Thursday, December 27, 2012

Closure? No!

A few days ago in shul, I was speaking to a man who recently started saying kaddish for his father. In the course of the conversation, the word "closure" came up. This word often comes up when tragic or traumatic events are referred to. I was never too comfortable with it, I think because it implies that a chapter in one's life can be "closed," like when you finish reading a book. The book is closed and you never need to reopen it. The event is over and you "move on."

If closure means "erasing" or "forgetting," then I am completely at odds with it. It doesn't imply integrating the experience into one's life, which is how I feel about the experience of mourning. My official period of mourning is over, but unofficial mourning continues and always will. I miss my mother and think about her as much as I ever did since she died. When I made Latkes for Chanuka using her recipe, I thought about her. My niece is getting married next month, and I would have had endless conversations with her about arrangements and dress and the dynamics of the occasion. And how my children are doing. And my wife. And me. And so on and so on.

There is no closure, there is only living with loss and the memories and the lessons taught and the "what would my mother have said."

I agree again with Leon Wieseltier, whose words on "closure," more eloquent than mine, I'd like to quote:
What is happening to me now is nothing like what Americans call 'closure.' What a ludicrous notion of emotional efficiency. Americans really believe that the past is past. They do not care to know that the past soaks the present like the light of a distant star. Things that are over do not end. They come inside us, and seek sanctuary in subjectivity. And there they live on, in the consciousness of individuals and communities. . . . Closure is an ideal of forgetfulness. It is a denial of finality, insofar as finality is never final. Nothing happens once and for all. It all visits, it all returns" (Kaddish, p. 576).

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Turning on the music

Now that my kaddish year is over, I can go to hear music again. I've been to two concerts, which I'd bought tickets to a few months back, the Who at Madison Square Garden and Leonard Cohen at the Barclays Center.  Both concerts were fantastic.

New York Times music critic Jon Pareles's review of The Who concert is at
His spot-on review of the Leonard Cohen concert can be found at

In an earlier post, I wrote about how difficult it was to give up live music for a year. I wondered whether hearing music could have provided moments of joy from the sadness of mourning or maybe even provided a new perspective into my feelings.

It's not just that going to a concert would have looked like engaging in frivolity while my loss was still fresh. Rather, I don't think I was emotionally ready to appreciate a live music experience. It made sense to deny myself the pleasure of music so that I could more fully embrace it after the kaddish year ended. There is wisdom in setting aside these joyful experiences for a specific period of time. As Kohelet (Ecclesiastes 3:4) says, "A time to weep and a time to laugh, A time to mourn and a time to dance." A time to be with one's own thoughts and feelings. The Psalms speak about a transformation of mourning to joy: "In the evening one lies down weeping, but in the morning--glad song" (Psalms 30:6) The message is: live through the evening of sorrow before experiencing the morning of joy. Don't skip to joy before fully experiencing mourning. The setting aside of music for a year is another step in  the goal of ensuring that the acceptance of the death of your parent is complete.

Good live music has a way of transporting your soul to a higher place. You feel good. Fully alive. Affirmed. At one point during The Who concert, during the song "I've Had Enough," these words penetrated me: "I've had enough of living, I've had enough of dying, I've had enough of smiling, I've had enough of crying. . . ." Yes, I had enough. Of death. Of pain. Tears. I want to live again and my Kaddish Year prepared me for the re-entry into the world of the living. There's very little if any guilt associated with these thoughts. My mother, herself a serious music lover, would have been so happy to see me enjoying music again.

I end with these words from Leonard Cohen, from his incredible song "If It Be Your Will," performed at the concert I attended:
If it be your will
That a voice be true
From this broken hill
I will sing to you
From this broken hill
All your praises they shall ring
If it be your will
To let me sing
From this broken hill
All your praises they shall ring
If it be your will
To let me sing

Sunday, December 2, 2012

In praise of going to shul

Saying kaddish means going to shul a lot. Shul can be, and often is, boring. At least I find it such. The services are pretty much the same from day to day. Still I am, and remain, a shul goer, even after my kaddish year.

And why is that? Several reasons. First, I pray better at shul than I do at home. At home there are more distractions. I see my computer which reminds me of work I have to do. I see household objects from my day to day life. All this doesn't make for a spiritual atmosphere. (Praying at work, which I need to do every so often, is even more difficult.) Going to shul takes you out of your normal environment. You know you are going to shul to pray. Also, other people are there who are also praying, so your individual prayer is supported by others. I always find it moving when all the mumbling of prayer suddenly ceases and the room turns so quiet as the silent Amidah is recited. The powerful experiences I had while saying kaddish could never have happened had I prayed at home.

There are other reasons to go to shul: the Torah is read publicly and so you get more exposure to its words and messages. You get to see your friends and talk with them, see their kids and generally catch up with their lives. And you meet many different kinds of people that you wouldn't otherwise encounter. Your presence is also supporting mourners who are saying kaddish.

Finally, while shul is often quite routine, you never know what could happen. Every so often it's full of surprises. One time while I was in the middle of my kaddish year, none of the rabbis was at the Mincha/Ma'ariv service, so one of the regular congregants volunteered to give a D'var Torah between Mincha and Ma'ariv. This elderly gentleman ended up speaking about his father's experiences in World War I in Europe and the atrocities he witnessed during the German invasion of Belgium. Another time, again when no rabbinic staff was present, a retired rabbi spoke about his experiences studying under the great Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (otherwise known as "The Rav") and related stories about the incredible nervousness he and other rabbinic candidates experienced when they had to enter the room for their Smicha (ordination) exam before the Rav. He remembered one candidate who literally passed out from anxiety.

Yesterday during the Shabbat Mincha service another event occurred in shul that I will never forget. An elderly man whom I've known for a while was called up for an Aliyah to the Torah. His son wheeled him up in a wheelchair. Before he recited the blessings for the Torah, the rabbi explained that he was observing the Yahrzeit of his mother. The 89th Yahrzeit! That's right, 89 years of marking the day of his mother's death. This man is 93 years old. His mother died when he was 4. I'd like to ask him if he actually remembers her. Even if I live to be 120, I wouldn't observe that many Yahrzeits. How moving that after all these years, his mother's memory (if that is even the right word) lives on within him.

As Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach famously said, "you never know. You just never know."

Friday, November 30, 2012

How quickly I forget

I don't feel I have much more to say, so I'll be updating the blog only occasionally. In any event, this morning I did get to shul. This is more than I used to do before my kaddish year. I always daven (pray) every morning and put on tephilin, but before my mother died, I prayed at home and did so quickly (15-20 minutes). Davening at home allows me an extra half hour of sleep, which is a good thing. Since I've finished saying kaddish, I've gone to shul in the morning about two to three times a week. I have, however, resorted to my "old" ways, coming in a few minutes after davening begins rather than, as during my kaddish year, five minutes before the start of prayers. (See

Today as I approached the shul, I saw a woman I know who is saying kaddish running to enter. I told her, "don't worry." She said, "I know, I have an extra two minutes." What she meant is that she knew she had another minute or two while people were reciting the sacrifices section and the "Rabbi Yishamel Omer (Rabbi Yishmael says)" that precedes the first kaddish of the day, the Kaddish D'rabanan. Sure enough, when I entered, that's what people were doing and the kaddish began about a minute thereafter. What I meant when I said "don't worry" is that it's okay to miss a kaddish. Why run for a kaddish. It's not the end of the world if you miss a kaddish, especially the Kaddish D'rabanan after the reading about sacrifices.

But then again, that's how I feel now. When I was saying kaddish, I also used to get anxious about getting to shul on time. Frankly, making sure I didn't miss kaddish created a lot tension and anxiety. Even though I'm less than two months removed from that time, it's difficult for me to relate to these feelings. I can't really answer this question honestly: why exactly did I take on the kaddish obligation so seriously and obsessively?

I don't know how I'll behave the next time I have to say kaddish, which, God willing, will not happen for many many years, may my father, who is doing so much better, live to 120. But if I had to bet on my own behavior, I'd put money on my doing pretty much exactly what I did for my mother.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Kaddish, by Ginsberg

I guess I did get carried away by the kaddish thing. I wanted to understand better what I was doing, so I checked out a bunch of books from the New York Public Library with the word "kaddish" in the title. There was an awful book, The Mystery of the Kaddish. There was Ari Goldman's Living a Year of Kaddish.  Wieselier's Kaddish I had on my bookshelf for a long time before my mother died, and during my kaddish year, I eventually read it (over a nearly 10 month period) from cover to cover.

So I figured I would read (or reread?) Alan Ginsberg's poem Kaddish. I went through my beat phase in my early 20's, gobbling up Kerouac, Corso, even Richard Brautigan (Trout Fishing in America anyone?). Of course, Ginsberg was the only Jew in the bunch and he was one of those Jews who runs away from his Jewishness yet never leaves it, a religious nonbeliever, embodying some the kinds of contradictions I find both pathetic and exciting.

He wrote one of his epic poems, called Kaddish, about the death of his mother, Naomi. As usual for Ginsberg, it's both a bitter lament yet bittersweet elegy. He even quotes the kaddish verbatim (ashkenazi accented, of course).

I would like to share these words from the poem, which I find moving and enigmatic:
"Nameless, One Faced, Forever beyond me, beginningless, endless, Father in death. Tho I am not here for this Prophecy, I am unmarried, I'm hymnless, I'm heavenless, headless in blisshood I would still adore. 
Thee, heaven, after Death, only One blessed in Nothingness, not light or darkness, Dayless Eternity-- 
Take this, this Psalm, from me, burst from my hand in a day, some of my Time, now given to Nothing--to praise Thee--but death. 
This is the end, the redemption from Wilderness, way for the Wonderer, House sought for All, black handkerchief washed clean by weeping--page beyond Psalm--Last change of mine and Naomi--to God's perfect Darkness--Death, stay thy phantoms!" 
(Kaddish and Other Poems, pp 11-12).

