The Human Spirit: Eleven months of Kaddish

Although I often engage in verbal fisticuffs to defend women’s rights in Judaism, I knew that I wouldn’t want to fight for my right to recite the prayer.

Jewish men pray joshua tomb 311 (photo credit: AP)
Jewish men pray joshua tomb 311
(photo credit: AP)
Last Shabbat I completed 11 months of saying Kaddish, the prayer of mourners, for my mother. It was a bittersweet moment. On one hand, I was pleased that for 335 consecutive days I was able to express my filial devotion by reciting this hymn of divine praise amid a congregation. On the other hand, saying Kaddish provided a personal connection to my dear mother, like holding on to a balloon string to heaven that you finally let go. A door left ajar in one of those incomprehensible mysteries of human existence was closed.
During the months of mourning, I felt reclusive and enervated, from the depressing decline in my mother’s condition and her death. Forfeiting parties and music, restrictions of the mourning year, suited my mood. According to Rabbi Marc Kujawski (in a taped lecture given in memory of his student Yehudit Breuer), saying Kaddish is designed to rehabilitate the mourner’s heart, teaching us how to live with death, to overcome the sense of abandonment and isolation. Each recited Kaddish is a reminder to heaven that the dearly departed was once dispatched to earth as an act of divine love. Mourning is like coming up from 40 meters underwater – you have to rise slowly and gradually.
The rules of mourning are accepted equally for men and women, but not so Kaddish.
There are reports of women saying Kaddish dating back four centuries, and a friend from the extreme religious community in Mea She’arim insists that her mother recited Kaddish for her grandmother. After the Holocaust, women all over Europe said Kaddish. Nonetheless, eight centuries after its regular inclusion in Jewish prayer, in Orthodox congregations women saying Kaddish aloud isn’t the norm. Nor do most women answer “amen” or the refrain that begins “yehei shmei rabba,” even though such answering is extolled as potent expressions of faith. Notice how few women respond whether men or women are saying Kaddish.
AN EXTENSIVE and recommended discussion of the halachic issues involved in saying Kaddish can be found in the essay “The Female Voice of Kaddish” by Dr. Rochelle L. Millenon in Jewish Legal Writings by Women (Urim, 1998.) Without entering that discussion, suffice it to say that my rabbinical arbiter (posek), Rabbi Daniel Sperber, encouraged me to say Kaddish during the seven-day shiva period, and then, without a commitment, to see how saying Kaddish went after that. In the hours before my mother’s funeral, a young, pregnant friend who had lost her mother two months earlier arrived to tutor me in the Aramaic tonguetwister which sanctifies God’s name.
Although I am often willing to engage in verbal fisticuffs to defend women’s rights in Judaism, I knew that I wouldn’t want to fight for my right to say Kaddish. Tears were far too close to the surface while I recited this prayer for me to risk an argument. That proved true one Friday night, the only time in the 11 months that someone tried to stop me. I had begun my “Yitkagal, vayitkadash...” when a stranger – the only other woman in a recently organized synagogue where, ironically, I’d been invited by the rabbi – began shouting.
She said, “If you want, I can get my father to say Kaddish for you.”
I managed to continue my prayer, but I left synagogue with my throat choked, my eyes wet.
Hence, I played it safe, seeking services where non-silent women were welcome. The sexton (gabbai) of the nearby Beit Knesset Shtiblach in Old Katamon had told me I could say Kaddish there. I took advantage of this offer from time to time, but the women’s section is so far from the men’s that I was never sure anyone would say “amen.” Often the women’s section was empty. Obviously, I could say Kaddish at the egalitarian Orthodox Shira Hadasha on Shabbat, and on weekdays, there were always other women saying Kaddish at Kehillat Yedidya in Baka, where the daily service begins 6:20 and 6:30, depending on the day of the week. I felt bolstered by the fellowship with the other women, a group we named “Coffee and Kaddish.”
Indeed, we regulars met at a café one Friday morning to exchange biographies of the parents for whom we were saying Kaddish. New mourners were welcomed and supported; those who finished wee wished a bon voyage in the transition.
Whenever possible I joined the early morning prayer services at the homes of bereaved friends and synagogue acquaintances during the shiva, as others had joined mine. I felt wonderful when a young mourner told me he was comforted by hearing me chant Kaddish on the women’s side and made sure to come every day.
OUTSIDE OF home base in Jerusalem, women treated my Kaddish saying with curiosity and perhaps suspicion. They always wanted to know if I was steadfast, saying Kaddish every day. One woman asked whom I was saying Kaddish for and when she learned it was my mother, her eyes widened. “Your mother? She must have been a very old woman.”
Indeed. But still my mother.
As the months went by, I became more fluent at the recitation, adjusting with more agility to variations within Jewish traditions.
I could better focus on my mother whom I often pictured arms linked with her sister-inlaw, my aunt Rose who had passed away shortly before her. While reciting those intense prayers, I began to feel persistent trepidation and became aware of a problem close to home I needed to resolve. It was as if my mother was sending me a warning.
Traveling abroad was a challenge of a different level. While on the road in America, I learned that finding a reliable and amenable weekday minyan, the quorum of 10 requisite for reciting Kaddish, isn’t simple, particularly when you leave the big cities like Boston, New York and Los Angeles. Once I had my itinerary, I wrote ahead to rabbis I found on the Internet and alerted by considerate hosts that not only did I need kosher food, but I needed a minyan. I said Kaddish at Chabad houses, at private homes, on airplanes and with the indulgence of my kind audiences, after the lectures I’d deliver.
I gained a new appreciation for those who rose early every day, and not just for an 11- month season of Kaddish, trudging through icy snow in Newton, or windy gales in Manhattan (thank you Fifth Avenue Synagogue for the bagel breakfasts) and heavy rain in Jerusalem. I admired the male mourners who not only showed up but who faithfully led services, day after day. I am grateful to my husband, who came with me on the days we were both in the same city.
In the last week of saying Kaddish, we found ourselves in Ashkelon at sunset. The upstairs women’s section of the Yismah Moshe Sephardi synagogue was locked, the key unavailable.
The sexton suggested that I pray in the lobby, but with the door closed to allow the air conditioner to do its work, who would hear my prayer to say amen?
I was reluctant to present my dilemma to this group of unknown men who might object to a woman saying Kaddish. My husband and I devised a quick plan. He would stand near the door, and at the right moment push it open a crack so at least he could answer amen. But this wasn’t necessary. As the evening prayers began, in one of those incomprehensible mysteries of human existence, the door was blocked wide open.
The author is a Jerusalem writer who concentrates on the wondrous stories of modern Israel and its people.