The Yizkor Project

a poetry cycle
by Rich Orloff

In the spring of 2022, Rabbi Michael Dolgin of Temple Sinai in Toronto commissioned me to write a series of poems to enhance traditional Jewish liturgy.  Our main focus was the Yizkor service, a memorial service for deceased relatives, one of the prayer services on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). 

The goal was to help create an environment so that one wouldn’t merely recite the names of ancestors or superficially remember them, but to use the service as an opportunity to connect with them and receive their wisdom.

Feel free to share these 18 poems, and if you’re part of a spiritual organization, to use them in any way that benefits your community.  (Please acknowledge me as author.)

The initial poems are designed to deepen one’s experience of Yom Kippur:

A Prayer to Enter Yom Kippur

At this moment
Can you admit
You are who you are

Perhaps the first sin is denial
The second:  the belief that we dare not completely admit who we are
The third: our decision that
Since we could never be inscribed in the Book of Life
As who we really are
We’ll have to find some way to sneak in

We, each of us, miracles of creation
Incomprehensibly complicated
Inevitably compromised

It’s as if we approach life like being accepted
To a prestigious university
That we’re sure made a mistake accepting us

As I begin this sacred ritual
I tell myself I’m willing to be transformed
And I hope I’m not lying to myself

I yearn for my heart to be nourished by love
Yet I hesitate to accept when love is being offered
May this be the first of many admissions

And I pray:
May I look back in a year to this moment
And say yes, that’s who I was then
That is who I was

And as I pray to be more
The Divine sees me and says

A Prayer for Diving into the Muck

As the Days of Awe approach,
A voice inside me tells me:
Don’t rush over the muck!

The muck is where the juicy stuff is
Here you can unearth treasures
Hidden under the cover of mud

Here you will find a large set of keys
Most won’t help you at all
But one will unlock doors to brighter days

Here you will find an old packet of seeds
That if planted in your soil
Can still blossom into beautiful flowers

Here you find remnants of old loves
Pressed in books that have been discarded
But which can still teach and inspire

Here you will find the missing part of your heart
Waiting like a piece of luggage
Whose claim tag you threw away years ago

Here you will also find your shadow
And your shadow’s shadow
Hard coarse rocks that can be buffed into beautiful gems

I pray for the courage to dive into the muck
And to know that anything I discover
Can be washed with my tears until it glistens

A Psalm of Reassurance

There are a lot of false rumors about me
Some spread through ignorance
Some spread by those who have drunk from contaminated wells
And convinced themselves the water is holy

I am not a stern parent waiting to discipline you
I am not a gatekeeper demanding you know the password
I am not demanding you prove beyond a doubt
You deserve to be inscribed in the book of life

If I encourage you to acknowledge your shortcomings
It is only because I’ve seen the suffering lying creates
If you lie to yourself about who you are
How can you ever know the truth about anything

A Prayer about Admitting Sins

The great thing that happens
When I admit my sins to God
Is that God usually replies
“You think I didn’t know that?!”

The purpose of admitting sins
Isn’t to inform God of my sins
But to acknowledge to God
My awareness of them

Hiding is an act of supreme egotism
The belief that you can skillfully pretend
And that God will buy it –
Good luck with that!

Denying sins will keep me stuck exactly where I am
And if I’ve learned anything
It’s that remaining exactly where I am
Is a prayer that’s rarely answered

The Divine wishes to heal the real me
Not the pretend me
If I surrender my defenses
Maybe I can reclaim my soul

The next poems are designed to help people experience Yizkor more fully:

A Prayer to Prepare for the Journey

Here I am
About to enter Yizkor’s door
And I ask myself
Where can this journey take me?

