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Memorial Day

Without ritual and prayer, grief for a lost loved one has no place to go. But can a convert to Judaism observe yahrzeit for a non-Jewish parent?

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My sister, Cynthia, had a problem recently: She couldn’t figure out where to go to make peace with our mom. My sister is in recovery from alcohol and drug addiction, and making amends with all the people you’ve hurt, including those who have fallen out of your life, or those who’ve passed away, is a critical part of the recovery process. Our mother died when I was 17 and my sister was 15. She was cremated, and she has no gravestone, and her ashes were buried or scattered in four different spots in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Cynthia wanted a ritual; she wanted to find an appropriate place for that ritual. But where? Three of the places where our mother’s physical remains ended up are on property that no longer belongs to our family.

“I have failed to honor her memory,” Cynthia said. “I have forgotten her birthday as well as her death day and again tried to avoid the experience of grief.” I notice the passing of our mom’s birthday every August and of her death day each November. But my problem, like my sister’s, is that I’ve never done anything about it—or never done anything about it in a way that seemed to matter, or to ease the enduring sense of loss.

One of the things I have always done is to recall the week leading up to my mother’s death, which I used to think of as one woman’s terrible Passion. (I am a Jew, but I was baptized, raised, and confirmed as an Episcopalian.) She went into the hospital for some regular tests on a Tuesday; they kept her an extra day for more tests; that became two more days, then three. The doctors had known that the breast cancer that had resulted in two separate mastectomies, plus countless rounds of chemotherapy and radiation, had been attacking her liver; that week they discovered that it had spread to her whole body. By the time we came to visit her that weekend, she was so doped up on painkillers she could barely speak. She died of a morphine-induced heart attack just past midnight on Monday, Nov. 9, 1987. One of my father’s sisters, the only person present at her death, said she arched up her torso—as if she was being electrocuted, or fighting off her killer one last time—then collapsed.

When I still lived in Andover, Mass., the town where I grew up, there were a few late nights when I ran through this awful timeline in the graveyard behind the church we’d belonged to. There was a dead patch of earth near the church, right where the graveyard started, that seemed like it had to be the spot where we’d dug a hole right after her funeral and spaded in a portion of her ashes. This was spontaneous, improvised mourning, which, in its way, is as important as ritual and ritualized prayer.

But sometimes, without ritual and ritualized prayer, the grief never completely has a place to go—and like a cancer, it can metastasize, taking over your whole life.


Like many gerim—Jews by choice, or proselytes—I joined the tribe for love. “Most converts discover Judaism as a result of falling in love with a Jew,” writes Anita Diamant in her book Choosing a Jewish Life. “Others find their way through friendships, college courses, and coincidences that, at some point, begin to seem more like signposts than accidents.” I had the good fortune of both paths; I fell in love with a beautiful and brilliant Jewish woman whom I reconnected with 16 years after we’d been friends in college, a girl I’d had a crush on when I was a sophomore and she was a junior. And like most who convert for love, I’ve also subsequently fallen for the awesome beauty of Jewish practice, tradition, and ritual. Just the idea of a yahrzeit, the practice of honoring a loved one’s memory on the anniversary of his or her death, gives me solace.

But can I honor my mother’s yahrzeit? Can I even refer to the anniversary of a Christian’s death as a yahrzeit? My mother, Ann, grew up in Tennessee and was raised Southern Baptist; after college, she spent a year studying at Vanderbilt University’s divinity school before moving to New England to teach English at a boarding school. (That’s where she met my father, John; he was the head of the school’s English department.) When my sister and I were still little, my mother converted to Episcopalianism, my father’s denomination. She took her faith seriously. In the work she did for our church, she would bring the Eucharist to the homes of members who were physically unable to make it to services. In her battle with cancer, she also grew in her spiritual thinking beyond the traditional boundaries of Protestantism and into the realm of the holistic, pluralist, Eastern-influenced, and New Age. (She was a brave woman. Not many Western doctors in the 1980s considered a macrobiotic diet, meditation, and visualization techniques to be at all useful; the very idea of complementary therapies barely existed.) I can’t ever know for sure what she would think of me being a Jew. I hope that she wouldn’t think of my saying kaddish for her as offensive, a microcosmic analogue to overzealous Mormons posthumously baptizing Holocaust victims.