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Future of this blog

Now that I have completed "my kaddish year," should I continue writing? My answer is that as long as I still feel I have something to say, I will continue writing. What will I write about? There are reflections, looking back at the year, putting it into a broader perspective. There is the transition away from the state of official mourning. And there is the continuing process of mourning which doesn't just magically end just because an arbitrary date has passed. You never get over losing a parent. Somehow it becomes more integrated into your life, your new normal life.

I think I'll know when I have nothing more to say. I think it will be in the not too distant future. Not quite yet.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Reflections on kaddish time

Did the kaddish period go quickly? No. When I was saying kaddish, it seemed like I always would. Each day had a weight, a distinct presence. There was a sense of plodding through the obligation, day by day. (See post at at

Is eleven months is a long time? Yes, and no. Even in retrospect, the time does not feel as if it passed quickly. One of the reasons I feel relief now that the year has passed is that the year felt like such a long time.

The strange thing is that other people's kaddish years seem to pass more quickly than one's own. Many people asked me, "when is your kaddish done," and almost always seemed surprised that I had more time left in my kaddish year than they'd thought. Here's another example: a friend of mine's father died a few weeks after my mother. I remember paying her a Shiva call while I was still in Shloshim (first 30 days after burial). So I should have been able easily to figure out when her kaddish year was ending. And yet when her husband told me she was almost finished saying kaddish, I couldn't believe it. "Already?", I thought. I didn't connect her kaddish period with my own. Mine seemed slow, hers fast.

I suppose these different perceptions of time point to the heightened sense of self-awareness caused by loss. Feeling pain and loss is profoundly, yet necessarily, selfish activity. Our sense of self creates a gap between feelings of your own pain and being sensitive to these feelings in others. No matter how empathetic you are, your own personal loss hits you and affects you in a qualitatively different way than those of others.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Lasting Yahrzeit thoughts

As I described in my previous post, I felt out of sorts and anxious during the Yahrzeit day. But it ended with messages that seemed to come from beyond. These came to me during the silent Mincha prayer, the last prayer during the Yahrzeit. My brother was leading the prayers from the Amud, so I was seated, in my usual spot, toward the back of the synagogue. I recited from memory the Shemonah Esrei, the words of the weekday prayer. My eyes were closed. The words of the prayer, as it were, scrolled through my mind. I wasn't thinking about their meaning at all. Rather, they provided a backdrop to thoughts that entered.

This is not unusual, that I am simultaneously praying and thinking of stuff. Except this time I wasn't thinking about what I'd make for dinner, or work, or things I need to do. And these thoughts did not pass through my mind like transient notions but rather were palpable images that fully impressed themselves on me, one after the other.

These thought images, three of them, came to me in the following order. The first one was of my mother kissing me. Kisses of the deepest love and appreciation. Kisses that I could almost feel on my cheek. Kisses that reminded me of kisses she'd given me, of her last kiss. Our connection and mutual love and admiration. And perhaps even kisses of thanks for saying kaddish for her, not the words of kaddish or any effect of it on her soul, but the completion of a job well done.

The second image was of childbirth. Of her birthing me. Her first born. The screams and pain (though in reality she may have been anesthetized per the birthing protocol of the '50s). Of me coming into the world. Of her first holding me. The joy of motherhood.

The third and last image was of tears. Her tears of sorrow for having to leave the world she so fully lived in, for having to leave her husband, sons, sister, friends, clients. Tears at the painfulness of death and all the goodbyes it necessitates.

Kisses, childbirth and tears. Love, life and death. It all came to me in those few minutes of prayer. Thought images so real they will stay with me, always. And then the prayer, and with it the Yahrzeit, was over.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Yahrzeit day

Perhaps it was because I had been thinking so much about it? Or because I believed that the day of the first anniversary of my mother's death would be so significant? Or that I would be davening (praying) from the Amud for the first time since I stopped saying kaddish? Or that my status as an avel (mourner) would end and I had mixed feeling about letting go? Or some combination of all of these? For whatever reason, the Yahrzeit, which began Thursday evening and ended as Shabbat came in, was very stressful, more than I thought it would be.

I made sure I got to shul on time for Mincha on Thursday, which began at 4:30 p.m., so I could remind the Gabbai about the Yahrtzeit. Before the clocks had been moved back for daylight savings, I had plenty of time to get to shul from work; now there wasn't much time to spare, so I felt stressed about getting there on time.

Before the Mincha service began, I approached the Rabbi and spoke to him briefly. He spoke to me about the importance of continuing to go to shul. I told him I was doing the best I could and that I was trying to be kind to myself. He said sometimes being kind can mean pushing oneself and that if I were willing to come to to shul for my mother, how much more so to worship the living God. I wasn't prepared for this "guilt trip." Maybe he felt it was his job as a Rabbi.

After Mincha, the Rabbi spoke as usual and the mourners said their Kaddish D'rabbanan. I then assumed the position of prayer leader for the evening Ma'ariv service. Nobody announced I had Yahrzeit. I began the prayers. My Yahrzeit had officially begun.

As is the particular custom at this shul, the Gabbai banged the Bimah (stand where the Torah is read) and announced publicly "Yahrzeit!" halfway through the Aleinu prayer. The custom at the shul is that only a person who has Yahrzeit as well as anyone else in the first 30 days of mourning (Shloshim) recite the kaddish after Aleinu. I said my kaddish along with one other man. Feeling acutely self-conscious, I was actually happy to have someone saying kaddish along with me.

I then recited Psalm 23, one of the most powerful of all the psalms. It speaks about a living person coming as close to death as is humanly possible but living to tell the tale: ("though I walk in the valley  of the shadow of death, I do not fear for you are with me"). I then recited another Mourner's Kaddish along with the other mourners. Afterwards, a few people approached me with the traditional words: "may your mother's neshema (soul) have an aliyah (elevation)."

Right after prayers, I ate something quickly and then went shopping to get food for the planned kiddush at our home on Shabbat as well as some pizza for my son's dinner. (I did not feel like doing any cooking.) The line at the kosher food store was very long and it felt as if the wait took forever. Even on normal days, I do not do well on lines, feeling anxious and antsy. When I finally got everything I needed, I walked to my car, loaded the bags and pizza into the trunk, and closed it. Then I couldn't find my keys. I had no idea what had happened to them but there was only one plausible explanation for their disappearance: I'd locked them in the trunk. So I left the car and food in the parking lot and took the bus home. I had dinner, tried to relax, waited for my wife to come home from work, got her keys, called a cab, got back to the car, found the keys buried underneath all the food, and drove back home.

I didn't sleep well that night. I was anxious about getting to shul on time the next morning. I knew I needed to give myself extra time to get to shul because, with a Yahrzeit, it would be embarrassing to come late. I got to shul on time the next morning and led the prayers as best I could, being conscious of my tendency to go too fast when I get anxious. It's difficult to describe my feelings as I prayed. Mostly I felt some kind of weight that pressed down on me. I felt both emotional and numb. When I had finished, the Rabbi gave his short d'var halacha. The mourners began to recite the Kaddish D'rabbanan. Momentarily, I forgot that I was one of them. I said the words hurriedly and caught up with the other mourners. I put away my tallis and tephilin, got to my car and went to work.

I left work early to make sure I'd get to shul in time for the afternoon Mincha prayers. My brother, who was staying with me for Shabbat, led the prayers. I was happy to sit in the back and let him fulfill our duty. I recited the Mourner's Kaddish after Mincha, conscious that it would be my last for an entire year. I sat down and tried to let myself become carried away by the joyful tune of Yedid Nefesh, which begins the Friday evening Shabbat service. My Yahrzeit had officially ended.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

The day after Yahrzeit

This is my first post since I completed my year of mourning. And I am so relieved. I will recount the events and feelings of the Yahrzeit in later posts. But right now I feel so unburdened! Liberated. Freed of a weight that I've carried, because I wanted to and had to. The burden that I placed on myself willingly and that was thrust upon me against my will. Free to live my life again. Ready to embrace the so-called "new normal," life without my mother, but my life, with her, in some other, indefinable, way.

I do, of course, feel a sense of completion. I did it. I made it. I did my duty. I mourned, struggled, spent countless hours in shul, dreamed, reflected, even cried a bit. Could I have done more? I could have, maybe should have, learned more Torah in memory of her. I could have tried to concentrate more when I said kaddish. I could have cried more. I always felt I should be crying more, but the tears seldom came. Feelings, yes, tears, usually not. But how much more could I really have done?  I don't know.

Right now, I just want, and I truly believe I have my mother's unqualified permission, to relax, listen to some music, and sleep. And I want to say to my mother, Hilda Yael Kessler, how much I appreciated her and loved her. And still do.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Preparing for the Yahrzeit

All this week I've been thinking about Friday, the anniversary (on the Hebrew calendar) of my mother's death. I can't believe it's been a year. I've been through so much in my life since that time. I can't say it seems like just yesterday nor I can say it seems so long ago. But it doesn't feel like regular time either.

I've thought a lot about how to commemorate the date. The date is important. It's a way of marking time, like a birthday. Perhaps on that day I will feel closer than usual to my mother's soul. I really can't say how I'll feel. I know only that the day will be significant and that I need to commemorate it in a meaningful way.

