Monday, February 27, 2012

Kaddish dilemma

Last Shabbat in Berkeley I faced a dilemma.  The Mincha afternoon service was switched from the late afternoon to 1:30 p.m., an hour and a half after davening ended, following a luncheon in honor of a recent marriage.  The laws of mourning, as explained to me by my rabbi, do not permit me to attend s'machot (celebratory gatherings) or attend live music concerts.  So I faced the choice between either attending the luncheon so that I could stay for Mincha to recite Kaddish, leaving the synagogue and taking a walk to return for Mincha, in which case I would get back to my father's house at about 3:00 p.m. (his home is about an hour walk from the synagogue), or just leaving and praying Mincha on my own so I could spend more time with my father but not be able to recite Kaddish.  I choose the last alternative.   I feel guilty.  I have not done everything in my power to make sure I do not miss an opportunity to say Kaddish.  I know people who did not miss a single Kaddish during their entire year of mourning.  There are people who make sure to find a minyan near the airport or make sure when they book their flights that it doesn't conflict with the opportunity to pray in public.  I have given priority to being with my father when it conflicted with saying Kaddish for my mother.  These choices are not easily made.  My life is not a seamless whole.  I am trying.  And, I am praying.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Mourner's Hallel

Hallel is a series of psalms recited on Holidays.  It was just recited for the two days of Rosh Chodesh for the new month of Adar.  Hallel is often accompanied by moving melodies.  A good chazzan makes Hallel an uplifting, even exalting experience.  But for mourners, Hallel presents a challenge.  My Shiva (the week of mourning after burial) coincided with Rosh Chodesh (the new month of Kislev), an occasion on which Hallel (the “half Hallel” to be exact) is recited.  Unlike the other days of Shiva, I did not lead prayers on that day.  Not only that, when the time to recite Hallel came, the Rabbi indicated I was to leave the room so that I would not be present for the joyous recitation.  Someone came to inform me when it was “safe” to come out.  My exclusion felt right: not only could I not share the joy of Hallel, my mourning would have been mocked by Hallel. (Another example of how wise Jewish law is when it comes to death and mourning.)  Even now, three months into my mourning period, reciting Hallel feels a bit incongruous.  My spirit is bound up with saying Kaddish, not with expressions of joy.  That day will undoubtedly come, for as the Psalm says “Hear me, God, and be gracious to me.  You have turned my mourning into dancing, you have loosened my sackcloth and supported me with joy.”  (Psalm 30: 11-12)  It hasn’t yet.

9, then 10, redux

Once again Friday evening in Berkeley at a service in someone's home. For mincha we had 9, thus no Kaddish. Then we begin Kabbalat Shabbat services using the beautiful melodies composed by Shlomo Carlebach. People are singing and slowly swaying and all I can think about is "no minyan." Others are feeling uplifted, myself oppressed.  For me, now, Kaddish comes before prayer. I must be able to declare my pain and loss publicly before I can think about communal prayer. Finally during L'cha Dodi the same person who came in last time entered. (See 1/29/12 post.)  A minyan. The anxiety I felt made me appreciate that in New York I don't have to worry whether there will be a minyan. For people in small towns saying Kaddish, the experience must be excruciating.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Joy in shul, but not in my heart

Today there was a Bar Mitzvah in shul.  It was Rosh Chodesh Adar (the new Hebrew month).  Adar is considered a joyous month.  The saying goes that when Adar enters, joy increases.  The Bar Mitzvah boy had his first Aliyah (being called to the Torah).  There was joyous celebration, dancing and throwing candy.  This added about a half hour to the prayer service, which in all lasted almost two hours.  I wasn't in to it.  When I go to shul these days, all I want to do is pray and say kaddish.  I don't feel I can participate in other people's joy.  I don't want to be captive to other people's needs.  (But I feel I have no choice but to stay to the end of services when the kaddishes are recited.)  If I'm being selfish, so be it.

Visiting my father, missing my mother

I'm out again in Berkeley, California visiting my father.  I stay in the house where my parents lived together for 32 years.  I feel my mother's presence in this space.  Her notes, her office, the kitchen she designed.  She would always be awake when I got up, making the coffee, preparing food, getting ready for the day.  Now I'm the first one up, leaving early for shul, returning while my father still sleeps, making the coffee, readying the breakfast.  The more I feel her presence, the more I feel her absence.

Monday, February 20, 2012


I'll get more personal: I've started taking anti-depressant medication, also known as serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs). I actually started thinking about it before my mother died, as her final days neared.  I waited to see how I'd feel after she died.  In the first two months afterwards, I felt more sadness than depression.  But between my father's broken hip, other family issues (which are not appropriately shared here), work issues (likewise) and my mourning obligations, it's all felt like an overwhelming burden.  Thus the medication.  My only fear, unfounded says my therapist, is that I won't be able to feel the sadness that I should, given my loss, experience.  The need to function well, however, overrides all.  My mother I'm sure would approve of my decision.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Kaddish Time

The third month since my mother died just passed.  Time feels like it's moving slowly.  The idea of going to minyan for an entire year (actually 11 months and a day) seems almost undoable.   The idea that my mother is no longer in my life seems unthinkable.  It seems just yesterday she said her final goodbye to me and, even in her weakened condition, embraced me. 

