- Rabbi Nanus
October 5, 2022
Rabbi Susan Nanus
Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Los Angeles
In preparation for today, last week, I went to Ralphs to buy my Yahrzeit candles. Now the rest of the year – on the other days that we have Yizkor, Sukkot, Pesach and Shavuot - I light candles for my parents and grandparents. But on Yom Kippur, I light for everyone in my life that I have loved and lost. And there are a lot. So, I had to buy a lot of candles.
Candles for my two parents, my four grandparents, two of my great-grandparents who died when I was in my late teens. We called them Bubbe and Pops.
Two great-aunts and two great-uncles, who never had any children, so they were like extra-grandparents.
Four aunts and four uncles. Three first cousins. Three of my dearest girlfriends. One man who was the love of my life.
In case you were counting, that’s twenty-seven candles. Twenty-seven people that I lost. Twenty-seven people that I really loved. Twenty-seven people that I am remembering today.
Now the truth is, most of the time, we don’t like to think about these things. We don’t like to dwell on that loss because it’s too painful and too upsetting and let’s be honest, it breaks out hearts and makes us cry.
But today, on Yom Kippur, on the day we’re supposed to contemplate our own deaths and our own lives, we allow ourselves to remember, and we allow ourselves to cry, and we allow ourselves to stop pretending that everything is all right, because it’s not all right, because they are gone, and we miss them so much.
So, we light candles and we say prayers for their souls, and we ask God, where are they? Where are they, God? Are they with you, God? Please, God, help me with my grief. Because today, on Yom Kippur Yizkor, I am remembering, and I am so sad.
You know, I sometimes think that the reason older people have back problems – including me, by the way – the reason a that lot of older people are bent over – You see them starting to hunch over as the years pass – the reason is because we are carrying the weight of all that loss. All that loss on our shoulders, on our backs.
Because as I’ve said before, in Judaism, we do not move on from loss – we move with it. Yes, we move forward in life, but we bring them with us. We never let them go. We carry them, not as a burden, but as I like to think – as a beautiful cloak woven into a tapestry of all our memories. A colorful cloak of memories that surrounds us and comforts us and strengthens us with the love they gave us and blessed us with, and the love that we still have for them, and which our Jewish mystics teach us, never dies.
One person on my cloak is my very first roommate, Beth, whom I met when we were Freshmen at Northwestern and theater majors. She was from Roslyn, New York, just five feet tall, as zany as Lucille Ball and could belt a show tune like Ethel Merman. We were friends for 45 years.
There is also my elegant Great-Aunt Ethel, who was born in Hungary, but spoke with a British accent, wore red nail polish and a fur coat, and was an acquaintance of Eleanor Roosevelt. She was always interested in what I was doing, what I was writing, and used to send me political articles cut out of the Chicago Tribune.
My cousin Stan is also on my cloak, who was so handsome that he looked like a 50’s movie star with a pompadour hair style and a gorgeous tan. Like Fabian, if you know who that was. Stan drove a white Oldsmobile convertible with a red leather interior, and all my girlfriends were madly in love with him. He lived in Miami but used to spend summers with us in Chicago where he slept in our basement and worked for my father. He’d take us for ice cream and to the beach, and even gave me advice about boys and dating. Through the years, Stan flew in for every Bar or Bat Mitzvah, every wedding, every big anniversary or birthday. He was so much more than a cousin. He was my big brother.
A big section of my cloak is filled with memories of my father, who as I have mentioned in the past, was an inveterate gambler. He loved betting on horses so much, that on the day of the unveiling of his gravestone, our family sponsored a special lunch afterwards at Sportsman’s Park, where there was a special Leonard Nanus Memorial Race, and the horse running in his name came in first place. My Dad was a fiercely proud Jew, who spoke Yiddish before he spoke English, was an incredible dancer who taught all four of his kids how to jitterbug and sang a jazz kiddush at the Shabbos table on Friday nights, which made him sound like Frank Sinatra. “Ki vanu vacharta, v’osanu kidashta, mi’kol ha’amim.”
My mother, the calm, sweet, intellectual bookworm, is also on my cloak. She never went anywhere without a book—and instilled a love of reading and learning in all her children. I can still see her sitting on our front porch reading Grimm’s Fairy tales to all the kids in the neighborhood. Perched on our steps, they listened raptly, drinking in every word. The year before she died at the shockingly early age of 61, my sister and I took her to England for her 60th birthday, so she could immerse herself in the world of her beloved Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters and her favorite, Agatha Christie. She was in heaven.
Sometimes, the memories are even deeper than the cloak. Sometimes they are actually in our bodies. We look in the mirror and we see a strikingly familiar nose or eye color or crazy curly hair. We see our loved ones in us or in our children.
I was very close to my maternal Grandmother, Rose. On Friday nights after my family had Shabbos dinner at her house, the rest of them would go home and I would sleep over. And on Saturday mornings, I’d go to shul with her. And sometimes when it got a little boring, because it was orthodox and the service was really long – I would play with her hand and her diamond ring. First, I would trace the raised blue veins that showed through her pale thin skin. Then I would touch the brown age spots, making little circles. And then I would play with her beautiful diamond and platinum wedding ring. I would touch it and caress it and sometimes slip it off her finger and put it on my mine and hold it up in admiration. And she used to whisper to me – “Someday, that’s yours. Someday you will wear this ring.”
Here it is. Not just her ring. But her entire hand. Veins and spots and all. Just like hers. Exactly like hers. And when I look at my now veiny, spotted hand, I see my beloved Grandma. I feel her. I even hear her.
Where are they, God? Are they with you? That is something I really hope is true. But let me tell you something that I really know is true.
They are with me. They are right here with me. Just like your loved ones are right there with you. Because after the tears and the prayers and the sorrow, we have our cloaks. We have our tapestry of beautiful memories which embrace us and hold us and sustain us. And we wear them, and we cherish them because they make us who we are.
These past few years, when I light the Yizkor candles, I’ve started to think about the day when my daughter will be lighting a candle for me. And I hope that I’ve given her enough memories. I hope that I’ve given her enough love and strength and resilience to live a good life even after I am gone. Because that is what Yizkor on Yom Kippur is really about. To remember the past. To take a really hard, honest look at ourselves in the present. And then to make sure that our futures, -- no matter how many years we have left – are filled with words and deeds of love and kindness and generosity and understanding and acceptance – so that we may be worthy of the bright, shining light of that candle, and so that their memories of us will guide them and uplift them and carry them forward are we are being carried now.