Chanukah is not for another month but that does not mean that I’m not thinking about it — I am. This year we will mark my father’s 31st yahrzeit. Recollecting the first yahrzeit three decades ago is pretty simple, and I can also easily remember the tenth because I recall saying at the time, “Wow, ten years.”
My parents lived in a world without a pandemic. So did the rest of us until just about seven months ago. My father was born in 1918, my mother in 1921. My father was born in a shtetl in Belarus, and my mom was born in the Bronx. They met at a friend’s wedding in 1943 — my mom was friends with the bride and my dad was the chasan’s good friend — and were married in June of 1944. It sounds so simple.
There’s another reason I can remember that 10th yahrzeit so vividly. I was in shul that morning and saying Kaddish, as is the tradition. At the end of davening a person in that minyan approached me and asked, “Are you still in the first year of saying Kaddish?”
At that moment it suddenly hit me that people outside of your “daled amos” have absolutely no idea where you stand as it relates to Kaddish — or anything else, for that matter. Since that day, when I see someone I do not usually see saying Kaddish, I try to estimate where he is up to in terms of his Kaddish recitation. I’ve observed that the ability to determine whether one is observing a yahrzeit or is in the midst of the 11 months of Kaddish can be discerned by the cadence and the rhythm of its recitation.
At the end of Adar last year on the Jewish calendar, I observed my mother’s 3rd yahrzeit in a most unanticipated — and I’d even say unprecedented — fashion. As you will recall, our shuls were closed. Many who were in the midst of their Kaddish year or had a yahrzeit were uncomfortable and extremely annoyed. I had to make a decision: Was I supposed to seek out one of those underground minyanim, so to speak, or just retreat and observe the yahrzeit at home, in a very private and personal way, as many of our rabbis were instructing us to do?
I decided to follow the rabbinic guidance and stay at home. In Israel, the shuls were still open, so I designated a friend to say Kaddish for my mom with a minyan. For my part, I would daven in my home office and simply say the same Kaddish I’d be saying if I were in shul. One of the rabbis I mentioned this to told me that I am not allowed to say Kaddish without a minyan for a variety of reasons. That was just more of the conflicting information floating around.
As I pointed out last week, many of the outdoor minyanim that still exist today had as their catalyst a member of the minyan saying Kaddish.
The other day, I met a casual friend who lost both his parents a month apart earlier this year (non-COVID related). I knew that his parents passed away in close proximity to one another, but I wasn’t sure that it was still less than eleven months ago. I mean, how could I know? We don’t exactly keep track of one another’s Kaddish schedules.
But we did stop to talk and I asked how he was doing, probing a bit to try to tell where he was up to. He said that it was still difficult, even though it was six and five months ago, respectively. In addition to that, he said, the next day would be the yahrzeit of one of his siblings who passed away after a long illness several years ago.
What could I possibly say to him other than that I understood what he was saying? I recalled for him how I felt almost 31 years ago when my father passed away quite suddenly and unexpectedly. I shared with him that all those years ago, I was conscious of the fact that normal life was continuing all around me with the requirement that I had to force my participation. I explained to him that I felt like I was inside a kind of bubble where life stopped for me but continued as a matter of routine for everyone around me.
What I did not take time to share with him was an emotional phenomenon that I had just discovered the day before. It was on a new album that I downloaded, and the song is named “I’ll See You in My Dreams.” You can Google the song title, but even though I was not sure what it was really about, I thought it was pretty good, though not the best tune on the album by far.
I didn’t realize what it was really about until the next night when I was casually perusing the album notes online, wherein the artist explains the motivation and inspiration of the album’s music.
I think that there is a lesson to be learned from everything that exists in G-d’s great world. So even if you do not subscribe to or enjoy the music of secular artists, there can still be something to learn from them. The artist we are talking about here is Bruce Springsteen. He has had an amazingly successful musical career over almost 50 years in the business. He is now 71 years old and is rather philosophical about life and its experiences.
In the notes on “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” he talks about two of his band members who passed away over the last few years. He observes that he will see his friends in his dreams, and adds, “For death is not the end.” Springsteen explains in the album notes that what we tend to feel after the loss of a family member or friend is that the pain lingers. What is that feeling that stays with us and seems to be somewhat gnawing and painful?
Bruce offers that those enduring sentiments and emotions are feelings of love, which, he says, never goes away or ends. So what I wanted to tell my friend is that if he feels something is bothering him or even unsettling him, it is the love he is feeling for his parents and his sibling that is indeed eternal.
Perhaps it is that though we feel this deeply ingrained love for one who has passed on, the inherent contradiction between feeling that love and the inability to appropriately express it can result in what feels like a painful conflict.
And it wasn’t just about imparting that important message to others. For me, it has been more than three decades since my father passed away. Still, as I gently suggested to my friend who lost his parents a month apart about half a year ago, this type of experience changes us forever. But it’s not really the pain of loss that is a permanent fixture in our psyches and souls. It is the deep and abiding love for those we lost that becomes an essential part of our DNA and who we will be going forward.
One of the lessons in all this is that can you learn something important from everyone, even an aging rocker. As those four British gentlemen expressed in an important sentiment quite a few years ago — all you need is love.
Contact Larry Gordon at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow 5TJT.com on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for updates and live videos. Comments, questions, and suggestions are welcome at 5TJT.com and on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.