I observed the yahrzeit of my father, Simon Kaplan, last week. He died on the 16th of Tamuz, 2005, which makes this year his 18th yahrzeit — chai. Yes, I get the irony.
My parents had been married almost 65 years when my father died. (My mother died 18 months later — irony again?). So when I think of them, it’s usually as a pair — Mommy and Daddy, Grandma and Zayde, Gert and Sam. While they were unlike in some ways, even when they differed they were often an ideal yin and yang. Thus, while I technically observe my father’s yahrzeit in the summer and my mother’s in the winter, in many ways I observe two yahrzeits a year for both of them.
The most obvious dual observing, at least for me, is that while you usually concentrate on thinking about the person whose yahrzeit is being commemorated, it’s almost impossible for me to think of one parent without thinking of the other. And now that I’m retired and have lots of time to think — simply think — rather than have the constant pressure to act, I can comfortably set aside some time each yahrzeit to reflect on both my parents, their lives, and what they meant to me and our immediate and broader family. I’m free to ponder that amazing partnership, that winning team once united in life, though now only in memory.
There is another smaller, personal custom that I follow year-to-year that also demonstrates this dual observing: wearing things I received from my parents. Thus, my yahrzeit kippah of choice is a black knitted one I inherited from my father — a kippah seruga without a dugma (design) that is larger than the ones with a dugma that I usually wear. I start wearing it on the Shabbat before the actual yahrzeit when I get an aliyah and continue doing so through my final kaddish and the sunset ending my observance. But I also wear it on my mother’s yahrtzeit, though she, of course, never wore this, or any other, kippah. Rather, its connection to my father is a natural connection to my mother.
Similarly, I have a watch my mother gave me, which I especially treasure because it wasn’t given as a birthday present or on some other occasion; rather, it was a “just because” gift. I therefore make sure to always wear it on her yahrzeit — and on my father’s. A gift from one was a gift from both.
In addition to these small personal practices, this year, as in previous ones, I also performed more traditional yahrzeit rituals and customs. On Shabbat I chanted the haftorah from the book of Micah, which ends with a particularly meaningful verse (6:8): “It was told to you, man, what is good and what the Lord demands of you — only doing justice and loving kindness and walking humbly with your God.” What a letter-perfect description of my father’s modest character and unstinting devotion to ethical behavior above and beyond his scrupulous ritual observance.
I also made a keil maleh rachamim for him at mincha; lit a yahrzeit candle that flickered for 25 hours; led the ma’ariv, shacharit, and mincha services and recited kaddish during davening; made additional charitable donations in his merit and memory; and felt a warmth when people first asked me for whom I was observing yahrzeit and then extended the customary wish that his neshama should have an aliyah —that his soul should have a spiritual elevation.
While all these activities were meaningful, there was one event that was as touching as it was unexpected. It was an email I received from my cousin David. Technically, David isn’t my cousin, at least not by blood. Rather, he’s married to my first cousin Barbara, which makes him my cousin-in-law. But as years pass, the in-law fades as the cousin comes to the fore.
David lives in Lakewood, and though we feel a close tie we don’t see each other often other than at family gatherings. We do occasionally keep in touch by email, but those are usually initiated by David in response to one of my columns — though he’s outside the Standard’s circulation area, he’s on my list of friends and relatives to whom I email them. But this wasn’t such a response.
Rather, David told me a story about my father. The details aren’t important to anyone outside our family, but his point was to emphasize my father’s (and mother’s) trait of quiet generosity; indeed, a generosity offered in a spirit so warm and loving that he was often able to make the recipient think that the favor was being done to my father, not by him.
How so very thoughtful and kind of David to send me that note. And while my father’s yahrzeit was obviously on my calendar and those of my brother Lawrence and my sister Rena (and even had it not, my shul, and I’m sure theirs, sent reminders), how so very wonderful of David to have had it on his calendar and on his mind.
My siblings and I all had similar reactions to the email. We weren’t surprised at its contents. While we hadn’t known of this particular act of chesed, we all knew of my parents’ generosity; indeed, it was the subject of many stories told to us while we sat shiva in Far Rockaway in the summer of 2005 and the winter of 2007. But we were grateful for David’s kindness in sending it to us, and for his wisdom in understanding how deeply moving it would be to learn something new about our parents 18 years after their passing.
I’ve written about kindness a number of times in the past, and quoted more than once my teacher, and dare I say friend, Rabbi Shai Held, that “If you are blessed with children, do they know, truly and unambiguously, that whether or not they are kind is what matters most to you? That you value kindness more than success; that you value it more than brilliance or mitzvot like Shabbat and kashrut?” And add to that Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s brilliant 17-word sermon — “When I was young I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people.”
What David’s email taught me again — it’s easy to forget — is that beyond the Held and Heschel insights, kindness is more than doing a good deed or offering a helping hand, as important as those actions are. There’s great kindness, true kindness, in a thoughtful word, a warm welcome, a forgiving response, a loving whisper, a heartfelt remembrance.
The power of words. And sometimes, when they are used, as they were here, with care and wisdom and love, they can bring solace and consolation to one’s soul.
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist, is a long-time resident of Teaneck. His work also has 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.