Every year with the approach of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, a certain anxious reluctance creeps over me. It’s not the introspection that worries me, nor the solemnity, nor the fasting, nor the hours of services. It’s not even the making of peace with anyone to whom I might owe amends.

No – what gives me pause is the yizkor (memorial) booklet that’s compiled for the afternoon service on Yom Kippur. For a small donation to my synagogue, I can include the names of my parents in this booklet. Given that I’m a longtime congregant whose parents are both deceased, this would appear to be a straightforward matter. Yet I struggle each year as if newly faced with a baffling choice.

When I was growing up, domestic violence wasn’t thought to exist in the Jewish community. But my father was a batterer, physically attacking my mother, me, and my three sisters on many occasions. Dad also had trouble tolerating me personally. A college dropout, he was irked by my devotion to school, which he felt showed a lack of imagination. Perhaps more to the point, Dad didn’t appreciate my open disdain for him about his violent outbursts.

Mom, too, was destructive. During my childhood and adolescence, she’d cry bitterly after my father’s explosive attacks, but she didn’t seem to grasp that we girls also needed comfort and protection. She, too, would impulsively hit and condemn us. On a number of occasions she talked of “hating” several of us. Apology was not in her range, nor in Dad’s. Since neither parent was a drinker, there was no sobering up afterwards.

I’m sure neither Mom nor Dad would mind my skipping the yizkor booklet; they put little value on Jewish practice. Besides, they’d both understand my balking at the pamphlet’s florid italics: “In loving memory of ...” heading the left-hand side of each page, “Remembered by …” on the right. My parents knew they weren’t easy people.

But I want to acknowledge their passing in the Jewish tradition. Having grown up without much that was emotionally grounding or orienting, Jewish belonging is deeply important to me. I just don’t want to have to don a false self in order to belong; I don’t want to pretend to have come from privilege. What do I mean by privilege, in this context? I mean a loving family.

*

Mom and Dad divorced when I was a young teenager and we mostly lived with Mom. She didn’t seem to want us around, yet the slightest hint of allegiance to Dad, even our making scheduled visits, would send her into either a rage or a crying jag. A few years later, during a bout of acute emotional instability, Mom evicted us kids from the family home so that she could rent out the house and escape. She had given little thought to what would become of us.

My father stepped in and sued for custody, and though barely employed, he won at a time when it was highly unusual for fathers to be awarded custody. Mom had chosen to abandon us, but was nevertheless bitter about the court’s decision. For years afterward, she held a grudge against me and my sisters for going to live with Dad.

As a young adult, I couldn’t bear the idea that my childhood – and then the divorce and its toxic aftermath – would provide the last word about our family. So I kept in close contact with Mom and Dad, both of whom lived in Berkeley. My mother was still miserable and blaming, and accused me of disingenuousness for trying to have a relationship with her. My father remained disappointed in me; college, marriage, and Jewish identification all seemed to him evidence of my conformism, as did my published work, which he refused to read. I soldiered on, calling and visiting often.

One of my sisters had a newborn, and I was about to give birth to my first baby, when Mom once again decided to leave us. She couldn’t stand the prospect of our including my father as Grandpa at family gatherings, she said. So she sold our longtime family home in Berkeley and moved to New York.

She did visit every now and then, and she loved her grandchildren, especially when they were little. She became more loving and appreciative of me and my sisters over time – in between frequent bouts of indifference, neediness, and destructiveness. As for amends, she felt everything she’d ever done had been justified; though she knew she’d been a hurtful mother, she would always invoke the excuse of having been Dad’s victim. One time when she accompanied me to a Yom Kippur service, she told me there was nothing in her life she needed to atone for.

Dad never acknowledged that he’d been violent or inappropriate, and when confronted, he denied it. He had no regrets, he said; regret was a waste of time. I continued to weather his snide remarks about my accomplishments, my Jewish affiliation, my parenting. He, too, loved his grandchildren.

I invited my parents to my holiday gatherings, included them in my kids’ events, took them to medical appointments, and helped my mother move five times. I was confident that it was worth it – that I could afford what it cost me.It is only since my parents’ deaths that I’ve begun to realize how much I overspent.

*

Last year, when confronted once again with the yizkor booklet conundrum, I hit a wall. Whereas in the past I’d felt vaguely ashamed of my ambivalence, suddenly I resented the ostentation of in loving memory. Why was the flaunting of this kind of “wealth” – the wealth of having come from a loving family – not only tolerated, but encouraged? “Check your privilege,” I wanted to shriek at the donation form, thinking of a Tumblr idiom my kids had told me about.

Instead of shrieking, I e-mailed my rabbi and explained that I was having difficulty with the language in the booklet, that I wanted my authentic self to be accepted and welcomed in my community. Might she consider tweaking the wording, I asked, so that the header on each page would read simply In memory of … rather than In loving memory of …?

To my surprise and delight, my rabbi wrote back saying she thought my suggestion made the yizkor pamphlet more inclusive. She’d already implemented the change. She thanked me.

*

At the break-the-fast meal in the social hall, I saw a fellow congregant with whom I’d had conversations in the past about our hurtful deceased parents. I shared with her how highly charged the yizkor booklet decision was for me each year. “I know,” she commiserated. “I just skip it.”

We laughed to recall the assistant rabbi’s witty announcement of the deadline for the booklet: “Again, that’s this coming Wednesday,” he had intoned, “and if you don’t get the names in by then, your family member will be forgotten.” My friend and I rolled our eyes, not even needing to joke out loud about having parents we sometimes wanted to forget.

When I told her what had happened with the wording of the booklet, her eyes grew wide. “Wow, you’re kidding?!” she exclaimed. “Next year, my parents can go in.”

Just a few weeks later, my synagogue mailed me an announcement of the upcoming anniversary of my father’s death. “The yahrzeit of your loved one …” it began.

I had to laugh.

A shorter version of this essay originally appeared at www.jweekly.com.

Lisa Braver Moss is an essayist, novelist, and the co-author, most recently, of Celebrating Brit Shalom, the first-ever book for Jewish families opting out of circumcision. Since her first article ran in Tikkun in 1990, her work has appeared in Parents, Lilith, the Huffington Post, and many other publications.


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