Wednesday, May 30, 2012

More kaddish anxiety

I haven't missed an opportunity to say kaddish for over three months.  I've been in a synagogue every day, for every prayer service, Shacharit (morning), Mincha (afternoon) and Ma'ariv (evening) since I missed shul due to a delayed flight on the morning of February 26.  Since then, I've recited the four kaddishes during the morning service, the Rabbi's Kaddish (Kaddish D'rabanan) after the rabbi delivers his d'var halacha (words of Jewish law) following Shacharit, the Mourner's Kaddish that concludes Mincha, the Rabbi's Kaddish after the rabbi speaks between Mincha and Ma'ariv, and the Mourner's Kaddish that concludes Ma'ariv.  It's a routine, but it's not easy.  At a minimum, I have to keep track of time and not oversleep.

Yesterday I did oversleep.  My alarm went off at 5:55, but I turned it off and went back to sleep.  When I awoke it was already 6:30.  Shul began at 6:55.  To get to shul in time to make the first kaddish, I needed to be there by 6:58.  Fortunately, I'm in the habit of preparing everything I need for the day (lunch, backpack, usually even showering) the night before.  I'd even shaved the night before to get rid of the three days of stubble accumulated during Shabbat and the two days of Shavuot that had ended the previous evening.  Still, I had to make my coffee (priorities are priorities), dress, brush my teeth, grab my tallis bag, all of which I did, getting to shul with a few minutes to spare before services began.

A few weeks back I had a dream.  I was trying to say kaddish, but I was having difficulty.  I felt dizzy and had to hold on to a ledge to keep from tumbling.  I was short of breath, gasping for air.  I didn't think I'd be able to complete the kaddish.  That was the dream.

No one told me that mourning would be easy.  Maybe it shouldn't be easy?  But maybe I'm needlessly punishing myself?  Maybe the Jewish way of mourning, if followed to the letter, is completely obsessive?  I'd prefer not to answer these questions.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

God always provides mourners

I haven't been davening from the Amud (being the prayer leader) much in recent days.  The reason is that there are two new mourners attending the morning minyan (prayer service).  As they were in their shloshim period (first 30 days after burial), they had priority over me to daven.  Now that their shloshim period has ended, I expect to be, in the peculiar language of mourners, "back in business" (i.e., back leading prayers), at least on a part-time basis.

When I first began attending shul to say kaddish for my mother, I often acted as the shaliach tzibur (prayer leader) at all three services (morning, afternoon and evening).  I was getting pretty tired of it, but a friend told me not to worry, new mourners would inevitably supplant me.  And so they have.

There is a Yiddish expression, quoted in Ari Goldman's book Living a Year of Kaddish: "God always provides mourners" (page 98).   This book, in addition to Leon Wieseltier's Kaddish, are mainstays on the "recommended reading list" for mourners.  (Goldman's book, which I just finished, is too light and "feel-goody" for my taste.)  The saying expresses a bitter truth.  God takes away our loved ones.  In our grief, we are driven into shul to say kaddish.  There we join the larger community of mourners.  The community is "thankful" to have these mourners, as they form the foundation of the community of daveners.  And, for the existence of this community, we have God to "thank."

Second Yizkor

Today, the second day of Shavuot, was my second Yizkor.  Yizkor is the memorial service for the departed, recited four times a year: on the holidays of Passover, Shavuot and Shmini Atzeret and on Yom Kippur.   This time I decided to say Yizkor at the more informal and smaller 7:00 a.m. minyan I usually attend on Sabbath.  (See Posts "Where to say Yizkor" and "First  Yizkor" for my thoughts and reflections on my first Yizkor.)

I walked to shul alone in the early morning.   My thoughts were on the upcoming Yizkor.  I hadn't thought too much about it in the previous days.  But as my steps brought me closer to shul, I felt in a different sort of mood than usual.  I knew that, unlike most services, there would be space for me to be at one with my mourning.  If I felt like crying, I could.  (Not that crying is not allowed on other occasions, but it seldom happens.)  Mourners may not be crying as they go to shul on days when Yizkor is recited, but they know that they carry tears waiting to be shed.

