Posts Tagged ‘difficult parents’

“Check Your Privilege” and the Yizkor Booklet

September 29, 2016

blue-soapbox Every year with the approach of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, a certain anxious reluctance creeps over me. It’s not the introspection that worries me, nor the solemnity, nor the fasting, nor the hours of services. It’s not even the making of peace with anyone to whom I might owe amends.

No—what gives me pause is the yizkor (memorial) booklet that’s compiled for the afternoon service on Yom Kippur. For a small donation to my synagogue, I can include my parents’ names inside. Given that I’m a longtime congregant whose parents are deceased, this would appear to be a straightforward matter. Yet I struggle each year as if newly faced with a baffling choice.

When I was growing up, domestic violence wasn’t thought to exist in the Jewish community. But my father was a batterer, physically attacking my mother, me, and my three sisters on numerous occasions. Dad also had trouble tolerating me personally. A college dropout, he was irked by my devotion to school. Perhaps more to the point, Dad didn’t appreciate my chronic sullenness toward him for his violent outbursts.

Mom was also destructive. During my childhood and adolescence, she’d cry bitterly after my father’s explosive attacks, but she didn’t seem to grasp that we girls also needed protection and comfort. She, too, would impulsively hit and condemn us. Apology was not in her range, nor in Dad’s. Since neither parent was a drinker, there was no sobering up afterwards.

I’m sure neither Mom nor Dad would mind my skipping the yizkor booklet; they put little value on Jewish practice. Besides, they’d both understand my balking at the pamphlet’s florid italics: In loving memory of… heading the left-hand side of each page, Remembered by… on the right. My parents knew they weren’t easy people.

But I want to acknowledge their passing in the Jewish tradition. Having grown up without much that was emotionally grounding or orienting, Jewish belonging is deeply important to me. I just don’t want to have to don a false self in order to belong. I don’t want to pretend to have come from a loving, nurturing family.

* * * * *

My parents divorced when I was a teenager. As a young adult, I still longed for some kind of family repair, so I kept in close contact, calling and visiting often. Later, I invited my parents to my holiday gatherings, included them in my kids’ events, took them to medical appointments, and helped my mother move five times.

Mom remained bitter, critical and defensive. Everything she’d ever done had been justified; though she knew she’d been a hurtful mother, she would always invoke the excuse of having been Dad’s victim. One time when she accompanied me to a Yom Kippur service, she told me there was nothing in her life she needed to atone for.

My father remained judgmental of my choices: college, marriage, Jewish identification and writing for publication were all evidence of my small-mindedness. He never acknowledged that he’d been violent or inappropriate; when confronted, he denied it. He had no regrets, he said; regret was a waste of time. I continued to weather his dislike of me and my choices.

Why did I soldier on? Because both Mom and Dad loved my children. That was more important than my own personal feelings, I thought. It was worth it; I could afford the emotional cost.

It never occurred to me I was “overspending.”

* * * * *

Last year, when confronted once again with the yizkor booklet conundrum, I hit a wall. In the past, I’d felt vaguely ashamed of my ambivalence about it. Now I resented the ostentation of in loving memory. Why was the flaunting of this kind of “wealth”—the wealth of having come from a loving family—not only tolerated, but encouraged? “Check your privilege,” I wanted to shriek, thinking of the Tumblr idiom.

I e-mailed my rabbi and explained that I wanted my authentic self to be accepted and welcomed in my community. Might she consider tweaking the booklet’s wording, I asked, so that the headers would read simply In memory of… rather than In loving memory of…?

My rabbi wrote back and, to my delight, said she thought my suggestion made the yizkor pamphlet more inclusive. She’d already implemented the change. She thanked me.

At the break-the-fast in the social hall, I saw a fellow congregant with whom I’d had conversations in the past about our hurtful deceased parents. I told her what had happened with the wording of the booklet. “Wow, that’s great!” she exclaimed. “Next year, my parents can go in.”

A few weeks later, my synagogue mailed me an announcement of the upcoming anniversary of my father’s death. “The yahrzeit of your loved one…” it began.

I had to laugh.

