Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Shunted aside

I haven't been called upon to pray as the prayer leader for two weeks now.  The reasons are several.  There were two days of Rosh Chodesh, the new month, when mourners are excused from davening from the Amud.  There were a string of Yahrzeits last week, days on which men were observing the anniversary of a parent's death.  There is someone who, as the Gabbai calls him, is "a Shloshim", whose parent died within the last month, and who has priority in the pecking order of leading the prayers.  Finally, I am just another avel (mourner) now, and the Gabbai has been calling on other mourners to lead prayers.

How do I feel about this?  On one hand, it's nice not to be obligated to lead prayers almost all the time.  I can show up exactly on time or even a minute late and no one cares.  On the other hand, I was feeling kind of special when I was "the man" to lead prayers.  It was exhausting, but I couldn't help feeling respected and honored to be chosen to stand up while others are seated comfortably, walk to the Bima (prayer stand), put on a Tallit (prayer shawl) and, by the power of my own words, begin the prayer service.  These conflicted feelings are, I suppose, just another rite of passage in this year of mourning.

Watch your speed

What bothers me most about the technical aspect of saying kaddish is when various mourners recite kaddish at different rates of speed.  The shul then is turned into a cacophony of indistinguishable sounds, with those responding to the kaddish trying to pay attention to one particular mourner to recite the "yehay shmai rabba" and "amens" at the right points.  When this happens, kaddish becomes an unfulfilling, sometimes even upsetting, experience.  You don't know whether to speed up, slow down, or just keep on plowing through at your own speed.  If possible, I try to recite kaddish at the same pace as other mourners so that, as a group, we end each paragraph at about the same time.  I want to enhance, or at least not interfere, with the experience of other mourners.

To avoid the cacophony, the Rabbi will also recite kaddish, the unspoken signal being that all mourners are to follow his lead.  But this doesn't always help.  Sometimes the number of mourners simply drown out his voice.  I've also been in shul where the Rabbi and other mourners went so slowly that I became agitated.  I continued at my own pace and then waited for them to catch up.

Equally annoying is when other mourners go too fast and I am left "hanging out to dry." The congregation is left to wonder why someone is still reciting kaddish when everyone else has finished. 

In the laws of saying kaddish in the Artscroll Siddur, it says that only one mourner need say kaddish; however, as not to embarrass other mourners, the custom has arisen for all mourners to recite it.  Nevertheless, the idea seems to be that, in reciting kaddish, the mourners should be as one voice.  The experience of a group coming together in the kaddish brings honor to the congregation, themselves and to those for whom they are saying kaddish.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Reflections on this blog

This blog is helping to clarify my thoughts about the mourning process.  I am gratified that people are reading it.  Judaism teaches that mourning is not to be kept private, and this blog is a way of connecting my inner and outer worlds.  It is not a private journal.  In this way, the blog is like kaddish, the words of an individual expressed in the context of community.  If nothing else, these musings along with my daily kaddishes are reminders that my life will never be the same again.

After a loved one dies, Judaism will not let you pretend that nothing has happened.  Kaddish screams at you: you are a mourner!  You are not whole!  You are in pain!  Don't deny it!  Don't pretend!  Deal with it! But also, more softly: you will survive.  You are not alone.  God is still with you.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Mourners converse about how nonmourners behave

Today after Sabbath services, a fellow asked to speak to me privately.  He asked me how I felt about people putting away their tallises (prayer shawls) at the end of the service while I was reciting the kaddish.  He confided that when he was saying kaddish for his parents, both of whom died within a relatively short period of time, he felt such behavior was disrespectful to him, and, by extension, to his parents.  I had to think about this.  I know that before my mother died, I was careful not to make noise putting away my tephilin while others were reciting kaddish.  I knew inside I should wait until kaddish had concluded before "packing up" my tallis and tephilin, but I often succomed to the urge to get on my way.  After a few moments, I responded that my focus on saying kaddish truly made me unaware of what others were doing at the time.  I also reflected on the natural tendency to jump the gun whenever an activity is winding down.  Of course, our behavior in shul, a place of striving for holiness and sanctity, should be different than during our chol (nonsactified) activity.  But, in truth, it is seldom so.

