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Memorial Day

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?

Thomas Israel Hopkins
November 08, 2011

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.

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.

Thomas Israel Hopkins lives with his wife and son in Brooklyn and Kingston, New York. He blogs at