‘Mameh, Mameh’: Service leader recalls moving Yom Kippur story

In every language in the world, the warmest, most comforting and soothing word is mother.
In 1992, I was engaged as a cantor for the high holidays by a small congregation in Texas. They had a rabbi, but the congregants felt that, for the High Holidays, they wanted more than just a lay member of the congregation in order to enhance the services.
On Yom Kippur, during the Yizkor service, as I was chanting the moving El Molay Rachamim, I heard sobbing from the corner of the sixth row. It was a man in his 60s, who kept whispering, “Mameh, Mameh.”
After the two days of Rosh Hashanah and Kol Nidre eve, I recognized most of the people. I hadn’t seen this man before. I assumed that he was so emotional because he just lost his mother.
At the end of the day, I was about to join the congregants in the auditorium to break the fast, when that man approached me, introduced himself as Sam and thanked me for the service. I told him that I didn’t think I had seen him during the previous services.
He stared at me for a few seconds. Then he said, “I never go to synagogue except for Yom Kippur.”
He did not utter these words confrontationally, rather he stated them in a matter of fact way.
There was sadness in his voice. He piqued my curiosity. I asked him if we could go outside and talk. That’s when Sam told me his story.
“In March of 1944, the Germans entered Hungary and in May started assembling the Jews and shipping them to Auschwitz,” he said. “Mameh and I managed to hide for a few months, but finally we were caught and sent to the death camp. Before we were separated, Mameh told me, ‘Shmuli, you look older than you are. Tell them that you are 16, so you will survive. One more thing, tomorrow is Yom Kippur. It’s the first one since you became a bar mitzvah. Don’t forget to fast.’ The next day, Mameh was no more.
“You see, Cantor,” he intoned, “Yom Kippur’s Yizkor is also Mameh’s Yahrtzeit, so I come to say the Kaddish to honor her memory and I also fast to keep her last request.”
Sam paused for a while as we both stood there in silence. “As you can see, I am a big man and people will tell you that Sam can be a pretty tough businessman,” he said, “but on Yom Kippur, during the chanting of El Molay….” He choked slightly, “I am again little Shmuli, who lost his mameh. Even though it has been many years.” His voice trailed off, “I still miss mameh very much.”
Due to the difference of the time between the United States and Israel, I waited until it was morning there, then I called. “Boker tov, Ima,” I said when my mother picked up the phone.
“Is that you?” she asked concerned. “Is everything O.K.? You just called me before Yom Kippur.”
“Everything is fine, ima,” I said. I just missed you and I wanted to hear your voice.”
Ten months later, my ima passed away. Even though it’s been many years, I still miss her, miss her a lot.

(Moshe Ben-David lives in Louisville.)

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