Shaarei Shamayim

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Recently, a colleague pointed out something to me that is so obvious, but I never thought of it. Passover begins with the focus on the children at the Seder and ends with the focus on the grandparents at Yizkor. At the Seder, all eyes are on the children as they recite the Ma Nistana (the 4 Questions). As we listen, we cast a rope into the future and imagine the time when they’ll sit at the head of the table and lead the Seder. And it feels good.

And now it’s Yizkor. And our minds go back to the time when our parents were still alive, and when they conducted the Seder and we were the ones who asked the questions. Most of us have fond memories of what it was like back in those days when we were young, and our father or grandfather led the Seder.

Some of us remember the special tunes they used for Dayenu or Adir Hu or Echad Mi Yodeya or Chad Gadya. Some of us remember the stories they told from the “old country,” or a favorite word of Torah that they shared. Some of us remember the way they hid the afikomen, or how they rewarded us when we found it. Some of us remember how they would skip whole sections of the Haggadah, because the food was getting cold. And some of us remember how they said every word of the Haggadah, because this was one night when time didn’t matter.

We have so many memories—sometimes serious ones, sometimes funny ones—but most of us have some memory of those we loved, and what they did or what they told us on Seder night. Let me urge you to tell these stories to your children—even on this, the last day of Pesach—so that there may be a link between those that are gone, and those who are our future. Don’t let these memories be lost.

Let me share with you in these sacred moments before Yizkor an example of how someone does this: Rivy Poupko Kletenik. Rivy—daughter of the most prominent rabbi in 20th century Pittsburg, Baruch Poupko—is the principle of the Seattle Hebrew Academy. She writes this moving story:

There were 2 stories that we would tell in our home on Seder night when I was growing up in Pittsburgh. One was the story of the Exodus from Egypt, and the other was the story of the Exodus from Velizh. The 1st we read from a Haggadah over matzo and bitter herbs. The 2nd was told by my father over a bowl of red beet borscht, which was the 1st course of the meal on Seder night.

It was Pesach, 1929, in Stalin’s Soviet Union: The Poupko children—including my father who as 12 years old at the time were awakened in the middle of the night and they got dressed amidst threatening, shushing and rushing to avoid capture. Their father, who was the rabbi of Velizh, was under house arrest with impending sentence to Siberia looming over his head and word was out that the police were going to take him away that night. And so, the household goods were left behind, and the family left. They crossed the border from Russia into Poland and they met up with their 3 sons who had been dispatched to Radun, to the Yeshiva of the Chofetz Chaim 9 years earlier. A dramatic reunion it was, with the boys now young men. Because they left Russia that night, no one was arrested and no one was sent to Siberia.

Every Pesach, at the Seder, my father would recount the story of the escape from Velizh, until 9 years ago. How was that year different from all other years? That year there would be no telling, because my father had lost his memory.  How could this happen to someone as learned and as eloquent as he was? The tragedy and the pain were almost unendurable...

A month before the Seder, I watched anxiously as my father took a bite of a warm hamentash. I bake them every Purim and I use my mother’s recipe—with the secret vanilla in the filling. A hugely irrational fantasy flashed through my mind, as I watched him eat. Who knows? Maybe, just maybe, the taste of the long-familiar cookie would trigger the return of my father’s memory? But no such miracle took place. My father chewed on the hamentash and asked the same questions that he asked every day: What day is it? What time is dinner? Who sleeps in the house? Where are the others who live here?

The stories of Velizh, the story of Nadia the cow and the story of herring with black bread and the other stories he used to tell are all gone. The trip across the ocean on the not-yet-famous S.S. St. Louis, the confinement on Ellis Island and the long steamy summer in a New York hospital as a non-English speaking refugee stricken with polio—all these stories were gone now. His meetings with the greats of the last century—both the pious ones and the political ones—the Rogochover Iluli, the Chofetz Chaim and Rabbi Soloveitchik, Abba Eban, Golda Meir, Menachem Begin, Natan Sharansky—were all gone. His dissertation: “Adult Jewish Education in America circa 1958,” the books, the articles, the 60+ years of sermons—they were all forgotten.

I began to crochet a blanket, a blanket of memory for my daughter, who was 9 months pregnant. During many dark, rainy Seattle nights my father and I sat in the living room while I worked on it singing Yiddish songs…This blanket will warm my 1st grandchild, a boy. And as I do, I wonder:  Will he know these songs too?? I hope so. I hope so so much.

My father starts asking me questions: What is that you are doing with your hands?

I’m making a blanket.

A Blanket?

Yes, Peshy is expecting a baby


Peshy, my daughter, your granddaughter named for your mother, Pesha Chaya Poupko.

My mother?? Where is my mother? I have not spoken to her for many weeks?

And so on and on, evening after evening, until the blanket is finished.  When little Avidan was born, he was brought to his bris, wrapped in this blanket of memory. Every square stitched with the bittersweet pain of questions and answers, over and over again. Pesha, your granddaughter, named for your mother.

Pesach is a holiday of memory, like no other. We remember the slavery, the pyramids, the bricks, the suffering. We remember the redemption, the plagues, the splitting of the sea, and the moment at Sinai. We too came out of Egypt. It was we who were slaves and we who were freed. We remember this.

As Passover loomed that year, my father knew that his memory was gone. The pain showed in his holy white-beard, green-eyed face. The Seder would come, and there would be no stories this time of matzo-making in Velizh. We would not hear this year about the rabbis dressed in white caftans baking the wheat as though they were singing Hallel [praise] to the Almighty. There would be no tales this year of the cracking the ice on the Dvina River to get the frigid water for the matza dough…and there would be no story this year of the escape from Velizh.

I told my father every day not to worry, not to be afraid. “You may not remember everything,” I said, but I will be your memory. I told him that I will tell the story, as if I had come out from Velizh.

9 years later—4 years after my father’s death—that is still the tradition in our house. This Passover, our family will hear the Ma Nishtana 4 Questions asked by the little boy who was once wrapped in that blanket of memory. He, his siblings, and his cousins will sit at the Seder and speak of the Exodus. And then I will tell them about the escape from Velizh as bowls of steamy borscht are brought to the table.

Isn’t this a powerful story? A great voice that loved to tell the story has been stilled, but a new voice continues at the table. She is his memory, and she tells the story of what happened to him to the great grandchild whose mother has been named for his mother. The story continues—not just the story of the Exodus from Egypt, but the story of the exodus from Velizh.

I read you this story today before Yizkor, in the hopes that it will strike a chord in your hearts. And in the hopes that it will awaken in you the resolve to keep the stories that you heard in your childhood alive in the souls of your children. For if you do, then those who memories you have come here to honor today, will continue to live on—in you, with you and through you. They will find a place in the hearts of your children, and hopefully in the hearts of their children as well. And their memories will be indeed a source of blessing…to you and to those who come after you. Keyn y’hi ratson (So may it be Gd’s will). And to this, let us all say—by our deeds as by our words: Amen!

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