Though I have to say goodbye
Don’t let it make you cry
For even if I’m far away
I hold you in my heart
I sing a secret song to you
Each night we are apart
Though I have to travel far
Each time you hear a sad guitar
Know that I’m with you
The only way that I can be
Until you’re in my arms again
This song, which won this year’s Oscar for Best Original Song is “Remember Me” from Coco, the movie also winning Best Animated Film. It’s a Disney Pixar movie about a talented young boy named Miguel Rivera from a small village in Mexico who aspires to be a musician… but he was born into a family that has completely banned music from their lives.
Angry at his family destroying his secret music collection, especially his handmade guitar, Miguel breaks into the mausoleum of the local celebrity singer and takes his legendary guitar. For stealing from the dead, Miguel is instantly transported to the Land of the Dead. On the bridge of marigolds from the cemetery to the Land of the Dead he encounters his deceased ancestors who are heading toward Miguel’s village to visit his living family on Día De Los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. He is able to immediately identify his skeletal forebears by recalling their portraits and photographs that have been left on his family’s household altar. On his journey he discovers his estranged great great grandfather musician and the trauma that caused his family to forever shun music.
I was introduced to the world of Coco 20 years ago when my 9th grade Spanish teacher took our class on a field trip south of the border to Tijuana, Mexico. I vividly remember being confused at the peddlers at the open-air market selling Calaveras, smiling sugar skulls, and our Spanish teacher explaining to us that this is an old Aztec and Mexican tradition that these are placed on ofrendas, household altars, as a tribute to represent departed relatives along with their portraits, favorite foods and keepsakes on Día De Los Muertos to welcome them for their annual visit.
It was pretty jarring at the time to see all the grinning skeletons but, thinking back on it, many societies have different ways of memorializing our dearly departed and the Mesoamerican Aztecs were isolated and far removed from European taboos and fears of death. Perhaps this is just a tangible version of what we will be doing during Yizkor in a few moments, as we recall those who are no longer physically with us. We should not just feel the sorrow of loss, but the gamut of emotions for memories of their lives, good and bad. We should also see it as a celebration of life. But it is not only the words of El Maleh Rachamim that we will say, but the way that we say them, the way that we sing them that get us in the mindset of remembrance.
I would argue that it is the melody, more than the liturgy, that speaks to many people. Indeed, every melody we will hear in the coming service is intentionally connected to the prayer, its meaning, and evoked feeling:
“Remember Me” is reprised multiple times in Coco: as an over-the-top mariachi performance for the singer’s fans to keep him famous, a wistfully slow lullaby by the songwriter to his young daughter, Coco, as he prepares to travel far away on tour, and a lachrymose attempt almost a century later by her great-grandson to refresh his now-elderly catatonic great-grandmother’s memory of her father’s lullaby. Three times the same exact song, the same exact lyrics, but in each instance, vastly different in singer, audience, meaning, and feeling. The first iteration has the audience laughing. The next two have the audience weeping. Then, in true Disney fashion, a feel-good pop version of “Remember Me” plays over the closing credits and the sound of our tears.
Melodies are a link to the past. Music was highly encouraged in my family. One of my earliest memories is when my grandfather, Tommy Rutta, born in Warsaw, would bounce baby me on his knee singing Yiddish classics like Oyfen Pripichek. Before I learned how to speak I learned how to sing, “Kometz Aleph Oh.” Melodies are handed down. Like Miguel Rivera, I, too had a great-great-grandfather who was a musician: A chazan from the old country who emigrated to America, Simon Silverman. He wrote a melody to a collection of biblical verses that has been passed down through the generations of my family. My grandfather would have us sing it during Shabbat dinners. But, it turns out, it also had words! Everyone in my family, even the least musically-inclined, knows the melody by heart and nobody knows the words except for a few “Shaloms” here and there. Even I had to ask my grandfather to remind me of the words last week (for future reference it’s on page 362 of the old Silverman Siddur).
I want everyone to close their eyes for a moment. Think of your favorite song. Think of its opening chords. Think of your favorite part of the song. Think of what it does for you, what you feel when you are listening to it. Does it pump you up like the theme from Rocky, “The Final Countdown”, or “Danger Zone”? Is it a song for a sad day? A victorious song? An alarm clock? Will it now stay in your head for all of Yom Kippur?
Open your eyes. I’m about to tell you what opens my eyes. Every weekday morning at 6 am I am greeted with the dulcet and calming tones of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. This is only alarm #1 of many. If I press snooze then 5 minutes later I hear louder and more intense melodies and if I dare stay in bed until 6:15… I face the wrath of the dreaded kazoos! Needless to say, I make sure I’m out of bed before that. Depending on when I finally shut off my alarm my morning can start with calmness or irritation.
I love a wide variety of music but there’s nothing like the chills I get when I hear those opening chords of “Bohemian Rhapsody” or the ethereal echo of John Lennon’s voice in “A Day in the Life,” how those songs build up from quietude into glorious crescendos. I don’t identify with the depressing lyrics of either of these songs, rather it is the music of each of these songs, particularly the transition from sad to happy, that get my blood boiling. Freddie Mercury and John Lennon both died before I ever heard their music, and yet their music pierces my soul and their names and legacies live on whenever their music is played.
