Sunday, September 30, 2012

Aleinu in 30 seconds or bust

How long does it take to say the Aleinu prayer that precedes the Mourner's Kaddish? (An informative article about Aleinu appears at Well, I've happened to time myself (again my iPhone came in handy here). Proceeding at a normal reading pace, neither rushing nor reading slowly, I can say the two paragraphs, which I estimate at about 180 words, in about 30-32 seconds. If I really rush through it, I can get the time down to about 25 seconds. That's because I've said this prayer thousands of times, as Aleinu concludes every prayer service (except, as I noted, the Yom Kippur services). I've said it so many times that the words are practically imprinted on my brain.

That's good, because you have to be ready to recite the Mourner's Kaddish right after the prayer leader completes it. And sometimes he goes fast. I've begun timing how long the prayer leader takes to recite Aleinu, and it's ranged anywhere from 22 to 36 seconds. Sometimes he goes so fast that I'm forced to recite the end of Aleinu at breakneck speed.

I owe my ability to race through Aleinu to my reasonable Hebrew literacy skills. But for those who are not that fluent in Hebrew, reciting Aleinu in time to say the Mourner's Kaddish can be virtually impossible. I have a friend whose mother died a few months ago whose Hebrew skills are not that good. He told me that he is almost never able to get through Aleinu before the prayer leader finishes it and the mourners begin to say kaddish.

The problem with L'david, Psalm 27, is even more severe. This psalm is recited for about 45 days a year, between Rosh Hashana and the end of Sukkot. I haven't memorized it as I have Aleinu. The Hebrew of the Psalms is also more difficult than the Rabbinic Hebrew of the Prayer Book. Though it has less words than Aleinu, it takes me about as long, if not a few seconds more, to read that psalm. But invariably, the prayer leader finishes it well before I do. There are times I'm not even sure he's read the entire psalm. Again, those who struggle with Hebrew have little chance of saying the entire psalm before the kaddish begins.

Of course, if I'm leading prayers, I have control over the timing, and I try to make sure I don't rush through the prayers, though one's own perception of speed changes the more one leads prayers. I think I'm going slower than I actually am. Just last night before I began leading the evening Ma'ariv prayer after Shabbat, a gentleman requested that I go slower than I usually do.

Synagogue is made up of a diverse population. I've been told that I daven too fast and I've also been told that I daven too slow. I think others pray too fast. What can you do? Not much. The world is not perfect. If it were, I wouldn't be saying kaddish.

Yizkor and Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur was the third Yizkor I've recited for my mother. (For a broader view of Yizkor, I refer readers to the moving article in this week's Jewish Week by Jonathan Mark, which quotes from earlier posts from this blog as well as others. See

I've always thought that the Yom Kippur Yizkor was the true Yizkor. It's the holiday when you're already stripped away of your defenses by lack of food and the intensity of the prayer service. You're already in the mindset of "who shall live and who shall die". The prayers are full are references to the transience of life, from dust we come and to dust we return. We wear the white kittel which to me symbolizes both our striving to be angelic and free from physicality yet hints of the burial shroud in which we (hopefully later rather than sooner) will be buried.

Once again I was shocked at the service, so meaningful yet so brief. I thought of my mother and how she had accepted, perhaps even embraced, her life's end, the dignity in which she lived her last days and the fearlessness she displayed in the face of death. As I said at her funeral, she defied the odds of a woman of 78's life expectancy with pancreatic cancer because maybe the angel of death was afraid to confront her. These feelings came and went seemingly in the blink of an eye and I was again caught up in the drama that is the Yom Kippur prayer service.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Kaddish and Yom Kippur

From my experience, when you are saying kaddish, all your synagogue experiences revolve around that basic fact. But Yom Kippur was different. As usual, I made sure I got to shul when davening had just begun even though it meant I knew I was in for a long day in shul. I had to make sure I was there in time to say the kaddishes that appear at the beginning of the morning service. And before I knew it, the kaddishes came. And came. Kaddish after kaddish. A Mourner's Kaddish after the Psalm of the Day which normally is recited at the end rather than the beginning of the prayer service. Then another Mourner's Kaddish after L'david (Psalm 27), which is added between Rosh Hashana and the end of Sukkot. Then a Kaddish D'rabbanan after Rabbi Ishamel Omer. Then another Mourner's Kaddish after Psalm 30.