It was good to have a serious conversation about mourning and kaddish with a former mourner.  I only know that this year of mourning is changing me in some indelible way.  I hope to relate to future mourners the way I know I should.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Feeling my mother's presence

I've tried so hard to feel my mother's presence.  It hasn't been easy.  It's a feeling that seems to be fading with time.  Mostly there's an absence.  When I asked my father if and how he felt his wife's presence, he said there was mostly "silence."  I haven't dreamed of her for a while.  I'm getting used to calling my "parents' home" and speaking just to my father.  It will always be my parents' home even if only one of my parents lives there now.  I go through my work day as I always did, not even thinking that my mother's gone.  It's difficult to think of her when I pray, a bit easier when I say kaddish.

Yesterday morning, saying kaddish, her presence came over me.  I felt a remnant of the feeling I would have when I'd come to visit after a long absence and, as I entered my parents' home, she would kiss me and we'd embrace.  When you get to the last line of kaddish about God making peace in the heavens and on earth, you take three steps back and bow to the left, the right and then forward.  These steps took me away from her presence.  The kaddish had brought me nearer to her and then had taken me away.

Shiva Minyan

The last two evenings I attended a Shiva Minyan (prayer service at the home of a person's who is observing the week of mourning).  As a person obligated to attend minyan, I've become valued as an available person to attend shiva minyans.  I was one of nine other men.  The experience brought back the raw emotions I experienced at my own shiva.  Now things have "settled down."  My mother's death seems like a long time ago.

I said kaddish along with the shiva mourner.  Two losses fusing into one.  My words supporting his, my presence enabling his kaddish.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

A night out

With my daughter home on Spring break from college, I had the bright idea of taking her out to see a play.  I bought the tickets, an 8:00 p.m. performance just south of Midtown Manhattan.  I felt good to be able to treat her and spend some time together.  Then I remembered.  Oops, I need to say Kaddish, and with the clock change, Mincha at my local shul began at 6:50.  I was almost resigned to missing the first Act when I realized I could try to find a minyan close to the theater.  A Google search and a phone call to the Rabbi at the 16th Street Synagogue turned up a 5:50 Mincha/Ma'ariv minyan.  (A word of advise: don't just rely on the Internet; always contact the shul before showing up to make sure a minyan really exists.) I didn't realize the afternoon service could begin so early.  The earlier time is called Plag Ha'mincha. Plag is an hour and a quarter before sunset; if Mincha is said before that time, then Ma'ariv following on the heels of Mincha can be recited immediately thereafter just after Plag.   see http://www.ou.org/torah/tt/5759/tazria_mtzora59/featuretidbit.htm  And so I was able to daven, say Kaddish and see the entire play which I greatly enjoyed.  The lesson: living and saying Kaddish regularly is not without its complications.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Small kindnesses

The small acts of kindness that I've witnessed during my now three and a half months of saying Kaddish amaze me.  Item #1: While I was in my first month of saying Kaddish (shloshim), I attended a class with the Rabbi that ended just as the late evening Ma'ariv prayer began.  They were just about to begin the service when a gentleman I didn't know but who had observed that I was in shloshim asked me if I'd already davened (I had).  He wanted to give me the opportunity to daven from the Amud if I hadn't already davened.  I thanked him, and his consideration of me, a stranger other than my status as a recent Avel, moved me practically to tears.  Item #2: At the morning minyan where I pray on Sundays, the Gabbai makes sure I've put on my tephilin before signaling the prayer leader to begin so that I'm ready when the time comes to recite the Rabbi's Kaddish.  Item #3: today a man came into shul for the afternoon/evening service to recite Kaddish on the Yahrzeit of one of his parents.  He clearly was not too familiar with the service, and, as it turned out, his ability to read the prayerbook was limited.  The Gabbai made sure he knew where the page was for Kaddish, and when the time came, the Gabbai stood by him and recited it with him at the mourner's halting pace.

You might say these small acts of kindness don't amount to much.  They won't change the world.  But they attest to the seriousness with which the Kaddish is taken.  In this way, the Kaddish can become a focal point toward realizing our true humanity.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Pesach is coming

The holiday of Pesach (Passover) is coming.  It's less than three weeks away.  For more than 20 years, my family has been traveling to my parents' home in California to celebrate this holiday.  No other holiday in the Jewish calendar is so home and family centered as is Passover.  For years, my mother of blessed memory prepared the Seder and all the meals: scrumptious chicken soup with knaidelach (matzto balls) that floated effortlessly in the soup, two kinds of charoset, home made sorbet, and much much more.  Even suffering from cancer, she was able to put together the basics last year, augmented with catered meals.  I never felt more taken care of than when I was in my parents' home during Pesach. 

