Yom Kippur commands us to remember. It is a time on the Jewish calendar where honoring the memory of those we loved, and who loved us in return, is part of the holiday. When we talk about those cherished family members or perhaps dear friends who have passed away, I call that a way to understand what everlasting life is about. How many times do I have a private conversation with my mother of blessed memory, as if she was with me physically to share the latest happening in my life, or to tell her something about our children or grandchildren?
A new tradition I started during Yom Kippur in 2009 was to conjure up memories of the generations before me by putting out selected old family photographs. Photos of my parents, my husband’s parents, special aunts, uncles, our grandparents and other family members who are no longer with us became part of that year’s Yom Kippur photo selection pile. In addition to lighting the special yahrzeit candles that stay lit for over 24 hours, family framed or unframed photos are spread out on a desk, table or buffet with the yahrzeit candles lit nearby on a tray.
After going through family photos stored in boxes, I also bring a small pile of old photos over to our Yom Kippur Kol Nidre family dinner table. My husband and I talk about our grandparents, whom those at our table – our children and grandchildren – have never met. In fact, some of them are named after these beloved relatives.
I ask them what they would like to know about their great-grandfather, as one example. Depending on who is sitting at the table, some will talk about him from their own memory and perspective. All of our four children have many good stories to share about their paternal grandfather, Harry Rosefsky of blessed memory, who lived to be 98 years old. He devoted himself to being a grandfather. He lived a few blocks from us. He often ate dinner with us. He was part of their everyday lives.
The stories resonate strongly with my children, who want their children to know about that generation that no longer are with us.
To get ready for the tradition, I go to a closet, a storage box under my bed, or shelves full of family albums, including wedding photos showing relatives who played an important part in our lives. Yom Kippur has been an appropriate time to put the albums out on a coffee table. We have family members sift through them and ask questions about the link from one generation to another. What do we remember most about the person we see in a photograph?
If I were to talk about my mother, Julia Leff Greenbaum, I would say she loved being a “balabusta,” the Yiddish term for being a fine housekeeper-cook extraordinaire. Her joy was to visit us, put on an apron and start cooking, teaching me her favorite recipes.
Retelling stories about the influence and personalities of loved family members or dear friends who are no longer physically present doesn’t have to only happen during Yom Kippur, but it is a good time to think about starting this kind of tradition of sharing memories, using photographs to start the conversation.