Tuesday, July 31, 2012

National and personal mourning

Tisha B'av is the Jewish day of collective national mourning. Marked by fasting and other prohibitions on physical pleasures, it commemorates the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 586 B.C. by the Babylonians, the rebuilt temple in 70 C.E. by the Romans as well as other calamities. In a sense it is a national Yahrzeit.

Some of the rites of the holiday are the same as those observed during Shiva, sitting on a low stool or the floor, not greeting your fellow, not shaving. As the first words of Eicha (the book of Lamentations) were recited with its mournful melody, I couldn't help feeling myself transported back to the Shiva period for my mother. For the first time in over a month, I felt tears well up.

It is not easy to feel the pain of the more abstract idea of national mourning. It's a lot easier to feel the pain of personal loss. This Tisha B'av the two pains for me were essentially fused and indistinguishable.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Mistakes during prayer

It's been just over eight months (about 250 days) since my mother died. Since that time I have been called upon to daven (pray) from the Amud (act as prayer leader) many times. My best estimate is about 175 times, since I don't daven on Shabbat, there have been days I didn't lead prayers and these days I'm usually asked to lead prayers once a day, usually at Shacharit (morning prayers). This involves the public repetition of the Shemona Esray (the prayer, also called the Amidah) except at Ma'ariv (the evening prayer).

No matter how many times I recite the words of the Amidah, I stammer, stumble and mispronounce some of them. Not many. Not enough for people to take much notice. But I'm aware of every error. There are a few tongue twisters that often get me. Sometimes I space out and pause before regaining a sense of where I am in the repetition.  My Hebrew is fairly fluent but I don't speak and pronounce the language like a native speaker.

Is it a big deal? Maybe. Yesterday the Rabbi taught the fifth Mishna of the fifth chapter of Mesechet Brachot. It reads in part: "One who prays and errs, it is bad sign for him; if he is the prayer leader, then it is a bad sign for those who appointed him, as a person's representative is as if he is the person himself." The Mishna goes on to tell of Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa who could tell who would be healed and who would die based on how fluent the person's prayer was.

But, I thought as the Rabbi spoke, I'm not representing the community because I am especially qualified. I am leading because my mother died and so the community had decided I have a "chiyuv" (obligation) to lead prayers. It's my very status as a mourner that has thrust me into this role, a role that is both wanted and unwanted.

After prayers, I talked to the Rabbi who explained that he didn't think the Mishna was talking about minor errors in prayer. It probably had in mind skipping entire paragraphs or reciting them out of order (more likely when prayer books hadn't yet been printed).

In any event, I will probably continue to make mistakes, though I would like to daven a hundred percent fluently on my mother's Yahrzeit. But I'm not going to drive myself crazy about it. Frankly, I appreciate when other prayer leaders make mistakes. It humanizes them. A few months back there was an old man who had to be helped to get through the repetition by someone standing right next to him. I remember that prayer more than the many times I've heard the Amidah being repeated flawlessly.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

My mother's hidden hand?

How is my mother's influence still being felt? How's this: I am planning to go to Israel with my son next week for two weeks. But I'm having a problem. My son's passport expired. (Children's passports are good only for five years, so you really have to stay on top of them to make sure they're still valid.) We applied for a new passport six weeks ago. Heard nothing. Then last Friday we get a letter from the State Department: he didn't sign his application and we have to reapply. I called the State Department many times to make sure we did everything we could to get it on time. On Monday we went to the Post Office again to file a new application. There was no one I could talk to at the State Department who could assure me it would come before our scheduled flight.

This morning after davening I was talking to a friend about the problem. Another congregant overheard our conversation. He said, "talk to Elliot Engel's office" (our local congressman). Aha. Never would have thought of that. And so I did. And they helped. Apparently they specialize in helping constituents with this kind of problem. By day's end, the congressman's staffer assured me the passport had been issued and would arrive tomorrow or Friday. 

I left a message on the congregant's Facebook page thanking him for his advice. He responded it was "bishert" (fated) because he was there this morning because he just happened to oversleep.  And I was there because I just happened to mention the problem to a friend. Because I am going to shul. Because I am saying kaddish for my mother. 

Remembrance: a Project

It's very easy to say things about a deceased such as "their memory will not be forgotten." It's much more difficult not to forget.  "Out of sight, out of mind," a cliche that has a lot of truth to it.  I have good friends and relatives who live far away. I stay in touch, but do I think of them often? Not really. Do I think of my mother all the time? No.  Do I always think of her when I'm in shul and reciting kaddish? No.  Sometimes I'm reciting kaddish and have to remind myself of the reason why.

