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Sunday, September 03, 2006

The Plaque

My father's memorial plaque has arrived. For those unfamiliar with the custom, synagogues usually have one or more walls of memorial plaques, which are embossed with the names and dates of death of former congregants, relatives, ancestors, etc. Next to each plaque is a little lightbulb which can be turned on during the month of the anniversary of death, or yahrtzeit, so that shul members know when to say kaddish for these individuals. In newer shuls, there may be only a few such plaques. In older, declining shuls, the plaques may far outnumber the amount of living congregants.

Longtime readers of this blog may recall the saga of my downsized row, wherein the row I had called my home in the shul for over 10 years suddenly disappeared, and I was forcibly relocated to a row of tables in the back. When this row was appropriated by others (primarily because, in those days, I was too lazy to get to shul early enough to claim my seats), the Rabbi relocated me to a new row with a table closer to the front of the shul. It so happens that this new row is right next to the wall with all the memorial plaques.

Normally, this would have little effect on me. Nowadays, as I spend much more time in the shul, and as I spend much of this time preparing for or saying kaddish, I find myself looking at the plaques more and more frequently. I read the names. I look at the dates.

Some names are familiar. A very small number are people that I knew, that have passed on. People whose funerals I attended; shiva calls that I've made. Even a few that I've named children after. A very few.

Other names are known because I make connections to the children who still pray in the shul. Ah, this one must be Reb Yaakov's mother. This looks like a grandfather.

Other names, maybe a slightly larger group, belong to families that I recognize from the community at large, but no longer belong to our shul. I find these names to be the most interesting. Hmm, I know this guy. He's a big macher at the Conservative place in Glendale. His family's plaques are here? His parents and grandparents must have been members at this shul. I wonder what made them leave?

Still others, perhaps the largest group, belong to family names that are totally unfamiliar to me. Some go back to the 1800's. Others are all in yiddish, all terminating on the same date, people who perished in the Holocaust, no doubt. Many, many unfamiliar names. Stretching up towards the ceiling. Who where these people? Where are their children? What is their legacy? Did the family names simply get lost, as daughters married and took husbands' names? Did they move away, out of town? How many of their children intermarried, and no longer have Jewish descendants? Is anyone saying kaddish for these people? When the man who, month after month, dutifully combs the rows of plaques and turns the lights on for the appropriate ones, says the kaddish, is he the only one thinking of these people? How many of these plaques are the end of the line, I wonder.

So, my Dad's plaque is here. And I guess I'm being sentimental, or silly, but I asked the Rabbi to put it up near where I sit, so that I can gaze up at it during one of the many lulls in the service. He told me no, all the spots on this board were reserved, but he can have my Dad mounted a little further back.

Reserved. Huh. I guess I find that a little funny and a little morbid at the same time. People who are still alive. We've got a spot picked out for you. Any time you're ready.

Ach, this whole thing is morbid. I know it's silly for me to want to have my father's plaque nearby. There is no Jewish significance to the plaque. It's just a placekeeper, to remind people to say kaddish. But it's all I have of him, right now. His grave is 1000 miles away, in Farmingdale. I can't run over there for a quick visit. For me, his final resting place is on that wall.

Well, maybe I can move my seat.


cruisin-mom said...

P.T. "I know it's silly for me to want to have my father's plaque nearby".
When it comes to matters of the heart, no feeling is silly.

Jack's Shack said...

Makes sense to me.

Halfnutcase said...

makes sense to me.

actualy i'm the person who deals with the plaques at my shul. kinda a morbid thing to see all the reserved spaces up there.

it's even worse when a space suddenly empties. (i've seen that happen a few times as well.)

and i HATE those white lights by the plaques, they always burn you when you try to turn them off, the orange ones are so much better!

Halfnutcase said...

just to point out, people reserve places so that their names can be near those of a loved one. like someone dies and their spouse and children reserve places near their name.

it's happens really often. at one point in our shul we must have had over 30 places reserved.

PsychoToddler said...

Yes, that's what I was told. Still it's kinda creepy. Like seeing that blank half of the double tombstone.

"Room for one more..."

Nati said...

