Pearl: Were the Olsens Jewish?
Steve: Is, is Naomi Jewish?
Pearl: I’ll have to ask Naomi.
Steve: You’ll have to ask Naomi?
Pearl: Yeah, if she’s Jewish, but, uh...
Steve: Well, you’ll have to explain what it means.
The person who had the best claim for Judaism was the one who was always clearest about not being Jewish: my father. Which makes it extra-interesting to me that all of his children and his wife decided to burn yahrzeit candles on the anniversary of his death.
Being secular Jews, we had to discover for ourselves what the candles meant. You're supposed to light the candle at sunset on the day before the actual anniversary and burn it for 24 hours. Optionally, you can recite the mourner's prayer, the Kaddish. I don't know the Kaddish so I read A.A. Milne's poem "The Three Foxes" while my children embraced me. (I chose that poem because it was NOT one that Dad recorded for me in the last month of his life and I thought it's lightheartedness would keep me from crying. It didn't.)
While I thought of the candle as a little bit sacred (is that like being a little bit pregnant?), when I discovered in the morning that mine had burned out leaving a hollow core in the center of the beeswax, I added a tealight so I could use up all the original wax. That seemed somehow important.
In the afternoon, my sister and stepmother and I gathered for an hour of remembrance. We had been like a three-legged stool during Dad's last months, relying on each other for support, and it seemed fitting to have time to ourselves. Later, we were joined by my brother-in-law and Dad's friends, the Princes, from up the street. We talked and cried and ate cake and drank whiskey and wine. (One source my sister consulted said that while cakes and drinks were appropriate, the gathering was not to be a party. No worry there.)
The yahrzeit candle has, of course, symbolic meaning: "like a human soul, flames must breathe, change, grow, strive against the darkness and, ultimately, fade away. Thus, the flickering flame of the Yahrzeit candle helps to remind us of the departed soul of our loved one and of the precious fragility of our life and the lives of our loved ones, life that must be embraced and cherished at all times."
When I got home, I started to get a little worried about the symbolism I was creating. My daughter told me the candle had gone out a couple times, so she'd added more tealights. I like I was creating something of a mess, and I was a little lost. Should I keep adding to the candle? Should I just allow it to stop on its own? Should I put the candle away when it was still messy?
How very like my relationship with Dad: a little bit confusing, a little bit unknown, made up on the fly, full of questions about the past and the future. Untidy and real.
My younger brother left his yahrzeit candle burning on his bedside table and woke up a couple times to see it still alight. "I think they know something, those Jews," he said.