Sunday, February 23, 2020

Why I Light this Candle

Monday night was my father’s yahrzeit, and I lit a candle.

He died in 1980 on the 23rd day of the Hebrew month of Shevat, February 10th by the American/Gregorian calendar. Since the Hebrew calendar follows a lunar month, the date shifts around every year, and I have to check each year to find out when Shevat 23 lands.

The candle is a special candle that burns for about 26 hours. I light it at sundown the night before his yahrzeit and I say Kaddish, a Hebrew prayer of mourning. Then I take a photo and send it to my siblings and my daughter.
My brother replied: “Saying kaddish? Praying? Do you guys do that? Is the religious aspect of Judaism important to you all? Do you believe in the Jewish God? Or any god?”

These are all good questions. I only started lighting the candle a couple years ago, so why exactly do I do it?

First, there’s the God part. I have a physicist’s view of the universe. Einstein and Hawking and Feynman and Thorne are my source material, and while I marvel at the amazing answers science has been able to provide, I am in awe of the unanswered questions. The mystery is what thrills me, the unknowable (so far). That mystery is what I might feel God-like (or physicist-like?) about.

So that really doesn’t have anything to do with “belief.” Or “higher powers” or the usual ideas about God. Prayer is a melody, not a request or a hope. It doesn’t do anything.

So if I’m not lighting the candle for God; am I doing it for Dad? Well, Dad is dead, and he has no idea I’m lighting any candle. I also tend to skip the part about telling stories about him, remembering him, reflecting on him. My Dad had a difficult childhood with ideas of parenting I have since rejected, but I made my peace with him. So I don’t think I’m lighting the candle specifically for my Dad (even though it’s his yahrzeit).

I am lighting the candle because I am part of a line. Other people lit candles for parents and grandparents and I am a daughter and it’s my turn in the line.

I didn’t really understand this line until I had a daughter. She was named for my grandmother, but she extended my line into the future. That’s a really earth-shaking realization – a total transformation of reality – and once you’re extended into the future, your link to the past is cemented, too. In our Third Thirds, it all seems so much clearer. That past comes with tradition, history, and ritual. In my pick-and-choose way, I pick the candle ritual.

In my case, the tradition is Judaism. This is what I believe: whatever you are, however you identify yourself, you have to be it wholeheartedly. You have to affirm it, learn about it, be proud of it, espouse it. At the same time, you have to enjoy that everyone else is affirming, espousing, and proud of what they are. If we don’t do that, we all become just white bread.

Ursula K. LeGuin wrote a fascinating book called The Lathe of Heaven. The protagonist has “effective” dreams, meaning they actually alter reality. A psychiatrist tries to steer his dreams to solve world problems, such as racism. But as dreams work, George dreams that everyone is now gray … and his girlfriend no longer exists. Being black was such a powerful part of her identity, she couldn’t exist in a gray world.

A gray world, a white bread world, is a world I don’t want to live in. I want big, vibrant African-Americans; big, vibrant Puerto Ricans; big, vibrant Norwegians (recognizing that might not be their style…), etc. etc. And my contribution to this is as a Jew.

So this is why I light the yahrzeit candle: I am reaffirming my place in the Jewish line of my grandparents, my father, my family, and my daughter. I am honoring them and our tradition, and I am being who I am. That’s all.


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