Op-eds

That damn kittel

  • Howard Feldman 2018
My parents were married for 55 years, and fought for most of them. And then, when my mother died three years ago, my father realised there was nothing left worth fighting for.
by HOWARD FELDMAN | Oct 22, 2020

He passed away last week.

At the funeral, I heard a story that I didn’t know. I knew, of course, about one of their arguments as it had persisted all their married life, but somehow, I missed the closing chapter. It’s amazing what we learn after the death of a loved one. This is what I heard at the funeral.

The backstory is as follows: it’s a Jewish custom that on Yom Kippur, married men wear a kittel (a white robe made of cotton). My mother’s family came from Germany, and it was her tradition for men to wear the kittel on Rosh Hashanah as well as Yom Kippur. Each year, my mother asked, pleaded, begged, bullied, bribed, and then threatened my father into wearing it on Rosh Hashanah. He always refused.

The fight generally started a day or so before, and continued the whole walk to shul. Once there, he would grudgingly take it with him to the men’s section, but not put it on. My mother, not one to accept defeat, would continue to “psst!” him in her loudest “psst”, until everyone around him would point out that she was seeking his attention. At this point, she would invariably drag him out of shul, and a final argument would take place to make sure that he put it on. “The. Damn. Kittel!” Most years, this was when he gave in, and half buttoned (I assume in protest), he would skulk back into shul and the matter would finally be over – until the next year.

And then, a few years ago, my mom passed away after a nine-week battle with pancreatic cancer. I never thought of this ritualistic fight again.

What I didn’t know was that the first year of Rosh Hashanah following her death, my younger brother walked into shul to see my father wearing his “damn kittel”. He was shocked, and after debating whether to say anything, he decided that he needed to. And so, he put the question to my father. “How come you’re wearing a kittel on Rosh Hashanah this year when you refused to do so year after year?”

My father, not one for deep explanations, without stopping to consider the answer, waved away his question with a gesture and said, “What’s the point of arguing, she isn’t here anymore.”

For him, it simply just wasn’t fun anymore.

People often use the expression “oil and water” or “fire and water”. My parents were fire and fire. Passionate, argumentative, and all consuming. To be in their presence was to be bathed in their warmth and infused with their light. It could also sometimes be a little too hot to handle, but I suspect that this was felt more by their children than by others.

A common refrain at the shiva house this week is that the death of my father is the “end of an era”. Indeed, in many ways it is – the journey of his life from a childhood of poverty in Pilgrim’s Rest, to putting himself through university by working underground in the mines, to building a family, business and legacy along with my mother. She was the product of damaged survivors. This all formed the “era” of a generation which wasn’t easy, but which was clear about what was important.

They were part of a generation that was clear about what was worth fighting for.

5 Comments

  1. 5 Wendy Kaplan Lewis 22 Oct
    What a special humerus beautiful story 
    for me a real end of an era 

  2. 4 Merryl Feigin 22 Oct
    As my parents were the same I get it. We were farmers so were together endlesslyuntil (thank G d) we went t boarding school. When my father died my mother had nowhere to direct her anger. She developed early altzheimers as a result. Needless t say one is buried on one side of the cemetery and the other at the opposite end. So visiting is a long day, but who the hell do we as children choose to be buried next to.im often surprised we came out reasonably undamaged. 
  3. 3 Sandra Meyberg 22 Oct
    Wonderful memories
    Never to be forgotten
  4. 2 Beverley Scheftz 23 Oct
    It sure was. Very sad that it’s almost done. 
  5. 1 zola 23 Oct
    Whisking you a long life filled with beautiful memories of your dad....and mom.  This was a very special piece to read. Thank you! 

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