Friday, November 30, 2012

How quickly I forget

I don't feel I have much more to say, so I'll be updating the blog only occasionally. In any event, this morning I did get to shul. This is more than I used to do before my kaddish year. I always daven (pray) every morning and put on tephilin, but before my mother died, I prayed at home and did so quickly (15-20 minutes). Davening at home allows me an extra half hour of sleep, which is a good thing. Since I've finished saying kaddish, I've gone to shul in the morning about two to three times a week. I have, however, resorted to my "old" ways, coming in a few minutes after davening begins rather than, as during my kaddish year, five minutes before the start of prayers. (See

Today as I approached the shul, I saw a woman I know who is saying kaddish running to enter. I told her, "don't worry." She said, "I know, I have an extra two minutes." What she meant is that she knew she had another minute or two while people were reciting the sacrifices section and the "Rabbi Yishamel Omer (Rabbi Yishmael says)" that precedes the first kaddish of the day, the Kaddish D'rabanan. Sure enough, when I entered, that's what people were doing and the kaddish began about a minute thereafter. What I meant when I said "don't worry" is that it's okay to miss a kaddish. Why run for a kaddish. It's not the end of the world if you miss a kaddish, especially the Kaddish D'rabanan after the reading about sacrifices.

But then again, that's how I feel now. When I was saying kaddish, I also used to get anxious about getting to shul on time. Frankly, making sure I didn't miss kaddish created a lot tension and anxiety. Even though I'm less than two months removed from that time, it's difficult for me to relate to these feelings. I can't really answer this question honestly: why exactly did I take on the kaddish obligation so seriously and obsessively?

I don't know how I'll behave the next time I have to say kaddish, which, God willing, will not happen for many many years, may my father, who is doing so much better, live to 120. But if I had to bet on my own behavior, I'd put money on my doing pretty much exactly what I did for my mother.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Kaddish, by Ginsberg

I guess I did get carried away by the kaddish thing. I wanted to understand better what I was doing, so I checked out a bunch of books from the New York Public Library with the word "kaddish" in the title. There was an awful book, The Mystery of the Kaddish. There was Ari Goldman's Living a Year of Kaddish.  Wieselier's Kaddish I had on my bookshelf for a long time before my mother died, and during my kaddish year, I eventually read it (over a nearly 10 month period) from cover to cover.

So I figured I would read (or reread?) Alan Ginsberg's poem Kaddish. I went through my beat phase in my early 20's, gobbling up Kerouac, Corso, even Richard Brautigan (Trout Fishing in America anyone?). Of course, Ginsberg was the only Jew in the bunch and he was one of those Jews who runs away from his Jewishness yet never leaves it, a religious nonbeliever, embodying some the kinds of contradictions I find both pathetic and exciting.

He wrote one of his epic poems, called Kaddish, about the death of his mother, Naomi. As usual for Ginsberg, it's both a bitter lament yet bittersweet elegy. He even quotes the kaddish verbatim (ashkenazi accented, of course).

I would like to share these words from the poem, which I find moving and enigmatic:
"Nameless, One Faced, Forever beyond me, beginningless, endless, Father in death. Tho I am not here for this Prophecy, I am unmarried, I'm hymnless, I'm heavenless, headless in blisshood I would still adore. 
Thee, heaven, after Death, only One blessed in Nothingness, not light or darkness, Dayless Eternity-- 
Take this, this Psalm, from me, burst from my hand in a day, some of my Time, now given to Nothing--to praise Thee--but death. 
This is the end, the redemption from Wilderness, way for the Wonderer, House sought for All, black handkerchief washed clean by weeping--page beyond Psalm--Last change of mine and Naomi--to God's perfect Darkness--Death, stay thy phantoms!" 
(Kaddish and Other Poems, pp 11-12).

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Future of this blog

Now that I have completed "my kaddish year," should I continue writing? My answer is that as long as I still feel I have something to say, I will continue writing. What will I write about? There are reflections, looking back at the year, putting it into a broader perspective. There is the transition away from the state of official mourning. And there is the continuing process of mourning which doesn't just magically end just because an arbitrary date has passed. You never get over losing a parent. Somehow it becomes more integrated into your life, your new normal life.

