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Yizkor, Book: On Yom Kippur, Offering a Blessing for the Life and Death of Books

On Yom Kippur, a day of remembrance, offering a blessing for the life and death of books

Joshua Cohen
October 06, 2011
Ron Regé Jr.
Ron Regé Jr.
Ron Regé Jr.
Ron Regé Jr.

Yizkor, meaning “remembrance,” is a prayer said four times a year: on Yom Kippur and Shmini Atzeret, and on the final days of Pesach and Shavuot. On Yom Kippur you ask forgiveness of sin; on Shmini Atzeret you close indoors the New Year’s reflection, asking for a greater outdoors to come, for good rain ensuring good harvest; on Pesach—commemorating the Exodus—you celebrate freedom from enslavement; on Shavuot—commemorating the giving/receiving of the law—you celebrate the culmination of that freedom in a more positive indenture—to the commandments. After which, on all four days, you remember.

It’s a telling textualization of Judaism that it’s not a sacrifice or magical act but the embalmed formality of Yizkor—“May God remember the soul of my father/mother, who has gone on to his/her reward”—that has become the primary communication between a living person and his or her deceased. Talmud tells us that the soul, though eternal, is subject to conditions that can be bettered—death cannot be worsened—through two responsibilities undertaken by a surviving heir: charity and righteous deeds. Yizkor enacts one—prayer as deed—while promising the other: “I shall give charity on my father’s/mother’s behalf.”

Zealous in our memory, we should be equally zealous with regard to our memorious technologies. By which I mean we mourners assembled to pronounce this rare prayer should be more charitable toward the fate of the book from which we read it (the word for that book is Mahzor, meaning “cycle”). The quasicyclical scroll was cut for the supersessionary codex, or book, whose materials have been sliced free, into omnimateriality, for screens (whose ancestor, the parochet or “veil,” screened the offerings of Judaism’s first worship). For modern Judaism, however, the codex—which began mass production in the late 1400s, the period of Europe’s most extensive Jewish expulsions—must be the terminant technology, unless electronic tablets, on which all information is egalitarianly accessible and divinely transitive, are to be raised above the congregation.

Keeping faith with the consolations of cycles, of recurrence (Mahzor’s root is chzr, meaning “return”), is the last ritual practice of a Judaism that has abandoned the Sabbath and dietary strictures, God and afterlife, etc. Such a belief, solely in the regulating merit of belief, is embodied not only in the Jewish books—read septennially, annually, monthly, weekly, daily—but also in books in general, if they are read not as commodities, rather as enduring resources (that timeless calendar, the canon).

Only last week, avoiding shul for Rosh Hashanah, I reread Rosenzweig’s Star of Redemption, Buber’s letters, read the Internet. What did I find? The Death of Books! The End of Books! Today—if you read what is written today—all books seem to be “memory books” (“yizkor buch,” which is Yiddish, indicates a volume memorializing the dead of a particular shtetl or region ravaged by the Holocaust, e.g., the Sefer Marmarosh, which catalogs the names of my cousins in an area including Hungary, Romania, and Ukraine, or the Sárospatak Book, which lists the names of closer relatives from Hungary).

Remembrance, at every instance, threatens an ultimate recursion: We remember so regularly until we’re only remembering we’re remembering. It’s not just the Internet. Recent print media seem to consist entirely of pieties about the death of print media and the inevitable ascension of the digital. Just as our prayerbooks seem to consist entirely of prayers that—though they’re said to be, should be, dedicated to saving our and our relations’ souls—spend the preponderance of their sentences and stanzas mortifying man and praising God. Unwilling to praise or mortify, incapable of salvation, following Rosh Hashanah I wrote the following Yizkor for bookery. Epigraphs as epitaphs, they comprise a page to print and slip between the relevant pages of your Mahzor—for when memory becomes too painful because too rote, or too remote from Yizkor’s words (just as all contemporary words have become too remote from their inscribing).

May there never come a future in which a secret can be hidden in a book.

May there never come a future when a child will have to search for what a book is on the computer. For what a book was.

Once books go and with them, covers, may we still find meaning in the words binding and bound.

May we still find comfort in the margin.

Consider the archaic English: boke. As in Chaucer, at the conclusion of Canterbury Tales, disavowing “the boke of Troilus, the boke also of Fame, the boke of the five and twenty Ladies, the boke of the Duchesse, the boke of Seint Valentines day of the Parlement of briddes.” It’s like book, only in past tense.

Blessed is the page, for it is more fraught than the screen. Reading a page, you always know there’s a page you’re not reading just on the other side.

Blessed are the bookmarks: (personal) envelopes, pencils and pens, an ermine’s baculum, my father’s/mother’s expired driver’s license, a scrap of a dead neighbor’s ex libris on which I scribbled the word bibliothanatos, (historical) Mao had bookmarks produced featuring his sayings, “Be serious, be active,” bamboo bookmarks from Nepal, cornhusks from Czechoslovakia, American bookmarks manufactured as advertisements for Heinz in the warty shapes of pickles. Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) first popularized bookmarks. The term now characterizes a computer function that holds a webpage detailing the life of Elizabeth.

Consider Revelation, the last book of the New Testament. Leave it to the goyim to end with Apocalypse. Moses and YHVH—our earliest professional writers of fiction—and even the deity’s amateur “son,” who only wrote once, one illegible word dug into sand (John 8)—would never have allowed it.

Reward with a girlfriend my friend H., a junior librarian from a fine family of Los Angeles. His recent email mentions his databasing nearly 30 books called “The Last Book,” or a variation on that title.

Grant the justice/splendor of the smell of books, which is merely the smell of dust. This, like all sameness, instructs in mortality. After the book is composed, it decomposes. That (and other reasons) is why there are multiple copies.

Grant the meek/radiant feel of books (haptics is the current term): the texture, the heft in hand. Note for posterity that if you closed your eyes and ran your fingers over a page you could tell which parts of that page were blank and which held ink. Words were palpable, words felt palpable, until the advent of recycling and digital printing (blot forever the 1990s).

Find repose among the taste of books. Find peace from, in a singularly impractical coinage, their “mannaism.” It’s said that monks poisoned the pagetips of forbidden books to punish their readers. It’s said that rabbis placed honey there at the tips to encourage students to lick and go forward. To lick and proceed. Consider however that when the lesson was finished and the book was shut, the honeyed pages would stick together. Consider however that such slavish adherence to factuality would be our own destruction. Woe to the generation that cannot tell stories. Woe to the generation that cannot be told stories.

Joshua Cohen was born in 1980 in Atlantic City. He has written novels (Book of Numbers), short fiction (Four New Messages), and nonfiction for The New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, London Review of Books, The Forward, n+1, and others. He is the recipient of the 2022 Pulitzer Prize in fiction, for The Netanyahus: An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family. He lives in New York City.

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