Friday, June 29, 2012

"You're almost done with your kaddish, aren't you"?

It wasn’t that long ago that my mother died and I began showing up to shul every day to pray and say kaddish.  And yet those first days, when I raised my hand when the Gabbai asked, “is there anyone in Shloshim?,” seem like a distant memory.  In fact, I am now the “senior mourner” in shul.  Everyone else saying kaddish began their kaddish year after me.  Since they weren’t going to shul when I first began saying kaddish, they assume I am almost done with my kaddish year.  Just today, a gentleman whose mother died about two months ago, asked me, “your almost done with your kaddish, aren’t you?” 

Well, actually, no.  The official last day of kaddish is the 24th of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, 11 months after my mother was buried, or October 10, still more than three months away. 

Even though I’ve been asked quite often, “how much longer do you have to go,” I haven’t thought much about it.  Here, again, Wieseltier’s book Kaddish is instructive.  He was so engrossed in his pursuit for meaning that he didn’t accurately calculate his last day of saying kaddish.  (See Kaddish, pp. 460-461.)  He writes, “The psychology of my failure to establish the date properly is obvious, and boring. I prefer the poetry of it.  I prefer to think that my soul has been spinning out of time.  Chronological time is not the same as spiritual time.  The calendar establishes only the external stops and starts of religious life.  But the internal motions. . . . (p. 461.) 

I do feel that I’ve been saying kaddish for a while. I'm not focused on the end date, but on the internal processes that I 'm experiencing.  In the beginning of the latter stage of my kaddish year, kaddishes with tears are becoming less frequent.  Raw feelings are slowly being replaced by intellectual reflections, the pain of death with the search for its meaning.

Psalm 131. Prayer for comfort

I am continuing my reading from Sefer Tehilim (the Book of Psalms).  I try to recite one psalm every day from the first to the 150th.  Some psalms are part of the morning service: numbers 20, 30, 100, and 145-150 are recited every day, as well as the psalm of the day.  Psalm 24 is also recited when the Torah is returned to the ark on Monday and Thursday.

A few days ago I read Psalm 131 and it immediately grabbed me.  Psalm 131 is short, and is part of the series of "Shir Ha'maalot" (Songs of Ascent), Psalms 121-134.   It reads (combining the Metzuda and Robert Alter translations):    
A song of ascents for David.
Lord, my heart has not been haughty,
not have my eyes looked too high,
nor have I striven for great things,
nor for things too wondrous for me.
But I have calmed and contented myself
like a child that is weaned from his mother,

like a weaned child I am with myself.
Wait, O Israel, for the Lord,
now and forevermore.
This psalm begins with a message of consistency and calm.  We do what we can in this life.  We strive to take comfort in the small pleasures that make living worthwhile.

The process of mourning has its lows and highs, some moments of deep sadness and some of comfort and acceptance.  But mostly there is the regularity of going to shul, saying kaddish, continuing to live one's life, coming to terms with the new reality.

But then, unexpectedly, the psalmist invokes the image of the weaned child.  Is the weaned child content?  A child that feeds from his mother's breasts is content.  The weaned child no longer enjoys this comfort.  The physical intimacy between mother and baby has been severed.  What, then, is the comfort of which the psalmist speaks?   Perhaps it is that the weaned child has survived infancy and is ready for the next stage of development.  The stage of separation, of developing one's own personhood.

In this way, the death of mother is the ultimate and final weaning.  How to find calm and contentment after mother is gone?   Perhaps, the psalmist suggests, though striving for humility and achievable goals, I will find the calm and contentment "like a child that is weaned from his mother."

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Flowers in shul

About a month ago six flower pots appeared in shul.  At first I couldn't figure out what they were doing there.  Nobody said anything about them.  Then I figured out they were connected to the holiday of Shavuot. This holiday celebrates God's giving of and the Jewish people receiving the Torah. It's biblical origin, however, is agricultural, as a bookend of sorts to Passover.  There is a also a midrash (legend) that when the Torah was given on Mount Sinai, a mountain in the heart of the Sinai desert, the mountain bloomed with flowers.  (see for an extended discussion of the rationales and meanings of this practice.) Thus the custom of placing flowers in shul on this holiday.

The flowers were, I believe, geraniums. They were very pretty and contrasted sharply with the books and the shul's otherwise spare surroundings.  One of them sat on the sill just beyond the Bima (prayer stand) so that I could gaze at it as I led the prayers. 