I think I'll know when I have nothing more to say. I think it will be in the not too distant future. Not quite yet.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Reflections on kaddish time

Did the kaddish period go quickly? No. When I was saying kaddish, it seemed like I always would. Each day had a weight, a distinct presence. There was a sense of plodding through the obligation, day by day. (See post at at

Is eleven months is a long time? Yes, and no. Even in retrospect, the time does not feel as if it passed quickly. One of the reasons I feel relief now that the year has passed is that the year felt like such a long time.

The strange thing is that other people's kaddish years seem to pass more quickly than one's own. Many people asked me, "when is your kaddish done," and almost always seemed surprised that I had more time left in my kaddish year than they'd thought. Here's another example: a friend of mine's father died a few weeks after my mother. I remember paying her a Shiva call while I was still in Shloshim (first 30 days after burial). So I should have been able easily to figure out when her kaddish year was ending. And yet when her husband told me she was almost finished saying kaddish, I couldn't believe it. "Already?", I thought. I didn't connect her kaddish period with my own. Mine seemed slow, hers fast.

I suppose these different perceptions of time point to the heightened sense of self-awareness caused by loss. Feeling pain and loss is profoundly, yet necessarily, selfish activity. Our sense of self creates a gap between feelings of your own pain and being sensitive to these feelings in others. No matter how empathetic you are, your own personal loss hits you and affects you in a qualitatively different way than those of others.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Lasting Yahrzeit thoughts

As I described in my previous post, I felt out of sorts and anxious during the Yahrzeit day. But it ended with messages that seemed to come from beyond. These came to me during the silent Mincha prayer, the last prayer during the Yahrzeit. My brother was leading the prayers from the Amud, so I was seated, in my usual spot, toward the back of the synagogue. I recited from memory the Shemonah Esrei, the words of the weekday prayer. My eyes were closed. The words of the prayer, as it were, scrolled through my mind. I wasn't thinking about their meaning at all. Rather, they provided a backdrop to thoughts that entered.

This is not unusual, that I am simultaneously praying and thinking of stuff. Except this time I wasn't thinking about what I'd make for dinner, or work, or things I need to do. And these thoughts did not pass through my mind like transient notions but rather were palpable images that fully impressed themselves on me, one after the other.

These thought images, three of them, came to me in the following order. The first one was of my mother kissing me. Kisses of the deepest love and appreciation. Kisses that I could almost feel on my cheek. Kisses that reminded me of kisses she'd given me, of her last kiss. Our connection and mutual love and admiration. And perhaps even kisses of thanks for saying kaddish for her, not the words of kaddish or any effect of it on her soul, but the completion of a job well done.

The second image was of childbirth. Of her birthing me. Her first born. The screams and pain (though in reality she may have been anesthetized per the birthing protocol of the '50s). Of me coming into the world. Of her first holding me. The joy of motherhood.

The third and last image was of tears. Her tears of sorrow for having to leave the world she so fully lived in, for having to leave her husband, sons, sister, friends, clients. Tears at the painfulness of death and all the goodbyes it necessitates.

Kisses, childbirth and tears. Love, life and death. It all came to me in those few minutes of prayer. Thought images so real they will stay with me, always. And then the prayer, and with it the Yahrzeit, was over.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Yahrzeit day

Perhaps it was because I had been thinking so much about it? Or because I believed that the day of the first anniversary of my mother's death would be so significant? Or that I would be davening (praying) from the Amud for the first time since I stopped saying kaddish? Or that my status as an avel (mourner) would end and I had mixed feeling about letting go? Or some combination of all of these? For whatever reason, the Yahrzeit, which began Thursday evening and ended as Shabbat came in, was very stressful, more than I thought it would be.

I made sure I got to shul on time for Mincha on Thursday, which began at 4:30 p.m., so I could remind the Gabbai about the Yahrtzeit. Before the clocks had been moved back for daylight savings, I had plenty of time to get to shul from work; now there wasn't much time to spare, so I felt stressed about getting there on time.

Before the Mincha service began, I approached the Rabbi and spoke to him briefly. He spoke to me about the importance of continuing to go to shul. I told him I was doing the best I could and that I was trying to be kind to myself. He said sometimes being kind can mean pushing oneself and that if I were willing to come to to shul for my mother, how much more so to worship the living God. I wasn't prepared for this "guilt trip." Maybe he felt it was his job as a Rabbi.