The prayers today were festive, too festive for my mood.  The prayer leader sang the full Hallel with soulful, uplifting melodies.  I'd rather he hadn't.  They didn't lift my spirits or console me.  It verged on mockery of my feelings.  It's true that Judaism has periods of abrupt transitions from sorrow to joy (think Yom HaZikaron to Yom Ha'atzmaut), but I never was that flexible emotionally.  A passage I read today from Wieseltier's book Kaddish (page 414--only 100 more pages to go!) expressed my thoughts (as he often does): "to be consoled is to repent, that is, to change one's mind, to have one's attention diverted to another sorrow, to admit another object, another motive, another desire, into one's consciousness.  For sorrow wants nothing but sorrow.  (my emphasis.)  It is the perfect example of single-mindedness." Today I just needed to focused on my sorrow.

Unlike the first Yizkor, when I stood next to my father, I didn't cry as much today.  At the first Yizkor, the tears flowed, the wound felt raw, but it closed up quickly.  Today I wished the Yizkor service was longer.  The prayer for one's parent is only six lines.   I repeated it, feeling unfinished after the first reading.  I didn't want to move on. But I had to.  I said the prayers for Holocaust victims and fallen Israeli soldiers.  I wished to, but didn't feel, my mother's presence.  The feeling that once I had a mother who fed me, advised me (whether or not solicited), scolded me, misunderstood me but always loved me, stayed with me until the final kaddish of the service.  Then, following services, as food was served and schmoozing (informal conversing) began, that feeling too dissipated. 

The next Yizkor is just over four months away.  I still have my prayers and my kaddishes and my thoughts about my prayers and my kaddishes.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The efficacy of kaddish

The topic of the Rabbi's D'var Torah (brief words of Torah) between Mincha and Ma'ariv has been kivud av v'aym (honoring one's parents).  The last few evenings, the Rabbi focused on honoring a deceased parent.  It turns out the commandment to honor your parents extends even after their death.  One way of honoring them is by saying kaddish.

Ask the average person, and they'd probably say that the benefit of saying kaddish is its therapeutic effect on the mourner.  Kaddish focuses the mourner on his or her loss, affirms one's commitment to God and links the mourner to the larger community as well as one's fellow mourners.

However, the Rabbi did not mention any of this.  Rather, he explored the traditional view of kaddish: its ability to aid the soul of the deceased.  Kaddish accomplishes this either by rescuing the soul from the fires of Gehenom (hell) or by elevating the soul to the higher levels of Gan Eden (heaven).    Kaddish is recited on the Sabbath because even though the soul's sufferings in Gehenom cease on the day of rest, kaddish remains effective in elevating the soul.  The benefit of kaddish to the soul also explains why it is recited more than once a day (the mandatory minimum), for each recitation helps to elevate the soul toward its intended destination.  It is also the reason that a parent's wish the child not recite kaddish should be disregarded, for if the parent truly knew the efficacy of kaddish in saving the deceased's soul, he or she would never have made such a request.  (For more information, see Leon Wieseltier's Book, Kaddish, which explores the sources that gave rise to these ideas.)

The Rabbi specifically mentioned he could not answer any questions about these ideas, for they derive from mystical beliefs that cannot be rationally explained.  (The request for "no questions please" made me chuckle.)  Such ideas do not hold much meaning for me.  It's difficult to believe that my words are affecting my mother's soul or that, given all she did for others--her clients, friends, husband, children, grandchildren, the state of Israel--and the peace she achieved in her last days with her impending death and with her relationship with God, that she needs my words to find eternal rest. Perhaps, as with other matters of faith, I will in time come to understand these ideas more fully.  As with many other Jewish practices, it is action rather than belief that takes precedence.  I will continue reciting my eight kaddishes a day, even if they aren't doing anything for my mother's soul.  If they are, so much the better.

