259) Harold Baldauf's Yartzeit

July 19, 2008

Dallas: We are here in Dallas to remember Liz's dad, Harold Baldauf on his Yartzeit. When we arrived last night we went out to eat at a great South American restaurant, La Duni Latin Cafe, and the reason I mention this is that I noticed that after a delightful meal (I am eating lots of flautas these days and their's with pulled chicken were delicious) our waiter cleared the table and then lit a little candle in a frosted jar on the table. It reminded me of a yartzeit candle which Jews lite to honor the soul of the departed and I wonder if that is a custom in Liz's family as I watch the flame flicker and catch, adding a warm glow to the table.

According to Aish.com*, "...the day of death is the marker of who we actually became. Our worth is measured according to how much of our potential was realized. Did we live up to who we were to the best of our ability in the time we had? When our loved ones die and go back to God... we mourn not having them with us, yet we remember what they were able to accomplish in this life. The yartzeit's annual commemoration is a time to feel the sadness -- but also to celebrate who they were and the life they lived."

This morning we all dress up and head out to Temple Emanu-El, the temple Liz's family has belonged to since Liz was a child. The sanctuary, Lefkowitz Chapel, is a beautiful room, seemingly taller than it really is because it's walls are painted white brick and the rows of brick seem to climb up forever to a hanging ceiling with a large modern oval skylight right over the bimah. The back wall's white bricks are interspersed with square glass bricks in no particular pattern letting little squares of light in. At the far end of the room the ark rises as a simple rectangular edifice standing a good 30 feet up the wall with a modern metal sculptural 'ner tamid' (everlasting light) at the top, golden rectangular tiles at the back, and a tall gold-ochre curtain covering the torahs. The bimah is over to the right and a simple white, almost minimalist station that one doesn't even notice until the rabbi stands up on it. Up on the wall behind it, probably 20 feet up is a stone carved twin tablet of Moses' ten commandments. On the left side of the ark is a ten foot tall modern wrought iron menorah bolted to the bricks. It looks like a modern art bunch of long stemmed candles that are bunched and tied 2/3 or the way up to the top. Also to the left is an opening where a choir and any musicians and maybe others sit, but we can't really see it from where we sit... from where we sit we are at the bottom of this huge airy space that is acoustically sound. The cantor and Rabbi (in today's case, a student Rabbi Carla) stand at the front and seem quite small up there. In the pews are about a hundred people who have come out for the morning shabbat service and I wonder if any of them are like us here: honoring the passing of a family member. When Rabbi Carla reads off the list of yartzeit names there are many more than we usually hear at our congregation in Austin.

The service follows much of the same liturgy as ours does and I feel comfortable saying the Hebrew aloud, since I now know much of it with only glancing at the siddur. I like the feel of this place and really wish our congregation had a room like this hall for our services. In the program is a Jewish Life piece by Kirk Douglas on "Why be Jewish" in which he shares that he began to turn towards his faith after his son, Michael, asked him where his grandfather came from and Douglas didn't know cause he has no living family... and he worried and wondered about that until he noticed his Chagall Bible series lithos and realized that his ancestors were Moses, Abraham, Jacob, et. al. and that brought him back to his Jewish practice.

During the service we also focused on a reading in the Siddur* that spoke to me: "Where has this week vanished? Is it lost forever? ...Help me withdraw for awhile from the flight of time. Contain the retreat of the hours and days from the grasp of frantic life. Let me learn to pause if only for this day. Let me enter into a quiet world this day. On this day, Shabbat, abide."

The student Rabbi, Carla talked about her service to the local hospital, visiting the sick and working with Christian ministers... the message being that prayer can be part of the liturgy or can come from the moment and be "spontaneous", yet either way it is a message delivered from the heart and sends out a wish for the healing and the support of the recipient. Joan and I agreed that the student Rabbi could slow down her delivery and enunciate her words more carefully.

We then drive down to the cemetary to visit Harold's resting place and put a few stones on his headstone. Again, Aish.com explains "We place a small stone upon the gravestone as a sign that we were there, not so the passed will know, for their soul already has awareness. But so that we will know. We who are physical need physical acts to express the reality that we are indeed there. The stone is (our) calling card. ...The simple stone, a symbol of eternity, represents our devotion to upholding the memory of our beloved. Our connection lives on and will never die."** And so on or near the yartzeit date every year we return to this place and have a moment of rememberance and silence. This year, according to the Jewish calendar, her Dad's yartzeit is July 26th.

Liz finds a tigereye on the ground... someone came with a gemstone that nature has scattered and she places it on her dad's headstone. She finds another gemstone which Joan takes to place on another friend's gravestone and we slowly walk around visiting with other family friends who now rest here forever.

When we leave the cemetery we continue with the tradition by driving over to Kuby's*** for lunch. Eating is always part of Jewish tradition.

Notes: This detailed post on yartzeit was written partly for my El Paso friend, Sue, who was very curious about the Jewish beliefs about annually honoring people who have passed on.
*from Mikkar T'Filah: A Reform Siddur (2007) p. 135.
**Aish.com's webpage on Jewish Literacy; The stages of mourning, available online at http://www.aish.com/literacy/lifecycle/the_stages_of_jewish_mourning.asp
***Kuby's website online at www.kubys.com


Andrew said...

I like the idea of the stone on the headstone is to symbolize our visiting of the resting place to others like us, and the passed already know.

If you care to see some more of Chagall's Bible series, you should check out:


A wonderful post, thank you.

Jack Nowicki said...

Thanks for the feedback Andrew. JN

Anonymous said...

Thank you for doing this. It is so well written, and for me, moving. I loved the quote about where has the week gone. Food for thought! I actually sent the link on to Kristin since I always put a stone on my mom’s headstone when I visit. I appreciate the lovely explanation.