Tag Archives: Mourner’s Kaddish

Whether I Was Counted Didn’t Matter

by Rita Plush (New York, NY)

I was not a religious woman. I did not keep kosher. I drove and carried on the Sabbath, but when my mother died in 1995 I decided to say Kaddish for her. She had honored the role of motherhood in her quiet and loving way for so many years of my life; it was my turn to honor her. When I told her rabbi I’d decided to take on the responsibility of Kaddish every day for 11 months, he said it wasn’t expected of me. A polite way of saying I wouldn’t be included in the minyan, the ten people required for communal worship—ten male people that is. 

A bar mitzvah boy, still sleeping with a nite-lite? According to ancient rabbinic decree and prevailing diktat in the Conservative movement then, that pisher would be counted; he was up to the task. A 58-year-old female who had raised three children, gone to college and was running a business? Talk to the hand! No matter; I wasn’t there to make noise and change the rules of female inequality in Jewish ritual. I was there to pay tribute to my mother’s passing, a loss so profound, it felt as if my very connection to the universe had been broken. 

Yiskah-dol v’yiska-dosh sh-may ra’bbo begins the ancient Aramaic prayer. 

The words had a power I could not name but when I recited that opening line, I was part of the world again! Part of all Jews who, for centuries past, had shown their respect for their loved ones the way I was respecting my mother. I felt connected to them and to Jews in present time, whoever and wherever they were, remembering their beloveds as I was. I was not alone in my grief. Yet a need began to bloom in me. Reading the Kaddish phonetically was not enough; something was missing. 

Had been missing, every time I held a siddur. When I sat and when I stood during High Holiday services; when I bowed my head and beat my breast, following the prayers and blessings, silently reading in English. I wanted the language of my ancestors on my lips. I wanted to read Hebrew. 

And so I learned, in a classroom with other like-minded adults, part of National Jewish Outreach’s Read Hebrew America program, hieroglyphs in the booklet, square and blocky, rather than actual letters. I tried to commit to memory the significance of the undersized T’s, the dots and dashes under a particular letter—the new world of sound that was Hebrew. It took study and time; it took some sweat as I labored over a service’s opening prayers while the morning minyan was wrapping up the closing Aleinu. But I kept at it and after a few months I was reading along (struggling along, is more like it) feeling the presence of the matriarchs, Sarah, Rebekah and Leah, my matriarch, Malka, now among them. 

Soon after my mourning period was over, my synagogue became egalitarian—sort of, or as my Grandmother used to say, nisht du, nisht ort, not here, not there. To appease the older, more traditional-leaning congregants, women were included in the minyan in the smaller, downstairs chapel, while upstairs in the main sanctuary, it was business as usual. So be it; they built it and I came, called upon to be present for others saying Kaddish, as others had been present for me. Every Tuesday morning, with gratitude and my faltering Hebrew I joined the minyan and helped a mourner honor their loved one. 

In time, my synagogue became fully egalitarian, and it felt good. It felt right to be a fully acknowledged member in good standing of my Jewish community. But whether I was counted downstairs, upstairs, or no-stairs, it didn’t matter. In the tradition of my people I had given tribute to all my mother was to me. And… I learned my alef beis.

Rita Plush is the author of the novels, Lily Steps Out and Feminine Products, and the short story collection, Alterations. She is the book reviewer for Fire Island News, and teaches memoir, Continuing Education, Queensborough Community College. If you’d like to learn more about Rita and her work, visit: https://ritaplush.com

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“What do you want?”

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)
Unscathed, I live comfortably in hibernation, 
my larder stocked, my outlook optimistic.
The morning air wafts through my open window,
and I can hear the call and response of birds
punctuated by the screams of ambulances.
Then there is a knock at my door.
It grows louder, and, finally, I say,
“What do you want?”
I peer out my window and go downstairs 
and see a strange man dressed all in black.
“I have some terrible news,
about your friend, Tony, I believe.”
“Tony?”
“Yes, I see you and Tony at the diner most days.
You often eat breakfast together. Is that not true?
And he’s a paramedic and loved by many?”
“He is a good friend. What’s wrong? Tell me!”
“He is in the hospital with Covid-19.”
“Oh, my God, Is he OK?”
“I’m sorry to say he’s on a ventilator.”
“Which hospital? Can I see him?”
“I’m afraid that’s impossible. Can I come in?
Perhaps we can pray together.”
“No, no, go away. You’re scaring me.”
“But there is more.”
“Don’t tell me he’s gonna die.”
“Most probably, but there is even more.”
“Are you coming for me?”
“Yes, possibly, and quite soon, I might add.”
Panic-stricken, I double-lock the door and shut the window.
I collapse in a chair and start praying for my friend,
but, upon reflection, I begin to say Kaddish for myself,
somehow hoping these words might save me.

 

Mel Glenn, the author of twelve books for young adults, is working on a poetry book about the pandemic tentatively titled Pandemic, Poetry, and People. He has lived nearly all his life in Brooklyn, NY, where he taught English at A. Lincoln High School for thirty-one years. You can find his most recent poems in the YA anthology, This Family Is Driving Me Crazy, edited by M. Jerry Weiss. If you’d like to learn more about his work, visit: http://www.melglenn.com/

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The Siddur’s Healing Power

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

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