Yizkor Drash: Kodak Moments, Yom Kippur 5775
Rabbi Yocheved Mintz, Congregation P’nai Tikvah, October 4, 2014
Yom Kippur Yizkor. Life is made up of moments…most of which pass and are forgotten, but some of which become indelible in our hearts—we used to call them Kodak moments, imprinted in our souls, like a photograph. It takes but a word or a song to conger them up, but they are forever a part of us. As we go into the Yizkor of Yom Kippur, many of us are flooded with such Kodak moments and they are gifts, both bitter and sweet, of the gifts we now have because our lives were touched by those we love who are no longer with us…
You will have your own stories, and I hope that you will share them with me, if not tonight, then at some time in this New Year. Today, I’d like to share two stories with you, as they were shared with me…
The first is a story shared with me by a colleague, Rabbi Michael Simon. It was told by a gentleman named Paul.
“When I was quite young,” Paul told him, “My father had one of the first telephones in our neighborhood. I remember well– the polished, old wooden case fastened to the wall, the shiny receiver hung on the side of the box. I was too little to reach the telephone, but used to listen with fascination when my mother used to talk to it.
“Then I discovered that somewhere inside the wonderful device lived an amazing person. Her name was “Information Please” and there was nothing she did not know. “Information Please” could supply anybody’s number and the correct time.
“My first personal experience with this genie-in-the-bottle came one day while my mother was visiting a neighbor. Amusing myself at the tool bench in the basement, I whacked my finger with a hammer. The pain was terrible, but there didn’t seem to be any reason for crying because there was no one home to give sympathy. I walked around the house sucking my throbbing finger, finally arriving at the stairway. The telephone! Quickly, I ran for the foot stool in the parlor and dragged it to the landing. Climbing up, I unhooked the receiver in the parlor and held it to my ear.
“Information please,” I said into the mouthpiece just above my head. A click or two and a small clear voice spoke into my ear.
“I hurt my finger…” I wailed into the phone. The tears came readily enough now that I had an audience.
“Isn’t your mother home?” came the question.
“Nobody’s home but me,” I blubbered.
“Are you bleeding?” the voice asked.
“No,” I replied. “I hit my finger with the hammer and it hurts.”
“Can you open your icebox?” she asked. I said I could. “Then chip off a little piece of ice and hold it to your finger,” said the voice.
After that, I called “Information Please” for everything. I asked her for help with my geography, and she told me where Philadelphia was. She helped me with my math. She told me that my pet chipmunk, which I had caught in the park just the day before, would eat fruit and nuts.
Then, there was the time Petey, our pet canary died. I called “Information Please” and told her the sad story. She listened, and then said the usual things grown-ups say to soothe a child. But I was not consoled. I asked her,
“Why is it that birds should sing so beautifully and bring joy to all families, only to end up as a heap of feathers on the bottom of a cage?”
She must have sensed my deep concern, for she said quietly, “Paul, always remember that there are other worlds to sing in.” Somehow I felt better.
Another day, I was on the telephone: “Information, please.”
“Information,” said the now-familiar voice. “How do you spell ‘fix?'” I asked.
All this took place in a small town in the Pacific Northwest.
When I was nine years old, we moved across the country to Boston. I missed my friend very much. “Information Please” belonged in that old wooden box back home and I somehow never thought of trying the tall, shiny new phone that sat on the table in the hall.
As I grew into my teens, the memories of these childhood conversations never really left me. Often, in moments of doubt and perplexity, I would recall the serene sense of security I had then. I appreciate now how patient, understanding and kind she was to have spent her time on a little boy.
A few years later, on my way west to college, my plane put down in Seattle. I had about half an hour or so between planes. I spent fifteen minutes, or so, on the phone with my sister, who lived there now. Then without thinking what I was doing, I dialed my hometown operator and said, “Information Please.”
Miraculously, I heard the small, clear voice I knew so well. “Information.”
I hadn’t planned this, but I heard myself saying, “Could you please tell me how to spell ‘fix?'”
There was a long pause. Then the soft spoken answer, “I guess your finger must have healed by now.”
I laughed out loud. “So it’s really still you,” I said. “I wonder if you have any idea how much you meant to me during that time.”
“I wonder,” she said, “if you know how much your calls meant to me. I never had any children and I used to look forward to your calls.”
I told her how often I had thought of her over the years and I asked if I could call her again when I came back to visit my sister.
“Please do,” she said. “Just ask for Sally.”
Three months later, I was back in Seattle. A different voice answered, “Information.” I asked for Sally.
“Are you a friend?” she said.
“Yes, a very old friend,” I answered.
“I’m sorry to have to tell you this,” she said. “Sally had been working part time the last few years because she was sick. She died five weeks ago.”
Before I could hang up, she said, “Wait a minute. Did you say your name was Paul?”
Well, Sally left a message for you. She wrote it down in case you called. Let me read it to you:
The note said, “Tell him I still say there are other worlds to sing in. He’ll know what I mean.”
I thanked her and hung up. I knew what Sally meant.”
What are the chances, what are the odds that you can have such a close connection with someone you have never met? Yet, that Information Operator, Sally, had made an indelible impression on Paul and had given him words by which to live…..a lesson learned for a lifetime.