Beyond “before” and “after”
Beyond the restrictions of what I know
Beyond the limits of what can be proven
There is a path to the timeless

Grant me the courage to walk on this path
Let me not be restrained by the narrow part of me
Let me feel the joy of exploration
Let each step be a prayer

Let me not fear the quiet space
Let me not fill it with noise
But listen to the quietest whisper
Carried by the breath of the Divine

This is my prayer
My yearning:
Let me open a path to my heart
So that the Divine can reach me

A Prayer to Begin the Journey

Slow down
This is not a task to be checked off a To Do list
Let us enter holy ground together
Each of us alone
All of us interwoven

Let us begin a journey
To those we love but whose flesh and blood are no longer here
They ask not for us to grieve
But to hear their messages

We are connected to everyone who came before us
Their bodies gone
Their spirit within reach
This is the opportunity of this moment

We feel alone because of our barriers
And the barriers others created around them
Because we learned to blockade ourselves from harm
Because we built walled cities to feel safe

To succeed in our quest, we must
Lower our guard against imagined enemies
Discard the armor of tired assumptions
And move beyond the debris of worn-out stories

Even if we have traveled here before
Let this journey take us on a new path
Let us be willing to be surprised
As we welcome the souls of our ancestors

A Prayer to Cultivate Listening

Remembering my ancestors isn’t enough for me
I can do that on my own time
Remembering only takes me to places I already know
I want to go further

There are souls from my past
Waiting to talk to me
Wishing to heal me with their love
But not willing to fight to get my attention

Let go of thought
Sweetly wave goodbye to expectations
I cannot force my way through this path
I can only clear the field of distractions

To connect
To receive
Be patient

The yearning to connect is a holy desire
And does not end with someone’s death
This is an opportunity to reach beyond our boundaries
And strengthen sacred bonds

The Art of Remembering

How can I honor loved ones who have passed?
How can I transform remembering into more than reminiscing?

I will remember you in all of your dimensions
I will not deny any part of you
I will not ask you to be more than you
I will not work to make you less than you
I will examine my assumptions about you
And strive to look at you with wonder

I promise not to turn you into someone convenient for my purposes
I will acknowledge your beauty
I will admit your flaws
I will give thanks for your gifts
I will grow from your lessons
I will speak of you so that you are no longer a stranger
to those who hear your story

I will seek to see the world through your eyes
I will respect your place in the constellation
I will value how you bridged your ancestors and your descendants

I will make room for the mystery of you
I will allow you to be you
I will thank you for existing

A Prayer to Cultivate Remembering

Let remembering always be an active verb
Not just reminiscing
Not just recalling
But letting the lives of those who came before me
Provide gifts that guide me in times of need

Let me learn from the lessons of my ancestors
But never twist them for my own purposes
Let me acknowledge my origin story
But never be limited by it

Like a tree that sprouts from a seed
Let remembering be an act of growth
Like a flower that blooms
Let remembering be an act of expansion

If my ancestors were generous
Let me find opportunities to follow their example
And if they were not
Let me not be restricted by their wounds

If they were courageous
Let their courage inspire me into action
And if they were not
Let me forgive them

If they were sweet
Let their sweetness bathe me in times of sorrow
If they were lacking
Let me not take joy in judgment

Let remembering serve both me and my ancestors
And transform me into a bridge
Extending blessings from those who came before me

To a thousand generations to come

As Rabbi Dolgin and I explored the project, I asked, “What if some of our ancestors are unpleasant to remember?”  The following poem addresses that:

 A Prayer for Forgiving Ancestors

I admit:
I’m keenly aware of the flaws of those I remember
I have underlined their shortcomings
I have nursed wounds
I have chosen what to remember and what to ignore

I resist letting go of resentment
I not only get power from judging you harshly
I fear that without it
My memory of you will grow dim

I’ve rushed to token forgiveness
Convincing myself it is real
Hiding my true feelings
While taking refuge in familiar pains

Even when I take tiny steps to forgive
I expect to be rewarded
As if each step
Is a noble gesture

I pray:

Let painful memories be healed
But never denied
Let me overcome my desire to use memory
As a form of vengeance against the dead

Let the pain of memory never be used as an excuse not to feel gratitude
Nor gratitude an excuse not to see you clearly
Nor seeing you clearly an excuse not to forgive

I do not insist that your memory be a blessing
I let go of any and all demands
That the past be different
Or that you atone from your grave

After creating the above poems, I realized that although they might open doors for people, some folks might need help knowing what to do once they’ve walked through the door.  The next poems aren’t designed to represent everyone’s experience but to offer examples of  what can happen if one is open to receiving messages from the departed, who often can finally say things they never said while alive.