Published in j. weekly, September 29, 2016

Saying Kaddish for my Parents

January 27, 2016

imagesCAAHRQWLI’ve always been a bit ambivalent about observing my parents’ yahrzeits, the anniversaries of their deaths by the Jewish calendar. For one thing, neither Mom nor Dad had the temperament for traditional ritual observance — and they were skeptical, even scornful, of those who did.

Once in a while, Dad would light a yahrzeit candle for his parents during Hanukkah, because both of their birthdays had fallen at that time of year. He couldn’t seem to keep track of exactly when they died. Mom, for her part, didn’t light memorial candles for her parents at all. Whether this resulted more from her avowed disdain for them, from iconoclasm, or from disorganization I was never entirely sure.

So it’s a conundrum: in acknowledging my parents’ passing, I am in effect contradicting them. As pained as I am about who they were, I don’t find this kind of defiance as easy (or as gratifying) as might seem to make sense.

Mom and Dad divorced when I was a teenager, but they remained uncannily similar in some ways. Both had strong Jewish identities. Dad felt a deep kinship and intellectual connection with the Jewish civilization, but didn’t really see himself as part of a community. Mom loved Israel and Jewish culture, and because she had memories of going to synagogue with her grandfather to observe Yom Kippur, she fasted every year. But she did this alone, and never lasted long in any congregation.

I don’t think my parents would understand my need to mark their passing in the traditional Jewish way, and I’m not even sure they’d appreciate it. Dad once started a false rumor that my husband and I were Orthodox (he meant it with the dismissal one might express about someone’s having joined a cult). Mom knew she wasn’t a good mother, knew that I knew this, and might well denounce my saying kaddish for her as (in her words) “phony baloney.”

Kaddish is a prayer said in community, and for me that community is the large Reform congregation with which I’ve been affiliated for many years. I’m keenly aware, when I chant kaddish for my mother or father, that I am making a public statement. But I don’t intend to convey that I am honoring my parents, that I’m grateful for their guidance, or that I admired them.

These were destructive people. Dad was a batterer — of both Mom and us kids — and it was only when he began using marijuana every day, after my parents’ divorce, that he stopped hitting. He lived to 85 and never acknowledged his behavior. He was a narcissist, and seemed to take my achievements as a personal affront.

Mom, also a hitter, went long stretches without being interested in us when we were kids. When she did take an interest, it was often in order to manipulate, condemn or blame. She spoke openly on a number of occasions of “hating” several of her children, and, like Dad, she was not one to apologize. She walked out on us when I was 16.

Of course everyone has mixed feelings about parents, but I would guess my family insanity was more extreme than that of most of my fellow congregants. If my synagogue community understood my true feelings — that I grieve infinitely more for who my parents were than for their passing — would they judge me? Would they still support me, regard me as a legitimate mourner?

So it is that I’ve struggled for years with kaddish. My observance has been instinctual, something whose rationale I couldn’t quite articulate. But this past summer, when I went to services for my mother’s yahrzeit, something shifted.

My synagogue’s ritual committee had recently implemented a change. In the past, the congregation was invited to stand up as a whole before the rabbi would start reading the list of the deceased aloud. The change is that now, instead of this communal act, the congregation stays seated; individual mourners are given the option of standing up when the name of their family member is read. It is only when the whole list has been read that the congregation rises and we all say kaddish together.

This time, when my mother’s name was read, I rose alone. As I stood there listening to the remainder of the list of deceased, I could feel the congregation’s silent respect and regard for my loss and that of my fellow mourners. There was something about standing in isolation, and yet at the same time in community — the community of mourners, the community of seated congregants — that made me feel personally comforted, personally held in a way I hadn’t before.

I suddenly understood something: I am an integral part of my community. And kaddish is what people in my community do. This, the yahrzeit, is the time when I know I’m surrounded by comfort about the chasm of grief I feel about my parents. That grief may not be about the loss of them per se. But it is as genuine as it is enormous.

Here was my opportunity to mourn, and to feel that the depth of my loss is understood and respected regardless of any specifics. I don’t think I’ll ever again consider depriving myself of that experience.

The congregation rose to join us mourners, and together, we all began to chant. Yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’mei raba…


Published in Lilith Magazine, Winter 2015-16 issue

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