But then--not another kaddish for the rest of the day. I never knew before, or wasn't aware, that other than these kaddishes, the Yom Kippur service contains not a single Mourner's Kaddish. Musaf ends abruptly after the repetition of the Amidah. Mincha and Neilah, the additional service for Yom Kippur, end with Avinu Malkaynu.

So why the absence of kaddishes on Yom Kippur? The technical reason I supposed is that Aleinu is not recited at any service and kaddish always follows Aleinu. (But why isn't Aleinu recited?) Perhaps there is a deeper reason that relates to the spirit of the day. We don't want to publicly declare individual losses when the focus is on the community's confessions of guilt. Maybe kaddishes would interfere with the aim of purification from sin through which we hope to gain a fresh perspective on our lives. Maybe we need to set kaddish aside as we are trying to renew our relationship with God. Perhaps we are, through fasting, not washing, putting aside our physical urges and wearing white garments, already too close to confronting our own mortality.

I didn't miss not saying kaddish. I considered it a preview of the time, in less than two weeks, when my kaddish saying days for my mother will be over. I prayed for life and a good year for myself and my family. Yet I so much wish that these prayers could have included my mother.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Kaddish D'rabbanan

Today is Erev Yom Kippur, the eve of the Day of Atonement. The days leading up to this solemn holiday have been a time to take stock of our lives, to think about how we could live better lives and to ask for forgiveness of those we've wronged. It's also a time to think of how fortunate we are to have those people who love us and help give our life meaning.

I include in this list the various rabbis in my community who have supported me generally, and especially in times of need, and whose wisdom has helped enrich me intellectually and spiritually.

Last Shabbat, the Sabbath day immediately preceding Yom Kippur, was Shabbat Shuva, the Shabbat of Returning or of Repentance. It is one of the two times a year when rabbis traditionally give extended sermons, the other being Shabbat Ha'gadol, the sabbath before Pesach (Passover).

This year, the Rabbi spoke about how we educate our children, how we need to nurture yet firmly guide them toward Jewish adulthood. His words touched me deeply, and I felt my mother, whose idea of psychotherapy was also grounded in the firm guidance of adults in the practical steps toward achieving maturity and self-fulfillment, would have approved wholeheartedly of his message. I was grateful for his words.

As a mourner, I got to express my gratitude by reciting Kaddish D'rabannan immediately following his talk. Kaddish D'rabannan is recited after hearing words of Torah study. Generally I recite it three times daily, twice during the morning service and once between the afternoon and evening services after the rabbi engages in a short D'var Torah.

Kaddish D'rabannan is strange because it is only recited by mourners, yet it is not a mourner's kaddish. It is a prayer that expresses the hope that rabbis and their students and their students' students and all those who engage in Torah study wherever they are should know peace, prosperity and long life. Shouldn't we all? Why should only mourners say this?

The simple answer is that it is another kaddish and only mourners recite kaddishes (unless they are leading prayers). Perhaps another reason is that rabbis can fulfill an important role in helping those who grieve after a loss. I am grateful that the rabbis in my community have given me strength and support during this kaddish year. As the new year begins, I wish them peace, prosperity and good health so they can continue their important (dare I say holy) work.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

My chiuv (obligation): a love-hate relationship

I've had a love-hate relationship with this kaddish business. On the one hand, it's given meaning to and provided an anchor for the mourning process. On the other hand, it sometimes feels like a burden and I question the value of repeating this prayer over and over again day after day. There are times in shul when I feel completely disinterested in the proceedings and can't wait to get out.

Still, I've made a commitment to pray and say kaddish for my mother as often as I can, which means attending shul twice a day for the three prayer services. Now that my obligation to say kaddish is nearing its end (only two and half weeks remain), I have no regrets.