I began thinking about the Yahrzeit months ago, and them more intensely after the last kaddish. The commemoration began last Shabbat when I had the Gabbai recite an "El Maleh Rachamim" (God who is Full of Mercy) which is a memorial prayer for the dead. It is traditional to recite this prayer on the Sabbath afternoon after the Torah reading for all those observing a Yahrzeit during the coming week. This is one of those moments that is very meaningful for the person on whose behalf the prayer is recited and not too meaningful to everyone else. A lot of congregants don't even know what is going on during this prayer and often people talk or are inattentive.

Following Mincha, I gave a talk at the synagogue in which I shared some of the ideas I've developed while writing this blog. The talk was entitled: "Kaddish and its Many Functions". I dedicated the talk to my mother and her memory.

This week I am trying to get to shul on a regular basis. I've told the Gabbai at the morning minyan about the Yahrzeit, since I will be leading the prayers that day. I will be davening the evening prayer on Thursday, the morning and afternoon prayers on Friday. I need to take off work early on Friday to allow myself to get to shul in time to daven Mincha now that the clocks have changed.

On Shabbat, I will be sponsoring the kiddush in memory of my mother at the early morning minyan where I've mostly davened this year. I plan to say a few words about my mother before kiddush. I haven't figured out exactly what I want to say, but it will be something about her life and the lessons I learned from her. Later that morning, I will be having friends over at my home for a kiddush where I will plan to give a d'var torah in her memory.

My subconscious must also be preparing for the Yahrzeit because of a dream I had a few nights ago. I kept hearing my mother's voice. (My mother's voice was very distinctive; when I think about her, I often hear her words. She also talked a lot.) I couldn't see her, I just heard her. Then I was in a room like a basement. It was dark. The ceiling was low. My mother was in a more recessed area. She was dead. There were two men who'd come to take her body out. I was crying. When I awoke, I thought about those dream tears. They were tears I haven't yet shed. Perhaps I'm still not ready to shed them in real life. I still need to do my crying in dreams.

Monday, November 5, 2012

The pressure is off

Now that I no longer a "chiuv," that is, a person (a man) with an obligation to say kaddish and daven from the Amud (lead prayers), I feel more relaxed. I don't have to go to shul if I don't want to, and when I do, I don't have to get there on time.

Since kaddish requires a minyan (quorum of 10), I had to be in shul every day twice a day when I was saying kaddish. And I was regularly asked to lead prayers. No matter how many times I led the prayers, there was a certain pressure associated with this obligation. Others were watching me. My mistakes were public. I couldn't sit down and relax when the Amidah prayer was being repeated since I was responsible for repeating it. Also, as a potential prayer leader, I felt I should be in shul on time, at least a minute or so before Mincha (the afternoon prayer) and at least four or five minutes before Shacharit (the morning prayer) to give me time to put on my tallis and tephilin.

I am still trying to get to shul on a regular basis. There have only been a few days since the end of my "chiuv" status that I haven't davened in shul at all. But I feel much more relaxed about it. This morning I set my alarm clock for 5:45 to get to the 6:45 minyan. But when I woke up, I felt really tired. I thought about it for a couple of minutes and then decided to reset it for a half hour later and daven at home. As I write this, I feel rested. The hold that kaddish had over my life has lifted. 

Friday, November 2, 2012

Missing phone call

Thank goodness I did not lose power or suffer any damage from Hurricane Sandy. But the event was traumatic to the region and extended family. My brother in New Jersey and in-laws in Rockland County are both without power. Schools in New York have been closed the entire week. My wife's workplace is without power and, in any event, getting there, given the public transportation situation, would be difficult.

I've lived through a number of natural and human disasters. The Loma Prieta Earthquake in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1989. The occasional New York blizzard. The September 11 attacks. Last year's hurricane, Irene. All these events had one constant: communication between myself and family, particularly my mother, to let them know I was okay. There was always the added emotional greeting when we first were able to reach each other and the sense of relief ("Thank God") that my family and I were fine.

What was missing this time was that phone call. The one of mutual reassurance. The one that cemented and renewed the family bonds. The one that ended with a smile of knowing that she was there for me and I for her. That's a lot to miss.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Kaddish defeats Hurricane Sandy

Last night I went to a Shiva home to daven Mincha and Ma'ariv. His mother died last week. The Shiva began last Wednesday and ended this morning. In between a major storm hit New York, Hurricane Sandy. By Sunday evening the weather was getting quite iffy. The winds were gusting at over 40 miles per hour. Trees were swaying. Branches were crashing down. I'd thought about going over to the Shiva home, which was only two blocks from my home, but when I looked outside, I decided to say my prayers at home. Had I still been saying kaddish I would have had a more difficult decision: whether to make sure I fulfilled my kaddish obligation or err on the side of my own personal safety. I probably would have decided (and my wife would have urged me) that my life was more important than my mother's soul.

After the service yesterday evening at the mourner's home, I asked him whether he had gotten a minyan (quorum of ten) for each prayer service. I was expecting a negative answer given the extraordinary weather. But he told me there was a minyan for every service. Such is the power of kaddish. Not even Hurricane Sandy dissuaded the faithful from making sure this man had a minyan to say kaddish during his Shiva.

Another Giants championship!

Two nights ago I had the thrill of watching my favorite baseball team, the San Francisco Giants, win the World Series. It was their second triumph in the last three years. Before their last Series victory in 2010, I never thought I'd live to see a Giants' World Series triumph. Their previous championship season was 1954, the year before I was born. They'd come close several times, most notably in the heartbreaking World Series debacle of 2002. I figured that my life and the Giants coming out on top would not overlap.

But in 2010, they defied the odds and won the World Series. What a thrill. After Brian Wilson struck out the last Texas Ranger, I celebrated with my son in our New York home as if we were part of the crowd back in San Francisco.  The entire Bay Area was swept up in Giants Fever. Even my mother, never a sports fan, couldn't resist getting caught up in the excitement. And this was in October, seven months after she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She wasn't even expected to be alive by the time October rolled around.

My mother saved for me the San Francisco Chronicle reports on the World Series. Ever thoughtful of others, she purchased gear for me, my brother and my son commemorating the victory. For me she bought a cap that reads "2010 Giants World Series Champions." Thinking about this now, it's amazing that while she was getting chemotherapy and not sure how much time she had left, she was able to think about small things that her loved ones would like.

For the last two days, I've been wearing the cap to celebrate the Giant's 2012 championship. But this cap isn't just any cat. It's like so many things I have that I owe to her thoughtfulness: the seat covers she sewed for me, the candlesticks she gave us, the dishes she helped me select, the bookshelves she helped pay for, the jewelry she gave my wife as birthday presents and, finally, the clothing she gave my wife in her last year of life because she knew she wouldn't wear them again.

The cap is one of many objects around my home that I wouldn't have but for my mother. Now that she is no longer alive, these objects take on a new meaning. A sanctification of sorts. A reminder of all she gave me, the tangible and the emotional, of the myriad small and profound connections that characterized our relationship.

Had she lived, she surely would have bought me a 2012 Giants victory cap. I'm wearing the 2010 championship cap this week to celebrate their victory and in her honor. As for purchasing this year's championship gear, I'm on my own.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Mourning without kaddish

I've completed the 11 months of reciting kaddish. I am no longer a "chiuv," that is, I no longer have an obligation to say kaddish and am not chosen to lead prayers. When the Gabbai announces before services, "is there anyone observing a Yahrzeit? . . . Shloshim? . . . A chiuv?", he no longer looks at me and I don't make eye contact with him.

On the other hand, I am still an "avel," that is, a person in the first year of mourning. I'm still obligated in the all laws of mourning: I'm not supposed to hear live music, attend joyful events, or wear new clothing. Thus, until the Yahrzeit, I live in an ambiguous state: mourning without kaddish.

There is more to mourning than saying kaddish, but because mourning is so identified with kaddish, it's easy to feel as if my year of mourning is already over. Kaddish is what reminds you of your parent's death. Kaddish is what announces to others that your parent died recently. Without kaddish, the sense of loss is not as intense.

The ostensible reason that kaddish ends before the year of mourning relates to the supposed effect of kaddish on the deceased's soul. (see You stop saying kaddish before the full 12 months because the soul is sufficiently elevated by 11 months. To continue would imply that your parent was not worthy to be elevated within 11 months. (see

Perhaps there is another less profound way of looking at the early end to kaddish. It's a way of easing you out of the state of mourning. Maybe it would be too abrupt to stop saying kaddish and stop being a mourner simultaneously. And so there is a month between the end of kaddish and the Yahrzeit to think about what mourning means without the benefit of kaddish.

I am using this time to plan how I will commemorate the Yahrzeit. I am thinking about how I will incorporate my mother's life into my life. I am thinking about how I will live out the rest of my life without her earthly presence. Her absence still astonishes me. It's easier to accept now than in the days and months just after she died. But it's still difficult. I'm sure it always will be.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Birth and kaddish: a woman's story

One of the "benefits" of saying kaddish is getting to know people you wouldn't have otherwise met. There's a bond that exists among kaddish sayers. You might not have much in common with them, but there is one thing you do have in common, and that one thing is what defines your life at present. When you say kaddish, you notice who else around the room is saying it. When you look at or speak to that person, there is an unspoken understanding of shared pain and sorrow.