Monday, May 21, 2012

I miss my mother

For 56 years, my mother was natural and consistent part of my life.  After I moved to New York some 16 years ago, we spoke a few times a week on the phone.  There was no such thing as a short or pro forma conversation  with her.  Fortunately, the availability of unlimited minute plans came into existence about the time of my move.  I, as well as her many friends, sought her advice on matters mundane and profound.  In this way, and in so many others, I miss her. 

She appeared in a dream a few nights ago.  I saw her in the distance.  I wasn't expecting to see her.  I was so excited to see her.  I ran full speed toward her.  That was the end of the dream.

Each day the reality of her absence sinks in further.  And yet I still long for her presence.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

A kaddish war story

The custom when a parent dies is to say kaddish for a year (actually 11 Jewish months plus a day).  Of course, the mourner has to live his or her life during that period, which means work and travel.  It follows that while most kaddishes are recited in one's local synagogue, some will be said "on the road."  Finding a minyan (quorum) in an unfamiliar place is never without its complications.  This leads to the idea of the kaddish "war story."

I've noticed that men like to recount their kaddish war stories.  These are the occasions when they made extraordinary effort to find a minyan to say kaddish.  It might involve rounding up Jews at a hotel.  Or rushing to a shul near an airport and then rushing back to catch a flight.  An excellent example of a war story can be found at  There is, dare I say, a macho element to these stories, as if men are saying, "look what I did to say kaddish, can you top that?"

With that by way of introduction, here is my war story from last Thursday.  I needed to pick up my daughter from college in Middletown, Connecticut on Thursday evening.  I figured that the closest minyan to her college would be in New Haven.  I'd contacted a shul there; they said that minyan began at 7:00 p.m. The plan was to get there, daven, and then proceed to my daughter's college.  By the time I left work and got on the road, it was close to 5:00.  Then I hit terrible traffic (not surprisingly) in Westchester.  I figured I probably wouldn't make it to New Haven in time, so I got off the highway in White Plains, pulled over, took out my trusty iphone, and went on to find a closer minyan.  After some research and a few phone calls, I learned that the only certain minyan was in Stamford, Connecticut, at 7:45, not even halfway to Middletown.  I put the shul's address in my GPS and proceeded on my way.  More terrible traffic on I-95 got me into Stamford at 6:45.  Seeing that the shul was only a few minutes from downtown, I figured I had some time to walk around and explore the city.  During my walk, I noticed a 5K race had began at 7:00.  People were in a festive mood on this beautiful spring day as they watched the race.

I returned to my car at 7:20, figuring it would only take 10-15 minutes at most to get to the shul.  But when I went to turn on the street my GPS instructed me to turn on,  it was blocked by a police car.  They'd closed it for the runners.  So I detoured around, crawling along with other aggravated drivers.  After numerous turns, and more blocked off streets, I got to a small residential street.  By then it was already 7:40. Two more turns to go, 1000 meters, my GPS told me.  But the next turn was blocked off as well.  At that point, I decided to abandon ship. I parked and started running toward the shul.  A cop told me it was just up the hill.  As I ran, some kids were handing out water.  Turns out I was on the race course, and they thought I was part of the race.  Declining the offer, I continued up the hill, getting to the shul at exactly 7:45. But I'd been misinformed: shul didn't start till 7:55, so I relaxed and washed up.  I shmoozed with a gentleman from Queens who said he was there saying kaddish for his mother.  After davening, I asked him for a ride back to my car.  We shook hands in solidarity of our mutual mourning.  By this time the race had ended.  I drove to pick up my daughter.

Solo Kaddish

This morning at the Sabbath services, I was, to my surprise, the only person saying kaddish.  When services began, there were about 30 men.  The first kaddish is the "Rabbi's Kaddish" that follows "Rabbi Yishmael Omer", a reading about the hermeneutical principles of Talmudic exegeses.  It comes about five minutes into the prayer service.  After the Shaliach Tzibur (prayer leader) recited aloud the end of this reading, there was silence while the congregants waited for voices to utter the words of kaddish.  During that moment of silence, I realized I alone would be that voice.