But leading the prayers is sometimes more than I can handle. As I've written, as a kaddish sayer, I have a chiuv (obligation)--even more, I myself am referred to, or have the status of, a "chiyuv." (see and This means I have priority to lead the prayers over all others except those who are commemorating the Yahrtzeit (anniversary of death) of their parent or are in the Shloshim period (first 30 days after parent's death). (In an early post, I wrote that a Yahrzeit for a spouse, sibling or child has precedence over a Shloshim or regular chiyuv; I believe this is incorrect.) The result has been that, during this year of saying kaddish, I have been repeatedly called upon to lead the prayer service.  This is truly an honor, but one for which I neither volunteered nor feel particularly qualified. True, my davening skills are reasonable and have improved over the year. If I were really unqualified to daven from the Amud (lead prayers), I wouldn't be chosen to do so. The community is not going to suffer on my account.

Some days I feel ready and even look forward to leading prayers. During this period between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, I get to lead the recital of Avinu Malkaynu ("Our Father, our King"), one of the most powerful prayers in the entire liturgy. I find this experience powerful and humbling.

There are days, though, that I just feel like sitting in the back and being one of the participants rather than being "it." There are different ways to accomplish this end. One way is to simply say "no"when the Gabbai asks. I almost never do this. My policy is to lead prayers when asked. I don't feel right letting down the Gabbai. Also, to be asked to lead prayers is an honor given to me, and through my person, to my mother, so how can I decline? Actually, I've only said no twice, once when I was feeling sick and the other time in Israel I didn't feel comfortable with the different nusach (version of the prayers) the community used.

Another way to get out of leading prayers is to hide or feign disinterest. You can sit behind a pillar and hope the Gabbai doesn't see you until after he's chosen someone else. I don't do this, but I've seen it done. What I have done is sit toward the back, look down, pretend to read something or play with my iPhone and then hope that, by the time I look up, someone else is at the Amud (prayer stand) getting ready to lead.

The last and best way to get out of leading davening is to come late. This method works perfectly. The shul where I usually daven prides itself on its punctuality, so is not going to wait around for someone with a chiyuv to walk through the door. When it's time to daven, they begin. So if I come a minute late, I'm pretty much assured of being off the hook. (Of course, this method won't work in a small community which has trouble getting a minyan.) One time I walked through the door into shul just as the services were about to begin. As soon as the Gabbai saw me, he said "don't sit down, you're up." And so it was.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Just when you think you know the prayers . . .

The ten days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are know in Hebrew as "Eseret Y'mai Teshuva," or the "Ten Days of Repentance." Actually this is somewhat of a misnomer as the ten days includes the holidays themselves, so in reality there are seven days between them.

In any event, during these days we are called upon to examine our behavior more closely than usual, to express regret for our failings, whether by commission or omission, and to seek forgiveness from God and, more importantly, those we've hurt. As if to heighten our awareness that this period is not to be treated as "normal" time, the Rabbis introduced a series of changes into the daily liturgy. These changes are kind of subtle, for if they were major, they'd be written in a different part of the Siddur (prayer book). But they're not. They're integrated into the regular prayers. This forces you to pay more attention to your prayers than you ordinarily do. You can't be on automatic pilot. That's my problem.

To be exact, there are four inserts to the Shemona Esrey prayer. Two of these come in the first two blessings and two in the last two blessings. Then there are two places words are substituted for the regular words, at the end of the third and eleventh blessings. The former is the most significant where "Hamelech Hakadosh" (the Holy King) is substituted for "Ha'el Hakadosh" (the Holy God). If you don't make this substitution, your prayer is considered invalid, you have not fulfilled your prayer obligation, and you must repeat it.

There is also a very slight change to the kaddish. One extra word is added. Instead of saying "l'elah min kal berchata . . ." (above all blessings) you say "l'elah u'lelah min kal berchata" (above and above all blessings), doubling up on the word "l'elah." (Some versions leave out the vov to read it as "l'elah l'elah".

Well, needless to say, after davening consistently three times a day for the past nearly 11 months, any change in my routine is tough to handle. In my first effort at leading prayers since Rosh Hashana, I forgot to add the extra "l'elah" and was promptly corrected by the congregation. Yesterday I made the same mistake again and was again promptly corrected. Today I hit them all.

