I recently turned seventy and thought of my parents who are no longer here to share my milestone birthday. I think about my parents almost daily and “talk” to them several times per week. In a recent Yizkor Sermon Rabbi Neil Zuckerman gave me comfort when he said, “Death ends a life but is does not end a relationship; it merely changes the format.” This is one of the most comforting constructs that I have ever encountered.
In August 1982, my parents were profiled in a New York Times article, entitled “Once More, With Feeling: Renewing Vows.” Mom and Dad were married on December 23, 1945 right after my father got home from the Pacific Theater of World War II. During their sixty- eight years of marriage, they celebrated many anniversaries by renewing their marriage vows; they were re-married in many different settings by clergy of different faiths. My parents were simple people. Most of their ceremonies consisted of just three people: Mom, Dad, and a clergyman. Sometimes they invited their three children. We were all present at their 25th Anniversary when they re-married with a Sephardic Rabbi. Over the years, they were re-married with a Catholic Priest, multiple Rabbis, a Lutheran Minister, an Anglican Priest, and with me. By the time their 66th Anniversary rolled around, they were pretty much homebound. So my brother, sister, me, our spouses and the four grandchildren celebrated in their Sheepshead Bay apartment. The four grandkids held the four corners of my Tallis over my parents, as they sat on the couch, and they reconfirmed their undying love for each other.
My parents met shortly after they both graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School in Brooklyn. Although they never met in high school, they did meet in a very 1940s New York way: Allan Zachary picked up Rose Jacobs on a Manhattan to Brooklyn IRT train. He approached her with a fake southern drawl and asked her to dinner. When said she had plans that night, he asked her to break them… and she did! That was the start of Mom and Dad. When World War II began, my father enlisted in the Army and Mom waited for him to return from the Pacific. Like so many WW II veterans, Dad rarely spoke about the war. He went in a chubby young man from Brooklyn and came out a thin, muscular Sergeant. My parents were married in a small ceremony in my grandparents’ home on Bradford Street in East New York: a Rabbi, their parents, and immediate family.
In 1946, my parents drove to Los Angeles where my father wrote for the Dinah Shore Show. Dad did all the driving to California because Mom never learned to drive. She was four feet eleven inches and could not reach the clutch to change gears. “They saw the USA in their Chevrolet” long before Dinah Shore sang that song.
They returned home to New York City and my father worked in public relations for the Lewyt Vacuum Cleaner Company and then at the Daily News. He ultimately started his own Public Relations firm. Mom and Dad rented a studio apartment on Park Avenue South in Manhattan, then a one-bedroom on Henry Street in Brooklyn Heights, then on Martense Street in Flatbush to begin a family. We moved to the Coney Island Housing Projects in 1956. I was five years old. Laine my sister was three, and my brother Eric was one.
My father developed an expertise in European automobiles and helped to introduce Mercedes Benz, Peugeot, and Renault to the American market. Around 1960 or so, he brought home a Mercedes 300SL to test drive for a public relations piece he would write. My mother went ballistic; it was German vehicle and it had only two seats. It was not suitable for our family to drive in. As I look back, what a hoot. This became the famous Gull wing Mercedes that is worth a fortune today and I was riding in it around the Coney Island Housing Projects…Speaking of incongruities.
Dad worked in Manhattan and Mom took care of us. Mom was resilient; she was outnumbered by three kids. When I was born, she played one on one defense; with my brother and sister she changed to a zone defense. She survived Breast Cancer twice with two radical mastectomies. Despite hating the sand and the mess, Mom took us to the beach almost every day during the summer. We saw the fireworks every Tuesday night from the boardwalk in Coney Island. She was on the PTA at Mark Twain Junior High School and was a Den Mother in our Cub Scout Pack 162. She was also active at the Young Israel of Coney Island.
Mom was tough. What she did not survive, was the loss of her husband and best friend for more than 70 years. My father died in October 2013. My mother died fourteen months later in January 2015. I am seventy years old and I have a wife, two children, and a grandson but nothing repairs the loss of your parents. I miss the political talks I had with my father and I miss the “take care of yourself Bubbala” from my mother.
When it was time to mourn the loss of my parents, I vowed to mourn them in the traditional Jewish way. The Jewish approach to mourning is both respectful of the deceased and sensitive to the mourner. Kaddish is recited daily for eleven months. The most intense period of mourning is during the Shiva period which is for seven days after the burial. The next three weeks are less intense, and the mourner usually begins to re-enter the community and return to work. The entire eleven months, after burial, include daily Kaddish prayers said at the morning and evening services. For the week of Shiva, I recited Kaddish three times per day, but as I resumed my responsibilities as a physician, I mostly went to the morning service at 7:00AM.
To fulfill the ritual obligation/privilege of reciting Kaddish for your loved one, you must be in a congregation of at least 10 Jewish people called a Minyan. This forces the mourner to reach out for the comfort of the community. At the morning service, men (and women may) wrap themselves in a prayer shawl called a Tallis and wrap leather straps on their arms and head called Tefillin. I prayed this way, for four years, from the time of my Bar Mitzvah at age thirteen until I was about seventeen. For the next 45 years, I did not attend morning services, nor put on Tefillin.
My first morning minyan was the day after my Dad’s funeral. A fellow physician showed me how to wrap my Tefillin, which I had received for my Bar Mitzvah five decades earlier. It came back, but not easily. At my first Kaddish, I cried. I had all the usual regrets: I should have told my father how much I loved and respected him; I should have visited more often, been less sarcastic, been a better son. Kaddish was not easy but it helped a lot. I was honoring my father, but he could not say thank you. There were moments during my prayers when I could see my Dad as a young and vibrant man. Those images faded during the eleven months as I made peace with my loss. I was in my early sixties, when my father died yet, the pain of his loss was sharp and deep. Kaddish and Shul gave me the structure I needed to mourn actively, to do something to honor my parents.
Mom was lost after my father died. She was a home body whose life revolved around her husband and her children. Although she adored her four grandchildren, she was empty without her best friend of more than seventy years. She kept a picture of them under her pillow at night and in her pocket. She passed away fourteen months after my father.
My eleven months of mourning for my mother ended on December 1, 2015, completing the mitzvah/obligation/privilege of saying Kaddish for my mother. It was an odd feeling; I wanted to stand up and recite the prayer in honor of my Mom, but it was no longer appropriate. It was time to stop mourning and move forward with life. Kaddish had become my friend and ally; it helped me to mourn the loss of each of my parents.
The Kaddish prayer is recited not in Hebrew but in the ancient Aramaic language. Aramaic was the lingua franca of the Jewish community. Mourners say Kaddish to demonstrate that despite the loss of their loved one, their faith is unbroken, and they can still praise God. The opening words of Kaddish are inspired by Ezekiel 38:23, a vision of God becoming great in the eyes of all the nations. The central line of Kaddish is the congregation’s response to the mourners: “May His great name be blessed forever and ever.” This is a public declaration of God’s greatness for all eternity. The Kaddish prayer ends with a request for peace for the Jewish people and for all the nations of the world.
My parents had a wonderful marriage and a relationship that spanned more than seventy years. They were married more times than anybody else that I know. They never got tired of each other’s company. They may have been angry with one of their three children, but they were seldom angry with each other. I will always miss each of them and will always wish that I had said “I love you” to them more often. They never stopped saying that to each other.
And I will never stop talking to them. Thank you, Rabbi Zuckerman.