On the anniversary of the death of a loved one, it is a tradition of the Jewish faith to light a yahrzeit candle which burns for 24 hours. By no stretch of anyone’s imagination am I a religious Jew, but this remembrance I keep without fail.
The relationships for which yahrzeit candles are lit are usually those for whom Kaddish (prayer for the dead) is said: parents, grandparents, spouse, aunts and uncles, siblings and children. But I expand it to include friends for in a family as small as mine – seven at its largest and now two of us – I have made family of my friends.
Although some in my blood family have lived into their ninth and tenth decades, through the whims of fate, too many friends died young – in their twenties, thirties and forties – and I want not to forget them. For the day during which the yahrzeit candle burns, that loved one comes to mind each time the flame catches my eye. And then I am happy.
Through some quirk of mind for which I have no explanation, thinking about someone dead is, for me, like being with them. They aren’t really gone; we just haven’t visited for awhile. I recall times spent together and the feelings of those moments return as strongly as when the party, dinner or conversation took place. Sometimes I shuffle through old letters and postcards they sent and in their written words, their voices come back to me as true as when they lived. We are together again.
Grocery stores and supermarkets sell special yahrzeit candles, but I prefer a 24-hour votive candle in this ruby goblet. Only two remain now – one for my brother and one for me – from a set of eight my mother used for candles on special occasions. They were a gift to her before I was born and so I have no memory of life without them, and in that sense they are eternal to me, as is my memory of friends and small family.
There is a joke-y adage that if you live long enough, all your friends die, and so it is. I’ve reached that age now when funerals come ‘round more frequently and the list of days for which a yahrzeit candle is in order grows longer.
The yahrzeit is supposed to be a solemn anniversary, but I repeat this ritual for each loved one each year with cheerfulness and joy in our renewed closeness that day.
It is for us, the living, to bear witness for the dead, that they lived as we still do and walked among us until called to the unknowable, as we too shall one day be called.