Again, Wieseltier.  Why is mourning limited to twelve months? Because, according to Mannasseh ben Israel, "after twelve months the body is gone and the soul ascends and no longer descends." After twelve months, the soul forgets the body.  And so "the period of mourning is the year in which desire has not yet been defeated by death. When the twelve months are over, and death defeats desire, the soul will be gone. And the son will be back" (Kaddish, p. 552). A prooftext from Psalm 31, verse 13: "I have been forgotten from the heart like the dead, I have become like a lost vessel." Wieseltier: "We [Jews] don't mind not being wanted. We mind not being remembered" (Kaddish, p. 553).

How to keep memory alive? People pay thousands, sometimes millions, of dollars to try. They hang pictures, donate plaques, dedicate buildings, create foundations, anything to concretize the fact that a person who now is dead once lived.  Yes of course the memory of my mother will always be with me, and, I can safely say, with my children. It will be expressed in how we think and act, in subtle ways. I have begun to quote my mother whenever I say something she might have said (sort of like in the Talmud, when one sage states a teaching in the name of a previous one). The point is: keeping memory alive is not easy. It's one of the most difficult tasks I can think of.

And so I am engaged in a project to keep her memory alive. I am fortunate that she liked to write. She edited a book on couple's therapy. She also wrote poems which she shared with us about a year before she died. And there were other writings that I found on her computer (fortunately not password protected), more poems, thoughts about the therapeutic process, thoughts about death, things she might never have intended to share with us, but there they are. And in her filing cabinets there were hard copies of letters and the draft of a book about the problem of drugs in American society. So I took it all and am going through it, and in this way she still speaks to me. My hope is to create a booklet of her writings in time for the first Yahrzeit (anniversary of death). Something concrete that I can say: my mother lived, this is who she was, and, perhaps, this is why and how she will be remembered.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Reading Kaddish

Tonight I finally finished Leon Wieseltier's book, Kaddish.  A long time fan of his from my days as a subscriber to the New Republic, I bought it shortly after it was published (1998).  I got through about half of it then and put it aside.  In the back of my mind, I knew I'd pick it up again when kaddish became a reality.

I began rereading it shortly after Shiva ended, starting at the beginning.  (I'm a slow reader.  Also, it's 583 pages.)  For the past few months, I've been reading it only on Shabbat.  As I went along, I tagged the page with a post-it when he said something I liked.  The book sits on my desk with yellow, orange and green post-its sticking out like weird decorations.  If I refer to one of his comments in this blog, I remove the post-it.  Many remain.

It's definitely the best book I've read about mourning both from intellectual and emotional standpoints.  In reality, it's not really a book, but more of an intellectual travelogue of his year mourning his father's death.  We find out little about his actual life, nothing about wife and kids, some about his father, a Holocaust survivor.  The majority of pages are devoted to translations of rabbinic sources on mourning, the study of which he devoted himself during his kaddish year.  These in themselves are quite interesting, but it's his reflections on these sources and thoughts on kaddish and mourning that make the book so moving.

Lately I've sought out other books about kaddish and mourning.  Why?  I want to better understanding the process of mourning and am curious what others have to say about it.  (Also my taste in reading tends to be on the heavy side.) I've read Ari Goldman's Living a Year of Kaddish (a fast read, too warm and fuzzy for my taste). I skimmed through Anita Diamant's Saying Kaddish (a nice general primer on Jewish traditions associated with death).  I just purchased an out-of-print book edited by Jack Riemer called Jewish Insights on Death and Mourning, published in 1995.  I've gone through Maurice Lamm's classic, The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning, a compendium of Jewish law related to burial and mourning.  And I recently purchased A Daughter's Recitation of Mourner's Kaddish by Rahel Berkovits (2011), a compendium of laws related to women saying kaddish.

Am I being morose by reading these works.  A bit, but that's what's interesting me these days.  In a way, kaddish is not just a prayer, it's a mindset.  Here's a bit of Wieseltier (p. 455) that speaks to this:

"For as long as I have been organizing my life around the kaddish, I have been organizing my life around my father. When kaddish is over, he will be gone. My strict observance of the year of mourning has had the consequence of delaying the return to normal life. I have lived in a state of suspension, shielded from a fatherless world by a fatherful practice. The Jewish way of mourning has turned an absence into a presence."

