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In the early 1980s, Norte Dame sociologist Eugene Halton did a survey of 80-plus middle- and lower-class families in the Chicago area, painstakingly detailing the objects in their living rooms, and then asking a basic question: “What are your most special possessions?”
The rich and poor homes had obvious differences in what they owned, reflective of their wealth. The rich families had more pieces of artwork, for instance. “But when you ask people what their most special objects are, a lot of the class distinctions dropped out,” Halton told me. “And other things came in, such as family photographs that aren’t necessarily expensive.”
The special objects were those centered on life events or people — wedding rings, portraits, inherited candlesticks, and so on. Around 40 percent of the most meaningful objects in a home were either gifts or inherited. (“Why Objects Can be More Meaningful Gifts than Experiences” Vox October 23, 2016)
Like many of you I visit many houses of mourning. Some shiva houses are hushed with the feel of a sacred space. The conversation slow and in an undertone. Others are raucous with the feel of a celebration of life. The conversation in loud voices punctuated with laughter. But there is something common to all houses of mourning even long after shiva have been completed and the mourners have gone back to their everyday lives. That is the remnants, the physical objects that bring to mind the memory of our loved ones.
For many it is photos- yellowed with age, joyful moments captured and preserved and then displayed as an image frozen in time. For others it is ritual objects, a mother’s Shabbat candlesticks lit every Friday evening years after her death, a constant reminder. A piece of jewelry prized for where it used to reside on a father’s finger and now hanging on a chain around the neck, or a precious stone, smuggled out of Europe and now the only tangible reminder of a family tradition.
As a general rule Jews have always been more focused on matters of the spiritual world than matters of the physical world. But when our loved ones die, often it is the physical remnants of their lives which tie us to their spirit. We light our mother’s Shabbat candles to feel her presence. We wear a father’s wedding ring to keep him close. We keep a child’s teddy bear on a guest bed to keep him as part of the family. We display a childhood photo of a sister to remember.
If you invited me to your home in advance of Yizkor what physical objects would you show me that brought to mind the memory of the loved one for whom you say Yizkor today? We stockpile our memories through physical objects and these objects carry the past with them.
We come to the synagogue four times a year empty handed but full of memories. The cherished objects that evoke personal, distinctive memories of our loved ones remain at home but those memories remain with us, especially today as we call them to mind.
There is a family in Tivon, which is near Haifa who lost a son in a terrible helicopter crash in 1996 the deadliest air disaster in Israel’s history when 73 lives were lost. In the aftermath their son’s girlfriend sent them a pile of letters she’d received from him over the years. The father put the letters in his briefcase and put his briefcase in his car, and his car was broken into and the briefcase stolen. When word of what had happened spread hundreds of residents of Tivon organized a search of the area and in a wadi not too far away they found the briefcase – burned. Word of what happened made the national press and soon there was a call to the family from the Israel Museum. “We know something about the preservation of scorched manuscripts. Ca we try to salvage your son’s letters?” and now resting on the countertop in their living room next to the memorial candle that burns all the time is a blue velvet box, and inside four carefully mounted remnants of the letters looking for all the world like pieces of the Dead Sea Scrolls and scarcely less valuable. (“The Hour” by Leonard Fein in The Forward June 29, 2001)
This morning on Shavuot it is our custom at Chizuk Amuno to dedicate yet one more physical object that becomes a prized possession and which evokes the memory of our loved ones. The memorial plaques that we dedicate today are a mnemonic, a physical object that provides a memory cue. We bring the memory of our loved into this sacred space so that even as we sit here in reflection and in prayer their presence is felt and welcomed.
This Shavuot in loving memory we dedicate Memorial Plaques. May our loved ones rest in dignity love and peace and may their memory be for a blessing for us and for our entire congregation.