The flames from the Yahrzeit candles painted an orange sheen on the walls of our kitchen. The rows of small candle-filled glasses were neatly lined up, one after another, in metal pans that my mother kept just for this occasion. I say that it was an occasion, but that’s really not true. The word occasion, for me, conjures up something pleasant, like a birthday party with a double fudge cake and gift bags stuffed with various hues of pastel tissue papers hiding lotions and beaded trinkets beneath them. Or a Fourth of July picnic--hot dogs, potato salad, heirloom tomatoes, and giant chocolate chip cookies passed around in plates the shape of lobsters; cloth napkins that look like the American flag. Yahrzeit candles--otherwise known as memorial candles--are not pleasant. They serve as a reminder of the dead; to honor them. They burn for 24 hours, and by the time they are burned out, the memory of the dead has been burned into your mind.
It is Jewish custom to light a candle on the anniversary of someone’s death and on certain holidays, but since my parents were Holocaust survivors and could not be sure of the exact dates of the deaths of all in their families who had perished, they did this big time on Yom Kippur.
I always thought one candle would have been enough of a memorial, but my dad was adamant that there be many. I cannot say that there is any hard and fast rule that every dead person gets his or her own memory candle, but my mom obliged Dad’s wishes. So we had many. And there they were, year after year. Serving as a reminder of the huge hit our family took during that horrible time in history. They stood there, in their rows and their flames flickered as if to say, “we are still here, we still matter.”
I don’t know why I never questioned some of the things my parents did. Never asked them how they felt or told them how I felt. It’s almost as if the reasons behind everything they did, good or bad, were because of what they had been through. It was understood, a given. We shied away from bringing attention to “it” for fear that we would hear more than we cared to hear in any explanations.
Most of the year they held it together. They were able to celebrate when the celebrating was appropriate (sometimes), but this holiday...this holiday was different. This was a somber holiday, thus my mother took the opportunity to revel in it’s solemnity. Today it was expected of her to beat her chest. It was a day of atonement--a period of repentance, and she took that as being her right to mourn. We were not permitted to turn the lights on...nor the TV, radio, or any other electrical appliance. My dad would do his praying at temple, but my mom stayed home and stood with her prayer book...by herself. Those nights, in the almost dark apartment (we kept a light on all night), I would watch her praying and wonder what she was repenting for. What sins had she committed during the year? Hadn’t she suffered enough? Those nighttime hours seemed interminable.
The daylight hours were almost bearable: weather permitting, my sister and I would get out of the house and take long walks, passing through neighborhoods we ordinarily would not get to see on foot. We would walk for hours, knowing that each passing minute would bring us closer to the day’s end...and food! When we were younger, or when it rained, much of the holiday was spent playing board games and reading. Not such a bad thing, really. And ironically, a lot of the reading was of the various food magazines scattered around the house. We would look at the pictures and dream about what we would eat once our fast was over. (There’s nothing like being a glutton for punishment!)
Devoting a day to reflection is almost welcomed, now that I am an adult. My family and I observe the holiday very differently than I did as a young girl. We still do a lot of reading (not in the dark) and praying, but there is the understanding that this holiday is all about introspection and making our peace with God. It’s almost like a spiritual cleansing. For me, the mourning and chest beating are symbolic. I don’t think my parents could ever have intellectualized it in that way. They’re minds were too clouded with the antiquated teaching of the religion they grew up with, and as always, with their experiences.
My room was down the hall from the kitchen, and as I lay in my bed, I could see the orange cast of the candlelight. Even as my eyes were closed, I could imagine the flickering flames shining through my eyelids. If I closed the door, the faint orange glow would slide in through the thin strip of space between the door and the carpet. Just couldn’t get away from it. The strange thing was, this light didn’t haunt me--but it did sometimes upset me. It reminded me of who my parents were, and I just wanted them to be like everyone else.
There’s a small aluminum pie tin on my counter on Yom Kippur. It holds two Yahrzeit candles whose flames flicker and dance for twenty-four hours. They are for my parents, and they remind me, “We are still here...we matter.”