The flowers elicited a sense of my mother's presence. She had a gift for taking care of plants. Inside and outside her house flowers bloomed and plants flourished. She was as attentive to their care as to the needs of the people around her. When I looked at that geranium, with its soft petals and its healthy stems, I couldn't help but think of her.  Finally there was some physical object in shul that brought memories of my mother to mind as I davened.  I never heard anyone mention the flowers, but they meant something to me.

Then about ten days after they appeared, they were gone.  No one said anything about them.  I was sad.  I told the Rabbi that I liked them and wished for their return.  But he told me there were halakhic issues (issues of Jewish law) involved in having plants in shul.  (He was, however, very supportive of my other ideas for making the space more aesthetically pleasing.  See my post of May 15 at  Today I had a chance to ask him what these issues were, and he said it had to do with avoiding the appearance of idol worship.  (Plants and trees were worshiped in pagan religions.) 

I've gotten over their disappearance (as Jonah had to get the sudden growth and then withering of the plant that shaded him from the sun).  But their brief appearance served to remind how physical objects, especially symbols of beauty and life, can serve as a permanent link between my mother and me.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Kaddish dog days

These feel like the kaddish dog days.  It's hot, in the 90s.  Even the air conditioning in shul is not enough to provide full respite.   I'd like to wear shorts and a t-shirt, but don't feel it's appropriate, especially for one who might be asked to lead prayers.  I can get by in jeans--the shul is not so formal to look askance at that, though even in this heat there are those who wear a tie and jacket to every service.  I'm not feeling very enthusiastic about the kaddish saying business.   I'm getting to shul on time, I'm saying my prayers, I'm saying my kaddishes, I'm trying to keep my mother's memory in mind, but it all feels a bit tiring.  I'm worn out. 

And yet, if I ask myself honesty, do I want this kaddish period to be over, I can't say yes.  The thought of ever more distance between my life and my mother's life carries a measure of sadness that is layered on top of the sadness that my mother is no longer with me.

Sounds of prayer

As a male mourner, I am often asked to act as Shaliach Tzibur (prayer leader).  The experience of leading prayers is a very different than being one of the congregants.  When you are one of the crowd, and especially if you sit toward the back as I do, you see most everyone else.  My sense of the congregation is mainly visual.

But the prayer leader faces away from the congregation.  In this sense, when I lead prayers, I feel both "on the spot" and a sense of singularity.  Others may be looking at me, but I am not seeing them.  My experience of the congregation is mainly auditory.

What do I hear?  I hear their amens to my blessings, the low mumblings as they recite the words of the initial prayers and the clicking of tephilin boxes as those arriving late take out their tephilin.  Often it seems that no one is paying attention.  Only when the kaddishes arrive, first the Kaddish D'rabanan (Rabbi's Kaddish) and then the Mourner's Kaddish, does a sense of unity arise.  This sense dissipates during the P'sukei D'zimrah section (introductory psalms), the response often being sporadic and desultory.  (There are days, however, when everyone seems to be in sync from the get-go. I cannot explain the these day-to-day variations.)

Invariably at some point during the service, a tephilin box will fall off a table or chair and clank on the floor.  Sometimes it seems that tephilin boxes are raining down so many fall.  Or a cell phone will ring or chime.  (This is quite annoying.  I try to remember to silence my iphone as soon as I enter the shul.)

Once "Yishtabach" is uttered, however, the congregation seems to jump to attention.  It is as if batting practice has ended and the game has begun.  After this blessing is completed, there is a brief silence, broken by the prayer leader's short kaddish and Borchu.  The Shma is recited and then the Amidah.  The silent prayer.  Five minutes of complete silence.  A silence that unifies the congregation.  Then the amens of the congregation in response to the public repetition of the prayer. 

To be a male mourner is not only to join into a community of shul goers but also to act as their leader.  You enter community, but then are instructed to go to the front and face away from them,  simultaneously being of them, but at the same time apart from them. Alone but at the center of the community, supported by their voices. 

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Communication between male and female mourners

I usually daven at a different shul on Sunday mornings than the one I daven at weekday mornings.  The davening at the former shul tends to be slower, less formal and more female friendly.  Today I was asked to lead the prayers, being the only male mourner present.  When I got to the first kaddish (the Rabbi's Kaddish), I sprinted ahead at what's become my normal pace, namely quick but not so fast as to render the words incomprehensible.  After I got a few words into it, I felt a friendly tap on the shoulder from the Gabbai.  He told me to slow down.  It was only then that I realized there were two women also saying kaddish, and at a much slower pace than I.  So I took a deep breath and slowed the pace down by about a factor of two.  For the remainder of the four kaddishes, the three of us went at more or less the same pace.  I had to listen for their voices to cue me as to how fast I should go to stay in sync with them.

