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My Grandfather’s Kittel (Yizkor Sermon, 5780)

by Rabbi Jonathan Biatch

(Rabbi's note: For those who attended Yizkor and heard me deliver this sermon, they know this was a very difficult set of remarks for me to offer. It involves a personal experience of my family, and therefore hit home closer than I had imagined. I apologize if my delivery was punctuated with moments of tears; I hope that listeners were able to see through my emotions to their own resonance with this talk. Please let me know if you would like any more information.)

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I never saw my grandfather’s kittel. I heard quite a bit about it, however: a long and flowing robe that my grandfather slipped over his usual shul [synagogue] clothes on Yom Kippur: It was a pious and modest mantle, which was white (though I can imagine it probably became a dull ivory after years of use), and completely enveloping. My grandfather likely wore it on other festival days as well, but for sure he would wear it on Yom Kippur all day.

Plain and unadorned to resemble the burial shroud in which our loved ones are compassionately dressed prior to burial, the kittel is the traditional clothing for the Day of Atonement. This day of judgment, on the tenth day of Tishrei, is to be similar to the proverbial 'day of judgment' after our deaths, when the length of time we spend in purging our sins is determined.

On both occasions, we are supposed to be brutally honest about our shortcomings and pledge to do better, in this world and in the next. Such was the lot of my grandfather Avrum, or Abraham.

My father’s parents arrived into this country in or about 1905, and settled on 6th Avenue North, in Minneapolis. Escaping the dangers of Jewish existence in Latvia, they were accustomed to cold winter weather, so the climate of the Twin Cities was familiar to them. But being uneducated, especially to the ways of life in America, my grandparents established a traditional patriarchal family, with the husband becoming the breadwinner, and the wife raising the children and becoming the homemaker. They eventually bore four children, two girls, then two boys.

My grandfather was an observant Orthodox Jew; that’s why he had a kittel in the first place. But the kittel was not the sole indicator of his piety. His grandchildren have other remembrances of his religious life: a pair of sadly decaying t’fillin that need burial; a number of cloth yarmulkes that he wore; a black silk miter that is still starched and pressed, and never seems to lose its shape; and a Yiddish rendering of the Hebrew bible. A few of his prayerbooks have since deteriorated, and have been returned to the dust of the earth.

My grandfather was a simple man, so I am told, who drove a horse-drawn junk wagon, and made his livelihood buying and selling other people’s trash. Perhaps we can think of his profession as among the original recyclers. I believe there were hundreds of Jews in that original recycling business.

He possessed his necessary supply of Jewish artifacts for living a Jewish life, and that supply included this kittel that everyone knew about and recalled. There was a wine-stain on the upper left side, as he was left-handed and likely spilled some wine on it on some Passover holiday, and the collar was torn in places too hidden to be seen.

And although it was supposed to be a plain garment, it had some interesting embroidery down the front and on the sleeve cuffs, a small collar that hugged his neckline, and a matching cotton sash that held it together while being worn. The cloth was heavy enough that one could not see through it at all. It held an air of modesty; it was beautiful for its day.

There is an apocryphal story told about this kittel, and I wanted to relate it as we begin our Yizkor observance this afternoon. Again, whether and how much of this story is true is unclear. But the values of friendship, family, and loyalty are seen throughout.

In the shul where my grandfather davened [worshiped] was an older man who was fortunate enough to leave Lithuania around the time when my grandfather and many of his compatriots emigrated from Europe. His name was Samuel Katz – Shmuel K for short, so they called him Shmulik. And although he was of an age of some frailty, he was a strong worshiper whose resounding voice, often off key, could often be differentiated from among the throng of men in the minyan [the quorum of ten men required by some Jews for engaging in public worship].

Shmulik came to Minneapolis with a wife and some grown children. His wife died of pneumonia one winter, and his children moved to another section of the city when they got married, leaving Shmulik alone in his little apartment home. They were very good about visiting Shmulik weekly, as they venerated him as their widowed father.

One Yom Kippur day – it might have been the Yom Kippur that fell on September 16 of 1918, just weeks prior to the end of World War I – there was great optimism in the shul. Many of the young men who had gone off to war would soon be reunited with their families, and the young heroes who died in battle were remembered in tears and sorrow. So, it was a day to remember.

Naturally, Shmulik attended synagogue that day, along with all the worshipers. It was not a very warm day outside, likely in the mid-70s. But inside the shul it was very warm and close, and Shmulik was in his traditional corner where he prayed every day. No one usually gave him much notice, as he tended to be a loner and, despite his exhibitionistic manner of worship, he was not very outgoing. That day, however, his voice was not very loud. But he was a loyal member of the minyan, and he was davening up a storm. On this occasion, because of the impending cessation of the war, everyone was in a buoyant mood.

Although Shmulik could not afford it, he received an aliyah to the Torah that day. Such things were auctioned off – before the holiday, of course – and it was the wealthier men who received the honors. But for some reason, the recipient of one of the aliyot felt some pity on poor old Shmulik, and Shmulik was the joyful beneficiary of this person’s largesse.

In the early part of the afternoon, and all of a sudden, Shmulik fainted. Passed out. Collapsed and fell to the floor. When the other men came to check on him, he was conscious but shivering as if in deep throes of fever. No one knew what to do, except to summon a doctor and hope for the best. They did not want to move him, lest someone be liable for hurting him.

My grandfather came over to him, worried about his friend, and in the synagogue on Yom Kippur, of all days. But my grandfather saw him shivering. Not a bad sign, or so my grandfather apparently thought. But Shmulik needed help. So, my grandfather took off the kittel he was wearing, and placed it over Shmulik to help warm him from his fever chills. Someone else came over to offer some schnapps (they found some in the closet, even on Yom Kippur), and somebody else brought some water from the rain barrel outside.

Slowly, Shmulik recovered and was able to sit up and thank his friends. He eventually rose to his feet, and began his short walk home, still using my grandfather’s kittel to keep him warm and protected. The fellow worshipers watched him as he walked down the street toward his small apartment home.

That Yom Kippur afternoon was the last anyone saw of Shmulik. You see, he had gone home, prepared his meager evening meal as his break-the-fast, then gone to bed and peacefully died in his sleep. When they needed a minyan for the next afternoon’s minchah/maariv [late afternoon worship], they knocked on his door and discovered him in his bed, still wearing the kittel that my grandfather had provided for him as a warm coverlet.

My grandfather did not ask for his kittel in return – but not for the reason you may think. He suggested that his kittel become Shmulik’s tachrichin, his burial garment, and everyone – including his children – agreed that this garment which served as his protection in life would be an appropriate garment of protection to Shmulik in death as well. And so, Shmulik’s funeral was the last time that my grandfather saw his kittel, the one with the wine stain down the left side, with the embroidery on the front and on the sleeves, and probably worn, faded white to ivory colored, aged, and comfortable.

Again, this story is apocryphal, and there is no end to the versions and variations that exist among members of the families involved. But lessons of compassion, caring, dedication to friends, and acting within the value system of “derech eretz”: these matter. The values that our loved ones leave behind: They become the legacy of service and humanity that we recall when we say Kaddish for our loved ones, and to which we devote our lives into the future.

As we remember our loved ones on this day of remembrance, this day of Yom Kippur, may these memories sustain us at times of need, and may we all be comforted when we consider the deeds of those we love.

December 14, 2019 16 Kislev 5780