Remembering and Acting
Rosh Hashanah Day 2 – 5775
Congregation Dorshei Emet
Rabbi Julia Appel
I am squinting at a small square photograph. In it, my Bubbie wears tall hair and a long polyester dress, orange and green paisley, fabulous glasses. Her sister Rita stands next to her, taller hair, similar dress and pattern, from when Rita worked in accounting at the dress company. They are smiling at the camera. It’s a party. My mother is off at to the side, her long dark blond hair pulled back at the nape of her neck, mid-conversation. This one will go in one of the square silver frames I bought yesterday. I think it will make Bubbie smile.
My mother and aunt have gone through Bubbie’s photo albums to divide them up. Bubbie doesn’t look at her albums anymore. We’ve just moved her to the memory unit of the retirement community where she’s lived the last first years. She began forgetting where her room was in assisted living, and sometimes whether she’s showered that day.
The room is nice enough, but it is definitely just a room, not an apartment or suite, as her two previous rooms had been. She asked my mother soon after moving whether she was on a cruise and when she was coming home, which I thought was pretty insightful. There are some photographs up – mostly of her great-grandchildren, my generation’s children, plus her wedding photograph, and a painting I had made for her when I was 14.
So I’m standing at my parents’ dining room table, in the condo they bought once they’d sold out house, making several photo collages of old photos of my Bubbie, her clear cursive on the back. Winter, 1945, cousin Irene. Barbara, 1967.
She is losing her most recent memory, but her older memories are still intact, for now. I want her to look around her room and see people she recognizes. I want her to see her life and remember, who she is, that she had joy, that people love her. I give a special frame to an enlargement of a photo of her and my grandfather, kissing in their kitchen. He died a few months after I was born. In the photo, Bubbie is, impossibly, younger than my mother is now.
More photos – me at my most awkward, braces and unfortunate bangs; jumbo t-shirt and baggy denim shorts, sitting next to my cousin Rachel the year she lived with us. Me and my sister at Passover seder, back when we would have 30 people to my Bubbie’s house, and Bubbie would make home-made gefilte fish with her mother’s recipe, and we would eat chocolates from my Hebrew school fundraiser until we had to lie down on the rug or burst.
Cousin Ricky, age 15, before he got his PhD at MIT (when he also lived with us), and before he worked with Al Gore on environmental ceramics engineering. Bubbie’s mother, we caller her Big Bubbie Margie but my mother called her Nana, same paisley dress style, at a family function. At the time, she was sharing a bedroom with my mother at my Bubbie’s house.
* * *
Memory is a central theme of the Rosh Hashanah service, most notably in the shofar blasts of musaf, the last section of the morning service. The shofar blowing of musaf has three sets of shofar blasts, each with a different theme: Malchuyot (accompanied by verses about the kingship of God), Zichronot (accompanied by verses in which God remembered our ancestors and redeemed them), and Shofarot (accompanied by verses about the future sounding of the shofar that will herald the messianic age). It is this Zichronot, memories, passage that I want to focus on this morning.
God remembers all that we do, the liturgy of Zichronot says. The good, the bad, and the ugly. Every creature, Got remembers.
For the remembrance of every creature comes before you,
each person’s works are taken into account,
each person’s deeds and ways,
each person’s plans and schemes,
and the impulses upon which one acts.
And while God is reviewing our pasts, our deeds, searching for their meaning, at least as the liturgy here goes, we offer snapshots of times God remembered our ancestors for good.
See? We say. This one is of Noah, and the dove holding an olive branch, and the waters receding. See? This one, remember? This one is our relatives, they were crying in Egypt. Remember? This was taken right before they met Moses. It was a terrible time. Oh, and this one. I love this one. This one was the day before Sinai. Look how excited everyone was. You loved each other so much. That was a really good day.
But not only that. There is liturgy, and then there are the moments of our personal memories. These belong here too. This one is when I finally birthed Briyah, after 60 hours of labor; this one is the night before I went into labor, as I carried the Torah during hakafot for Simchat Torah and asked You for blessing and segulah. Oh look, remember this one? That’s a really old one. That’s of me throwing a rose into Big Bubbie Margie’s grave, along with all the other great grandchildren. I felt Your presence then, even as the earth covered the roses, felt that she was surely released from her Alzheimer’s and somewhere was restored, making Shabbes chicken with trimmed around vegetables from the old vegetable store they owned in Dorchester.
Rosh Hashanah has several different names. In the Torah, it is called Yom Teruah, the day of the sounding (of the shofar). It is also known as Yom HaZikaron, the day of remembering.
