©Rabbi Robert L. Wolkoff
In just a few moments, we will begin our Yizkor ceremony. At Yizkor, we wish to remember. With deep yearning, and perhaps with some small desperation, we wish to remember. Our memories can come as a caress as gentle as a warm breeze, or as a chill wind from which we seek shelter. But learning how to remember is one of the greatest challenges we ever face.
The Yizkor prayer is a short one. It takes us fifteen seconds to say. But how exactly, in that short time, are we supposed to remember? How can we fit a lifetime of memories into a 7 word sentence? Can something so rich, so expansive as a lifetime of memories be poured into a frozen heartbeat of time?
Remembering can be seen as the ultimate challenge of the modern age, where blinding speed and a bewildering proliferation of data cloud our minds and clog our hearts. It is no coincidence that the two greatest novels of the modern period, Joyce’ Ulysses and Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past are obsessed with memory. All of the action in Ulysses—all 564 pages of it—takes place on a single day. While Proust’s masterpiece—all 7 volumes of it—is actually titled In Search of Lost Time. It spans a period of 50 years, and 7 volumes still wasn’t enough. For time unremembered is time lost.
564 pages? 7 volumes? Written by literary masters, to boot. And what we have is a measly paragraph, and our own frail thoughts.
How can we fit a lifetime into a paragraph?
Well, instead of trying to remember all of it, perhaps we can remember a single event, or the smallest of gestures, with the greatest exactitude. And sometimes, in the smallest of gestures, an entire world can be contained.
I’d like to illustrate the point with a personal story. I call it Chesed, the Kindness of G-d, or perhaps just Homecoming.
Right now, my dad is asleep, snoring. He snores like I do. He’s completely unconscious, more asleep than he knows, except when he pauses and then gasps for breath. And then the room shakes. He’s only a few feet away, actually, in the bedroom nearest the kitchen, but he might as well be in another house altogether.
When I got home from college, ran up onto the wisteria covered porch and into the living room, Dad opened his eyes wide, the way he always did, and smiled the way he always did, and said, “Son!” the way he always did. He got up out of his blue easy chair with the specially fitted footstool, turned off the late night news, and greeted me, lovingly, with a hug and a kiss and an “I’ll see you in the morning.” Because he knew: This is about my mother and me.
Mom is waiting in our kitchen, relieved to be sitting with me there instead of struggling to get to sleep despite the erratic, tumultuous, and ongoing eruptions in the bed next to hers.
But more than that, Mom is relieved just to be sitting with me.
I’m home. Her boy is home.
It wouldn’t be fair to say that I meant everything to my mother. My sister mattered too, although strangely and unfairly not as much, and my father mattered too. But for my mother, even my failures were successes. One time, in 2nd grade, I came home with some school work. I had not written the “o” and “k” of my name correctly, and the teacher had written them more clearly at the top of the page. Mom had proudly gushed, “Oh look, your teacher says your work is o.k.”—which was the moment when I realized that my mother could never be trusted to give an objective opinion of anything I did.
But this wasn’t about what I did. This was about who I was. I was her son. I was home. And I was about to eat.
We’re in the family kitchen, in the family home I grew up in. In retrospect, it’s hard to understand why it didn’t feel claustrophobic. You could barely move in that kitchen without bumping into something. It was ringed with kitchen appliances—as well as the washer and dryer so my mother could do all her housekeeping tasks at once—and on top of that, a massive apothecary case, and two closets. In spite of having been there my whole life, I don’t really know what’s in all the drawers, or in the closets–with two exceptions. One closet, I know, is filled with chemical smells, poorly disguised with lemon and orange scents that are less real lemon and orange than the lemon and orange scents that are used specifically to poorly disguise chemical smells. And somewhere in the other closet are the barbeque potato chips, bought specifically to celebrate my arrival.
But in any case, the tightness of the room was as incidental as Dad’s snoring, because the focus was entirely elsewhere.
The focus was on the ritual meal, scripted and repeated over three decades, that Mom had prepared. It had all the ritual drama of a Japanese tea ceremony, but without the formality. It’s 2 AM. Mom is in her pink flannel nightgown, the one that she’s had from before I was born. In front of me, precisely in the middle of the large, round, white kitchen table, is a small, round, white bowl. The balance is as entirely intentional, and as entirely palpable, as a Zen garden of stone and sand.
