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My First Yizkor

After my mother died, I stopped writing. I couldn’t start again until I understood what loss I was mourning.

by
Judy Batalion
June 11, 2024

It’s Yom Kippur 1982, a sunny September morning in Montreal. I’m at synagogue with my grandparents, wearing a blush-colored dress with a bib of cream frills, sucking hard Life Savers I’ve fished out of my bubbie’s linty pockets. Around me, they chant lullingly, peacefully, until suddenly: The children must leave the room. It’s time for Yizkor. In my Holocaust-survivor community, this memorial service is attended by those whose parents are dead, many murdered during the war. This is a horribly, terribly, sad service, and we children are absolutely not allowed to be in the room. My grandmother frantically pushes my cousins and me out of the sanctuary to search for my mother. Mom rarely comes to synagogue but after a few minutes, characteristically late, she saunters into the lobby. She carries a large, beige purse and her brown hair is long and thin (to her dislike) and it dances through the air, like her laughter does, little operettas surfing on the edge of the wind. She’s come to take my cousins and me to the park.

Outside, the cousins follow Mom like she’s a pied piper because she tells wonderful stories and speaks softly, and that laughter—birdsong. Pure life. Her laughter thickens the air so that, like an airplane, we can all glide along with it, safe. We play in the playground, and I enjoy watching Mom from afar, children falling in and out of her lap. And then on the monkey bars I begin to panic. How will we know when Yizkor is over? How can we be sure it’s safe to go back? I do not want to enter this forbidden chamber of horror. I do not want to go into that room.

I think about this episode on another unusually crisp day, an April morning on the last day of Passover, 41 years later, in downtown Manhattan. This time, I am running to synagogue because my mother—with the long, thin hair, the storyteller, the cousins spilling from her lap, the woman who was always late, with the flaws and foibles and feats and the laughter that waltzed through the air like the cotton of poplar trees—is now dead. My mother is dead. It is my turn to enter the dreaded room.

My mother died and I stopped writing. Anything. Even texts. Emojis were the best I could do, and they were few and far between. This was not like me, whose last book was 500 pages in its shortened version. But I lost my words. I could not even read. My grief manifested in myriad ways: falling asleep on my kitchen floor in the afternoon, a terror of turbulence, waves of nausea that made me retch, turning my insides out as if ridding a toxin. I lost weight. I felt cold. And here was another: total verbal blockage.

Yet, five months after her death, I corralled my strength to compose an email to my rabbi. Jewish leaders disagree over whether one should attend Yizkor during the first year of mourning; some feel it is too difficult. I was a devout cultural Jew who had never before approached clergy for halachic guidance, but now I asked: Should I enter the room?

My mother, born in 1945 during my grandparents’ flight from the Nazis, had lived a difficult life and died a difficult death: a sudden onset of shrill illness, misdiagnosis, and an infection that developed at the hospital that ate away at her organs, which, we discovered after an autopsy, had been ravaged by cancer. I had been commuting between New York and Montreal. Nine weeks after her illness began, the doctor told us she had three months to live. I was flying in that morning to discuss palliative care options; after two months of starvation, would they allow her sips of vanilla ice cream? One minute after I arrived at her hospital bed with my Rollaboard, she died. I said hello, but I never said goodbye. There was no closure.

“Write about it,” my husband suggested. I’ve written so much about my mother—even a book about our complicated relationship, about her severe hoarding and my militant minimalism, her attempts to connect to me with gifts I did not want. I mulled how we approach mental illness in those we love, and who love us, so deeply. I laid it all bare. Was I now unable to write because of my confusion around “death” itself? The idea was baked into every breath of my traumatized, Holocaust-survivor family. Everything was fatal, from manicures (botulism!) to lip gloss (petroleum poisoning!); and yet, conversations about dying somehow never featured.

But it wasn’t the concept. I could not write about my mom’s death because, as I began to understand only once my mother was gone, I had never actually written about my mother. I had written for her. Each sentence I scribbled, from geography essays on my Apple IIc to history manuscripts, was for Mom. She line-edited my dot-matrix printouts and later, my book galleys, even when she was the main character. Especially when she was the main character. And now, my primary audience was no longer on this earth.

The rabbi replied right away, startling my inbox. Yes. Come. Come to all four Yizkor services this year—Yom Kippur, Shemini Atzeret, Passover, and Shavuot. (Yizkor, he explained, is said on holidays when the family gathers and the dead are particularly missed.) I immediately thought: He saw in me someone who needed it. As a secular Jew, I historically went to services only on Yom Kippur and for bar mitzvahs (and even then, I skipped out early to secure a good spot for the hors d’oeuvres). But when my mother died, I began to say the Mourner’s Kaddish, a short prayer that a child mourning a parent is meant to say daily amid a congregation for 11 months. The words of the mourner’s prayer (largely praising God and nearly identical to other prayers recited throughout the daily services) didn’t matter to me. What mattered was the recitation. A working mom with three young children, I had to bind my emotions, tie my loose threads tight. But during Kaddish, for 50 seconds a day, I could focus on my sorrow, let my frayed edges unspool. I was commanded to fall apart! I had unexpectedly embraced Jewish practice because, well, I could not find anything else to help me deal with my overwhelming grief.

