Monday, April 30, 2012

Visit from my mother

Two nights ago I dreamed of my mother.  She was ill with cancer but looked good.  She'd come to pay me a visit in New York.   I was in an unfamiliar home.  I was transferring some spices into spice bottles.  That was something she did.  My mother had a system for every aspect of life.  Regarding spices, she had small bottles each of which she labeled and kept in alphabetical order in a drawer.  On my last visit to my parents' home, their housekeeper of 25 years, who was totally devoted to my mother, showed me the method my mother used to transfer spices from store bought bottles into the smaller bottles using a small funnel.  Back to the dream, my mother told me she'd come to New York because she wanted to see my new home.  I was so touched she'd come despite her condition.

Death upends our relationships.  When our loved one is alive, we interact in our awaken hours.  After they die, we interact in visions and dreams.  Can it still be called a relationship? I can't answer that question.  I can only say that I am thankful for her visit and wish she would come more often.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Just when you think there are no more tears . . .

Friday morning brought a sparkling sky.  I must have slept well as I was feeling more energetic than usual.  Perhaps the anti-depressants have kicked in.  As I got to the Amud (prayer stand), I noticed a ray of light entering the shul through the window.  Thoughts of my mother came flooding in.  She loved nature.  As a child, my parents took me to the forests of Canada, the mountains of the Sierras, the Redwood Coast and the Death Valley desert.  After I left home, they became world travelers. One of my favorite pictures of them is on top of a mountain in New Zealand.  They took my kids to the Rockies, Niagara Falls, and the Mohave Desert.  That morning, every kaddish I said brought tears, the light of her presence pressing close to me.

One thing I've learned about the mourning process: its path is neither linear nor predictable.  Most days you go about your business as if nothing much in your life has changed.  Then comes a day, sometimes just a few moments, when you again feel broken.  You never know when, or why.

Watch my speed

About a week ago, an elderly, distinguished gentleman at the morning minyan approached me just as I was about to take my place as prayer leader.  He told me I was going too fast and would I mind slowing down.  I was taken aback. I wasn't sure whether or not he was being facetious.  Once before I'd been accused of davening too slowly.  I've prided myself on davening at a moderate pace, not too fast or slow.  About a month ago, a friend had given me this strange complement: "I'm sorry your mother died, but I like your davening.  I can really follow along."

The next day I told a friend about the conversation with the gentleman.  He timed me. Lo and behold, I had indeed sped up.  I wasn't even conscious of it.  I guess familiarity breeds speed. The more you lead prayers, the greater the tendency to zoom through it.

Since then, I've made an effort to slow down.  Two days ago I approached the gentleman after the prayer service and asked him about my pace.  He expressed his appreciation that I'd slowed down.  We introduced ourselves to each other.  He mentioned his wife had fallen and broken her hip during Pesach.  I mentioned my father's broken hip.  He said he'd pray for my father.  I said I'd pray for his wife.  The true meaning of communal prayer revealed.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Yom Ha'atzmuat davening

This past Thursday was Yom Ha'atmaut (Israel Independence Day).  The founding of the state revolutionized the Jewish world, injecting a nationalist element that was lacking for two millennium. The services, usually so fixed and predictable, attempted, with some strain, to account for the new reality.  Even the Rabbi was caught off guard.

At the evening service, the prayer leader began singing Hatikvah (the Israel National Anthem) toward the end of davening, then was instructed that it should come at the very end of the service.  Morning services began at the unusual time of 6:30. Usually they begin either at 6:55 or 6:45, depending on whether it's a Torah reading day or, on Rosh Chodesh (the new month), at 6:35.  The service then took the form of a Yom Tov/Shabbat davening with the addition of Mizmor L'todah and the omission of Nishmat (as on Hoshana Rabba).  Then there was Hallel with the Cantor leading.  There was singing, an unheard of occurrence at morning minyan.  (If I were to break into song at any point on a regular day, people would think I'd lost my mind.)  The Rabbi then announced we'd move to the special Haftarah (prophetic reading) for Yom Ha'atzmaut, forgetting there was a Torah reading, as it was a Thursday.  (I believe this is the only time of the year (excepting holidays, fast days and Shabbat) when there is a Haftarah during the morning services.)  At the Mincha service, there was a question whether an avel (mourner) should daven (he did, a decision I didn't agree with, since it is a day of joy and mourners don't lead prayers on holidays).

