Remember Your Dead-Book of Ruth-Berserker God (Yizkor) (Shavuot)

(On Kawara, One Million Years)

I wanted to say Yizkor for my father. I don’t usually observe second day of holiday. During the school year, it’s one more day of holiday (chag) that I can’t afford to take off. But this year the second day of Shavuot (Pentecost) fell on Memorial Day, which made it easy enough to take off the morning at synagogue. Assuming you didn’t go, this is what you missed.

Instead of reading the book of Ruth, which is read traditionally on Shavuot, before the Torah reading, at Anschei Chesed Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky has the congregation read from the Book of Ruth after the Torah portion and after the haftorah, right before Yizkor, the memorial service for the dead.

Violence unhooks the first chapter of the Book of Habbakuk from which the Haftorah is drawn — the violence of the Babylonians, the inaction of God, to be relieved finally, in chapter three, the last chapter of this very short prophecy, by more violence. I found riveting the brutal image of God and God’s power in chapter 3, the splendor which fills the earth, the pestilence which marches before Him [sic], the plague that comes forth from his heels, the shattered mountains and scenes of havoc, and the terrible confidence of the prophet, who waits calmly for a people to come attack us, his confidence in a God who makes my feet like deer, in a God who strides me forth upon the heights.

About theomorphic violence I’ve written below, about my tendency to suspend critical judgment and moral cant, and to follow the “argument” embedded in a line of what Steven Kepnes calls “liturgical reasoning.” What follows the terrible havoc in Habbakuk is the more quiet, intimate cadences in the Book of Ruth, with it pastoral idyll hemmed in by more personal catastrophe, the death of Naomi’s sons and Ruth’s husband, the gentle insistence, or desperation, of Ruth before Naomi, that Naomi’s people will be her people, and Naomi’s God will be hers, and the way they enlist the calm patriarchy represented by Boaz who puts things to order just the way they want it, and the way the women in the story get the last word, and name Ruth and Boaz’s child.

Then follows the Yizkor service. You would have thought the city had emptied out for Memorial Day, but I was surprised to find the place mobbed on a Memorial Day Monday. Everybody want to remember their dead, I guess. About Yizkor, Rabbi Kalmanofsky said something striking. He asked us to remember the birth years of all the people in our lives, whom we love, who are important to us, or who were, and to try to imagine what was life like then, when they were children, or young and in their prime, and getting old, and what were their last years like. And all the birth years scroll down your mind. The birthyears of your grandparents, your parents, your brothers or sisters, and partners, and children. The point Jeremy wanted to make is that time is precious, that each year is significant, a very simple point that takes on deep resonance before a crowd of people who have come to remember their dead in a liturgical place.

Visually, Jeremy words reminded me of works by On Kawara, like One Million Years. The works I’ve seen by On Kawara include “paintings” of specific dates stretched out in serial form along the walls of a gallery. The One Million Years  is an incredible artist’s book. What installations or books they don’t necessarily suggest off the bat, visually, is the way these painting or these books are memorial markers. Like the Book of Ruth and like Yizkor, One Million Years looks forwards and backwards. It’s a two part installation, covering 2 million years. One Million Years [Past], is subtitled ‘For all those who have lived and died’), 1969; years 998.031 BC through 1969 AD). As for One Million Years [Future], it is subtitled  ‘For the last one’), 1981; years 1996 AD to 1.001.995 AD.

I’m not sure how these things, the violence and the gentleness, all hold together –Habbakuk, Ruth, Yizkor. I guess you can by cynical. It probably all hangs around “me”  –my people, and my God, and my dead. To me, though, the beauty of the poetry evades the cynicism again and again. After Yizkor, I had to skip out early. The streets were incredibly still; pretty empty and quiet because of Memorial Day and very, very bright under a hot sun. I’ve never thought too much about On Kawara. You walk through the exhibits, you look at the dates, and it all looks the same. Now I’m not so sure. Yizkor and Rabbi Kalmanofsky’s commets drew works like One Million Years into more personal dimensions, while the On Kawara helps project these particularisms onto a larger, temporal scale.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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