Rabbi Cohen’s Yom Kippur Yizkor 5777 Sermon – “Trying to Remember Her Voice”

Yom Kippur Yizkor Service 5777
October 12, 2016
Rabbi Heidi M. Cohen

Trying to Remember Her Voice


I keep trying to remember the sound of my Gramma Thelma’s voice. I remember things she would say to me, like I was her little ba’lei busta, or how we would spend time together in her home in Las Vegas baking. The best thing she taught me to bake was her cinnamon twists! We would spend an afternoon baking and icing. She would then line the biggest shoebox she could find with foil and fill the box! I would carry it out of her house and back into our car for the long ride back to Denver. Let’s just say the cinnamon twists never made it out of Nevada!

But her voice, I can’t remember her voice for some reason. I want to hear it and let it’s warmth wash over me – but the tone is just not there.

Now my Aunt Sallie on the other hand, her voice I remember! It was a commanding yet high voice. When she spoke, you listened and obeyed! I can still hear the ringing of her voice the day my Mom and I ditched the family at a hotel in Los Angeles. We were visiting for a cousin’s wedding and we had a few hours before the reception that night. Mom and I decided to go up to the then University of Judaism to check out the campus. As we left, we had a choice, either we could turn south and head back to the hotel or go north and head to Six Flags. The new Viper rollercoaster had just opened and Mom and I were not ones to forego riding a rollercoaster with loops! There were no cell phones, so we couldn’t call my Dad and Aunt Sallie to tell them what we were up to. We just put the roof down on the rented red convertible, kept an eye out for cops, and quickly made our way to Six Flags. We stopped at the local mini-mart, grabbed two cans of 7-Up, because there was a coupon for Six Flags, called my dad from the payphone, and headed into the park. The line was only an hour long, the coaster was amazing and we had to buy the picture they took of us screaming and laughing because no one would believe that we just went to Six Flags to ride a rollercoaster – or maybe they would because they know us!

We got back to the hotel, 15 minutes before we had to leave. We could hear Aunt Sallie yelling at us from the Lobby! “What were you two thinking!?! We’re going to be late!” We promised her we wouldn’t, got dressed and made it to the reception right on time. But wow! Can I still hear her voice from the lobby!

There are those who have woven their thread into the fabric of our being. There are some whose voices remain clear and those who we can only see in our mind’s eye. Memories wash over us sometimes like a gentle stream and sometimes like a tidal wave. And this is one of those moments.

Yizkor, zachor, to remember. The moment we take to hold on to those who are no longer with us. The moment we strive to remember as much as we can about their lives and the moments we shared with them.

Take a moment:
Close your eyes, think about a loved one you want to remember.
Allow their face to come into view.
Think about a moment, or a place.
Allow yourself to drift back to that moment that you cherish so much in your memory.
Allow yourself to be in that time to recall your loved one.
Sometimes we remember sounds, smells, colors.
Hold on to whatever you can within that memory.
Don’t worry about every small detail, hold on to the moment.

            I have this recurring dream and I wonder if it is a real memory or not. It’s about my Uncle Jay who lived in Florida – my Gramma Thelma’s brother. He had the most gentle hands. In my dream I remember his hand holding mine and walking down the street in Miramar, Florida, toward a carnival or street fair. There is not much more to the dream, just our walking hand in hand to this place. His hands were always so soft, not hard or rough. His voice was gentle and kind. In my memory, he was soft spoken. I hear a voice, and I believe that it is his voice. I don’t know if all the attributes are right about him, but at least they are my remembrances of him. They are my narration of his story. And this is part of the story that I share with Yoni as he is becoming Bar Mitzvah in a few weeks and he is Uncle Jay’s namesake. There are so many moments and memories I hope to share with Yoni so that he carries not only his name but the blessings of the memories Uncle Jay shared with us while he was here.

All of our loved ones have a story to share. Our job is to listen and then to be the tellers of these stories so they pass on from one generation to the next.

I am blessed as a rabbi – I get to be the weaver of so many stories. In 18 years I have heard so many blessed memories about loved ones from this community. I have been honored to sit with many of you in times of grief as you pour over the memories when your loved one passes. Furiously I write notes, always amazed I’m able to read my own secret shorthand when I get home. You entrust me to become the storyteller and capture the images of your loved ones you hold so dear. I am the weaver; I am the one who takes the threads you present in an array of colors and textures and I get to weave them into the tapestry that is your loved one. And gratitude fills my heart and soul when I am able to present the finished piece and see as you nod recalling that moment you so recently shared. I am told I give you a gift by doing this, but really, the gift is mine because you share with me these precious moments. And from the tapestry I weave for each family, I in turn sew together a quilt. It is a patchwork of stories and lives all woven together as a piece of the fabric of history. And it is so beautiful!

And then there are the moments, before someone passes that we are able to capture the memories laid out before us.

Our congregation lost two loving people who were the foundation of our history and a part of today.