I enjoyed that everything seemed to be mixed up and uncertain. Israel shook up the Jewish world which is still trying to figure out how to integrate the existence of a Jewish state into its consciousness and ritual.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Getting bored; playing with iPhone

Lately I have to admit I'm been getting pretty bored at davening. My prayers and kaddishes are flat.  When I'm leading prayers, which I still do most mornings, I have to be somewhat engaged.  But for the afternoon and evening prayers, there are about four mourners at minyan these days, so I'm only called to daven about once every couple of days.  When I'm seated among the other congregants, it's difficult to engage when the Amidah (silent prayer) is being repeated during Mincha by the prayer leader or during the Rabbi's short d'var torah (words of Torah) between Mincha and Ma'ariv.  Often I resort to pulling out my iphone and checking my email, making changes to my Things To Do list, or even going on Facebook.  Believe me, I'm not the only one playing with their smart phone during the prayer service.  A few months ago I was at a minyan where a gentleman seemed to be praying quite fervently.  As soon as he finished his prayer, the smart phone came out and he was tapping away. While I try to make sure that sounds are turned off, phones are not infrequently chiming or ringing during the service.

Tonight I was so spaced out that I couldn't even remember what the Rabbi said when he recited Sephirat Ha'omer (the count of days between Passover and Shavuot).  I was pretty sure he said that tonight was the 20th day, but just to make sure, I asked the person next to me what he said.  That person said that yesterday was the 19th day, indicating that tonight is the 20th day.  He said he couldn't tell me which day it was tonight because he doesn't count until after nightfall, but fortunately I can still add 19 and 1. I can honestly say I haven't missed a prayer service in a while, but that statement is true only about my physical presence.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

"Hush up, please"! Mourners saying kaddish

In a certain way, people can be divided into three categories: those whose parents are alive, those who have lost one or both parents in the more distant past, and those who have lost a parent recently.  The later two categories can be subdivided into adults who have lost parents and children who have lost parents.  I, thank God, am not in the latter group.  I have friends and relatives who are, and the idea of growing up without both of one's parents is hard to fathom.

In either case, there is a chasm between people whose parents still live and those who have lost a parent.  The death of a parent is a defining event in one's life, and, in a way, the process of mourning is the gradual acceptance, or at least dealing with, the shift from one group to the other. 

This gap was quite evident in shul last Saturday evening.  As the evening Ma'ariv prayer was moving toward its conclusion, ushering in the end of Shabbat and the beginning of the new week, the Rabbi said Sefirat Ha'omer (the counting each evening of the 49 days from Passover to Shavuot).  The congregation then broke into a commotion as people began talking and getting the urge to get home and begin the week.  But there was still the Mourners Kaddish to recite.   I suspect that most, or at least many, of the congregants were younger people whose parents are alive and thus have never said kaddish.  So they weren't attuned to the upcoming kaddish or the need of mourners for quiet and decorum.  So I did something I seldom do; I "hushed" real loud.  That worked.  The place settled down.  I and the other mourners said kaddish.  Afterwards, another mourner and myself acknowledged our mutual displeasure with the scene.

Mourners seem to inhabit a different universe than people who have never been mourners. It's a world we don't enter voluntarily.  We are thrust into it, against our will.  We try to accommodate ourselves to it.  It helps to have the cooperation of others.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Kaddish: shul delivery device

Kaddish is the Rabbi's greatest invention to compel shul attendance.  Since kaddish can only be recited in a minyan of at least 10, the obligation to say kaddish necessitates going to synagogue on a daily basis.  If you are committed to reciting kaddish at every prayer service, then you have to go to shul at least twice a day, once for the morning service and once for the combined afternoon and evening services.  And not only must you go to shul, you have to get there, for the morning service at least, on time, since the Rabbis in their brilliance/perversity placed kaddishes at either end of the service, just before P'sukei D'zimra (the introductory psalms), and then after the Aleynu prayer.  And just in case you might want to cut out after Aleynu, the synagogue rabbi invariably offers a short word of Torah, after which the mourner recites yet another kaddish, the Kaddish D'rabanan (Rabbi's Kaddish). 

As if attending shul every day for every minute of every service during weekdays were not enough, services on the Sabbath and Yom Tov (holidays) require an even greater level of time commitment.  The Sabbath service at most shuls lasts about 2 1/2 hours, depending on the length of the Torah reading and how long the Rabbi speaks.  On the last day of Passover, with Hallel, readings from two Torahs, the Rabbi's speech, Yizkor and Musaf, the services I attended lasted almost 3 1/2 hours.

