Like no year ever before

The Kaddish – notwithstanding all that has been written about what it says and what it really means – is a spiritual moment that you feel within, a personal moment in the public setting of synagogue prayer.

Woman praying at Kotel face in book 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Woman praying at Kotel face in book 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
I commented to a friend the other day that I feel like an expectant mother – I keep telling people I’ve entered my ninth month. But this is a totally different type of ninth month. It is the ninth month of “aveilut,” the 12-month period of mourning for my father.
This mourning period began just before Israel’s Independence Day, lasted through the summer, stretched through the season of repentance culminating with the most meaningful and emotional Yom Kippur of my life, and now continues into the stormy days of winter that have gripped Israel.
It has taken this long to put the thoughts on paper, thoughts that have evolved, grown and molded my life as I ponder the final few months of this year that has been like none before it.
It has been a year that has underlined the dichotomy of physical alongside spiritual.
The physical is the draining process of saying Kaddish, the mourner’s prayer, each morning, afternoon and evening, being encouraged to lead the services in the synagogue, and then trying to accomplish the impossible task of leading the prayers at a pace that suits the different synagogues and even those praying in the same congregation.
On the other hand, the Kaddish – notwithstanding all that has been written about what it says and what it really means – is a spiritual moment that you feel within, a personal moment in the public setting of synagogue prayer. I think of my father, of the long and happy life he had.
I think of when he was saying Kaddish for his parents during his years of aveilut, and each year on the anniversary of their passing.
I think of him as we mark each holiday and other special occasion in the country or as a family.
The year of mourning has meant learning a new aspect of Judaism, mostly filled with customs which represent the personal nature of how each one of us feels going through this unique experience. Though religious all my life, I have entered into a new sphere that thankfully I have never experienced before, having to read up and ask questions as though I was taking up religious observance for the first time.
It has been a bittersweet experience of being one of many people in my community going through aveilut for a parent this year. Call it a support group. Some call it a “Kaddish Club.” You share your experiences and your feelings, and talk about the inability to attend parties and concerts.
Sometimes you just pat each other on the back, and say: “Hang in there.” I also appreciate the “shoulder” and advice from Kaddish Club alumni who have told me of their past experiences, and voiced complete understanding for various ordeals and tumultuous feelings that I have.
The physical-spiritual dichotomy carries over into your professional life. My job is being a journalist who covers the Israeli experience, in particular Israeli politics. My father would often ask me to analyze the various dramas, crises, scandals and other political events that have marked Israeli history as I covered them over the past few decades. Frequently, he voiced his own feelings about what was going on.
Therefore, it is no surprise that I often think now of what he would be saying as I report on the various events, and interview the newsmakers. Just after I finished sitting shiva in April, the Knesset opened its summer term, and I watched as Finance Minister Yair Lapid addressed the House, facing constant heckling from other MKs. He would later announce that he would no longer speak in the plenum because of the verbal abuse. I sat there thinking to myself, “What children!” It was a bizarre experience.
I was still in an emotional tailspin, and the Knesset brought me crashing down to earth. It makes you start thinking about the vast gaps between what is really important in life and what isn’t, and how we can really sound childish if we don’t put things into perspective.
Having said that, it also brought back the memory of how Kaddish can bring people together, even in the Knesset. The Israeli parliament has its own synagogue, and it was one of those behind-the-scene moments, when I watched, during the last Knesset, then-Kadima Knesset Member Dr. Nachman Shai and then-National Union MK Uri Ariel saying Kaddish together at the Mincha afternoon service, standing alongside each other, reciting it together. Even if their Knesset factions and ideologies were not in sync, their Kaddish was.
The power of unity in the Kaddish has also been evident to me as I have found the various minyan factories around Jerusalem and elsewhere. I am of Ashkenazi background, and many of these synagogues tend to pray more often according to the Sephardi custom. Sometimes, I have sheepishly asked if I could lead the service despite my different version of the service.
Sometimes I have been greeted with an “of course” from the other congregants.
Other times, I have been told that I could lead the service if I “said every word.” I felt that I had received the ultimate compliment when once, after the prayer, an elderly Sephardi man told me that I – an Ashkenazi person with an American accent – had nevertheless recited the service very clearly.
Still, the ultimate feeling of unity was when I led the Mincha service once at a well-known synagogue near Mahane Yehuda in Jerusalem, reciting the “Amidah” according to the Ashkenazi custom, but also adding sections of the service that only Sephardim say, and saying the Kaddish in two different places, to suit both customs.
And when I finished, I received a handshake from a smiling Sephardi man, the one who had been saying Kaddish together with me. I felt that it was truly a handshake of unity, that would have made my father proud, and which symbolized in its own small way, why this has been a year like none before.The author is a political correspondent and managing editor at Israel Radio’s English News in Jerusalem.