My uncle passed away at a fairly young age in his sixties. He was sick for a few months, went into a coma during the summer, and then passed away in October.
The timing of his death was weird for me. I had told my parents two weeks before not to contact me, that I needed some time to myself.
I had moved out of their home in January, they’d found out that I wasn’t religious a few months after that, there had been a flurry of angry and bitter emails over the summer, and I needed space. They were mostly respectful of that.
But there was no way I was skipping my uncle’s levaya. He was an extremely decent and caring man. Although the stories everyone told of how he treated everyone with respect were tinged with racism (“he even said good morning every day to the Mexican workers”), he himself was not racist, saw everyone as simply a human being, and loved everyone. He had a huge heart.
So I went to the levaya. I avoided my parents, hugged my cousin and aunt and cried with them, then went back to school.
My cousin texted me later and thanked me for coming to the levaya, said that it was good to see me after all those phone conversations we’d had as she sat by her father’s hospital bed.
She asked me to light shabbos candles that week for her father’s neshama. I said okay.
My own personal beliefs didn’t factor in here. I didn’t believe that lighting candles would help his soul. But what mattered to me was the living left behind, and it would give my cousin comfort to know I was lighting candles for her father. So I said I’d do it.
I could have lied to her, not done anything and just told her I did, but that’s not the kind of person I am.
As it happened, that Friday night was Halloween. I had signed up for an event at school, where I’d be presenting a five-minute pseudo-scholarly talk about a work of art. And the event was scheduled to be happening at the time shabbos would start.
So I brought two tea lights, a candle-holder, and matches to school.
I attempted to be a good person and get permission from security to light a fire on school premises. That turned into a nightmare of paperwork, starting with them saying they can’t give me permission and ending with them telling me to find a room and they’d send a security guard with a fire extinguisher to stand by.
By the time I secured a room, around noon, and got confirmation from security that it would be okay, I was almost ready to cry.
I went to the event as it started, put my costume on, had a friend do my face paint. I was dressing up as Braveheart, as a sarcastic joke which only a few friends understood, in reaction to the people who kept calling me “brave” for having left the Orthodox community and followed my own path. I didn’t feel brave and hated when people told me how brave I was being.
An hour into the event, after I’d presented my five-minute talk, I quietly got up and went to the room where I’d be lighting. The security guard met me outside the door.
He pulled out some forms I had to sign. I nearly broke down in tears again. All this hullabaloo, for something that matters to my cousin, but not to me. For something that feels like a farce. He had to fill out the purpose for the fire on the form. Apparently the director of security hadn’t told him what that was.
“I’m just lighting candles for shabbat,” I said.
“Oh!” his face went surprised. “That’s it? Shabbat?”
He shook his head at the ridiculousness of this rigmarole for a couple of shabbat candles. I signed the form, he went and stood outside the door.
I set up the candles, stood next to the table. Struck a match and lit both tealights. Circled my hands three times in front of my face, covered my eyes.
I felt the stickiness of the face paint and curled my hands away from my face so they wouldn’t get all blue and white.
I whispered the brachos, then uncovered my eyes and sat down.
I planned to wait a half hour, basing my decision on the halacha of leaving chanukah licht burning for at least a half hour.
So I just sat, staring at the flames and thinking about my uncle, and my cousin, and the weirdness of doing this here.
And then I started crying. At first it was just a few tears sliding down my cheeks and through the face paint. Then it was wracking sobs. I put my head down on the table and just sobbed my heart out. I couldn’t even pinpoint why I was crying. It wasn’t grief for my uncle, and it wasn’t pain for my cousin, and it wasn’t the ache of doing something I don’t believe in. It was – all of those, and none of those, and everything.
After a few minutes, I was done. I picked my head up and continued looking at the flames. I didn’t have any tissues with me, so I let the tears dry tracks into the face paint.
When the half hour was up, the flames were still burning. I had planned to blow them out, but by this point I felt like if I was doing shabbos candles for my cousin, I should at least not desecrate them.
It’s not like I was keeping shabbos after this, and she knew that, but I felt like if she knew I’d been mechalel shabbos because of her request, she wouldn’t like it.
So I asked the security guard to blow them out for me. An odd request, I knew. He looked at me sympathetically, but blew them out without asking any questions. I guess witnessing someone crying over two small candles kind of eliminates a need for further questions.
“Anything else?” he asked. “Or you’re done?”
“I’m done. Thanks.”
He left. I sat in the room a minute longer, then packed up my supplies, went to the bathroom to dab my face dry and somewhat clean, then joined the Halloween party again.
I had missed the group picture while I lit candles.