Just last week a friend of mine had Yartzeit for his mother.  He asked me to daven p'sukei d'zimrah (the first part of the morning service) before he took over.  He told me it was his 36th Yahrzeit.  He couldn't believe it had been 36 years since his mother died.  The time had passed so quickly, he said.  Death, its finality, its incomprehensibility, its injustice, seems to warp our sense of time.  Memories of my mother are replacing her presence.  But as she recedes, my face is still, and will always be, pointed toward her.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Black Hole of Death

Some random thoughts: Dealing with the death of my mother goes beyond feelings of loss and grief. Death creates waves that ripple through the lives of all those who loved her.  Death and its attendant feelings are like a black hole.  Our grief pulls us toward the hole.  We are in danger of being overwhelmed by despair and despondency, sucked into death's powerful gravitation field.  Kaddish and prayer are two of our tools in our struggle to break free of this force, toward renewed life, toward our own future.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012


I've been feeling very stressed lately.  There's my father's fall.  There are work issues.  There are other family issues.  I'm also getting up a half hour earlier every day to make it to morning minyan, cutting into my sleep time.  The stress caused by these factors can more or less be identified.  They're all the general kind of issues that arise in everyday life.  What is less easily identified is the stress caused by loss.  For my mother's death has not only left a wound to my psyche, it manifests in my mental state as well as physically.  It would be interesting to read studies of the effects of a parent's death on depression and physical well being.  The person I'd most like to talk to about this is my mother, an expert psychologist who understood human nature better than anyone else I knew.  If only I could.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Kaddish of hope and life

This week my father fell again.  X-rays revealed no new break.  Thank God!  I offer the prayer, in the words of Psalm 94, recited at the end of morning services each Wednesday, "If I said 'my foot has slipped', your kindness, God, has supported me".  This new crisis averted suggested another understanding of the Kaddish.  It has oft been noted that the Kaddish says nothing about death.  Its central idea is that God's name should be made great and brought into the world.  Its message is one of hope and life.  It is not unusual that after a spouse dies, especially when married for a long time (my parents were married 57 years), the surviving spouse has difficulty coping and suffers downward spiriling health.  Perhaps the Kaddish is meant not only as a memorial to those who departed this life, but also as a message of hope and life to those who have experienced the loss.  As I recite Kaddish for my mother, I pray that my father continues to know "abundant peace, and life, upon us and upon all Israel."

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Going through the motions

Another day of davening today.  With 10 weeks of experience under my belt, the words are flowing out of the my mouth rather smoothly these days.  Less stumbles, less mistakes.  The same words over and over again.  The Mourner's Kaddish I know by heart, the Rabbi's Kaddish, which is longer, almost by heart.   But with any routine, it can become meaningless, thoughtless.  Today, feeling particularly emotional, I tried extra hard to concentrate on what I was saying as I lead services.  I slowed it down, the result being that we finished a few minutes later than usual, and that was without the Tachnun, omitted because today is Tu B'Shvat.  Wouldn't you know it, someone came up afterwards and admonished me that I'd slowed down too much.  So tomorrow I'll try to pick up the pace again, somehow trying to make the routine one of meaning.  I'll be satisfied even if the meaning of my words emerges occasionally.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Seeing myself in others

Recently a man began coming to Minyan.  He spoke to the Rabbi when he came in.  He then davened from the Amud (led the prayers).  From what I overheard, he had just finished sitting shiva for his mother.  I recognized his look, the look that speaks of pain and loss.  One of the inevitable facts of mourning is self-absorption.  The loss of my mother is deeply personal.   Going to minyan every day brings me into contact with other mourners.  Hearing others say Kaddish, seeing others who have the same look I did when I first starting attending Minyan after my shiva ended helps me to see beyond my personal loss, toward a universal understanding of life and death.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Quality or quantity?

Every day I go to shul twice, once in the morning for Shacharit and once in the late afternoon for Mincha and Ma'ariv.  In Shacharit, I recite Kaddish five times (not including the Reader's Kaddish), the Rabbi's Kaddish two times and the Mourner's Kaddish three times.  At the end of Mincha I recite the Mourner's Kaddish.  The Rabbi then gives a short d'var halacha (a few words about a Jewish law) after which I recite the Rabbi's Kaddish.  At the end of Ma'ariv I again recite the Mourner's Kaddish.  This adds up to eight Kaddishes per day, three Rabbi's Kaddishes and five Mourner's Kaddishes.  Given an 11 month period of mourning, or about 332 days, I will recite Kaddish approximately 2,656 times.

While I endeavor every time I say Kaddish to think of my mother and my loss, many times I'm just uttering words, even more so if I feel rushed by others.  Saying Kaddish might actually be more meaningful if I said it less often.  There may be some reason why I'm required to recite it so often, but it doesn't really feel connected to my mourning.  However, there are times--and it always happens unexpectedly--that I feel my mother's presence as the words leave my mouth and tears come to my eyes and I am brought into some kind of otherworldly connection with her.  Lord, let these feelings never leave me.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

For my own sake, my father must live!

Of course, I want my father to live for many years to come.  But more, I need my father to live.  For my own selfish reasons, I can't have him die.  I told him so when I visited him last week.  I need him to recover from his broken hip and resume an independent life.  I know that a broken hip often marks the beginning of cascade of physical ailments that lead to death.   In my emotional state, I cannot deal with the death--or even any of the precursor ailments to death--of my one living parent.  I need this year to grieve for my mother.  I don't want this year of Kaddish for my mother to be clouded by concerns for my father's health.   I know it's not in my hands.  But I hope, I pray, that my father and my God will allow me the time and emotional space to come to terms with losing my mother.