I am not Jewish, although there is a significant part of me that wanted to be “born Jewish.” I wanted to be raised in a Jewish family, because they seemed closer than the families I was exposed to in the Estonian and Slovenian communities to which my parents belonged. And honestly, they seemed like they were a lot more fun.
I loved Jewish comedians, and while my anti-Semitic parents deplored how often they’d refer to their Jewishness in their humor (“who cares? just tell jokes!”), I embraced it wholeheartedly. I read Jewish humor – Alan King’s 1964 memoir Help! I’m a prisoner in a Chinese bakery was one of the formative books of my childhood (I didn’t actually buy it – some tenant of an old lady friend of my parents left it behind when she moved out). Movies by Mel Brooks also helped inform my humor.
As a result, I sprinkled Yiddish and Hebrew words into my conversation (and I wonder why I felt like an outsider in my south side Milwaukee neighborhood). Words like, ‘schmutz,” “tchotchke,” and (about myself), “shiksa.” More can be found here.
After moving to the DC area, I was hired to sing at temples for the high holidays, and for the last seven years, at least until COVID, I’ve sung in the professional choir at Temple Oheb Shalom (now Har Sinai – Oheb Shalom). I loved the services, the music and the ritual. People have asked me why I don’t convert, and I’m not quite sure myself.
One word that I did not learn until recently is “yahrzeit” (or occasionally, “jahrzeit”), which means:
the anniversary of the death of a parent or near relative observed annually among Jews by the recital of the Kaddish and the lighting of a memorial candle or lamphttps://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/yahrzeit
The word literally translates as “year-time.” It seems to me a much more efficient choice than saying, “the anniversary of the death of” (although I do have to explain it to people, which is probably not all that efficient).
Today is the second yahrzeit of my mother-in-law, Barbara O’Meally, about whom I wrote in a recent blogpost regarding the scourge of Alzheimer’s. As I’ve said before, Barbara was the best mother I have ever known, and the way she brought up her sons and their children showed me that you didn’t have to be Jewish to have a close-knit family.
We are not lighting a Yahrzeit Candle in her honor – in part because we don’t have one – but mostly because we are not Jewish and don’t think it would be appropriate to appropriate that tradition. But we can appreciate the word and the thought behind it.
I also will not recite the prayer for the dead, the Kaddish, but I will share this beautiful setting by the not-Jewish Maurice Ravel, sung by the also-not-Jewish Jessye Norman (who also died in 2019, three weeks before Barbara). I sang this myself on a recital alongside a piece by Viktor Ullmann, who died at Auschwitz.
A poem that is frequently used in Reform Judaism services is Epitaph, written by Merritt Molloy (who is, also, not Jewish). You can read the entire poem here, but I’ll quote part of it here:
Look for meEpitaph, Merrit Malloy
In the people I’ve known
And if you cannot give me away,
At least let me live on in your eyes
And not in your mind
This poem showed up in my Facebook memories yesterday, posted on that day in 2019 (the day before my mother-in-law died). The last person to comment on it was my friend Toby Lynn Bell, who was very touched by it, and asked my permission to share it.
Toby died suddenly on March 6, 2020. She was only in her 40s and was the younger sister of my dear friend David Bell. She and I both loved dogs named Pippin and considered them our soul-pups, and they died a year apart, almost to the day. I spent more time with her on Facebook than I actually did in person, but I felt like I knew her and I wish I’d spent more physical time in her presence.
Next Saturday, I will be singing “Deep River” at Toby’s memorial service in Alexandria, Virginia. This is such a great honor for me to do this for my friend and his family.
Toby was not Jewish either, but there is an English phrase said by Jews upon someone’s passing, and I don’t believe that it’s appropriation to use it here for both her and my mother-in-law:
May their memory be a blessing