What my mother might think, though, hasn’t been my only worry. In Judaism, there are degrees of honorifics for the dead; we say “may her memory be for blessing,” but we also say “may the memory of the righteous be for blessing” for a deceased rabbi, or “may the memory of the saintly be for blessing” for a martyr. I was concerned: If the honorifics climbed upward, depending on the degree of respect traditionally accorded to the dead, did the spectrum implicitly go in the other direction as well? In other words, if the baseline of honor for a dead Jew is “may her memory be for blessing,” then when remembering a gentile, is her memory for naught?

Jews in the Reform tradition are sometimes perceived as winging it, making it up as we go along. And sometimes, certainly, we do. I know a fellow ger whose mikveh was not in an Orthodox-owned, Upper West Side indoor pool, as mine was, but in an actual river; a Jewish neighbor lights candles for her deceased parents on their birthdays. And I know plenty of Jews, from many different backgrounds, who either don’t keep kosher or who do so in an interpretive fashion. But the Reform Jewish tradition is still a tradition, and the tradition has a clear response to the question of whether or not you can say kaddish for a Christian: Yes.

I found the answer in Solomon B. Freehof’s book Recent Reform Responsa, published by the Hebrew Union College Press in 1963; my friend Andy Bachman, the senior rabbi at the synagogue where I work, steered me to it. (At the time he wrote the book, Freehof led the responsa committee of the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis.) In the chapter “Kaddish for Apostates and Gentiles,” Freehof cites a few different arguments from a number of sources. “It is possible to take the point of view that the Jewish son should not say Kaddish for the Gentile father,” he writes. “The general description in the Talmud of the relationship of a convert to his Gentile relatives is that they are no longer his relatives at all.” But two fundamental Jewish principles—the commandment to honor parents, and the need to respect other religions—trump that idea. “If a son may say Kaddish for his Jewish-born apostate father who had willfully deserted Judaism,” Freehof writes, “then certainly a proselyte son may say Kaddish for a Gentile father who is naturally following the religion in which he was brought up.”

On my mother’s birthday the year after she died—Aug. 22, 1988, the day she would have turned 44—family and friends gathered at a farm in the small town of Lyndeborough, N.H., which my great-grandfather bought a century ago. We dug a hole for a peach tree and scooped some of my mother’s remaining ashes into it. We scattered the ashes that remained at the top of a nearby hill on the property, which we called Mount Elizabeth, after my father’s mother. Our family doesn’t own the farm anymore—when it was sold in the early 1990s, my dad dug up the peach tree and moved it down the hill to a much smaller farm he then bought, a place we also no longer own. My dad had to sell it in the late 1990s, when his Parkinson’s got so bad that he needed to move into an apartment.

But recently, our old family farm has been on the market again, unoccupied. And my sister had a residency at the MacDowell Colony, just a half-hour drive away. So, she decided to try to make her peace on Mount Elizabeth. “I was telling my plan to a friend who is Jewish, lamenting to her the way I’d failed to honor my mother after her death,” Cynthia said. Her friend told her “that in the Jewish tradition, it is crucial to honor those loved ones who have died, in part to make a space or clearing in which to experience the pain of loss.” Otherwise, Cynthia’s friend pointed out, “without a container, grief has a tendency to spread itself out, infecting one’s entire life like a dark cloud or shadow hanging over one’s head, no matter how far one may run.”

My mother didn’t want a gravestone, I think, because she wanted us to remember her in life, not in death; she wanted to be remembered everywhere, not just at the place where we might mark her remains with a rock. But we, the living, are weak; we need containers in both space and time. We need rocks; we need yahrzeits; we need to light candles and say kaddish. If Shabbat is “a palace in time,” as Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, then a yahrzeit is a gravestone in time. Both yahrzeits and gravestones are markers that don’t minimize grief but rather, by localizing it, allow the anguish, momentarily, to fully express itself, in a way that’s not possible in regular space and time. In a way, they’re like the afterlife Kevin Brockmeier imagines in his novel The Brief History of the Dead, a city inhabited by the recently deceased; the dead exist in the city as long as there is someone still in the world of the living who remembers them. Then they vanish. Gravestones and yahrzeits are for the immediate survivors; the former might as well always be made of wood, not really needing to last more than a generation or two beyond the person whose remains they mark.


