I never had the opportunity to meet my husband’s Uncle Marty, but his presence looms large in my inherited family. I was first introduced to Marty, via a large framed picture that hangs in the hallway of my in-laws’ home. The picture features a young ginger haired man, with a trendy mustache, in a camel haired coat, smoking a cigarette and smiling. He looks so polished and handsome, so confident and cool, it is easy to be drawn to him. Reflecting back to my Rosh Hashanah sermon on pictures and memory, I understand how keeping Marty’s image so central in her house helps my mother in law feel as if Marty is still here with her. She can return home from a Broadway show, a passion they both shared, and tell him all about it and of the music. Or she can complain to him when their sister gets on her nerves, renewing their old sibling alliance. Taken from this world at the age of 36, Marty was one of many victims of the AIDS epidemic. Stolen from him far too soon, was so much potential, so much talent, so much generosity and love, still left for him to give.
I only knew Marty from this picture . . . until this past summer. My sister-in-law, an archivist by profession, was able to digitize a home video she found from childhood. It was fun at first, sitting with my husband and watching footage from his childhood holiday celebrations, until Marty appeared on screen. The year was 1989 and a less handsome, less vibrant, less colorful Marty is sitting in the living room of his father’s house. The whole family is there, as well as a few of Marty’s friends. From some banners and balloons, you can tell this is a birthday party, although no one seems particularly celebratory; no one, except for my mother-in-law. Her younger self appears popping in and out of the crowd, bringing much needed cheer to the party. Finally, she comes out of the kitchen door with song and flickering candles, holding a cake that reads “Happy 36th Birthday Marty.”
At this point in the video I notice the tears streaming down my cheeks. I’m crying not for Marty, and the soul we lost too young, but for my mother-in-law, who was clearly trying so hard to make her brother’s birthday special. She was upbeat and optimistic, even when Marty’s fate was not. She had the courage to celebrate, with the understanding this was probably Marty’s last birthday.
Birthdays, like the Jewish holidays, keep coming even after those who we celebrated have passed on. And birthdays bring with them special rituals and traditions, unique only to that person. At every birthday celebration for my grandfather, we would serve a Napoléon cake, the kind with the flaky pastry dough, black and white frosting, and thick custard layers. Now that I think about it, I realized I haven’t eaten a Napoléon cake since my grandpa passed away almost ten years ago. It is still difficult for me see those layers in a bakery window and not think of the special connection they have to my grandpa and our cheerful family gatherings. The once sweet and sugary birthday treat now brings feelings of yearning and sorrow. For others, it is the absence of a phone call, a perfectly wrapped gift, or a signature on a birthday card that makes even a long-standing loss feel so immediate. In reflecting on her grandmother’s first yarhzeit, a young woman named Ronna told me about how her grandmother sent her flowers on her birthday, every year. They always came with a simple card that merely read, “Love, Nana.” During her year of mourning for dear Nana, Ronna’s mother figured she might miss the birthday sentiment and sent her a beautiful bouquet of all her favorite flowers. But the card read, “Love Mom” and it was just not the same. The flowers were the connection to Nana, and the gesture would never unite the two of them together anymore. Birthdays, a day that represents a celebration of life, a day that used to come with parties, gifts, and cake can so easily change into a dark spot on one’s calendar.
Jewish rituals are superstitious in that we are careful never to rejoice too much. On our holiday of freedom, Passover, we spill drops of sweet wine from our glasses to remember the cost at which our freedom came. At a wedding, the groom breaks a glass to remember times of destruction and to remind us that our world is not whole. And Yizkor, the obligation to remember, corresponds with our ancient pilgrimage holidays, yet another example that in the midst of times of abundance and festivity, we must take the time to mourn. But we don’t often do the reverse. At sad times, we do not have rituals that command us to be joyful. On the contrary, our tradition acknowledges, that after experiencing the death of a loved one, celebration feels cruel, pleasure feels irresponsible, sunshine feels insensitive. And yet finding that courage, finding those moments to celebrate in the face of despair, is clearly crucial for our loved ones and for ourselves.
For the strength to celebrate in our time of grief, we can look to our book of Psalms, to finds words of hope: “You turn my mourning into dancing, you undid my sackcloth and girded me with joy, that my whole being might sing hymns to You endlessly; O my God, I will praise You forever” (30:11). The great paradox of grief is that the more we are able to embrace our loss, the source of our suffering, the more we can truly celebrate and appreciate the lives we have left to live. So how can Yizkor, our time of mourning, turn into a time of dancing? Of celebration? Celebration doesn’t have to mean party hats and disco balls, but truly celebrating the life of a loved one means to find joy in memory. It means smiling when a thought of her crosses your mind. It means allowing ourselves to laugh through the tears when we recall that funny story he always told. In celebrating life, we honor the memories of those we have lost.
I realize that for those of us remembering loved ones today, it may feel too late to celebrate the lives of our spouses, siblings, parents, children, and friends. Instead we are gathered to remember. But remembering does not equal regret. We know our loved ones are a part of everything we do, of everything that we are. The dynamic relationship we are able to have with someone who has died is marvelous, as those relationships continue to grow and breathe. Memory is more than just remembering what was, in the words of Rabbi Debra Orenstein, “Memory is a medium through which we dialogue with the past, and memory is a medium through which we reimagine our future.”
Remembering those moments, may come in home videos, stories, and pictures, the names we choose for our children and the values and issues to which we choose to dedicate our lives. For my husband’s family, and now myself, that reimagined future is the work they do to keep Marty’s legacy alive. My mother in law has not missed an AIDS walk in Philadelphia in 22 years. My husband founded an AIDS awareness club at his high school. And there is a housing community in Florida, fondly named Marty’s Place, to provide a safe haven of support for those still suffering from the horrible disease that is AIDS. Giving honor to Marty’s memory is a way of celebrating his life.
Turning mourning into dancing also means celebrating our own lives. None of us know the number of days we have left, but we do not want to lose the moments where we can be surrounded by those who love us and care about us. We need to choose to celebrate those we love even in the face of illness, hard times, or discouraging circumstances. These are the opportunities we have to create positive memories that will last long after those we love are gone. For all here today I pray that we find meaningful ways to honor the lives of those we have loved. I pray that we love the ones close to us with everything we have. I pray that we’re selfless and giving and that we share with others how we feel. I pray that we’ll pop a bottle of champagne and toast to life abundant – fighting for love and joy and celebration and beauty with everything we have. The pain won’t go away, but how we face our grief will impact the way we feel about our time here together. This year, I’m going to eat that sweet slice of Napoléon cake and honor my own grandfather with sorrow, yes, but also with joy.
Yom Kippur is a solemn day, but it is by no means a sad one. In just a short while we will be able to walk through the open gates, relieved and even happy that we have been judged positively for another year. This celebration, like other Jewish moments, are not celebrated without remembering the pain of love and loss, but we can also enter our new year inspired, to create the new memories that will sustain us, even in the times that are difficult. In the words of the late Jewish folk singer, Debbie Friedman: We sing,
“You turn my mourning into dancing
So that my soul might sing to You
So that my soul might sing to You
And it not be still.” (Debbie Friedman)