The Memory Room
Connecting Many Worlds
Covid is a divider, but also a uniter. It has separated us from each other, but also provided us with opportunities to unite in new ways that have given the idea of community new meaning.
The Memory Room united a group of mourners in a combined virtual and in- person space for prayers each morning. (The minyan actually meets three times/day, but this project focuses only on the early morning minyan.) Each of the mourners mourned a parent or a friend, a spouse or a family member. Each morning the room would open and those mourning gathered to say the Kaddish prayer, which requires a quorum of ten people to allow its recitation.
This is a story with three themes.
How does my own spiritual space connect to the virtual spiritual space that exists online?
More importantly, but separately, how do the short descriptions of the loved ones for whom we prayed Kaddish each day, help to create bridges to each other?
How is community created during a time of overwhelming isolation and fear?
In this photo-essay you will view a few different types of photographs. Some will be photographs of my own spiritual space that is built around my computer in our living room set by the window looking out over a city street. These photos will appear clearer than other photos because the majority of photos presented here were taken through the computer on a Zoom screen which results in a blur of the images. The other images represented here are portraits of participants who recited the kaddish prayer during Covid as well as photographs of the people for whom they prayed kaddish.
You will also find snippets of the kaddish prayer, which praises God in the presence of a minyan, ten individuals.
Throughout this photo essay you will also find memories of the people whom we honored and reflections from people who have maintained and supported the daily morning minyan at Congregation Kehillath Israel during the year of the great pandemic of 2020-21.
Could online intimacy ever happen? You would have been right to doubt that such a thing could be possible.
Yet ongoing early-morning experiences in the Memory Room unclogged the ducts that enabled our souls to flow freely. At times, it nearly felt like some form of soul-streaming. It has certainly given new meaning to live-streaming in that it has made the pulse of our lives and those of our loved ones feel so real.
The spiritual eagerness in the Memory Room was busy producing a new reality each morning (עושה חדשות) that we stretched forward into each new day. Distinct memories, touching stories were shared so tenderly that they called up pictures.
Some may say it was the chemistry. Perhaps it was. Somehow a secret wealth of warmth emitted in the sharing and the listening and the being fully present for each other. Pre-Kaddish recollections had a reviving quality like the dew that rises each morning (עלות השחר).
It took us by the hand and led us from a sickbed of sadness to a storehouse of kindness.
As the Psalmist sings, ‘among the world's pleasures, praise is most beautiful of all’(Ps. 147:1).
Rabbi William Hamilton
The Minyan is not new to Congregation KI. It has been in existence for more than 100 years, but only in 2020 did it begin to run its minyan on a Zoom platform.
At the early morning minyan were people who have been attending for years and then others, like me, who wanted to find a daily minyan in order to fulfill the obligation of mourning a relative.
So the morning Zoom room became a home for people from other congregations in the area. In the room were people who knew each other and others who knew no one. Together, over the months of daily prayer, people saw each other over the Zoom screen. There were conversations before services began and then at the end of the service, when it was time for the kaddish, it was the custom of participants to say the name of their loved one.
At some point in the summer of 2020 participants began to add not just the name of the deceased, but also a few words about them. Over the course of the months that followed, the Zoom room became a place to share memories of the people who were mourned. During Covid, when there were no in-person shivas and no one allowed at funerals, the Memory Room became a place to share, to laugh and to cry. Each morning we would be witnesses to each other's stories and yes, to each other's grief. Over time though, we were also able to see the transition from grief to acceptance as participants finished their year of memorial prayers.
The Memory Room has been a place to share memories, but also to grow closer as a community.
What are we
If not a sum of our parts?
A pile of experiences.
Diaries from our childhood, books we've read,
arguments we've had
while sitting at the kitchen table,
meatloaf and dancing jello.
What are we,
if not just a multiplication of our days?
From here to there and back again.
Nights upon the same mattress.
Work, play, sleep, raise a family,
walk the dog.
One day runs into another.
Words pile on top of each other
in conversations long forgotten.
Slowly things attach themselves to us,
items gotten here, no there, no maybe there
Each thing has a tiny match that ignites a tinny memory,
a glimmer of copper when we close our eyes
What are we
If not our stuff?
Gathered over time
Each piece a reminder of a car ride,
a store, a beloved child, a dog,
a job well done,
a friend, a boss,
Cherished items bring back memories.
A cloudy Tuesday when we were ten
or that time on the mountain when we were eighteen,
things we collected to remind us of our youth
Our children, that we were here.
As real as the words on this page.
That we lived.
We can still smell our childhoods
when we smell the lilacs.
What are we without our memories?
Can we give our memories away?
Share them with others so when we are gone
Bits of us that remain on earth?
Fragments of our life, indications of love not lost
Snippets of us we give so we are not forgotten
The sum of our parts provoking thoughts, inciting love and memories.
We are but fragments
In the notes we wrote, the shoes we wore, the things we held in our hands,
warm and solid and alive
Pieces of me that fit you now,
here now and gone tomorrow.
Build me a memory room
Let its floor be made of happy thoughts,
tales of kindness and compassion,
of kisses planted on the top of bald heads,
of meals shared, of skinned knees and weddings.
Let the walls be full of snapshots
of sailing, biking,
long Scrabble games,
the titles of books,
nightly phone conversations,
Walls which are hung with words of advice, laughter and a thousand smiles.
Build me a memory room
with clear windows where I can see the seasons change,
for indeed seasons do change.
And while some memories fade,
others will always be glowing the other side of the window,
gossamer like spring clouds after the rain.
Build me a memory room
filled with listening ears,
with eyes that see deeply
and hearts that have room to be filled.
A memory room
room with windows, but no ceiling,
a room which looks up at forever.