Yizkor: Remembering Through Forgetting

Shoshana Boyd Gelfand

May God remember for ever my dear ones…and may my life always bring honor to their memory.
—Yizkor service, Gates of Repentance

From its beginning, Jewish literature has focused intently on the subject of memory. Yizkor, meaning “to remember,” appears in the Bible 228 times, referring to such diverse elements as Shabbat, Miriam’s leprosy, and Amalek’s attack on the Israelites.

Judaism also embraces the idea of collective memory. The Torah’s oft-repeated rationale, “because you were slaves in Egypt,” draws on collective memory to promote moral behavior. The assertion that we all stood during the revelation at Sinai is a profound statement that all Jews are bound together in a shared autobiographical experience.

This focus on communal memory makes the Yizkor ceremony all the more striking, for Yizkor is the one moment in the Jewish liturgical calendar when what matters is not communal but individual memory, each of us standing personally consumed by singular memories of relatives and friends who have died. Unlike a funeral or shiva, where individual memories are shared publicly to fashion a collective mosaic of the person being remembered, Yizkor provides a communal space for inward memorializing. Why is it that Judaism, a religion so fully dedicated to communal memory, makes this regular exception when it comes to Yizkor?

Jewish tradition doesn’t offer us a reason—but neuroscience may help.

“Memories are not static,” writes Joshua Foer, a contender in the 2009 USA Memory Championships, in Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering. “Somehow, as memories age, their complexion changes. Each time we think about a memory, we integrate it more deeply into our web of other memories, and therefore make it more stable and less likely to be dislodged. But in the process, we also transform the memory, and reshape it—sometimes to the point that our memories of events bear only a passing resemblance to what actually happened.”

In other words, the very act of remembering alters the memory itself!

Neuroscientist Eric Kandel explains that long-term memories actually change their molecular structure over time. One class of memory molecules, prions, seem virtually indestructible, yet are surprisingly “plastic” in their ability to easily change shape. Science writer Jonah Lehrer elaborates: “Every time we conjure up our pasts, the branches of our reflections become malleable again. While the prions that mark our memories are virtually immortal, their dendritic details are always being altered, shuttling between the poles of remembering and forgetting. The past is at once perpetual and ephemeral.”

Neuroscience is describing what we all know from experience: memory is inaccurate, malleable, imperfect. In recalling a memory, we do not replay an exact mental recording of the event, but draw upon our subjective experience of it. This act of recollection physically alters the brain so as to change the memory itself. Ironically, the very act of remembering changes what is remembered.

This may be the key to understanding a Jewish memorial ritual that is profoundly individual—the Yizkor service.

The psychological logic behind the Jewish funeral and shiva rituals is unmistakable: having just experienced a loss, we conjure whatever precious imprint we have as a means to hang onto the person who has died. At the funeral, we listen to eulogies; during shiva, we share photos and stories to solidify our impressions of our loved one.

Yizkor works differently. It is not intended as a time to sharpen our memories, for there is no corrective of physical evidence or balance provided by others’ recollections. Instead, Yizkor encourages an evolution of our own private ongoing relationship. Each time we recite Yizkor and remember, we deepen the parts of that relationship that sustain us, while  forgetting those characteristics that do not.

In some ways, then, Yizkor (“remembering”) should more accurately be called Yishkach (“forgetting”), as forgetting is a necessary part of the process by which we maintain meaningful memories.

Daily, we successfully forget most of the mundane details of our encounters with others. Much of the time we focus instead on the meta-level of experiencing people as whole human beings; losing the detail, we gain in richness and depth. In like manner, after a loved one dies, through the evolving experience of Yizkor, we are able to focus on his/her essence.

Strikingly, how our brain processes memories facilitates this ability. “The fading, mutating, and disappearance of memories over time,” says Foer, “happens in the brain at the cellular level.” As memories are being recalled during our individual recitation of Yizkor, our brain cells change.

And so, even though we can no longer have an actual relationship with the people we have lost, we can have a dynamic and changing relationship through our memory of them. In this way, our memories of our loved ones literally keep them alive.   

Rabbi Shoshana Boyd Gelfand is director of JHub and former chief executive of the United Kingdom Movement for Reform Judaism. This article was adapted from May God Remember: Memory and Memorializing in Judaism—Yizkor, edited by Lawrence A. Hoffman (Jewish Lights, 2013).