After Mincha, the Rabbi spoke as usual and the mourners said their Kaddish D'rabbanan. I then assumed the position of prayer leader for the evening Ma'ariv service. Nobody announced I had Yahrzeit. I began the prayers. My Yahrzeit had officially begun.

As is the particular custom at this shul, the Gabbai banged the Bimah (stand where the Torah is read) and announced publicly "Yahrzeit!" halfway through the Aleinu prayer. The custom at the shul is that only a person who has Yahrzeit as well as anyone else in the first 30 days of mourning (Shloshim) recite the kaddish after Aleinu. I said my kaddish along with one other man. Feeling acutely self-conscious, I was actually happy to have someone saying kaddish along with me.

I then recited Psalm 23, one of the most powerful of all the psalms. It speaks about a living person coming as close to death as is humanly possible but living to tell the tale: ("though I walk in the valley  of the shadow of death, I do not fear for you are with me"). I then recited another Mourner's Kaddish along with the other mourners. Afterwards, a few people approached me with the traditional words: "may your mother's neshema (soul) have an aliyah (elevation)."

Right after prayers, I ate something quickly and then went shopping to get food for the planned kiddush at our home on Shabbat as well as some pizza for my son's dinner. (I did not feel like doing any cooking.) The line at the kosher food store was very long and it felt as if the wait took forever. Even on normal days, I do not do well on lines, feeling anxious and antsy. When I finally got everything I needed, I walked to my car, loaded the bags and pizza into the trunk, and closed it. Then I couldn't find my keys. I had no idea what had happened to them but there was only one plausible explanation for their disappearance: I'd locked them in the trunk. So I left the car and food in the parking lot and took the bus home. I had dinner, tried to relax, waited for my wife to come home from work, got her keys, called a cab, got back to the car, found the keys buried underneath all the food, and drove back home.

I didn't sleep well that night. I was anxious about getting to shul on time the next morning. I knew I needed to give myself extra time to get to shul because, with a Yahrzeit, it would be embarrassing to come late. I got to shul on time the next morning and led the prayers as best I could, being conscious of my tendency to go too fast when I get anxious. It's difficult to describe my feelings as I prayed. Mostly I felt some kind of weight that pressed down on me. I felt both emotional and numb. When I had finished, the Rabbi gave his short d'var halacha. The mourners began to recite the Kaddish D'rabbanan. Momentarily, I forgot that I was one of them. I said the words hurriedly and caught up with the other mourners. I put away my tallis and tephilin, got to my car and went to work.

I left work early to make sure I'd get to shul in time for the afternoon Mincha prayers. My brother, who was staying with me for Shabbat, led the prayers. I was happy to sit in the back and let him fulfill our duty. I recited the Mourner's Kaddish after Mincha, conscious that it would be my last for an entire year. I sat down and tried to let myself become carried away by the joyful tune of Yedid Nefesh, which begins the Friday evening Shabbat service. My Yahrzeit had officially ended.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

The day after Yahrzeit

This is my first post since I completed my year of mourning. And I am so relieved. I will recount the events and feelings of the Yahrzeit in later posts. But right now I feel so unburdened! Liberated. Freed of a weight that I've carried, because I wanted to and had to. The burden that I placed on myself willingly and that was thrust upon me against my will. Free to live my life again. Ready to embrace the so-called "new normal," life without my mother, but my life, with her, in some other, indefinable, way.

I do, of course, feel a sense of completion. I did it. I made it. I did my duty. I mourned, struggled, spent countless hours in shul, dreamed, reflected, even cried a bit. Could I have done more? I could have, maybe should have, learned more Torah in memory of her. I could have tried to concentrate more when I said kaddish. I could have cried more. I always felt I should be crying more, but the tears seldom came. Feelings, yes, tears, usually not. But how much more could I really have done?  I don't know.

Right now, I just want, and I truly believe I have my mother's unqualified permission, to relax, listen to some music, and sleep. And I want to say to my mother, Hilda Yael Kessler, how much I appreciated her and loved her. And still do.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Preparing for the Yahrzeit

All this week I've been thinking about Friday, the anniversary (on the Hebrew calendar) of my mother's death. I can't believe it's been a year. I've been through so much in my life since that time. I can't say it seems like just yesterday nor I can say it seems so long ago. But it doesn't feel like regular time either.