A Message from My Dad

The spirit of my father reaches out to me and tells me:

I’m sorry that I wasn’t a better father
I was so filled with torment
That it was impossible to see beyond my pain
I never felt I was good enough
And my deepest apologies
For all the times I made you feel that way, too

I apologize for all the poisons I placed inside you
For turning my pain into wrath
I apologize for not recognizing your need for affection
And sweetness
And warmth
I apologize for not seeing you

Thank you for enduring me
Even if it meant getting deep scars
Thank you for loving me
Even when you had good reasons not to
Thank you for coming to my rescue
When I lacked the capacity for hope

Please remember
That despite my pain
I rejoiced in each day I was given
I craved and sought adventure
I was surrounded by people who cared about me
I was grateful for my life

Remember me
But I release you from all obligation to please me
I don’t want you to carry my pain any longer
I bless you and
I give you permission to live your life

And I reply:

I forgive you, Dad
I embrace you
I release you from all regret

A Message from My Mom

The spirit of my mother reaches out to me and tells me:

I’m sorry I never understood you
I’m sorry I worked so hard to force you onto other roads
I could never conceive how the path you chose
Was the one that was best for you

I didn’t want to fail at my job of motherhood
There was so much I didn’t know
I was so consumed with obligation
That I didn’t know how to give love

I was given limited options
But made peace with my path
I found my happiness
By walling off sorrow and regret

I took pride in obeying rules
I thought that the answers
That worked for me
Would also work for you

Remember me
But I release you from all obligation to please me
You are a blessing
I give you permission to be whoever you wish to be

And I reply:

Thank you for the gift of life
For your dedication and for keeping me from harm
I offer you the grace you rarely gave yourself
I offer you my love

A Message from My Grandmother

The spirit of my grandmother reaches out to me and tells me:

I worry about you
Worrying about you is my joy
And my job
It fills my days even since my life has ended

Have you forgotten all the quiet gifts I gave you
The sensory pleasures of a challah
The serene contentment of a walk
The acceptance of aging
Gratitude for even the smallest thing

Your parents were fools
But they treated me kindly
They gave me respect
I wish they had given you more

Never forget my tranquil eyes
Or that I left Belarus in the middle of the night
With my husband and four small children
Not only because our lives were so dire
But because we had hope

I sold potatoes door-to-door to survive
I stretched each penny as far as I could
For years I owned one dress
And I was deeply in love

Let me be your angel of comfort
Rest your head on my wings
Stop wasting time trying to please me
You succeeded the day you were born

And I reply:

Even years after your passing
I am filled with wonder that you knew how brutal life could be
Without becoming brutal in response
Thank you for saving my life

After creating the above three poems, Rabbi Dolgin asked me to write messages from a deceased sibling and grandfather.  I hesitated, as my only deceased sibling is a brother who treated me with unending cruelty, and as both of my grandfathers died before I was born.  I wanted to be as honest in these poems as I was in all of the others.  The following poems are the result:

A Message from My Brother

Do not wait for kind words from me
That is not my style
From even before I knew words
I gave up expecting compassion from others
I am not prepared to give it now

I had a great life
Success in whatever career path I took
Dedication from wives, regardless of how I treated them
Whatever I sought, I accomplished
I lived up to our parents’ dreams

I also had a shadow
That didn’t fit the identity
I wanted to share with the world
I needed a place for my darkness
And you became that place

How often you let me dismiss you
Wounding your soul
Taking a torch to your joy
Every time I made you feel small
Was a delicious, satisfying meal

It was never about you
Except that you existed
And that you always believed
Forgiveness was mandatory
Separation was not allowed

Do not yearn for my approval
You only weaken yourself when you do
I love you enough to say let go of me
You can refuse to engage with demons
You always had that power

A Message from My Grandfather

The spirit of my grandfather reaches out to me and tells me:

Although I never met you
I bless you
I hoped my actions in life
Would benefit not only my children
But also my children’s children
You are proof I succeeded