He's right. Reading these books is a way of acknowledging my mother. I'll do anything to stay as close to her as possible.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Acceptable conduct during kaddish

I mentioned a while ago a friend's comment about his strong feelings that nonmourners should not be engaging in any activity that shows lack of respect toward those saying kaddish.  (see http://mykaddishyear.blogspot.com/2012/03/mourners-converse-about-how-nonmourners.html) This includes putting away one's tallis (prayer shawl), tephilin, and, certainly, talking.

I haven't had the kind of strong reaction my friend had, but lately the thing that really annoys is the talking during kaddish.  (see my post http://mykaddishyear.blogspot.com/2012/04/hush-up-please-mourners-saying-kaddish.html)  In my previous post I mentioned that, at the conclusion of prayers, the rabbi spoke at length about the laws of the upcoming holiday of Tisha B'av.  Wouldn't you know it, a number of people had questions about what he said and began discussing them with the rabbi right next to where I was standing and saying the Rabbi's Kaddish.  While the Rabbi's Kaddish is not the Mourner's Kaddish, and, thus perhaps does not have the same level of sanctity as the latter, the only reason I am saying that kaddish is that I am a mourner.  It seems to me any kaddish demands a level of seriousness and attentiveness from the kahal (community).  I was getting pretty annoyed and, as I recited the words, inside I was screaming, "shut the f*** up!"

I don't demand complete silence in shul. I admit to talking during the prayer service.  I'm not proud of it, but I'm it's not easy being silent among a group of people (especially Jews) and sometimes something strikes me that I want to share with someone sitting near me.

As for kaddish, nonmourners should ideally wait until mourners have finished saying kaddish before preparing to leave.  Does it really make a difference if you wait one minute to fold your tallis or put away your tephilin until the mourners have recited the final Mourner's Kaddish?  This is the ideal. However, I can live with the following: 1) others can put away their tallis as long as it doesn't fly in my face when they fold it; 2) others can put away their tephilin if it is done as quietly as possible, without loud clicking of the tephilin boxes; and 3) others should not talk while mourners are reciting kaddish, the Mourner's Kaddish or the Rabbi's Kaddish.

Kaddish is supposed to have a metaphysical effect on the soul of the deceased.  (see http://mykaddishyear.blogspot.com/2012/05/efficacy-of-kaddish.html) I don't know if it does or doesn't, but I do know that my intention during kaddish is to try to create a pathway between my soul and my mother's soul.  Failing that, I attempt at least to get in touch with my own feelings.  Failing that, I am at least saying words that speak to the human attempt to raise God's profile in the world as well as the hope of a "great peace" that will descend from heaven upon us.  Any one of these is reason enough for people to pay attention and respond appropriately to my words.  May it be so.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Reduced joy at davening this morning

Two rules I've tried to follow in this blog is not mentioning the names of specific individuals and not complaining too much about shul (synagogue services).  The two shuls I attend are supportive, generally welcoming and open-minded and have excellent rabbinic staffs.

But today's morning service didn't work for me.  It's Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the Hebrew month of Av.  Davening on Rosh Chodesh is almost twice as long as regular Friday prayers.  First, the person sitting directly in front of me was shuckling (shifting back and forth) at such a frenetic pace that I couldn't concentrate.  (I wasn't leading prayers as Rosh Chodesh has an element of joy and so mourners do not lead prayers.)  Shuckling is a usual physical activity that accompanies prayer.  (I've noticed it's more common among men than women.)  I do it, usually moving slowly from side to side. It's a sign of concentration and engagement with one's prayers.  But this person's shuckling was so drastic that I couldn't concentrate on my own prayers--and we were only up to the preliminary service.  So I got up and stood in the back.  I moved to a different seat and sat down, but the person seated in front of me was reciting all his prayers out loud, again throwing off my concentration.  I stood again and prayed in the back.  Then a child who was helping collect tzedekah (charity) during the repetition of the silent prayer dropped the Pushka (charity box), spilling the coins therein.

I just couldn't wait to say my kaddishes at the end and leave.  As services concluded, I said my two Mourner's Kaddishes.  Only the Rabbi's Kaddish remained, following the Rabbi's (usually) brief D'var Halacha (words of Torah law).  But today the rabbi spoke at length about the laws attendant to the days leading up to Tisha B'av.  Tisha B'av, the Ninth of Av (this year commemorated on the tenth of Av since the ninth falls out on Shabbat) is a day of public mourning for tragic events in Jewish History.  The tradition is that from the first of Av through Tisha B'av, joy is reduced.  The rabbi said that this implied that one's general attitude should be one of joy (how can you reduce joy if you are not joyful?).  Is that right?  I have much to be grateful for, but am I usually joyous?  Not really.  I certainly wasn't this morning. Maybe that was the point.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

I'm a fortunate mourner

This evening at the Mincha/Ma'ariv (afternoon/evening) service, the same person led the prayers for both Mincha and Ma'ariv.  This was a surprise because the Gabbai is very careful to distribute the davening "honors" among the different (male) mourners.  I knew that he saw me, and there were only three mourners in the congregation (we all know who each other are), so I was puzzled when he did not call on me or the third mourner to lead the one of the prayer services.