I've thought a lot about how to commemorate the date. The date is important. It's a way of marking time, like a birthday. Perhaps on that day I will feel closer than usual to my mother's soul. I really can't say how I'll feel. I know only that the day will be significant and that I need to commemorate it in a meaningful way.

I began thinking about the Yahrzeit months ago, and them more intensely after the last kaddish. The commemoration began last Shabbat when I had the Gabbai recite an "El Maleh Rachamim" (God who is Full of Mercy) which is a memorial prayer for the dead. It is traditional to recite this prayer on the Sabbath afternoon after the Torah reading for all those observing a Yahrzeit during the coming week. This is one of those moments that is very meaningful for the person on whose behalf the prayer is recited and not too meaningful to everyone else. A lot of congregants don't even know what is going on during this prayer and often people talk or are inattentive.

Following Mincha, I gave a talk at the synagogue in which I shared some of the ideas I've developed while writing this blog. The talk was entitled: "Kaddish and its Many Functions". I dedicated the talk to my mother and her memory.

This week I am trying to get to shul on a regular basis. I've told the Gabbai at the morning minyan about the Yahrzeit, since I will be leading the prayers that day. I will be davening the evening prayer on Thursday, the morning and afternoon prayers on Friday. I need to take off work early on Friday to allow myself to get to shul in time to daven Mincha now that the clocks have changed.

On Shabbat, I will be sponsoring the kiddush in memory of my mother at the early morning minyan where I've mostly davened this year. I plan to say a few words about my mother before kiddush. I haven't figured out exactly what I want to say, but it will be something about her life and the lessons I learned from her. Later that morning, I will be having friends over at my home for a kiddush where I will plan to give a d'var torah in her memory.

My subconscious must also be preparing for the Yahrzeit because of a dream I had a few nights ago. I kept hearing my mother's voice. (My mother's voice was very distinctive; when I think about her, I often hear her words. She also talked a lot.) I couldn't see her, I just heard her. Then I was in a room like a basement. It was dark. The ceiling was low. My mother was in a more recessed area. She was dead. There were two men who'd come to take her body out. I was crying. When I awoke, I thought about those dream tears. They were tears I haven't yet shed. Perhaps I'm still not ready to shed them in real life. I still need to do my crying in dreams.

Monday, November 5, 2012

The pressure is off

Now that I no longer a "chiuv," that is, a person (a man) with an obligation to say kaddish and daven from the Amud (lead prayers), I feel more relaxed. I don't have to go to shul if I don't want to, and when I do, I don't have to get there on time.

Since kaddish requires a minyan (quorum of 10), I had to be in shul every day twice a day when I was saying kaddish. And I was regularly asked to lead prayers. No matter how many times I led the prayers, there was a certain pressure associated with this obligation. Others were watching me. My mistakes were public. I couldn't sit down and relax when the Amidah prayer was being repeated since I was responsible for repeating it. Also, as a potential prayer leader, I felt I should be in shul on time, at least a minute or so before Mincha (the afternoon prayer) and at least four or five minutes before Shacharit (the morning prayer) to give me time to put on my tallis and tephilin.

I am still trying to get to shul on a regular basis. There have only been a few days since the end of my "chiuv" status that I haven't davened in shul at all. But I feel much more relaxed about it. This morning I set my alarm clock for 5:45 to get to the 6:45 minyan. But when I woke up, I felt really tired. I thought about it for a couple of minutes and then decided to reset it for a half hour later and daven at home. As I write this, I feel rested. The hold that kaddish had over my life has lifted. 

Friday, November 2, 2012

Missing phone call

Thank goodness I did not lose power or suffer any damage from Hurricane Sandy. But the event was traumatic to the region and extended family. My brother in New Jersey and in-laws in Rockland County are both without power. Schools in New York have been closed the entire week. My wife's workplace is without power and, in any event, getting there, given the public transportation situation, would be difficult.

I've lived through a number of natural and human disasters. The Loma Prieta Earthquake in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1989. The occasional New York blizzard. The September 11 attacks. Last year's hurricane, Irene. All these events had one constant: communication between myself and family, particularly my mother, to let them know I was okay. There was always the added emotional greeting when we first were able to reach each other and the sense of relief ("Thank God") that my family and I were fine.

What was missing this time was that phone call. The one of mutual reassurance. The one that cemented and renewed the family bonds. The one that ended with a smile of knowing that she was there for me and I for her. That's a lot to miss.