Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Kaddish Minyan

Yesterday evening I showed up at a minyan in White Plains to fulfill my Kaddish obligation and get my son to his orthodontist appointment.  I was aided by a great web site, godaven.com, which lists minyanim (prayer services) all over the country (world?).  What I encountered was a Kaddish minyan, a minyan which seemed to exist for the purpose of providing a place to say Kaddish.   How's that?  At an average prayer service, I'd estimate maybe 3 to 5%  of adults at any one time are saying Kaddish.  The percentage rises because Kaddish-sayers are more likely to attend public prayer than other Jews.  At the minyan I usually attend, the percentage of Kaddish-sayers is about 10%.  The 90% provide support for those saying Kaddish, a support I feel most strongly when they respond during the Kaddish, "ya'hay shmei rabba mivorach l'alem u'liolmei olmaya (may his great name be blessed forever and ever)." At the service I attended yesterday, half the people present were saying Kaddish. It felt strange and a bit unnatural.  Ideally, those who are experiencing loss need to feel supported, not the other way around.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

9, then 10

Needing to say Kaddish means never getting to sleep in. Because of delays I didn't get to my parents' home in Berkeley until 1:30 a.m., then got up that morning at 5:45 to make it to shul. Friday evening services were at a private home but only 9 men showed for the afternoon Mincha prayer, one short of the number needed to say kaddish. One of the many complexities of Kaddish: it's a deeply personal obligation, yet fulfulling it is wholly dependent upon the support of others. Feeling frustrated, peeved and having given up hope of getting a minyan for Ma'ariv, someone came in late, thus completing the minyan.  It was as if Eliyahu himself (Elijah the Prophet) had come to the rescue.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Missed Kaddish due to travel

Kaddish and travel are a difficult pairing. Anytime you leave home, praying with a minyan becomes more challenging. This evening I'm flying to California to visit my father (the parent I have left). Just over two weeks ago he fell and broke his hip. I booked a flight I thought would give me time to pray Mincha and Maariv (the afternoon and evening prayers) in shul before leaving for the airport. After second thought, I decided to leave earlier to give myself more time to get to the airport. Pulled in two directions, I ended up deciding that making sure I didn't miss my flight to be with my living father outweighed my obligation to honor my dead mother.  Yet the pull to say Kaddish was not easily overcome.  Such is the hold this obligation has on me.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Power of Kaddish

Today in shul two brothers came to say Kaddish.  It was the Yahrzeit of one of their parents.  I could tell they were not too familiar with the routines of shul, but I could surmise that they undertook to come to shul every year on this day to say Kaddish.  And I've seen this before: Jews who are not regular shul-goers feel compelled to come on the anniversary of their loved one's passing.  The same holds true for the Yizkor service recited on the festivals of Passover, Shavuot Shmini Atzeret as well as on Yom Kippur. 

What is it about these rituals that Jews find so powerful?  I supposes it connects with one of the essentials of Jewishness: the sense of peoplehood and generational bonds.  It is quite possible that Kaddish represents the most powerful tool the Rabbis ever devised for keeping us connected to our traditions and to each other.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Why I am saying Kaddish?

Why I am saying Kaddish for my mother?  Why I am waking up a half hour earlier than normal to get to shul to daven?  Why I am structuring my every day so that I can make afternoon prayers?  Why am I davening from the Amud (being the prayer leader) whenever offered instead of occasionally declining? 

