I am haunted and moved by one story of grieving that emerged from those unimaginable losses.
Otsuchi is a quiet town on the Japanese coast, about 350 miles northeast of Tokyo. It had a population of about 16,000 in 2010, with an economy that was dominated by the presence of fishermen who operated out of the town’s port.
Of the 16,000, ten percent of the town were either confirmed dead or missing. The scope of the loss for this tiny town is incomprehensible.
The town’s grieving was magnified by the nature of the loss. Like all unexpected disasters, the good people of Otsuchi never had the chance to say goodbye to their loved ones.
A 70 year old landscape architect from Otsuchi, named Itaru Sasaki, who was struggling with the loss of his cousin, had an idea. In his beautiful garden, which enjoys a picturesque view of the sea below, Mr. Sasaki built a small structure that looks like an old fashion British telephone booth. It has glass panels on all four sides.
Inside is a rotary telephone. The phone does not function. There is no working phone service inside the booth.
Yet Itaru Sasaki’s phone booth has become an international site of pilgrimage for the broken hearted.
Since he opened his garden to the public in 2012, more than 25,000 people have visited. They come because the booth gives them permission to pick up the phone, and call their dead. The booth is therapeutic. It gives folks the chance to process their grief tangibly, out loud, and in private.
Cultural anthropologists are quick to point out that Eastern religious traditions have long since venerated communication with, and worship of, the dead.
But what about Judaism. Could such a phone booth ever find a place in a Jewish garden?
The more I have thought about Itaru Sasaki and his “wind telephone” (as it has become known) the more I have thought of it as an object that embodies extraordinary Jewish values and spiritual energy.
For one thing, there’s the role that the booth plays in remembering and honoring the dead. I do not have to tell you - those who have taken time out of this day to be here for Yizkor on Yom Kippur - I do not have to tell you that Judaism is a tradition of memory. Our obligations to the deceased do not end when their burial or memorial service is complete. We hold on to the fulness of our grief for seven days. And we hold on to some of that pain for the remainder of the first 30 days. And we hold on to some of that shock for the remainder of the first year. And then we re-visit our losses…for Yizkor four times a year; and on the yartzheit once a year…and we put up a stone for each of them, to memorialize their final resting places. And we look at their pictures.
And we tell stories about them. And we cherish their objects as family heirlooms. And we give to the causes that spoke to them. And we strive to imitate the best of who they were. And we name our children and our grandchildren and our great grandchildren after them.
We remember them.
And so Itaru Sasaki’s phone booth is a blessing, because it gives people in mourning permission to remember.
But Judaism also affirms the value of our speaking…out loud if we are so inclined…or silently if that is more in our comfort zone…to our loved ones.
And we know this from the age-old custom of reciting Kaddish…according to Jewish law for eleven (and some say twelve) months for our parents…and 30 days for everyone else we are close to.
The literature of our tradition primarily thinks of Kaddish as a chance for us to speak to, and with God. It’s a litany of praise to God.
A more contemporary reading suggests that Kaddish is really about ourselves. Its recitation gives us a chance each day to stop, catch our breath, process our feelings, and remember. Kaddish, in this sense, has little to do with God, and everything to do with us.
But there’s a third reading of Kaddish: that its recitation is akin to picking up Itaru Sasaki’s black rotary phone. It is us reaching out with love and with hope…doing our part to initiate a real conversation with our dead - because there is always value in telling those we are closest to that we love them. That we miss them. That we need them.
We don’t just act this value out when we recite Kaddish. There’s also a beautiful custom that comes out of our Eastern European pre-modern canon of female ritual practice.
Ashkenazi women have long chosen to make “soul candles” which were then lovingly brought to illuminate the synagogue on Kol Nidre. Our female ancestors would recite tekhines….yiddish prayers composed by women for women…in which they would pray for their deceased loved ones. But they’d also pray to their loved ones, entering in to conversation with them, bringing them up to speed on what was happening in their world, and asking the souls of their loved ones to bring healing, and hope, and good…to them, and to the rest of the world.
Just like Itaru Sasaki’s phone booth, our recitation of Kaddish, and our remembrance of loved ones can take the form of conversation, dialogue, and heartfelt prayer to the ones we’ve lost.
I so wish that I had a magical phone booth that I could share with you - one that had a line that could literally connect us with the ones who have gone before us.
I don’t have a phone.
But I have the Jewish version. A soul candle.
We light our own soul candle now, kindled in memory of all those whom we have loved and lost. As we call out to them, we hope and pray that their loving presence will safely carry us in to the new year ahead. And we offer up a contemporary tekhine, adapted from the Israeli poet Chaya Kaplan-Lester:
Let me light
More than flame today.
More than wax and wick
and sliver stick of wood.
More than shallow stream of words
recited from a pocket book.
But rather with this touch of torch
and spell of prayer
let me light a way towards You
let me dare
a rapt request
that with this lamp
the world will rest
a stilling hand on pounding heart
and take a breath
– a pause
– to start
the state of things
…just as they are […]
[On this Shabbat of Shabbats]
rest us well
in humbling fact
that we are made replete with lacks
The future’s but an ornament
on bounding limbs of present tense.
All force and foist
of fists and fights
flooded out by candle-light
incandescent with acceptance
– allowance made for imperfections.
We offer up our rest
Forbearance on our table set.
So as sun sets
we raise a blaze.
We offer praise.
As light leans in
and grips go lax
our ache for future
slips into our hurting past.
Arrival, a candle.
Impatience, in vain.
The World to Come
has come, and come undone, by flame.