The Second Kittel

It is customary on Yom Kippur for one to wear a “kittel” – an all-white robe. Various reasons are given for this custom. The most prominent explanation is that on Yom Kippur we refrain from the most basic physical needs of a human being, e.g., eating and drinking, in an effort to emulate the angels. We wear white to reflect a sense of purity. An alternative explanation focuses on the kittel as a burial shroud which we wear to instill in us a sense of humility as we petition the Almighty for forgiveness. 

As the chazzen in my synagogue I wear a kittel on both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. My primary kittel was a gift from my wife and I wear that kittel until the final Yom Kippur prayer service – Neila. For the last several years, at that point, I change out of my first kittel and don a “second” kittel. The story behind my “second” Neila kittel goes back to my childhood.

My father a”h, who passed away thirty- six years ago, was a highly active Jewish community leader in both the Orthodox world and the Zionist movement. He was active in and held many important leadership positions in organizations such as the National Council of Young Israel, Mizrachi Hapoel Hamizrachi, the Jewish National Fund and the American Zioinist Federation to name just a few. Perhaps his crowning achievement was his lay leadership of the Queens Jewish Center in Forest Hills, New York which began in a store front and matured into a major influential synagogue in New York city .

Ever since I can remember my father was given the honor of opening the ark for the Neila service, year in and year out. As I write these words I can see him standing perfectly erect during the entire hour plus service at the side of the tall marble framed aron kodesh in the main sanctuary of the synagogue he built. For a number of years he did not have a kittel and would stand at the ark, as if at attention, in his suit and talis.  After a number of years my mother a”h  had a kittel made to order for him and from that Yom Kippur forward he wore that kittel on Yom Kippur and of course during Neila.

My father passed away 36 years ago. My mother outlived him by some thirty years and passed away in 2014. After my mother left us, my brother and I and our spouses had the task of cleaning out my mother’s home. Lo and behold in her closet we found my father’s kittel; the kittel my mother had made for him; the kittel he wore as he opened the ark for Neila. I had not seen that beautiful white kittel for thirty years! My brother insisted that I take the kittel and I decided then and there that I would wear my father’s kittel when I served as chazzen for the Neila service. In this way he would be standing erect next to me helping me deliver our prayers to the Almighty at the most solemn moment of the most solemn day in the Jewish calendar.

 This is the story of my “second” kittel.

 Today is my father’s thrity-sixth yahrzeit.  May his memory be for a blessing and may his neshama (soul) be elevated in the heavens above.

A Meletz Yosher – May 6, 2020

On Thursday of this week I commemorated my mother’s yahrzeit. Seven years ago my mother’s soul was returned to her Maker. At that time the traditional blessing was given – that she serve as a meletzas yosher, a strong advocate, for her family and for everyone who knew her and loved her. This yahrzeit that blessing – that she be a meletzas yosher – took on new meaning for me.

Let me explain.

During the last several years of my mother’s life, she was stricken with chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML); historically a fatal disease. That is until a year before my mother’s diagnosis when a revolutionary new genetic drug, Gleevec, was developed and approved. Gleevec, literally, became an instant life saver for anyone suffering from this form of Leukemia. There was only one catch – each prescription cost a huge fortune – far beyond the financial ability of anyone except the extremely wealthy. Thankfully, we were able to enroll my mother in a special program that allowed her for a more reasonable sum to get this very expensive life saving drug.

Fast forward to my year of aveiuls.

My home is a regular stop for meshulachim, charity solicitors, of all types. Sundays and weekday evenings there is a regular flow of men in black coats (sometimes women, as well) who knock on my door seeking donations for either an institution or for themselves. In our community every solicitor must present a certificate from the local rabbinate before they are authorized to solicit. Typically, the certificate gives only a brief superficial explanation of the need. It does not give much meaningful insight into the real life situation of the person. Then, one evening seven years ago, that changed. An Israeli gentlemen in his sixties, dati but not charedi, knocked on our door seeking a personal contribution. He handed me his certificate and a single word glared at me – GLEEVEC. He suffers from CML and is allocated by the Israeli health system a partial, insufficient, prescription. We gave him a generous contribution and wished him good health. Afterwards, my wife and I were discussing what had just transpired and agreed we had made a mistake. We should have given him enough money for a month of Gleevec – after all this was, literally, a case of saving one’s life. But we had no way of contacting him.