After the services, I found out the reason.  The mourner who led services was in "Shloshim" (first thirty days after burial of a parent).  But he was already in mourning!  I spoke to him to find out what happened.  First his father died.  A week later his mother was diagnosed with lung cancer.  Six weeks later she died.  He told me she did not have the will to fight the disease.

There are mourners and then there are mourners.  I am a regular mourner.  My mother lived 79 years; just slightly below the national average for White females (80.8 in 2008; see http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/2012/tables/12s0105.pdf).  She lived for 19 months after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, well above the norm of six months.  (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pancreatic_cancer)  She lived a full and productive life, working up until a month before she died.  I did not lose her when I was a child, or young adult.  She lived to be at my wedding, dote on and care for my children, attend their bar and bat mitzvahs.

There is a young fellow saying kaddish at shul; his mother died of cancer at age 64.  Too young.  My brother's wife died at age 50 from breast cancer.  Way too young.  A friend of mine's father died of a heart attack when he was 37.  Utterly tragic.  Two weeks ago I wrote about a friend whose parents died within a half a year of each other.  http://mykaddishyear.blogspot.com/2012/07/death-in-family.html  And now there is another who lost both parents in less than two months.  (In a previous post, I noted the hightened statistics of one spouse dying within a year of the other spouse's death; see http://mykaddishyear.blogspot.com/2012/03/my-father-statistics.html)  My father, thank God, is doing better and seems to be regaining his independence following his broken hip.

So it seems that I am in the category of fortunate mourners.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Strange numbness of mourning

There's something strange about the process of mourning I'm experiencing. Objectively, my mother's death was the worst thing that ever happened to me in my life.  She was my mother, the one who bore me, nursed me and raised me.  Despite (or perhaps because) of our conflicts, she was an overwhelming presence in my life.  Her absence leaves a hole in my life--all the things I wish I could discuss, the advice I wish I could call upon, the achievements of my children I wish I could share.   Her support, her wisdom, her voice, her laugh, her opinions (solicited and unsolicited), all that is gone, forever.

And yet I must say that after the initial devastation, I feel strangely at ease.  I don't feel particularly depressed.  (I'm sure the anti-depressants are helping in this regard.)  I seldom cry when I think of her or recite kaddish for her.  My father and I even cracked jokes when the mortician came to take her body away and as we were dumping the dirt on her coffin.  Even now, when I think to myself "my mother died," I feel more a sense of numbness than of pain.  Come to think of it, I felt more broken up and emotionally wrought after a women I loved dumped me when I was in my early 20s.

Why is this?  Several possibilities suggest themselves.  Perhaps the anti-depressants (Lexipro, 10 milligrams).  Perhaps because I know that everyone experiences the death of a parent and now it's my turn.  Perhaps because her death marked the end of the suffering and pain she experienced dealing with pancreatic cancer, especially in her last month.  Perhaps because she faced her own end with dignity and honesty and was wholly at peace with the idea of leaving this world.  Perhaps because the process of mourning has moved me into a community of other mourners and shul goers, whose presence support me emotionally and spiritually. Probably a bit of all these.

I almost feel a bit guilty that I'm not more grief filled.  When I speak about her death to others, it's more with a shrug of resignation (what can you do?) than of a broken heart.  Not to say I am done with tears.  I'm still waiting for more.  They just don't feel very close to the surface right now.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Solo kaddish, revisited

A little less than two months ago, I wrote about the self-consciousness that attends being the only person in shul saying kaddish.  http://mykaddishyear.blogspot.com/2012/05/solo-kaddish.html  Yesterday at Shabbat services, I again said kaddish alone.

In his book, Living a Year of Kaddish, Ari Goldman had a strong reaction against saying kaddish alone.  He describes a man whose mother died and began saying kaddish along with Goldman.  He writes: "I was sorry for Melvin's loss, but I was happy to have his company.  I was no longer the only mourner in the congregation. There's nothing worse than saying kaddish alone in shul.  You feel self-conscious and singled out in a way that gives new meaning to the term Kaddish Yatom, Mourner's [literally "Orphan's"] Kaddish.  When you say kaddish alone, you feel especially orphaned" (p. 99).

