Without ritual and prayer, grief for a lost loved one has no place to go. But can a convert to Judaism observe yahrzeit for a non-Jewish parent?
My sister, Cynthia, had a problem recently: She couldn’t figure out where to go to make peace with our mom. My sister is in recovery from alcohol and drug addiction, and making amends with all the people you’ve hurt, including those who have fallen out of your life, or those who’ve passed away, is a critical part of the recovery process. Our mother died when I was 17 and my sister was 15. She was cremated, and she has no gravestone, and her ashes were buried or scattered in four different spots in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Cynthia wanted a ritual; she wanted to find an appropriate place for that ritual. But where? Three of the places where our mother’s physical remains ended up are on property that no longer belongs to our family.
“I have failed to honor her memory,” Cynthia said. “I have forgotten her birthday as well as her death day and again tried to avoid the experience of grief.” I notice the passing of our mom’s birthday every August and of her death day each November. But my problem, like my sister’s, is that I’ve never done anything about it—or never done anything about it in a way that seemed to matter, or to ease the enduring sense of loss.
One of the things I have always done is to recall the week leading up to my mother’s death, which I used to think of as one woman’s terrible Passion. (I am a Jew, but I was baptized, raised, and confirmed as an Episcopalian.) She went into the hospital for some regular tests on a Tuesday; they kept her an extra day for more tests; that became two more days, then three. The doctors had known that the breast cancer that had resulted in two separate mastectomies, plus countless rounds of chemotherapy and radiation, had been attacking her liver; that week they discovered that it had spread to her whole body. By the time we came to visit her that weekend, she was so doped up on painkillers she could barely speak. She died of a morphine-induced heart attack just past midnight on Monday, Nov. 9, 1987. One of my father’s sisters, the only person present at her death, said she arched up her torso—as if she was being electrocuted, or fighting off her killer one last time—then collapsed.
When I still lived in Andover, Mass., the town where I grew up, there were a few late nights when I ran through this awful timeline in the graveyard behind the church we’d belonged to. There was a dead patch of earth near the church, right where the graveyard started, that seemed like it had to be the spot where we’d dug a hole right after her funeral and spaded in a portion of her ashes. This was spontaneous, improvised mourning, which, in its way, is as important as ritual and ritualized prayer.
But sometimes, without ritual and ritualized prayer, the grief never completely has a place to go—and like a cancer, it can metastasize, taking over your whole life.
Like many gerim—Jews by choice, or proselytes—I joined the tribe for love. “Most converts discover Judaism as a result of falling in love with a Jew,” writes Anita Diamant in her book Choosing a Jewish Life. “Others find their way through friendships, college courses, and coincidences that, at some point, begin to seem more like signposts than accidents.” I had the good fortune of both paths; I fell in love with a beautiful and brilliant Jewish woman whom I reconnected with 16 years after we’d been friends in college, a girl I’d had a crush on when I was a sophomore and she was a junior. And like most who convert for love, I’ve also subsequently fallen for the awesome beauty of Jewish practice, tradition, and ritual. Just the idea of a yahrzeit, the practice of honoring a loved one’s memory on the anniversary of his or her death, gives me solace.
But can I honor my mother’s yahrzeit? Can I even refer to the anniversary of a Christian’s death as a yahrzeit? My mother, Ann, grew up in Tennessee and was raised Southern Baptist; after college, she spent a year studying at Vanderbilt University’s divinity school before moving to New England to teach English at a boarding school. (That’s where she met my father, John; he was the head of the school’s English department.) When my sister and I were still little, my mother converted to Episcopalianism, my father’s denomination. She took her faith seriously. In the work she did for our church, she would bring the Eucharist to the homes of members who were physically unable to make it to services. In her battle with cancer, she also grew in her spiritual thinking beyond the traditional boundaries of Protestantism and into the realm of the holistic, pluralist, Eastern-influenced, and New Age. (She was a brave woman. Not many Western doctors in the 1980s considered a macrobiotic diet, meditation, and visualization techniques to be at all useful; the very idea of complementary therapies barely existed.) I can’t ever know for sure what she would think of me being a Jew. I hope that she wouldn’t think of my saying kaddish for her as offensive, a microcosmic analogue to overzealous Mormons posthumously baptizing Holocaust victims.
What my mother might think, though, hasn’t been my only worry. In Judaism, there are degrees of honorifics for the dead; we say “may her memory be for blessing,” but we also say “may the memory of the righteous be for blessing” for a deceased rabbi, or “may the memory of the saintly be for blessing” for a martyr. I was concerned: If the honorifics climbed upward, depending on the degree of respect traditionally accorded to the dead, did the spectrum implicitly go in the other direction as well? In other words, if the baseline of honor for a dead Jew is “may her memory be for blessing,” then when remembering a gentile, is her memory for naught?
Jews in the Reform tradition are sometimes perceived as winging it, making it up as we go along. And sometimes, certainly, we do. I know a fellow ger whose mikveh was not in an Orthodox-owned, Upper West Side indoor pool, as mine was, but in an actual river; a Jewish neighbor lights candles for her deceased parents on their birthdays. And I know plenty of Jews, from many different backgrounds, who either don’t keep kosher or who do so in an interpretive fashion. But the Reform Jewish tradition is still a tradition, and the tradition has a clear response to the question of whether or not you can say kaddish for a Christian: Yes.
Growing up with divorced parents—one Jewish, one not—seemed to offer an abundance of holiday riches. Instead, it caused grade-school trouble.