When you are a man and there are women saying kaddish, the connection is not quite so automatic. First of all, in an Orthodox shul such as where I pray, the women are on the other side of the Mechitza (divider between the men's and women's section), so you are not sharing the same physical space. Depending on the layout of the shul, unless you are standing near the women's section, you may not even be aware of the presence of female mourners. In addition, only the men are being called up to lead prayers and part of the connection between (male) mourners is being in the rotation for leading prayers.

I have gotten to know some of the women saying kaddish, and I am moved to write about one in particular. She stood out because she was obviously pregnant. I thought to myself: how strange to be both a mourner and an expectant mother. How strange to be simultaneously inhabiting the worlds of death and life. To be pulled between the lost connection to your parent and toward the creation of a child. I suppose that if my wife had given birth to a child during my year of mourning, I may have experienced similar emotions. But there is something qualitatively different about having one's body literally fill up with life and feeling the emptiness of loss that a man could never experience in the same way.

A few months ago she gave birth to a boy. She named him Binyamin after her father for whom she was saying kaddish. In her D'var Torah (which she was kind enough to share with me) delivered at her son's Brit Milah (circumcision), she spoke about her newborn's name. Binyamin was also the name of the child born to the biblical Rachel who died in childbirth. Rachel named him "Ben Oni", usually translated as "son of my pain" or "son of my affliction." Her husband Jacob then changed the boy's name to Benyamin, which literally means "son of my right," the word "right" connoting strength. However, the word "oni" can also mean strength. Rachel calls him the "Son of my Strength" and Jacob affirms the name, removing the latent ambiguity of "oni" by calling him Binyamin.

These words affirmed both the sorrow of mourning her father and the hope represented by her newborn as well as the real yet never to be actualized connection between grandfather and child.

The recitation of kaddish itself, with its message of the future sanctification of God's name and realization of peace, presents a similar ambiguity between pain and hope. As I move toward the first Yahrzeit of my mother and beyond, I pray that her legacy will continue to live on in her children, grandchildren and beyond.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Cleaning the covers

In the shul where I usually daven on weekdays, there are covers. One covers the Bimah, which is where the Torah is placed when read on Monday and Thursday mornings. The other covers the Amud, or prayer stand. On this stand is placed the prayer book the prayer leader uses while leading prayers. It is in front of this stand where I've spent hours and hours leading prayers. It's become a spot I was quite familiar with, that place from which I said the prayers, both silently and out loud for the community. Often I held on to the stand, at times feeling so overwhelmed that I felt I was holding on to it for dear life.

The covers, which match, are beautiful. They are a reddish purple shade with flower-like designs on them. But they were filthy. So many hands had been on them. I could tell they hadn't been cleaned in a while.

In the beginning of his book Kaddish, Leon Wieseltier comments on covers:
"A red velvet cloth is thrown over the rostrum at the front of the shul, directly before the ark in which the Torah scrolls are placed. Here stands the presenter, that is, the leader of the service, that is, the mourner; and as I place my hands on this cloth, which is the color of wine, I see the traces of the hands that preceded mine. There are stains in the velvet. In places it is threadbare. This is an exquisite erosion. It is not neglect that thins these instruments. Quite the contrary. The more threadbare, the better. The thinner, the thicker" (Kaddish, p. 5).
Wieseltier may have been moved by stains, but for months I have been hoping to get the covers cleaned. In a previous post, I complained about the condition of the shul. (see My mother believed in noticing everything, in paying attention to the details of our inner and outer lives. I never heard her say this, but her actions demonstrated that we are responsible for creating the physical spaces we inhabit. We are called upon to create beauty and order in this world. This was not just an obsession with cleanliness, but a philosophy that our outer world, whether they be our clothes, homes, possessions, or the way we carry ourselves, reflect our humanity.

For my own sensibility (I guess she taught me well) and to honor her, I have tried in small ways to make certain aesthetic improvements to the shul. I moved the ark slightly so that it was more centered and gave space between the Ark and the Amud (prayer stand). I purchased bookends for books the rabbis use so they wouldn't pile up.

During the high holidays, the covers on the Amud and the Bimah were replaced with white covers. The replacement during this period of the regular covers with white ones is traditional and reflects our yearning to be spiritually pure, cleansed of our sins, and to begin the new year with a fresh start. I suggested to the Rabbi and shul's Executive Director that this time be used to have the covers brought in to the dry cleaners.

Two days ago I entered the shul to find the white covers gone and the regular ones there, sparkling clean. Their presence radiated, standing out among the books and white walls. I gasped and said to myself, "Ma, look how much nicer this place is" and I felt her smile, "yes." It made my day. I was saying my prayers in a place she would have felt comfortable.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Slacking off, slightly

One of the first questions some people asked me after my last kaddish, even before I was out the door of the synagogue, was whether I intended to continue attending services. I don't "have" to anymore. The obligation to pray daily can be fulfilled by davening at home. It doesn't have to be done in a minyan (quorum of 10). Only saying kaddish does. So technically I don't need to show up to synagogue again until the day of my mother's Yahrzeit, the 24th of Cheshvan, November 9.

I wasn't sure how going to shul every day for nearly a year would effect my religious behavior in the long term. Right now I'm in the habit of attending shul regularly. I've developed bonds with some of the people with whom I pray and a level of familiarity in the shul setting as never before. So, for the most part, I've continued to go to shul to pray.

However, my priorities have changed. When I was saying kaddish, everything had to revolve around the schedule of services. Now I'm balancing shul with family and personal needs. For example, my son has music lessons in the evening that conflict with Mincha right now. When I was saying kaddish, he took the bus or I gave him car fare. Yesterday I davened at home and drove him to his lesson. A few days ago, I felt so tired that I planned on praying at home the next morning and set my alarm clock for a half hour later than I would have had I attended morning services. With the extra sleep, I felt much more rested that day. And while I still go to shul most mornings, I'm no longer nervous (even slightly frantic) about getting there on time. I'm not leading services anymore so I don't need to be there exactly when services begin.

I guess I'm returning to my old semi-lazy, late arriving, self.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Last kaddish

I felt an acute sense of self-consciousness as I entered shul for the combined afternoon and evening services on the last day of saying kaddish. I'd already davened all of Shacharit (see previous post) and now I would be leading the Mincha (afternoon) service. As I davened, everything that I'd felt the previous 11 months seemed to bubble up to the surface: my mother's presence, the discomforts, disorientation, pride, questions, tears, absurdities. I was reluctant to take leave of these feelings but also felt relief at having reached an end point. I sensed the pride my mother would have felt in my accomplishment along with profound sadness over the reason behind my accomplishment.

After the end of the evening Ma'ariv service came the first kaddish in which I wasn't obligated to participate since November 25 of last year. It was so strange. People who I'd been saying kaddish with for months began to say kaddish. I wasn't supposed to join in. But I couldn't help it. I don't know if was just habit or an emotional need, but I couldn't restrain myself. The words and the thoughts behind them wanted to emerge. So I mouthed them quietly and put my hand over my mouth. That was my personal "half" kaddish.

By the next morning, that feeling had already faded. I was ready to be a responder to kaddish rather than a participant. As I write these words, a few days later, I'm growing ever more comfortable with my new role in shul. I'm no longer a member of the "club" of mourners. (see I'm just a regular congregant again.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Protocal of the last day of kaddish

My last kaddish was two days ago.  I'd informed the Gabbai who announced to the congregation that it was my last day of saying kaddish. The Gabbai choose me to daven Ma'ariv, the evening prayer. The next morning the Gabbai instructed me to daven all of Shacharit (the morning service). That was unusual as in the past month there have been three mourners davening different parts of the service. As I began the service, I felt a nervousness I haven't felt since the days I first acted as prayer leader. Then I felt a hand on my back (I think it was the Rabbi's but I'm not sure) and a hand motion to slow down. I took a deep breath and tried to relax. I was as focused as I've ever been leading prayers, as much to appreciate the sentiments behind them as to anchor my feelings in something concrete. I was then called up for an Aliyah to the Torah, the first time that's happened on a weekday since I've been saying kaddish.

In the afternoon, I led the prayers for Mincha. I stood at the Amud (prayer stand), the place that I'd stood as prayer leader so many times during this last year. Nobody could see me as the Amud is in the front of the shul, but they heard me and I'm pretty sure the tone of my words conveyed the heaviness of my heart. Afterwards I shook the Rabbi and the Gabbai's hands to express my appreciation for their support. I don't think they were overly moved--I wasn't the first mourner they've seen go through this process and I won't be the last.

After Mincha I returned to my seat thinking I'd recited my last kaddish. But as the Rabbi began talking, I remembered there was also a Kaddish D'rabbanan (Rabbi's Kaddish). I couldn't pay attention to the Rabbi's words at all. I have no idea what he said (it was something about a mishna in the tractate of Rosh Hashana).

And so I learned the protocol of the last day. You lead all the prayers for one last time (until the Yahrzeit). You are honored by being called to the Torah. In an unspoken way, the protocol was a way of acknowledging my effort in attending shul every day to pray and say kaddish. I am grateful for the the rules and the structure of Jewish public mourning. And I was grateful to have been supported in my mourning by a community of shul goers. I take pride in my accomplishment. It's nice when one's efforts are recognized. I was honored, and through that recognition, so was my mother. And if anyone deserves to be honored, it was her.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Kaddish exhaustion

I'm exhausted, physically and emotionally. For 11 months, I've been getting up early each morning to go to shul. I've attended an 8:30 a.m. minyan on Sundays so at least on Saturday night I got to sleep till 7:30. But for 11 months I've been getting up on a consistent basis earlier than I ever have in my life. To get to shul and then to work on time, I've attended the 6:45 (Monday and Thursday)/6:55 minyan (Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday), which meant I had to get up by 6:00 a.m. at the latest. Sometimes, if I had to be at work earlier, I was up at 5:15 to attend the 6:00 service. On Saturdays I've been getting up at 6:15 a.m. to attend the early 7:00 minyan. (I come home, take a snack and go back to sleep for an hour.)