There are certainly many things worse than saying kaddish alone.   In fact, I no longer mind being the only person saying kaddish in shul.  Saying kaddish is such a natural part of my life, having done so every day for nearly eight months.  Even more, I now feel it's an honor to say kaddish alone, to stand for those whose world is no longer whole, to speak the words that announce to the community that there is at least one among them that is in pain.  "Yitgadal, v'yitkadash . . . "  I own these words now.  

Friday, July 13, 2012

Wearing the same old clothing

I haven't written about some of the other obligations/restrictions that are associated with mourning a parent.  The main one, and the one that has the most life-altering consequences, is, of course, the obligation to go to shul and say kaddish.  But there are others as well.  The mourner is not supposed to wear new clothing.  He or she is not supposed to go to parties or concerts or s'machot (celebrations).

For the most part, I've been abiding by these restrictions, and then some.  On the clothing issue, I've refrained from wearing new clothes other than pajamas and socks.  That's not to say that I haven't bought any new clothing.  My mother loved to shop and loved to take me and her grandchildren shopping.  She loved a good deal and she had great taste in clothing.  So it feels too much for me not to buy a nice shirt or slacks when I see something I like.  I can't avoid seeing clothes for sale as I often take my kids shopping.

I've ended up buying a few items.  While I could give them to my son to wear and then, technically, they would not be "new", that doesn't feel right to me.  So they sit in my dresser or my closet. Meanwhile, my old jeans are getting pretty ragged.  They'll have to do for a few more months. Putting on my new clothes for the first time will be one of the markers that the year of mourning has ended.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Summertime, and the davening is easy

I'm in summer mode now.  I'm a school teacher, so I have summers off.  I know I'm lucky.  I work very hard during the year and this is my time to relax, take care of all the mundane matters that piled up during the year, work on some personal projects, and enjoy life.

Of course, I still have to get to shul twice a day, morning and evening.  When I was working, I'd go to the 6:45/6:55 minyan (6:45 on Mondays and Thursdays, when the Torah is read).  I kept up this habit for a few days after the school year ended.  I felt I shouldn't change my routine.  Plus, I was comfortable in that minyan, with the people, the Gabbai, the general atmosphere.

But I felt so tired, I thought: why am I knocking myself out when I can go to a later minyan and wake up at 7:00 (amazing!) instead of at 6:00?  So last Friday I tried it out: waking up at 7:00, leaving my home at 7:45, going to the other shul I belong to, and praying at their 8:00 minyan.  I felt so much more relaxed.  The other shul is more low key anyway, less formal and less well attended.  So for the past week, that's been my new routine.

I do feel somewhat guilty for abandoning the minyan I've been a fixture at for the past six months. I've led the services there countless times.  At the end of June, I was trading off with two other men who also had a chiyuv (obligation) to daven.  I'd daven half and then one of them would pick up at the Yishtabach blessing, or vise versa.  One of them is away for the summer and with me gone, I suppose the third man is carrying the prayer leading load every day.  (I've been meaning to speak with him at the evening service to ask how it's going.)

In the end, though, sleep has trumped guilt.  Taking care of my personal needs is overriding my sense of obligation to the minyan.  Saying kaddish is feeling less of a burden.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The functions of kaddish

In her book Saying Kaddish, Anita Diamant writes, "The mystery of Kaddish is revealed every time it is spoken aloud with others.  The truth is that the sounds of the words are more important than their definitions.  The text is secondary to the emotional experience of its recitation.  The meaning only becomes clear when given communal voice" (Saying Kaddish, p. 14).

While Diamant goes on to say that the words are "not insignificant," (ibid.), she has a good point: the actual recitation of the kaddish seems to transcend the words themselves.  It's not that the words aren't nice, they are, especially the ending prayer for peace.  But the longer I say kaddish, the more I believe that its basic functions go much beyond the text of the prayer.

There is the metaphysical function of the kaddish and its supposed efficacious effect on the soul of the deceased.  (The idea is that the kaddish elevates the soul from Gehenom (hell) to its intended destination in heaven; see my post at http://mykaddishyear.blogspot.com/2012/05/efficacy-of-kaddish.html)  I have no way of knowing if this is the case; even if it is, the the kaddish has two major practical functions in the here and now.

