I forgot my father’s yahrzeit this year. 27 Tishrei. 27 years. I forgot, but I didn’t forget.
27 years ago, my father went into hospice right before Rosh Hashana. It made the entire month of Tishrei quite stressful. I didn’t have the stomach to sit in shul for hours on end, repeating “who shall live and who shall die.” My head wasn’t in it, nor was my heart. My faith was rock bottom. I was angry at God and in a twisted way, wondered what I had done to deserve the punishment of my father dying as he was, and at such a young age. My father was dying. I didn’t need salt rubbed into the wound that had not yet fully opened but I was grieving already. Each time my wife would light candles before one chag or another, or repeated shabbatot, I feared being out of touch that he would die, and I wasn’t going to know for a day or two.
I didn’t forget this year. I can never really forget. Because every year as Tishrei and Rosh Hashana approach, I am brought back to that period and the anxiety. When he died, my father had three grandchildren, my three eldest children who were 3, 1.5, and 3 weeks. Now, he has 12, three more of mine, and three each from my brothers. And he has three great grandchildren, and two grandchildren-in-laws. All my children, their spouses, and their children live in Israel. Each one is magnificent, contributing each in his/her way to our people, and the State of Israel.
My father would be proud. He’d be elated.
So, I really didn’t forget that this day was coming. It was on my calendar. But I don’t ever need a reminder of his absence in our lives, that he’s never met most of his grandchildren or any great grandchildren, celebrated their bar and bat mitzvahs, or the brit mila of any of the five boys born into my nuclear family and welcomed into the covenant that God made with Abraham, and us today. At the weddings we’ve made he’s been a persistent absence. And how much he’s missing in my life. Yes, it’s true, over time the pain diminishes but the loss never does. Maybe it’s even more in a sense, because he should be here with us, enjoying his progeny.
But for me, this year was not 27 Tishrei, or October 12. It was just Day Six of the war unleashed by Hamas, that sent us all into our bomb shelters in different parts of the country, on Day One, multiple times for the rest of the day. By Day Six, all of my father’s Israeli family were together under our roof, except for his two grandchildren in law (grand daughter-in-law was with her parents), and not her newlywed husband, my oldest son, our combat solder, named for my father.
If he were alive, I am convinced that my father would have gotten on the first possible plane to be with us, bringing his good humor, wit, and warmth. I’m convinced of it because to him his family was everything. And I am convinced of it because he was born in pre-state Israel, when the Jews were referred to as Palestinians, a term to be hijacked the year I was born. Until his last day he spoke English with a Hebrew accent, ironically the same as his great grandchildren who were born here. While he spent most of his life in America, Israel always remained central in his life. He kept me home from school the day Israel and Egypt signed their peace treaty, and was in Israel weeks before Israel and Jordan signed that peace treaty. He was beaming the day he got to meet King Hussein.
When Israel suffered, he suffered too. I don’t recall the incident, but I was away in college when he called asking for my help with a project that he was doing for his Federation where, at the time, he served as Campaign Chair. Even though I was still in school, he had me pegged for the non-profit professional I would become.
That’s why I know he’d be here with us now.
Until he got sick, he supported and encouraged our plans to make Aliyah. For him, I think, our coming home was a little bit of his coming home too.
My father was 10 when the UN voted to create a Jewish state, and 11 when Israel declared independence. Much of his early years were marked by war and fighting for our survival against our Arab enemies. I sensed that this was all traumatic for him and we never spoke about it. Coming to be with us now would have revisited his childhood traumas, but he’d have been here with us anyway. Of all the four people who became grandparents the day my daughter was born 30 years ago, my father was the one most transformed. He never knew his grandparents. They were alive when he was born. Maybe they all saw pictures of one another, but when he was five, they were all murdered by the Nazis and their Polish accomplices.
My father never had a personal model of a loving grandparent to emulate. That made his transformation as a grandparent all the more remarkable. One of the comforts in his very early death is seeing that transformation, in a sense making him complete. If he were with us today, he’d have been sitting in the corner of the couch reading stories in native Hebrew to his great grandchildren, or his heavily Hebrew accented English.
While yahrzeit candles and forms of public mourning don’t really do it for me since my father’s memory is always with me and so much of who I am is because of him, I’m not losing sleep over forgetting his yahrzeit this week, or making it to shul to say kaddish. Not this week. There are many other things keeping me awake at night.
While this war will get a name, in many ways, sadly, we’re still fighting the same war that my father experienced as a child, just a different battle 74 years later.
Mourning is not limited to a day on the calendar, not even 27 years later. But if you’re inclined to give charity to the war effort, or do something kind for someone else, please do so in memory of Natan ben Zelig Asher. Maybe it’ll elevate his soul, but it would definitely put a smile on his face.