What is Yizkor?
By Rabbi Amanda Schwartz
If you’ve looked at our High Holiday services this year, you may be confused that Yizkor looks like it’s at 9:00AM (or at least that’s some feedback I received from my mom…). You may even be wondering, what is Yizkor?!
The word “yizkor” comes from the Hebrew root work “remember.” Judaism places a great deal of emphasis on memory- whether it’s communal memory (like reading the stories of Jews from the Torah) or memorializing our loved ones who are no longer living. The Yizkor service historically has been used as one such opportunity to do the latter.
Yizkor began being recited in the Middle Ages on Yom Kippur to remember those who were killed in the Crusades. Over the years, the service has evolved to serve as a communal time of remembering loved ones who have died and Yizkor also began being recited on other Jewish holidays. The service usually involves time for people to reflect silently as well as communal recitations such as a memorial prayer called El Malei Rachamim, asking that the Divine give compassion on the one who has died, and the Mourners Kaddish.
Up until this year, Yizkor has been recited at Judaism Your Way after the conclusion of the Yom Kippur morning service. In most other Yom Kippur services, Yizkor comes after the Torah service. This year, we made the decision to recite Yizkor as a full community, within the Yom Kippur service, for two reasons. The first being that Judaism is a religion that emphasizes the importance of community during times of loss. We want our whole community to be present to show support for those remembering the loss of a loved one, especially in a year when we have witnessed the deaths of so many individuals due to the COVID-19 Pandemic.
The other reason we’ve chosen to include Yizkor is to help the ceremony continue to evolve as it has historically. Though Yizkor has historically been associated with grieving loved ones who have died, there are many things to grieve over, not just death. Kristi Hugstadt, a Certified Grief Recovery Specialist, writes “Grief is about loss, and that loss comes in many forms – death being just one of them.”
This past year every single one of us has experienced some kind of loss. Just a few examples of these loses include: losing jobs, missing a vacation that had been planned for years, and not seeing loved ones for special occasions. For me, my first experience of grief during the Pandemic came last summer when I realized that I would not be able to gather with all of you for the High Holidays at the Denver Botanic Gardens.
Hugstadt goes on to advise that, “Whether you’re grieving the end of your marriage or a critical illness, the way in which you cope with your grief makes a world of difference. Letting yourself feel the grief is critical, because grief needs an outlet – however painful.” We believe that Yizkor offers a wonderful opportunity for all of us to be together communally, marking and feeling our individual experiences of grief. We invite you to bring your full selves to our Yizkor service this year to remember the loss you have experienced this past year and in years past.