Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Death in the family

There is a camaraderie that develops among kaddish sayers.  I can attest to this on the men's side of the mechitza (divider between the men's and women's section), and I also see it among the few women kaddish sayers.  In fact, because there are fewer women who attend the prayer service and many if not most are there to say kaddish, the bonds that form between them may even be even more intense than those among the men.

One of the bonds I formed was with a man more or less my age whose mother died about two months after mine.  We'd joke about which one of us the Gabbai would select to lead prayers.  I told him about my blog and, upon reading it, he learned of my father's broken hip.  A few months ago, I told him that I would be flying to California to visit my father and would be unable to say kaddish, and he suggested I learn a Mishna in my mother's honor that evening, which I did at the airport.   From there on, he'd always ask about my father's condition, and he genuinely took pleasure in my positive reports.  (He's doing much better since his hip replacement surgery.)

Little did I know that his own father was quite ill.  His father died yesterday morning and the funeral was that afternoon.  The service took place in the shul, the very space that he and I had davened in these months.  My friend spoke about his father's incredible life, how he had overcome legal blindness to lead a rich and productive life.

Now my friend will be saying kaddish for both his parents, the nightmare scenario that my father's broken hip in January had signaled as a possibility for me.  Seated at the service, I saw the face of a man without parents.  A true orphan.

The mourner's kaddish in Hebrew is called "Kaddish Yatom," which literally means "orphan's kaddish." (This point is made by Wieseltier in his book Kaddish, p. 442.)  For me, the kaddish feels more like a mourner's prayer than an orphan's prayer, as my parental link is but half severed.  But my friend's kaddish was the kaddish of complete loss, especially coming so soon after his mother's death.

I am learning, somewhat to my surprise, that the kaddish experience has as much, and probably, more to do with my relationship to other people as it does to my own grief.  And it has even less to do with my relationship to God.  I never met my friend's father.  And I don't even know him that well.  Still, his loss feels like a death in the family of mourners of which I am a member.

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