I see four dozen weeks stretching back into 2013, through snow into falling leaves into summer heat into the first green back into frigid days, like those mirrors facing mirrors, seemingly endless reflections going back and back in either mirror, getting warped and distorted the smaller and further away they are, or rather appear to be, because really, they’re all on the surface of a thin piece of silver-coated glass, what would otherwise be a window into the present.
My birthday is in January, so the new calendar year is my own new year. I’ve always been one for birthday celebrations – mine, yes, but others’ too, expanding the joy for my kids when they were younger with a celebration on the actual day, a friend birthday party, a birthday Shabbat dinner. Gabriel’s birthday is a couple weeks before mine (best birthday gift ever). In our dining room, we’ve had a semi-permanent fixture of a Happy Birthday banner for nearly a decade – there was Gabriel and me in January, then Eitan (and Jeff, back in the day) in April, only three months later, no point in taking it down, then Shoshi in May (only one month later, no point, etc.), then our country in July (two months later, etc.) because for many years we’d have a July 4 tea party (in the nonpolitical sense of the term). And then, you know, January’s only four months’ later, so…
But the banner will come down this year, at least for a couple months, because the dining room is being painted.
Larry also loved celebrating birthdays, and made mine very special. “I can’t wait for your birthday!” he’d exclaim in the weeks leading up to it. Last year it was a Friday, so he prepared a special Shabbat dinner, which included a fabulous soup – he was a great cook, and soups were a specialty. I had several favorites; this one may have been this Asian mushroom soup made with coconut milk infused with ginger and lemongrass. And Eitan called me on my birthday, I think the first birthday call of my day last year. The end of his first week back at school, second semester.
His college roommate Reid has the same birthday as me.
It’s chilling to think it was less than four weeks later that he would be gone. Like, countdown.
I’m spending my birthday with my parents this year, and continue to be so grateful for their health and strength and support. It’s a luxury, I know, to have them here, to know I can say, hey, I’d like to be with you for my birthday, and they’ll say, “Great! How long can you stay?”
I’m focusing on my birthday as a positive anniversary, tho “happy” wishes feel strange to me. I could not say “Happy new year!” this year on January 1. Which is not to say happiness has been struc from my emotional vocabulary. That feels like a luxury too, but I am in fact grateful for the ability to find joy, from the simple observance of the way light shines through the petals of the orchids on a table in the lobby of my parents/ building, to enjoying a song, a lunch with a friend.
But there’s always, in this new normal, the undercurrent of sad. And there’s the sad sad anniversary is coming up. And it brings with it questions. How to observe the anniversary of Eitan’s (say it) death. And what is that anniversary? There’s the secular calendar date, Valentine’s Day (well, I guess truly “secular” would be to call it February 14). But then there’s the Hebrew calendar date. Eitan passed away on the fourth day of the Hebrew month of Adar. Tradition has it that Moses also died in Adar, on the seventh.
So, the anniversary, called Yahrtzeit, is Adar 4, right? (The word “yahrzeit” means a year’s time in Yiddish.) That’s easy enough, right? Not so fast. The Hebrew calendar rotates though a 19-year year cycle – it’s both solar and lunar based. If it were solely lunar (ha), the holidays would shift a little bit every year, and eventually Pesach would be observed in October, Chanukkah in July, etc. Since the holidays are seasonal in their theme, adjustments have to be made to keep the Hebrew months roughly within their appropriate seasons. So, every two or three years an extra month is added, and that extra month is Adar, that is, there are two Adars in a Jewish leap year, Adar Alef (aka Adar 1) and Adar Bet (aka Adar2). This means that there are two Adar 4s this year, which is a leap year. So which is Eitan’s? I consulted with a rabbi, who initially said yahrzeits are observed during the second Adar, then corrected it to the first. When there’s a debate on Jewish law, rabbis write what’s called a responsa answering how the issue in question should be resolved. A responsa on the Adar question gives equally compelling arguments for observing the yahrzeit in each month. There’s also an argument for observing it during both Adars, at least during the first yeat.
I looked up how to observe a yahrzeit, what does that mean, anyway? I remember Larry used to observe it for each of his parents, and for his grandparents, since there was no one left to do that (those who obsere include parents, children, siblings, and spouses). The traditions include lighting a special candle, a yahrzeit candle, whose flame lasts 24 hours. Jewish days start with sunset. You say kaddish, the prayer of mourning, three times, in the evening, then morning, and afternoon services.
I realized that either way, the 4th of both Adars will be fraught for me. And Eitan was so big in the world, so much bigger than a headstone can represent, than a rock, than a tree, than the many, many hearts torn from his loss, that, this first year anyway, I will observe yahrzeit for Eitan twice. As it happens, 4 Adar Alef this year falls on February 4. And 4 Adar Bet falls on March 6. So I will light the special yahrzeit candle that lasts exactly 24 hours, kin to the candle lit at the time of passing, which stayed burning for the seven plus days of shiva.
The candle tradition is based on a verse in Proverbs, 20:27, “The candle of God is the spirit of man.” So the candle represents the spirit of the one we’ve lost.
Birthday candles for Eitan, 2003. This was the Apples and Honey Cake he designed that I created for him, published in my book How to Keep Kosher.