In the fall of 2004, after my father moved yet again, this time into an assisted-living home, his Parkinson’s suddenly progressed so rapidly that his neurologist convinced him to undergo deep brain stimulation surgery. A team of surgeons installed a device called a brain pacemaker; my father now has electrodes in his brain, a battery and control panel in his chest, and wires connecting the two. On Nov. 18, the day after his operation, one of his surgeons and I were in the recovery room when my dad finally woke up from the anesthesia. The doctor asked him what day it was. “Nov. 11,” my dad said. “What happened on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month?” the doctor asked. “All Quiet on the Western Front,” my dad said. His eyes were still closed. “That’s the English teacher’s answer,” he added. Then, after a pause: “Are you making fun of me?” It became clear to me and the doctor, later in this conversation, that my dad also thought that my mom had died on Nov. 11; he’d advanced the anniversary two days in his mind, to coincide with the Armistice.

My father’s memory has always been creative, which is perhaps part of why I want precise dates. Like my mom, he’s had no end of suffering. The chaos of my parents’ suffering is perhaps part of why I seek the relative orderliness of rituals and rocks. The first rock marking a grave in Torah is Rachel’s, in Genesis 35. In other words, Jews have been marking the remains of the dead with stones for a long time. My sister never made it to the top of Mount Elizabeth; the most recent owners had altered the landscape so much that the path was impossible to find. She had to settle for a field of wildflowers filled with butterflies. “I sat cross-legged in meditation under one of the trees and spoke out loud my amends, crying the whole way through,” she said. “But once I’d finished speaking and crying, I settled into a sense of genuine peace.”

Elizabeth Hopkins, my father’s mother, is buried in a cemetery in Lyndeborough. I called the town’s tiny government offices a few years ago to ask them about the grave, when we were trying to figure out what to do with my dad’s remains when he dies. The Hopkins family plot, the kind man who answered the phone told me, does not have enough room for another body, but it does have room for ashes and one more marker. Once the electrodes and wires and titanium-enclosed battery pack are at last removed from my father’s head and chest, and his body is placed in a plain pine box (“like Ann’s,” he wrote in funeral arrangement checklist, when he could still write), then cremated, it’s my wish to bury his ashes there. It’s also my wish to have a stone there with text carved into it that makes it both a headstone for my dad and a cenotaph for my mom—so long as I can convince myself that this will not offend the living or the dead.

In the meantime, starting this year on the 17th of Cheshvan, my mother’s yahrzeit, I will light a candle and say kaddish.

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Marshall says:

FYI, rivers frequently qualify as perfectly kosher mikvot.

Marion Gold says:

I honour the memory of my father, not Jewish, who died in World War II fighting behind enemy lines, burial place unknown. At his yahrtzeit, I light a candle. I do recite the Yiskor prayer for him at the appropriate times. When reciting the blessings after meals, I struggle with the words about my father since I was 6 when he was killed; I hardly knew him.
My mother was Jewish, from a Chasidish family, so I am halachically Jewish.
My heart and soul order me not to forget this man.

Shmuel says:

Regarding the degrees of honorifics for the dead: “may her memory be a blessing” (or zichrona lebracha) is actually one step up from the baseline. The baseline is “may peace be upon her” (“aleha hashalom”).

Elliott says:

My wife says yahrzeit for her Catholic mother and has even gone to the local Orthodox minyan to do it..they also made sure there was a minyan for her for the 11 months, knowing that her mother was not Jewish.

Marlene Sevack Gill says:

It’s best to do what you feel is right as long as it doesn’t hurt others. Beautiful story, Tom.

Thank you for this story, Tom. My Catholic mother passed away just 4 short weeks ago. It was such a struggle trying to honor her and my family’s wishes while juggling my, now Jewish, needs. I followed my heart and fortunately have a husband and friends who supported and still support me in my grieving process.