Two days ago I closed my eyes and prayed the afternoon prayer. I was feeling kind of spiritual, shaking back and forth and thinking about how the blessings connected to my life. When I was done I realized I'd completely and utterly forgot every single addition and emendation made during these times. My prayer was invalid since I'd forgotten to say "hamelech hakadosh." I felt idiotic, but I repeated it nonetheless. Today the same thing happened but when I got up to "hamelech hakadosh" I realized my omission and made all the proper changes thereafter.

The idea of these liturgical changes is to heighten our sensitivity to what we are saying in our prayers. On a broader level, it's to throw a curve into our regular patterns of living, and through saying slightly different and additional words, move us toward greater awareness about how we live our lives. The message is: change always starts with small steps. But sometimes even those first steps are not easy to make.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Kaddish and Rosh Hashana

I gave a lot of thought as to where I wanted to daven for Rosh Hashana. As I've mentioned, I belong to two Orthodox synagogues. For many years I prayed at the one which I can fairly characterize as more spiritual, with much communal singing to the melodies by the renown composer, Shlomo Carlebach. The problem for me is the length of the services, which on Rosh Hashana can easily stretch to five and a half hours. Outside of Yom Kippur, the Rosh Hashana service, with Shofar blowing and and a lengthy Musaf service, is the longest davening of the year.

I decided that, for this year, I needed to make saying kaddish the central facet of my davening. The kaddishes come toward the beginning and at the end of the service. Most people on Rosh Hashana come late to shul and so are not there for the entire service. They come for the Shofar blowing, for the Rabbi's sermon, for the beautiful Unetana Tokef prayer during Musaf and the other moving piutim (poems) that make up the special Rosh Hashana liturgy. That's not an option for me as I am committed to saying all the kaddishes. I need to be in shul on time.

I was not prepared to be in shul from 7:15 in the morning until 1:45 in the afternoon. So I decided to daven at the other shul I belong to where the services are less spirited but quite nice and, most important for me this year, shorter. However, I could not convince my son and wife to join me there. They wanted to daven where they felt most comfortable. So we decided to split up, me at one shul and they at the other. We all had our spiritual and emotional needs, and one shul could not satisfy all of them.

And so I was in shul from 7:45 a.m. till 12:30 p.m., a relatively manageable period of time. I was not carried away by the prayers as I've been in the past, but I was sufficiently moved to make the experience meaningful. I said my kaddishes. I was the only person in shul at the beginning saying kaddish. These were tearful kaddishes. The new year was here. I prayed with everyone else that it be a good year, a year of life and blessing. A year of life for myself and my loved ones. But--the first year of my life that begins without my mother.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

שנה טובה תכתבו ותחתמו Happy New Year

May all my readers, the Jewish people and the nation of Israel have a happy, healthy and peaceful New Year.  May we be blessed with most of what we ask for, or, alternatively, in the words of the poem recited during today's Slichot service, "even if we are unworthy, extend your supporting hand a morsel at the opening [of the door]."

May our prayers be written in the Book of Life and be answered for another year. Two years ago, I prayed to God to write my mother in the Book of Life and, despite her metastatic pancreatic cancer, she was. Last year at this time I asked again, though I sensed His answer was "I'm sorry, I'd like to, but I can't." For those of us who have or will be touched by exclusion from the Book of Life, may we be consoled through our prayers and the sensitivity and concern of others.

God will gather me in?

From the first day of Elul, the month before Rosh Hashana, until the end of Sukkot, Psalm 27, also known by its first word, "L'david" (for [King] David, the supposed author of the Psalms), is added to the morning and evening services. This addition results in an yet another Mourner's Kaddish, recited after L'david. This ups the total number of daily kaddishes from 8 to 10.

Psalm 27 is one of the most moving of the psalms. Toward the end of the psalm, the following verses appear, "Do not hide your face from me, do not turn your servant away in anger. You have been my help, do not abandon or forsake me.  For when my father and mother abandon me, You will gather me in."

I've looked at several translations of this last verse, which can also be read as "if my father and mother abandon me" or "though they have abandoned me" or "when they abandon me."

The idea of a parent abandoned you is troubling. What kind of abandonment is the psalmist getting at? Some parents do actually abandon their children, either by being physically or emotionally absent. In these cases, the best reading of the verse is "if" my parents have abandoned me.

