Redundant Illumination: Why I’ve Never Lit a Yahrzeit Candle


I am my father’s Kaddish as of fifteen years ago today (according to the Roman calendar). Every year on his Yahrzeit (the anniversary of his death) I recite the Mourner’s Kaddish; a prayer for the dead that contains no mention of death. I happily named my son, born nearly two years after his grandfather’s exit, after my dad. I imagine what life [??] must be like for him in an afterworld in which I was not raised to believe. And on the Yizkor (“remembrance”) portion of Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Pesach and Shavuot, I light a small memorial candle that burns for twenty-four hours.

Stop. Hammer time. Scratch that. Hold the phone.
I’ve never lit that candle. I don’t know if I ever will.

It’s not because I don’t want to light it or because I don’t believe in lighting it. It’s not because I forgot; I never forget. It’s not for one reason in particular. In fact, I really don’t have a reason. But I have a lot of little stories and I’m going to tell them here, right now.

When my father was dead one year minus a day, we celebrated my cousin’s wedding. This cousin is special because we met while we were both studying to become cantors at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion School of Sacred Music, and we share the same last name. He is special because neither of us knew the other one existed until we met in school. He is special because our dads, who are something like third-and-a-half cousins once removed, were born in the same Hessian town 100 kilometers from Frankfort; a farming town where Jews and Christians lived together in peace until the Holocaust, and even to some degree after 1933. He is special because our meeting the way we did seemed like a significant triumph over the Nazis. He is special because we brought our dads together again for the first time since my dad (at age seven years) attended the b’rit milah of his dad (at the age of eight days). My dad had emigrated to the U.S., and my cousin’s dad had gone to Brazil, where he married and raised his family. My cousin had co-officiated at my wedding, and now I would co-officiate at his.

Jewish tradition dictates that a wedding takes precedence over a funeral or other mourning rituals, but that’s not why I didn’t light the Yahrzeit candle. I flew from New Mexico to Long Island the day before the wedding and flew back out the day afterwards. One lights the candle at the sundown before the Yahrzeit, but I was still at the wedding reception at sundown. My hotel room was a non-smoker; I could have brought an electric candle but I didn’t want to lose, break, or forget it in the stress of packing and unpacking. And the next day, which was the actual (Roman calendar) Yahrzeit, I was in the air.

If you’re going to miss somebody, I highly recommend doing it at the end of June. The world is green, there are no major holidays on the horizon, and the extra light from the longer days makes things, well, a little less worse. Since my dad’s departure, I’ve managed to rack up a total of five Yahrzeits over a two day spread. These now include my uncle, a beloved voice teacher, my brother-in-law, and my aunt (Dad’s sister, who made her exit five years to the day after he did).

One thing I’ve never missed doing on my father’s Yahrzeit is to call my mother. This first year, I did so from midair as I flew west. We talked about the wedding and who was there. We talked about my dad and we talked about the year’s developments since his passing. She mentioned that she’d lit her Yahrzeit candle and I confessed that I hadn’t lit one, for the reasons mentioned above. Mom knew I was in the friendly skies, so she said, “That’s all right. You’re closer to him.” I replied, “We can only hope,” and we both laughed.

The simple reason that I’ve never lit a Yahrzeit candle at Yizkor [see above] is that I’m almost always on the go for a parallel reason. I’m in in synagogue, on one side of the bimah or the other; either leading / co-leaidng the services or praying in the congregation. A couple of times I’ve been in the air again, en route to or from a cantorial conference. I don’t want to leave a candle burning unattended at home or in a hotel room. Yes, the electrical option still exists…but it doesn’t feel right. As Amy Poehler generously says about someone’s custom she respects but doesn’t observe, “Good for you, not for me.” An electric candle feels wrong to me; it feels articifical and not at all like my dad. Could this be because he grew up in a village of wood-burning stoves?

My father doesn’t need a light unto the nations; he was a light unto the nations. Wherever he rests or roams or dances, my light couldn’t reach him anyway. The only thing that can do that is love, and I’ve got plenty of that. I’ve also got stories. My son, named after his grandfather, loves hearing “Opi stories” and has asked me, “How come your parents are so funny and interesting and mine aren’t?” Oh-kay.

This week’s par’shah is Chukat, which is chock full of death, guilt, death, consequence, death, poor stress management, lack of support from one’s flock, dehydration, death, and being left behind. Stay tuned for next week’s protion, *Parshat Balak* promises a doozy of a time when the (living) jawbone of an ass uncharacteristically turns out to be a blessing. I want to write more about “Balak” but I’m falling asleep at the keyboard. Au revoir and Shabbat Shalom!

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