Musings on the end of saying kaddish - opinion

Yes, it’s a relief to no longer have to say kaddish. But it also makes my dad’s death seem so starkly final.

 The rhythm of mourning (photo credit: Courtesy)
The rhythm of mourning
(photo credit: Courtesy)

The 12-month journey of mourning one’s parents begins, to paraphrase Chairman Mao, with a single prayer.

Yitgadal, v’yitkadash, shmeh raba.

Then another, and another, and another, and another.

Five times in the morning, once in the afternoon and once in the evening: Yitgadal, v’yitkadash, shmeh raba.

My 11-month kaddish journey for my father ended last week – the mourner does not recite this prayer during the last month of the 12-month mourning period – and I’m conflicted.

On the one hand, I am relieved. Greatly relieved.

I can’t tell you how many times I played with the statistics in my mind about how many days were left, what percentage of the 11 months I had finished and what percentage still remained. But mostly I did mental calculations about how many more services I would have to lead.

TITLE PAGE of the Posen ‘Pinkas’ that includes Rabbi Akiva Eger’s Kaddish enactment. (credit: NATIONAL LIBRARY COLLECTION)TITLE PAGE of the Posen ‘Pinkas’ that includes Rabbi Akiva Eger’s Kaddish enactment. (credit: NATIONAL LIBRARY COLLECTION)

Because in addition to reciting the mourner’s kaddish, it is customary for the mourner – if able – to lead every morning, afternoon and evening prayer service.

Though not necessarily willing – I have never enjoyed standing at the front of the shul, my American accent fully exposed, chanting the prayers on behalf of the entire congregation – I am able.

And because I was able, I felt obligated.

So I did, day in and day out – though, at a certain point during the year, I split the weekly morning prayers with someone who had a similar obligation.

As my father would say, “That’s a lot of davening, son.”

“That’s a lot of davening, son.”

Herb's father

Indeed it was.

MY LIFE revolved around this for 11 months. In the 38 years since I had to say kaddish for my mother, I’d forgotten how all-absorbing this was. Making minyan upended ice-making as my No. 1 extracurricular activity.

If I had out-of-town meetings in the morning, I would search a minyan app the night before looking for synagogues near my meeting place where I could pray (FYI: the prayer times on those apps are often out of date).

If I had an afternoon meeting, I would make sure to go to the first minyan past noon. If I was out at night, I would make sure to get back at least by 11 o’clock to make the last minyan in my neighborhood.

So with the 11 months now over, and not having to jump through those kinds of hoops day after day, there understandably is a sense of relief. It’s not that until this year I was a stranger to a minyan. I wasn’t, but if I missed it, I missed it. No harm, no foul.

This past year, however, I felt that if I would miss saying kaddish, I would somehow be letting my father down. I dreaded catching corona, less because I didn’t want the cough, fever and fatigue, and more because I was just afraid it would keep me from saying kaddish.

Funny, the most difficult thing about getting to a minyan three times a day was not even getting to a minyan three times a day. It was having to be among the first ones there – because kaddish in the morning service is one of the first prayers said – and having to be the last one to leave, since kaddish is at the end of all three prayer services. That was something I was not accustomed to.

THEN THERE’S the relief of not having to lead the prayers. Here, however, I learned something humbling: people are not as aggravating as I talked myself into believing.

I braced myself, during the first few days in my role as reluctant cantor, for what I thought would be a barrage of criticism. I expected to be corrected constantly about my pronunciation. I also expected that some people would complain because I was going too fast, while others would complain that I was going too slow. I’d get nervous before each pre-prayer approach to the bimah.

But after 964 services, I missed eight times while in transit and in pandemic lockdown, I was only corrected three times, once about the pace and twice about pronunciation. In each of the cases, the pointer-outers, who did so graciously, were actually correct.

The stereotype that I have helped to perpetuate in these columns that people in shul are a prickly, cantankerous and overly critical lot turned out to be false. The one thing I took away from the whole experience – and this is my experience, I grant it may not be universal – is that shul-goers, at least the ones I went to shul with, were a decent group.

Decent, and extremely punctual. Start 15 seconds late, and someone will inevitably tap his wrist and grunt, “nu, nu.” I figured out the answer: Never start 15 seconds late. There is a reason why clocks are placed so prominently in synagogues, especially Orthodox ones. Even the outdoor minyan where I often pray in the afternoon and evening has two clocks in full view.

SO IF I feel relieved that my 11 months of saying kaddish has come to an end, what’s the flip side?

The flip side is that now I feel an emptiness, though not necessarily for the reasons I was warned.

Some people told me that an emptiness emerges when reciting kaddish ends because it was a period when they felt a special connection to their loved ones, when they thought about them. When reciting kaddish stopped, so did that feeling of being connected.

For me, the emptiness is of a different sort.

I don’t need to recite kaddish to feel my dad. I think about him, what he would say and how he would react, when I wake up in the morning, when I set out on the road and when I lie down to sleep at night. I hear his voice constantly, and it has nothing to do with reciting kaddish.

No, the emptiness I feel is of a different sort. It’s an emptiness born of no longer having any more obligations to my dad, of a realization that that period of my life – of having obligations and duties to my parents – is over. Forever.

Obligations are often tiresome and a burden, but they also give purpose and meaning and satisfaction when fulfilled.

The emptiness I feel now is that there is nothing more I can, should or must do for my parents, because there is simply nothing left for me to do for them. Nothing.

Yes, it’s a relief to no longer have to say kaddish. But it also makes my dad’s death seem so starkly final. ■