The first is that it gets you out of the house at least twice a day.  You have to pray and say kaddish with a minyan (a quorum of ten). You may like some of the other shul goers, you may not care for others.  It doesn't matter.  You got up, got out of your home, walked or drove to shul at a specific time and entered a synagogue.  You are others who have done the same thing.  You discover that some of them are nice.  Not only that, some are sympathetic to you, having had the same experience as you. The communities with whom I pray community most don't care about my own inner experience. Most of them are there to fulfill their own obligations to pray.  Some of them are also there to say kaddish.  I am with them.  That's the fact.

The other practical function of kaddish is that it gives you something to do.  It's a task, and it's doable. The Mourner's Kaddish is not that long.  11 lines.  It doesn't take that much effort to say.  Yes it's in Aramaic, which which is more difficult than Hebrew, but the reason it's in Aramaic is that Aramaic used to be the vernacular and easier to say than Hebrew. Even now, most shul goers have heard it so often that, by the time you say it as a mourner, you're already fairly familiar with the words.  Once you've said kaddish on a regular basis, it begins to roll off the tongue. Sure, the Kaddish D'rabanan has five more lines for a total of sixteen, but even that after a while becomes fairly easy to recite fluently.

It's okay if I often feel like I'm a kaddish wind up doll.  During Aleynu and other prayers that immediately precede kaddish, your spring gets wound up.  The prayer ends and the words of kaddish come out.  It's okay.  Every day I have a small sense of accomplishment.  I went to shul.  I said kaddish.  I'm doing this because my mother died.  That's enough.  Not always.  But often.

My mother was a strong believer in the power of behavior and goals to effect positive change.  She edited a book called "Couples Therapy."  (see http://www.amazon.com/Treating-Couples-Jossey-Bass-Clinical-Technique/dp/0787902055/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1341941252&sr=8-1&keywords=hilda+kessler)  In it, she contrasts feelings with behavior.  She writes about what she saw as "the current overemphasis on feelings as a guide to therapeutic behavior.  Feelings, like children, are delightful, but also erratic, uncontrollable, and often excessive."  (Couples Therapy, pp. xvii-xviii.) In her therapy, she held that giving couples "simple and doable" tasks in which they had to work cooperatively could often diffuse areas of conflict between them and provide the key to positive change in the relationship.  (pp. 26-27)

Kaddish works in a similar way. The tradition gives you task. Get up, get out of  your home, get to shul and say kaddish for 11 months. That's it. It doesn't take away the pain of loss. It doesn't provide a full measure of comfort. But it does peg your mourning to a specific and definable task that you can accomplish. I'm about three-quarters of the way toward that goal.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Fast Day

Today is the fast of the 17th of Tammuz.  (It's actually the 18th of Tammuz, but yesterday was Shabbat,  a day on which fasting is prohibited (unless Yom Kippur falls out on Shabbat) so the fast was postponed until today).  It's considered one of the "minor" fasts, along with the Fast of Gedaliah, the 10th of Tevet, and the Fast of Esther (the day before Purim).  (see www.jewfaq.org/holidaye.htm) These fasts are contrasted with the two "major" fasts, Tisha B'av (the 9th of Av) and Yom Kippur. There are more leniencies on the minor fasts in terms of eating to avoid medical conditions, nor do these days have the other restrictions of the major fasts such as wearing leather shoes, bathing, anointing and  sex.

I always fast on Tisha B'av and Yom Kippur, but, frankly, I've never incorporated fasting on the minor fasts into my religious repertoire.  Not only that, since the services on the minor fast days are much longer than usual, as a Torah reading as well as Slichot (penitential prayers) are added, I've generally avoided going to shul on these days and said all my prayers at home.  But since I have to say kaddish now, I have no choice but to go to shul.

So I am faced with a dilemma.  I may be asked to lead prayers, and as prayer leader, I will recite, during the public repetition of the Amidah (silent prayer) the "Aneynu" blessing that is added on fast days.  This blessing asks God to "answer us on the day of our fast, for we are in great distress . . ." But if I am not fasting, it seems hypocritical for me to be the community's representative when I personally am neither fasting nor in personal distress.  I was asked to lead prayers on the 10th of Tevet when I wasn't fasting; I felt a strange and hoped that no food was showing between my teeth, though I did feel its presence.

Today I decided to fast.  I was called upon to daven Shacharit (the morning prayer).  I felt more at ease knowing I too was fasting.  I made it all the way to the late afternoon when a splitting headache and slight nausea, probably brought on by caffeine withdrawal, moved me to break my fast.  I purposefully came late to the afternoon services so I wouldn't be called on to daven Mincha, when the Aneynu blessing is again recited.  The Gabbai did ask me to daven Ma'ariv (the evening prayer), but this service marks the transition to the new day, so I didn't have any moral qualms about it.