But in the end, I think that "when" is the best translation, for all parents eventually abandon their children, by dying. God knows they don't mean to. For my mother, and probably for most parents, the most difficult thing about dying was leaving behind her children and grandchildren and not being there for them in their hours of need and joy.

But the Psalmist promises that a substitute parent awaits: God. God as parent, a difficult religious concept. True, the prayers often speak of God as "our father" but there it seems more as an additional, not a substitute, parent.

Can God really be your parent? Perhaps here's a way to look at it: that the parent's nurturing will be provided in some measure by God's representatives on earth, the community, other people, your family. You are not made whole again after your parent dies, but it's not a total loss. God tries to make sure that some part of your loss is mitigated.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Macho kaddish

The duality of kaddish is this: it is at once a very personal prayer and yet it can only be recited in a minyan (quorum). You are reciting it for your personal loss, yet except for the kaddishes at the shiva (first week after burial), you are reciting it in a public space, generally a synagogue. By saying kaddish, you are connecting yourself to your deceased and yet you are reciting kaddish along with other mourners.

It is these dualities which make people more sensitive when it comes to kaddish. I've seldom heard anyone complain that people were not listening or were talking while they prayed (other than the rabbi), but I've more than once heard people complain that people were not being sufficiently attentive while they were reciting kaddish. (See previous posts on these topics at and

In addition to the behavior of others, another issue that affects the experience of saying kaddish is how other mourners recite kaddish. (see Some people are in the habit of reciting it very quickly, for having memorized the words long ago, they spill off the tongue like a waterfall. If other mourner's can't keep up, they lag behind, resulting in a cacophony of voices and out-of-sync "amen" responses by the congregation. Ideally, all mourners should recite kaddish together at the same pace so that the congregation's amens correspond to each kaddish, everyone finishes at the same time and all feel that their own kaddish is equally valued by the congregation.

Lately an issue has arisen for me because a recent mourner has an extremely forceful voice and tends to recite kaddish more quickly than I do. His voice is so domineering that the congregation is unable to hear anyone else saying kaddish. All their "amen" responses seem directed toward his kaddish only. He's monopolizing the kaddish "space." And usually I cannot recite kaddish at his pace, so I finish a few seconds after him by which time the congregation has already said the last "amen." I'm forced to raise my voice for fear that my kaddish will be totally disregarded by the congregation.

Should I do anything about this? And if so, what? I only have a few more weeks of saying kaddish so I suppose I can put up with it for a little while. I would feel funny approaching this person I don't know and asking him to slow down and lower his voice. Should I speak to the rabbi about it? I'm really not sure what if anything to do.

If this had happened at the beginning of my kaddish year, it would have been a big problem. Having come this far, I'm not going to let this annoyance bother me too much. I'm already less emotionally invested in the kaddish experience than I was in the months after my mother's death. And after hundred of trips to shul and thousands of kaddishes, I own my kaddishes. No one can take away my inner connection to the words and the feelings I have when I say them.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Witness to grief

I recently attended a Shiva Minyan. I went because I always pray in a minyan these days and I got an announcement from the shul that someone was sitting shiva near where I live. I was surprised to find just a few people there when I arrived. So I talked with the mourners, discovering they were mourning the death of the man's father who died rather unexpectedly after entering the hospital for what appeared to be a nonlife threatening illness. It took a while to get a minyan, which was achieved only after a series of near frantic phone calls from the rabbi to the shul asking for people to walk over to the shiva home. I was in danger of not being able to say kaddish for Mincha, but after all my other kaddishes this year, I wasn't too upset by that.

With the minyan finally constituted, the rabbi asked me to lead prayers as the man sitting shiva was not accustomed to davening. I led Mincha and Ma'ariv and recited kaddish with the mourners. The rabbi reminded me to slow down while I said kaddish as the mourners were not as fluent in the kaddish as me. (At this point, I can, and practically have, recited it in my sleep.)

Then I heard something I haven't heard in a while. One of the mourners was crying. He was stumbling on the words to the kaddish not only because of the language, but out of grief. I recalled what seems like ages ago when I was sitting shiva and the kaddish brought forth tears without fail. At the final kaddish of my shiva, it took what seems like minutes to get through it, grief rendering the words too difficult for my trembling lips to utter.

