A Yizkor Message from Rabbi Tilsen
Only God Remembers
This essay is available in Hebrew בעברית
When my wife and I were planning our wedding some years ago in Philadelphia, my father called me with a rather unusual request. He had not been in Philadelphia since March 1946, on his way home to St. Paul from the war in Europe. He asked me to locate the grave site of his grandfather, my great-grandfather, Louis Reuben, whose final resting place was in Philadelphia. The second and final time that my father had seen his grandfather was on that visit in 1946.
My great-grandfather, Yehuda Lev Rabyn, later known as "Louis Reuben," was born around Purim in 1868 in Zekharyevka, now called Franzivka, near Tiraspol in Ukraine. Lev was a grain merchant in Zekharyevka. After arriving in Philadelphia in February 1905, he moved his family to Ashley, McIntosh County, North Dakota, in the winter of 1907. He took up a homestead, receiving 80 acres free; he bought an additional 80 acres. His wife, Mirel Chaplik, was killed in a tragic runaway horse-and-buggy accident in July 1913. Sometime after her death Lev returned to Philadelphia where he married Faige, a distant relative. Lev's seven children who survived to adulthood lived in North Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Lev had a total of about 200 descendants, so far. I contacted almost every one of his grandchildren. None of them knew where he was buried. I found his address in a guest list from my father's wedding in 1947. I visited what had been his address, asking the elderly gentlemen in the no-longer Jewish South Philadelphia neighborhood if there was anyone around who might remember him. There was no one. I searched in the cemeteries for a Louis Reuben who died in the 1940s or 1950s. I found a dozen. Two of them were married to women named Faige. But none of them were my Louis Reuben, none of them were my great-grandfather.
I visited a small shul in the West Philadelphia area, a building that had been physically moved there from the old Jewish neighborhood, and found a memorial tablet with what I believe to be his brother's name on it. But no tablet memorializes my great-grandfather. No one there remembers him.
I sent photos to distant relatives in Philadelphia, I placed ads in the Jewish newspapers, I searched every government records office and every cemetery in Philadelphia. No one knows what happened to him.
In North Dakota davka I was able to find his naturalization records, land titles, and family cemetery in the corner of a cornfield. I know a lot about his 15 years in North Dakota. But the last 25 years of his life are blank.
During the High Holy Days season we remind ourselves of our own transience in this world. My search for my great-grandfather has shown to me that one can live a full life in this world, have hundreds of descendants, yet still be largely forgotten in just a few years.
Each year, there are fewer who remember. Each year, those who remember, remember a little less.
At Yizkor time our senses are heightened, our feeling of loss is intensified, yet our memorial service only postpones the forgetfulness, only adds a little to the life-in-memory for our loved one.
Yizkor. Yizkor is a Hebrew word. It is a third-person imperfect verb, of the standard type. It does not mean 'memorial.' It does not mean 'be remembered.' It does not even mean 'we will remember.' Rather, the word means "He will remember." The "He" is not the son, the grandson, the great-grandson. For our memory is most fleeting, it is a blink of the eye. Our memory is short and fuzzy and so very partial. "He will remember" means "God will remember."
God is beyond the realm of time, not bound by the clock or the calendar. God is beyond the realm of forgetfulness, for God remembers. When we cease to remember our loved ones, God will remember them. When our loved ones cease to remember us, only God will remember us.
Someday, no one but God will remember us. Let us live in such a way that when God remembers us, God will say "Zekher Tzadiq liVerakha — The memory of a the Righteous is a Blessing."
© Jon-Jay Tilsen
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