When I forged passports
So my wife and young children
Could escape a grim future in a terrifying land
I never knew it would result in you
Although I hoped it would

Thank you for the kindness
You showed my wife
Your grandmother
My joy and my light
The woman who made the unbearable holy

You could not have given me
A greater gift
Than the attention you gave her
Caring for her calloused feet
Worn from decades of poverty and hard ground

The beauty of me dying before you were born
Is that our relationship will never be limited by my lifespan
I hope we meet someday
But I will not wait till then
To cherish you with all my soul

And I reply:

At times I have wondered
If I could love someone I never met
Now I know the answer is Yes

The next two poems deal with remembering those who died in the Holocaust and remembering all ancestors who made contributions to our lives:

A Prayer to Adopt an Ancestor

I cannot light six million candles
I cannot imagine so many flames
I do not wish to reduce so many lives to a statistic
Or rob you of your name

As I struggle to turn something
Beyond my imagination
Into something I can touch
Let this be my entrance:

Let me remember one person vividly
Let one stranger become familiar
Let me bear witness to one story
Let one person’s life become part of mine

Let me light a candle for you
Let me say your name
And if I cannot learn the details of who you were
Let me fill in the blanks to construct
The rhythms of your days
The fullness of your years
The unique blend of your thoughts
The texture of your life

I will never fully grasp your life
I cannot even fully grasp my own
But I promise I will do what I can
So that you will forever be real

In Praise of Unimportant Lives

When people think of the greats
I doubt they think of Shakespeare’s barber
Although I’m sure he lifted Shakespeare’s spirits
Especially after a good haircut

When people think of the greats
I doubt they think of Sally Barton Vassell
Who wrote encouraging letters to her sister Clara
Civil war nurse and founder of the American Red Cross

When people think of the greats
I doubt they think of Jack Grabow*
Who wanted to be a doctor but who ended up selling women’s shoes
Who loved the outdoors but who worked in a mall
Who hoped for a son but was a loving dad to three daughters
And who, one Sunday morning many years ago
Wishing to lift the spirits of a sad young nephew
Offered to make him a special omelet
Whose recipe came from an exotic country
That the nephew suspected was a made-up name

Sunday after Sunday
When the uncle visited
He cooked more omelets for his nephew
Each from a different country with a strange-sounding name
Each with its own exotic recipe
And although the omelets all tasted fairly similar
The nephew took joy in the attention he got
Week after week after week

So the next time you hear a name you don’t recognize
And who few people ever will
Know that they may have contributed something to this world
Even if just a good haircut
Or supportive letters
Or omelets that brightened a young boy’s life

(*pronounced “GRAY-bow”)

The final poem was inspired by the biblical story of Jonah, which is read during the Yom Kippur service:

Jonah’s Prayer

Damn whale
It stinks in here
I knew that whales had bad breath
But it doesn’t compare to the stench in a whale’s belly

Three days I’ve been stuck here
Immersed with everything else the whale couldn’t digest
Not knowing when or if I’ll get out of here alive
No longer knowing anything for sure except for this moment

Who should I blame for this misfortune?
Should I blame myself for not following God’s command?
Should I blame God for burdening me with too much responsibility?

I don’t want to see myself as a victim
And I don’t want to turn God into an enemy
Just because I don’t understand God’s ways

Perhaps I should be thankful I wasn’t swallowed by an overambitious tuna
Or drowned in a merciless sea
As trapped as I feel
I don’t know if the whale is my burden, my punishment, or my savior

I wonder what the whale is feeling now
Probably indigestion
Possibly regret
Possibly wondering if it should blame God or itself for its predicament

I suddenly feel compassion for this whale
As undeserving of me as I am of it
Both of us swimming as one
Uncertain of destiny or meaning

For three days I have prayed for God to save me
Perhaps my focus has been the problem
I pray to God to look upon this whale with kindness
I pray to God to recognize the divinity within this whale

I give thanks for the protection this stinking whale gives me
I give thanks to the Divine for making me indigestible
Perhaps only when I care about the whale
As much as I care about me
Will I be set free


All poems copyright © 2023 Rich Orloff.