On the first day I began saying Kaddish for my mother, I walked into shul feeling uncomfortable and out of place. Although I’ve been an observant Jew all my life, I’ve never been much of a davener. Despite being a regular at Shabbat morning services, I did not perceive the synagogue as a place of prayer — I sang and gossiped quite happily, but davening was simply not part of my agenda. So walking into shul on that weekday morning was seriously discomfiting.
Even finding a siddur was a challenge — they all seemed to be for Shabbat only. Finally, on a top shelf, I caught sight of a large-type weekday siddur. I’m of an age where even large type seems surprisingly small, so I eagerly took it down. I opened up the large siddur and caught my breath — inscribed on the flyleaf were the words, “This siddur belongs to Frieda Pearl Stieglitz” — my mother.
For a second, I thought I had entered some strange magical universe, but a moment’s reflection put those thoughts to rest. After my mother’s death, we had donated most of my father’s extensive Jewish library to a neighborhood yeshiva, but the odds and ends that were inappropriate there, including my mother’s large-print siddur, we had given to the shul. Still, I sat down in the empty women’s section, somewhat shaken.
I had a difficult relationship with my mother. A Holocaust survivor, her family was killed when she was 9 and she wandered around Poland on her own until war’s end three years later. I never quite understand what that meant, the horrors that entailed, although I heard her story many times. But I do know that she never really lost the wild child that allowed her to survive. She was easily enraged and often angry, at me, my brother, my father or the world. And her handwriting, large and bold, mirrored that rage.
When I was a child, I would often find her notes, left for us to see — angry, blistering recountings of whatever argument had happened the day before. I came to dread seeing her written notes; even shopping lists gave me an unpleasant frisson. Seeing her name in that familiar, large script conjured up, for a moment, that same queasy feeling. But minyan was beginning and I started to daven.
And that’s where all the years of ignoring the service came to roost. Because although I knew the main tefillot, I had no idea what the speeding locomotive of a minyan was up to. I spent most of that first morning scrambling, trying to keep up with the engine racing through on the other side of the mechitza. My mother’s siddur, with its large type and clear instructions, however, kept me on track. It marked where to sit and where to stand, what to say quietly and what to say aloud.
In the days following, I would take down my mother’s siddur with a growing sense of relief. After a week or two, I was able to keep pace enough to look at the helpful back notes, where the editors had indicated the order of importance of the prayers. When I needed to leave out some paragraphs, which I continued to do in order to keep up, I was able to determine which were integral and which less so.
And for the first time in my life, I was actually enjoying the prayers. The “Pesukei Di’Zimrah,” in particular, with their entrancing, repetitious hallelujahs, were a revelation, magnificent songs of praise — not drudgery, as I’d previously perceived them, but poetry. The English translation supplemented my rusty Hebrew, and when there was a lull, I tried to look back and make sure I understood every word. And my mother’s siddur helped, gently guiding me along.
Every day when I came to shul, I would open up the flyleaf and see my mother’s inscription. And slowly, the inscription lost its negative power. I began to look forward each day to opening her siddur and seeing her words — and soon it became part of my morning ritual to trace those words briefly with my finger before beginning the service. I knew my mother loved me but she wasn’t often able to express it. In the Spielberg tape, which my mother had recorded years ago for the filmmaker’s Shoah Foundation project, and which I could not watch until after her death, she spoke about her regrets in mothering and wish that she could do it over. In the siddur, I felt her positive imprint and it became a way of connecting with the loving and helpful mother I knew she wanted to be. And I was grateful to her for giving me a medium in which to say good-bye to her properly, and to remember her in moments of song and joy, as she would have liked to be remembered.
On the next-to-last day of saying Kaddish — life is never as neat as the movies — I walked into shul, reached up to the usual place, but the siddur had vanished. I searched for a few minutes but with service about to begin, I found another weekday siddur, this time with no difficulty, and sat down to pray. My mother’s siddur was gone, but by now, I was able to find the way on my own.
Gloria Kestenbaum is a corporate communications consultant and freelance writer.