Luckily, the next year he came again and we able to properly contribute to his health. And since then, year after year, he has returned and though his visits would last only a few minutes we have developed a bond with this lovely gentleman from Israel. And then the pandemic hit. He did not come. We wondered would we ever see him again? Did he survive the pandemic.

And then yesterday, on my mother’s seventh yahrzeit, there was a knock on the door. The Gleevec man had indeed survived and he returned for his annual visit. We were so happy to see him and contribute once again to his health.

This yahrzeit I have gained a much deeper understanding of what it means for the departed to be a meletz yosher. My mother is not waiting to advocate for me after 120 years. She continues to do what mother’s do – caring for her children every minute of every day. And so she enables us to fulfill the greatest of mitzvos year in year out – helping top sustain the health of the lovey gentleman we call the Gleevac Man.

May my mother’s neshama have an aliya.

June 1, 2016 – 24 Iyar 5776

Tuesday night I returned to saying Kaddish for twenty four hours on the occasion of my mother’s a”h second yahrzeit. My observance of her yahrzeit actually began on Shabbos when I served as chazzan for Shachris, received an aliya and on Saturday night davened Maariv at the amud (led the service). The custom of serving as the chazzan for Maariv on Saturday night was very important to my father z”l and he was very careful to daven by the amud on the Saturday night before the yahrzeit of his parents. So faithful to this custom was he that he would arrange a separate private minyan on those occasions when he was prevented from serving as the chazzan due to a mourner with halachic priority.

Various explanations are offered for the custom of leading the Saturday night Maariv services; one of which I find to be particularly relevant to my mother a”h.

The Pnei Baruch, a compilation of the laws of mourning, explains the custom as follows. On the Sabbath a person is united with his neshomo yeseira (literally his “additional soul”) which spends Shabbos with the person and leaves at the conclusion of the Sabbath on condition that it will return for the following Sabbath. On the last Saturday night of a person’s life the neshomo yeseira leaves but never comes back. It is as if it too has “died” on that last Saturday night of the person’s life. Therefore, explains the Pnei Baruch, we observe it’s “yahrzeit” by leading the Maariv service on the Saturday night before the anniversary of the departed’s death to commemorate the “death” of the departed’s neshomo yeseira.

As I pondered this explanation an obvious question arose in my mind. Clearly, when a person passes away mid-week his neshomo yeseira does not have the opportunity to return and the deceased leaves this world separated eternally from his neshomo yeseira. But what happens when a person, like my mother, merits to be taken from this world on the Sabbath itself? What happens to such a departed’s neshomo yeseira?

I concluded that a person who passes away on Shabbos not only merits leaving this world on Shabbos but also is blessed by the Almighty to leave this world eternally joined with his or her neshomo yeseira.

My mother was taken from this world two years ago on Friday night with her final Shabbos candles flickering before her. She merited leaving this world bound together with her neshomo yeseira and she is surely resident in Gan Eden eternally joined with her neshomo yeseira.

May her memory be for a blessing for all who knew her.

September 27, 2015 – Erev Succos -14 Tishrei 5776

Thirty years ago today my father, Morris Lifschitz, Moshe ben Nachum passed away after a long battle with colon cancer.

His funeral was on a Sunday and because it was Erev Succos upon our return from the cemetery, we sat shiva for a mere hour. Then we dressed for yom tov, went to shul, said kaddish, and returned to my parents’ home for the yom tov meal. We entered the sukkah, and fighting back tears recited kiddush and shehechiyanu (a blessing in which we express our joy for the Almighty granting us the opportunity to celebrate the holiday).

Somehow G-d gave us the strength to get through that kiddush.

Thirty years, half my life, without my dad.

There is scarcely a day that passes that I do not think of him. Without question he remains the greatest and most important role model and influence in my life.

When I approached the amud to lead Neelah on Yom Kippur I wore his kittel and used his machzor.

But, even if I live to be 120, I will never fill his shoes.

Chaval al Deavdin velahnmishtackchin. (He was an irreplaceable loss).

Yehi Zochro Baruch. (May his memory be for a blessing).

May 22, 2015 – 4 Sivan 5775

Last year the Shavous holiday ended the Shloshim period of mourning for my mother a”h. This year the Shavous holiday which we will, please G-d celebrate this weekend, brings to a conclusion my Saying Kaddish blog.

