September 21, 2018
Finding Each Other in Memory
It was a year ago last night, Kol Nidre. Services had just ended, and I was standing on the stage of David Geffen Hall, greeting congregants and gathering my belongings, when a man walked up to me and extended his hand. I was very tired from fasting and singing for so many hours, but I was about to greet him in the usual way—“thank you so much for being with us tonight, may your fast be easy” … Instead, he spoke first. He said, “I’m Marty Allen, and I want to tell you that the memory of Julia Berolzheimer is alive and well in you.”
The air between us crackled. My mouth opened, and for a moment I was completely speechless. This apparent stranger had invoked the name of my great grandmother, my namesake, a woman I had never met. In an instant, my exhaustion evaporated, and I wanted to know everything. Who was Marty? How did he know my great-grandmother? And most importantly, what did he mean by saying her memory was living in me?
Julia Berolzheimer, my paternal great grandmother, was a feminist before Feminism was a thing. She was a business woman—and the only woman on her school board. And most importantly to me, for many years she actively volunteered in her Reform congregations,in a Chicago suburb and then on the west coast of Florida, conducting their choirs. I have this fantasy that Julia would have been a cantor if that choice had been available to women back then. I am the first and, so far only, cantor in my family, and feeling connected to my great-grandmother has made me feel more connected, that I’m part of a bigger legacy and longer story. And here was Marty, confirming what I had long hoped—that I was carrying out the dreams of my namesake.
All of this came rushing into my head when he spoke her name. He explained that he was a childhood friend of my father’s. He knew my father’s two siblings, and remembered their parents well, too. In other words, he gave me enough information to assure me that he was exactly who he said he was—a beloved friend of my father’s family from another era, whose son was now a congregant at Central. I told him how moved I was to hear all of this, and we chatted for awhile. At the end of the conversation I asked him, “Do you really think I’m like her? I always thought she would have become a cantor if she lived in another time.” To which Marty replied, “Actually, I didn’t really know her that well, I just wanted to get your attention.”
But when we said goodbye, I was still dazed with wonder. It didn’t matter that Marty didn’t know Julia well. When he evoked her name, I instantly felt more connected to my roots. Who knows if my great grandmother actually wanted to be a cantor? The factual truth of that doesn’t actually matter to me in the end. What matters is that my knowledge of her presence on this earth inspires me. What’s more, by uttering her name, Marty had drawn an invisible line of connection between us. We went from strangers to family, and what might have been a surface exchange became a sacred conversation.
So may it be with all of us as we gather for this yizkor service. Our memories are ours, and we can hold them, and let them inspire us in whatever ways serve us best. And we can share them with each other, because we never know how our stories might help or move someone else. Marty didn’t know that his relationship with my great grandmother, however fleeting, would carry such meaning decades later when he chose to share it with me. Our stories can tie us to one another in deep and indelible ways. Over the coming days, as we break our fasts and move back into the daily rhythm of our lives, let us to talk to each other about those we’ve lost. Recount what was hilarious, what was tender, what was challenging. Talk about what’s true. Listen to the truth of others. May our memories inspire us. May we comfort, and be comforted, by the people we never knew who live inside us, by the people we lost whom we still miss, and the community that surrounds us.
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