The lesson: the obligation to say kaddish thrusts you into the community, for better or for worse. Mostly for better.  But sometimes your own individual practice comes into conflict with communal norms.  As a mourner, I'm not just another regular member of the community.  I have a special status. I have to deal with it.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Reflections on absence and presence

I experience my mother's absence every day though it's difficult to explain what an absence means.  I haven't had the kind of experiences my father's had: hearing the front door open and believing for an instant that it was her, the thought "what time is she coming home today?"  On one level the absence is tangible: the lack of any phone calls, visits, hugs and kisses.  On a deeper level, it's something missing inside me, a wound that can't be healed, a part of me no longer there.

Sometimes I feel a presence, though this too is difficult to explain.   Sometimes when I'm doing something I know she'd like, I talk to her internally and get a sense of her satisfaction.  Sometimes when I don't know what I'm doing, and it's something she would have advised me on (which is just about everything), I tell her I'm doing the best I can and get a sense of her support.  Other times, during prayer, in dreams or in nature, I get a sense of her spirit, though this too is impossible for me to put into words.

A few weeks ago, the rabbi gave a talk at a shiva home that put the ideas of absence and presence in a different light.  He spoke about Pirkei Avot, Chapter 3, Mishna 14.  Pirkei Avot is a unit in the Mishna that deals with Rabbinic statements about ethics and the proper way to live.  The Mishna in question reads: "Rabbi Dosa ben Harkinas said, 'sleeping late, drinking wine in the afternoon, the idle chatter of children and the gatherings of the ignorant remove a person from the world.'"  The point of this Mishna, the Rabbi's explained,  was that absence and presence is not just a physical matter.  A person may be physically present, but if he or she disengages from the world, deals in the world of trivialities rather than the real and pressing issues that people and communities face, he or she is accounted as being absent.  The inverse, the Rabbi concluded, is also true.  A person may be physically absent, but if he or she engaged in the world and made a difference in people's lives, he or she is still present.

This talk touched me deeply.   As a psychotherapist, my mother helped hundreds of people live happier and more productive lives.  As an active member in the Berkeley Jewish community, she helped bring people together feel a sense of belonging.  As an activist on behalf of victims of terrorism, she helped give hope and resources to the most vulnerable members of Israeli society.  (An obituary in the local Jewish newspaper can be found at http://www.jweekly.com/article/full/63596/hilda-kessler-pro-israel-activist-in-berkeley-dies-at-79

In these ways, her presence is still and will always be felt by those who knew her.  These thoughts don't take away the pain of her death, but do provide some measure (some, but I'm not sure exactly how much) of comfort.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

"Is there anyone who has Yahrtzeit?" "I mean man"

My experiences in shul are those of a man's.  I'm on the side of the mechitza (divider between men's and women's sections) that can daven from the Amud (act as prayer leader).  I'm on the side that gives the D'vrei Torah (Torah talks), that gets called up to the Torah, and from which the Rabbi, Assistant Rabbis, and Gabbai come from.  I'm on the side that gets handshakes after davening and an occasional "yisher koach" (good job) from a fellow congregant.

But I'm aware there are women mourners as well.  I don't often hear the women mourners saying kaddish unless I am the only man saying kaddish. As there are usually many more male kaddish sayers, I seat myself in the middle of the men's section, about thirty feet from where the women are, and the men, it seems to me, recite their kaddishes louder than do the women. It's possible to ignore their presence because they are not central to the prayer service--I don't, but I'm pretty sure others do. I know the Rabbi doesn't.  At the shul where I usually daven, women are permitted, even encouraged, to say kaddish.  Women saying kaddish is an accepted reality in the Modern Orthodox world today, unlike twenty or thirty years ago.  I know their experience saying kaddish is different than mine.  I'm not sure exactly how, though in my conversation with women saying kaddish, I get the sense their experience is more private.   In a way, the women who come to morning minyan to say kaddish are heroic--a man is expected to do this; they are doing it even without a sense that they "have" to.

