A Yahrzeit (YAR-zite) is the anniversary of a death in Jewish tradition.
When we are alive, we celebrate our birthday every year. In much the same way, we observe a yahrzeit for loved ones who have died. It is a way of marking the great passages of life: first, the passage into life (birthday) and then the passage out of this life (yahrzeit.)
The custom of observing yahrzeit is an acknowledgement that we do not “get over” the loss of a parent or a dear one. It is also a way of expressing kibud av’v’em, honor to our parents.
Most Jews observe the yahrzeit of their deceased parents. Some authorities extend that observance to the other categories of close losses: siblings, children, and spouse. Some Jews may also observe the yahrzeits of prominent individuals, for example, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
Yahrzeit is usually observed on the Hebrew calendar date of death, although some prefer to keep it on the Gregorian calendar date.
Yahrzeit observance can take various forms. The most common:
A Yahrzeit candle is a special, long burning candle that is lit at sundown and is allowed to burn for 24 hours. (See photo above.) They are available from Judaica shops and some grocery stores.
Image: Textile art with Genesis 21:1 and a vision of Jerusalem with lions of David, the skyline of the Old City, and stone tablets flanked by doves. Art by Barbara Binder Kadden, photo by Ruth Adar. All rights reserved.
I was ordained a rabbi ten years ago today in the City of Angels.
The photo is of a beautiful hanging that Barbara Binder Kadden made for me when I set off for school in 2002. Barbara asked me for a verse from Torah that was particularly meaningful to me. I cited Genesis 12:1: “Go to yourself, from your native land, from your father’s house, to the land which I shall show you.” Those were God’s words to Abram, after which Abram set off to become the patriarch Abraham.
Thirty two years ago I set out from Tennessee without a clue, much as Abram set out from Haran in Genesis 12. Like Abram, I became a Jew, I acquired a name, and I had many adventures that for good and ill made me into the work-in-progress I am today.
I am overwhelmed with gratitude for my teachers and colleagues. Rabbi Rachel Adler mentored and mothered me through my years in Los Angeles. R. Tamara Eskenazi opened the doors of Torah for me. R. Dvora Weisberg and R. Joel Gereboff unlocked the gates of Talmud. R. Lew Barth taught me how to dig treasure from the fertile ground of midrash. Jehon Grist shared with me his infectious joy in the Hebrew language, without which I would never have had the joy of studying at HUC. Yossi Lechem enchanted me with the algebra of Hebrew grammar (you had to be there.) Steven Windmueller and Bruce Phillips equipped me to deal with the changing Jewish American scene, and R. Michael Berk taught me about Northern California Jews.
Barbara Kadden taught me the best of what I know about educating adults. Linda Feldman taught me how to walk softly and avoid tender toes. Rene Molho z”l taught me about the Shoah, and gave me perspective on Jewish community that I try to pass along. R. Sandy Akselrad hired me, God bless him, and taught me how not to fall on my face in the real world. Yuval Selah tutored me in Hebrew for four years with infinite patience and love.
I am grateful for my study partners, R. David Novak, R. Deborah Goldmann, and R. Robin Podolsky. I’d have learned nothing without them. I am grateful to R. Sabine Meyer, with whom I continue to explore the wonders of teaching “Intro” and the Torah of canine companions. And where would I be without Fred Isaac, my first Jewish study partner, and Maryann Simpson, my partner in studying class dynamics?
I am grateful for the students who inspire me to learn more and and be a better servant of the Jewish people, including you, dear readers.
Finally there are the people without whom I have trouble imagining the world. Rabbi Steven Chester has been my rabbi, my mentor and my friend since I first knocked on his office door in the early 1990’s. My sons, Aaron and Jim Scott, inspire me to choose life over and over again; I am so much more alive because of them.
And then there’s the love of my life, Linda Burnett. (Thank you for baseball and everything else, my dear. You are right, these are the good old days.)
When I logged on today, WordPress (the people and software that host my blogging) informed me that it’s been seven years since I opened my WordPress account. That’s a small anniversary, especially when I keep in mind that it was another year before I figured out how to use the software!
Yesterday was a bigger anniversary: it was one of our wedding anniversaries. My generation of LGBT folks have complicated anniversaries as couples. Our “big” anniversary is the anniversary of our chuppah, but we also have a civil anniversary, and yesterday was it. The chuppah was a big party at our synagogue, and a chuppah, and two rabbis, and all the trimmings, back in 2007. The civil wedding was smaller: we met our sons at the Alameda County Courthouse and got hitched in the eyes of the State of California. Our ceremony was so simple, the justice of the peace kindly snapped our photo (see above.)