Rosh Hashanah is the new year, part of the year cycle of holidays. But today, especially for those of us who participate sporadically in the rest of the Jewish year’s holidays, Rosh Hashanah has become rather a life cycle event. A touchstone. A time to look back and remember what we were like 5 Rosh Hashanahs, 10, 15, 45 ago. The tastes and the tunes. The smell of books and pews. That crisp early fall feeling. New dresses and long walks with grandparents.
But I need to tell you, it’s not enough to simply remember. It’s not enough to come and say hello. Because there’s another piece of liturgy from this prayer book, from our prayer services during the High Holidays, that says “Teshuvah, utefillah, utzedakah maavirin et roa hagzeira,” “Repentance, prayer, and charity avert the harsh decree.”
In a traditional theology, this applies to these days of repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when we are to try to convince God to write us in the Book of Life for the coming year, by convincing God that we are worthy, thru acts of repentance, prayer, and charity (or righteousness).
For those of us for whom this theology does not apply, or whose lived experience counters this, how do we understand this central statement of the holidays, recited as part of Unetaneh Tokef – brosh Hashanah yikateivun…. (sing)
(By the way, if you look at the machzor, the high holiday prayer book, you see evidence of multiple opinions on this as well – the martyrology service of Yom Kippur features great holy and innocent sages who were killed by the Romans. No one would say it was because they didn’t do enough prayer and charity.)
It is not enough to remind God of our ancestors and how God took pity on them or answered their prayers, saved them from hardship, loved them and protected them, although the liturgy gives this as a reason God should save us this year – if not for our own deeds, then for those of our ancestors. It is not enough even privately, through prayer or reflection, to remind God of our past kindnesses, or past times when God had rachmanus, loving pity, on us. We must act to truly merit God’s remembering us with favor. That is the tzedakah piece. We must repent, we must reflect, and then we must act.
* * *
When I was going through my Bubbie’s photos to find ones to hang, I was happy to see the photos of my cousin Rachel, my Bubbie’s niece. I remembered how when I was 12, my parents took her in when she started law school. She lived in our basement for the year. We called her the cellar dweller, which in Bostonian English is pronounced cellah dwellah.
She wasn’t the only one. Looking at the photos of cousin Ricky, I remembered how years earlier, when I was 5, my parents had invited him to stay with us for a semester while he finished that PhD at MIT. This was before the basement was finished, when his living quarters consisted of a single bed, a cement floor, a guitar, a heater, and a toilet with a curtain around it. And before that, it was my aunt Diane’s turn.
It seemed normal at the time, but now that I have a family of my own, I marvel at the generosity that took. It’s hard to make a family work! There’s screaming toddlers and arguments and times when you just wouldn’t want another person’s needs in the mix, let alone for 6 months or a year!
I asked my mother last week why she did it. Did my parents have a long discussion about it? “I don’t know,” she said. “No, I don’t think there really was a discussion. I said yes without even thinking about it. I mean, it was a mitzvah, but I didn’t even think of it that way, it’s just what we did. It was a family tradition, really.”
And she told me stories, some I knew and some I didn’t, about all the people my Bubbie took in over the years. Her siblings (she had 5) and their spouses at various times while they were hunting for an appropriate apartment or house. Bubbie’s late brother Berton had a friend named Harvey, who showed up at the door, saying “Berton said I could stay here,” and that was it. He stayed for several months!
And Bubbie’s own mother, once her father died and they had to sell the store. Bubbie set Big Bubbie Margie up in my mother’s bedroom. My mother spent 1967 sharing a bedroom with her own grandmother. When finally it was too much for them, Big Bubbie Margie moved into the living room, and slept on the pull out couch for a few more years til she got a small place in Allston, and after that, when her memory worsened, the nursing home.
“You know,” my mother said, still answering my question, “We didn’t have a lot then; I felt I couldn’t afford to give 10% of my income like you’re supposed to, but sharing what I have, giving food and shelter, helping people – that I could do. I didn’t feel like it cost me anything; I felt like it gave me so much back.”
And it’s true for me, too. Ricky taught my sister how to ride a bike, taught me about jazz guitar, and later he was the one who picked out the electric guitar I got for my bat mitzvah present. Rachel lent me her vintage feminist t-shirts during a tough 7th grade year, and watched My So Called Life with me. She was a confident example for me, and she bolstered my confidence in myself. And she taught me that, for those not blessed with natural red hair as I was, you had to be careful with the home dye job or it came our magenta.