We cherish the memories we have from our loved ones. And we long to hold on to things that remind us of them. Some are items they have bequeathed, others are things we learn about them from others….and sometimes, just sometimes, there are things we find out about their lives long after they’ve passed.
So here is one more story…shared with me just this week, by Wil, Benjamin Wilrecker, a member of our congregation. I will tell it as he told it to me…
“My grandfather, Victor F. Wilreker Sr., was a first class petty officer in the US Navy during World War II. He wrote letters to his mother and his girlfriend, my (future) grandmother, several times each month, when he was stationed abroad during the war. After my great-grandmother’s death, all of the letters were collected together in a shoebox, together with the passports the family used when they immigrated to the US from Austria in the 1932, and letters in German from my Great-Great grandmother who remained behind in Vienna. Vic had kept the papers in a chest of drawers in the foyer. After Vic’s death, we were going through his papers, and we found the shoe box. The rubber bands holding each group of letters together had died of old age years before, but it was all still there and intact: Chevrons and ribbons from Daddy’s uniform. Three handpainted silk handkerchiefs, neatly penned in the corner: “Herma Dear, I Love You.” “ Wahre Liebe Bluht-Nur Einmal” [“True Love Blooms Only Once”] I carefully wrapped each bundle of papers up in Saran wrap, and put the handkerchiefs and Vic’s Petty Officer’s chevrons from his dress uniform on top of the stack. I taped up the shoe box, and marked the whole thing with my name and address. I had to stop to avoid crying all over the whole business several times.
With images of my box of 60-year old papers possibly ending up in Aruba or who-knows-where, through some sure-to-happen airline mix-up, I took the papers on the plane as a carry-on. I knew I’d probably, at a minimum, have to put my precious box under the seat in front of me; but I really didn’t want it in the overhead bin. It was sort of like Vic was riding in that box with me. The letters in there were a piece of Vic from when he was younger than I am now, describing a world long since past. The letters are the spirit of the great-great grandmother who had died twenty years before I was born. They are the carefully planned emigration, with little more than the clothes my family members were wearing. In those letters, are frantic depth charge attacks, search and rescue operations, storms with fifty foot seas, and many, many weather reports. There is a letter to his mother about this lovely lady Vic had been seeing and how he would be shopping for a ring next time he was on leave.
“I sat down in a seat near the wing, and spoke with the first flight attendant to walk by. ‘These are my grandfather’s paper’s from the war. I’m on the way home from his funeral. Could I please keep them in my lap the whole flight?’ ‘No, I’m sorry,’ she said, ‘Federal regulations, you know…. Yadda yadda.” Well, it won’t kill me to stuff the box under the seat, I thought, and, reluctantly, did just that.”
“But shortly thereafter, the same attendant returned. It turns out that she had spoken with the Captain, who offered to keep the precious box up in the cockpit with him, for the duration of the flight. You see, he was a veteran and understood…So, the seat for that box of memories was upgraded beyond first class status and rode with the pilot throughout the remainder of the flight and was returned to me after the flight, safe and sound.”
There is an epilogue to this story. Wil, prompted by the treasure he had received from his long-deceased grandfather, decided to write a daily journal, focusing on the Kodak moments of his day…Someday he envisions his daughter sitting on a plane, holding the beat-up, blue covered spiral binder reading what was important for her dad to have remembered and put in the journal. Though he will be long gone, it will be as if he were sitting beside her on that plane.
When we’re gone, our physical being dies with us. But we can leave behind bequests, whether they are monetary, cherished possessions, and/or precious spiritual wills…they become the inheritance of those to whom they are bequeathed.
Why are these items so meaningful to us? Because of those to whom they belonged.
Why do we care about them so much, and why do we pass them down? Because we want to keep their spiritual values alive for future generations.
As you say your Yizkor prayers, please think about think about what spiritual or tangible items you have from your parents or grandparents, and then think about what you wish to leave to your children, your grandchildren…to your community.
And then think about this.
For a monetary bequest, do make sure you have a proper legal will; for a spiritual bequest, take the time to write a spiritual will (and if you don’t know how to, I’ll gladly work with you); and for those little items that have meaning in your life, even if you don’t believe that your children or grandchildren will ever open that Siddur, or put on that tallit, place candles in those old candlestick holders or say the Kiddush with that tarnished Kiddush cup, please don’t just throw them away. And don’t just give them away. But keep them anyway.
Save them and pass them down.
–Not only as a tangible reminder and memento, but because it is a statement about what was important to you. What your life was about.
Save it. And pass it down.
Bequeath it to your children and grandchildren as your tangible spiritual legacy, with the hope and prayer that maybe one day that old book will be opened, that old tallit will be worn once more, and in the process, knowing that through you, and because of you, your religious values will continue to live on.
May we be privileged to leave behind tangible memories that will be cherished for generations to come; and as we recite our Yizkor prayers let us recall our Kodak moments…that which is ours because our loved ones lived. It will be as if they are telling us that “there are other worlds to sing in”…it will be as if they are sitting next to us on the plane….May their memories be for a blessing.
May the memories of all those we remember today be for a blessing.
T’hei Nishmoteyhem Tzrurot B’tzror HaChayim.
May their souls be bound up in the bond of life.
And let us say Amen.