A Grief That Time Does Not Heal

There is an older gentleman in my synagogue who, for as long as I’ve known him (which is quite a few years), has been reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish on a daily basis.

Technically speaking, this is a violation of traditional practice. For sound psychological reasons (not to mention the inconvenience involved in the obligation to recite Kaddish), Jewish law limits the time and the persons for whom one is obligated to recite Kaddish as a mourner. For a parent it is a year, and for the other close relatives whose death would mandate Shivah and Kaddish– son, daughter, brother, sister, and spouse– formal mourning, and Kaddish also, end after the completion of Shloshim, the thirty-day mourning period counted from the date of burial.

Just this past week, I was reminded why the gentleman is still saying Kaddish– and why I haven’t stopped him.

Like countless synagogues around the world, my synagogue– the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens– maintains a computerized list of yahrzeit dates for its members. A yahrzeit, literally “year’s time,” is the anniversary of the date of death of a close relative according to the Hebrew calendar. Each year, as the yahrzeit approaches, the member is notified that the day is forthcoming. And every day at our morning and evening minyan, before reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish at the end of the service, we read aloud the names of all the relatives of our members who died on that particular day. In so doing, we hopefully lend a measure of dignity and commitment to the memorializing of our members’ loved ones.

Although I am at minyan every day, I am particularly sensitive to names that are read out at this time of year. I, myself, observe yahrzeit for my mother, of blessed memory, on the 26th of Iyar– this past Sunday night and Monday. Since her death four years ago after a long and difficult illness, this has been an emotionally fragile time of year for me. I knew– I remembered– that the gentleman who has been saying Kaddish all these years had yahrzeit on the day before me, the 25th of Iyar. But as I rose to recite aloud the names of those whose yahrzeits were being observed on that day, the 25th of Iyar, I encountered anew the reason for his unending Kaddish.

Name after name from the same family…a father, a stepmother, four brothers, three sisters… Nine members of the same immediate family deported to Auschwitz on the same day. How does one stop reciting Kaddish for such a loss?

Anyone with even a passing familiarity with the Shoah will know that this gentleman’s story is not, sadly, unique, but that does not in any way diminish its horror.

Born in Czechoslovakia, his hometown rotated controlling powers. One day it was Czechoslovakia, then part of Carpatha-russe, and then Hungary… the only constant was the havoc and utter destruction that the war brought to the Jews of the region. Somehow, the survivor who is now in my synagogue was sent to a slave labor camp, and that fate– horrible enough in on its own, to be sure– saved him from certain death. The rest of his family, like so much of Hungarian Jewry, was deported to Auschwitz at this very time of year, around the festival of Shavuot, in 1944. If you are a part of community with a significant presence of Hungarian Shoah survivors, you will know that most of them are observing yahrzeit during these weeks.

It seems so ironic to me that this man, whose entire adult life has been shaped by the horror of his younger years and the loss of his family, observes yahrzeit on 25 Sivan, and I on the 26th. I am a second generation American whose parents were born and raised in the Bronx. The biggest move my parents made in their young adulthood was to leave New York for New Jersey, and no one forced them to do it. All of my family, on both sides, made their way to this country from Russia before the war. Had my grandparents stayed where they were, I wouldn’t be writing this article. But not so the older gentleman from my synagogue, who lost everything that defined his life as a child and young man. Against all odds, he reconstructed the shattered remnants of that life and found a reason to continue living, here in New York.

Death has the capacity to be a great equalizer. He has yahrzeit on the 25th of Sivan, and I do on the 26th. We are both in the database of our synagogue’s yahrzeit notification list. But that’s where the similarity ends, not just for him and me, but also for him and almost all of the members of my congregation.

I miss my mother and father, to be sure, and their yahrzeits bring to the foreground of my consciousness all kinds of memories and associations, some of them painful. But when my yahrzeit has come and gone, I am able to put the difficulties of the day behind me, and move on.

He can’t. And so it is that, when his yahrzeit is over, “moving on” means continuing the process of working through a grief that can know no resolution in this lifetime. Kaddish will always be a part of his prayer experience. I hope it eases his pain…

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.
Related Topics
Related Posts