There is a self-consciousness to being the only kaddish voice.  I'm naturally shy, so it's not easy being a lone voice among a crowd.  Of course, there is no option to stay silent.  No matter how self-conscious I might feel (and in the days when I first began going to shul after the shiva period was over, I was quite self-conscious), I must fulfill my duty to say kaddish.  That is my obligation to myself and my mother, and that is my role in the synagogue.

At the end of prayers nearly two hours later, the room had filled up to about 250.  The women's and men's sections were nearly filled. At the end of prayers there is a series of three kaddishes, the first coming after the Aleynu prayer.  I wondered whether, in the interim, another mourner had joined the congregation.  Again the moment came.  Again that moment of silence. And then my voice.  The Mourner's Kaddish.  Then another Rabbi's Kaddish.  Then a final Mourner's Kaddish.  Myself, alone, and my kaddish.

Friday, May 18, 2012

My father is back home

My father was came home from the rehabilitation facility yesterday following his hip replacement surgery.  Once again the healing process lies ahead.  The goal: an independent life.  The question: how to create a life that, for the first time since he was a young man, does not include my mother?

He ordered a hospital bed so he does not have to negotiate the stairs from his bedroom to the upstairs.  The bed is in my mother's office.  The room where, as a clinical psychologist, she spent thousands of hours working with clients to overcome the hurts of their past.  The room that she designed.  The chair where she sat.  The desk where she worked.  Her father's clock on the desk.  The photos she carefully arranged.  Her paperweight collection.   The bookshelves that hold the books which informed her ideas.   She is gone, but her presence still inhabits this space.  May this space perform for my father the healing she helped engender in her clients.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The routine

Today marks the halfway point of my kaddish year.  (See  By now I am well into the routine of going to shul twice a day, once in the morning and once for the afternoon/evening services.  It's more difficult to establish a routine for the afternoon services as the time keeps changing depending on the time of sunset.  This week Mincha (the afternoon service) begins at 7:50 p.m.  So I am making and eating dinner beforehand.  By the time I get home, around 8:25, there is not much of the day remaining.  When I first started saying kaddish at the end of November, Mincha began around 4:30, so I went to shul right after work and had my evenings free.

By contrast, morning services begin at a fixed time (either 6:45 or 6:55 a.m., depending on whether Torah is read.)  I've established a fixed routine.  I wake up at 5:45 or 5:55.  I do some exercises until either 6:02 or 6:12.  For the next half hour I dress, groom and make my coffee.  I leave home at 6:32 or 6:42.  Lately, I've relaxed a bit and am leaving more like 6:34 or 6:44, since there are some new mourners who are still in their Shloshim period (first 30 days after burial), and so have priority to lead prayers.  I go to my car, put my backpack, lunch and coffee in it, get my tallis bag, and walk to shul.  Fortunately, shul is only a four minute walk, so I get there by 6:40 or 6:50.  It takes me about two minutes to put on my tallis and tephilin.  If I'm leading prayers, I walk to the bima (prayer stand), otherwise I settle into my seat.

The routine makes up a large part of the kaddish year.  Going to shul gives structure to your day. You make your plans to fit around it.  But shul-going and mourning are not completely synonymous.  Shul-going is only one piece of it, a major one to be sure.  There are also the internal aspects, the dreams, the thoughts, the memories, the adaptations to new realities.  Does shul-going enhance this process?  Not an easy question to answer.  It does formalize and ritualize the mourning process, reminding you that your life has changed.  I know that no matter how many questions I have about what I'm doing, the only question I don't have is whether I'll continue with the routine.  The routine is the fixed star around which my mourning revolves.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

A complaint

I'm not aiming in this blog to complain about the shuls I pray and say kaddish at.  While I'm not happy about everything, they are in general good places to daven and have excellent rabbis.

