Rituals of Light and Memory
Last night was the final evening of Chanukah 2020, the Jewish festival of lights. I love the ritual of lighting the candles, an additional one each night, bringing a warm glow into the darkest time of the year. It’s one of the few times I can just sit in peace and quiet, reflecting on the flickering flames. We have a tradition of watching until all the candles burn out, making a game of guessing which will go first and which last.
The last night of Chanukah has always been bittersweet. The menorah, filled with nine candles, is at its brightest. And the festive holiday is over, along with its traditions of candle lighting, gift giving, playing with the dreidel, and of course, potato latkes. For more than half my life, it’s been a melancholy night for another reason. My father, Sol, died on the last night of Chanukah in 1982. So along with lighting the menorah, I light the Yahrzeit (memorial) candle.
Jews are good at ritual. There are prayers for waking up; for going to sleep; for eating; yes, even for going to the bathroom. Of course, I don’t say –or even know – all of them. And there are some that I cherish and repeat with deep gratitude. They are an integral part of my heritage, my tradition and my spirit.
Lighting the Yahrzeit candle is one of them. I still have the tiny, well-worn, brown booklet, Prayers and Meditations, published by Riverside Memorial Chapel, which I took home from my father’s funeral. I read the traditional Mourner’s Kaddish and the Yizkor prayer, then add a few more. I turn to page 10 and read Psalm 23, my father’s voice reciting along with me in my head. And then I turn to page 18, a prayer that you are supposed to read at a father’s grave. Since my father’s grave is in New York, I very rarely get there. Instead, I read the verse in front of the memorial candle. It reminds me that although my father was a difficult man with an explosive temper, he did “rejoice in my achievements,” and did “loyally uphold the heritage of Israel,” and I cherish “the ideals and principles” he taught me.
While the candles of Chanukah burn for less than an hour, the Yahrzeit candle burns for at least 24. When I go downstairs at dawn to let the dogs out, there is the candle burning on the stove. It will still be there when I make breakfast, lunch and dinner. A reminder of my father, as if I needed one. Though he’s been gone since I was a young mother, he is with me every day. He sits on my shoulder in love, and yes, in judgment. I credit (or fault) him for my tendency toward perfectionism. I still wonder if I’ll ever be good enough. I still want him to rejoice in my achievements, to be proud of the person I’ve become.
And I thank him for the Mussar soul traits he modeled. To name a few:
Responsibility and hard work – For decades Daddy rose well before dawn to ride the crowded subway to his job as a bookkeeper at the Washington Produce Market in lower Manhattan.
Wisdom – Even when watching TV, my father was never without a Newsweek, The New York World-Telegram or a book in his hand.
Order – “Cleanliness is next to Godliness” was one of my father’s favorite expressions. No coats piled on the living room couch, no clothes left on the bedroom floor, and no dishes stacked in the kitchen sink. Everything had its proper place in our home.
This morning, as I write this blog to bid Chanukah 2020 goodbye and to honor my father, I am teary as I take to heart the words on page 18 of the prayer pamphlet, “May G-d grant that my father’s memory ever inspire me.”