By Paula Jacobs (Framingham, MA)
It looks like any ordinary prayer book: blue cover, plain lettering, traditional Jewish prayers, and printed in the USA. While the prayer book has bound Jews throughout the world for centuries, I never imagined that an ordinary siddur would transform my pain to healing, while teaching me the real meaning of connection and community.
When I was reciting kaddish for my father at my synagogue’s daily minyan many years ago, the prayer book became my daily companion as a source of solace and cherished memories. During my kaddish year, the siddur linked me to generations past throughout the Jewish calendar cycle. As I prayed, memories flowed, reminding me of family holiday dinners, Chanukah parties, Purim celebrations, and more.
Through the prayer book, I gained a profound, lasting appreciation for the value of a prayer community. Granted, when I began attending minyan, I initially struggled with some of the communal customs: rapid-fire recitation aloud of certain prayers, calling out the page number before the Aleinu prayer, and light bantering during the services. Sometimes I lost patience with leaders who davened too slowly or too fast, made Hebrew mistakes, or chanted off key.
But the siddur taught me what truly counts, what community is all about, and how to appreciate the uniqueness of each individual created in the image of God. By praying in community, I learned the invaluable lesson to appreciate fully the humanity of those with whom we pray and the intrinsic value of participating in something greater than ourselves.
Once I understood that important lesson, I began to heal. I also decided to help other community members heal by creating a ceremony to mark the end of kaddish. This ceremony features the presentation of a siddur signed by minyan members, symbolizing the community’s support role during the year of aveilut or mourning.
As I continue to conduct this ceremony 18 years later, I am grateful that the siddur keeps me connected to community. It’s something I think about whenever I present a siddur to a community member and whenever mourners share their personal stories or photographs and memorabilia with the entire minyan community after receiving their siddur.
I am also grateful that the siddur has connected me to a story greater than my own. As I reflect upon the more than 200 stories I have heard, I recall the nonagenarian who died surrounded by his loving children and grandchildren; the father who sent his young children alone from Cuba to make a new life in America; the 20-something widowed mother who became a successful business-woman; the first-generation American who became a judge; the Holocaust survivor who built a new life and family in America; the elderly father who fulfilled his lifelong dream of making aliyah; and other family members who left behind a legacy of treasured memories.
I look at the signatures of those who signed my siddur when I finished saying kaddish. I see the faces of those who stood beside me as we recited the Mourners Kaddish: the young woman mourning her mother, the elderly man reciting kaddish for his late wife, and others who have since moved away or passed on. We were once strangers but through death our lives have become intertwined. And it is the ancient Jewish prayer book that has bound us eternally together and enabled us to heal.
Paula Jacobs writes about Jewish culture, religion, and Israel. Her articles have appeared in such publications as Tablet Magazine, The Jerusalem Post, and The Forward. If you’d like to read more about the ceremony that she created to mark the end of Kaddish, visit https://www.ritualwell.org/ritual/traveling-mourners-path