I do have one complaint about which I spoke to the Rabbi a few days back: the physical condition of the shul.  It's messy.  There are books and other random objects lying around.  The ark should be moved slightly to create more space between it and the Amud (prayer stand).  No one seems to pay attention to the physical space.  The mess doesn't prevent us from praying.  But it's bothering me. (An observation: the shul would not look like this if women ran it.)

Why does this matter to me?  Well, I'm my mother's child.  My mother kept an immaculate home.  Her office, which she personally designed, was a work of beauty.  Every object had its rightful place, a place chosen after due consideration to aesthetics and function.  The cleanliness and order of her home owed  not to an obsessive cleaning compulsion, but grew out of her philosophy of living: every detail of life is important, don't leave things to chance, create an outer reality that mirrors your inner values, seek to create beauty in the world around you.

Needless to say, the physical space of shuls don't usually live up to these standards.  But I will try to improve the appearance of the shul, both for my needs as well as in my mother's honor.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Happy birthday. Happy mother's day

Yesterday was my birthday and today is Mother's Day.  Being the first born and born just before Mother's Day, the two days were always linked.   For years she would send me a birthday card, mailed so that I would receive it exactly on my birthday.  I've kept these cards in a file and looked at them today.  They contain brief but heartfelt words of her love (and admiration) of me.  In the past few years, these cards were replaced by ecards from, whose aesthetic and whimsical sensibility matched her own.  (I'm sure she did her research before deciding on the type of ecard choose).  It saddens me not to have received one this year. 

In addition to the cards, she always called me on my birthday.  Last year she didn't reach me so she left a message on my cell phone.  It was one of her outpourings of love ("I'm just calling to wish you a happy birthday and I hope you feel good about this being the day that you came into my life.")  Just before she died, I decided to upgrade to an iphone.  The company told me that all my voice messages would be erased when I activated the new phone.  I explained there were messages I wanted to keep.  They gave me the number of a service that can provide you with an audio file of your messages (   I waited until I received the file of the message before activating the phone.  Listening to it today makes it that much more difficult to believe she is no longer here with us.

 Of course I would call her on Mother's Day, and heaven help me if I forgot.  She took this day seriously.  While I've always objected to its commercial aspect, she viewed it as an occasion to recognize the importance of family relationships.  She poured out a lot of love on her children, and she wanted to be recognized.  On this Mother's Day, I wish I could tell her "Happy Mother's Day, Ma.  I love you."

Thursday, May 10, 2012

What would my mother think?

What would my mother think of my going to shul every day to say kaddish for her? 

My mother was very spiritual but not a big shul goer.  She was deeply committed to the Jewish people and its traditions, but was not a "halachic jew" (strict follower of Jewish law).  She wouldn't have expected me to do what I am doing.  She wouldn't have been offended had I, for instance, decided I would only go once a day to shul or, instead of saying kaddish regularly, done some kind of community service project in her honor.  She probably would have said something like, "if that's what you feel you need to do, then do it."  (Since I do feel the need to say kaddish three times a day, she is probably proud of me.)  She would have been offended only if I had not honored her memory in some real and Jewish way.

Yesterday in shul, the Rabbi's short d'var halacha (words pertaining to Jewish law) between Mincha and Ma'ariv posed the question of whether a child should say kaddish for a parent when the surviving parent has specifically instructed the child not to do so.  (I need to ask the Rabbi what would happen if it were the deceased parent who had so instructed the child.)  As in many matters of halacha, there was no definitive answer.  On the one hand, there is a principle  that honoring one's parents does not give them the ability to require children to countermand obligations imposed by the Torah.  On the other hand, it turns out that saying kaddish, which has such a powerful hold on Jews as a means to mourn, does not even rise to the level of a rabbinic obligation (let alone a Torah law), but is more in the nature of a custom which, admittedly, has assumed the status of an obligation.  In addition, one can, technically, fulfill one's kaddish obligation by having someone else say kaddish (thus the dubious practice of paying a rabbi to say kaddish in one's stead.)