I heard and felt the mourner's tears, I could relate to them, but I could not summon up my own sense of grief. I've experienced much internal processing since I sat shiva. The rawness of the emotions have faded. I wouldn't say I've "come to terms" or "gotten over" or "moved on from" my mother's death, but I have integrated it into my psyche. There are times when I still can't believe she's gone and I can't quite comprehend that I haven't spoken to her in many months. But still, as I near the end of this kaddish year, changes have occurred within me. Grief has been replaced by other sad, but less intense, emotions. My kaddishes these days are still generally heartfelt but not infused with deep emotion.  The quality of my kaddishes relative to the grief-filled kaddishes of recent mourners shows the road I've travelled on this journey into my post-mother life.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The gravestone

When I was in California a few weeks ago, I went with my father to the cemetery. (See my previous post at In addition to visiting my mother's grave (can you really "visit" a grave?), we went to begin the process of choosing a design for  a gravestone. Right now my mother's body lies buried beneath a patch of grass. It is time that we ordered a stone to mark off that space. It would be especially appropriate for it to be "unveiled" in time for the Yahrzeit. (In Israel, these things seem to happen a lot quicker, and the stone is often unveiled for the Shloshim (30 days after burial).

The idea of choosing a gravestone is an issue I've been trying to avoid. Months ago my father sent me a brochure from the cemetery office that showed various styles. I added it to a pile of papers on my desk and tried to forget about it.

The process of choosing a gravestone seems absurd. Consider the following choices to be made: size (which basically breaks down to small, medium or large, priced accordingly), font style (e.g. Times, Helvetica), color of stone (over 20 available), direction stone is to be placed (horizontally or vertically), whether letters will be raised or engraved (the latter seems to be preferred these days), whether it will carry any symbols (Menorah and Magen David seem to be the most popular), where symbols will be placed (usually on top), how dates of will be recorded (exact dates of birth and death or just years), how name will be recorded (just English, just Hebrew, both, and if in Hebrew, whether to include her mother's name), and whether to include any description of the deceased and/or biblical verses). (Price is $175 for the first four hebrew letters and $22.50 for each additional letter. Doesn't seem like a good time to be price conscious.)

I've worked in publishing, and I just can't get past the idea that I am involved in a "formatting" job here. We will even get a copy of the stone "proofs" before the "publishing" job is finalized. The idea of memorializing the person who gave birth, nurtured, raised, loved and advised me by making choices of colors and fonts seems absurd.

But it's necessary. A gravestone, it seems to me, serves three purposes. The practical one is to mark the spot where she is buried so that we don't have to go around searching for her burial site every time we visit the cemetery. Another is to honor the deceased through text. For example, we have chosen the phrase from the Book of Proverbs, Chapter 31, verse 26, also known as Ayshet Chayal, "she opens her mouth with wisdom." This phrase surely captures one of my mother's essential traits.

Lastly, the setting of the stone serves to drive home the finality and reality of death. It's the last act in the process of acknowledging death. It turns the grave into a permanent space. As such, it's a painful act. That's probably the main reason I'm having trouble dealing with it. Saying kaddish is an abstract act. Choosing and setting a gravestone is painfully real.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

The cult of kaddish?

More and more people seem to be writing about their experiences saying kaddish. There are books by E.M. Bronner, Leon Wieseltier, and Ari Goldman, and I'm sure others. There are many articles on the Internet.  Here's another one I just found from a woman's perspective: The blogosphere also seems to be filling up with kaddish blogs. (google kaddish and blog)

All these people write about how saying kaddish provided them with solace and meaning after the death of a parent. No question it's a meaningful experience. I have written about how the obligation to say kaddish provides an anchor that grounds the mourning process by providing a meaningful, repetitive and concrete activity focusing the mourner on his or her loss. (see and I have also written about how people who usually do not attend shul on regular basis seem to make sure to do so on the Yarhzeit (anniversary) of a parent's death in order to say kaddish. (see

It should be noted, however, that saying kaddish is not a mitzvah. It is not one of the 613 commandments that are traditionally listed as requirements of Orthodox life. It is not on the same level as biblical laws such as keeping kosher or observing the Sabbath. It is not on the level of laws that the Rabbis have interpreted as deriving from the Torah such as saying the Shma or not mixing meat and milk. It is not even on the level of purely rabbinic decrees such as lighting Chanuka candles.

