Love in a Place of Loss
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And of all the ritual responses to all the plagues and pandemics that have befallen the Jewish people, by far the most peculiar, in my mind, is the Cholera Wedding, sometimes called a black wedding or in Yiddish, a Shvartze Khassene. Best as we can tell, the custom emerged in the Russian Empire during the second cholera outbreak of the 1830s, and by the time of the fourth cholera outbreak of 1865, it was a wide-spread practice across the Pale of Settlement. While details differ based on time and place, the basic event followed the same outline. Two of the poorest and most vulnerable members of the community were matched up, and a dowry provided by the town’s residents. A huppah was set up in the cemetery on the outskirts of town, where the couple were joined in holy matrimony amidst a joyous crowd of townspeople. We have no record regarding how long these marriages lasted. What we do know is that the custom of a black wedding is the most enduring Jewish ritual response in the face of a public health crisis, be it cholera, influenza, typhus, or even COVID, an Israeli paper recently reporting such a wedding of two orphans in a B’nei B’rak cemetery.
If you are wondering how it is that I know so much about black weddings, it is not because I have officiated at one, or have any intention to. The destination weddings at which I long to officiate do not involve a cemetery. I learned about black weddings because the world authority on them is Professor Natan Meir, who also happens to be the grandson of one of my distinguished predecessors, Rabbi Judah Nadich, of blessed memory. You may recall that a few years ago, I leaned on another Nadich grandson for a honey cake recipe. This year, it’s cholera weddings – it’s been that kind of year. So I called Professor Meir, who has written a book on the subject, and asked him to tell me not so much about the weddings themselves but rather what he believes the participants in black weddings believed they were doing, why the participants thought that this particular ritual would stave off a plague. One possibility, Professor Meir offered, was to understand these weddings as an act of communal charity, a gesture to appease an angry God during a time of displeasure. Alternatively, one might argue that singling out the most vulnerable members of the community makes a statement about shared responsibility for a society’s weakest members, at all times, but especially in a time of crisis. Professor Meir’s opinion, a bit more dark, is that choosing a bride and groom from the margins of society made the couple a form of scapegoat, substitute victims for the epidemic, all the more so during a time that Christian society had put the blame for a pandemic on Jews.
Nobody will ever know for sure which of the many explanations for this strange ritual is correct. Like many rituals, the thinking behind it no doubt differed from place to place and from time to time. But listening to Rabbi Nadich’s grandson enumerate all the alternatives, while I sat in the very spot where Rabbi Nadich probably wrote many of his sermons, I began to think that our conversation was not just about some obscure ritual from the Jewish past, but rather a dialogue about the choices we make and the responses we take in the face of uncertainty and pain. I thought about the decision of these communities to affirm life by holding a wedding, the very symbol of hope, love, and future thinking – in a cemetery, the very place of sorrow, loss, and memory – during a plague, a time so filled with loss. A stark juxtaposition between despair and hope; fear and love; vulnerability and confidence in the future. Is it possible, I wondered, that with this ritual that we might easily dismiss as a primitive kenahora, a superstitious rite to ward off evil, our predecessors were not only demonstrating an acute awareness of their condition, but also taking a bold communal posture to cope with loss, a posture that I believe has much to teach us, not just this year, but this very moment.
Because this moment, right now, is the time for Yizkor. We look to this time to walk through the valley of the shadow. If you received the book of remembrance with the names of our loved ones, now is the time to take hold of it, and more directly, to take those names to heart. Yizkor is dedicated to the recollection of our loved ones, who, no matter when they passed, are forever inscribed on our hearts, whether we have their names in print or not. Those precious souls whom we loved, whom we miss with a sorrow that can overwhelm, at any moment, but especially this moment. Fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers, husbands and wives, children. Every Yizkor is sacred, but there is something about Yizkor on Yom Kippur – the sanctity of the day with its focus on the fragility of life – that when we arrive at this moment, the ache in our hearts is particularly acute.
And that ache is not a solitary emotion. At Yizkor it comes with companions, at the very least, with the emotions of gratitude and love. As the relationship, so the loss. We miss a person, and we long for that person because we loved that person and we are grateful for that person’s life. The task of Yizkor is different than that of a funeral. Our goal today is not merely to mourn; our goal is memory. That is, after all, what Yizkor means: remember. Our focus is on life, not only death. We review, as best we can, the values that animated the one for whom we long; we think about the ideas and ideals that gave them life. What were their passions? What were their loves? Can we name the setbacks from which they heroically rebounded? Dare we identify the defeats that they stoically learned to manage and navigate throughout their years? If we ask how they would want to be remembered, I believe it would be by how they lived, not how they died. In explaining the black wedding, the nineteenth-century rabbi Meir Yehiel Lipiets wrote, V’zehu ha-ta·am, k’dei lismo·ah et ha-olam, “This is the reason, in order to bring joy to the world.” Yes, the backdrop of Yizkor is death, but the foreground is life – the joy, the kindness, the love that infused the days of those whom we recall. We would be doing ourselves and our loved ones a terrible disservice were we to use this time solely for thinking about their passing, how unfair this world is, or how painful it is to live without them. Counterintuitive as it may sound, there is an element of Yizkor that is intended to be a gift, a gift of sacred time we set aside to meditate not on death but on life.
The insight that the focus of Yizkor is not only death, but life, clarifies not just the task of looking back, but also looking forward. In the days leading up to the holidays, some of us, if we were able, observed the custom of Kever Avot, of visiting the graves of loved ones. The other week, I myself placed stones on the grave of Rabbi and Hadassah Nadich among others, as I recited memorial prayers. We do so in order to remember. We do so, according to tradition, in hopes that the merit of our loved ones’ good deeds helps tilt the balance of God’s judgment in our favor. But most of all, we do so in order that we live the year ahead purposefully, filling it with love and meaning. There is undoubtedly an aspect of the black wedding which is a community’s affirmation of life in the face of death, a recognition that fragile and fleeting as life may be, and that while one fate awaits us all, we can and we must choose life. It is somewhat reminiscent of the Talmudic dictum which I have referred to before, ma·avirin et ha-met lifnei ha-kallah; when a funeral procession and a wedding procession meet on the road, the wedding procession always takes precedence. Yizkor is about our loved ones, but Yizkor is also about us; it is about our ability to learn from their lives, to stare into the mirror of our own mortality, and, in the face of it all, to choose life.
How effective was a black wedding in staving off the effects of a plague? Nobody knows. Given its roots in superstition, I imagine its therapeutic effects were more psychological than medical. But what I do know, and what you know, and what we all know, is that this time of COVID has brought us to terms with an aspect of life that intellectually we always know to be true, but more often than not we choose not to acknowledge: the intense anxiety that comes with human vulnerability, the fear for our own mortality, and the knowledge that none of us will be in this world for as long we would like. Ultimately, I think a huppah in a cemetery is not just about memory, nor about joy in a place of mourning, nor even a prompt to consider our own mortality. I believe it is a declaration of continuity, of the link that binds one generation to the next. An affirmation that in the very place and time where there is vulnerability and death, there also exists the possibility for new beginnings. Is that not the definition of continuity, the hope that with every ending there can still be a new beginning? Neither the people we remember right now, nor any of us for that matter, have ever finished the tasks we set out to accomplish in our lifetimes. Nevertheless, dor l’dor, generation to generation, we the living write the next chapter. That is how we honor our loved ones, that is how we live lives of meaning, and that is the task of Yizkor. To mourn and to be reborn. To lose and still to love. To remember and to commit and recommit, affirming life, even – and especially – in the presence of death.