Bernie Glasser was 92 years old when he passed in June. He was the longest living member of Temple Beth Sholom. Bernie left New York after both his parents died and his brother was stationed in Costa Mesa at the Army Air Base. He joined TBS in 1946, when the congregation was only three years old and there was only a very small Jewish community in Orange County. He tried going to Long Beach with his friends, as there was a larger community there and easier to find Jewish girls to date. Life here in Orange County was not easy as a Jew. There was anti-Semitism and people equated the Anti Defamation League, the ADL, with Communism. Bernie met Sam Hurwitz who owned a men’s clothing store in Santa Ana and was one of the founding members of TBS. Bernie recalled a few years ago how he was introduced to Bluma, his wife and love of his life. [Audio plays]

Bernie was a living historical vault for Jewish Orange County and Temple Beth Sholom in particular. Fortunately, we have these recorded memories and history that can be shared for generations to come. To hear his voice and how he told the stories was such a gift and one that we should share and never lose.

Then there was Shirley Lefkowitz who passed away in May. For anyone who knew Shirley, she had a voice that you definitely listened to! I think she and my Aunt Sallie would have been great friends – strong and feisty women!

Shirley would see me, knowing that I keep a kosher home, and let me know about some great meat she saw at the Kosher Market. Or, did I know I could get certain kosher products at Trader Joes? Or, give me a recipe for something delicious. She was an opinionated woman who was not afraid to speak her mind about anything and everything! And because it was Shirley, you listened and nodded. But life was not something to be taken too seriously. She had many Shirley’isms, including – “If you don’t laugh a little, you may as well dig a hole and go into the ground.”

When Shirley was in the hospital, I went to visit her and she said, ‘I’m glad you’re here, I have to tell you my eulogy.’

You don’t get the opportunity to actually have someone tell you what they want said at their funeral, and yes, it might seem a bit odd, but in many ways, it was also comforting.

At first, I took out a notebook and pen – my usual eulogy note taking tools. But something inspired me to take out my phone and ask Shirley if she wouldn’t mind if I recorded her. ‘Of course, do what you want,’ she told me. This allowed me to sit and really listen to her and hear her stories and history, especially about how TBS became involved in mitzvah projects, especially in feeding the homeless long before Mitzvah Meals. [Audio plays]

And we cannot forget Shirley’s Yiddish curses. While I visited with her in Orange Hills she told me Norm Rosen was going to come by and record her Yiddish curses but I couldn’t resist the opportunity. Again, I took out my phone and recorded her, especially her favorite – may you be like an onion, with your head in the ground and your feet in the air! This is her favorite!

For both Bernie and Shirley I was able to give their families a gift. Not only the weaving of a eulogy on the day of each funeral, but a recording from each of them. There is something about being able to hear their voices and listen as they tell their own story.

Almost all of us have a phone that record. And the quality is actually pretty decent. How many of us wish we could still hear the voices of our loved ones for whom we have no recording? But now, this does not have to be an issue for the next generation. We can leave these recordings or help make them so that we don’t lose this most precious piece of memory.

Earlier I said I couldn’t remember my Gramma’s voice and how much I wished I could hear it again. As with all my sermons, Mom get’s the first draft. When she read this one she remembered a drawer in her house containing a number of cassette tapes. For those who don’t know what that is, this was a recording method used before CDs, DVDs and MP3s. You need a special listening device that will not only record on to a magnetic tape encased in small rectangular shaped piece of plastic, but you will need this said device to also listen to these tapes. Fortunately, we have a friend who still has one of these devices because my Mom brought with her for the High Holy Days some of the tapes my Gramma recorded. Gramma didn’t write us letters from Florida to Colorado. Instead she recorded tapes for us and when the tape was full, sent them on to us to listen to. Matt’s been digitizing these recordings and I randomly came across this recording. [Audio plays]

In case you could not understand it, this was a grandmother’s guilt trip to us, her grand daughters who were all of 4 and 10 years old. She wanted to make sure that we didn’t forget to say “hello Gramma” on the tapes my mom was recording back to her because she so loves to hear our voices.

I must admit, the voice I remember in my mind was not the one on the tape, but it still rings familiar deep down inside.

Unfortunately, we sometimes feel like we have all the time in the world and that we can just do it tomorrow because we are too busy today. But tomorrow comes too quickly and the moment is gone. So before that moment is here, grab the phone, turn on the voice recorder and capture the stories and voices of our loved ones. Listen to their stories so that we not only become the storytellers, but so that we are able to let their voices continue into the future.

From the moment we listen to a baby cry when she is born to the hearing the last breath when he dies, we need to listen and be present. There are too many moments that are gone before we realize how significant they are. May our ears always be open to listening, to Shema, and receiving the gifts of a life well lived and may our lips speak the wisdom entrusted to us to share it with those of this generation and generations to come.



One Response to Rabbi Cohen’s Yom Kippur Yizkor 5777 Sermon – “Trying to Remember Her Voice”

  1. Jeff Merkow October 14, 2016 at 9:54 pm #

    Extraordinary. What a true gift. So well crafted. You captured the essence of Yizkor and took me on a memorable journey with my dad. So much love. Thank you.