Shemini Atzeret-Yizkor

Nostalgia – is it enough?
By Rabbi Robert Waxman

In Webster’s contemporary formulation, nostalgia is “longing for something far away or long ago.”

As we gather for Yizkor a wave of nostalgia fills the room. We are looking back, remembering. For some, we are looking back at a safe distance. For others, memories of loss and disappointments are as close as this past year.

Nostalgia is a big part of religious thought, for we can’t rely upon fate or biological ancestry to cultivate Jewish loyalty. Yet, we can’t return to shtetl nostalgia to assure Jewish continuity either: Tevya’s cry of “tradition” is no answer for his children’s questions. In fact, Tevya failed with his children. “Fiddler on the Roof” is musical entertainment, not reality. The shift has turned from external to internal, from fate to choice. Our children ask “what for?” They must be persuaded morally, spiritually, intellectually of the meaning and merits of Jewish purpose.

Because we mistake time for a video, it is as if we doze off for a Shabbat nap, thinking dreamily, “This must have been what it was like when God rested that first Shabbos afternoon.” Professor Lawrence Hoffman of Hebrew Union College says, “Our state of mind is something between ‘I remember Mama,’ and ‘Remember the Alamo!’- more pressing than nostalgia but less demanding than a matter of moral duty.” If nostalgia turns out to be less than what it used to be, we can ratchet up the rhetoric by advocating “Remember!” as an ethical obligation; and when the force of history weighs us down, we can frequent therapists to put old memories to rest.

What do we want to do with our ancestors? Remember them with love and affection.

What are we do to with this white elephant in the room we call nostalgia? I suggest a plan called ACT.

A- is for Assess. Everyday we problem-solve. Step one is to assess the situation.

C- Celebrate.
Just do it. Live it. Observe it. Talk about it. And “eat the holiday” as the case may be. Yes, food is also an important part of the Jewish experience. On Rosh Hashanah and Sukkot we eat our apples and honey for a sweet year. On Chanukah we fry our latkes as we retell the story of the oil menorah. On Passover we eat the bread of affliction and the bitters and salt water. The dairy foods on Shavuot help us to recall our experience at Mt Sinai.

Plan how you are going to do the ritual. Get the needed ritual equipment.

T – Teach it. Teach it to the next generation. To your kids. To your grand kids. V’shinantam l’vanecha – and you shall teach your children. Observe it in a way that strong and deep memories are being created. Teach it with new meanings as the family members grow from tots to teens and beyond.

Now let’s put the ACT format to work.

Take Passover – Study after study indicates that the memories of Passover are among the most powerful of the Jewish year. As Chancellor Arnold Eisen, of the Jewish heological Seminary writes, “Not to tell the story and perform the ritual means not to keep the ancestors alive in memory. To abandon Judaism is, in that psychological sense, to kill the parents and ancestors, by losing touch with what they had stood or and done.” (Rethinking Modern Judaism, pg. 181.) So, are we in rebellion or are we part of the
continuity process?

Is your seder getting shorter every year? Think of ways to make it meaningful. Look over the haggadah and find comments from web sites. Kiddush – try new wines of Israel. The greens – speak of ecology and our responsibility to recycle. We were slaves – what are we still slaves to? Are we slaves today or are we taskmasters? What bitterness do we have in our lives? How do we deal with it?

Or Sukkot – Sukkot time is a chance for families to enjoy the outdoors. Build a sukkah on your deck. Have a meal outside at night under the stars. Talk about how it would have been to journey from Egypt to Israel. You could even camp out in your backyard.

A- Assess. C – Celebrate. T- Teach.

When we light the yahrtzeit light – Talk about your loved ones as you remember them. Tell the stories l’dor v’dor – from one generation to the next. We are not about “ancestor worship.” We do not worship the ancestors as gods, but worship God through actions taught to us by our ancestors.

Let us remember and observe. Now and in the future.