There is an old European custom of lighting two memorial candles on Yom Kippur - one for the living and one for the dead. A selection of contemporary poems can help us reflect on our own memories as both honoring those who have died as well as serving as living reminders of the lessons they have to teach us and those who will come after.
A Candle for the Dead and a Candle for the Living
We remember, for the dead as well as the living.
For countless generations, Jews have ritualized the sacred task of remembrance. Our scriptures record our history; our holidays commemorate our heroes; and our mourning practices honor our departed loved ones.
Following the Holocaust, our people’s commitment to memory deepened and expanded, creating new ways to remember those who lived and died in those terrible days. One such method of remembering was the creation of “yizkor books.” These are collections of written and photographic testimony of Jewish communities in villages large and small that were destroyed during the war. Survivors of the Shoah recorded their memories, mostly in Yiddish and Hebrew, into many hundreds of volumes, each dedicated to a single town. And in one such book, philosopher and member of the Israeli parliament Abraham Stupp (1897-1968) recalls Jewish life in his home town of Tluste [Tovste] in today’s Ukraine.
Among Dr. Stupp’s recollections is the Jewish folk tradition of lighting what were known as “Yom Kippur candles.” In our own time, we often light a yizkor candle to remember those who have died, but Stupp recalls the custom that, in his own words, “every Jewish family had to prepare two big wax candles – one for the living and the second for the dead.” Women would measure out the circumference of the gravestones of loved ones—or even an entire cemetery—with wicks that they would later cut into candles. A beautiful Yiddish prayer, a tekhine, was composed by a woman named Sore bas Toyvim, a prayer, used for centuries, that affirmed the popular custom as a sacred devotional practice. Generations of mothers, honoring the living and the dead with two hand-made candles: one for the home, and one for the synagogue; one for our ancestors, and one for ourselves.
Dr. Stupp’s memories, and the memories of countless others like him, serve as modern-day Yom Kippur candles. They memorialize a past long gone while also serving as inspiration for those who live today. And we are heirs to this legacy. In this moment of memory, each of us metaphorically lights two candles of our own, one to honor those who have died, and one to brighten the days of those who still live.
As we remember our loved ones, and as we reflect on their impact on our lives, let us allow words of poetry to glow like the flames of yesteryear’s candles. A poem for the dead, and a poem for the living. A poem for us all, and a poem to help us measure our years with the lessons of those who have had too few.
Words of memory:
by Sally Charette
The last movie we saw with you has been nominated for an award --
you’re not here to say I told you so.
The retractable back scratcher and chocolate bar
we were going to bring to you,
gifts picked up in the drugstore checkout line,
rest on the table by the door, getting dusty.
We talk of the things you tended on the earth.
The barbecue, the deck, the grape arbors
and the rain barrels to feed them,
the sprouts growing in the greenhouse.
The trails, the coastlines,
the crooked roads you led us down.
The big unfettered sound of your amusement.
Slowly, we begin to see the story in the black-and-white photographs:
the worried child you always were,
your knit brows and hopeful smile as if asking,
Is everything all right?
Did I do something wrong?
You were supposed to get better.
We baked a cake for you
and we brought it to the place you loved
and scattered the pieces like ashes.
It was your birthday without you.
The loss of a loved one helps us make meaning in our own lives. We emerge from shiva and sheloshim to face once more the world we thought we knew. But we look upon that world with new eyes, eyes that scan the crowds for someone we’ll never see again.
Yet, even as we look for those we lost, we are seen by those who surround us. We are seen as the survivors, as the ones who carry the torch or bury the hatchet, who keep alive the legacy of those who went before. Just as we changed in response to their lives, so do we change in response to their deaths.
So wrote Rabbi Melinda Panken five days after the sudden and tragic death of her brother, Rabbi Aaron Panken. Aaron was the president of the Reform movement’s seminary, who died this past May, the day before he would ordain a new class of rabbis.
With Every Death
by Melinda Panken
With every death
we become someone new.
Defined and changed
by loss and absence.
Once a parent.
Once a sibling.
Once a child.
Once a friend
by illness or accident,
over the course of years, or months,
or even seconds.
Left with grief,
and the horrible realization
that we are now forced to become
against our wishes,
without those we love.
and we are left the sacred challenge
of being born.
A candle for the dead, and a candle for the living.
And in his unparalleled style, Yehudah Amichai crafts words that serve both purposes at once while also evoking the ancient themes of these sacred days.
My father was God and did not know it
by Yehuda Amichai
translated from Hebrew by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld
My father was God and did not know it.
He gave me
The Ten Commandments
neither in thunder nor in fury; neither in fire nor in cloud
But rather in gentleness and love. And he added caresses and kind words
and he added “I beg You,” and “please.” And he sang “keep” and “remember” the Shabbat
In a single melody and he pleaded and
cried quietly between one utterance and the next, “Do not take the name of God in vain,” do not take it, not in vain, I beg you, “do not bear false witness against your neighbor.”
And he hugged me tightly and whispered in my ear
“Do not steal. Do not commit adultery. Do not murder.”
And he put the palms of his open hands
On my head with the Yom Kippur blessing. “Honor, love, in order that your days might be long
On the earth.” And my father’s voice was white like the hair on his head.
Later on he turned his face to me one last time
Like on the day when he died in my arms and said
I want to add Two to the Ten Commandments:
The eleventh commandment – “Thou shall not change.”
And the twelfth commandment – “Thou must surely change.”
So said my father and then he turned from me and walked off
Disappearing into his strange distances.
Traditions—whether religious traditions or family traditions—have no life if we don’t keep them alive. Yehudah Amichai’s poetry reminds us of the responsibility of our birthright both to preserve the legacy of the past and to create new gifts for ourselves and for posterity.
What lessons do we learn from those who have come before? And more importantly: what lessons do we teach to those who will follow us?
by Marie Howe
We stop at the dry cleaners and the grocery store
and the gas station and the green market and
Hurry up honey, I say, hurry hurry,
as she runs along two or three steps behind me
her blue jacket unzipped and her socks rolled down.
Where do I want her to hurry to? To her grave?
To mine? Where one day she might stand all grown?
Today, when all the errands are finally done, I say to her,
Honey I’m sorry I keep saying Hurry --
you walk ahead of me. You be the mother.
And, Hurry up, she says, over her shoulder, looking
back at me, laughing. Hurry up now darling, she says,
hurry, hurry, taking the house keys from my hands.
A candle for the dead, and a candle for the living. In the words of Sore bas Toyvim: “My our prayers by the light of the candles be said with complete [intention] and faith.”
May the memory of our loved ones always be for a blessing.
 Learn more and see the New York Public Library’s collection here: https://www.nypl.org/collections/nypl-recommendations/guides/yizkorbooks.
 The English translation of Stupp’s essay can be found here: https://www.jewishgen.org/Yizkor/Tovste/tov017.html. The Hebrew original is available here: https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/014d6ae0-2fea-0133-c8c0-58d385a7b928.
 Printed in The Sun November 2015, https://www.thesunmagazine.org/issues/479/and-another-generation-cometh.
 The Merit of Our Mothers (Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 1992). Compiled by Tracy Guren Klirs, translated by Tracy Guren Klirs, Ida Cohen Selavan, and Gella Schweid Fishman. p. 26.
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