By Larry Gordon
It is an ongoing Chanukah dilemma, one that is dealt with annually, not necessarily at this time of year, but rather back in August or September when the summer begins to fade and we take a glimpse at the year ahead.
Those of you following the adventures of this column over the last 15 years are probably aware that my Chanukah was unceremoniously upended in 1989 when my father passed away on the sixth night of the holiday. Every small detail is still etched into my mind. There is no forgetting the life-changing trauma as it is summoned up in this space as the yahrzeit nears.
I knew that my dad was planning on being interred in Israel, but it was always a distant, almost not relevant, issue that we would not have to deal with for a long time and that we would figure out when we had to figure it out.
As Chanukah approached that year, he experienced some kind of cardiac episode and was scheduled for bypass surgery after New Year’s Day a couple of weeks later. But on December 28, something happened, and he was gone.
My brother Binyomin and I flew to Israel that Thursday afternoon. We arrived on an unusually warm erev Shabbos Chanukah morning for a burial in Bet Shemesh, a then-obscure location about halfway from Ben-Gurion airport to Jerusalem. We would spend Shabbos there before flying back on Saturday night. Those 36 hours in the country over that Shabbos illustrated in extreme terms what it is like to be exhilarated and downtrodden simultaneously. We were new mourners and Shabbos Chanukah in Jerusalem was indeed something else. There would be many more to come.
After shivah, we were told by Dad’s attorney that his will requested that on his yahrzeit one of his children—there are four of us—visit his kever up on that steep, now quite popular, towering mountain. We all had young families in those early years and needless to say it was difficult. That first year we all traveled to Israel for the yahrzeit and it was quite a commemoration. As time went by, I worked my schedule so that one way or another I fulfilled that request and was there at my father’s side on his yahrzeit.
There were years when I did not go specifically at that time, but one of my siblings always managed to be there. Many years have passed, but there is still an internal tug-of-war that takes place between Chanukah, the family, and our dad’s request for us to be there.
While we do not know definitively what it is about, our rabbis say that these requests are not to be taken lightly. I cannot begin to describe the conflict that was conjured up over all those years as I lit the wicks on the fourth night of Chanukah, knowing that this would be the end of the chag—for us anyway—and I would be off to Israel to observe the yahrzeit, by myself or with my wife (and a few times with the children). Many years, Chanukah became a four-day holiday and seemed a bit less than the joyous celebration it’s supposed to be because of the requirement to pull away from the family each year.
The sufganiyot they served in the airport lounge at JFK were no comfort or replacement for a good old-fashioned Shabbos Chanukah or conventional Chanukah celebration at home.
I’ve always made it my business when in Israel for the yahrzeit to daven at the amud at the Kotel early in the morning. Over the last two-and-a-half decades, there have been beautiful, sunny summer-like days and other times when the weather felt like a monsoon. One never knows what he will encounter when it comes to the weather over Chanukah in Israel. The weather is just about as predictable as everything else in that part of the world.
My father left us with an assortment of interesting challenges. Chief amongst those was leading the services on the day of his yahrzeit, which, regardless of which day of the week it falls out on, is no simple davening. This is true when the yahrzeit falls on Shabbos, which means that it is also Rosh Chodesh.
My dad used to struggle to get me up in the morning to get to yeshiva on time for the daily minyan. But then in 11th grade, I took a driver’s-education course and discovered that I was capable of being outside in front of the yeshiva on Coney Island Avenue, wide-eyed at 6:00 a.m., ready to get behind the wheel. I think that is when we both discovered that I could wake up and get out early; the only apparent requirement was that I really want to do it.
I think of this yahrzeit davening as a communication from the other side about an old youthful struggle to make it out on time in the morning. On Shabbos Chanukah, when we daven for the amud and say Kaddish, everything printed in the Siddur has to be said. This means everything above the various lines and below, in the parentheses and in the brackets. It includes Hallel and Mussaf, reading from the Torah every day during the week, and on Shabbos Chanukah/Rosh Chodesh utilizing and reading from three Torah scrolls. It’s a quarter-century later and I really cannot get over the irony of all this. Talk about last laughs.
So let me tell you a little bit about my dad. He came to the U.S. from Russia as a 16-year-old in 1934. His father arrived here in 1932 to set up a new life for his family with my grandmother and her four children. My father was the oldest.
My father developed an interest in writing and journalism early on. He was a prodigious keeper of notes and was said to have transcribed by hand the shiurim of his rebbe in Yeshiva Torah Vodaas, Rav Shlomo Heyman. At the age of 18 years, he convinced a Polish-Jewish newspaper (back in Poland) to carry his stories about life in the New World—that is, life for an immigrant in New York.
Before the age of the Internet and instant communication, in order to penetrate the journalistic market and make an impression, you had to be consistent and credible at your craft. I know he was those things and more because today, 25 years later, I still meet people who recount for me the circumstances of their meeting my dad, Rabbi Nison Gordon, z’l, or what he said or wrote about them or their work in his weekly newspaper columns.
In his prime, he worked at Yiddish newspapers like the Day Morning Journal (which was formed from two daily Yiddish papers—the Day and the Morning Journal—that merged). And then after they closed in the early 1970s, he went to work for the Algemeiner Journal, headed up by his longtime colleague Gershon Jacobson, of blessed memory.
The morning he passed away was surreal. I don’t know how, but I quietly and methodically drove up Ocean Avenue from my home on East 27th Street near Avenue P. It was about 4 a.m. and it was snowing lightly. There were people I observed on some of the street corners when I stopped for the lights. I could not understand what they were doing out there at that hour.
Cell phones were just breaking into the market and, for a change, the car radio was off and all was silent. I thought then and I recall now that what I was actually doing was driving toward a new reality, a point that after I arrived at my parents’ home in Crown Heights, things would never be the same.
And they are not the same anymore. Things in life vary as a matter of routine. I think we survive by believing that things essentially are the same.
Interestingly, the one constant in my life these days is Chanukah and my father’s yahrzeit. No matter what I think, say, or do, there it is, coming around in my direction again. But this year I am making a small change. I am sending a friend who lives in Israel as my shaliach to represent all of us at my father’s kever on the yahrzeit. My wife and I will leave for Eretz Yisrael a few days after Chanukah.
While I was writing these lines, I texted my friend on WhatsApp to confirm that he would be going to represent us on Monday, the sixth day of Chanukah. He wrote back in Hebrew that he will be there at the kever in Bet Shemesh to say Tehillim on Monday.
I thought long and hard about this change before effecting it. I just thought my father would concur that it is best for us to be home with the children and grandchildren and have a conventional Shabbos Chanukah and a Chanukah party on Sunday without suitcases and running to the airport to catch a flight to Israel.
As the holiday is here, I cannot help but churn this idea in my head over and over. But then I can almost hear my father render his decision on my quiet and isolated thought process on this matter. And the words that I imagine him saying after listening to my position and looking at me contemplatively are, “You did right; you did good. I will see you later. A freilechen Chanukah.”
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