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September 16, 2014 / 21 Elul, 5774
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Responding to the Yahrzeit Columns


Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis

Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis

Reader response to my two-part column on yahrzeit was overwhelming. It appears the memories I wrote about touched many hearts. To be sure, we all have yahrzeits for parents, grandparents and sometimes, G-d forbid, for husbands, wives, children and grandchildren. But how to convert these painful memories into a lasting legacy for our future generations remains a challenge.

I wrote those columns not only to share my recollections but also to help others bring to life their own memories.

I will share one letter that is reflective of many of the comments I received.

Dear Rebbetzin Jungreis,

I know you receive many thank-you letters but this one is a little bit different. It’s not simply an expression of appreciation but an acknowledgement of the life-transforming effect your articles, such as the two most recent ones on yahrzeit, have had on me.

Your words opened a floodgate of tears. I cried and cried. Images came back but even as they came back they awakened much pain and many regrets.

I was raised in a family that was somewhat traditional but not really Orthodox. My father died when I was 21. My children never met him. My mom remarried six years later and went on to have her own private life. Her husband is a very domineering figure and as a result her involvement with her children became minimal. Consequently, despite my mother still being alive, thank G-d, my children hardly know her and for all intents and purposes they are “grandparent orphans” – a not uncommon phenomenon in our generation.

I have always felt sorry that my children never knew a loving bubbie and zaidie. No comes close to transmitting the special unconditional love that grandparents do. I know because I had the joy of having such a bubbie and zaidie, even if it was only for a few years.

As I read your columns it hit me how impoverished many of our children are nowadays – they do not have memories of families and they do not know how to bond with their families who are here now. Superficial get-togethers on holidays and other special events somehow do not in themselves make for a cohesive family unit.

To me, yahrzeit had always meant a card from the synagogue reminding me that I should light a yahrzeit candle and send a donation. After my father’s passing I visited the cemetery quite often and prayed at his gravesite. With the passage of time, however, I regret to say that I got out of the habit. There was always something I had to do that prevented me from going, until eventually I would forget.

As for my children, I never took them to the cemetery. I grew up believing one should shield children from experiences that might frighten them and cause nightmares. I tried to protect them from gravesites and funerals.

But you have made me rethink this premise. I now realize that knowledge of the past is the best way to ensure the future and charge our children with a sense of responsibility to carry on our grandparents’ legacies.

I felt so ashamed after reading your columns. How could I have been so stupid? Your words resonated in my heart. I visualized your family getting together and telling stories about your husband, your father, your mother and your grandparents. I decided that I too had to bring my father’s memory to life for my children, even if for a moment.

I was determined to get my family together on my father’s yahrzeit, to make a dinner and tell stories about my children’s zaidie. But when I mentioned it to my sons and daughters their response basically was, “Another get-together? For what? We’re so busy! Everybody has so much to do. We don’t need another family gathering right now.”

I realize it will not be easy. My children are adults and I have no control over them. Additionally, my daughter and daughter-in-law are not on speaking terms and don’t even like to be in the same room. My two sons, who run the business my father started, have long been engaged in a power struggle with each other. As for my mother, she follows her husband’s lead and won’t participate.

When I mentioned your yahrzeit columns to my children, they dismissed them out of hand. “She’s a rebbetzin; she comes from a rabbinic home,” said one son. My daughter, for her part, retorted: “We’re normal Jews. We’re not Orthodox.”

And with that they dismissed the entire subject. In vain did I tell them that you don’t have to be Orthodox to respect the memory of your zaidie and relate stories about his life. And then I said something they resented.

“The business you have is an inheritance from your grandfather,” I reminded my sons. “It is not you who built it. You are totally indebted to him even if you do not want to acknowledge it.”

My sons were infuriated and told me, “Grandpa may have started it but we built it and made it successful.”

I was so hurt. I saw I had no one to talk to. They refused to understand.

And yet I’m determined to try. My father’s yahrzeit is coming up very soon and I am determined to observe it with my family. Whoever comes, comes.

I hope to let you know how it works out. However, I’m writing this letter to you now because I know this is a situation that prevails in many of our families. Memories of our parents and grandparents fade and are soon completely forgotten.

I feel I have a mission to try to reverse that, not only for my family but for others as well. I therefore hope you’ll share my letter with your readers. If it helps just one person commemorate his or her family yahrzeits with more meaning, it will be worthwhile.

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