Even the same song played or sung in the exact same style can elicit different responses in the listener. When we pray for the healing of body and soul of loved ones we often sing Debbie Friedman’s Mi Shebeyrach. Some love it, some hate it. To be honest, until a few months ago I was relatively indifferent to that melody. In my grandmother Devora’s final hours, my father played her Debbie Friedman’s music, and at the moment my grandmother’s soul ascended it was Mi Shebeyrachthat was playing at her bedside. Today I tear up whenever I hear it.
Today is a day when we confront our mortality and the meanings of our lives. In between our confessions of Ashamnuand Al Chet in anguish we ask God, “What are we, what are our lives, our goodness, our righteousness, our achievements, our strength, our victories? What can we say before You, God, when heroes count for nothing before You? Famous people are as if they never existed, the wise seem ignorant, the clever ones as if they lack reason! Most of their deeds are nothingness, and their days are futility! Humanity has no superiority over animals because everything is futility!” If God lives forever, what difference can we mortals make in our infinitesimally short lives? What legacy do we leave behind in this world?
There is a concept in the Día De Los Muertos theology that the dead continue to exist until nobody remembers them or knows of them. One of the calavera skeletons in Coco toasts a compatriot who ceases to exist in the land of the dead. When pressed by Miguel, the living visitor, he responds, “He’s been forgotten. When there’s no one left in the living world who remembers you… you disappear from this world. We call it ‘The Final Death.’ […] Our memories… They have to be passed down by those who knew us in life. In the stories they tell about us. But there’s no one left alive. to pass down Chich’s stories.”
God doesn’t want us to be forgotten! In the final moments of Yom Kippur, in the last confession, we will quote the prophet Ezekiel: “Ki Lo Echpotz BeMot HaMet, Neum Adonai Elohim, VeHaShivu VichYu.” “I don’t desire the death of the dead, declares the Lord God, rather that they return and live.” And God says through Isaiah to the most unfortunate of people: “I will give them, in My House, and within my walls, a Yad VaShem, a monument and a name, better than sons or daughters, I will give them an everlasting name that will never perish.”
Let’s try picturing our lives differently for a moment. Imagine that we are a single note, a single instrument in an orchestra of seven and a half billion musicians, where the retired players are swapped out for fresh ones for all of eternity. In this orchestra one musician is of infinite importance; a single player can make or break the symphony.
My teacher, Rabbi Harold Schulweis, loved to tell an apocryphal anecdote about the violinist Yitzhak Perlman.
We have seen Yitzhak Perlman who walks the stage with braces on both legs, on two crutches. He takes his seat, unhinges the clasps of his legs, tucking one leg back, extending the other, laying down his crutches, placing the violin under his chin.
On one occasion one of his violin strings broke. The audience grew silent but the violinist did not leave the stage. He signaled the maestro, and the orchestra began its part. The violinist played with power and intensity on only three strings. With three strings, he modulated, changed and recomposed the piece in his head. He re-tuned the strings to get different sounds, turned them upward and downward. The audience screamed with delight, applauded their appreciation. Asked later how he had accomplished this feat, the violinist answered, “It is my task to make music with what remains.”
A legacy mightier than a concert. Make music with what remains. Complete the song left for us to sing, transcend the loss, play it out with heart, soul and might with all remaining strength within us.
But it’s more than just playing on three strings. The music must be played in the first place!
In a few minutes, in the Martyrology, we will sing the song Ani Maamin, the 12th of Maimonides’ 13 principles of faith, that we believe with perfect faith that the Messiah will come! Depending on the occasion these same words can be put to a victorious anthem or to an elegiac dirge. It is, of course, the latter we will sing today to lament our fallen ancestors. But the story behind this heart-wrenching melody is even more heart-wrenching: According to the legend, on the train to Treblinka an elderly Modzitz chazan, Azriel David Fastig, started to sing, “Ani Maamin.” People are shocked, we are being led as sheep to the slaughter and you’re singing about the messiah‽ But he chants his melody “Ani Maamin, Ani Maamin, Ani Maamin” and people start to join in and eventually the people on the cattle car start to sing with all their heart, soul, and might “Ani Maamin, Ani Maamin, Ani Maamin, B’Emunah Shleymah, Beviat HaMashiach, Beviat HaMashiach Ani Maamin, VeAf Al Pi SheYityameyah Im Kol Zeh Ani Maamin.” As the train began to slow, the frail old man announced that he would give half his share in the World to Come to anyone who brings his melody to the Modzitzer Rebbe who had escaped to the United States. Two men volunteer and jump out of the moving car. One is killed on impact and one escapes, making his way to the Land of Israel and mailing the notes to the Modzitzer Rebbe in New York. That elderly chazan and the people in that car murdered at Treblinka live on when we sing that song. Our hope lives on when we sing that song.
We always try to end on a high note. “Remember Me” closes with one final stanza:
For I will soon be gone
And let the love we have live on
And know that I’m with you the only way that I can be
So, until you’re in my arms again
Maybe we have no smiling skulls, dancing skeletons, bridges of marigolds, where our ancestors cross over and join us for an annual celebration. But we do have the memories and the songs. We must keep them alive forever. We must remember them.
Gmar Chatimah Tovah.
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