It is, in essence, a custom, whose origin dates from the Middle Ages. From the earliest sources that mention the kaddish, it is clear "that mourner's kaddish developed as a custom of practice and is not an obligatory commandment" (Berkovits, A Daughter's Recitation of Kaddish, p. 8). It is one of those customs whose observance has become so widespread and entrenched that it has taken on the force of a religious obligation (for men at least, and increasingly so for women).

Is it possible that kaddish has taken on a unwarranted significance in proportion to its religious status? Is it the only proper way to mourn for a parent's loss? Are there other or perhaps better ways of doing so? Even more, is it possible that kaddish has developed into a fetish of sorts that has become so devalued that the obligation actually gets in the way of true mourning? By saying kaddish, the mourner can say to himself or herself, "I have mourned." But really? Doesn't mourning go deeper than just uttering the same words day after day? Isn't there an internal process involved that goes beyond speech? Isn't there a private and deeply personal aspect to mourning that cannot be captured in the public recitation of kaddish?

In A Daughter's Recitation of Kaddish, there is a footnote (page 57, note 186) from a responsa by Rabbi Yosef Eliyanu Henkin, one of the leading Poseks (religious decisors) of 20th century America. Rabbi Henkin offers a scathing critique of what I call the cult of kaddish. He writes that kaddish has little meaning if is not connected to "teshuva, tephila v'ma'asim tovim (repentance, prayer and good deeds)." Kaddish is secondary to doing good deeds, study and charity, and it more worthwhile to spend one's time in these activities than saying kaddish over and over. One kaddish a day suffices to fulfill one's obligation, he writes, even on a Yahrzeit. Not only that, he continues, the repetition of many kaddishes is a distraction when said without the proper understanding or intention.

I do find the obsession over saying kaddish somewhat strange and off-putting, but, as one actively engaged in that obsession, what what can I say? Like most rituals, kaddish can be done by rote. And like most rituals, rote is often the norm. My goal is to use the kaddish to strive for those few occasions when the ritual points the way toward some goal, the end of which I know not, but whose path provides me with meaning and spiritual uplift.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Into the home stretch

With the start of the new school year, I've returned to the regular morning 6:45/6:55 minyan. No more 8:00 minyan. (see The Gabbai at the regular minyan hadn't seen me in a while. So he approached me. His question: "how much longer do you have?" He meant how much longer do I have to say kaddish. The answer is: about six weeks. My last day of saying kaddish is October 10.

I'm coming into the home stretch of this year of mourning. I beginning to think about what it will be like when I'm finished saying kaddish. The answer is: I really have no idea. It's just that at the beginning of my mourning period, it seemed as if I would always be in mourning mode. Now the reality that the mourning period is time limited is sinking in.

Frankly, I'm looking forward to its end. I've committed, as Jewish custom dictates, to saying kaddish three times a day every day for the first 11 months. I've walked to shul and recited kaddish countless times. (I've calculated that each day I recited various kaddishes eight times, or 56 times a week, so, 240 times in a 30 day month, times 11 equals 2,640; see In that post, I calculated 2,656 kaddishes and I'm not about to check my math to figure out any discrepancy.)

I'm getting tired of the routine and the restrictions. I want it to end. I want my regular life back. I want to have my evenings unencumbered by shul obligations. I want to go to concerts. I'm getting ready to incorporate my mother's death into my life rather than having my life tied to mourning for her. I think that's the point of the kaddish year. It's such an overwhelming obligation that it eventually you say to yourself and to God: I have done my duty to myself and my mother, I have mourned for her day after day, now let me have my life back again.

(For another perspective on coming toward the end of the mourning period, see

Monday, September 3, 2012

Experiencing my mother's death

I've been reluctant to write about my experience of my mother's death. But I had a conversation about the topic in shul with a recent mourner. The last time he saw his mother was a few months before she died. The next time he saw her her body was in a coffin.  Not that he wanted to see her body, but the transition between his last vision of her and the box was unsettling and unreal.

