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West Hartford congregation publishes book of personal Yizkor tributes

THE ART OF MEMORY
West Hartford congregation publishes book of personal Yizkor tributes
By Cindy Mindell

In 1978, a group of Jews from around greater Hartford established Kehilat Chaverim, a member-run congregation with a do-it-yourself approach to Jewish practice. With no rabbi or building, the group worships and celebrates in members’ homes and at locations throughout the community, drawing from established traditions and creating its own.
To mark its 30th anniversary, Kehilat Chaverim is publishing “Fond Remembrances 1989-2009,” a collection of 80 original memorial readings by 40 individuals, which were presented at the congregation’s Yom Kippur services over the past 20 years.
“These poems and personal essays pay tribute to our deceased family members, friends, and, in some cases, people we never knew but felt a connection to,” says co-editor Joan Walden, who lives in West Hartford and contributed several remembrances to the book. The book also contains more than 100 black-and-white photographs, some dating to the beginning of the 20th century. “The photos add a special quality and underscore the poignancy of the memories,” says co-editor Rafie Podolsky, who wrote about the late Herb Hoffman, who had been an active member of the congregation.
Kehilat Chaverim comprises about 75 households in greater Hartford, and has neither a rabbi nor a building. High Holiday services are held at the Mandell JCC in West Hartford and Sunday-school classes meet at the Watkinson School in West Hartford. Shabbat services and bnai-mitzvah celebrations are held at various locations, including members’ homes.
Walden was 12 when her mother died, and she always enjoyed Yizkor, held as a separate service on Yom Kippur at the synagogue of her youth. After moving to West Hartford in the late ’70s, Walden helped found Kehilat Chaverim and suggested incorporating Yizkor into the Yom Kippur service. During every Yizkor service since, several members write and recite a memory piece about a family member or friend who has died.
In 1989, the congregation published a book of selected readings from the first 10 years of Yizkor services. In 2005, Podolsky floated the idea of publishing a second volume. He sorted through Kehilat Chaverim’s archives, making a list of the readings submitted since 1989, but the organization’s steering committee wasn’t ready to focus on producing a book. When Walden got involved last year, the project started moving forward.
“Truth be told, Rafie initially was more excited about taking on the project than I was because I had just finished editing ‘Remembering the Old Neighborhood’ for the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Hartford and knew how much work it was going to take to create the kind of book we wanted,” Walden says. “But I knew deep down that it was an important project, especially since Kehilat Chaverim was celebrating its 30th anniversary.”
An attorney who works with legal-aid programs in greater Hartford, Podolsky once served on the Hartford Preservation Alliance.
“My involvement in the book comes from the same respect: don’t throw away old stuff,” he says. “Yizkor taps right into that. By remembering people, they live eternally. That’s a motivating force for members who do readings: the book is the next step for them in remembering; it’s a more permanent form.”
For Podolsky, the book was an opportunity to create a record of Kehilat Chaverim’s activity, but Walden envisioned a broader audience. A review of the 20 years’ worth of readings brought up many universal themes, Podolsky says. “Even if you don’t know the reader or the deceased, the remembrances express universal feelings about the people who died, so someone reading the book might find parallels in his or her own relationships. And perhaps other congregations might be inspired to do the same kind of thing.”
At last year´s High Holiday services, Walden announced the project and asked for volunteers. Deanne Shapiro, Margaret Levy, and Faith Fuerst joined the editorial committee and Judi Ann Goodman, a graphic designer and artist, volunteered to design the book.
“I’ve been coming to Kehilat Chaverim since the early ’80s and have always loved it; it gave me a place to go on the High Holidays where I felt comfortable,” says Goodman. “I always wanted to do something to give back.” A watercolorist and professional graphic designer, Goodman was also charged with digitally restoring many of the archival photos used in the book.
“I doubt that any of them, especially Judi, realized how big an undertaking this would be,” Walden says. “But throughout the ensuing months, everyone stepped up to the plate and did the requisite work which included copy-editing, getting permission to reprint some poems and other writings by published authors and photographers, and contacting people who had read stories but hadn’t given us copies at the time.”
Committee members also tracked down photographs to accompany each reading.
“The project has been a labor of love and an important symbol of our group,” Walden says. “I believe that this book embodies the meaning of community and friendship. It doesn’t matter whether a reader actually knows any of the authors or the subjects because there is a universal quality that captures the love of relatives and friends in their imperfect and close-to-perfect behaviors. What you find when reading this book is that in many cases, the subtle and small acts are what are remembered and cherished.”
To obtain a copy of the book, a minimum contribution of $18 to Kehilat Chaverim is requested. For more information: (860) 216-5216 / kehilatchaverim@gmail.com / www.kehilatchaverim.org.


