“Why are there so many candles on the stove?” my son used to ask when he was a little boy, clearly perplexed by the rows of Rokeach yahrzeit lights blazing away on my stove-top erev Yom Kippur.
There are so many, in fact, that I’m always surprised my smoke detector doesn’t go off.
I think I’m the best (if not only) customer for these candles at our local convenience store. A Hindu immigrant, the owner knows to have a plentiful supply on hand once it’s August, in preparation for my stocking up before the High Holy Days. When the notices about Yom Kippur’s Yizkor service start arriving from synagogue, I begin to collect the yahrzeit candles from Sunnydale Store to be sure I’ll have enough for everyone.
Sometime in late summer, I start my mental check list: my parents, my maternal grandparents, my two sisters who died as children before I was born, all the aunts and uncles on my father’s side who died childless and have no one to light a candle for them. In recent years, with the deaths of the remaining members of my father’s generation, I’ve started lighting candles for his parents, too, since I’m not sure that anyone else observes yahrzeit for them. In our synagogue’s Book of Remembrance published each fall, our entry is nearly twice as long as every other family’s. It feels a little excessive to be claiming all these dead relatives as belonging to me.
How did I end up the default, designated mourner for my entire clan? Why do I feel this obligation to remember them with ritual?
The candles are a mnemonic device for me, reinforcing family memories. I was an only child who absorbed early on the message that I would one day carry on the same role as my mother. Like many women of her generation and mine, my mother was the keeper of the family photographs, documents, mementos (stock certificates from my grandfather’s defunct dish-making company, a watch that my grandmother received from her parents) family history and myth. My mother was also the responsible party who received the annual yahrzeit notices from the Home of the Sages of Israel.
Now it’s my turn to receive—and pay—the bills from the cemetery about annual care for various family plots. Nearly every month, I get a notice about someone’s yahrzeit—for an aunt, perhaps, or one of my grandparents, or my own parents. In turn, the checkbook comes out, the candle goes on the stove, and there is a part of me that feels as if I’m back in the shtetl or the Lower East Side, carrying out those responsibilities that were also my foremothers’.
Remembering the dead in such specific ways is very much a part of what it means for me to be Jewish. I still hear my father’s voice, urging me to remember; as the baby of his family, he absorbed the lessons from his observant, Russian-born father about the need to tell and preserve family stories. This feels like an ultimate commandment for me to observe: to remember not only significant events in Jewish history, but also the particulars of my own family history. I’m the only one left who heard those stories who still cares to transmit them. Maintaining the tradition of yahrzeit, or saying Kaddish, would be perceived by my cousins as both quaint and meaningless.
So it falls to me. I am quite literally the “keeper of the flame.” Or, more accurately, the keeper of all the flames for all those deceased relatives who have no one else. As I prepared to collect my yahrzeit candles for yet another Yizkor, with, sadly, still more candles to add, I am oddly grateful, the candles on my stove an acknowledgment of my central place at the fulcrum of what remains of my family.
Merri Rosenberg is a freelance writer and editor based in Westchester County, NY, whose work has appeared regularly in the New York Times, Jewish Week and national publications.