I was 45. Not young, but not old. My mom had just turned 77. Not old, but not young. Her death was not “a tragedy.” I was the first of my friends to lose her mother. No one had stories to share, and, I sensed, no one wanted to hear. I felt like a pariah, emitting sorrow, an angel of the idea of death. I imagined I reminded them of what was to come. I imagined they could not sit with my sadness. They didn’t know what to say to this version of me that was so evidently pained. They avoided the subject of death, when in fact it was the only thing I wanted to discuss. Our culture doesn’t prepare us, yet I was in no state to make them feel comfortable comforting me. (Once, at a party in a cavernous Mexican restaurant, an acquaintance asked if I missed my mother. I sobbed, so grateful for this simple inquiry.) But mostly, I sensed, friends didn’t want to go into the dreaded room. I understood.

And then, there I was, on my way to synagogue for my first Yizkor. Nervous, I tried to be late, but I was characteristically prompt. I thought back to that day in 1982. My mother was always late; artistic, on another plane, she wasn’t bound by the contract of the clock. I, on the other hand, was pathologically early, doing laps around the block as I waited for meetings and gymnastics pickups. The theory was that my behavior was in reaction to my mother’s. She was late, so I was early. But only after she died did I understand a deeper reason for why I was always so early: It was during those minutes that I called my mother. For decades, once, twice, 10 times a day, that is when we talked, about my children, current events, TV, her artistic analyses changing the way I saw everything around me. In this intense space, the endless cascade of mother-daughter, the hazy metaphoric delta between early and late, was literally where we connected. My mother was not The Event, but the glue between every event, before it all. My interstitial stitches. A shield, a comfort before I took a risk. Now, the time that used to be filled with her words was real “dead time.” My life had become so, so quiet.

It was time to go in. The dreaded room. Fear pounded in my gut. I entered, took a seat at the back. Don’t cry, don’t cry. Right away, I cried.

Yizkor, the rabbi explained, is not about us. Yizkor is for the dead, a prayer to remind God of their virtues. At Yizkor we stress the good qualities of the departed. We are meant to give charity in the spirit of our loved one, to help the world in the way the dead helped the world.

The Yizkor prayer was said silently. I thought about the rabbi’s words. Kaddish, it seemed, was for me, but Yizkor was about my mother … Then again, where was the boundary between me and Mom? I came from her. I was of her. This is why my grief has been so pungent. The waves of nausea that turned my insides out as if I harbored poison made sense. My mother was in me, and so, a part of me, too, had died.

The past April had included not just the Passover Seders, but my birthday. Our birthday. All without my mother for the first time. At the Seder, my elderly father told the room that I had become a writer—which is what my mother had wanted for herself. I’d stopped cold. This had never dawned on me. Certainly, my mother was a brilliant editor; she had published darkly beautiful poetry in her 20s; she was the most well-read person I knew. Yet I had always seen my writing as a rebellion from her. My mother had never been excited by my career choice, pushing me to medicine, the civil service; she wanted me to prioritize my children. But had I in fact become a writer, not to spite her, but because she had wanted to be one?

Was it possible I wrote—not about my mother or for my mother, but as my mother?

Suddenly, the silence was broken by a boom. The entire congregation recited the Mourner’s Kaddish, hundreds of us, loud and firm, connected in our grief, a suffering so much larger than me. For one minute, we all shared a voice, we were all a mess, harmonious and clashing, painfully vulnerable, sick with loss. Alive.

And then, I understood what was in the dreaded room. The same thing that was in the hospital room: my mother’s corpse, her still soft hands, her graying face, her soul deflating from her body, me crying, “Mom, where are you? Where did you go?” until they said they had to take her away, until I realized that the childhood cry—Mommy! Mommy!—would never again be answered. It was just that: We are all part of the cycle, dust to dust, life to life. For we live in each other. The eggs that became my children were inside me when I was inside my mother; a Russian doll of soul. My mother resides in me in the same way that my voice will perpetuate in my children, interlacing the generations. We carry on the projects of our parents, even ones they don’t agree to or know about. A part of me died, but I am also alive for Mom, as my children will be for me. That is what is in the Yizkor room: bare biology.

Afterward, downstairs, there was a kiddush reception featuring end-of-box matzo and schmears. I poured a weak coffee, but unable to make small talk, I left and ran out into the warm sun, the same sun my mother and I shared in 1982. I felt the rays on my skin as I did that day on the monkey bars. I wanted to call her, to tell her about her own death and what it was teaching me. I was sweating, seized by pain: all the conversations we will never have. My grandmother, my mother: No one who sang me lullabies still lives. I must soothe myself. In the heavy quiet of my new life, I understood that there will never be a goodbye, there will never be closure, but I must seek an opening.

I thought of the rabbi’s words: Yizkor is to remember their virtues, to give on behalf of them, as them. Where are you?

Sweetie. She laughed, the poplars. Downtown Manhattan was filled with my mother’s voice, and I ran, my unspooled threads flowing behind me like a veil, a cape. From the great quiet I heard her honeyed tones, braided with my own. I must become it, all of it, and give, for her, for us. Sweetie, I’m here.

At last, I begin to write.

Judy Batalion is the New York Times bestselling author of The Light of Days: The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler’s Ghettos, which won a National Jewish Book Award, as well as White Walls: A Memoir About Motherhood, Daughterhood, and the Mess in Between.

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