Friday, May 03, 2024

Frankfurt memorbuch   1,400 Yizkors


The Frankfurt Memorbuch was inaugurated in 1711 after the previous one was burned in a fire. Currently housed at the National Library of Israel, it is an enormous book that weighs nearly 30 pounds, with 5,726 entries plus multiple prayers written on 1,073 pages of parchment. 

Memorbuchs like the one from Frankfurt were once a fixture in many Askenazic synagogues; the earliest extant copy of one, the Nuremberg Memorbuch, was composed in the late 1200’s. They listed people who had donated specifically to have prayers recited for their souls after their death. (Sometimes the families of the deceased would offer a posthumous donation to have their relatives listed.) New names would be added on an ongoing basis; and on specific Shabbats and Holidays, the book would be read from during the service and prayers recited for those inscribed.

Yet the Memorbuch is no historical relic. Yehuda Galinsky has shown that the current Ashkenazic Yizkor service is simply a variation on the Memorbuch prayers; this change, which took place in the 1400s, shifted Yizkor from the prayer leader to the individual congregant, allowing them to pray for whomever they chose to. 

Unfortunately, the shift to a personal Yizkor left significant prayers behind. The Memorbuch also contained regular prayers for historical figures. This included rabbis such as Rabbeinu Gershom and Rashi, as well as an exhaustive registry of martyrs who had died “al Kiddush Hashem,” murdered because they were Jewish. 

The Nuremberg Memorbuch, (as well as all subsequent Memorbuchs,) contains a lengthy town-by-town list of martyrs from the First Crusade in 1096, the Rintfleisch massacres in the summer of 1298, and the Black Death massacres of 1349. The list includes obscure villages that otherwise have been forgotten to history; but Jews once lived in these places, only to be murdered by their neighbors. In Eggolsheim, five families were killed in 1298; in Niesten and Stubenberg, the Jews of the community were burned to death. The Nuremberg Memorbuch is the only remaining memorial to their lives.

The Memorbuch transformed the consciousness of Ashkenazic Jewry. Debra Kaplan explains that it created a common heritage for diverse communities, and linked generations together in a shared history. German communities in the early 1900’s were still reading the names of those who were martyred in Worms and Mainz 800 years earlier; for them, the names of the past were not part of the past at all. 

Collective memory is central to Judaism; the root for memory, zachor, appears over 200 times in the Tanakh. It offers a way of bridging the past and present, for every generation to envision themselves standing alongside their ancestors, reliving their history. But the names and mini-biographies of the Memorbuch take this a step further; written in tears, they speak of these massacres with a combination of defiance and love. 

Even in the short, terse inscriptions about the early martyrs, one can see the rage bubbling underneath. One such line about the city of Worms tells of “Master Shemaryah who was buried alive, and whose wife, sons, and daughters were slaughtered.” 

These words cry out for justice. Medieval Jews may have been relatively powerless, but they remained steadfastly proud. The authors of the Memorbuch refused to make peace with the injustice of antisemitism. 

And later generations promised that they would remember. The names of the martyrs were repeated in synagogues far and wide, even centuries later. Memory became the vehicle for a communal embrace, an act of tenderness that declared “love is as strong as death.”

After the Holocaust, the Memorbuch returned. Small groups of survivors worked tirelessly to create Yizkorbuchs dedicated to telling the story of the communities destroyed by the Nazis. They felt an intense sense of urgency; they were the only ones who could still tell the story. Collections of these books are found in multiple libraries, calling to the reader to remember the Jews of long-lost communities. 

October 7th and its aftermath has brought 1,400 heartbreaking Yizkors to the world. The victims of this massacre and war are disproportionately young, revelers at a music festival, soldiers on the front lines, and Kibbutz families. Over 100 children have been orphaned. In Nir Oz, Tamar and Yonatan Kedem-Siman Tov and their three young children, 6-year-old twin girls Shahar and Arbel, and 4-year-old son Omer, were burned alive in their home, along with Yonatan’s mother, Carol Siman Tov. For 1,400 tragedies like this, an ordinary Yizkor no longer suffices.

This Pesach, Rabbi Shlomo Brody published a list naming each person who has fallen since October 7th, along with a new prayer in their memory. This was, as he called it, a time for a “communal memorial prayer.” Our congregation found this to be profoundly meaningful. Hopefully, one day someone will be inspired to compose a new Yizkorbuch, one dedicated to the memory of those who have fallen in this depraved pogrom. 

But even that is not enough. 

On the surface, Yizkor is a prayer that makes little sense. Yet its very oddness is the source of its spiritual brilliance, and it is a prayer that makes unique demands of us. 

How does one imagine that their acts of charity and prayer here on earth can accrue to the souls of the dead? Some critics dismissed this practice as improper. Abraham Bar Hiyya, a Jewish Philosopher in early 12th-century Spain criticized the idea as follows: 

The decrees of the world to come are not conditional and therefore there can be no repentance after death….the dead know nothing and have no choice between right and wrong. This is why the actions of one's descendants after death can make no difference to the dead man….

Rabbi Reuven Margolies quotes a similar complaint from an anonymous medieval responsa: “There is no question that good deed performed for the dead neither helps nor saves them, for each person is judged according to who they were at death, according to the level of their soul as it leaves their body…”

However, a defense of Yizkor is offered by the Sefer Chasidim. It explains that the past continues to influence the present. If a person educates their children to do good deeds, then even years later those deeds can be attributed to the parent as well. An act of charity years after someone passes on can still be considered their doing.

This answer still leaves me uneasy. But despite that, it contains a powerful spiritual insight: we must serve as the legacy of those who are gone. Our actions can fulfill their lost dreams. Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address, (which is perhaps the best Yizkor homily ever written,) offers precisely this thought:

It is for us the living, … to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is … for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.

When saying 1,400 Yizkors, we must resolve to do the same. They have left behind much unfinished work in a terribly imperfect world. And we must vow to carry on their unfinished legacy: to care for their families, rebuild their communities, and ensure that the future of Israel and the Jewish people is brighter than ever before. 

In their memory, we must declare: Am Yisrael Chai. That is the legacy of 1,400 Yizkors.

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