After davening, I spoke to one of the women saying kaddish.  Her father had just died, and she had begun coming to morning minyan.  She also came to the early Shabbat minyan I attend even though I believe she otherwise would have attended a Women's Tephila (prayer) group that day; even among these orthodox women, it is a norm that d'var b'kedusha (matters of holiness) require a quorum of ten men, and so kaddish would not be recited at a Women's Prayer group.  (If any reader of this blog knows otherwise, please let me know.)  She told me she appreciated that I had slowed down and was listening to my words to guide her own pacing.  I told her I had been trying to hear her own pacing.  The good thing was that we were listening to and communicating with each other.  Too often women kaddish-sayers occupy a completely different universe than males kaddish sayers to the detriment of the larger community.

This leaves a final question: why do women kaddish sayers tend to go slower than men?  It may be that men have spent more time in shul.  Even before I began reciting kaddish, I'd heard it thousands of times during prayers.  Since men more often attend shul daily, the service has become more routinized for men which in turn leads to greater speed in davening in general. Perhaps women tend to take kaddish more seriously and concentrate more on what they are saying than men tend to do.

Once again I learned a lesson in the communal nature of the kaddish.  The tendency to internalize it, to make it only about one's personal loss, must be balanced against the needs of others.  My kaddish year is not exclusively my own; it is bound up with other mourners with whom I share this state of sorrow as well as with the general community of shul goers.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Winks and nods

An important skill that I've had to learn as prayer leader is to interpret the nonverbal communication of the Rabbi and Gabbai.  (The Gabbai is the person who chooses the prayer leader and generally oversees the service.)  Learning the meaning of their gestures comes up in two situations.  The first is after the recitation of the Shma.  The Shma Yisrael (Hear Israel, the Lord is God, The Lord is One) is composed of three paragraphs from the Bible along with two blessings before it and one, two or three after it (depending on the the time of day and the community custom).  The Shma Yisrael is recited in Shacharit (the morning service) and Ma'ariv (the evening service).  It is recited silently except for the last two words of the third paragraph, "The Lord your God" and the first word "Emet" (true) of the blessing after the Shma.  But before the prayer leader recites these three words, he must get the approval of the Rabbi, or, if the Rabbi is not there, the Gabbai.  This approval is done non verbally, usually with a nod.  When the prayer leader completes his own reading of the Shma, he must look at the Rabbi or Gabbai and wait for the nod.  (If there is no Rabbi or Gabbai present, he may say the three words whenever he finishes his own reading.)

Each person has his own way of giving the prayer leader the go-ahead.  Most look at you and nod their head.  Others give you a quick glance.  Still others raise their eyebrows.  It's usually pretty clear when the signal is being given, though it takes a while to distinguish between the subtle movements of their recitation and the more directive go-ahead signal.  Once, when I first started leading prayers, I made the mistake of thinking that a particular Gabbai would give me the signal, but he seemed to be nodding out and I just kept waiting and waiting until someone in the congregation shouted out, "Nu!"

The other signalling occasion is the start of the public recitation of the Amidah (silent prayer).  After the prayer leader finishes his own silent prayer, he has to look at the Rabbi or, if there is no Rabbi, the Gabbai.  If they are still praying, he has to wait for them to finish, which is indicated by the three backward steps that one takes after concluding the prayer.  Sometimes the Rabbi or Gabbai will finish, but then survey the congregation to see how many people (actually just the men) are still praying, and when enough are done, he will then give you the nod to proceed.  One Rabbi taps on his prayer stand, which I learned is his signal that he was near enough to the end of his own prayer for the prayer leader to proceed.  I wasn't always sure about the tapping because he keeps his hands on the prayer stand when he prays, so I think I didn't always get the signal, so lately he's been tapping so loudly his intent is unmistakable. 

One thing that makes me uncomfortable is the need to look at the signal giver for the go-ahead.  I don't like staring at them.  So what I do is give them glances every few seconds or so.  I probably miss a signal every now and then because I'm not looking, but I'm not going to stare at a person who is praying or reciting Shma.

Like any public ritual, there are many layers that are only revealed through consistent engagement.  To be a mourner is to learn on the job how to lead prayers.  I can say that I've concluded the apprenticeship period, have achieved the level of competency and, perhaps, may even attain the level of expert by the time my mourning period ends.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Mourners comforting mourners

As a member of a synagogue (actually two), when another member or his or her relative dies, I get an email and/or phone call informing me of the fact, when the person is sitting shiva (first seven days after burial) and the time of any Shiva Minyan.  A Shiva Minyan is a prayer service at the home of the person sitting shiva.  A mourner during the shiva period  is not supposed to leave his or her home.  (Thus the idea of "sitting" shiva.)  Since the mourner is obligated to say kaddish, the community must come to the mourner's home.

