When a parent dies, do we honor them as they would have wished or honor them as we choose? Whose wishes take precedence among the living?
Yahrzeit is the annual lighting of a memorial candle on a loved one’s death date. It is also done on the eve of Yom Kippur, the beginning of the new Jewish year. The word itself means anniversary in Yiddish.
It was not done in my parents’ household.
My dad died on February 19, 2008, at 4:30 in the morning. My cell phone rang, waking me from an exhausted sleep in my childhood bedroom at my parents’ Queens, NYC apartment, where the heating system rattled against the winter wind. My mom was asleep in her room. We had been spending every day by my Dad’s side, watching him breathe ragged breaths. My mom asked him to talk to her, but he did not respond. His last words a few days before were simply, “I am dying.”
Throwing on our clothes, I hailed an Uber to try and make it to his hospice bedside a few miles away. But we were too late. We sat in the room in the eerily quiet building with his still-warm body. I held my mom for hours as the birds awoke outside the window. Their insistent calls echoed in the dark room as the winter sun rose. We didn’t speak as the new day opened without my dad.
My dad escaped the Holocaust as a teen, traveling for more than a year with his parents as Hitler stretched his fascist arms bringing each European country into his murderous embrace. They left the Netherlands in their car and slept in churches, strangers’ homes, cars, and any other momentarily safe shelter. They traveled through Belgium, past French villages, and through Spanish farmland, making their way to the coast of Lisbon, Portugal, where they boarded a ship to the USA.
They found temporary refuge through the good graces of sympathetic people. They often lied about being Jewish. What a strange adolescence for an impressionable 16-year-old boy. It created the man he became.
Being persecuted for your religion and culture can elicit one of two reactions. Either you passionately cling to or reject that part of your identity causing the persecution. Perhaps rejecting it makes sense, denying the essence of your mortal enemy due to politics. Do we not amputate gangrenous limbs to preserve life?
So religion was not my father’s friend. For him, it was something that either you fully immersed in through strict adherence to the Torah and Talmud or you eschewed it. He believed anything watered down was phony. He chose to turn his back on Judaism. But perhaps there was also fear? How do you shake having your existence threatened because of your religion? Amputation seemed the safest option.
As a Jew growing up in a Jewish neighborhood in New York City in the 1950s and 1960s, many other Jewish households were not observant. There was no religion in our home. But, still, everyone around me observed aspects of their Jewish culture.
But not us. The High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were days when the local public schools operated as glorified daycare centers for non-Jewish families. Most teachers were absent, and the students who came to school were corralled into school auditoriums overseen by substitutes. This was where I found myself. Dad believed it was the honest option.
But, I wanted to sit with dull and droning old aunts and uncles over a never-ending Rosh Hashanah dinner or Passover Seder and spill purple grape juice on my holiday dress. I wanted to belong and not feel I had to hide my Jewishness. And I wanted to feel normal, like my friends who had bar and bat mitzvahs. This was America. I was American. We don’t worry about being Jewish here.
I witnessed his immigrant skittishness in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He watched Walter Cronkite describe the growing tensions between America and Cuba and the possibility of a nuclear bomb aimed at New York City. The reality of a possible atomic attack hit my dad hard. He turned to us from his armchair. “Go to your rooms and pack a bag. We might leave soon.” He was still a Dutch citizen, so the entire family could go to the Netherlands. My 10-year-old heart knew he was serious. Could we outrun a nuclear bomb?
I decided my father’s view of all-or-nothing Judaism was not for me. I was a modern girl. Reform Judaism offered the richness of the culture and the comfort of rituals that make sense of life. We need vessels in which to pour our grief and joy. Otherwise, we might suffocate from the experience of living.
Yes, Dad. I need the shape of the culture that defined the arc of your life and made you flee Europe. And this connection has become more evident as my husband and I have explored the depths of my family’s connection to Amsterdam. Generations were born, lived, and died there, going back to the 1700s. It was not a stopping place for the wandering Jew, escaping one hostile land for a temporarily welcoming one. This was a home with deep roots. Cemeteries held generations; synagogues witnessed weddings and bar mitzvahs. Generations passed down their rituals, experiences, and names.
Dad, no wonder you turned back on the part of you that disrupted this long chain. No wonder your father did not have you bar mitzvahed. But you still had to flee, leaving behind sisters, brothers, mothers, cousins, and nephews. These names were never whispered in my parents’ house.
So when my grandparents passed away, we buried them without the comfort of words from a rabbi. My young husband held me as I wept at my grandfather’s burial and recited the Kaddish from a pamphlet provided by cemetery workers. I knew there had to be some way to commemorate my grandfather, that wiry, opinionated, devoted father and husband. His strength was the reason for my existence.
Nine years later, when my Oma died, I attended her burial alone with my parents and brother. We did not honor her life with words of comfort. I murmured words of loss to myself.
Sixteen years later, we buried my dad. There was no discussion about a spiritual leader for the funeral. A tiny group came to the funeral home where my brother and I shared brief memories. At the cemetery with my mom, my husband, and our two young adult children not much was said; I was focused on my mom’s needs and not my own.
We had insisted my mom buy two plots, one for herself next to my dad. When her time came, a rabbi led our remembrances. Mom deserved in death what she did not have in her married life.
If Yahrzeit candles had been lit in my childhood household, the entire apartment would have been ablaze. The dates of each relative’s death were documented by the Nazi’s careful record-keeping of those annihilated. But neither these names nor their memories were shared in my parents’ household.
Now, each year I struggle with lighting a candle for my dad. I do not know if I am doing this for myself or to honor the memory of a stubborn and proud man who would not have appreciated it. There is no one to consult. It is my decision. But each year, I appreciate his reasons and choices, yet value my freedom to choose even more.