The Rabbi's words provoked a funny comment by a fellow shul goer who will be completing his kaddish year shortly: "You mean I didn't have to say kaddish?  Now you tell me."  

And so I am not saying kaddish because my mother expected me to.  And yet I not saying kaddish just for myself.   I am saying kaddish for myself, and also for her, and also because I'm supposed to and also because I feel the need to.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Where is my mother?

Where is my mother? This is a question I've thought a lot about.  There are several possibilities.  Her  body lays under the earth at a cemetery in Richmond overlooking the San Francisco Bay.  (My parents chose the site because of its majestic view.)  I visited the cemetery about a month after she died, and it seemed so surreal.  I recited some Psalms, cried a little and left feeling fairly numb.

 But she can't just be there.  (At least I hope not, and I don't experience her as being confined to that plot of earth.)  Another place she can be is generally in the world.  At times I feel her presence, such as when I saw a ray of light entering the shul when I was praying, or when the trees started budding early this year.  This is a general sense of her presence, nothing overwhelming, but not a complete absence either.

Then there are the dreams in which she appears (see Posts: "I see and touch my mother" and "Visit from my mother"  Are these simply the product of my unconscious?  Or are they messages from another place? 

Another possibility is that she is in some sort of netherworld, neither here on earth nor firmly in some post-life place (say, heaven).  This seems to be the traditional Jewish view, thus the expression that one says to a mourner: "may the neshema (soul) have an aliyah (ascent)."  The idea, which I struggle to comprehend, is that during the first year after death, the soul needs the help of the children (traditionally just sons) saying kaddish in order to ascend to its proper place in heaven.  In his book "Kaddish," Leon Wieseltier explores the story of Rabbi Akiva and the condemned man that gave rise to this idea as well as the various sources that have developed it.  (See particularly pages 40-45 and 126-127.)  He summarizes the notion as follows: "That the dead are in need of spiritual rescue; and that the agent of spiritual rescue is the son; and that the instrument of spiritual rescue is prayer, notably the kaddish." (page 127)

I admit I don't experience my kaddishes in this way.  My mother was an incredibly self-directed, accomplished and determined woman, and the idea that she needs my help to get where she belongs in the world after death is tough for me to relate to.

Another possibility is that she is, in some spiritual way, within me and in the many others she touched in her life.  She told me she would be "in" me.  One of our final conversations went something like this:
         (she to me) "I don't know what I would do without you."
         (me to her) "Yes, but I don't know what I will do without you."
         (she to me, sighing) "Ah, yes."
         (me to her) "I guess I'll manage."
         (she to me) "I will be in you."

And so, where is she? All I can say is, while she is no longer in this world, she is not completely absent either.  Her presence can, in different times, places and ways, still be felt.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Halfway there? Yes and no

I've been getting asked a lot lately: "aren't you close to finishing your kaddish?"  It's strange and difficult to explain.  I don't feel that I've been saying kaddish for that long.  I'm about halfway done (more on that below).  But, for some reason, to outsiders it seems that I've been saying kaddish for longer than I actually have.

So how far into my kaddish year am I actually?  Like most things Jewish, it's not a simple matter. This is what I've learned. Technically, one says kaddish for a parent for a year.  (Kaddish for a spouse, sibling or, God-forbid, child, is a month.) When does the year begin?  On the day of burial.  That was November 22nd, or the 25th of the Hebrew month of Cheshvan.  Since the kaddish year is measured by the Jewish calendar, I would complete kaddish on the next 25th of Cheshvan.  But there's a rabbinic notion that the beginning of a day or a month can be considered as the whole.  Thus, the year of saying kaddish concludes on the first day of the 12th month, which would be the 26th of the month before Cheshvan, namely Tishrei.  However, the Yahrtzeit, or anniversary, is counted from the day of death, which was November 20th, but since it was in the evening, the new Hebrew day had already begun, thus the 24th of Cheshvan.  And so my last day of saying kaddish will be October 12th and the Yartzeit will be November 9th.

