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The word Yahrzeit is Yiddish, derived from the German word Jahrzeit which means "season". Literally, Jarzeit means "year time" and its Yiddish form indicates a year's time in observance of the death of somebody close to you.
Tonight I begin to observe the Yahrzeit of my grandmother, who died on 27 February 2002. I will observe this in the traditional way, by lighting a candle that burns for about a day, and by saying "Kaddish" -- the prayer traditionally recited in memory of the dead. Ironically, the prayer doesn't mention death at all. It is an Aramaic prayer, written in the language of the people so they would understand what they said.
Rebecca (Ruby) Kahn was born in Dallas in 1904. She moved to Denton, Texas when she married Raymond Kahn (Rachmiel in Hebriew, the man for whom I am named; nobody has posted an accurate reply on the meaning of that name). Raymond Kahn came to this country not speaking a word of English, but taught himself by reading the newspapers and keeping his mind open. When Ruby married Raymond, she got not only a husband but also his brother Isadore, whom I called "Unkie" and of whom I have many good memories.
By the time I came around, my grandfather Raymond had been gone a year. My parents tried to get me to say "Nana Ruby" for my grandmother, but I could only manage "Nea Nea" (pronounced knee knee), and the name stuck. An advantage of being first-born is that you get to give all your relatives silly names.
My grandmother and I had always been close -- in some ways closer than my parents to me. As a parent myself now, I can see how grandparents have the opportunity for domination in the affection department, because they can love their grandchildren without having to discipline them, clean up after them, or drive them to soccer practice.
Nea Nea lived four blocks from my parents, so we saw much of her, and I would stop by her apartment to visit. One time I stopped by during a tornado, which hit the shopping center behind her apartment, took the roof off the apartment building next to hers, and then returned to the sky.
When I started Sunday School, my teacher told me that nobody knows what G-d looks like -- there are no pictures of G-d. I objected, saying that my grandmother had a picture of G-d in her living room, and I knew exactly what he looked like. The teacher told my parents this, so they asked me to point out the picture next time we were over at Nea Nea's. I pointed to a picture, but it turned out to be my grandfather (Raymond). Nea Nea had spoken so highly of him that I somehow got the impression he was G-d.
Nea Nea had a sense of hunor even in her later years. She told me not all that long ago that if a man broke into her apartment, she'd call the police -- about 7 the next morning. She never did remarry but when pressed she'd tell you she had a couple of opportunities.
It was an honor to get the occasional phone call from my grandmother when she had difficulty balancing her check book. After all, I was at Rice and was supposed to be good at math. We'd find the missing penny and we'd hang up triumphant -- me at being able to help my grandmother, her at helping me feel helpful to someone I love. I always suspected she could solve partial differential equations if the mood would take her.
When I was a kid and she took me and my brother to the mall, I did a terrible thing by hiding in the toy store, playing hide and go seek with the reluctant seeker. She never let me forget that, and would bring up the story too often for my comfort.
After she died, my mom and aunt found an envelope in her apartment addressed to them both, to be opeend upon her death. We all thought there would be something profound, but when opened, the note said that if we found her dead, it was the dry cleaning guy who did it. Years ago she had some kind of argument with him.
It wasn't the dry cleaner that ended her long, mostly happy life. It was just old age and a wish to be done with a body that had brought her more pain than joy in her last years of life.
Months after her death I found myself wanting to pick up the phone to call her, if only just to talk a little while. Now, a year later, I am about to observe her Yahrzeit, and while it is painful to think of the loss of my grandmother, it is good to see many of her fine qualities in my children, and I hope in myself.
Nea Nea, I don't know if you can read my blog, but I miss you and think of you often. Your memory is a blessing for me and my family.
Your grandmother sounds like a remarkable woman, full of life and chutzpah.
Dr. Cytron, I do believe you missed your calling in life. The writing world awaits more of your entertaining and touching stories.
Posted by: Rachel at February 26, 2003 7:30 PM
While Prof. Cytron is an amazing writer, I can also vouch that he is an equally amazing Computer Science professor.
Posted by: Nathan at February 26, 2003 11:09 PM
I don't know how to respond except to say "thanks". I enjoy reading your blogs too!
Posted by: rkc at February 26, 2003 11:43 PM
I have to say that it was quite touching to read this. My own grandma passed away about a year a half ago when I was finishing up my senior year at IIT. I never did know my grandparents much although I wished often that I did have a chance to spend more time and know them as people.
Posted by: Ravi at February 27, 2003 1:12 PM
Tonight is Bah-paw (Ira)'s Yahrzeit, and my mom is feeling the usual depressed. (And Purim is supposed to be such a happy holiday...)
Give my love to the family.
Posted by: Cousin Sarah at March 17, 2003 11:19 PM
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