For the last month, shul began even earlier than usual, first because of Slichot services which began a week before Rosh Hashana and lasted through Yom Kippur and then for the Sukkot holiday, when, due to the additional prayers, services began at 6:20 a.m., and therefore I had to be up by 5:30. Since I was committed to saying kaddish, I've had to make sure I got to shul in time as the first kaddish is recited a couple minutes after the prayer service begins.

And so there is a sleep deficit due to not enough sleep plus not sleeping that well at night. (I know depression negatively affects sleep and I wouldn't be surprised to learn that mourning for a parent also does.) In addition to the sleep deficit, there is an emotional toll to saying kaddish and dealing daily with the death of a loved one. It's like some kind of weight, a heaviness, that is wearing. Mourning demands energy. That's one of the reasons I have been taking mood regulating medication. (See and How much energy it's taken out of me I hope to find out when, after today, I stop saying kaddish. A good night's sleep would also help.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Getting ready to say goodbye to kaddish

I am getting ready to say goodbye to kaddish. I've said over 2500 kaddishes (average of 8 per day, so about 240 per month times 11 months). (See When I look at that number, it's difficult to believe how often I've recited it.

Now I have only 16 kaddishes left (not counting those I will recite annually on my mother's Yahrzeit). Actually, I wasn't sure when exactly my kaddishes ended. One rabbi told me that you say kaddish for 11 full months after burial, which would make tomorrow, the 25th of Tishrei, the last day. Another rabbi told me I should say kaddish for 11 months plus a day. I was happy about that because in a strange way, I don't want it to end, so I'll follow the latter's decision.

I mean I do want it to end, but I don't. It's both. It's both because kaddish has been like a friend to me. It's not only a prayer I say. I've internalized it. It's become part of me. Sometimes it's meant a lot to me and helped me mourn, other times it was just words. At times I felt the words were emanating from my mouth involuntarily, as if I they were disassociated from my being. My lips were moving and making the sounds of the words. But were the words mine? Or coming from somewhere else? From some place inside of me that I do not know exists?

But at the end of every prayer service, the kaddish was there for me. Now I feel I'm getting ready to say goodbye to a dear friend. (Am I leaving my friend or is my friend leaving me?) Like friends, we were closer at some times than others. The approach of the date of parting means I'm reaching another milestone in the process of mourning. I'm forced to confront in a more vivid way the reason I've been saying kaddish these months: my mother died. Yes she did. The sadness and tears move again to the surface. And as I prepare to say goodbye to kaddish, I am also saying another painful goodbye to her.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Yizkor thoughts: the war against forgetting

Tomorrow is the holiday of Shmini Atzeret and with it another Yizkor, the fourth and final of this year of saying kaddish. Here are some thoughts as I enter into this day.

Yizkor means remember. It's message is more than that, however. It means "remember!!!" You must. You have no choice. It's your duty. Either because you want to. Or because guilt is making you feel you have to. It doesn't matter. Just remember.

Why do we need to be ordered to remember? Because it's so easy to forget. So so easy. Really, forgetting is easier than remembering. I truly believe that forgetting is built into our true nature as a human being. If we remembered everything, we couldn't function. If we remembered every trauma we endured growing up, every slight, every injury, physical and emotional, we'd all be damaged goods.

What happens when we cut ourselves. We heal. A scar is left. You can't really see the scar unless you look close. Only a remnant of the cut is left. We are back to "normal." What happens if you break a bone. Slowly the bones heal, usually with no long term negative effect. Perhaps they are even stronger than they were before the break.

How do people who lived through traumatic events rebuild their lives? To ponder of the amazing stories of Holocaust survivors and what they endured and then what they were able to accomplish afterwards. They couldn't have succeeded without forgetting or repressing or somehow shoving aside the horrible memories.

Maybe this is what Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) is talking about. In Chapter 2, verse 16, he writes (using Robert Alter's excellent translation): "For there is no remembrance of the wise, as with the fool, forever. Since in the days to come, all will be forgotten." And again in Chapter 9, verse 5: "For the living know that they will die, and the dead know nothing, for they no longer have any reward, for their memory is forgotten."

But we Jews are commanded to remember, to fight against Kohelet's fatalism. We are called upon to remember national events such as the Exodus from Egypt and what Amalek did to us along the way from Egypt. As we begin the new year on Rosh Hashana, on the day we call Yom HaZikaron, the day of Remembrance, we pray that we remember our covenant with God and that God remembers us for good. And, through kaddish and Yizkor, we are called upon to remember where we came from, those who brought us into this world, and to whom we are spiritually eternally attached.

When your parent dies, you say kaddish for nearly a year. The kaddish has many functions, but the main one is to keep the memory of your parent close to your heart, to fight the battle against denial and forgetting. And after the kaddish year is over, there is Yizkor four times every year to aid you in your battle against denial and forgetting. Originally, Yizkor was recited only once a year, on Yom Kippur. At some point the Rabbis instituted it for each of the Three Festival holidays, Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot. Maybe they felt that once a year was not enough.

Every time we pray, we begin with the words "Zocher Chasdai Avot" (the one who remembers the kindnesses of the forefathers). God, we pray, will remember our ancestors, for their lives are worth remembering. Through Yizkor, our job is to join God in the war against denial and forgetting and to remember the goodnesses of our own parents, how much they meant to us and how deeply they will always be with us.

Silencing the talkers

I've written before about trying to say kaddish when other people are talking or walking around getting ready to leave shul or, during Sukkot time, putting away their Lulov (palm branch) and Etrog (citron). It's just annoying and disrespectful and rude.

Still, I understand it. To most people, kaddish doesn't mean that much. It didn't mean much to me before I began saying it. I'd like to quote Leon Wieseltier again from his book Kaddish: "Until now, the mourner's kaddish used to be the least important part of the prayer service. I mean, for me. It was the small print in the liturgy, a morbid recitation in the interstices of worship. But no more. Now I inhabit the interstices" (Kaddish, at p. 28).

Today being Hoshana Rabba, there was a lot of activity in shul, so I was already expecting noise during kaddish. Last week someone was putting away their Aravot (willow branches) in aluminum foil during kaddish and it drove me crazy. I didn't say anything to him because I didn't want to embarrass anyone in particular.

On numerous occasions during this kaddish year, I've said in my mind to others as I was saying kaddish: "shut the fuck up!" Today, I didn't use these words, but, before beginning the Mourner's Kaddish after the Hoshanas, I said to the congregation, "please be quiet for the kaddish." That worked.

As my mother often told me as well as her clients, people often don't know what they are supposed to do. They need to be told, nicely, politely and clearly. Today I finally heeded her advice. I wish I would have done so earlier.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

End of kaddish anxiety dream

Less than two months into my year of saying kaddish, I had an anxiety dream about saying--actually about missing--kaddish. The dream reflected the stress I felt about getting to shul to say kaddish and how much it meant to me to do so. (See

This Shabbat afternoon, almost ten months after my anxiety dream, and the last Shabbat on which I will be saying kaddish, I had another dream about kaddish, so different than the earlier one. In my dream it was Shabbat afternoon. I was in an auditorium. Children were there presenting a play, and I was in the audience. The children were having trouble; the director explained to the audience that some of the child actors were missing or unable to perform. Some time later I was sitting on a bench when one of the actors, a young girl of about eight years old, sat down next to me. She told me she wasn't feeling well. She asked me to feel her head. It was warm. She laid her head down on my lap. Just then I heard people starting to say kaddish. It was the end of the Shabbat mincha (afternoon) service. I was conflicted: should I stand up and say kaddish per my obligation or continue to sit and comfort the girl. I decided the girl needed me more than I needed to say kaddish. I didn't feel a compelling need to say kaddish any more. After the kaddish was over, I took the girl to the director; she ran toward him and he hugged her.

After the dream, I awoke and looked at the clock. It was 5:40. Mincha had already begun. I dressed hurriedly and got to shul in time to say kaddish.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The "honor" of holding the Torah

The holiday of Sukkot (Sukkos) began Sunday evening and lasts through next Sunday. It's definitely the most unusual holiday of the year. In shul, you take four plants, a Luluv (palm branch), an Etrog (citron), Hadas (mertle) and Aravot (willow branches), put them together and shake them. Then you take a Torah scroll out of the ark and march around it with your plants in a procession calling out "Hoshana" (save us). This Hoshana ceremony is as powerful as it is mysterious.

Just when I thought I knew everything about the obligations of being an avel (mourner), I learned that as a mourner, I don't get to participate in this procession. Instead, I get to hold the Torah. Or, if another mourner holds the Torah, I just stand there chanting along. Everyone else marches around. I didn't ask why I'm excluded but it's not too difficult to figure out: the procession is an expression of joy from which I, as a mourner, am excluded.

Holding the Torah while everyone else parades around is a perfect metaphor for the status of an avel in shul. You are singled out and made the focus of attention. You are called upon to lead prayers and say kaddish. Everyone is aware of your status as a mourner. There's no hiding it. The congregation responds to your words, whether you're davening or saying kaddish.

But while you're made a focal point, you are not fully part of the community. You don't participate in joyful activities. You don't lead prayers on the Sabbath or holidays. The mourner is at once honored and dishonored.