All this in the past.  Now my father plans to travel to my family for the holiday.  Now it's my turn to take care of him.  At the beginning of the Seder, we will recite the "Shehechianyu" blessing, thanking God for sustaining us and allowing us to see this day.  Never will a blessing be recited with more mixed emotions than that one.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Disassociated prayer

The experience of davening from the Amud (leading the prayers) as a mourner has felt somewhat incongruous. I haven't been feeling very spiritual. While I sometime achieve deep concentration while reciting Kaddish, I can't say the same for my prayers. Why, I can't say for sure. I don't think it's that I'm angry at God, though I'm upset that my mother was taken from this world before age 79.  She had so much more to live for, and I often imagine what she would have been like in her 80s: still full of life, still working, still cooking, still dispensing her wisdom to everyone, whether they wanted to hear it or not.

Today while leading prayers, I felt that my mouth was moving, the words were pouring out, but my body was elsewhere. Complete disassociation of body and soul.  Could anyone tell?  Probably not. Would anyone care? Unlikely.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Changing times and seasons

One of the interesting things about going to shul every morning is that I get to experience daily the change of the natural cycle of night and day.  When I first began my walks to shul in late November, it was completely dark.  That continued until about five weeks ago when the first light of day appeared.  As winter waned, the light intensified, until last week the sun shown directly at me as I stepped out onto the sidewalk.  Then we moved the clocks forward last weekend, so that it is again semi-light.  The mild New York winter has triggered the trees to bud already, though the first leaves have yet to appear.  The last few days, the birds seem to be chirping more loudly.  I even heard them today in shul (or did I never notice them before)?

With the clocks changed, I now have a couple of hours between the end of work and the evening prayers. I used to have to rush out of work to get to shul in time.  Gradually, as the days got longer, I was able to do brief errands before shul.  (Mincha (the afternoon prayer service) is scheduled for about 10 minutes before sunset.)  By the time we moved the clocks, I could do a full shopping. 

Going to shul daily means more than going into a synogogue building.  It means calibrating one's existence to the cycle of life.  Through the acknowledgement of death, it is an commitment to life.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Kaddish, with and without tears

Sometimes, actually most times, when I recite Kaddish, it's just words.  There are internal and external factors at work.  One is how I'm feeling.  Sometimes my emotions are near the surface, other times they are buried within.  At this point, I can't really explain what accounts for the variation, though, on reflection, I believe that morning Kaddishes carry more feeling than the afternoon and evening ones.  The external factors are whether others are saying Kaddish, and, if so, the pace at which it is being recited.

The most powerful Kaddishes of the week are at the Shabbat morning service I attend, along with a small group of about 25 others. I am the only one reciting Kaddish.  When I recite Kaddish with this minyan, I usually feel tears welling up, though they have yet to spill out.  My words are spoken with  trembling.  I wonder if I will become so overwhelmed that completing the Kaddish will be difficult, the way it often was when I recited Kaddish at the Shiva.  Perhaps the emotions that accompany these Shabbat morning Kaddishes come from the facts that all eyes are upon me,  I'm in a more relaxed state, I can say Kaddish at whatever pace I feel like, and I feel so comfortable with those with whom I'm praying.

At services last Friday night, I was the only one saying Kaddish other than the Rabbi in a group of over 100, with my son by my side, an overwhelming experience.  I don't think it has much to do with the actual text of the Kaddish.  Rather, it is public confession and communal acknowledgement of my loss that triggers the tears that fill my eyes.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

To daven or not to daven

Yesterday I was amused in shul as davening, which usually begins exactly at 6:55, was delayed slightly while the rabbi worked out the question of who should lead the prayers.  After a string of Yahrzeits, I seem to be back "at work" as the Shaliach Tzibbur (prayer leader) at morning prayers.  However, yesterday was Shushan Purim, the second day of Purim.  While not celebrated as a holiday other than in Jerusalem, it does carry an element of simcha (joy) and, as such, the Tachanun prayer is not recited.  I figured I would be chosen as prayer leader by analogy to Tu B'shvat, another day when Tachanun is omitted but I nevertheless led the prayers.  I've also led prayers on the occasion of Brit Milah (circumcisions), when there is also no Tachanun.  Even the Rabbi was unsure whether Shushan Purim carried enough of an element of joy to disqualify me from acting as prayer leader.  After some consultation, it was decided that I would not lead prayers. The ruling was that since L'minatzayoch (Psalm 20) is also omitted, my chiyuv (obligation) to daven was not present.  I enjoyed that the community cares about these small details.  Everything matters.  Nothing is left to chance.  That's the way my mother lived.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Purim Kaddish

