

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