That's why on most Sabbaths, I daven at an early minyan that takes about an hour and three-quarters to two hours.  I simply don't have the energy to last from beginning to end of a 2 1/2 to 3 hour service.  At the regular service, most people come late so they are not sitting through the entire service.  They don't have to come on time because they are not saying kaddish.  That's what I did before my mother died.  And they can leave early if they get tired or bored.  I did that too before I had to say kaddish.

One Sunday a few weeks into my kaddish saying, I went to shul on a Rosh Chodesh (new month).  It turned out that a boy was having his bar mitzvah that day.  With all the speeches and celebrations, services lasted two hours.  I sat there, feeling stuck.  I played with my new iphone to pass the time.  I stayed to the end, squirming in my seat, then said kaddish. 

I don't mean to complain.  Or maybe I do.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Yahrzeit for six million

This past Wednesday evening marked the beginning of Yom Ha'shoa, Holocaust Remembrance Day.  Like usual, I went to a Mincha/Ma'ariv service.  I led the Mincha afternoon prayer service.  Then, like usual, the Gabbai announced, "does anyone have Yahrzeit for Ma'ariv?"  No one responded.  I then overheard a fellow worshiper sitting near me say quietly say to his friend, "I have Yahtzeit for six million."  A great line.  I thought to myself, yes, this evening, we all have Yahrzeit for those killed in the Shoa.   

I was disappointed then that at the end of the Yom Ha'shoa service, not everyone joined in the mourner's kaddish.  The Rabbi led the kaddish but most just responded "amen."  I said kaddish along with the rabbi and some others, and thought, on this day, we are all mourners.  We should all be reciting kaddish, with the amens said in heaven by those whose lives were brutally ended.

Thursday, April 19, 2012


Yizkor comes from the verb to remember.  We Jews commanded to remember many things.  As a collective, and as individuals, we must remember the Exodus from Egypt.  That is the purpose of the holiday of Pesach.  It is especially fitting, therefore, that one of the four Yizkor services during the year takes place during Passover. (The other three are on the festivals of Shavuot, Shmini Atzeret and on Yom Kippur.) The act of remembering, or not forgetting, is one of the signature acts of Judaism.  As I was growing up, I remember my Bubbe saying, "don't forget where you came from."

As a person saying Kaddish daily, I am constantly reminded to remember my mother.  As I recite Kaddish, I try to remember something about her, some quality, some event.   Sometimes I just some try to get an inchoate sense of her.  I suppose, though, that after my year of Kaddish, when I am no longer "obligated" to remember her, the Yizkor service will take on even more significance.  These four days will be the formal times of rememberence. 

I didn't know what to expect for my first Yizkor.  The Rabbi helped me.  He spoke before the service.  He told us to imagine a beautiful lake (in my mind, the lake was covered with mist).  He told us to imagine there was a bridge across the lake.  We, the living, were on one side of the bridge.  Our departed loved ones were on the other side.  At Yizkor we got the opportunity to be with them again, even if briefly.  We could meet halfway across the bridge before returning to our respective sides. 

At Yizkor I recited the prayer for my mother who had gone to "her world" for her soul to be bound up "in the Bond of Life" in Gan Eden (the Garden of Eden).  I did cry, more than just tearing up and less than tears rolling down.  My father cried more.  I heard the muffled cries of others.  My father told me that when  he was growing up, wailing in shul was common, especially during Kol Nidre and the U'ne Tana Tokef prayer ("who shall live and who shall die . . .) on Yom Kippur.  Now Yizkor seems to be the only occasion left where crying in shul is accepted.

Yizkor ended.  It's not a long service.  As quickly as the tears came, they dried up.  The bridge, seemingly so real for those few moments, faded away.  I felt better afterwards. 

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Where to say Yizkor?

As the Yizkor service approached on the last day of Pesach, I needed to decide what service to attend.  There were various considerations.  One was that my father would be with me.  He would be reciting Yizkor for his parents and his wife.  The other was whether I wanted to do Yizkor in the small setting of the early morning minyan I usually attend, where I'd be one of a handful of people saying Yizkor, or at the main shul minyan, where the Rabbi would speak before hand and there would be hundreds of people saying Yizkor.   I opted for the latter.  For my first Yizkor, I wanted to be a just one of a large group.  I felt a security in numbers.  I wanted to know if there would be loud cries, soft sobs, or just silence.  I will write about my experience in my next post, but suffice to say I think I made the right decision.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Psalm 73. A prayer.

