Though my mother’s death was anything but unexpected, when she did breathe her last breath just one month short of 91 years, I had simply not thought about whether I would say Kaddish or not. True, I had been caught up with caring for her, worrying about my father, mentally planning the eulogy, and Kaddish never crossed my mind. But, sitting next to my father before the funeral was to begin, he simply handed me the Kaddish card, and I was on my way.
Let me backup for a moment. I am the second of four children, two boys and two girls. I was raised in a Modern Orthodox family, and have lived my life within the traditional structures of synagogue and home, much like I was brought up. I consider myself a serious Jewess, enjoying Torah study on many levels, and have reaped the full benefits of the opening of this world of serious Torah study on the part of women in the last three decades. I came to Talmud twelve years ago, and since that time have spent a considerable amount of time swimming in the sea of the Oral Tradition.
When it comes to prayer, however, it has been a different story. My experience of davening on the other side of the mehitza, not being called to the Torah, and not participating in any significant way in the service has led me to sideline this activity for most of my life. There have been (short) periods of time where I have redoubled my efforts to pray more regularly, to daven with kavana, and to immerse myself in dialogue with the Almighty. Unfortunately, most of these efforts have peaked and then dissolved, leading me back to my tomes of Talmud, as I reassured myself that a good Jewess can express her devotion through Torah study as well.
When I found myself saying Kaddish for my mother all that changed. I decided at the close of shiva that I would continue with daily Kaddish at least for a while, and became a regular member of the minyan in a little synagogue that met right outside my front door, in a bomb shelter, a not uncommon site for services to convene in Israel.
In the early days I felt oh so pressured, trying to keep up with the prayer service, that while familiar, had all sorts of intricacies that I had not until now regularly encountered as a “home prayer.” That, as well as saying the Kaddish out loud, while trying to keep pace with one or two other mourners was seriously stressing me out.
Every morning I would wake at 6:02, race to dress, grab my espresso and head for the synagogue so as not to miss that first Kaddish at approximately 6:29. In the early days I felt oh so pressured, trying to keep up with the prayer service, that while familiar, had all sorts of intricacies that I had not until now regularly encountered as a “home prayer.” That, as well as saying the Kaddish out loud, while trying to keep pace with one or two other mourners was seriously stressing me out.
Several weeks of feeling pressured to keep up led me to realize that there really was no race after all. After stumbling through the Aramaic world of that first, long Kaddish De’Rabbanan, I realized that I could actually sit back, rest awhile and finish my coffee in peace. I would still catch “Borchu” and “Shema.” After all, I was a woman, and there was absolutely nobody with me on my side of the mehitza, which in this case was a fairly significant wooden structure with a non-see through curtain thrown in for good measure. I could actually do whatever I wanted to, undisturbed. And thus began my adventures in meditation, studying mishna, and more.
As I relaxed into my new role as “Kaddish zugger,” ( a Kaddish sayer) I began to actually treasure those moments where I could be still with my grief, to mourn undisturbed, and to put my loss in the focus of my world. Pictures of my mother would come to me unbidden, long lost fragments of memory, smells, words, touch all swirled around me, joining me with my mother for a few precious moments. How, I wondered, did somebody who did not say Kaddish, find the time and place to mourn in our crazy, hectic world?
Pictures of my mother would come to me unbidden, long lost fragments of memory, smells, words, touch all swirled around me, joining me with my mother for a few precious moments. How, I wondered, did somebody who did not say Kaddish, find the time and place to mourn in our crazy, hectic world?
Another unexpected feature of saying Kaddish was a sense of personal empowerment in an environment that had long been a place where I did not have a voice. Interestingly, I am one of those women who actually sings out loud in the synagogue. I raise my voice, and look around, often in surprise, because most of the other women around me are singing so very softly. But saying Kaddish was different. Here I had a role, a function, I had a voice. I realized that this was the first time I had a voice in the synagogue. I was acknowledged. In fact, the men that davened with me made me feel welcome, and we would often chat together at the beginning or the end of services. They would occasionally mention my mother, and my loss, and I was touched.
Going to minyan every day also allowed me to set aside time for me to be in active relationship with God, day after day, week after week. This is not to say that women who do not go to shul are not in a relationship with God. The difference is, when you go to synagogue daily, this is time that is sanctified and set aside specifically for this purpose. The energy of communal prayer can, at times, transport even the most grounded person to the higher spiritual realms. I was grateful when this occurred.
As the year wound down, and I began to prepare for transitioning to life without Kaddish, I wondered what would happen to that voice I had discovered. Would I continue to pray daily with a minyan? Would I return to my previous state, knowing that things could be different?
In taking upon myself the obligation to say Kaddish, I had unwittingly stepped upon a path that led me to a deeper understanding of so many things. My relationship to God had become closer and more familiar. My relationship with my mother had readjusted, the rough edges had smoothed out, and nourishing memories assumed a prime place in my heart. I began to realize, as I said the Kaddish out loud every single day, just how much my voice had been stilled in the synagogue, for all these years.
So where does that leave me? Three years later, and I have reverted back to my previous mode, daf yomi (daily Talmud study), and praying without minyan. If I am to be honest, and I try to be, many days pass with only minimal prayer. My Judaism is core to my existence. The Jewish way of life is part of the air that I breathe and the water that I drink (mindfully, saying a bracha before taking my first sip). But where oh where is my place in the synagogue? I have no idea.
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Naomi L. Baum, Ph.D., is a psychologist with expertise in the field of trauma and resilience building. She consults with organizations and communities worldwide in the wake of disaster both natural and manmade. She has recently published a book, “My Year of Kaddish: Mourning, Memory and Meaning,” exploring the process of grieving against the backdrop of her personal experience reciting Kaddish. Previous books include, “Life Unexpected: A Trauma Psychologist Journeys through Breast Cancer,” and “Free Yourself from Fear: The Seven Day Plan for Overcoming Your Fear of (Recurrent) Cancer.” She is mother of seven, and grandmother of many. She lives with her husband in Efrat, Israel.
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