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?
I found the answer in Solomon B. Freehof’s book Recent Reform Responsa, published by the Hebrew Union College Press in 1963; my friend Andy Bachman, the senior rabbi at the synagogue where I work, steered me to it. (At the time he wrote the book, Freehof led the responsa committee of the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis.) In the chapter “Kaddish for Apostates and Gentiles,” Freehof cites a few different arguments from a number of sources. “It is possible to take the point of view that the Jewish son should not say Kaddish for the Gentile father,” he writes. “The general description in the Talmud of the relationship of a convert to his Gentile relatives is that they are no longer his relatives at all.” But two fundamental Jewish principles—the commandment to honor parents, and the need to respect other religions—trump that idea. “If a son may say Kaddish for his Jewish-born apostate father who had willfully deserted Judaism,” Freehof writes, “then certainly a proselyte son may say Kaddish for a Gentile father who is naturally following the religion in which he was brought up.”
On my mother’s birthday the year after she died—Aug. 22, 1988, the day she would have turned 44—family and friends gathered at a farm in the small town of Lyndeborough, N.H., which my great-grandfather bought a century ago. We dug a hole for a peach tree and scooped some of my mother’s remaining ashes into it. We scattered the ashes that remained at the top of a nearby hill on the property, which we called Mount Elizabeth, after my father’s mother. Our family doesn’t own the farm anymore—when it was sold in the early 1990s, my dad dug up the peach tree and moved it down the hill to a much smaller farm he then bought, a place we also no longer own. My dad had to sell it in the late 1990s, when his Parkinson’s got so bad that he needed to move into an apartment.
But recently, our old family farm has been on the market again, unoccupied. And my sister had a residency at the MacDowell Colony, just a half-hour drive away. So, she decided to try to make her peace on Mount Elizabeth. “I was telling my plan to a friend who is Jewish, lamenting to her the way I’d failed to honor my mother after her death,” Cynthia said. Her friend told her “that in the Jewish tradition, it is crucial to honor those loved ones who have died, in part to make a space or clearing in which to experience the pain of loss.” Otherwise, Cynthia’s friend pointed out, “without a container, grief has a tendency to spread itself out, infecting one’s entire life like a dark cloud or shadow hanging over one’s head, no matter how far one may run.”
My mother didn’t want a gravestone, I think, because she wanted us to remember her in life, not in death; she wanted to be remembered everywhere, not just at the place where we might mark her remains with a rock. But we, the living, are weak; we need containers in both space and time. We need rocks; we need yahrzeits; we need to light candles and say kaddish. If Shabbat is “a palace in time,” as Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, then a yahrzeit is a gravestone in time. Both yahrzeits and gravestones are markers that don’t minimize grief but rather, by localizing it, allow the anguish, momentarily, to fully express itself, in a way that’s not possible in regular space and time. In a way, they’re like the afterlife Kevin Brockmeier imagines in his novel The Brief History of the Dead, a city inhabited by the recently deceased; the dead exist in the city as long as there is someone still in the world of the living who remembers them. Then they vanish. Gravestones and yahrzeits are for the immediate survivors; the former might as well always be made of wood, not really needing to last more than a generation or two beyond the person whose remains they mark.
In the fall of 2004, after my father moved yet again, this time into an assisted-living home, his Parkinson’s suddenly progressed so rapidly that his neurologist convinced him to undergo deep brain stimulation surgery. A team of surgeons installed a device called a brain pacemaker; my father now has electrodes in his brain, a battery and control panel in his chest, and wires connecting the two. On Nov. 18, the day after his operation, one of his surgeons and I were in the recovery room when my dad finally woke up from the anesthesia. The doctor asked him what day it was. “Nov. 11,” my dad said. “What happened on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month?” the doctor asked. “All Quiet on the Western Front,” my dad said. His eyes were still closed. “That’s the English teacher’s answer,” he added. Then, after a pause: “Are you making fun of me?” It became clear to me and the doctor, later in this conversation, that my dad also thought that my mom had died on Nov. 11; he’d advanced the anniversary two days in his mind, to coincide with the Armistice.
My father’s memory has always been creative, which is perhaps part of why I want precise dates. Like my mom, he’s had no end of suffering. The chaos of my parents’ suffering is perhaps part of why I seek the relative orderliness of rituals and rocks. The first rock marking a grave in Torah is Rachel’s, in Genesis 35. In other words, Jews have been marking the remains of the dead with stones for a long time. My sister never made it to the top of Mount Elizabeth; the most recent owners had altered the landscape so much that the path was impossible to find. She had to settle for a field of wildflowers filled with butterflies. “I sat cross-legged in meditation under one of the trees and spoke out loud my amends, crying the whole way through,” she said. “But once I’d finished speaking and crying, I settled into a sense of genuine peace.”
Elizabeth Hopkins, my father’s mother, is buried in a cemetery in Lyndeborough. I called the town’s tiny government offices a few years ago to ask them about the grave, when we were trying to figure out what to do with my dad’s remains when he dies. The Hopkins family plot, the kind man who answered the phone told me, does not have enough room for another body, but it does have room for ashes and one more marker. Once the electrodes and wires and titanium-enclosed battery pack are at last removed from my father’s head and chest, and his body is placed in a plain pine box (“like Ann’s,” he wrote in funeral arrangement checklist, when he could still write), then cremated, it’s my wish to bury his ashes there. It’s also my wish to have a stone there with text carved into it that makes it both a headstone for my dad and a cenotaph for my mom—so long as I can convince myself that this will not offend the living or the dead.
In the meantime, starting this year on the 17th of Cheshvan, my mother’s yahrzeit, I will light a candle and say kaddish.
Growing up with divorced parents—one Jewish, one not—seemed to offer an abundance of holiday riches. Instead, it caused grade-school trouble.