Now that I am praying faithfully three times a day, the words of the prayer service, said over and over again, get a bit stale.  One way I've tried to inject something new in my prayers each day is to go through the Book of Psalms, reciting one (or in the case of longer ones, portions of one) each day.

I've been trying to mine the psalms for words that speak to my current state of mind.  Recently the  words of Psalm 73, which I've read at least ten times before, jumped out at me as if I'd never seen them before.  The Psalm (using a combination of the Metsudah and Robert Alter's translations) concludes (verses 21-28):
For my heart was embittered and my conscience stabbed with pain.
And I was ignorant and knew nothing, as cattle I was with You.
Yet I am continually with You, You held my right hand.
You guided me with your counsel, and toward glory You took me.
Whom have I in heaven but you, and besides You I desire nothing on earth.
Though my flesh and my heart yearn, God is my heart's rock and my portion forever.
For behold, those far from You perish, You cut down all those go astray from You.
But as for me, God's nearness is good to me.
I make the Master the Lord my shelter, to recount all your works.
A prayer that somehow, through the pain, I will come closer to, and, even for a moment, feel that I'm with, my Maker.  It hasn't happened so far.

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Yizkor booklet

A few weeks ago, an item appeared in the shul newsletter that comes out each Shabbat reminding the congregation that Yizkor on the last day of Passover was approaching and requesting donations to the shul be made on the deceased's behalf.  The donation and the name of the deceased would appear in a booklet printed and distributed at the Yizkor service.  I didn't feel ready to have my mother's name appear.  Perhaps next year.  It's too soon, the memory of her too fresh, to have her name on a long list of those who have departed this life.  Maybe I still can't accept that she's gone.  And while I know the shul needs money, I'm ambivalent about memorializing her as part of a synagogue fund raising activity.  I'm not sure how I'll feel about this as time passes.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Yizkor: to stay or not to stay?

My first Yizkor is in two days.  Yizkor is a remembrance service.  Traditionally only those who have lost a parent stay for Yizkor.  Everyone else leaves the sanctuary.  I used to.  After my mother was diagnosed with cancer, I was so happy to leave, knowing that the time would come when I'd have to stay.  That time is coming on the last day of Passover.  Then my brother mentioned that some say that an avel (in the first year of mourning) does not stay.  So I called my Rabbi.  He said I should stay, and that the custom of leaving arose out of a sense, no longer considered accurate, that Yizkor might be too overwhelming when loss is so recent.  I called a friend who told me that a different Rabbi had told him that the original reason an avel does not say Yizkor is that the mourner might become too overwhelmed by the grief of others, but that, in this day and age, public grief is not as intense as it used to be.  So the Rabbi suggested he stay for Yizkor, which he did, he had a good cry, and felt better afterward.  And so I will stay, think of my mother, maybe cry, and be counted among the community of others who no longer have both their parents.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

How is this Passover different from all other Passovers?

On all other Passovers, we would fly to California to join my parents for the Seders; this year my father flew to New York to join me for the Seders.  On all other Passovers, my father would lead the Seders; this year, I led the Seders.  On all other Passovers, my mother would make potato kugel, gefilte fish loaf, roasted turkey, two kinds of charoset, two flavors of homemade sorbet, chicken soup and kneidlach to die for, matza brei for breakfast, vegetable burgers, dozens of Passover rolls for snacking, different types of salads, honey cake, sponge cake (and more); this year my wife and I worked to approximate some of her recipes.   On all other Passovers, we dined on dishes handed down from my Bubbe and Zady (grandparents); this year, we dined on dishes I purchased for $1.99 each at Target on the morning of the Seders.  On all other Passovers, I felt I was a child again being loved and cared for by my mother; this year I was the adult taking care of my father.  On all other Passovers, I felt a sense of wholeness in the embrace of family; this year, I worked to keep the threads of family intact.  On all other Passovers, I would have long talks with my mother about all sorts of things; this year, I am trying to keep her memory in my thoughts.  On all other Passovers, I could sleep in and go to shul depending on how I felt; this year, going to shul is an obligation.

However, as on all other Passovers, we felt joy as we completed the Seder, sang "Next Year in Jerusalem" and the other songs to "Chad Gadya". 

