In light of President Trump’s recent Executive Order on immigration, friends and community members have been sharing their families’ immigrant pasts on social media. I have been touched by these personal narratives and photos, and reminded how important it is to keep the memories of our own foremothers and forefathers alive. My own relatives emigrated from Italy and settled in Newark, New Jersey shortly after arriving to Ellis Island in the early 1900s. As a parent, I feel it is my obligation and honor to pass this reverence of my family’s history to my children.
Fortunately, Jewish tradition provides the perfect vehicle to remember our ancestors and tell these stories—a yahrtzeit. Based on Jewish law, the yahrtzeit is essentially the anniversary of one’s death as calculated in accordance with the Hebrew calendar. A special yahrtzeit candle is lit at sundown and burns for 24 hours.
The yahrtzeits of mine and my husband’s immigrant grandparents and great-grandparents provide the perfect opportunity to share their stories with our children. We know that once a year, our Jewish tradition will remind us to remember them. It is on us, however, to make the yahrzeit meaningful. Here are a few ways we infuse meaning into this tradition:
1. A day or so before the individual’s yahrtzeit, we choose photographs of the deceased and set them on the mantle with the yahrtzeit candle. We might also put up a photo of that individual’s namesakes; both of our children are named for our family members who made the journey to America. This helps build anticipation and peak the curiosity of our little ones.’
2. A special meal. My family emigrated from Italy, and so on my grandmother’s yahrtzeit I make an Italian feast for us to enjoy after we light the yahrtzeit Over dinner I share with them memories I have of my grandmother’s cooking and the things we eat that remind me of her, like eggplant parmigiana, sausage and peppers on pizza bread, meatballs, and pastries in a white box tied with red baker’s twine.
3. A trip down memory lane. Sometimes it is easier to talk over an activity than around the table. Visiting the deceased’s old neighborhood, favorite bakery, beloved park, or the site of their arrival to America can be a special experience. If you don’t happen to live near their homestead, you can always choose to do an activity you know the person enjoyed. For example, on my brother’s yahrtzeit I take my children to a bookstore to each choose a new book since he loved to read.
4. Connect with others. My parents do not talk about their parents often. I have not pressed them on this, but now that I have children I feel a stronger desire to hear their personal memories of my grandparents and great aunts and uncles. A yahrtzeit is the perfect opportunity to bring my children to their house for a special visit to hear stories and look at pictures.
5. Tzedakah and tikkun olam. Incorporating tzedakah and tikkun olam into a yahrtzeit observance is a double mitzvah! Planting a tree in Israel or making a donation to a cause connected to the deceased takes only minutes and can become a meaningful part of your family’s yahrtzeit As children get older, they can help identify organizations to give to or projects to take on in memory of their namesakes.
We do not have to wait for immigration to hit the news to share our stories. Tradition tells us to make holy the day our loved ones left this world. As parents we can use this time to teach our children how they got here.
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