A fitting way to end my year’s journey is with the following blessing discussed by the great halachic authority, the Bach, at the end the laws of mourning in the Tur. This blessing is normally recited in the benching (grace after meals) in the house of a mourner during the shiva period but I believe is very appropriate as my year of mourning ends.

May the Merciful repair this break in the wall of His people and all of Israel and grant life and peace.

May the Merciful bring joy to the mourners that they should be happy and content.

May the Merciful comfort the mourners with the rebuilding of Jerusalem together with the entire Jewish People.

He who makes peace in high places, He will make peace for us and for all of Israel. Amen.

Good Shabbos and Chag Sameach

May 22, 2015 – 4 Sivan 5775

Last year the Shavous holiday ended the Shloshim period of mourning for my mother a”h. This year the Shavous holiday which we will, please G-d celebrate this weekend, brings to a conclusion my Saying Kaddish blog.

A fitting way to end my year’s journey is with the following blessing discussed by the great halachic authority, the Bach, at the end the laws of mourning in the Tur. This blessing is normally recited in the benching (grace after meals) in the house of a mourner during the shiva period but I believe is very appropriate as my year of mourning ends.

May the Merciful repair this break in the wall of His people and all of Israel and grant life and peace.

May the Merciful bring joy to the mourners that they should be happy and content.

May the Merciful comfort the mourners with the rebuilding of Jerusalem together with the entire Jewish People.

He who makes peace in high places, He will make peace for us and for all of Israel. Amen.

Good Shabbos and Chag Sameach

May 20, 2015 – 2 Sivan 5775

Since my return from Israel a couple of weeks ago I accelerated my daily study of the daf yomi (daily Talmud study) so as to complete Kesubos (a tractate in the Talmud) in time for my mother’s yarziet. This past Shabbos I made siyum in memory of my mother at a shlaosh seudos (Sabbath afternoon meal) at our home with my daf yomi partners. It was a most appropriate and meangful way for me to conclude my year of mourning and to honor my mother a”h.

In completing Kesubos I focused on the statement of Rabbi Chiya (on daf 111 b) that states that when techiyas hamaisim (resurrection of the dead) occurs the saintly will arise “in their clothing”. While some commentators understand this reference to mean actual clothing – either burial shrouds or actual clothing – the Maharal understands this passage to refer to “spiritual clothing” i.e., the good deeds of the departed.

In this vein, among my mother’s most outstanding qualities were (i) her respect for her parents and (ii) her love for my father.

I am named for my maternal grandfather who died suddenly of a heart attack in his early 50s. My parents had only been married a few short years at the time of his death and nonetheless, they insisted that my grandmother relocate from Buffalo and take up residence with them. My grandmother lived with my parents for the next 30 plus years, virtually my parents’ entire married life together, until her death in 1986. My nuclear family included my grandmother who participated in everything we did – vacations included. My mother was clearly blessed by the Almighty with a long life because of her incredible devotion to her mother.

My mother’s love and respect for my father knew no bounds. I grew up in a house in which I never heard my parents so much as raise their voices to one another. They were totally devoted to each other in every respect. Unfortunately my father’s untimely death 29 years ago was a tragedy from which my mother never fully recovered.

The conclusion of my siyum this past Shabbos gave me a sense of closure; a feeling that it is now time for me to move on and implement the many lessons I have learned over the past twelve months.

May 13, 2015 – 24 Iyar 5775

This evening I recited the final kaddish of my year of aveilus. I hugged the gentleman next to whom I sat for the last year and returned to my regular seat to daven maariv. But other than returning to my regular seat in the synagogue l will not be resuming my life as it was a year ago. My mother is no longer and the intimate connection which I have shared with her over these last twelve months has ended. And now I must fend for myself and find a way to maintain an everlasting relationship with my parents. The end of mourning exposes a large hole in one’s life; one that now must be filled without the aid of ritual obligations.

I have come to understand that the yearlong mourning process encompasses two separate and different aspects. The first and most obvious is the structure that it provides; a defined system for one to pay one’s respects to and demonstrate one’s gratitude for their departed parent. The second is the effect on the mourner as a person of spending a year of daily obligations to one’s parent, observing the many restrictions, and performing the numerous affirmative obligations the most significant of which is saying kaddish morning, afternoon and night day in day out for eleven months.