May I, may we all, be brought, in the words of the Hagadda, "from slavery to freedom, from sorrow to joy, from mourning to festivity, and from servitude to redemption."

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Embarrassing myself at the Siyum Bichorim

Erev Pesach (the day before Passover) was rough. The night before I picked my father up at the airport.  He'd flown from California in his rather immobile state to join my family for Pesach. Earlier that day my wife had a medical emergency (nothing serious thank God).  I tried to take a short cut from the airport and ended up getting lost.  By the time we'd gotten home, I'd missed Mincha.  After attending to his needs, beginning to set up for Passover cooking and attending late Ma'ariv, we did Bedikat Chametz (the search for leavened bread). By the time we'd finished I was completely exhausted from the accumulated toll of the week's Passover preparations.

The next morning I woke up at my normal Friday time, 5:58, to get to shul by the 6:55 start time. When I got there, however, they were already up to Az Yashir. I looked at a shul calendar and realized that prayer had begun 15 minutes earlier than usual to account for the siyyum. (The siyyum is the completion of a talmudic tractate the attendance of which enables first born male children (of which I am one) not to fast on Pesach eve.  Too embarrassed to enter so late into the service and having missed the first kaddishes, I snuck out of the building so no one could see me, returned home, did some more Passover preparations, then returned to attend the 7:30 minyan. As I put on my tephilin, a man from the minyan I'd missed who had given the siyyum after the 6:55 minyan admonished me (slightly) for missing it. After davening and the siyyum, the person began reading the special, and long, kaddish that follows. He struggled, his Aramaic not being too good. When he finally he got to the familiar "yisgadal", I reflexively joined in. He and the other congregants hushed me up. He said this kaddish was difficult enough to recite without being interrupted. This was not the first time I'd begun saying kaddish at the wrong time. Twice when I was in Berkeley I'd started to say kaddish before there was a minyan. But this time I'd erred in the presence of about 100 people.   Another embarrassment.

Oh well. I guess I'll be better at saying kaddish the next time (which, God willing will not be for a while).

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Why I am leading prayers?

I am, so to speak, back in business as prayer leader.  It's gotten to where I make my way to the bima (prayer stand) as a matter of course unless the Gabbai informs me that someone has a Yahrzeit.  I've continued to ask myself why.  Why does a mourner have preference to lead prayers?

Since the Shiva concluded, I've been making my way, slowly, through Leon Wieseltier's book "Kaddish."  It's not really a book in the normal sense.  Rather, it contains translations of Jewish sources related to kaddish and the child-parent relationship, interspersed with his reflections of saying kaddish.  On page 366 (the book is 585 pages, so at the rate I'm going, I should finish before my mother's first Yahrzeit), he brings sources that address my question.  It turns out that, not surprisingly, there is a machloket (difference of opinion) about the status of mourner as prayer leader.  According to the Shulchan Aruch, the classic 16th century code of Jewish law, the mourner should lead prayers only as a last resort.  However, according to the Rama, Rabbi Moses Isserles, whose gloss on the Shulchan Aruch records the Ashkanazi practice, the mourner should lead prayers.  A later authority (Solomon Luria) explains why: "because the King of Kings prefers broken vessels."  As Wieseltier beautifully puts it, "The opinion of the former is that sorrow depletes a man.  The opinion of the latter is that sorrow deepens the man."  (page 367)

It is comforting to know that the Rabbinic tradition recognizes the contradiction between brokenness and leadership.  I am chosen to lead because my heart is broken.  I have my answer.

Honor your father and your mother

Tonight between Mincha and Ma'ariv, the Rabbi spoke about the commandment of honoring one's parents.  As he noted, no time of the year is more redolent with parental duty as is Pesach, the only holiday whose obligations are fulfilled inside one's home.  The question was why there is no blessing attached to this mitzvah (commandment).  Several answers were proposed with the most logical one being that this obligation had no fixed time element.  May we be blessed, he continued, to still have the opportunity to fulfill this commandment.  And as for those who have no parents (a truly frightening thought), may we be blessed, the Rabbi concluded, to be the recipient of our own childrens' honor and love.

I don't have my mother.  But I do have my father.  All my child-to-parent feelings are now directed solely toward him.  The mitzvah can still be fulfilled, even if in an incomplete way.  I have not yet been stripped of all connection to the two who (with God) created me.  With my father coming to my home for the first time to celebrate Pesach, it falls upon me to honor him in a more profound way than ever, and through that honor, to honor my mother and her memory.