A Shiva Minyan is very different than a prayer service at shul.  There are some liturgical differences (Tachanun is omitted, Psalm 49 is recited).  But the main difference is one of feel.  It's strange to enter someone's home and pray there.  You see pictures hanging on the wall (and secretly judge the person's taste in art), family photos, books, furniture, the layout of the home.  A memorial candle burns.  In New York apartments, people (men) cram into the livingroom.  Space for living is uneasily and temporarily transformed into space for prayer.  You are there to pray and comfort the mourner, even if it's someone you don't know.

The quality of prayer in a house of mourning is also different than shul.  The incongreity of praying in a livingroom often makes for a more intense prayer.  You feel that your prayer is not just your own personal prayer, but rather a prayer on behalf of the mourner in the hope that, somehow, your prayer and presence provides a measure of comfort.

For the past few days, I've been davening at Shiva Minyans each morning and evening.  At a Shiva Minyan, the person sitting shiva (if a man) has priority to lead services, but as some are not comfortable doing so (and others are women), men saying kaddish (e.g., me) are asked to lead the davening.  But how, as someone whose mother died a half a year ago, can I separate my own loss from that of the person sitting shiva?  I can't look at a mourner without also seeing my own sorrow.  There is a selfishness to mourning that is impossible to escape.  Yet as I led prayers last night and tonight, I tried to think of myself as a representative of another in mourning.  My words had a purpose.  A bond of sorrow between mourners.  Mourners comforting mourners.

Monday, June 11, 2012

I'd walk a mile for a kaddish

Thursday night I flew out to California to spend time with my father who is recovering from hip replacement surgery.  I missed the afternoon and evening prayers on Thursday to get to the airport.  I got into San Francisco around 11:30 p.m., arrived at my parents' home around 12:30 a.m. and got to sleep around 1:00.  I awoke at 5:45 a.m. to get to shul at 6:30 for morning prayers.

The Sabbath presented even more of a challenge.  My parents' house is at least three miles from the synagogue and downhill, the elevation gain on the return of about 600 feet.  Usually there is a Friday night minyan closer to their home, but this week it was cancelled owing to a bat mitzvah celebration at the shul. I could of davened at home, but didn't feel comfortable with that.  Saying kaddish, especially on Shabbat, has become too ingrained in my life to miss it.  So I drove to the shul before the Sabbath, parked, prayed the afternoon and Shabbat evening services, leaving my father alone until I returned at 9:00 p.m.  The next morning I walked the three miles back to shul, then walked back home afterwards, sweaty and tired from the climb, ate, rested, then walked back to shul at 7:00 p.m. for the afternoon and evening prayers.  So in total I walked 12-15 miles in less than 24 hours just to make sure I said kaddish for my mother.  I didn't have to.  But I feel as if I do.  Not so much for my mother's soul sake, but for the sake of my soul, my own healing.  If you take mourning seriously, and I do, you'd walk a mile, or two or even three just to be counted among the kaddish-sayers and kaddish responders. 

Last night I flew home on a red eye that arrived in New York at 5:30 a.m., in time for me to catch a cab home and make the 6:45 a.m. morning minyan.  As I write this post, my eyes are bleary and my legs ache.  From making the effort to say kaddish.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

My mother's birthday

Today is (was?) my mother's birthday.  She would have been 80.  My parents would have had a special celebration. I would have called her.  I did last year, knowing it would likely be the last time I wished her happy birthday.  She would have said something memorable, about gratitude for her friends, family and husband.   This year, what can I say?  It's trite to say "happy birthday" to her where ever she is.  This year I can't say it. I can only think what if.

Judaism teaches that we remember our loved ones on their Yahrzeit, not their birthday. Why is this?  In the U.S. it is birthdays that mark national holidays, Washington, Lincoln, MLK.  A birthday marks the beginning of life, its promise, its potential.  A Yahrzeit marks the life lived, the promise fulfilled, the potential realized.  We remember life by marking its end. Beginnings mean less  than endings, for it is what transpired in between that carries meaning. 

My mother lived a rich, unusual, inspiring life. Today would been the beginning of its 80th year. I'm sad she did not live to see it. I will commemorate her life and cry for its ending, not today, but on November 9, the 24th of Cheshvan, the anniversary of her passing.

