We are coming up to my father’s Yahrzeit so I receive a letter from our synagogue asking if a) I would like his name read out during the service and b) if I would like a mitzvah, such as opening one of the doors to the Ark.
Before our shul had a bit of a refurb, the previous Ark doors often used to stick so if you did manage to open and close your side successfully without the doors juddering or banging, you actually felt you’d deserved it when the Rabbi shook your hand afterwards, rather than feeling like a puppy who’d been patted on the head just for managing not to wee in the hallway.
My father died suddenly many years ago, before I had even met The Husband. I feel sure my dad would have been very chuffed that I’d married a proper Jew, even more so as he also likes: a) fish balls, b) the cinema, and c) stopping for tea at ridiculously frequent intervals. Now, all these years later, I still can’t quite get my head round the fact that the two most important men in my life never met.
We didn’t have a conventional shiva. Instead, as news of Dad’s death spread via the grapevine, friends of his appeared at our flat to be with us, drink tea, eat cake, and share jokes and their own favourite memories.
Dad’s oldest friend from art school brought us a large plum tart balanced on the back of her bicycle. Another artist friend borrowed an envelope to demonstrate a rude origami joke about a randy vicar. Tears were shed in between the laughing.
There was no sitting on those low shiva chairs that make you feel as if you’ve been demoted to nursery class (Dad would not have approved as he had a bad back — how should you ever get out of such a chair?!). No Rabbi. No mumbled prayers.
For fifteen years after his death, my sister and I held our own Yahrzeit supper each year for his closest friends, most of whom had known us since we were babies. There, between us all, we would somehow form a Dad-shaped space just by being the people who had known and loved him best; I would glance round, wondering if Dad just stepped out for a moment.
How else would we all be together were it not for him?
We would sit and eat and talk and tell jokes and — of course —there would be cake. Not with icing or candles, but something that seemed like a good fit for Dad — whether properly Jewish like the Sephardi Pesach orange cake made with ground almonds or something that just felt haimische and right.
We developed our own Yahrzeit traditions as well as the supper. On the day itself, my sister and I would choose an exhibition to go to together as looking at Art was definitely a Dad activity. So it was that my sister ended up crying at a Modigliani exhibition one year and I in floods of tears at Odilon Redon. Dad would have understood, though admittedly the other people at the exhibition might have been baffled.
Now, I only visit dad’s grave when I am at the cemetery for one of the funerals of The Husband’s enormous family. The Husband, who unlike me, has a phenomenal sense of direction, will quietly ask, ‘Shall we go and see your Dad’s stone while we’re here?” then, without fuss, he will find it in a sea of thousands of others as I have failed to bring its location reference with me.
The stone itself is modest and very plain — right up my Dad’s street in fact, but when I look at it and see his name incised in the stone, I am still shocked — because it’s clearly ridiculous. How can that stone have anything to do with my dad?
All these years on, and I feel almost the same sense of shock that I did on first seeing it at the stone-masons when my sister and I went to check it. He was so extraordinarily full of life —often argumentative, sometimes melancholic, prone to outbursts of bad temper, but also kind, interesting, funny, loyal, compassionate and thoughtful. So when I look at his headstone, I see his name but I don’t believe he is really there. Visiting it doesn’t spark that precious feeling of connection that doing something characteristically Dad-ish does. If there were a Heaven — and there really ought to be even though I don’t believe in it for a moment — he would be there, arguing about the merits of Bonnard versus Chagall, laughing so hard in the cinema that he falls off his seat (this happened more than once), and getting in a rage about politicians while eating his favourite apple flan.
And when his name is read out in shul I will genuinely feel honoured and I will think of him.
Then I will go home and light a Yahrzeit candle for him and have a piece of apple cake.
Zelda Leon is half-Jewish by birth then did half a conversion course as an adult (half-measures in all things…) to affirm her Jewish status before a rabbinical board. She is a member of a Reform synagogue.