“Five rows up from the bottom, five columns from the end.” It had been a number of years since I had last checked the yarhzeit plaque for my paternal grandmother, Eva Katz, at Congregation Beth Jacob of Beverly Hills, but I knew exactly where the plaque was. I would count five rows up from the bottom of the board and then five columns in from the end, just as I had since childhood, and there it was.
Sadly, my most recent visit to the main sanctuary in Beth Jacob was for the funeral of my aunt, my father’s sister, Anne Samson, who passed away in a horrific car accident at the end of August. As I walked out of shul, I made sure to stop by the yahrzeit board to locate my grandmother’s plaque. A small light bulb next to the plaque is customarily turned on during the month in which the yahrzeit falls, or during the holidays when Yizkor is recited. My grandmother passed away in the month of Iyar, and it was now Elul, weeks away from the next Yizkor recitation on Yom Kippur. The light should have been turned off, yet fittingly, the small yellow light beside her name was aglow.
Eva Gelberger was born in 1924 in a small town in eastern Hungary, and was the only member of her immediate family who survived Auschwitz. She married Emil Katz shortly after the war and settled in Los Angeles, where they raised my father and his two siblings. My father always shared with us his vivid, loving memories of his mother, who died from a brain tumor in 1967. My grandfather remarried the following year, to a relative of his, and I was fortunate to have close relationships with two full sets of grandparents growing up, as my maternal grandparents also lived nearby.
To this day, my siblings and cousins aren’t exactly sure how to refer to Eva. We call our grandfather’s second wife our grandmother, and, adding to the confusion, my older sister had been named Eva Katz in Eva’s memory. We ultimately settled on “dad’s mother,” which meant I had a grandfather who had been married to my dad’s mother and then was married to grandma.
In addition to having a hard time referencing my dad’s mother Eva in conversation, I was never able to visit her gravesite. She was buried in Mount Carmel Cemetery in Southeast Los Angeles County, and my parents would visit the cemetery several times each year. Since I am a member of the priestly family of Kohanim, I am forbidden by halacha to enter a cemetery, so I would stand with my father at the cemetery gates while my mother paid her respects at Eva’s grave. A local Hasidic rebbe was buried close by, and as is customary, an ohel, or permanent structure, was placed around the Rebbe’s grave. From the entrance of the cemetery I used to look to the right, and when I spotted the ohel I knew I was getting close to Eva’s grave.
Remarkably, the place where I felt the closest to Eva was her yahrzeit plaque at Beth Jacob, five rows up from the bottom, and five columns from the end. Between youth groups and Bnei Akiva events, my friends and I often spent the bulk of Shabbat in the shul. The main sanctuary was adorned with hundreds of yahrzeit plaques like Eva’s, each containing the name and date of death of a departed synagogue member. My friends and I used to scan the names to see if there were any relatives of celebrities (this was Beverly Hills, after all) or whether any of the dates on the plaques matched our birthdays. I vividly remember the first time I saw Eva’s plaque, the day one of my friends shouted out that he found someone who had my sister’s exact name.
I always found solace in being able to see her name on that wall. Although I did not have the privilege of meeting her in person, never even referred to her as my “grandmother,” and never visited her actual grave, this plaque on the wall allowed me to pay my proper respects to Eva.
I was recently walking out of a shul in downtown Chicago, where I live now, through an entranceway flanked by hundreds of yahrzeit plaques when an older gentleman stopped me and pointed to a spot on the wall. He told me that his twin brother had passed away a few years ago and that he stops by the plaque and thinks about him every time he exits the shul.
May we all find such comfort during this coming Yizkor season.
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