I shared this post with my husband Alex - the point about not being readily able to visit the grave hit home for him - he hasn't been to his own father's grave since leaving Russia in 1991, and here we have no plaque.

The idea of reserved places for something like yahrzeit plaques kind of rubs me the wrong way - it's like wanting to perpetuate the hotshot hierarchy that often exists in shuls beyond the grave - does the concept of desirable 'seating' apply at the point where we should move literally beyond all that?

The shiva for your father was about 6 weeks or so after my grandfather's shiva ended - his matzeva was just recently put up, also in Farmingdale (not the grandfather who was from Jaworzna). When Alex goes this Sunday to help form a pre-Rosh Hashana informal unveiling kaddish minyan, he'll have your dad in mind as well. Having your father's plaque nearby when you are 1000 miles from here will no doubt be a comfort particularly as we get ready to log lots of shul time over the next month.

Shmiel said...

yeah, i grew up sitting near one of the plaque boards in my shul in PA. I still remember some of the names and dates.i guess there wasn't much else to do while waiting for chazarat HaShatz to start. My Mom has a plaque in Teaneck that my sisters used to attend when they lived here...None in my shul....Hmmm

Shira Salamone said...

My parents are going to be buried in Israel. How often will I get to see their graves? And considering the fact that my synagogue may die even before my father does (Alzheimers), I'm not even sure in what synagogue I'll be able to put their memorial plaques. So I don't think there's anything silly about you wanting to sit near your father's plaque. Let it be a comfort to you, just as it was a comfort to him when you named one of your sons after his father. Sometimes, we take our memorials where we can find them.

orieyenta said...

I was thinking about how we say, "Hamakom yenachem et'chem b'toch shar avay'lay Tzion vee'Yerushalayim" - perhaps being near your father's plaque is that comfort for you. Nothing silly about it at all.

Doctor Bean said...

It’s a touching tribute to your dad’s memory that you miss him so much, and that you want some reminders of him near you for solace. I suppose the stronger the love, the more painful the loss. I’m glad the plaque helps a little.

I was also thinking about the multiple meanings of the English word “plaque” and how the memorial plaques take over after the amyloid plaques of Alzheimer’s or the coronary atheromatous plaques or the cerebral artery plaques have done their damage.

PsychoToddler said...

nati: "it's like wanting to perpetuate the hotshot hierarchy that often exists in shuls beyond the grave "

I think I have the same reaction towards it myself. I also understand and appreciate that it's a source of income for the shul, so I can fahgin them this. I appreciate your husbands thoughts, and thank you again for coming to pay a shiva call. You're such an aishes chayil!

Shmeil: Exactly! I think if the davening were a little quicker, I wouldn't be staring at the plaques so much. I also think it's sad that as people leave shuls (or shuls close) these plaques get left behind. It's like they're being abandoned.

Shira: Actually for the longest time my parents had plots reserved in Israel, and recently my Mother figured out that none of us would visit her grave, so she sold them.

Orieyenta: I'm sure that's it.

Doc: Y'know, I was thinking along similar lines. While I was typing the post, I kept doing Google searches on Memorial Plaques to make sure I had the spelling right. It is a little unsettling that it's the same word. At least I'm not a dentist.

Shira Salamone said...

Actually, my parents have chosen to be buried in Israel not for religious reasons but for practical ones--they live there, and see no point in shelling out good money to have their bodies sent back to the U.S., especially since my brother and his three kids live there, too. I guess that, when the time comes, the Place that comforts me will just have to be in my heart. That's not such a bad place for HaMakom.

Stacey said...

It's not silly at all to want to sit near your father's plaque. I totally understand it. Sorry the rabbi wasn't able to accommodate your wish. I would change seats.

I loved this post. During the oneg, I often sneak back into the sanctuary and read all the names lit up on our board and wonder about who they were and what their life was like, as well.

Batya said...

What an old shul and community. I'm impressed.

Having your father's up makes you a member more than paying dues.

And talking about money, I always thought it was a big fund-raising for the shuls.

PsychoToddler said...

Shira: that makes sense.

Stacey: I'm not surprised by what you said. I also do this when I'm bored.

Batya: Hey, I pay my dues!

socialworker/frustrated mom said...

Happy it came, very nice may it be an aliyah for the neshamah.