And so I was "honored" to hold the Torah. It's not a dubious honor. It's a real honor, but an honor whose origins lay in my very exclusion from the community of celebrators.

But it all makes sense in some way. The death of a parent may cause a rupture in your relationship with God. And so you are forced to get closer to God's revelation, the Torah. You hold the Torah either because, as a mourner, your pain somehow makes you closer to it or because your are forced to confront your distance from it. The possibility of escaping your sorrow into a experience of elation is denied. No dancing to the music or marching to shouts of salvation.

But, oh Lord, I want to be in that number . . .

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The end of kaddish is near

One more week of kaddish to go. I've got mixed feelings. True, saying kaddish these days hasn't the same emotional power it had in the first few months after my mother died. I can't remember the last time my eyes teared saying kaddish. Now, to the extent any feelings arise when I say kaddish, I feel a general sense of loss and sadness. Still, I'm attached to my kaddishes. They're so much part of my daily routine. It's difficult to contemplate a life without them.

But, on the other hand, I can't wait to be done with the whole business! To be able to go to concerts, wear new clothing, go out whenever I want and not have to worry about minyan, wake up late on a Sunday, not have to rush to shul in time for kaddish.

I think that's one of the ideas of saying kaddish. Your parent's death is emotionally devastating. You need to create a routine that draws you out of your private grief into the broader community. You need the structure and time to feel and experience the pain. But eventually you begin to chafe at the restrictions. You're ready to have your life back.

It's like the story of the shtetl peasant who complained to the rabbi his house was too small. The rabbi told him to bring all his farm animals into his home. He could barely move. Then the rabbi told him to remove them. He had so much more room he stopped complaining about space. I'm ready to remove the animals and see what it feels like to resume what will pass for a normal life without my mother.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Aleinu in 30 seconds or bust

How long does it take to say the Aleinu prayer that precedes the Mourner's Kaddish? (An informative article about Aleinu appears at Well, I've happened to time myself (again my iPhone came in handy here). Proceeding at a normal reading pace, neither rushing nor reading slowly, I can say the two paragraphs, which I estimate at about 180 words, in about 30-32 seconds. If I really rush through it, I can get the time down to about 25 seconds. That's because I've said this prayer thousands of times, as Aleinu concludes every prayer service (except, as I noted, the Yom Kippur services). I've said it so many times that the words are practically imprinted on my brain.

That's good, because you have to be ready to recite the Mourner's Kaddish right after the prayer leader completes it. And sometimes he goes fast. I've begun timing how long the prayer leader takes to recite Aleinu, and it's ranged anywhere from 22 to 36 seconds. Sometimes he goes so fast that I'm forced to recite the end of Aleinu at breakneck speed.

I owe my ability to race through Aleinu to my reasonable Hebrew literacy skills. But for those who are not that fluent in Hebrew, reciting Aleinu in time to say the Mourner's Kaddish can be virtually impossible. I have a friend whose mother died a few months ago whose Hebrew skills are not that good. He told me that he is almost never able to get through Aleinu before the prayer leader finishes it and the mourners begin to say kaddish.

The problem with L'david, Psalm 27, is even more severe. This psalm is recited for about 45 days a year, between Rosh Hashana and the end of Sukkot. I haven't memorized it as I have Aleinu. The Hebrew of the Psalms is also more difficult than the Rabbinic Hebrew of the Prayer Book. Though it has less words than Aleinu, it takes me about as long, if not a few seconds more, to read that psalm. But invariably, the prayer leader finishes it well before I do. There are times I'm not even sure he's read the entire psalm. Again, those who struggle with Hebrew have little chance of saying the entire psalm before the kaddish begins.

Of course, if I'm leading prayers, I have control over the timing, and I try to make sure I don't rush through the prayers, though one's own perception of speed changes the more one leads prayers. I think I'm going slower than I actually am. Just last night before I began leading the evening Ma'ariv prayer after Shabbat, a gentleman requested that I go slower than I usually do.

Synagogue is made up of a diverse population. I've been told that I daven too fast and I've also been told that I daven too slow. I think others pray too fast. What can you do? Not much. The world is not perfect. If it were, I wouldn't be saying kaddish.

Yizkor and Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur was the third Yizkor I've recited for my mother. (For a broader view of Yizkor, I refer readers to the moving article in this week's Jewish Week by Jonathan Mark, which quotes from earlier posts from this blog as well as others. See

I've always thought that the Yom Kippur Yizkor was the true Yizkor. It's the holiday when you're already stripped away of your defenses by lack of food and the intensity of the prayer service. You're already in the mindset of "who shall live and who shall die". The prayers are full are references to the transience of life, from dust we come and to dust we return. We wear the white kittel which to me symbolizes both our striving to be angelic and free from physicality yet hints of the burial shroud in which we (hopefully later rather than sooner) will be buried.

Once again I was shocked at the service, so meaningful yet so brief. I thought of my mother and how she had accepted, perhaps even embraced, her life's end, the dignity in which she lived her last days and the fearlessness she displayed in the face of death. As I said at her funeral, she defied the odds of a woman of 78's life expectancy with pancreatic cancer because maybe the angel of death was afraid to confront her. These feelings came and went seemingly in the blink of an eye and I was again caught up in the drama that is the Yom Kippur prayer service.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Kaddish and Yom Kippur

From my experience, when you are saying kaddish, all your synagogue experiences revolve around that basic fact. But Yom Kippur was different. As usual, I made sure I got to shul when davening had just begun even though it meant I knew I was in for a long day in shul. I had to make sure I was there in time to say the kaddishes that appear at the beginning of the morning service. And before I knew it, the kaddishes came. And came. Kaddish after kaddish. A Mourner's Kaddish after the Psalm of the Day which normally is recited at the end rather than the beginning of the prayer service. Then another Mourner's Kaddish after L'david (Psalm 27), which is added between Rosh Hashana and the end of Sukkot. Then a Kaddish D'rabbanan after Rabbi Ishamel Omer. Then another Mourner's Kaddish after Psalm 30.

But then--not another kaddish for the rest of the day. I never knew before, or wasn't aware, that other than these kaddishes, the Yom Kippur service contains not a single Mourner's Kaddish. Musaf ends abruptly after the repetition of the Amidah. Mincha and Neilah, the additional service for Yom Kippur, end with Avinu Malkaynu.

So why the absence of kaddishes on Yom Kippur? The technical reason I supposed is that Aleinu is not recited at any service and kaddish always follows Aleinu. (But why isn't Aleinu recited?) Perhaps there is a deeper reason that relates to the spirit of the day. We don't want to publicly declare individual losses when the focus is on the community's confessions of guilt. Maybe kaddishes would interfere with the aim of purification from sin through which we hope to gain a fresh perspective on our lives. Maybe we need to set kaddish aside as we are trying to renew our relationship with God. Perhaps we are, through fasting, not washing, putting aside our physical urges and wearing white garments, already too close to confronting our own mortality.

I didn't miss not saying kaddish. I considered it a preview of the time, in less than two weeks, when my kaddish saying days for my mother will be over. I prayed for life and a good year for myself and my family. Yet I so much wish that these prayers could have included my mother.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Kaddish D'rabbanan

Today is Erev Yom Kippur, the eve of the Day of Atonement. The days leading up to this solemn holiday have been a time to take stock of our lives, to think about how we could live better lives and to ask for forgiveness of those we've wronged. It's also a time to think of how fortunate we are to have those people who love us and help give our life meaning.

I include in this list the various rabbis in my community who have supported me generally, and especially in times of need, and whose wisdom has helped enrich me intellectually and spiritually.

Last Shabbat, the Sabbath day immediately preceding Yom Kippur, was Shabbat Shuva, the Shabbat of Returning or of Repentance. It is one of the two times a year when rabbis traditionally give extended sermons, the other being Shabbat Ha'gadol, the sabbath before Pesach (Passover).

This year, the Rabbi spoke about how we educate our children, how we need to nurture yet firmly guide them toward Jewish adulthood. His words touched me deeply, and I felt my mother, whose idea of psychotherapy was also grounded in the firm guidance of adults in the practical steps toward achieving maturity and self-fulfillment, would have approved wholeheartedly of his message. I was grateful for his words.

As a mourner, I got to express my gratitude by reciting Kaddish D'rabannan immediately following his talk. Kaddish D'rabannan is recited after hearing words of Torah study. Generally I recite it three times daily, twice during the morning service and once between the afternoon and evening services after the rabbi engages in a short D'var Torah.

Kaddish D'rabannan is strange because it is only recited by mourners, yet it is not a mourner's kaddish. It is a prayer that expresses the hope that rabbis and their students and their students' students and all those who engage in Torah study wherever they are should know peace, prosperity and long life. Shouldn't we all? Why should only mourners say this?

The simple answer is that it is another kaddish and only mourners recite kaddishes (unless they are leading prayers). Perhaps another reason is that rabbis can fulfill an important role in helping those who grieve after a loss. I am grateful that the rabbis in my community have given me strength and support during this kaddish year. As the new year begins, I wish them peace, prosperity and good health so they can continue their important (dare I say holy) work.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

My chiuv (obligation): a love-hate relationship

I've had a love-hate relationship with this kaddish business. On the one hand, it's given meaning to and provided an anchor for the mourning process. On the other hand, it sometimes feels like a burden and I question the value of repeating this prayer over and over again day after day. There are times in shul when I feel completely disinterested in the proceedings and can't wait to get out.

Still, I've made a commitment to pray and say kaddish for my mother as often as I can, which means attending shul twice a day for the three prayer services. Now that my obligation to say kaddish is nearing its end (only two and half weeks remain), I have no regrets.