To do “Jewish” ritual for people who have died in my family has been a point of contention over many years. I sat shiva, and light yahrzheit candles and remember to do all the rituals for her even though I converted to Judaism, and she was wasn’t. My father wanted no Jewish ritual present at his burial – he died during Sukkot and so I was not able to sit shiva for him. But I remember his yarhzheit,too, because he was my father. An older brother has expressedly requested NO Jewish rituals should be done for him. But it is hard not to a light a candle when you light candles for other members in the family. This year was the first year to light a candle for my beloved younger sister – the lighting the first candle at Yom Kippur was so hard, yet gave comfort. It acknowledged my loss, the sadness, the pain and that life will go on. Many rabbis have told me to that since I am now a Jewish woman I should mourn as a Jewish woman. May our loved ones be remembered for blessing and may be find comfort.

Jason M says:

It’s interesting for many of us. I converted a couple of years ago, about a year and a half before my (Catholic) godfather passed away. He asked his son to have no Catholic clergy at his funeral, and to have 10 people he specified. I joked with my mother that, had he been Jewish, that would have constituted a minyan to say mourners’ kaddish. She said that, actually, his mother was a Hungarian Jew. My jaw dropped. I wish I had had known this after I had converted but before he passed away.

Emes Le'Am says:

You are not obliged to say Kaddish or yahrtzeit for a non-Jewish parent. But it is allowed and commendable. It brings merit to you, to their memory and shields them in the worlds to come. It is a practice to hold close to your heart.: May their memory be for a blessing to you.

Howard says:

The problem I always ask with regard to saying kaddish for my non-Jewish mother is not whether I would like to do so, but how she would feel about it. She didn’t like religion, neither the Christianity of her youth, nor the Judaism of my adulthood. My secular Jewish father may be floating around benevolently regarding the occasional kaddish in his honor, but my mother? It would just remind her that her son converted to Judaism, and why should I inflict that pain on my own mother? I prefer to remember her in other ways, in her calendar, not the Jewish calendar, and in words that she would have understood.

Sure you could say, the kaddish is for the mourners, as much as for the dead. Or you could say kaddish is for God, and not the dead or the mourners. But in the end we the living are communicating with the dead, or with our memories of the dead, and I have to say things that the dead would have understood or else the whole process doesn’t make too much sense to me.

So I go round and round on this question of whether it makes sense to remember a non-Jew in Jewish words and Jewish time… or not. Sometimes I say, hey, it’s my life now, she’s gone, and this is how I do remembrance. Other times that seems beyond silly, and only brings to mind all the old conflicts between us over my choice of Judaism.

Much better to drink a glass of wine, eat some cheese and crackers and read the dictionary out loud to friends – that’s something my mother would have loved, and something that gets much closer to her soul than the kaddish ever could.

I am of many minds on this.

Christopher Orev says:

Thanks for this touching, well-written piece.

And thanks, too, to Howard for further complicating things in a lovely way.

Berta Calechman says:

I have just recently observed yahrzeit for my Mother. How timely to read Tom’s beautifully touching piece, this week. Thank you, Tom. May your Mother be remembered for a blessing, and may you and your sister find comfort and peace.

Most of the biblical laws apply both to Jews and to the “righteous gentiles among you.” A righteous gentile was a person who believed in the one God, rather than in the many gods of popular culture. As such, it should not be inappropriate to say kaddish or light candles for Christians who are close to us (for they remain close to us even after they are no longer living).

But I think it is something of a misnomer that we say we are saying kaddish or lighting candles “for” the deceased person. We are doing it in their honor, but for ourselves, precisely in order to make that container for our grief.

You may find my words honoring Rembrandt’s yahrzeit meaningful to you. They appear in my book “The Future of Art in a Postdigital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness” (University of Chicago Press, 2011), p. 163:
“Working with Rembrandt’s angels, reminded me of the small etching he had made as a book illustration showing angels going up and down the ladder in Jacob’s dream. It was in the only book he had illustrated, Piedra Gloriosa/Even Yakar(Glorious Stone in Ladino and Hebrew), a kabbalistic book written by his neighbor and friend, Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel. I wanted to do something to honor Rembrandt. On October 4, it would be the 320th anniversary of his death. Jewish tradition honors people on the day they complete their lives rather than on their birthdays. It is like applauding after seeing a great play instead of when the curtain opens. It dawned on me that I could applaud Rembrandt best by having his winged angels wing their way around the world.”