The answer is complicated.  Part of it, to be sure, is a feeling of obligation, no different than any other halakhic (Jewish legal) obligation.  I have chosen, or I feel a greater power has chosen me, to adhere to these laws and customs.  But it's more than that.  It's a way of honoring my mother's life and memory.  When I say Kaddish, I try to think of her, of all she meant to me, of the many gifts she bestowed on me.  Also, it's a way of constantly reminding myself that my life is not normal.  Through fulfilling my obligations, I acknowledge that I am not whole.  My soul has been torn.  Perhaps each Kaddish is a way of mending it, slowly, stitch by stitch.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

The watchful eye of others

Ever since my mother, z'l (may her memory always be with us) died, I've felt a strange duality. On one hand, I feel emotionally vulnerable and spiritually damaged.  On the other hand, I've been thrust into a position, whether during the Shiva or now during prayers, of being the center of attention.  My natural inclination is to be left alone to my thoughts.  I couldn't do that during the Shiva as my home was a constant stream of visitors with whom I wanted to socially interact.  And now, as a prayer leader, I am still still thrust into the middle of community.  Perhaps the rabbinic tradition does not want to leave too much social and psychic space to the mourner, lest he or she come to curse his fate or worse, his Maker.  In a way, by physically moving me to the front of the synagogue, others can watch and hear me utter my prayers, making sure I do not stray.  The message is, "you may be angry at God, but we're keeping an eye on you to make sure you don't break your relationship with Him."

Friday, January 20, 2012

Day off

Today the Gabbai (more on the Gabbai's role in a later post) informed me just before the morning services that I had a "day off," meaning that someone else, a person who had a yahrzeit, would be leading the prayers.  I felt my muscles relax and sat down,  enjoying the feeling of being a follower rather than a leader, a welcome change of pace.  Praying feels so different when you are seated among the assembly as opposed to standing alone in the front as the leader.  A month ago, during Chanukah, I got an entire eight days off from leading prayers, a "vacation" as it was called, because a mourner does not lead prayers at a time of celebration.  Come Sunday, I'm sure I'll be back at the Amud.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

I am not alone

One of the unalterable facts of the avelut (mourning) period is that the avel is essentially not allowed to pray alone.  Since every prayer service of every day includes a kaddish, and since kaddish can be recited only in a minyan, one is never praying alone.  This is big change for me. Before my mother's passing, I usually prayed at home except on Shabbat (the Sabbath).  Now I am always davening (praying) with a group.  This seems to be an extension of the shiva period where the mourner constantly receives many visitors paying condolence calls.  Perhaps the message is that the mourner should consistently be in the presence of others so that he or she doesn't become too withdrawn or self-absorbed.  The obligation to say kaddish pushes one into the community, willingly or not.  (In my case it's a little of each.)  In this, I suppose, there is consolation: the emptiness I feel inside is juxtaposed against the community of daveners with whom I have joined and will join every morning and evening, every day, every week, without a day off, for the entire avelut period.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

First in, last out

The obligation to say kaddish requires that one go to shul (synagogue) daily as kaddish can be recited only in the presence of a minyan (10 men in an orthdox shul, 10 people in a conservative or reform shul).  Not only do you have to be in shul, but you also have to get there early.  As an avel (mourner), I am usually the prayer leader, and therefore have to be ready to go when davening starts (6:45 on Mondays and Thursdays, 6:55 on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays).  That means I need to have on my tallis (prayer shawl) and tephilin (phylacteries) by then.  As a result, I get to shul before most others. In the first week of my avelut, I was getting to shul in my customary last second way which, I was told, was not in keeping with my obligation to say kaddish and lead services.

I'm also one of the last to leave as others begin putting away their tallis and tephilin as the service draws to a close while I can't put my things away until the prayer service is fully completed.  Also, the rabbi gives a brief d'var halacha and the end which then obligates me to say a kaddish d'rabanan (rabbi's kaddish).  The nearly empty shul that I leave each morning is a constant reminder of the emptiness I feel living without my mother's presence.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

"Welcome to the Club"

The first time I showed up to shul after the shiva period, a week after my mother died, I was identified as a new kaddish-sayer.  A person who was also saying kaddish told me, "welcome to the club."  I was somewhat taken a back but I also understood.  I had passed through a corridor that separates those who have known the death of a loved one and those who have not.  It's not a club that I willingly joined, but I can't deny the camaraderie that exists among those saying kaddish. 