Seating arrangements

A few weeks back, a distinguished looking elderly gentleman began showing up for the Mincha/Ma'ariv (afternoon/evening) service.  He'd been in Florida since I began coming to shul.  I was sitting in the seat I'd become accustomed to sit in.  He sat down next to me and explained that, since he had joined the shul in the 1950s, he'd been sitting in the seat where I was sitting.  That was his "makom kavua." I moved to a nearby seat.  It didn't matter much to me, but it meant a lot to him.

The phrase "makom kavua"  cannot be directly translated into English.  Literally, it means "permanent" or "fixed place."  It refers to the seat you regularly sit in.  But the "makom kavua" has near cosmic significance for many people.  Why?  There are a number of ways to understand it.  Perhaps some people feel there is a certain physical location in shul from which they can connect with God.  If they were displaced, by even a seat, the connection could be lost.  Another possibility is that people like to mark off space, sort of like how animals demarcate their territory to assert dominion over a specific area.  On a mundane level, one's "makom kavua" may simply reflect general preferences based on proximity to various features of the shul such as the exit, aisles, the shaliach tzibur (prayer leader), the rabbi, etc.  Some people like to sit in the back, some in front, some on the sides, etc.  I generally prefer to sit at the end of a row toward the back of the shul. 

A few days ago, I noticed that a young man was sitting in the elderly man's seat.  Just before davening began, the gentleman walked in.  I asked the young man to move over, explaining that the gentleman usually sat there.  The young man moved.  The gentleman smiled, shook my hand and thanked me for "taking care of him." 

There is an idea that during the year of mourning, the mourner shouldn't sit in his "makom kavua." The mourner is supposed to move back from his normal seat.  That's what I've done.   In his book Living a Year of Kaddish, Ari Goldman writes that he rebelled against this notion and stayed in his regular seat.  But to me, the idea makes sense.  Moving back reminds the mourner that his or her sense of normality has been altered.  While, as a kaddish-sayer, the mourner draws the attention of the congregation, the mourner is too preoccupied with grief to be at the community's center. Moving to the periphery of shul's physical space mirrors the mourner's own psychological state.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Praying in my sleep

This morning I had another close call.  I again overslept (see my previous oversleeping entry at  I woke up just 12 minutes before I had to leave for shul.  I didn't even have time to make coffee.  I dressed, groomed, drank some OJ and left. I was hoping someone else would be davening (leading prayers), but looking around, I saw no one, so it fell to me. Feeling half asleep, and decided I'd daven as fast as I could so I could get back home to have time to make coffee and get fully ready for the work day.  I stumbled over words I usually recite cleanly, but truthfully no one seemed to mind or care.  I've recited the prayers so many times by now I can say them without even thinking.  Even the Kaddish D'rabbanan, with all its arcane Aramaic, rolls off my tongue without need to refer to the Siddur (prayer book).

When I finished davening this morning, I received just as many Yisher Koachs (congratulations) as usual (perhaps more).

Friday, June 1, 2012

Dream of Comfort

Someone should write a book about the function of dreams in recovering from trauma and loss.

Driving home from work two days ago, I heard an interview with Doc Watson, who recently died, from the late 1980s.  Doc Watson, who I saw perform with David Grisman (one of the world's great mandolinist) about eight years ago, was a master folk/country guitarist.  (see  In the interview, Watson spoke about the death of his son with whom he had performed.  (I didn't catch how his son died, only that it was sudden and devastating).  When asked how he was able to keep performing after his son's death, Watson related a dream. In the dream, Watson felt as if he were sinking into quicksand.  He then had a vision of his son, who stretched out his hand to help Watson.  Watson understood the dream to mean that his son had given him permission to continue performing and making music (though he also said that his wife never recovered from the tragedy). (The interview can be heard at

The night after I heard this interview, I dreamed again of my mother.  The quality of the dream was different than my previous dreams of her.  In this dream, I didn't interact much with her.  Rather, I saw her talking to other people in a natural kind of way. She wasn't in pain, she wasn't suffering.  She was relaxed and happy.  When I awoke I felt a kind of comfort I haven't felt before.  It wasn't a dream of longing and absence.  It was a dream of acceptance and a sense of her continual presence.  I walked to shul that morning feeling buoyed and content. I was asked to daven P'sukei D'zimrah (the introductory psalms of the morning service).  I did so willingly and happily.

As I've said before, the process of mourning is neither linear nor entirely predictable.  Perhaps, and maybe even predictably, as I enter the second half of my kaddish year, feelings of comfort and acceptance will ascend and feelings of pain and loss will recede.