In The Year Of Mourning


Most mornings now, I wake up with the sounds of Kaddish in my head.

It’s not surprising. For the last seven weeks, my psyche has been focused on the traditional mourners’ prayer, which I’ve been reciting at least six times a day in my mother’s memory.

My life seems to revolve around, and focus on, getting to synagogue on time — morning, afternoon and evening — being prepared to lead the services, and concentrating my thoughts on the concept of elevating my mother’s soul through the recitation of Kaddish.

It’s a new and compelling routine, but I’m not complaining. In fact, I think the approach our rabbis devised for mourning a close relative is brilliant psychologically, first separating us from the
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normal responsibilities of our daily life for the week of shiva, and then gradually restoring us to “normal” life through an extended period of less intense but restrictive mourning — 30 days for a spouse, sibling or a child, and 11 months for a parent, one who gave us life.

At a time when one is vulnerable to depression and a profound sense of loss, the mitzvah of Kaddish — the ancient Aramaic prayer that praises God and makes no mention of death — gives the mourner a sense of purpose, the feeling he or she is able to do something tangible for the loved one. When the inclination may be to withdraw and turn inward, we are given a task to fulfill that involves being with others, taking part in a minyan three times a day and reciting a prayer that, according to tradition, benefits the soul.

The ritual expression a fellow congregant might greet you with after hearing you chant the Kaddish — “may the neshama [soul] have an aliyah [literally, an elevation]” — is profound.

It underscores the belief that we in this world still have a connection with and active role to play in the fate of our departed relative, whose spirit can be raised and enhanced by our prayers. And the expression suggests to me that our own neshama, too, can be lifted through the experience, making us more compassionate, reflective and humble in the face of life’s realities.

There are countless laws and customs associated with the year of mourning, from not shaving for the first 30 days (as if I needed an outward sign of my grief) to moving one’s seat further back in synagogue to refraining from social situations.

Rabbis have various interpretations about how strictly to adhere to, say, not listening to music, or going to the theater or movies, weddings or parties for the year. They sometimes distinguish between public events and private enjoyment, like watching a film at home rather than going out to a movie theater, or determine how many couples, if any, one can share a meal with on Shabbat. So far I’ve been listening for my mother’s voice in my head to guide me, and it’s been working. “Be respectful, but don’t overdo it,” she would say. And “think about other people’s feelings.”

That includes seeking out fellow mourners in the synagogue, as we are a lonely group, by definition, a part of the congregation yet also apart. Ours is an exclusive club of sorts, bound by loss, yet at some point in life everyone becomes a member. In the 24 years since I observed the year of mourning for my father, I’ve increased my admiration for regular shul-goers, who attend services daily, year in and year out. And I recall that a kind word, a smile, a recognition of another mourner’s status can go a long way toward easing the sense of isolation — for both of you.

One friend who knew my mother told me he is grateful when he hears me say Kaddish because it brings back warm memories of her for him. That comment was such a comfort, and deeply appreciated.
My brother and I have been sharing our thoughts — a comfort in itself — and comparing our shul-going experiences. I’m grateful to be acknowledged by others after leading the service or reciting the Kaddish, but it doesn’t always happen.

I still haven’t come up with a proper response when people ask, “how are you doing?” They mean well, but what am I supposed to say? That I am still in a bit of a fog, but doing the best I can? Not only is every day different, but one’s mood can change in a heartbeat. There are moments when I can tell a story about my mother and smile at the memory. Other times I can be at work at my desk or riding home on the bus and a vivid recollection of my mom — of a simple image or the sound of her voice — will come to me out of the blue and bring tears to my eyes.

And there are questions from my young grandchildren that I can’t answer. Where is Bubbe now? Can she still see me? Can she hear me if I talk to her? Will I ever see her again?

In their innocence, they articulate the imponderables that we adults grapple with but have learned to avoid asking, even of ourselves.

My year of mourning has a long way to go, I’ve only just started on this journey that connects the past to the present. I take each day as it comes, emotionally exhausted at times from the awareness of my fragile state or just worrying about the next minyan, but grateful for the opportunities for prayer and reflection and especially for the mitzvah of saying Kaddish for my mother.

May I be worthy of honoring her good name, always. And may the neshama have an aliyah.


was editor and publisher of The Jewish Week from 1993 to 2019. Follow him at