Yizkor is in the air. Standing in my kitchen, I turn hand-written pages in stained old cook books, seeking comfort from holiday recipes of long-lost relatives. Always here in spirit, they busily poke in my pots, wanting me to add more cinnamon. They return to life in my yontif prep, their fingerprints on my honey cake.
I don’t need Yizkor to remind me who is not at the holiday table. Empty chairs do that job. So why do we recite the whispered names of deceased family members? Are we honoring their memory, inspiring ourselves to model after their best traits or invoking their special power as a meilitz yosher (advocate) on our behalf?
Many hespedim conclude with the supposedly comforting prayer: “May they be a meilitz yosher for their family.” Meaning, may they be an ambassador of righteousness, a faithful advocate and defender of the living before God in the highest court. That’s a whole lot of pressure to place on the recently deceased.
As a third-generation lymphoma patient raised in a cancer cluster family, I was always made uncomfortable by requests for ancestral intervention. What happens when we count on relatives to put in a good word but invocations go unanswered? Who’s to blame?
My maternal grandfather died from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1959, seven years before I was born. After his death he played a special role, assigned by my grandmother during family crises and times of tzuris. With hopeful reassurance, she’d say aloud: “At least, we have the very best meilitz yosher imaginable. No one could advocate better.”
Since we were not cemetery-visiting folk, I had to find creative ways to visit him. At my grandmother’s home, I’d sneak away from the cacophony of her chicken soup, haleshkes and spare rib-laden yontif table to the calming, cool space of my grandfather’s untouched office. Halfway up the stairway from their first to second floor sat a tiny landing where an open archway led to a green- and gold-hued den. This unexpected space felt otherworldly. Who knew a room could exist between floors? A portal to the past, it held his treasured ancient Yiddish books, framed photographs and powerful presence. Disappointed that I never met the distinguished man everyone regarded so highly, I felt closer to him surrounded by his belongings and his warm, quiet, confident command.
At 11 years old, my grandfather immigrated to Montreal from White Russia in the early 1900s. Starting out as a court interpreter, he worked hard to become a successful real estate developer. The first Jewish alderman in the city of Outremont, he was famous for promising the local non-Jewish authorities that he’d personally address the complaints and remove the old wooden shack from someone’s backyard within a seven-day period… strategically placing the date after the Sukkot holiday ended.
Growing up, he was our advocate in absentia who pleaded at every diagnosis, laid out the case after each recurrence and hovered in solidarity above our hospital beds. I imagined he was pretty busy. With cancer in our blood, our family members died too young. He passed at age 60 from lymphoma and my mom followed in his footsteps at age 59, my aunt at 52, my sister at 38. I hoped my fate – and my lymphoma – would chart a different course.
I never asked why we were not cemetery day-trippers. I just assumed that there were too many to visit in any given afternoon. As a child, I feared that if we went before Rosh Hashanah, we’d have to camp out through Yom Kippur to acknowledge every grave, or suffer the wrath of insulted, long-gone relatives. I remained content visiting my grandfather in his office, imagining him sitting in his armchair, holding his pipe, taking a book off the shelf, folding his crisp white handkerchief, grasping my mom’s hand as a girl. There was always mention of his eloquence. I longed to know the sound of his voice.
When adolescence hit, I scoffed when his name was invoked as a meilitz yosher. It seemed morally questionable, an ethical conundrum. Could that really be how the system worked? Did we believe in a God who relied on the testimony of prominent dead relatives to argue our case and change Divine judgement by negotiating a better deal? What about all the poor souls lacking enviable yichus to lean on? Worse yet, if pleas went unanswered, who was to blame? Would our loved ones’ sacred memory be tarnished if they failed to persuade? That seemed a little too demanding, adding undeserved stress to their peaceful afterlife.
Aging is humbling. Now 55, I appreciate that the older I get, the less I know. The insecurities of younger years disappear, transforming into liberating acceptance: I do not know it all. Meaning, I need help. I am vulnerable. I am fallible. I am mortal. What a relief. The pressure is off. In mid-life, I celebrate imperfection and weakness, no longer feigning wisdom or craving validation. I forgo adoration by others in exchange for unadulterated self-love. I am free to reconsider a lot.
This yontif season, I am reconsidering ancestral petitional prayer. Putting questionable ethics aside, I am begging brazenly with the best of them. In this global moment of brokenness, there is overwhelming devastation, grief and discord. We could all use a little help. Desperately hoping 5782 offers healing, I will unabashedly ask the grandfather who never met me – but whose blood and cancer I carry – to step in. On behalf of our whole aching world, but also on behalf of me personally. Because this year I have skin (and cells) in the game. My incurable, but treatable, lymphoma is progressing steadily and more treatment lies ahead. I fully trust that all will be well but a little protekzia never hurt. So, I am all in. Grandfather, please deliver your best argument on my behalf. Plead your strongest case in my defense. Vouch for me. I was the little girl who wandered through your cozy den, searching for you. Now I need your help.
Sitting in an outdoor tent shul this yontif, no memorial plaques will burn brightly at my back but melancholy Yizkor tunes will linger powerfully on my lips. I will ask my beloved relatives to put in a good word. I will reassure them that there is no pressure to succeed. I have absolutely no idea how this system works. I just crave the peace of mind from knowing that someone, somewhere, is trying their darnedest on my behalf – and on behalf of our whole reeling, traumatized, struggling, bruised world. Echoes of familiar reassurance fill me with hope: we have the very best meilitz yosher in the house. And the very best sweet noodle kugel waiting for us at home, to help make it all go down a little bit easier.
The writer has a master’s degree in education from Harvard University and lives in the suburbs of Philadelphia with her husband of 30 years. More at lisajwise.com. She is working on an essay collection about family legacy, loss, laughter and living fearlessly with third-generation lymphoma.