There was never a question, never a hesitation in my mind about fulfilling my obligations as a mourning son. Especially with regard to saying kaddish I was committed to doing whatever it would take. Waking up early, going to bed late, leaving a day early for a business trip, or coming home a day late, scheduling around kaddish, and leaving in the middle of a business meeting to go daven – whatever was required I tried to do. Why? Because I am her son and she was for my mother. How could I not?

Our tradition teaches that one’s relationship with the Almighty has two dimensions. In one respect G-d is our master and we are placed on earth to serve Him. In another respect G-d is our father and we are His children. The year spent in mourning for a parent impresses upon the mourner what it means to be someone’s child; what extraordinary level of gratitude, devotion and commitment a child owes to a parent and how those feelings must be translated into daily action. If that is true of one’s biological parent, how much more so must it be true of one’s spiritual parent? If one turns his world “upside down” to say kaddish for a departed parent how much more so should one “turn his world upside down” to enhance his relationship with his Father in heaven.

And so perhaps it is not correct to say that after twelve months the state of mourning ends and we resume our “normal” lives. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that, hopefully, when one completes a year of aveilus he leaves armed with important lessons learned that enhance his relationship with the Almighty and represent not a resumption of the life that was but rather a new personal beginning.


May 11, 2015 – 22 Iyar 5775

Yesterday our family gathered at the New Montefiore Cemetery on Long Island for the hakomos hamatziva (unveiling) for my mother a”h. The ceremony included recitation of Tehilim (Psalms), El Moleh (prayer for the departed soul), kaddish and a eulogy.

The following are some of the thoughts which I shared yesterday with those assembled.

In Tanach (the Bible) and in Chazal a tombstone is referred to with one of three different nouns – Zion, a marker; Nefesh, a soul; and Mazteiva, a monument. Each represents a different aspect or purpose for what we call a “tombstone”.

A Zion is a marker which identifies the location of a burial plot so that those who are in a state of holiness can avoid the area and not become defiled.

Nefesh refers to the presence of the soul of the departed as it hovers over the grave. During the weekdays the soul resides in this world and returns to the heavens above on Shabbos. In this way it learns of the needs and suffering of the living and is thus able to pray for those in need.

A Mazteiva is a monument. Its purpose is reminds us of the departed, to inspire one to reflect upon and learn from the life of the departed, and to inculcate into one’s being the good qualities of the departed.

Among my mother’s many good qualities two stand out as exceptional. The first I discussed in my eulogy at the funeral last May. She exhibited incredible respect for and commitment to her parents and particularly, for her mother (my grandmother) who was widowed in her early fifties. After the sudden and untimely death of my grandfather (after whom I am named) my grandmother lived with my parents for virtually the entirety of their married life.

The second exceptional quality which I discussed yesterday was my mother’s unconditional love for and devotion to my father. Their relationship was nothing less than extraordinary – a relationship based upon love, respect and devotion.

I have trouble remembering what my mother was like before my father died nearly thirty years ago. My father’s death was a cataclysmic event in my mother’s life; a tragedy from which she never fully recovered. But I do vividly recall the total devotion that my parents had one for the other and the abounding love and genuine respect with which they treated in each other.

Without a doubt the side by side metzivahs of my parents serve as a poignant reminder and lesson of what a marriage should and can be; of how mutual respect, love and devotion create an everlasting bond. A quality for of each us – her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren to strive to emulate.

May 3, 2015 – 14 Iyar 5775

With a mere ten days left to my year of mourning I am in “transition”. The question of course is transition to what? Back to where I was before the death of my mother a”h? Or to a new place?

In one sense saying kaddish makes it easy. Obligations are well defined and one knows what is expected in terms of paying respect to the memory of a deceased parent. All one needs to do is execute – do what is required of a mourning child. It need not require much thought, if any, just action. Observe the restrictions of mourning. Attend services. Say kaddish. That’s it.

I find myself pondering: Has this experience changed me? What if anything will I do differently as a result of the mourning experience? Now that the formal required practices of respect have ended how do I go about respecting the memory of my parents?

At this early stage of the trabnsition I have been focused on an “action item”; continuing to make the extra effort required to daven three times a day with a minyan.

But my heart tells me there must be more.