Before Mincha (the afternoon service) yesterday, one of the younger rabbis, the regular Gabbai being absent, announced as usual, "is there anyone who has Yahrzeit (the anniversary of a parent's death) for a parent?" What he meant was: is there any man who has Yahrtzeit, as such a person has priority to lead prayers.  A voice from the women's section responded, "yes, I do."  In an awkward moment, the rabbi then had to clarify what he meant.  (He should have acknowledged the woman's Yahrzeit before doing so.) A woman mourner told me that the regular Gabbai avoids this matter by asking if anyone has Yahrtzeit for "his" parent.   To add to the discomfort I felt, the d'var halacha the rabbi gave between Mincha and Ma'ariv just happened by to deal with women's exemption from the requirement of fulfilling time bound positive commandments (the last Mishna of the second chapter of Masechet Brachot).

After the services, I spoke to the woman who had Yahrzeit to express solidarity with her loss.  Still, the events left me feeling uneasy.  Half the people in the world who have lost a parent are women.  I subscribe to traditional Jewish practice, thus I daven in Orthodox synagogues.  Still, I wish that the shul could provide as much support to the women saying kaddish as it has given me during my kaddish year.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Death in the family

There is a camaraderie that develops among kaddish sayers.  I can attest to this on the men's side of the mechitza (divider between the men's and women's section), and I also see it among the few women kaddish sayers.  In fact, because there are fewer women who attend the prayer service and many if not most are there to say kaddish, the bonds that form between them may even be even more intense than those among the men.

One of the bonds I formed was with a man more or less my age whose mother died about two months after mine.  We'd joke about which one of us the Gabbai would select to lead prayers.  I told him about my blog and, upon reading it, he learned of my father's broken hip.  A few months ago, I told him that I would be flying to California to visit my father and would be unable to say kaddish, and he suggested I learn a Mishna in my mother's honor that evening, which I did at the airport.   From there on, he'd always ask about my father's condition, and he genuinely took pleasure in my positive reports.  (He's doing much better since his hip replacement surgery.)

Little did I know that his own father was quite ill.  His father died yesterday morning and the funeral was that afternoon.  The service took place in the shul, the very space that he and I had davened in these many months.  My friend spoke about his father's incredible life, how he had overcome legal blindness to lead a rich and productive life.

Now my friend will be saying kaddish for both his parents, the nightmare scenario that my father's broken hip in January had signaled as a possibility for me.  Seated at the service, I saw the face of a man without parents.  A true orphan.

The mourner's kaddish in Hebrew is called "Kaddish Yatom," which literally means "orphan's kaddish." (This point is made by Wieseltier in his book Kaddish, p. 442.)  For me, the kaddish feels more like a mourner's prayer than an orphan's prayer, as my parental link is but half severed.  But my friend's kaddish was the kaddish of complete loss, especially coming so soon after his mother's death.

I am learning, somewhat to my surprise, that the kaddish experience has as much, and probably, more to do with my relationship to other people as it does to my own grief.  And it has even less to do with my relationship to God.  I never met my friend's father.  And I don't even know him that well.  Still, his loss feels like a death in the family of mourners of which I am a member.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The moment before kaddish

Having gone to shul on a regular basis for a while, I know when the kaddishes are coming.  In the Mincha (afternoon) and Ma'ariv (evening) services, the Mourner's Kaddish is recited at the very end, immediately after the Aleynu prayer.  In Shacharit (the morning service), the Kaddish D'rabanan (Rabbi's Kaddish) and Mourner's Kaddish are recited toward the beginning of the service and two more Mourner's Kaddishes at the end, one after Aleynu and the other after the Psalm of the Day.  On the Sabbath eve, there is a Mourner's Kaddish and Kaddish D'Rabbanan in the middle of the service, after the Kabbalat Shabbat service and before Borchu.

Usually, I'm quite aware that my turn to say kaddish is approaching.  I'm finishing my silent Aleynu. The Shaliach T'zibur (prayer leader) will recite the last verse of that prayer.  Then the attention of the congregation will turn to the mourners saying kaddish.  As that moment nears, I begin to get self-conscious. Whether I feel like it or not, in a few seconds I will again declare my status as a mourner. Often, after I finish kaddish, I feel the need to take in a deep breath.

Other times, though, I'm not expecting the approach of the kaddish.  I get surprised and need to remind myself, "oh, that's right, I have to say kaddish soon."  I experience a sense of disbelief that, indeed, my mother is dead, that I will never see her or speak to her again (except in dreams).

For years I heard others say kaddish and didn't think too much about it.  You never think that your turn will come, though after my mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, I began to wrap my mind around the idea that, as unbelievable as it seemed, I would be the one saying kaddish. Despite the hundreds of services I've attended and thousands of kaddishes I've recited since she died, I still find it difficult to believe the reason I keep going to shul and saying kaddish.