There are sad anniversaries too: every family has them. I remember the anniversaries of the death of my close relatives (yahrzeit) and days that bad things happened. Every year on October 17 I remember the Loma Prieta earthquake with a shiver: our house was badly damaged and for a while I thought something terrible had happened to Linda. Two days later we remember the Oakland Hills Firestorm, which scared us witless and destroyed the homes of friends. These events are part of our story as a family; they shaped the people we are today.
This coming weekend the Jewish mishpacha [family] will keep a sad anniversary. We’ll remember the destructions of the great Temple in Jerusalem, first in 586 BCE and then again in 70 CE. Just as my family remembers the quake with a shudder, Jews worldwide remember these casualties of war. We are who we are today because we lost the Temple, not once but twice. It is not merely a loss: each time it set in motion changes that would shape the Jewish People going forward. We made choices, we set policies, and nothing was ever quite the same.
How are you going to keep Tisha B’Av this week? A traditional listen to Eicha, fasting, or something nontraditional? I hope you’ll share your plans in the comments.
There are various ways of keeping track of things in Jewish time. One can celebrate the exact date of something in the Jewish calendar (say, 11 Sivan, 5774) or the Gregorian calendar (June 8, 2014.) My way of keeping track of this anniversary is to celebrate when a particular Torah portion comes up in the calendar: this week’s portion, Shelach-Lecha, the story of the scouts (Numbers 31:1 – 15:41.)
Shelach-Lecha was the Torah portion the week I became a Jew. I think of this week (whenever it falls, depending on the year) as my Jewish birthday, and it’s a big deal to me, in a quiet sort of way. I don’t give a party, but I do attend services and spend some time reflecting on my life as a Jew.
The story in the portion is pivotal for the Israelites in the wilderness. God tells Moses to send scouts into the Promised Land, as they are camped just outside it. God even tells Moses which men to send. Twelve scouts go into the land. Ten of them report that it is totally scary, the people are giants, and we’ll all die there. Two scouts, Joshua and Caleb, come back and say, hey, it’s fine. The people are so frightened by the account of the ten, however, that they panic. God is disgusted by their reaction, and says that clearly these people are not ready for the Promised Land – the next generation will get to go, but not them. And that’s how the 40 years in the desert happened.
What I took from the story at the time of my conversion was simple: “If you don’t go, you’ll never know.” There were things about Judaism and the Jewish community at Temple Sinai that I loved. But I knew that there was lots I didn’t know; I was more ignorant than many of the children. I’d taken an “Intro” class, I’d studied for a year, but I found Hebrew very difficult and some of the social stuff very challenging. For instance, I wasn’t a “huggy” person – I never touched strangers – and at that synagogue, people were constantly hugging and kissing (and for the record, they still do.) I wanted to fit in, but I still had a lot of fears.
Years later, I know that it was reasonable to have some fears. But I am so very glad that I took the risk of “entering the Land.”
The story in the Torah is full of people taking risks. Some were very well-calculated risks, but others were true leaps of faith. At Sinai, as they are offered the Torah, the people say, “We will do and we will hear.” In other words, they agreed to the Torah before they knew what was in it. Becoming a Jew is something like that: you learn what you can, you hang with the community and see what it’s like, and then the day comes when it’s time to commit.
There has been some discussion of late in the Jewish press, wondering if the process of conversion is too long and too involved. “Should we be more welcoming?” some wonder.
My take on it is that a year is the least it can take in most circumstances. Becoming a Jew is a shift of identity, and it has many aspects. Candidates for conversion often encounter surprises. Some discover that the parents they thought would be horrified, weren’t. Some discover that their relatives have unpleasant ideas about Jews. Some discover that it really hurts not to have Christmas – and others are surprised when they hardly miss it. Some find that the more they go to synagogue, the happier they are – and others find that they don’t enjoy being part of the community. Some think about Israel for the first time, and have to get used to the idea that as a Jew, they will be connected to it whether they like it or not.
It takes time to have these experiences. It takes time and support to process them. And some of those experiences may be deal-breakers. It’s easy to focus on the intellectual tasks: learning prayers and vocabulary. However, the emotional work of this transition is very serious business. It involves letting go of some aspects of the self, and adopting new aspects of identity. I am still the person who showed up at the rabbi’s office, all those years ago – I still have memories of Catholic school, and my Catholic school handwriting. I had to let go of some things: my habit of crossing myself whenever I heard a siren, for instance. It was a reflex left over from years before, but it took time to fade away. It took time and effort to figure out how I might respond as a Jew to a sign that someone was in trouble.
After a year of study, that process was well underway. I can’t imagine being “ready” any sooner.
The ten scouts were scared. They weren’t ready. I suspect that even though Joshua and Caleb are celebrated as “good” scouts, they weren’t really ready either. They talked as if going into the Land was no big deal.
It takes time to change, and change is an uncomfortable process. The midbar, the wilderness, is a frustrating place. It’s big and formless and full of scary things. But sometimes it is only by passing through the wildnerness that we can become our truest selves.