I wonder if I am doing my part in this inheritance. True, my Mile End second floor flat doesn’t have much room for guests, but isn’t that an excuse? I hope my other ways of giving make my parents and my Bubbie proud. I try to live up to this legacy. Sometimes I think I succeed, and sometimes I think I fail. When I fail, it’s when my natural instinct to say “no” when asked to help takes over. I want to train myself so that my natural instinct is to say “yes.”
* * *
There have been many studies about Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia and reduced brain function. Although none have come up with a cure, one notable outcome of the research so far is a deeper understanding of what is called neuroplasticity. In the early 20th century, most scientists thought that brain development stopped after childhood. In the last number of decades, though, research has shown that the brain continues to change and grow, to create new connections and brain patterns, due to new experience or due to functional brain damage. It is also true that adults have around half the neural synapses (connections) as a pre-teen. Why? Because over time, synapses that are used a lot are strengthened, and ones that are not used die.
I want to start using my generosity synapses more. I invite us all to make this the year. There are so many ways to do it, at the synagogue, in the wider community, in our families and with acquaintances. But what to do?
Think of that person you know, and I hope we all know one, who’s always willing to help you move, to drop off a meal, to lend a ladder, volunteer in the community. The one about whom you think, they are just such a good person. And what are the mentschy things they do? More often than not, at least in my experience, they are people whose natural instinct is to say yes, to ask how can I help, to have an open hand and an open heart. This is your year to be that person. To reroute your neural pathways through practice. Create a mentschy brain, and a mentschy heart, while you still can.
* * *
At the conclusion of Unetaneh Tokef, that prayer about God and the Book of Life determining our fates for the coming year, and how hopefully repentance, prayer and charity can make a difference – it continues:
“We are fragile as pottery, so easily shattered,
like the grass that withers, like the flower that fades,
like the fleeting shadow, like the vanishing cloud,
like the wind that rushes by, like the scattered dust,
like the dream that flies away.”
Part of these holidays is our contemplation of our own death. Rosh Hashanah as Yom HaZikaron, the Day of Remembrances, in that respect is not just remembering our deeds of the past year, but having a near death experience, having our life flash before our eyes, and asking: “What are the memories that flash by?”
Was I kind? Was I just? Did I give generously, even before being asked? To my family, my friends, my community institutions? Was my heart open, and my hand? Was I ready to act on behalf of others? Did I love enough?
* * *
I unpack my photo collages onto Bubbie’s bed. My mother holds them up at various spots around the room, and my father measures and levels and hammers. I show Bubbie each one before it goes up.
“Hey, recognize anyone on here?” I say.
“Oh!” she says. “That’s Irene and” peering closer to the black and white, “Russell! Come to visit.”
“When was it taken?”
“They came on a honeymoon from Ontario after they got married. It’s in the old house in Dorchester.”
“Oh that’s such a good one,” she says as my mother hangs the kitchen photo of her and my grandfather. “I’m surprised your father let it be taken of us kissing, he hated having his picture taken, let alone kissing! It must have been a special occasion!”
“Well these are just lovely,” she says. “I am so glad you came to visit, kutchkie. I know I say it a lot, but I’m the luckiest woman in the world. You’ll come back to visit soon?”
“Well, I live in Montreal now, in Canada, so I can’t come as often as I would like.”
“Oh, that’s right, I must have forgotten. You know, my memory’s not so good anymore. How did you get there?”
“My husband Aaron is at McGill Law School and our daughter Briyah is about to turn 2. And I’m a rabbi.”
“No kidding! Good for you. My granddaughter, a rabbi. How come I didn’t know that?”
“I think you did, Bubbie, but you must have forgotten.”
“I guess I must have. You know, my memory’s not so good anymore. Well, I’m so glad you came bubbeleh shanks, I’m truly the luckiest woman in the world. I know I say it a lot, but it’s true. You’ll come back to visit soon?”
“Yes. Yes I will.”
* * *
Rosh Hashanah, Yom Teruah, Yom HaZikaron, Yom HaDin. This day is one of teruah, of sounding the shofar to wake ourselves up. It’s one of din, of judgment, and we judge ourselves and out actions. And it’s one of Zikaron, of remembering.
This year, let’s make sure we are making the kind of memories we want to recall. Righteous memories. Kind memories. Memories of love and devotion. So that next year, or 60 years from now, when we look through the album of our life, we can say with certainty, Oh look! Remember this one? That, now that was a g1ood day.