Kaddish is complicated.

It doesn’t say anything about death or mourning. It doesn’t allude to it in any way.

Kaddish is a declaration that says that God is the BIG BOSS and when the mourner recites it, he/she is declaring that God makes the rules and, and we trust that everything that God does is for the good and for our benefit.

Each time the mourner makes this declaration, God feels pleasure and this in turn elevates the status of the souls of our departed ancestors in the spiritual realm in which they dwell.

On Rosh HaShanah, every living creature is judged, Jew and Gentile alike. Tradition holds that the fate of these souls are recorded either in the Book of Life or the Book of Death. The sages ask the obvious question: Why does God need 2 books? Wouldn’t it suffice to simply have 1 book, say the Book of Life? Either you merit to be inscribed in it, or you don’t. Using this method, a Book of Death is superfluous. So what is the Book of Death all about?

The sages tell us that the Book of Life is used to inscribe the fate of those who are living, while the Book of Death is used to inscribe the fate of the dead. What does it mean to be dead? It means that the soul is not currently inhabiting a physical body and therefore does not have the capability of performing good deeds.

The sages teach that when a living person does good deeds (actually, Mitzvot, which means that a person does what he/sheis commanded to do), then the persons dead ancestors accrue benefits.

When a son/daughter does God’s will, just as living parents “schlep Nachas”, the souls of all departed parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, ad infinitum all accrue benefits and merit to be inscribed for good in the Book of the Dead, and presumably enjoy more benefits in the spiritual world.

It’s perfectly fine to say Kaddish for a gentile, and even more powerful is to subjugate your will to God’s will, perform his commandments with love, which gives pleasure to departed loved ones.

Re: My post above, “schlep Nachas” was supposed to read “schep Nachas” but the auto-spell correct on my IPad changed schep to schlep. Who knew that Apple has auto-correct for Yiddish built into this thing?

Anyway, to the author, I do hope that you will find comfort in my post.


Olivia Hemming says:

Thomas, thank you for sharing your beautiful moving story of honoring your grief and on finding “a place to go to say goodbye to”. I have found that time-honored rituals are universal regardless of religious beliefs and affiliations as well as grieving. Grief has its own varied time lines and is different for everyone and all forms are valid.

Lighting candles on the anniversary of a loved one is also universally practiced by many faiths and even those of us who are not religious. The most beautiful rituals I observed while cleaning my son’s tablet at Forest Lawn (in CA) was a Chinese family who sat around the deceased’s tablet(rock you called it) with food, incense and chanted It was lovely to see and hear.

Your mother was a beautiful courageous being and sounds like she was all embracing of all and of whatever was here for her to heal her body as well as advance her soul, knowing that all that is life is interconnected in some way.

The world needs more people like her that are all embracing of all people regardless of gender, race, culture, religion and color.

I shall light a candle for her on her anniversary or as the Asian cultures do in Hawaii, float a boat in her name.

Thomas, I was really moved by your story, and think that you get to the heart of the Jewish religion, which is to honor family and friends regardless of religion. I wrote some of my thoughts in my latest blog, and hope you don’t mind me referencing your post.

Best wishes to you and your family.

Yaakov Hillel says:

There is no problem saying Kadish if you are part of a group of ten Jews. In actuality Saying Kadish is not a prayer for the dead. Sorry to dissapoint you. Kaddish is an exaltation of God, and an admission that he created and reigns over the world. We add sanctity to God in our relationship with him and ask for peace to reign in the world. It is the apex of Jewishness and may disturb a nonJewish soul who was sold to a religion the hated and murdered Jews for centuries. I am not a medium that could really tell you what the sole feels in the parallel world.

Soon after all, what an excellent web site and beneficial posts, I’ll upload inbound hyperlink – bookmark this website web site? Regards, Reader.

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Memorial Day

Without ritual and prayer, grief for a lost loved one has no place to go. But can a convert to Judaism observe yahrzeit for a non-Jewish parent?