The whole and the part. A fractal. Microcosm. As if the contents of the entire universe were poured into the small, round, white bowl.
Mom looks with love in her slightly teary eyes as I pull the bowl toward me, and lift the spoon set at my place. The anticipation is overwhelming. Time stops. What the Pieta is to a mother’s compassion, this moment is to a mother’s nurturance. It’s pure chesed, divine kindness.
And in the bowl? In the bowl is a rare delicacy. It is a testament to Mom’s love and concern. It is an offering as pure and pious as any sacrifice our ancestors brought to the Temple in Jerusalem. It is my mother’s unique gift to me.
It is gribenets.
But I’ll describe it anyway.
It wouldn’t exactly be accurate to call it proof of G-d’s existence.
That would be an understatement.
Gribenets is proof of G-d’s benevolence.
With apologies to our vegetarians—bear with me—take a chicken—actually, as Dad loves to remind me, with a knowing smile and slightly rolling eyes, four chickens. Take the skin, slowly fry it in its own fat, together with 2 finely sliced and chopped onions. Pour off the oil. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
And repeat. When it comes to gribenets, Mom is like the Samurai craftsman who makes exquisite swords by folding the metal hundreds of times, creating an edge that can be measured at the molecular level.
Sitting before me in a small white round bowl the size of a tea cup were the reduced remains of four whole chicken skins and two onions.
Refried a dozen times.
You know those little red and white striped mints doctors have in their offices? Unscrupulous cardiologists make them out of gribenets.
Cholesterol levels are measured in units up to around 500. Anything over that makes you a heart attack looking for a place to happen.
One look at a bowl of gribenets will put you over a thousand. Tasting it moves you up into the 10 thousands. The greatest miracle of Jewish history is that we have survived our diet. Mom is putting faith to the test.
The potency of gribenets, the raw power of its flavor, is astounding. What’s surprising is how much can be packed into something so small. Again, Japanese culture gives some perspective. Like Japanese ume (pickled plum) where a single small plum can flavor an entire pot of rice, one small piece of gribenets can flavor an entire pot of mashed potatoes.
And Mom made a whole bowl of gribenets.
The concentration of flavor in a piece of gribenets is as strong as the concentration of a mother’s love. Endlessly deep.
In the smallest of gestures, you see, an entire world can be contained. But at the time, I didn’t fully understand that. Like Dad, snoring away in the next room, I was more asleep than I realized. I do wish I had known. My mother didn’t need any affirmation. She wasn’t looking for it. And I probably couldn’t have given it, not in its full depth anyway. Maybe you can’t understand a parent’s love until you become a parent yourself. She did know that I loved it, and loved her. And perhaps she knew that, in her lifetime at least, I could never be expected to fully express it to her.
But had I known, I would at least have tried. And I wonder what, right now, right before me, I am missing. How much more should I be seeing, and how much more should I be expressing? How much more appreciation should I be giving voice to for all that I am privileged to experience? How much more love is being passed to me, whether in little white bowls or not, that I’m not fully grasping?
I haven’t had gribenets in eighteen years. I suppose I could find it in some kosher deli specializing in nostalgia, and it would probably taste about the same. But the important thing to remember is that the taste of food in itself is not as important as who is serving it and why.
For that, there is no replacement. There truly is no place like home.
I should mention in passing that after I read this story to our Executive Director, Lynne Weiss Marshall, she immediately went out and bought me gribenets. Sweet gesture, but just not the same.
When I do Yizkor today, Mom’s gribenets is what I’m going to remember.
Ulysses it is not.
Nor is it seven volumes long, encompassing the 50 years I knew my mother. But it helps me to focus on all that was precious about Mom, and I offer to you the following thoughts which may help you to focus on your remembered loved ones as well.
First, memories are not abstract. Things happen in particular places, at particular times. It helps to try to recreate those times. A pesach seder? The first day at school? Watching a game? The list is endless. Just make it real.
Second, it helps to see the divinity in those we remember. It is that, after all, that makes them timeless. For my mother, it was her chesed, her loving-kindness. But it could have been wisdom, or patience, strength or determination, passion or perseverance, or any of the other qualities that make us just a little lower than angels.
And, finally, the purpose of remembering the past is not merely to awaken nostalgia. We remember the past to help us envision a future. A memory is not really a memory unless it transforms us and leads us to action, making us better parents, better children, better partners, better siblings, better Jews, better people.
So now, let us remember.