And it turns out that kaddish-saying gives one a certain status in shul.  Not only are you asked--because you are obligated--to daven from the amud (lead the prayer service) but also, by saying kaddish, you fulfill a certain critical role in the prayer service.  A prayer service without a mourners kaddish lacks a critical element.  As the saying of kaddish has become a routine, I feel, strangely, honored to fulfill this role.

Monday, January 16, 2012

I see and touch my mother!

I was told this could happen, a visit from my mother, z'l (may her memory be for blessing).  Not a dream but a vision.  Early this morning, in a half sleep half awake state, I beheld this scene: I was in my parent's home in the living room, lying down in a bed, similar to the way my mother in her last days lay in a hospital bed in the living room suffering from the pancreatic cancer that took her life.  My parents then came home.  My mother looked great, as she always did until her last days, looking smart in black pants and a red top.  She said she felt great, especially as was still able to drive home despite her cancer.  I began to tear up and she came to me and embraced me.  I repeated the words that I had spoken to her a few weeks before she passed away, "thank you for being my mother, thank you."  Just as I felt the warmth of her embrace, the vision abruptly ended and I was fully awake. The few moments that I felt her presence lifted my spirits through out the day.  I imagine these moments of togetherness with her will be fleeting, sporadic and always unexpected.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Pecking Order

Today was unusual in that I did not once daven from the amud (the person who leads the prayers).  For each of the three prayer services, Shacharit (morning), Mincha (afternoon) and Ma'ariv (evening), a person who had a Yahrzeit led the service. Yahrzeit is the anniversary of the death of a loved one, usually a parent.  A person who has Yahrzeit for a parent would have precedence over a Yahrzeit for a spouse, sibling or, God-forbid, a child. A Yahrzeit for a parent trumps all other che'uvim (obligations) to daven from the amud.  Next comes, I believe, Yahrzeit for a spouse, sibling or child.  Then comes a person in Shloshim (the first 30 days after death).  Next comes a person such as I: a regular avel (mourner) during his (or perhaps in a nonorthdox service, her) year of mourning. As a person in Shloshim, I davened regularly, a position I wasn't very comfortable with in the beginning but became more acclimated to as time went on. Now I am, so to speak, in the rotation or daveners. The meaning of this pecking order and the che'uv (obligation) I leave for another post.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Kaddish anxiety dream

Last night I had a strange dream.  I dreamed I was trying to get up some stairs at one of the shuls (synagogues) that I daven (pray) in.  There was a narrow staircase with objects hanging from the sides and from above that had pins sticking out.  I got stuck on one of the pins and couldn't move.  As I was desperately trying to free myself, I heard kaddish being recited upstairs in the shul.  I started to recite the prayer, but doubted that I was actually part of the minyan (quorum) needed to recite it.  Here I was, so close to getting inside the shul, but unable to be part of it, the result being I'd miss a kaddish.

Missing a kaddish is a big deal. So far I've only missed two, once because I came home too close to the Sabbath and missed the afternoon Mincha prayer just before Sabbath prayers had began and the other when I was traveling to visit my father.  I can't really explain why it's so important to me not to miss a kaddish, but it is, as my dream was apparently trying to tell me. 

Thursday, January 12, 2012

My mother, z'l

On November 20, 2011, my mother, may her memory be for blessing, died. Since the burial two days later, I have been saying kaddish for her in the traditional Jewish mourning rite daily. I go to shul (synagogue) every morning and every afternoon.  This blog is my attempt to capture my experience of mourning my dear mother's loss, a woman who not only gave me life, but shared her deep wisdom with me to help me understand my life. 

In this blog, I hope to capture the mostly, as it turns out, mundane aspect of going to shul daily, reciting the mourner's kaddish as a formal way of remembering her life, connecting to her now that she's gone and giving voice to my own experiences of mourning. I dedicate these posts to her memory.