I was honored to have been asked by three spiritual communities in Los Angeles to offer some reflections on my experience saying Kaddish for my mother at a community program on the fast day known as Tish'ah B'Av (the 9th of Av). These are the remarks I delivered (slightly edited for publication).
After the death of my mother in May 2011, I said Kaddish every day (more or less) for the full year. And I said Kaddish at three different shuls in Los Angeles, with many of you – it’s my honor to reflect on this ritual with you, with these three communities present. Also, my mother was a big believer in finding laughter whenever it was possible. So in that spirit, if anything I'm about to say strikes you as funny, feel free to laugh.
When I started my year of mourning, I already knew something about Kaddish – that there’s no mention of death in it, that the prayer is an affirmation of belief in God, and that the structure of saying Kaddish is meant to help the grieving to reconnect to community after a serious loss.
Over the course of that year, and revisiting Kaddish annually for Yahrzeit and Yizkor, I’ve expanded my reflection on the ritual, the process of attending daily minyan and the contents of the liturgy.
I approached it the only way I could, in a deeply analytical fashion, but also trying to find some comedic notes. Here are a few notes I have from that time.
- Dream: a family friend donates a frozen yogurt machine to the morning minyan. Dedication plaque reads: "to women who say Kaddish." the fact that this dream has made me late for minyan is not lost on me. But now I really wanted frozen yogurt for breakfast.
- Wake up, minyan, work, lunch, work, minyan, home, sleep. My new "Groundhog Day," minus Bill Murray.
- Over the last week, I've managed to make 10 minyanim. Which is great because it meant I got this morning's minyan for free.
I attended Conservative and Reform congregations, where I found an accessible Kaddish atmosphere, but many did not offer daily services. Some Orthodox congregations didn’t forbid a woman’s kaddish, but it also wasn’t exactly on their radar; back in New Jersey, I went to a local Orthodox shul for minyan. I was alone in the women’s section, not a surprise on a Sunday morning . The experience seemed surreal – the prayers were muttered with little passion or projection – it felt like darkness had descended, like I couldn’t even see the text in my siddur anymore. I eventually realized that the darkness wasn’t metaphorical – it was because they hadn’t turned on the lights in the women’s section.
To say Kaddish, you need the minyan. But you might not always feel like talking to the people. Some days, I wasn’t in the mood for morning talk, fleeing right after the end of the service. But sometimes talking to others was helpful, made me feel a part of the continuum of human loss, helping me to understand that a person’s impact remains even after he or she is physically gone from this earth. The months of mourning for me were about finding that balance - between tending to my own emotional needs and trying to find a way back into society.
Some days I pored over the liturgy eagerly, reveling in the opportunity to delve into poetry and imagery. Some days, the liturgy was no comfort and I distanced myself – keeping my siddur open, but zoning out and waiting for Kaddish. On still other days, the liturgy disturbed me. Its focus on God healing the sick, straightening up the crooked, rewarding those who are good with long life and health and punishing those who commit misdeeds, created a false dichotomy that being good would be rewarded with good health, and that conversely, bad health meant some sort of grievous misdeed. But still, I searched for meaning in the text.
As the daughter of a rabbi, my mother would have been simultaneously appalled and proud of the fact that I made it through a year of Kaddish. I kept hearing her voice in my head, asking why I was spending so much time in shul. "Don't do it on my account," the voice said. "It's not doing ME any good. Why don't you go to the gym instead?”
The answer I would have given my mother is that first of all, I WAS going to the gym, OK???? And secondly, that for me, minyan became a starting point. I went not because it was always meaningful but because it - and the context it provided - was always there. Minyan provided an anchor during times of extreme instability, a context for my personal loss and pain within the universal human experience. And minyan also provided the script, the liturgy, for when life's challenges made my words fail, and spontaneous prayer was far from possible.
Not every service resonated. Not every Kaddish helped me feel better. But the structure gave me a template for living, for moving my life forward. And it provided a connection to a group of people who have grieved and survived, who have wept from the depths of their souls, and who can show you how to find meaning and laughter after loss. They would hear your expression of suffering, your desire to find meaning and reaffirm a connection to the divine, and they would literally say “amen.”
When we are in a house of mourning, we say to the griefstricken, “hamakom yinachem” – may God, or literally, “the place,” comfort you. I’ve come to believe that in addition to its divine meaning, “hamakom” also has an earthly meaning. May we as mourners – individual, for losses in our own lives, and collective, for the loss of holiness – find spaces and places, literal and literary, actual and virtual, where we can find consolation. For some it will be a space in nature, for others, a place within community. But the idea that a space – a physical location - can provide a comfort is an idea that those who have said Kaddish for a year will understand.
We hope that most of our community activities will be celebrations. But being part of a community means that, in moments when we are low on strength, we can borrow against the collective. And when our reserves are replenished, it will be our turn to give back to those who supported us - sharing embraces, tears, experiences and words that sanctify and reaffirming our connections to humanity and community.