A LETTER TO AUNT VIVIAN (Yizkor 2001)

In Memory of Vivian Thal
June 11, 1914 – June 24, 2000

By Joan Walden

Aunt Vivian,

Something good happens, and I want to call you.

Something bad happens, and I want to call you.

Something funny, sad, silly or unique happens, and I want to call you.

Nothing much happens, and I want to call you.
I go on a cruise, and you are everywhere – in the cabin, on the rear deck, in the dining room, in the casino. You are posing for a photo with the ship’s captain. You are laughing and making others laugh. You are in the casino and breaking even. You are playing bingo and winning.
I vividly remember the last phone conversation I had with my father. He was fine. There was no reason to believe he wouldn’t always be there. And then, a few days later – 28 years ago today – I got the call from Uncle Herman that he had died.
I also remember the last phone conversation I had with you. It was after you returned from California and were at Elliott and Bea’s. You hadn’t felt well while away and cut your trip short. A week later, I held your hand in the hospital and you spoke my name. When I told you that we were going to step out for a bite to eat, you said in your characteristic way, “So, go.” I kissed you good-bye, not knowing that it was really good-bye.
I think of you all the time, remembering the love you gave me, the things we shared, the private thoughts we exchanged that we never told anyone else. I remember after I’d been visiting with you for a few days and had just gotten ready for our day’s outing, I walked into the living room and you said, “Today your hair looks good.”
There is a red-tailed hawk that has been coming around our house nearly every day for the past several months. I’m told that hawks are the best of parents. I like to think that this hawk – I call her Rabin (the nickname my father gave you as a little girl) – is somehow connected to you, that your spirit soars by in this form, to let me know that you are watching and that all is well.
I miss you every single day. You are deeply embedded in my heart and my mind, and nothing will ever dislodge you.
I love you forevermore.

Joni …7/5/01


MOM (Yizkor 1993)
In Memory of Gerry Cowan
May 17, 1914 – December 4, 1992

By Neil Cowan

Mom,
I miss you.
It’s been quite a while
since I’ve seen you,
a lot longer
since we’ve spoken,
other than
in the stillness of
my heart.

You know
I was never much of a correspondent.
I always preferred
to call.
And I have some things to say,
but since there are
no phone lines
where you are
I will speak with you
spirit to spirit,
and I won’t call collect.

Like John Cameron Swayze
with his Timex Watches
I put you through
every conceivable test and
you always came up ticking.

Remember the tests?
Being such a picky eater,
Frequently missing-in-action with my friends
at dinnertime,
adolescent rebellion,
flunking out of college,
getting fired from jobs,
losing a wife,
and gaining a surprise granddaughter.

And yet
through it all,
you stuck with me
buckled to my body,
“Takes a licking
and keeps on ticking,”
dependable,
constant,
yes, and lecturing me in that
“Your father and I think that…”
“Why don’t you just…”
“If only you would…”
way of yours,
filled with a wisdom I did not recognize
and a love I could not hear
at the time.

Eventually,
in my ninth hour,
I woke up
And ceased my testing.
You forgave me
one
more
time.
And in your final years,
all
I could hear
was the steadfast
tick
of your lovebeat.

I want you to know
that whatever good
is in me
my kindness, service to others,
and social activism
comes from
you.

Mom,
though the steady beat
of your heart
has wound down
and ceased,
I will forever
hear you ticking
in my ear.

I am still
your loving son,
Richie Neil.


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