Our Innermost Ear … and no Splitting Hairs About It

According to Jewish law, the year of mourning for a parent is broken up into four time periods: Between death and burial (aninut), the next seven days (shiva), the first 30 days (shloshim), and the entire 12-month cycle (yud bet chodesh). As time passes, the mourning rules ease, as some restrictions end at the conclusion of a time period.

There is one exception, however. Although haircutting is prohibited only during shloshim, that restriction continues in a fashion. That is, you don’t immediately take a haircut on the thirty-first day. Rather, the custom is for mourners to wait until told that they look a bit scruffy and they ought to take a haircut and shave or trim their beards. Only then may they do so.

Just before my mother died, I took a very short haircut (for completely unrelated reasons). So when shloshim ended, I wasn’t surprised that no one told me I needed a haircut. But as time went on and my hair began to cover my ears and collar, the women in my household, who usually are not shy about commenting on my looks and attire, said not a word. So still no haircut.

Pesach finally loomed. I continued to wait, though, until just two days before the first seder. And then I visited the barber.

When I returned home, one of my daughters said “Nice haircut, Daddy.” But knowing the custom, she also asked “Who told you that you needed one?” “Who told me?” I responded in a rising voice. “Grandma told me.” When my daughter looked at me quizzically and shyly murmured “Grandma??” to her father, about whom she was beginning to feel a bit nervous, I added: “That’s right. Grandma. I heard Grandma’s voice clear as a bell saying ‘Don’t you dare think you’re going into yuntif looking like that!’”

Just recently I heard my father’s voice. The second verse in the daily Shema prayer — Baruch shem kevod malchuto le-olam va’ed (Blessed be the name of His glorious kingdom forever and ever) — is said in a whisper except on Yom Kippur, when both the chazzan and the congregation declare it in a loud voice for all to hear. My father, who (understatement coming) was not blessed with a pleasant singing voice and thus usually could not be heard above the fray during congregational prayer, nonetheless would blare this verse out in a loud voice that the entire congregation in his beloved Far Rockaway White Shul could hear — a voice I heard this year at Rinat in Teaneck on the 15th Yom Kippur after his death.

Now, before you start to worry about me too much, I hasten to note that I am well aware that my parents are no longer with us and realize that they do not speak to me in voices that I can hear with my biological peripheral and central auditory systems. But there is another auditory system — one separate from the outer, middle, and inner ears and the cochlear nucleus up to the primary auditory complex. This system is a combination of heart and mind and memory which, from time to time, allows us hear those whose voices we no longer can hear through our biological system.

And just like we can improve our biological hearing with the use of hearing aids (something I’ve recently become acquainted with personally), we also can improve what I’ll call our memory auditory system through a different type of much less expensive though much more personal hearing aids.

Thus, for example, my father wore a special kippah on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. While he was usually quite unflamboyant in dress, this satin kippah had a semi-cantorial shape (without the pom-pom), and was bedecked with rather ornate gold and silver Yemenite embroidery. Not my usual style either (I’m a kippah seruga with a dugma type of guy), but on Yom Kippur I wear my father’s special kippah, which I think helps me hear his resounding baruch shem kevod malchuto le-olam va’ed.

Similarly, shortly after my father died, my mother gave me one of those not-for-any-particular-reason presents — a watch that she saw me admiring in a catalogue. I have a number of watches, but I always make sure to wear this one on special occasions, and particularly for family smachot. And when I do, I can sometimes hear my mother, in her wonderfully honest manner, commenting on the family members gathered in celebration. It’s a special hearing aid that never needs recharging.

I do something similar on my parents’ yahrtzeits, when I wear another one of my father’s kippot — this time a large plain black-knitted one, much more reminiscent of, and in line with, my father’s modest demeanor. Wearing it helps me, if I’m lucky and thinking of them hard enough, hear my parents’ voices whispering a soft amen to the Kaddish I recite in their memory.

My wife Sharon does likewise, though not with kippot. Not a simcha or Yizkor goes by where she doesn’t wear a piece of jewelry from her mother, or from mine — or, most often, pieces from both. And one of my daughters, though not saying Yizkor, also wears pieces of jewelry from her grandmothers. It’s a way of honoring them, of remembering them, of bringing them with us to shul and family celebrations and back into our lives if only for a moment or two — and a way of sometimes even hearing their voices with our memory auditory system.

We do this as a family as well. No seder in our house is complete without my wife reading a message written by her father (a congregational rabbi for more than half a century) about the mid-15th century Ashkenazi Haggadah that appeared one year in his synagogue’s Pesach bulletin, called “Thanks for the Winestains.” Or my breaking my teeth singing the Shaloh HaKadosh’s Old German version of Adir Hu that I heard my grandfather sing flawlessly at the sedorim of my youth. And as we read and sing, some hear voices other than Sharon’s and mine. Our using silver kiddush cups or a challah tray that once graced our parents’ Shabbat and Yom Tov tables to now grace ours, or enjoying delicious meals made from our mothers’ and grandmothers’ recipes, also serve as memory hearing aids to help us detect other voices in the zemirot we sing and divrei Torah we teach around our table.

And yet. If only.

I was walking home from shul this Rosh Hashanah when I crossed paths with a (relatively speaking) young friend who usually sits behind me in shul. After exchanging greetings with Adam, I asked where he was coming from, and he named a shul other than ours. Seeing my surprised look, he told me that, as I knew, he grew up in Teaneck, and that his parents still attend that shul. “I like to daven next to my father on the Yamim Nora’im,” he explained. “And I look forward to not davening with you on the Yamim Nora’im for many years,” I responded with a full heart. I understood. But was jealous.

If only.

About the Author
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist for the Jewish Standard, is a long-time resident of Teaneck. His work has also appeared in various publications including Sh’ma magazine, The New York Jewish Week, The Baltimore Jewish Times, and, as letters to the editor, The New York Times.
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