Staying in Shul for Yizkor

Over the last couple of years, I have been urging everyone in shul to remain inside the sanctuary for Yizkor – even those who, thank God, have both parents alive. I have made this request in the name of simple courtesy and love toward those who are reciting Yizkor, and whose ability to immerse themselves in memory and prayer is severely compromised by the racket that typically invades the sanctuary from the lobby outside. It has been a semi-successful campaign on my part, and I of course knew going in that there would be some non-Yizkor-sayers who just wouldn’t be able to bring themselves to stay inside.

But what happened in shul on Yom Kippur two days ago has made me realize that I’ve been missing the boat by appealing on the grounds of courtesy and decorum alone. Lots and lots of us begin to cry quiet tears as Yizkor begins. But when it’s someone’s very first Yizkor, or the first one that they are reciting for a family member who has just recently died, they quite understandably begin to cry aloud. We had several people in this situation this Yom Kippur. And each one had friends who put their arms around them and held them as they cried – friends who had remained inside shul even though they were not themselves reciting Yizkor. And if I had to guess, I would imagine that their parents were very proud of them.

Why do we run out of shul when our friends need us most? Try staying inside. You’ll be glad you did.

3 Responses to Staying in Shul for Yizkor

  1. Debbie says:

    As a “Jew by Choice” who was married to a Jew for many years before formally converting, I learned to leave the room at Yizkor in the same way that I learned most of what I know about Judaism: from my husband and from watching others in the Ashkenazic communities that we were members of. My husband stays for Yizkor because he lost both of his parents as a child. Both of my parents are still living, however as a convert, I sometimes wonder what status they have in my religious life. Their names are not part of my Hebrew name and my ketubbah (from the halachic wedding we did after I converted) uses the wording for a bride whose father is no longer alive. Some day, but not any time soon I hope, I may have to decide whether to sit shiva and say kaddish for them or not. I figure it’s not worth worrying about now since by then my relationship with them and my own religious identity may be different from what it is now. It was in fact a change in those very aspects that allowed me to finally find the courage to convert.

    Anyway, perhaps none of the above is relevant to whether I should stay or leave during Yizkor. I learned only recently that leaving Yizkor if ones parents are living is only a custom. But since that is the custom followed by the people in our minyan, I would feel very self-conscious to go against the custom. It is a lay-led minyan, so there is no official rabbi to ask for guidance. The rabbis who are minyan members could really only give me their own personal responses. I did stay accidentally for part of Yizkor once. I simply wasn’t paying attention when suddenly I realized that the service didn’t sound familiar. When I tuned in and listened, I realized what it was and immediately left the room.

    When I looked at the readings for Yizkor, I saw that there were also remembrances for friends who had died. I wished I could have stayed in the service to remember three friends from our other minyan who had died in the past year. I especially miss one woman whom I credit with having been a major inspiration in my desire to convert to Judaism.

    So should I stay for Yizkor next year? I’d be embarrassed if it caused my minyan friends to ask me if a parent died. Unlike in large congregations with much larger attendances for High Holiday services, our minyan is so tiny that my presence at Yizkor would certainly be noticed as something different from past years. As it is, when I finally converted, one of my friends asked if it meant that my parents had died because I must have told her earlier that my fear of their reaction was the main reason that I hadn’t converted despite having participated fully with the minyan for many years. What can I say? I realize that I have particular insecurities about my Jewish observances because I am a convert.

  2. jon says:

    The “custom” of bolting the sanctuary is based upon superstition, plain and simple. The idea being not to tempt fate by staying inside if one’s parents were still alive.

    The problem is that this superstition has morphed into quasi-halachic status…and it doesn’t help that siddurim like Artscroll, with their many instructions and guidelines, fail to distinguish between that which is mandated by Jewish religious law, that which is longstanding custom, that which is essentially superstition, etc.

    My parents raised me to stay inside the sanctuary during Yizkor, and I’m glad they did. Yizkor is actually a meaningful, albeit brief, time to reflect upon life. There are certainly portions of the service where everyone can be present–no matter what their pecadillos may be about superstitions regarding their parents.

    The irony is that for so many–particularly in the Orthodox community–Yizkor (rememberance) has become a time to forget. Kudos to Rav Yosef for mentioning this topic–it has always been a pet peeve of mine.

  3. Debbie says:

    P.S. to my comment above:

    I decided to consult my “sponsoring rabbi” with whom I studied for conversion. After addressing my concerns, he advised that since leaving for Yizkor if ones parents are alive is minhag rather than halakha, that I should “follow [my] heart”. Although in some ways that does not answer the question, his thoughtful response was reassuring to me. I’m not sure yet what I’ll do for the next Yizkor service, but I have until Passover to mull it over and decide.

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