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.
Covid has separated us, but it has also opened opportunities to give the idea of community new meaning.
A minyan is a group of at least ten Jews meeting in prayer. Congregation Kehillath Israel in Brookline, Massachusetts, has hosted morning, afternoon, and evening minyans for over 100 years, but only in 2020, with the advent of the Covid lockdown, did it begin to experiment with holding minyans on the Zoom platform.
Very quickly the KI morning Zoom room became a home for people from many congregations in the area. In the room were people who knew each other and others who knew no one, people who had been regulars before Covid and people, like me, who needed a way to fulfill their obligation to say regular prayers to mourn a relative. Together, over the months of daily prayer, people got used to seeing each other in the Zoom room. There were conversations before services began; and then at the end of the service, when it was time for the mourner’s kaddish, it became the custom of participants to offer the names of their loved ones.
At some point in the summer of 2020 participants began to add a few words about those they had lost. Over the months that followed, the Zoom room became a place to share memories. During Covid, when attendance at funerals was severely restricted and there were no in-person shivas, the Memory Room became a place to share, to laugh and to cry. Each morning we were witnesses to each other's stories and yes, to each other's grief. And over time, we were also able to see the transition from grief to something new as participants finished their eleven months of saying memorial prayers.
The Memory Room has been a place to share memories, but also to grow closer as a community.
This is a story with three themes.
How does my own spiritual space connect to the virtual spiritual space that exists online?
How do the short descriptions of the loved ones, for whom we prayed Kaddish each day, help to create bridges?
How is community created during a time of overwhelming isolation and fear?
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
Congregation Kehillath Israel
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
on the other side of the window,
gossamer like the sunlight 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
a room with windows, but no ceiling,
a room which looks up at forever.
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.
When we were small
We would run to the neighborhood playground
The hot top would form tar bubbles
which would stick to the bottoms of our sneakers.
We'd bound to the swing set
A giant structure
Large and metal and hot
Its chains reaching up high
We would twirl on the swings
until we were dizzy
Our moms, wearing big sunglasses and
pedal pushers would push us.
Higher and higher we would go
until our feet touched the clouds
We'd climb the impossibly tall slide
Twelve steps up and we were at the top of world,
burning our bums as we slid down
Our moms were there to catch us at the bottom
We'd climb the monkey bars
Hang upside down by our knees
Our moms would stand to the side and watch the show
We'd try to balance on the see-saw but the other kid
would always be just a little too heavy and
we'd get stuck up high,
terrified that we'd hit the ground with a thump.
We'd call for our moms when we hit the ground.
And there they were to dry our tears
In those days our moms were young
Their faces were not yet lined
Their memories were still intact
Their voices and their wills were strong
They had strength and robust health
They'd laugh and they'd yell at us
but they would catch us at the bottom of the slide
They'd tuck us in at night
make sure our ears were clean
They'd wipe our noses and
feed us red jello and homemade cookies,
meatloaf and chicken soup
and peanut butter and fluff sandwiches.
Time passes and our moms are no longer young
Eventually they lose their strength
And one day we lose them
We cry and we mourn that they are gone.
But, close your eyes ....
Your mom is always there in the light behind your eyelids
With your eyes closed tight she is still at that park
still pushing you on those crazy swings
And telling you not to stand on the top of the slide
She is still in her kitchen baking cookies
and calling you in for supper at the end of the day
Laughing, teaching, being a mom
Behind your closed eyes
She is still young and vibrant,
and full of movement
She is still waking you in the morning
and tucking you in at night.
She is still at that playground, in your kitchen,
in your heart
When you close your eyes
your mom will always be young
and your mom will always be your mom
and your mom will love you always
so close your eyes, and smile
Poem by Leann Shamash
Thank you to Larry Cohen, Robbie Shinder, Laurie Gershkowitz, Julie and Yana Kozhukhin, Judi Ehrlich, Richard Weinstein, Ann Neumann, Anne Leeds, Megan Shamash and Bethany Roditi who provided me with feedback and helped with the editing.
Thank you to each of the morning minyan participants who wrote about their loved ones and allowed me to photograph them and share their images and writing here.
Thank you to Rabbi Hamilton, Larry Cohen and Congregation Kehillath Israel for welcoming us to the morning minyan.
Listen to the Kaddish Prayer on Zoom
Weave Me a Healing
light tiptoes through the shades,
defeats the shadows
as the ghosts of the night slowly fade,
along with midnight dreams.
Butterscotch light puddles
And melts into
A new day dawning
Weave me a healing
for my threads are broken.
over and under
so they crest
like the ocean tide.
For the stitches are uneven,
the weave erratic.
Colors bleed together,
heartbreak and tears
Bumps and holes,
skips and missteps
knotted into a tapestry of life of loss. Weave me a healing.
Sit me in a warm corner by a window
where I can see the sky.
Where the sun spreads her warming rays over
the scattered threads of my life.
I gather the threads in trembling fingers.
Over and under;
one stitch forward, two stitches backward.
Bends and arcs;
Each a stitch of darkness and light.
Of sad endings
and someday beginnings.
Please enter the room.
Sit by the window with me.
Hold the threads in your hands
for I cannot weave this alone.
Guide my hands.
Pull gently on the threads
so they weave evenly.
Gage the stitches
so to smooth the design.
Help me restore
the rhythm of the weave,
the joy of creating.
The breath, the hope,
the smile, the laughter.
to weave a healing.