But leading the prayers is sometimes more than I can handle. As I've written, as a kaddish sayer, I have a chiuv (obligation)--even more, I myself am referred to, or have the status of, a "chiyuv." (see and This means I have priority to lead the prayers over all others except those who are commemorating the Yahrtzeit (anniversary of death) of their parent or are in the Shloshim period (first 30 days after parent's death). (In an early post, I wrote that a Yahrzeit for a spouse, sibling or child has precedence over a Shloshim or regular chiyuv; I believe this is incorrect.) The result has been that, during this year of saying kaddish, I have been repeatedly called upon to lead the prayer service.  This is truly an honor, but one for which I neither volunteered nor feel particularly qualified. True, my davening skills are reasonable and have improved over the year. If I were really unqualified to daven from the Amud (lead prayers), I wouldn't be chosen to do so. The community is not going to suffer on my account.

Some days I feel ready and even look forward to leading prayers. During this period between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, I get to lead the recital of Avinu Malkaynu ("Our Father, our King"), one of the most powerful prayers in the entire liturgy. I find this experience powerful and humbling.

There are days, though, that I just feel like sitting in the back and being one of the participants rather than being "it." There are different ways to accomplish this end. One way is to simply say "no"when the Gabbai asks. I almost never do this. My policy is to lead prayers when asked. I don't feel right letting down the Gabbai. Also, to be asked to lead prayers is an honor given to me, and through my person, to my mother, so how can I decline? Actually, I've only said no twice, once when I was feeling sick and the other time in Israel I didn't feel comfortable with the different nusach (version of the prayers) the community used.

Another way to get out of leading prayers is to hide or feign disinterest. You can sit behind a pillar and hope the Gabbai doesn't see you until after he's chosen someone else. I don't do this, but I've seen it done. What I have done is sit toward the back, look down, pretend to read something or play with my iPhone and then hope that, by the time I look up, someone else is at the Amud (prayer stand) getting ready to lead.

The last and best way to get out of leading davening is to come late. This method works perfectly. The shul where I usually daven prides itself on its punctuality, so is not going to wait around for someone with a chiyuv to walk through the door. When it's time to daven, they begin. So if I come a minute late, I'm pretty much assured of being off the hook. (Of course, this method won't work in a small community which has trouble getting a minyan.) One time I walked through the door into shul just as the services were about to begin. As soon as the Gabbai saw me, he said "don't sit down, you're up." And so it was.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Just when you think you know the prayers . . .

The ten days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are know in Hebrew as "Eseret Y'mai Teshuva," or the "Ten Days of Repentance." Actually this is somewhat of a misnomer as the ten days includes the holidays themselves, so in reality there are seven days between them.

In any event, during these days we are called upon to examine our behavior more closely than usual, to express regret for our failings, whether by commission or omission, and to seek forgiveness from God and, more importantly, those we've hurt. As if to heighten our awareness that this period is not to be treated as "normal" time, the Rabbis introduced a series of changes into the daily liturgy. These changes are kind of subtle, for if they were major, they'd be written in a different part of the Siddur (prayer book). But they're not. They're integrated into the regular prayers. This forces you to pay more attention to your prayers than you ordinarily do. You can't be on automatic pilot. That's my problem.

To be exact, there are four inserts to the Shemona Esrey prayer. Two of these come in the first two blessings and two in the last two blessings. Then there are two places words are substituted for the regular words, at the end of the third and eleventh blessings. The former is the most significant where "Hamelech Hakadosh" (the Holy King) is substituted for "Ha'el Hakadosh" (the Holy God). If you don't make this substitution, your prayer is considered invalid, you have not fulfilled your prayer obligation, and you must repeat it.

There is also a very slight change to the kaddish. One extra word is added. Instead of saying "l'elah min kal berchata . . ." (above all blessings) you say "l'elah u'lelah min kal berchata" (above and above all blessings), doubling up on the word "l'elah." (Some versions leave out the vov to read it as "l'elah l'elah".

Well, needless to say, after davening consistently three times a day for the past nearly 11 months, any change in my routine is tough to handle. In my first effort at leading prayers since Rosh Hashana, I forgot to add the extra "l'elah" and was promptly corrected by the congregation. Yesterday I made the same mistake again and was again promptly corrected. Today I hit them all.

Two days ago I closed my eyes and prayed the afternoon prayer. I was feeling kind of spiritual, shaking back and forth and thinking about how the blessings connected to my life. When I was done I realized I'd completely and utterly forgot every single addition and emendation made during these times. My prayer was invalid since I'd forgotten to say "hamelech hakadosh." I felt idiotic, but I repeated it nonetheless. Today the same thing happened but when I got up to "hamelech hakadosh" I realized my omission and made all the proper changes thereafter.

The idea of these liturgical changes is to heighten our sensitivity to what we are saying in our prayers. On a broader level, it's to throw a curve into our regular patterns of living, and through saying slightly different and additional words, move us toward greater awareness about how we live our lives. The message is: change always starts with small steps. But sometimes even those first steps are not easy to make.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Kaddish and Rosh Hashana

I gave a lot of thought as to where I wanted to daven for Rosh Hashana. As I've mentioned, I belong to two Orthodox synagogues. For many years I prayed at the one which I can fairly characterize as more spiritual, with much communal singing to the melodies by the renown composer, Shlomo Carlebach. The problem for me is the length of the services, which on Rosh Hashana can easily stretch to five and a half hours. Outside of Yom Kippur, the Rosh Hashana service, with Shofar blowing and and a lengthy Musaf service, is the longest davening of the year.

I decided that, for this year, I needed to make saying kaddish the central facet of my davening. The kaddishes come toward the beginning and at the end of the service. Most people on Rosh Hashana come late to shul and so are not there for the entire service. They come for the Shofar blowing, for the Rabbi's sermon, for the beautiful Unetana Tokef prayer during Musaf and the other moving piutim (poems) that make up the special Rosh Hashana liturgy. That's not an option for me as I am committed to saying all the kaddishes. I need to be in shul on time.

I was not prepared to be in shul from 7:15 in the morning until 1:45 in the afternoon. So I decided to daven at the other shul I belong to where the services are less spirited but quite nice and, most important for me this year, shorter. However, I could not convince my son and wife to join me there. They wanted to daven where they felt most comfortable. So we decided to split up, me at one shul and they at the other. We all had our spiritual and emotional needs, and one shul could not satisfy all of them.

And so I was in shul from 7:45 a.m. till 12:30 p.m., a relatively manageable period of time. I was not carried away by the prayers as I've been in the past, but I was sufficiently moved to make the experience meaningful. I said my kaddishes. I was the only person in shul at the beginning saying kaddish. These were tearful kaddishes. The new year was here. I prayed with everyone else that it be a good year, a year of life and blessing. A year of life for myself and my loved ones. But--the first year of my life that begins without my mother.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

שנה טובה תכתבו ותחתמו Happy New Year

May all my readers, the Jewish people and the nation of Israel have a happy, healthy and peaceful New Year.  May we be blessed with most of what we ask for, or, alternatively, in the words of the poem recited during today's Slichot service, "even if we are unworthy, extend your supporting hand a morsel at the opening [of the door]."

May our prayers be written in the Book of Life and be answered for another year. Two years ago, I prayed to God to write my mother in the Book of Life and, despite her metastatic pancreatic cancer, she was. Last year at this time I asked again, though I sensed His answer was "I'm sorry, I'd like to, but I can't." For those of us who have or will be touched by exclusion from the Book of Life, may we be consoled through our prayers and the sensitivity and concern of others.

God will gather me in?

From the first day of Elul, the month before Rosh Hashana, until the end of Sukkot, Psalm 27, also known by its first word, "L'david" (for [King] David, the supposed author of the Psalms), is added to the morning and evening services. This addition results in an yet another Mourner's Kaddish, recited after L'david. This ups the total number of daily kaddishes from 8 to 10.

Psalm 27 is one of the most moving of the psalms. Toward the end of the psalm, the following verses appear, "Do not hide your face from me, do not turn your servant away in anger. You have been my help, do not abandon or forsake me.  For when my father and mother abandon me, You will gather me in."

I've looked at several translations of this last verse, which can also be read as "if my father and mother abandon me" or "though they have abandoned me" or "when they abandon me."

The idea of a parent abandoned you is troubling. What kind of abandonment is the psalmist getting at? Some parents do actually abandon their children, either by being physically or emotionally absent. In these cases, the best reading of the verse is "if" my parents have abandoned me.

But in the end, I think that "when" is the best translation, for all parents eventually abandon their children, by dying. God knows they don't mean to. For my mother, and probably for most parents, the most difficult thing about dying was leaving behind her children and grandchildren and not being there for them in their hours of need and joy.

But the Psalmist promises that a substitute parent awaits: God. God as parent, a difficult religious concept. True, the prayers often speak of God as "our father" but there it seems more as an additional, not a substitute, parent.

Can God really be your parent? Perhaps here's a way to look at it: that the parent's nurturing will be provided in some measure by God's representatives on earth, the community, other people, your family. You are not made whole again after your parent dies, but it's not a total loss. God tries to make sure that some part of your loss is mitigated.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Macho kaddish

The duality of kaddish is this: it is at once a very personal prayer and yet it can only be recited in a minyan (quorum). You are reciting it for your personal loss, yet except for the kaddishes at the shiva (first week after burial), you are reciting it in a public space, generally a synagogue. By saying kaddish, you are connecting yourself to your deceased and yet you are reciting kaddish along with other mourners.

