The Woman Who Couldn’t Cry
OpinionClosing Thoughts

The Woman Who Couldn’t Cry

One afternoon at Yizkor service served a lifetime of loving memories.

Chana Shapiro

Chana Shapiro is an educator, writer, editor and illustrator whose work has appeared in journals, newspapers and magazines. She is a regular contributor to the AJT.

Yizkor is a highly personal service.
Yizkor is a highly personal service.

Even though I sit in the same spot every Shabbat, when I go to services during the High Holy Days, I usually end up finding a seat near people I don’t know or whom I know only slightly. I look forward to rubbing shoulders (really) and praying in an ambience of newness, unpredictability and discovery. Sometimes I’m next to a woman with Sephardic Hebrew pronunciation; sometimes I’m treated to a gorgeous or haunting voice; sometimes I’m delighted by exotic or unexpected clothing; sometimes I’m entertained by an effusive response to the Torah portion or the rabbi’s sermon. Once in a while I can explain something to a stranger, and just as often a stranger helps me. It’s OK if we never see one another again, but at the same time, I’ve met some great people.

Yom Kippur last year was a bonanza for me! I got to the synagogue early enough to select a seat from which I could perfectly see and hear the service. I was eager to discover who would end up sitting near me. One by one, three individuals soon took nearby seats, managing to arrive well before the Yizkor memorial service, which is always packed.

We smiled and nodded hello to one another, and then we got down to the business of prayer. I couldn’t help noticing the disparity among the three. On my right was a casually-dressed teenager. On my left was a small-boned, dignified elderly woman. Behind me sat a middle-aged, stylish beauty. All of them read the Hebrew with fluency and seemed completely comfortable in our Orthodox shul. I wondered which of them would leave the sanctuary during the recitation of Yizkor, and who, as is our custom, would stay to recite it for departed members of their family.
I was saddened that the young woman beside me remained. In the few minutes before Yizkor began, she told me that an unmarried uncle had no children to recite Yizkor, so she decided to take that mitzvah upon herself. The older woman on my other side heard the story and told us about her late parents, husband and new great-granddaughter. Even though the woman behind us seemed to be listening intently, she sat in silence.

My own parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents passed away many years ago, so the Yizkor experience was not new to me. But, inexplicably, this time my heart broke all over again. I was picturing my parents, siblings, cousins and grandparents long ago, on a typical Sunday afternoon in the park, where our extended family swam, played ball, argued about politics, told crazy stories, and ate a big picnic lunch. I missed them all so much that I could hardly bear it. I sobbed and sobbed and couldn’t stop.

The teen to my right put her arm around me. The woman on my left handed me a pack of tissues and patted my hand. She was crying, too.

As the non-Yizkor congregants came back into the sanctuary, the woman behind me leaned forward. “I envy you,” she said, flatly.


“It looks like you loved your parents.”

“Of course. I’ll always love them.”

“You don’t know how lucky you are,” she declared.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I hated my parents. I got nothing from them, and I don’t mean money. I didn’t sit shivah for them, and I let my brother make all the funeral arrangements. I wish I could cry, but it’ll never happen.”

“Maybe one day ….” I said, helplessly.

“Never!” she insisted. “Never!” Then again, stronger, “Never!”

Within a few minutes after Yizkor, everyone had come back into the sanctuary, and the service continued. I was greatly disturbed by what I had just heard, and then I led my mind back to my own past. I was overwhelmed with gratitude. How blessed I was to grow up in a loving family! How blessed to cry helplessly during Yizkor because I missed them so much.

My family and I wish all of you a new year of good health, joy and meaning. May your laughter be plentiful and your tears be few!

read more: