February 20, 2017

Kyle's Yahrzeit

Written Saturday, Feb 18, 2017.
I have been asked about my love for Israel, the Jewish people, and Judaism more times than I can remember. The reasons being manifold, the answer changes depending on the context of the question. This morning one of those reasons stands out more than others. 
I grew up in a Christian home, my parents each came to a deep faith in their adulthood, specifically when their youngest child, my brother Kyle, was diagnosed with leukemia at the tender age of 18 months. My family grappled with this heartbreak and his disease for 7.5 more years before the cancer won its final battle with his little body. My parents sought support through faith and a church community. That February 18th was a Sunday, and I remember every moment like it was yesterday, hardly two decades ago. Every year since, this day has brought me face to face with that loss, left to reexamine my grief through the new knowledge and experience brought by the passage of time, every year it changes. As I grew, I never had a way to really explain to my friends why this day was hard, I didn't have a word for what it was. It felt clumsy to say "today is the anniversary of my brothers death." It was hard to talk to my parents, unbearable to see their immense pain magnified by the anniversary.
So I carried it, choosing to process my grief on my own (and with the help of a string of great therapists). My parents leaned on their faith to work through the grief and depression, we all did, but our religious traditions offered little in the way of a prescribed structure for that struggle.  Eventually, I could feel the awkwardness that prevailed when it was brought up or acknowledged at church or in public.  What resulted was a solitary experience of that loss, each of us dealt with it in our own time and in our own way. Even now, the scars on my family are visible, palpable in every moment together. 
When I landed at a Christian liberal arts college my first class was a required course in the Hebrew bible, particularly the Jewish roots of Christianity. It was in that class that I learned about the tri-fold role a synagogue serves in Jewish life- a place of worship, a place of learning/education, and a place of community and personal connection. I learned about the role of the faith community in every part of life- celebrating together, and grieving together. And then I learned the word "yahrzeit"- the anniversary of one's passing. I finally had a word for February 18th. I learned about how every year a bereaved family observes this day by reciting the Mourner's Kaddish, a prayer of remembrance, in a service surrounded and supported by their community. This prayer doesn't mention death, but rather extols the Almighty- a powerful act in the face of one's grief.  
I know my parents and my church did the best they could in the face of a tragic and inexplicable loss. But I wish my Christian tradition had retained the structure for the process of grief. A place to recognize and honor the void left in my family's life which, after awhile became the elephant in the room instead of a wound flushed out and sanitized by sunlight, by honoring the Almighty when we felt the crushing pain of death. No one ever said to us "you should be over this by now" but without a place to take that grief every year on that day, my parents' depression intensified, and to this day I can see that my parents feel the pain of Kyle's death every day as acutely as they did that Sunday morning two decades ago. In this way, I feel our faith failed us. My family has come a long way since then, but it has been arduous, and the work continues. 
This morning I woke up to a phone call from my friend Libbie in Israel- someone I met after college when I got my first job at a Jewish non-profit, one of my first Jewish friends. All I had to say to her was "today is my brother's yahrzeit" and she knew immediately what that meant. She asked me to tell her about him, and I was able to talk about him with someone who never met him for the first time in almost two decades. She encouraged me to reach out to my parents and my sister, and I felt better once I had. It felt healthy, I felt supported, and I didn't feel alone.
There are lots of reasons that I support the state of Israel with my vote, why I moved there for graduate school, many reasons why I love my Jewish friends and neighbors, and believe my own life and my faith are richer for learning about Jewish history and tradition and culture. But on this day, February 18th, Kyle's yahrzeit, I love Judaism because it has given me the words I never had before to explain the pain I'm feeling, and to honor the Almighty from that place when my own words have failed time and time again.

"Glorified and sanctified be G-d’s great name throughout the world

which He has created according to His will.

May He establish His kingdom in your lifetime and during your days,

and within the life of the entire House of Israel, speedily and soon;
and say, Amen.

May His great name be blessed forever and to all eternity.
Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored,

adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed be He,
beyond all the blessings and hymns, praises and consolations that
are ever spoken in the world; and say, Amen.

May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for us

and for all Israel; and say, Amen.

He who creates peace in His celestial heights,

may He create peace for us and for all Israel;
and say, Amen."