It is these dualities which make people more sensitive when it comes to kaddish. I've seldom heard anyone complain that people were not listening or were talking while they prayed (other than the rabbi), but I've more than once heard people complain that people were not being sufficiently attentive while they were reciting kaddish. (See previous posts on these topics at and

In addition to the behavior of others, another issue that affects the experience of saying kaddish is how other mourners recite kaddish. (see Some people are in the habit of reciting it very quickly, for having memorized the words long ago, they spill off the tongue like a waterfall. If other mourner's can't keep up, they lag behind, resulting in a cacophony of voices and out-of-sync "amen" responses by the congregation. Ideally, all mourners should recite kaddish together at the same pace so that the congregation's amens correspond to each kaddish, everyone finishes at the same time and all feel that their own kaddish is equally valued by the congregation.

Lately an issue has arisen for me because a recent mourner has an extremely forceful voice and tends to recite kaddish more quickly than I do. His voice is so domineering that the congregation is unable to hear anyone else saying kaddish. All their "amen" responses seem directed toward his kaddish only. He's monopolizing the kaddish "space." And usually I cannot recite kaddish at his pace, so I finish a few seconds after him by which time the congregation has already said the last "amen." I'm forced to raise my voice for fear that my kaddish will be totally disregarded by the congregation.

Should I do anything about this? And if so, what? I only have a few more weeks of saying kaddish so I suppose I can put up with it for a little while. I would feel funny approaching this person I don't know and asking him to slow down and lower his voice. Should I speak to the rabbi about it? I'm really not sure what if anything to do.

If this had happened at the beginning of my kaddish year, it would have been a big problem. Having come this far, I'm not going to let this annoyance bother me too much. I'm already less emotionally invested in the kaddish experience than I was in the months after my mother's death. And after hundred of trips to shul and thousands of kaddishes, I own my kaddishes. No one can take away my inner connection to the words and the feelings I have when I say them.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Witness to grief

I recently attended a Shiva Minyan. I went because I always pray in a minyan these days and I got an announcement from the shul that someone was sitting shiva near where I live. I was surprised to find just a few people there when I arrived. So I talked with the mourners, discovering they were mourning the death of the man's father who died rather unexpectedly after entering the hospital for what appeared to be a nonlife threatening illness. It took a while to get a minyan, which was achieved only after a series of near frantic phone calls from the rabbi to the shul asking for people to walk over to the shiva home. I was in danger of not being able to say kaddish for Mincha, but after all my other kaddishes this year, I wasn't too upset by that.

With the minyan finally constituted, the rabbi asked me to lead prayers as the man sitting shiva was not accustomed to davening. I led Mincha and Ma'ariv and recited kaddish with the mourners. The rabbi reminded me to slow down while I said kaddish as the mourners were not as fluent in the kaddish as me. (At this point, I can, and practically have, recited it in my sleep.)

Then I heard something I haven't heard in a while. One of the mourners was crying. He was stumbling on the words to the kaddish not only because of the language, but out of grief. I recalled what seems like ages ago when I was sitting shiva and the kaddish brought forth tears without fail. At the final kaddish of my shiva, it took what seems like minutes to get through it, grief rendering the words too difficult for my trembling lips to utter.

I heard and felt the mourner's tears, I could relate to them, but I could not summon up my own sense of grief. I've experienced much internal processing since I sat shiva. The rawness of the emotions have faded. I wouldn't say I've "come to terms" or "gotten over" or "moved on from" my mother's death, but I have integrated it into my psyche. There are times when I still can't believe she's gone and I can't quite comprehend that I haven't spoken to her in many months. But still, as I near the end of this kaddish year, changes have occurred within me. Grief has been replaced by other sad, but less intense, emotions. My kaddishes these days are still generally heartfelt but not infused with deep emotion.  The quality of my kaddishes relative to the grief-filled kaddishes of recent mourners shows the road I've travelled on this journey into my post-mother life.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The gravestone

When I was in California a few weeks ago, I went with my father to the cemetery. (See my previous post at In addition to visiting my mother's grave (can you really "visit" a grave?), we went to begin the process of choosing a design for  a gravestone. Right now my mother's body lies buried beneath a patch of grass. It is time that we ordered a stone to mark off that space. It would be especially appropriate for it to be "unveiled" in time for the Yahrzeit. (In Israel, these things seem to happen a lot quicker, and the stone is often unveiled for the Shloshim (30 days after burial).

The idea of choosing a gravestone is an issue I've been trying to avoid. Months ago my father sent me a brochure from the cemetery office that showed various styles. I added it to a pile of papers on my desk and tried to forget about it.

The process of choosing a gravestone seems absurd. Consider the following choices to be made: size (which basically breaks down to small, medium or large, priced accordingly), font style (e.g. Times, Helvetica), color of stone (over 20 available), direction stone is to be placed (horizontally or vertically), whether letters will be raised or engraved (the latter seems to be preferred these days), whether it will carry any symbols (Menorah and Magen David seem to be the most popular), where symbols will be placed (usually on top), how dates of will be recorded (exact dates of birth and death or just years), how name will be recorded (just English, just Hebrew, both, and if in Hebrew, whether to include her mother's name), and whether to include any description of the deceased and/or biblical verses). (Price is $175 for the first four hebrew letters and $22.50 for each additional letter. Doesn't seem like a good time to be price conscious.)

I've worked in publishing, and I just can't get past the idea that I am involved in a "formatting" job here. We will even get a copy of the stone "proofs" before the "publishing" job is finalized. The idea of memorializing the person who gave birth, nurtured, raised, loved and advised me by making choices of colors and fonts seems absurd.

But it's necessary. A gravestone, it seems to me, serves three purposes. The practical one is to mark the spot where she is buried so that we don't have to go around searching for her burial site every time we visit the cemetery. Another is to honor the deceased through text. For example, we have chosen the phrase from the Book of Proverbs, Chapter 31, verse 26, also known as Ayshet Chayal, "she opens her mouth with wisdom." This phrase surely captures one of my mother's essential traits.

Lastly, the setting of the stone serves to drive home the finality and reality of death. It's the last act in the process of acknowledging death. It turns the grave into a permanent space. As such, it's a painful act. That's probably the main reason I'm having trouble dealing with it. Saying kaddish is an abstract act. Choosing and setting a gravestone is painfully real.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

The cult of kaddish?

More and more people seem to be writing about their experiences saying kaddish. There are books by E.M. Bronner, Leon Wieseltier, and Ari Goldman, and I'm sure others. There are many articles on the Internet.  Here's another one I just found from a woman's perspective: The blogosphere also seems to be filling up with kaddish blogs. (google kaddish and blog)

All these people write about how saying kaddish provided them with solace and meaning after the death of a parent. No question it's a meaningful experience. I have written about how the obligation to say kaddish provides an anchor that grounds the mourning process by providing a meaningful, repetitive and concrete activity focusing the mourner on his or her loss. (see and I have also written about how people who usually do not attend shul on regular basis seem to make sure to do so on the Yarhzeit (anniversary) of a parent's death in order to say kaddish. (see

It should be noted, however, that saying kaddish is not a mitzvah. It is not one of the 613 commandments that are traditionally listed as requirements of Orthodox life. It is not on the same level as biblical laws such as keeping kosher or observing the Sabbath. It is not on the level of laws that the Rabbis have interpreted as deriving from the Torah such as saying the Shma or not mixing meat and milk. It is not even on the level of purely rabbinic decrees such as lighting Chanuka candles.

It is, in essence, a custom, whose origin dates from the Middle Ages. From the earliest sources that mention the kaddish, it is clear "that mourner's kaddish developed as a custom of practice and is not an obligatory commandment" (Berkovits, A Daughter's Recitation of Kaddish, p. 8). It is one of those customs whose observance has become so widespread and entrenched that it has taken on the force of a religious obligation (for men at least, and increasingly so for women).

Is it possible that kaddish has taken on a unwarranted significance in proportion to its religious status? Is it the only proper way to mourn for a parent's loss? Are there other or perhaps better ways of doing so? Even more, is it possible that kaddish has developed into a fetish of sorts that has become so devalued that the obligation actually gets in the way of true mourning? By saying kaddish, the mourner can say to himself or herself, "I have mourned." But really? Doesn't mourning go deeper than just uttering the same words day after day? Isn't there an internal process involved that goes beyond speech? Isn't there a private and deeply personal aspect to mourning that cannot be captured in the public recitation of kaddish?

In A Daughter's Recitation of Kaddish, there is a footnote (page 57, note 186) from a responsa by Rabbi Yosef Eliyanu Henkin, one of the leading Poseks (religious decisors) of 20th century America. Rabbi Henkin offers a scathing critique of what I call the cult of kaddish. He writes that kaddish has little meaning if is not connected to "teshuva, tephila v'ma'asim tovim (repentance, prayer and good deeds)." Kaddish is secondary to doing good deeds, study and charity, and it more worthwhile to spend one's time in these activities than saying kaddish over and over. One kaddish a day suffices to fulfill one's obligation, he writes, even on a Yahrzeit. Not only that, he continues, the repetition of many kaddishes is a distraction when said without the proper understanding or intention.

I do find the obsession over saying kaddish somewhat strange and off-putting, but, as one actively engaged in that obsession, what what can I say? Like most rituals, kaddish can be done by rote. And like most rituals, rote is often the norm. My goal is to use the kaddish to strive for those few occasions when the ritual points the way toward some goal, the end of which I know not, but whose path provides me with meaning and spiritual uplift.