Expatriate Owl

A politically-incorrect perspective that does not necessarily tow the party line, on various matters including but not limited to taxation, academia, government and religion.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Yahrzeit Boards

With few exceptions, every synagogue has one or more memorial plaque boards, (or "Yahrzeit Board," to use the Yiddish terminology) where the names of the departed are engrossed. They come in diverse styles, but typically, one donor underwrites the big board, which is then filled in with individual bronze plaques bearing the name and date of death of the deceased. Usually (but not always), there are light bulbs which are illuminated on the anniversary of the death, and also on holidays such as Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. In America, this information is typically in both English and Hebrew.

They are usually purchased by a family member, anyone with the funds and inclination can provide a plaque; in my own congregation, a few of us chipped in for a plaque for an upstanding community member who had suffered severe business reversals resulting in the loss of his home, and whose widow, we knew, could not afford the memorial recognition befitting her husband.

Even the reprobates among us are given the due respect of a memorial plaque, not so much to honor them as to signify the sanctity of life. I'm sure that the commissioning of the infamous gangster and snitch Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel 's memorial plaque for the Bialystoker Synagogue's yahrzeit board did not diminish in the least the posthumous punishment no doubt now being inflicted upon Bugsy, which he so rightfully deserves.

A synagogue's yahrzeit board often gives great insight into the character of the congregation. Which is why I often go out of my way to read each and every name on the board when I am in a synagogue that is not my own.

Today, for example, my wife and I were guests at a wedding held at a synagogue. So as not to go bonkers from the din of the dancing and music, I got up and walked around, and when I entered the main sanctuary, I read all of the names on the several yahrzeit boards there. This particular congregation has amongst its membership a large number of people who survived the Holocaust of Nazi Germany (and now, children and grandchildren thereof), and indeed, their founding rabbi himself was a survivor. This is reflected in the memorial plaques. For one thing, there is a whole wall in memory of the Holocaust, not unique but neither is it particularly common. And some of the individual bronze plaques on the yahrzeit board are for Holocaust victims. There is more than one plaque with multiple names, memorializing a family that was killed by the Nazis. One plaque, in fact, has four or five names and, in Hebrew, states that the date of their death and place of burial are unknown, and therefore, Yom Kippur, the holiest date of the year, will be celebrated as their yahrzeit day (my wife's grandfather did similar with his parents, whom he was unable to convince to leave what is now Moldova, and who disappeared during the war).

But the congregation also has a number of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, and this is also reflected on the yahrzeit board. In such regard, I saw a familiar name amongst the brass plaques. I saw a plaque with the name "Eugene Marshalik," who, you will recall, was a New York City Auxiliary Police Officer (and immigrant from the former Soviet Union) who died in the line of duty on 14 March 2007. And so, the demographic shift from Holocaust survivors to immigrants from the former Soviet Union is apparent on the synagogue's yahrzeit board.

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