The little candle burned for over a day. It was in remembrance of a good man, my husband’s father, grandfather to our children, father-in-law to me. On his gravestone at Beth Israel Cemetery in Woodbridge, a simple phrase tells passersby that this was a “gentle man.” I knew him for many years and never did I hear his voice raised in anger. That was not his way.
He had come to America as a teenager. Born in Poland, Yiddish was his first language and he bore the unmistakable accent of those who shared his story. He was unskilled but willing to work hard. And so he did.
His kindness was a blessing to those who lived life with him. He was the devoted son of a mother who reached old age and still had the fortitude to make her own challot and tend to the fish who swam in her bathtub before Passover. They were of the “gefilte” species and I still cannot imagine this frail old woman dispensing with them and transforming them into the delicious appetizers they were.
She was fiercely religious and when she became terminally ill refused to go to a hospital or nursing home, never trusting their kashrut. Thus, it fell on her son who tended to her ever-increasing needs. Every day, following a long day at work, he would commute by subway to her home to take care of her. On Shabbat he would endure a very long walk to be there for her. He never expected thanks; he taught us the meaning of love and honoring one’s parents.
When he died we were not content to have a generic marker at his grave. We wanted to include a few simple words that would convey who he was. He was a “gentle man.”
That became our family’s custom. Cemeteries are filled with gravestones that don’t capture the essence of the people buried beneath them. We wanted to make sure that our loved ones were remembered for the kind of person they were.
And it was so when my mother-in-law left us. Her marker tells the world that she was a “spirited woman.”
Gravestones, like obituaries, are what is left behind. They are the places we take our children so that they might know the lives of those they never met.
I am reminded often of the grave of a person I never knew. He lies in the Herzliya cemetery, near my parents and my sister’s husband, Zeev. His grave is adorned with a large basketball hoop and always fresh plants and flowers. The way his loved ones chose to remember him is a remarkable reminder of how he lived. He loved to play basketball. He never lived to an age when he would become a chayal, a soldier. Some tragedy befell him but he will be, in eternity, a basketball-playing teenager. So when I pass his grave I always shed a tear, and a smile. Rest in peace, young man. You are missed and you were loved.
Nearby lies Zeev, a peaceful man. Zeev was born in Romania and Israel’s 20th-century history became his life. He left Romania at age 16 en route to Israel after the Shoah, but landed in a displaced persons camp in Cyprus. There he learned Yiddish, a language he always associated with the diaspora and which he refused to speak once he arrived in Israel at age 18. The year was 1948 and Zeev immediately became a fighter, a soldier for the nascent country. He fought in each war through the Yom Kippur War, which was his last. How ironic that a man of peace became a man of war.
Zeev’s gravestone tells us he was loved by all. He made us laugh, often. Never was a man more devoted to his children and his wife. We loved him very, very much and he loved us in return.
Thus, when I saw the yahrtzeit candle burning for my father-in-law I thought of how beautiful our tradition is, to remind us of those who have left us but whose memories are transcendent. And I thought that each of us should consider the words on the gravestones very carefully. They are the permanent markers of those we loved and they merit words that tell the world who our loved ones really were.
May they rest in peace.
Rosanne Skopp is a contributor to NJJN and blogger for the Times of Israel. She lives in West Orange and Israel.