Yizkor and Come From Away

Rabbi Philip Weintraub
Congregation B’nai Israel
June 10, 2019
Shavuot Day 2--Yizkor

A funny thing happened on the way to this Yizkor sermon. Almost every time I start to write a Yizkor sermon, something stops me in my tracks. Whether it is writer’s block or the fear that what I am about to say is trite in the face of real grief, I hesitate. Yet just as I am about to give up. Just at the moment when I don’t know what else to say, I have an experience that makes me cry. I read something; I see something that inspires me to understand my own grief and hopefully helps you to understand yours.

The Yizkor service is a fascinating piece of Jewish history and memory. I think of it like the breaking of a glass at a wedding, a reminder that even in our holiest moments, in our most joyful spaces, we remember that even in a fundamentally whole world, we also live in a fundamentally broken world. I think of “the wholeness of a broken heart.” You may ask, but how can a broken heart be whole? Isn’t that an oxymoron? Of course it is, but sometimes the greatest Truth, with a capital T, comes from seemingly incompatible truths.

From Rabbi Simon Jacobson:

  • “The Rebbes teach that there is nothing as complete as a broken heart. When your heart is broken, you are in a place that is real. Why is a broken wall the holiest place for Jews? Why do Jews stand and pray at a broken wall when there are such beautiful edifices around? Because, Jews know that this isn’t a perfect world. As long as the world is not perfect, Jews cannot stand in a beautiful edifice. Jews can only stand and cry at a broken wall. The illusion of perfect edifices in an imperfect world makes us feel good. But it is an illusion nevertheless—good for Hollywood and Broadway, but it’s not reality. The reality is that the world is a broken place—it’s a broken place full of broken people whose job is to mend what is broken.”

In a few moments, when we recite the paragraphs remembering those we love, we take some personal, meditative time. Rabbi Art Green, while speaking about meditation, again shows us the power of the broken heart:
  • Others see hitbodedut as a time for private, but not necessarily silent, prayer. The followers of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav (1772–1810), in fact, insist upon the spoken form. These regular practitioners of hitbodedut seek to pray this way for one hour each day, pouring forth spontaneous personal prayer, in whatever language the heart knows best. The purpose of this prayer, they say, is to break the heart, for only in the wholeness of knowing our broken heart can we truly come into God’s presence.

This week I was privileged to see the Broadway Musical Come From Away.

Before I continue, how many people saw it here or in New York? It tells the true story of September 11 at Gander International Airport in Newfoundland. Founded in 1936, by the start of World War Two it had four paved runways, making it one of the worlds’ largest airports at the time. Before the advent of jet planes, virtually every American plane bound for Europe or European plane bound for the USA stopped in Gander to refuel. Popes, Queens, Frank Sinatra and even the Beatles all stopped over in Gander. Unfortunately for the little town and not so little airport, more fuel efficient jets were able to travel longer distances, and by the nineteen sixties it was far less utilized. Today it has barely a dozen commercial take-offs and landings per day, although smaller business jets still use it regularly. Gander has a population of less than ten thousand people, with a hotel for airline crews, a hockey rink, schools and churches, although no synagogue.

On September 11, US airspace closed. Thirty-eight planes were diverted to Gander. Come From Away tells their stories. The different anecdotes of the play touched me in different ways, yet many brought tears to my eyes. Seeing mothers bond over their fire-fighting children, telling bad jokes to push away the fear of loss was particularly powerful. When Hannah finds out her fire-fighting son did go into the Towers and wasn’t coming home was a moment that pushed me over the edge.

Two stories of an Orthodox rabbi were mentioned in the play. The Jewish Week tracked down Rabbi Leivi Sudak, of Chabad of Edgware, and I will share a little of his story.

  • Two of the stories the playwrights heard about Rabbi Sudak feature prominently in the play. In one scene a local Holocaust survivor who has never told anyone, not even his wife, that he is Jewish, hears that a rabbi is among the passengers and asks to meet him. The audience sees the two talk for a while, and then, as they part, the survivor hands back the yarmulke the rabbi has given him. But, instead of taking it back, the rabbi gestures warmly with his hand back toward the man. He conveys, in the tiniest of gestures, not just the gift of the yarmulke but that the Jewish community has never left him.
  • “That story is entirely true,” Rabbi Sudak told The Jewish Week in a lovely and warm English accent. “I did meet a survivor, Ed was his name. As a boy he had been tortured by the Nazis in Germany and adopted by a British family.” Rabbi Sudak said that Ed had told him the adoption was arranged by his birth parents before their deportation and extermination. Ed, along with his birth brother and his adopted parents, later moved to Newfoundland, but the couple warned the boys against telling anyone of their heritage, a promise he kept until he met Rabbi Sudak.
  • And the rabbi did indeed give him a yarmulke, along with a siddur and tallit, but that was later. Years after that, Ed’s son told the rabbi, his father was buried wearing his gifts, the yarmulke and tallit.
  • A second story in the play — and that week in Gander — shows a town official noticing that the rabbi isn’t eating. “But what can we do for you so that you’ll be able to eat while you’re here?” the rabbi said he was asked. On stage, and in real life, the rabbi is given access to a staff room at the school where they were housed that had a stove and cooktop he makes kosher — he buys new utensils and kosher ingredients, turning the staff room not only into the kosher mess but the meal room for vegetarians and people observing Halal rules.
  • Rabbi Sudak added to the tale: Since their stay included a Shabbat, the rabbi went around inviting guests and gathered up a few dozen people, including a Tibetan monk who was a descendant of a generations-old Jerusalem family. The monk had two requests, said Rabbi Sudak: “That he be able to make his own Kiddush and that he help with the food preparation. So there he was for two hours on erev Shabbat standing at a counter, one leg crossed over the other, peeling potatoes for our Shabbat meal. Gander even scared up Kiddush wine, Rabbi Sudak said. “Welch’s grape juice isn’t kosher in Canada, but we did find a bottle of Manischewitz.”
  • https://jewishweek.timesofisrael.com/meet-the-real-rabbi-who-helped-inspire-a-911-broadway-play/

Watching the play, my heart broke open. I thought to my own experiences at the World Trade Center as a child, visiting with my grandmother, walking around the area. I thought of how a symbol of New York--it’s skyline--was forever altered by the terrible choices of others. And I thought of the kindness of thousands in Gander, of millions in New York and around the world who worked to help one another after great tragedy. I thought of the famous words of Mr. Rodgers’ mother “Look for the helpers”. What this play taught is that it is not enough just to LOOK for them, we have to BE the helpers. What made Gander special was that the entire town got together to BE the helpers. What if we did not wait for tragedy to be the helpers? What would that world look like?

When I say the Yizkor prayers, I think of those who regularly helped others. I think of loved ones who made a difference, in their own small ways. The memories we have of those we love are often them at their best--the examples they set, the good choices they made, the way they made the world better. We try to emulate them at their best, at our best.

Yet we know that not every parent or loved one was that ideal. Some caused great pain. As we remember, as we desire to emulate their best qualities, we can acknowledge the pain that their worst brought out, too. May such an acknowledgement bring healing to our souls and theirs. As our hearts break, may we be inspired to heal not only ourselves, but the world around us.