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A Blessing Too Good for Jews Alone

‘May their memory be for a blessing’ has its gentile moment during the pandemic

by
Sharrona Pearl
January 26, 2021
Photo: William Rudoff/Flickr Creative Commons
Photo: William Rudoff/Flickr Creative Commons
Photo: William Rudoff/Flickr Creative Commons
Photo: William Rudoff/Flickr Creative Commons

Once I noticed feminist writer Roxane Gay, who is married to a Jew but is a gentile of Catholic heritage, doing it, I knew it was a thing. On Oct. 27, 2020, she responded to the police killing of 27-year-old Philadelphia resident Walter Wallace Jr., by tweeting: “May his memory be a blessing.” I had seen this formulation, the English translation of the traditional Hebrew zichrona livricha, popping up more and more in non-Jewish contexts. Gay, I discovered, had used it herself on twitter on July 8, 2019, to mark the murder of 17-year-old Elijah El-Amin in Peoria, Arizona. But in 2019, it was rare to see it outside the Jewish community, where it was said by Jews about (and to) other Jews. In 2020, that all changed. When Gay used it in October 2020, everyone recognized the phrase. Because, as evidenced by thousands of examples on Twitter alone, it had become a common way for even those outside the Jewish community to mark and honor death.

So, what is going on? Where did this “memory be for a blessing” trend in non-Jewish culture come from? And should it be read as an act of appreciation for Judaism, or as a bit of clueless cultural appropriation—an absorption of an old, deeply Jewish phrase into the bland “Judeo-Christian” mainstream?

Of course, there are many Jewish expressions that have become part of the vernacular, and that Jews have accepted are no longer just our own. No one blinks an eye when people talk about “shtick,” especially done by a “klutz” with a lot of “chutzpah.” But “May his/her/their memory be a blessing” is something different. The phrase has its origins in Hebrew, not Yiddish. It isn’t catchy or pithy. It doesn’t capture a phenomenon or idea or experience in a way that is unavailable in plain English. It’s not funny, it hasn’t been featured in Seinfeld, and it definitely doesn’t evoke Brooklyn or the Upper West Side.

But it does do something else. In a moment of overwhelming, immediate, and constant contact with death, this expression gives people something to say. Something powerful. Something meaningful, with the weight of history and tradition and sincerity behind it. This phrase, this script, which is readily available, offers comfort to those mourning while honoring those they mourn; it is a kind of gift for the digital age. And it feels like a necessity for the pandemic age.

Death is personal and intimate. It is also, for many, newly public, newly abstract, newly something experienced en masse by people you only know online. For Jews, death has always been not only deeply individual but also public and communal. When someone dies, the entire community responds. Jews don’t do death, or ritual, alone. The seven mourning days of shiva are exhausting, but they are also a relief, not least because everyone knows what they are supposed to do. The scripts have already been written.

“May … be for a blessing” is the one that has caught on, but it could have been another. There are a lot of Jewish formulas around death. There is the theologically intense immediate response “baruch dayan ha’emet,” “Blessed is the true judge.” That can be a tough one to hear: Many don’t want to praise a divinity in the midst of deep grief, especially not for causing that very grief. I don’t think BD”H phrase will tip any time soon. There’s also the traditional phrase of comfort offered to mourners, “Hamakom yinachem etchem betoch sha’ar avlei tzion v’yerushalayim,” “May God comfort you among all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” That one is quite specific to the Jewish community, and speaks only to the mourners rather than including those lost. Following the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh in 2018, one could hear “Hashem yikom damo/dama,” God will avenge their blood, a phrase used for fatal victims of anti-Semitism like pogroms and other genocidal attacks.

There are also specific phrases designed to honor the dead, including the lengthy inscription, often found on gravestones, that translates as “May their souls be bound up in the bonds of life.” A more Hasidic response is the wish that “their soul may have an aliyah,” a wish that they should ascend to the next world. While these terms are powerful, they are insular and operate in a specifically Jewish context. They also focus only on the dead or only on the living.

“May their memory be a blessing” speaks to both. It comforts the mourners and honors the memory of those they mourn. It is an active statement that people offer to one another, wishing something for the dead while at the same time acknowledging and maybe easing the pain of the living. It’s not a descriptor. It’s not a sharing of information. It is, itself, a kind of blessing. It’s a kind of injunction. It wishes not only that when the living think about those who have died, they do so with warmth and joy. It also offers the possibility that the lives of the dead serve as a blessing, marking the ways those lives have mattered and continue to matter in this world, even if they are no longer in it.

Of the many available Jewish formulas, it makes sense that this is the one that has stuck. Its framing is vague enough that people who don’t feel connected to a particular religious tradition or divinity might feel comfortable using it, and specific enough that it isn’t just a platitude. It feels like it has the weight of history and community behind it, because it does. But it is available to everyone. And right now, everyone is a mourner.

And, better still, “May their memory be for a blessing” is, it turns out, easily adaptable. After Ruth Bader Ginsburg died, we began seeing the phrase “may her memory be a revolution,” facilitated by Israeli activist Rachel Stomel, who first applied it to George Floyd. The term originally emerged in 2019 in Israel to commemorate those who died by domestic violence, seeking to acknowledge the structural conditions causing these deaths and challenging a narrative of blessing around these murders. This framing has also been used to commemorate the lives of many of the victims of anti-Black racism in the U.S.

But in a way, the two formulations are saying the same thing: In this moment, a revolution is the best—and most necessary—way to make someone’s memory a blessing. This phrase now transcends religious, racial, and ethnic lines. That makes sense. What is more striking, and what must always remain striking, is the sheer number of people who have needlessly died. May their memories be the revolution. May their memories be a blessing.

Sharrona Pearl teaches medical ethics at Drexel University. Her most recent book is Face/On: Face Transplants and the Ethics of the Other. Her work is at sharronapearl.com and she is on Twitter @sharronapearl.

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