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The Problem with Yahrzeits

"Are there any other Yahrzeits today?" the rabbi asked, after he finished listing the names from the temple bulletin.

A yahrzeit is the Yiddish word for the anniversary of the death of a family member. The members of my synagogue commemorated their yahrzeits by saying the Mourner's Kaddish.

I felt guilty and sad. It was July 22. My father had died on this day two years earlier. The rabbi had not read my father's name because I had never told him that this was the day we should remember him. And so, I sat quietly while the mourners prayed.

Yahrzeit candle. Photo: Flickr/Peretzpup.

I was new to all this. I had converted to Judaism a few years before and when my father died suddenly I had no idea how to mourn him according to Jewish tradition. I didn't even know how to spell yahrzeit. Besides, I was sure that my father would not want me to follow Jewish customs on his behalf. Although he was born Jewish, he converted to Christianity and married a Christian woman, my mother. He viewed my journey back to Judaism with a mixture of bewilderment, amusement and contempt. After I started learning Hebrew, I remember him laughing, "So, now you know the language. What's next? Rabbi school?"

But I knew I was on my own path of discovery and return. Although my father thought I was being ridiculous, I thought he was being narrow-minded. After all, he himself was a convert. And so, I applied myself to studying my new religion and practicing as many of the new customs I could master. I had to be taught what many Jews grow up taking for granted--when to bow in shul, how to say L'shana tova (Happy New Year!) on Rosh Hashanah. But I never bothered to learn any of the Jewish rituals for mourning a death. Why memorize those? No one close to me was going to die. At least, not for a good long while.

In the days that followed my father's death, my Jewish friends tried to give me a crash course on mourning customs. But their lessons proved too difficult for me to absorb. I was in survival mode, missing my father in a terrible, visceral way. And then there was my Christian family. Mourning my father's death according to Jewish law was far trickier than learning the Shabbat prayers. In fact, it was impossible. He had a Christian funeral, since this was his faith and the faith of my mother. But my friends insisted that I sit shiva. So, I did, although I had no idea what happened at shivas. I gathered little snippets of information. I should not cook. This was not a party. I should sit on a low stool. I should not talk if I did not feel like it. But I should talk about my father. Still, despite all the coaching I received, I felt awkward. None of my family came, not out of unkindness, but because they didn't know what a shiva was and I felt too uncomfortable to know how to include them. Thankfully, local Jews flooded through my door and gradually I forgot that I did not know what to do and felt comforted, just as the ancient rabbis knew would happen. Afterwards, though, after everyone had left, I felt lost, like I was pretending to be Jewish. The customs did not fit.

During the first year of my father's death, I did not say Kaddish every day. I liked the idea of it, but finding a daily minyan felt impossible. And yet that was not the real stumbling block. I had an embarrassing problem. I felt ashamed that I could barely read the Kaddish in Hebrew. I needed a transliterated version or else I could not keep up with the others. I could say other parts of the service like a pro: the Aleinu, most of the Amidah, and all of the concluding prayers. Kaddish was the one exception. One rabbi told me that this is because it is actually an Aramaic prayer and is difficult for beginners to learn to read. But I think it is because I did not grow up hearing it and so every time I read Kaddish I am reminded of my outsider status, that I am a convert, and that I will always be a convert.

As a result, I went underground with my mourning. I cried occasionally at strange times of day. I told strangers that my dad had died and welled up with tears. Registering my father's yahrzeit with the temple office was the last straw. Who cared about the anniversary of his death? I was going to mourn him every day, the rest of my life. Besides, I did not want to say kaddish in front of everyone.

But today, the start of my third year without him, I wish the rabbi had said his name. Or that I had spoken up. I want to mark his death inside my community precisely because I have not. Maybe this is because when I hear the yahrzeits listed, I am moved to discover this is the anniversary of a friend's mother's death, or of a temple member I once knew. The yahrzeits bring back the dead for everyone, not just the primary mourner. And so by not observing this tradition, I have realized its brilliance. The yahrzeits are not just for us to hear. They are for the community, as well. Even if we did not know the dead, we can empathize with the living, our fellow congregants who have sustained a loss.

My goal for this new year is to march into the temple office and tell our temple secretary that my dad died on July 22, 2006. I will let her find the Hebrew date for the yahrzeit. I will also make sure to have a transliterated version of the Kaddish handy on that day.

Hebrew for "Head of the Year," the Jewish New Year. With Yom Kippur, known as the High Holy Days. Hebrew for "a good year," a typical greeting on Rosh Hashanah. Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Hebrew for "holy," a prayer found in Jewish prayer services. There are many versions of the Kaddish, the best known being the Mourner's Kaddish, said by mourners. The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. A language, literally meaning "Jewish," once widely used by Ashkenazi communities. It is influenced by German, Hebrew and Slavic languages, and is written with the Hebrew alphabet. It is comparable to the language of many Sephardi communities, Ladino. Hebrew for "our duty," it's the name and first word of a prayer recited at the end of three daily services in traditional Jewish liturgy. Tefilat Amidah, Hebrew for "The Standing Prayer," is the central prayer of Jewish liturgy. It is recited during every prayer service. Traditionally it's recited individually in silence, then repeated aloud as a congregation; some congregations omit the silent recitation and/or abbreviate the repetition. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew for "count," it refers to the quorum of ten Jewish adults (in some communities only men are counted; in others both men and women) required to hold a Torah service, recite some communal prayers, and the home-based recitation of the Kaddish. Minyan may also now refer to group that meets for prayer service, similar to a synagogue's congregation or a havurah. Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. Hebrew for "seven," refers to the seven days of mourning following the funeral of a family member. Yiddish for "synagogue."
Charlotte Gordon

Charlotte Gordon is a writer who lives on Cape Ann, Mass. Her book, Mistress Bradstreet, won the Massachusetts Book Award for non-fiction. Her latest book, The Woman Who Named God (Little, Brown) retells the famous Biblical story of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar. She is currently an assistant professor at Endicott College in Beverly, Mass. She can be reached at charlottegordonbooks.com.

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