Purim is perhaps the most joyous holiday on the Jewish calendar.  That being said, it stands in odd contrast to being an avel (mourner).  While Jewish law did not prohibit me from attending a joyous reading of the Megillat Esther (the scroll of Esther), I did not feel it matched my present state of mind. So I choose to attend a more straight-forward reading in the late evening, after the main festivities were over.  I would have attended a shul in Manhattan where I went last year,  featuring a lively reading followed by a musical concert.  However, one of the prohibitions of the mourning period is attending live music shows.  In any event, after the reading of the Megilla and Aleynu, I recited the Mourner's Kaddish.  I was the only one in a group of perhaps 100 people doing so.  It was a strange feeling, as if I were reminding the assembled that, in the midst of joy, there is sorrow.  I felt a bit guilty, spoiling the party, as it were.  I guess that's my job these days.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

My father: the statistics

I had a good talk with my father when I visited him the week before last, the gist of which was the need to have a clear image of an independent life for as long as possible.  Given his 53-year marriage to my mother, this is easier said than done.  He said he was aware of the unfavorable statistics regarding broken hips and losing a long-time spouse.  Having avoided it for a while, I decided to look them up.  A quick Internet search reveals that mortality rates go up about 50% within the year of losing a spouse.  This does not mean that 50% of spouses die within the year, but rather that, all things being equal, the odds of dying within a year of losing a spouse are 50% more.  As to broken hips, mortality rates are about 25% within a year, higher for older people due to complications such as blood clots, pneumonia or infection.  http://orthopedics.about.com/cs/hipsurgery/a/brokenhip_4.htm.  Sobering indeed.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

I missed Kaddish. I forgot!?

Yesterday was Sunday.  A day I don't have a strict routine.  I did family chores in the morning after morning services.   I had lunch, paid some bills, made some phone calls, worked on my lesson plans (have I said I'm a teacher?), then began making dinner.  Okay, the TV was on, a basketball game that I watched from time to time.  All of a sudden I remember: "Oh my God, shul!" I looked at the clock.  It was after 6:00 p.m.  I'd missed Mincha.  Fortunately, I was able to make the late Ma'ariv (evening prayer) service so I didn't miss both kaddishes.  But truth be told, I was mortified.  How could I forget to go to shul?  Isn't this obligation the most important facet of my life at present?  Am I not taking my kaddish obligation seriously enough? Or do I inwardly resent this burden of saying kaddish every single day, three times a day?  Or did I just "space out?" I'm only human.  I forgot.  Still, these questions are difficult to dismiss with an "oops." There's more than a grain of truth in all of them.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Words of comfort

Praying three times a day, you say a lot of words.  I haven't done an exact word count.  But here's an estimate. In the Artscroll prayer book, the morning prayers go from pages 48 to 162.  There are some pages that are skipped on certain days, when the Torah is not read and when Tachanun is either not recited or only a portion is recited (Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday).  Half of these pages are in English, so we are at 114, divided by two or 57.  Let's say on average 40 of these pages are recited.  Turning to a random page, there are 17 lines and most lines have 8 Hebrew words.  So that makes about 136 words per page, times 40, or 5,440.  Let's just say that the afternoon and evening prayers take up 24 Hebrew pages, or about 3,264 words, which brings us to a grand total or 8,704, though to be sure, the latter two prayers are mostly repetitions of words recited at morning prayers.  In any event, Jewish prayer is highly literacy oriented.

The question is: in how many of these words do I find meaning?  There are a few that speak to me in my current condition.  One is found in Psalm 146, recited in the morning, It says, referring to God, "He is the healer of the broken-hearted, and the One who binds up their sorrows."  Most mornings these words leap out of the page at me.  The imagery is medical, as the words "bind up" in modern Hebrew refers to a medic.  I am, truly, in need of an operation to repair my injured soul.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Best laid plans

Another missed Kaddish.  I flew on a red eye from California to New York after Shabbat.  The flight was scheduled to come in at 7:15 a.m.  That would leave me enough time to get to get home and then go to shul for Sunday morning Shacharit services.  Unfortunately, the flight was delayed almost two hours, so I didn't get home till after 9:00.  So I davened by myself, then got some more sleep.  Airline travel these days is just not conducive to the timing of Jewish prayer services.  Saying Kaddish would be a lot easier if my father did not live 3000 miles away.  But, I suppose, part of mourning the loss of a parent is caring for the surviving parent.  Grief cannot be allowed to slide into hopelessness.