This means that I am more than halfway through my year of saying kaddish, the mid point having been 5 1/2 months after burial, or May 2nd.  The halfway point of my year of mourning will be on May 16th. 

Of course, this raises the question: what's so special about the first year?  In my conversations with  present or recent mourners, I heard things such as, "I'm almost done" or "just a few more days to go."  It's like the release from a heavy burden.  Or perhaps some sense of accomplishment.  In any event, will something magical happen after November 9?  Will I be healed?  True, the burden/obligation/honor of saying kaddish will have passed.  But will my life go back to normal?  I don't think so.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Recoveries: physical and emotional

I am glad to report that my father's hip replacement surgery was successful.  He is still in the hospital and is scheduled to be released to a rehabilitation facility tomorrow.  (I say "is scheduled" because I've learned that nothing in this process is for certain.)

I've always felt that his fall, which resulted in a broken hip and months of intense physical pain, was intertwined with my mother's death.  Not that he couldn't or wouldn't have fallen if she were still alive.  But his fall meant that his physical state mirrored his emotional state.  My hope and prayer is that the surgery is beginning of his physical, as well as emotional, recovery.

I don't mean to suggest that he will ever be the same.  There's a saying: "time heals all wounds." Like all cliches, it's at once true and false.  Some wounds do heal.  You cut your finger, you break a bone, it hurts a lot, then it heals.  You recover, usually back to your pre-wound state.  Your girlfriend leaves you, it hurts, you're despondent, but then you find someone else and the pain recedes, and, usually, dissolves.  When your parent or spouse, or God-forbid, child dies, it will always hurt.  There is no healing.  No life event can eliminate the pain.  The sting of the loss will fade.  I'm getting used to living without my mother.  I'm not wallowing in pain.  Nor, however, am I trying to minimize it.  Her absence will always leave a deep hole in my, and my father's, being.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Praying with intensity

The morning of my father's hip replacement surgery, I, as usual, led the morning prayers.  As I said the words, I was thinking of him in the hospital and of my mother watching over him.  I was focused on the prayers more than usual.  I don't know if prayer, or the intensity of one's prayers, has any effectiveness.  I'm pretty sure that if someone conducted a study of three groups, people who pray with great fervor, people who pray without much feeling (a group that is, in my experience, much larger than the former group) and people who don't pray at all (the largest group), that there wouldn't be any significant difference between the health and happiness of each group. Still, as long as one is engaged in the act of prayer, it makes sense to me to at least operate under the assumption that someone is hearing our prayers and that prayer somehow, in some way, can make a difference. 

With my hightened kavanna (intention) that morning, I ended up finishing later than I've ever finished before.  When I looked at the clock afterwards, I couldn't believe the time.  Some of the fellow daveners had already left.  A gentleman approached me and told me that I'd davened "so slow."  (Two weeks earlier someone else had told me to please slow down.)

The incident points again to the tension between the private acts of prayer and mourning and the community context in which they take place.  Nobody else in the synagogue knew what was in my mind as I said the prayers.  That morning, the words belonged solely to me.  Because of that, others left the synagogue later than usual.  I have absolutely no regret about that.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Surgery and guardian angels

My father is having hip replacement surgery today.  While this kind of operation has become fairly routine, there is nothing truly routine when it comes to having your body opened up, being under general anesthesia and having body parts removed and replaced.

This is not the first time he's had major surgery.  Twenty three years ago he had heart bypass surgery.  Before the operation, my parents did a lot of mental preparation.  My mother worked with my father to create positive images of his post-surgery life.  She also helped him with the spiritual dimension of being unconscious,  on life support systems and having your life in the hands of a surgical team.  She had him select two "guardian angels",  people no longer in this life, who would protect him during the surgery and usher him back into the world of the living.  These people were my mother's father, my Zady, and Moshe Feldenkrais, a famous body practitioner with whom my mother had trained. (My father wrote a book on his experiences and how to prepare for heart bypass surgery:

Speaking to my father last night, I recalled that time.  Today, as my father goes under the knife again, I know my mother will be watching over him.