My favorite Yiddish proverb translates into, “Memories are all we truly own.” As we approach Yom Kippur Yizkor 5784, why not challenge ourselves in the year we just entered to be active in transforming memories into blessings?
The Jewish response to a death, whether sad in Hebrew or in English, is “May her memory be for a blessing,” or “May his memory be for a blessing,” or “May their memories be for a blessing.” Even many television announcers are inviting a glimpse into their Jewishness by referring to the death of someone they announced with this phrasing in English. The way we say it is more like a prayer, a hope and perhaps a passive aspiration. We may say it as if we are waiting for the memory to magically become a blessing. The blessing may already be there, should already be there, if we but search our hearts.
When the Rotary Club in which I represent my hospital asked me to deliver a short biographical sketch, I highlighted my life journey in terms of some very special persons who helped to shape it, who were there at the right moment, perhaps spiritually-sent interventions, and for whom I am grateful that I heard them when they entered my life. For some, I knew they were no longer alive. For some, I knew they were not Jewish. I knew that did not matter. As Shoshana Pearl wrote in Tablet (January 26, 2021), “May their memory be for a blessing” is “A blessing too good for Jews alone.”
I reflected on Milton Blatt, who died in June 1997, per an internet blog by someone else Mr. Blatt helped to shape. Mr. Blatt was the track coach and guidance counselor at my high school. When my last semester of high school began, my father (Z”L) had just died and I had no idea if college would be a part of my journey. Suddenly, magically, Mr. Blatt appeared to take me out of class and into the guidance office, place an application in front of me, and said, “Complete this, You are going to Baruch.” He knew. I was valedictorian at Baruch four years later. The anonymous blogger who wrote of Milton Blatt said, “His record of championships on the track is surpassed only by his record of college admission and graduation rates — among the highest in New York City Public Schools and a standard for the nation. At a time when the U.S was wrestling with the issues of war, race, women’s rights, equality, dignity and respect, Mr. Blatt was leading the way. Coach Blatt taught us a way of life – about the relationship between dream, effort and result — about priorities and being proud..”
I spoke about Professor Walter E. Nallin (1919-1978), Grand Marshall of Baruch College, Chair of the Music Department, and mentor. When my father died, a friend’s father, wrestling with the common post-mortem motif of, “Is there anything I can do,” called his friend, Doc Nallin, and asked him to look after me at Baruch … and he did.
I talked about Dr. Mortimer Feinberg (1922-2015), Distinguished Professor of Psychology at City University of New York, who inspired me with unique mantra guideposts that I use to this day, such as, “The mind clears when the blood cools.”
In professional chaplaincy, we are taught to challenge ourselves with, “How do you know if you had a good day? How do you know if you had a good patient visit?”
For me, my core litmus test comes when I arrive home, look at the three pictures of my father on my desk, one in his shul choir robe from which he emanated his chazanut voice. I think of dad’s neshama, and I ask, “Dad, did I make you proud of me today?” More than any other factor, my father’s presence, over the seventeen short years that I had him, gave me the sense of Yiddishkeit that I treasure.
As 5784 begins, consider challenging yourself so that whenever you think of someone with, “May ___ memory be for a blessing,” ask yourself, “How is their memory already a blessing to me?”
When we enter our Yom Kippur services, in person or virtually, making the moment sacred, possibly garbed in spiritual white, with mortality and the frailty of life around us, perhaps challenge yourself deeply. In our personal Cheshbon Hanefesh (accounting of our soul in the deepest self-reflection), consider asking yourself, “How may my memory be a blessing to others?”
Three core theological questions are: Who am I? What am I doing here? and What will happen when I am not here anymore? The last question is often reflected self-centeredly, e.g., in terms of a world to come, life after death, etc. I suggest you reflect on that same question externally, “How might the world be different for the good after I am not here anymore because I was here? How can my memory be for a blessing?”
As we think of G-d inscribing our fate in an about-to-be sealed book for the year starting, think also about the book you yourself are writing about yourself, virtually. Bachya ibn Pakuda, 11th Century Rabbi, captured one of the key philosophies of Judaism in his, “Days are like scrolls – write on them what you want to be remembered.”
As for, “Memories are all we truly own,” in 1992 I had it inscribed on the matzevah (cemetery monument) for my first wife, Z”L. May her memory always be a blessing for me.
Barry Pitegoff is a Staff Chaplain at Bon Secours Community Hospital in Port Jervis, New York. Barry enjoyed thousands of hours of volunteer chaplaincy at hospitals, hospices, and prisons while he was vice president of market research for Visit Florida, the state’s tourism board. After retirement, Barry transformed into professional chaplaincy by taking a second Master’s Degree and two years’ of hospital internships. Barry was awarded the title of BCC, Board Certified Chaplain at the May 2019 conference of the NAJC (Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains). In 2020, Chaplain Barry was elected to the Board of NAJC, serves on Chaplain Review Committees, and facilitates a monthly national video call of Jewish hospital chaplains.