My experience was different. My mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in early March of 2010.  She lived in California and I in New York. I flew out seven times to see her before she died and, in testament to her amazing strength and willpower, she traveled to New York for Thanksgiving in 2010 despite the effects of the cancer and chemotherapy treatments.

In October 2011, her condition had deteriorated to the point that she decided to discontinue medical treatment and went into home hospice care. I flew out to California shortly thereafter, figuring it would be the last time I'd ever see her. She was still able to converse and I brought out my tape recorder and recorded an hour long conversation. She was weak and frail, mostly in bed, but still sharp of mind. I dreaded the moment of parting. I knew I would cry and I did, but she comforted me and said she thought we would see each other once more. I wasn't so sure, and I thought maybe she was just trying to ease the pain of separation.

A month later I flew out again on a Thursday night. The night before, my father called me. She had told him to call me to tell me to "pack for a week." I knew what this meant. I brought out the suit I would wear to her funeral and clothing for the shiva. (Sure enough, I returned to New York to complete shiva exactly a week after I left.)

I figured she would be asleep and would see her Friday morning, but she instructed my father to call me to find out what time I'd arrive from the cab from the airport. She waited up and we hugged. I could see she was barely eating. The next morning the hospice nurse told us she had about 48 hours of life left. We had some communication on Friday morning. I read to her and spoke words from my heart. She was taking massive doses of morphine to ease the pain. Her body had become skin and bones. It was a frightening sight to see this vivacious woman reduced to this state. Saturday morning she said her last words to me. As I drew near to her, she said "I am ready to say goodbye."

By that evening she had lost consciousness. My father, brother and I recited the vidui (confession of sins) from a prayer book. No trace of her beauty was left. Her appearance had become so grotesque that I could no longer look at her. I felt guilty and ashamed, but I just could not be with my own mother in her last hours. She was already gone, just not dead. A friend volunteered to keep her company and hold her hand. We were in the adjacent room when my mother took her last breath, mixed with a vomit of disgusting black bile that poured out of her mouth. I freaked out and cried for her but she didn't respond. She was dead. I began making the phone calls to notify family and sent out the death notice email I'd prepared a few weeks in advance.

Why am I writing this? Because often when I think of her and say kaddish, I think of these last moments. And they are not pleasant moments. Yet they are indelibly stamped on my soul. My mother's body wasting away. Her lifeless body. It's not the way I want to remember her. But I can't help it.

She died at home. Her family was with her. That's the way she wanted it to be. She did not want her death to be sanitized in some hospital with tubes running in and monitors blinking and beeping. In this way, she gave me a last "gift," allowing me to share in her death.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Asserting my "rights"

I came to shul yesterday morning ready to lead prayers. I had convinced my children to attend morning services, something that hasn't been easy to do given their teenage sleep schedules. I wanted them to share in my experience of mourning through prayer and to witness me as a prayer leader. This is especially the case for my daughter, who has been rather disaffected from synagogue life and therefore hasn't seen me saying kaddish for her grandmother very often.

When I got to shul, I noticed a sign indicating there was a bris milah (circumcision). I learned that one of the family members of the event wanted to daven. I saw him speaking to the Gabbai. I approached him and indicated that I wanted to daven this morning as my children were present. Then I said the magic word: "chiyuv." He responded, "oh, then by all means, go ahead." As the only mourner present, I had the "right" to lead services. Not wanting to shut him out entirely, I  allowed him to lead the services up until "Yishtabach," (i.e., the preliminary service), after which I took over.

I prayed with more intensity and purpose than usual. For the first time in a while, I felt my mother's presence during my prayers. I felt her pride in me, in my assertiveness in demanding to lead prayers and in modeling for my children.

As I was completing prayers, the mohel (the person who performs the circumcision) began setting up his equipment on the bima. I moved over to the right with my prayer book as he placed the knife and bandages to my left. I recognized him from other brises and introduced myself to him. Here I was, standing at the Amud (prayer stand) and leading prayers because my mother died. Here he was, standing at the Amud because a couple had brought life into the world. Contemplating the moment, with my children, my sense of my mother, and the newborn boy soon to be ushered into the covenant, I felt tears as I recited the last Mourner's Kaddish.