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January 18, 2012
As the anniversary of my father's passing approaches, I know I will soon be receiving a letter from my synagogue reminding me of his yahrzeit. Since yahrzeit follows the Hebrew calendar, it's almost as if there are two dates to note my father's death: January 23rd and the 12th of Sh'vat. I've come to think of those two days in very different terms. For me, January 23rd is a day of sadness. It's a day to mourn the father I loved and still miss. I was only 11 when my dad passed away; it still feels odd to me that I have lived more years of my life without my father than with him present. I'm always a little weepy around this time of year when I think about things my dad couldn't be there for — graduations, seeing me get my first job, grilling boyfriends I brought home, and my conversion to his faith of Judaism.
While January 23rd is a dark day for me, the 12th of Sh'vat has a completely different tone. It's the day when, rather than mourn, I celebrate my father's life and praise God for bringing me such a wonderful person even though our time together was brief. The observance of yahrzeit makes that possible for me.
On the 12th of Sh'vat, I light a candle for my father, or more accurately I turn on a battery operated candle (for safety reasons). A yahrzeit candle is supposed to burn for 24 hours on the anniversary of a loved one's death. Since I live alone and leave the house to attend services during this period, a battery lit candle allows me to observe the tradition without fear of my apartment burning down in my absence.
The other tradition of observing yahrzeit is to attend services to say Mourner's Kaddish. The Mourner's Kaddish is recited at every morning, afternoon and evening prayer service, including Shabbats and other festivals. Those who are in mourning from a recent loss and those who are observing yahrzeit stand and recite the first portion of the prayer together. The rest of the congregation raises their voices in response. This is not a prayer with words of sorrow, but a prayer that praises God's name and greatness.
There are certain obligations for saying Kaddish. If a spouse, sibling or child dies, then the person mourning must recite Kaddish for four weeks. If a parent dies, then his or her child must recite Kaddish for eleven months. The mourner is also obligated to say the prayer every year on that person's yahrzeit.
Saying this prayer every year makes me feel a connection to my community. Not just the community of my individual shul, but to the entire Jewish community. I know that people in other synagogues are also lifting their voices up in prayer when I am. It comforts me to know that I have the support of my religious community, and that they are remembering and grieving with me. I see other people who are standing with me because they are either also observing yahrzeit or are in mourning, and it humbles me. It reminds me that I am not the only person who experienced loss or grieved for someone.
I find that saying Kaddish also makes up for not being able to physically visit my father. I grew up in an interfaith household and my parents had made arrangements to be buried in my mother's family plot. This created some challenges in finding a rabbi who would preside over services in a non-Jewish cemetery. My struggle with my parents' burial choice was that my mother's family plot is not easy to visit.
My mother grew up in rural Pennsylvania, in a town far away from any major airports. As I don't drive, there is no way for me to get to the cemetery on my own. The last time I was there was nearly ten years ago. For years I was upset that I couldn't visit my father's gravesite on a regular basis. Observing yahrzeit has helped me make peace with that.
While I may not be able to physically visit my father's resting place, lighting a yahrzeit candle has become a meaningful symbol for me. I feel like that is something I can do in place of leaving a stone on my father's grave. The Mourners Kaddish offers me the opportunity to lift my voice in prayer and I like to think that my father hears my voice and knows that I remember him. While the prayer may seem somber to some, I find great comfort in it. It reminds me that I have a spiritual community that supports and cares about me. They lift there voices in response when I am saying Kaddish on my father's yahrzeit and I get to return the favor when others are in mourning.