I started writing this post Friday morning when I got back home after a funeral. I really want people around me to stop dying. I didn't know her; her son is a friend from my synagogue, and from the hespedim (eulogies) I learned that she was tough, opinionated, and invited all the friends in her life to become family. I didn't know her, but I miss her anyway. (I await with impatience the arrival of those seven babies; it's the least God can do for us this week after taking yet another good person.)
Once again I listened to the rabbi sing El Maleh Rahamim, the one prayer that stuck with me after all those years away. I hear it only during Yizkor and funerals; some synagogues sing it weekly, which doesn't seem right. Like Kol Nidre, it should be meted out only on special occasions.
It's the saddest melody I've ever heard. Most Ashkenazic-flavored prayers, full of minor thirds, plaintive wailing, and slow, heavy cadences, blur together in an indistinct wash of memories from my childhood. But this one left a mark. That first Yizkor after I joined my synagogue--it must have been during Passover, 1999--the first few notes of El Maleh were like an electric shock, dredging up sadness, longing, confusion, and a whole palette of feelings I really didn't want. Eventually I came to appreciate the gift, given in a room filled with love and tears, of this sudden, safe immersion. The cantor at my synagogue, unlike most cantors, sings it gently, compassionately, and without histrionics, like a whisper from beneath the folds of his tallit.
I was able to find two versions of the prayer online. (It seems almost blasphemous to listen to this as entertainment--I invite those who click on the links to do so with peace and reverence.) The first version (click on "Hören" at the lower right to download and play the RealAudio file), on a site about the Holocaust, contains extra words in memory of those who perished, and I'm guessing is sung by a man who himself suffered great losses.
The second (click on "soundfiles/rahamim.rm"; there's some speaking before the singing begins) is slicker and a bit melodramatic (i.e., traditional), but quite moving nevertheless.