For nearly the past eleven months, I’ve been attending synagogue quite regularly, in order to say Kaddish for my late mother, Leah Zelda bat Yaakov Zeev Halayvi v’Rivka.
I once attended a presentation by Ari Goldman who spoke about his memoir, Living a Year of Kaddish, in which he describes some of the people he met and the experiences he had, throughout his year of mourning for his father. I was profoundly moved by the presentation and promptly read his book. I began to think of what it might be like for me to record some of my Kaddish experiences when my time comes. I had already decided that, while I hoped it wouldn’t happen until her 120th birthday, I would take it upon myself to say Kaddish for my mom.
When my dad died, nineteen years ago, we had three young children, I was working full time and, in the community where I lived, women just didn’t say Kaddish. Although my mother never asked me to recite Kaddish for her, it was something I wanted to do for me and for her. I viewed it as an opportunity to grow in my spirituality. You know, the recitation of Kaddish benefits both the soul of the departed loved one, as well as the mourner. After someone has died he or she can no longer get credit for performing mitzvot in this world; but those who survive them can perform mitzvot for the elevation of their soul.
The Kaddish prayer is one in which we affirm our belief and connection to God. Especially when someone is in mourning, it can be a comfort to remind oneself that Hashem is with them, even during this challenging time. Also, by having a structured daily time to think about my mom and reflect on the loss, it helped me in processing this journey. I am the kind of person who best deals with my emotions by confronting them and expressing them, rather than suppressing them. Saying Kaddish enabled me, on a daily basis, to connect with the new type of presence Mom has in my life. Often when I’d be saying Kaddish, I’d visualize one of my favorite photos of her. She’s standing on the beach, wearing a broad smile. Now, I’ll let you in on a secret. Earlier in the year, when I’d visualize that photo, it would be straight ahead of me, in my mind’s eye. As the months have gone by, that image has risen further up. To me, this is a sign that her soul is experiencing that elevation that I spoke of earlier. I sure hope so.
When my week of shiva ended, I had a conversation with Laura Frank, a knowledgeable friend, about some of the practices around women saying Kaddish. She said that many women who choose to say Kaddish, usually do so just once a day. Laura also pointed out that, if I attended synagogue for Mincha and Ma’ariv services, it would technically count as two days. For example, attending on a Wednesday, Mincha would be part of Wednesday’s prayers while Ma’ariv would be part of Thursday’s prayers. Now, my beloved mom was a smart shopper and always taught me to look for bargains. So, two for the price of one was a deal I couldn’t pass up. I’d also arranged with the rabbi from Mom’s synagogue in Miami to have someone in their minyan recite Kaddish daily for her. That way, I felt, there was always a backup for me, if or when I wasn’t able to get to synagogue.
When you’re not used to attending synagogue on a daily basis, there are many things to adjust to. Did you know that the pace of the daily services is a lot faster than on Shabbat morning? And most of the prayers are not said aloud or in unison? I had to find my comfort zone with which prayers I would say in their entirety and which I would skip, simply because I just couldn’t keep up, and yet I wanted to have a meaningful prayer experience. It was also quite an educational journey…. to go to synagogue daily for a year, and to become more aware of the variations in our prayers during this annual cycle. It was interesting to have to adjust my daily and weekly schedule according to the time of the setting of the sun, which, as you know, varies throughout the year. It’s pretty cool to have that element of nature govern the schedule of your busy day.
It’s amazing to look back and realize the very many things I learned in the course of my year of reciting Kaddish.
This post was adapted from a d’var torah Mindy delivered at Congregation Netivot Shalom in Baltimore, MD on May 31, 2014, just prior to the conclusion of the Kaddish year for her departed mother. Part two will be published next week.
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Anyone who knows me even a bit also knows that I thrive on social contact and interacting with people. However, during my year of mourning (avelut) for my father, I shied away from social situations. My guideline was: turn down the volume of my social life while turning up the volume of my family life. This gave me time and space to mourn and cherish my memories of my father while pondering my own role as a mother to my four children.
As I neared the end of this long year, a close friend gave me a valuable gift. About a month before the end she said: “Bracha, it’s time to start preparing yourself to step back into life.” Jewish law sets up a designated mourning period of a year for the loss of a parent. When this year comes to a close, we do not extend it as we are instructed by the Torah: “bal tosif” (do not add). When it is time – it is time.
My friend’s wise words made me mindful of this transition and allowed me time to think about how it would feel to socialize again and jump back in to life when the time came. It felt odd and a bit artificial at the beginning, but I was ready and prepared to shed my cloak of silence.
I shared this story with my Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshivat Maharat, Rabbi Jeff Fox, and he pointed out that while the halakha helps enormously to transition into mourning, there are no set laws or customs to transition out of mourning. Indeed, without my friend’s counsel, it would have been much more jarring and difficult for me.
What Reb Jeff said made me realize the function of two beautiful customs created by women for women. These customs “bookend” the year of avelut, and help shape the transitions into and out of saying kaddish.
Ushering In: A woman from my community in Raanana, Israel sadly passed away from cancer after a valiant struggle. Among her children, she left triplet daughters. I went to their synagogue on the Shabbat during shiva to give comfort to both her husband and to Judi, the daughter who lives nearby. As I accompanied Judi upstairs to the women’s section after Kabbalat Shabbat (when the mourners enter the synagogue) she shared with me that the triplets had decided to take on saying kaddish together. Each sister chose a specific service: shacharit, mincha or arvit (morning, afternoon, or evening) to say kaddish each day for the entire year. I was moved to tears and hugged her in silent empathy.
As we walked into synagogue, I was surprised to see my friend Talia sitting and waiting as she doesn’t usually pray in that synagogue. She rose to greet the new mourner. That’s when it clicked – and fresh tears arose in my eyes- Talia had just finished her own year of saying kaddish for her father. She was there to accompany the new mourner at her first appearance in synagogue saying kaddish. Talia showed Judi when and where to say kaddish and she hugged Judi when tears slipped down Judi’s face. I could see how comforting it was for Judi to have Talia’s support as she ventured into this new space.
Escorting Out: My friends Sharon, Talia and others have marked the end of their year of avelut in a unique and special way. Each of them hosted a se’uda shlishit on the Shabbat following their last kaddish of the year. Only women with some connection to saying kaddish were invited. This included women who said kaddish three times a day, once a day, only on Shabbat and only on the yahrtzeit. There were also women who had attending minyan specifically to answer amen to other people saying kaddish.
At each gathering, there was a powerful feeling within this circle of Jewish women. We felt a strong link with each other – both through our personal loss and through our choice to step forward and give honor in our bereavement. There were palpable layers of warmth, understanding and comfort as we helped escort the avela (mourner) and (I felt) the neshama of the deceased as well. This tradition has been passed along — from woman to woman – marking the transition from actively saying kaddish to fading back into the general circle of congregants who answer amen.
The short conversation with Reb Jeff shed a new perspective for me on these and other recently created traditions. I believe that these customs have a much larger role to play in our spiritual lives. They help us celebrate life-cycle events, move through transitions and achieve closure after difficult ordeals.
I see empty spaces just waiting for us to fill. Let’s do it!
Check out A Daughter’s Recitation of Mourner’s Kaddish to explore the halakhic sources surrounding women and kaddish.