Kaddish, in Retrospect

Kaddish, in Retrospect

By Yehudit Robinson

I didn’t expect to say Kaddish with any regularity. When my father, Morris Robinson, died in late January 2020, I intended to recite only the three Kaddishes at the end of the Shabbat davening each week and, instead, focus on helping raise my three young children. At the shivah minyanim at my parents’ house, however, I realized that I would never experience a more supportive environment in which to say Kaddish, with my mother, sisters, and aunt by my side, and my brothers and uncle on the other side of the meḥitzah.

My husband encouraged me to continue, as did some friends who have experienced loss; surprisingly, in addition to Shabbat mornings, I was able to attend shul several times a week for minḥah and ma’ariv. Without fail, I found myself echoing my fellow mourners by lapsing into the traditional Ashkenazi pronunciation—and this amused me every time, as it ran counter to a dozen years of day school education.

I brought a lot of anxiety to the recitation of Kaddish. When I was in middle school, one day a female classmate insisted that, at the necessary time, she would say Kaddish for her parents. Although I was sympathetic, I remember thinking that this was not typical practice. And now I found myself wondering many times whether anyone on either side of the meḥitzah would be offended by my vocal participation. How loud should I be? Should I recite the words, or was it OK to chant them? What if my Kaddish recitation ran counter to someone’s idea of what a shul should be? Sometimes someone with a more traditional outward appearance joined the minyan, and I started sweating. How would I have responded if he had asked me to remain silent? Would it have been OK if I had said that I’m a member, that the rabbi allows women to recite Kaddish here, that my father died a month ago? But the feared confrontation never occurred. Rather, the only men who approached me after davening did so with words of compassion—including one who told me that he peeked over the meḥitzah to make sure I was done with Aleinu before starting Kaddish. These small gestures of kindness helped me feel welcome at the three shuls among which I rotated.

I want to thank the women and men, mourners or not, who helped reset communal expectations over the past thirty years by helping normalize the practice of women reciting Kaddish in shul. There were enough horror stories of women attempting to say Kaddish who were traumatized because their efforts were misunderstood and misinterpreted. When I shared some of my concerns with a man, he was astonished and responded, “How could anyone be upset? It was your father.” I think this reaction reflects an altered awareness.

I also want to thank the woman who let me know that a shul that I hadn’t considered for Kaddish would indeed be a place where I would be welcome. I asked the rebbetzin of this shul about my concerns, and she responded, “Women have been saying Kaddish here for years.” I realized how easy it is to make assumptions about faith communities based on externalities. I also want to thank the women who sat next to me (pre-COVID) who took care of my children during Shabbat services when they would suddenly seek my attention precisely when I was trying to say Kaddish.
Although COVID shut down indoor minyanim for several months, and Zoom Kaddish felt sufficiently detached that I did not participate in online minyanim, once outdoor minyanim began, I became very grateful to my husband for his kindness in getting up early for hashkamah minyanim, which allowed me to attend some outdoor minyanim sporadically and resume saying Kaddish once again. My first Kaddish outside was very emotional, as it came after an extended hiatus. I still feel a special connection to the patio outside my neighbor’s house where I would stand while davening.

The Meaning of the Words

Because I had been so concerned with context, it took me a long time to reflect on the meaning of the words in the siddur. By reciting the Kaddish, the mourners announce themselves as a sub-community seeking support. We attempt to match one another’s tempo, to create a unified plea from our private thoughts. After the collective gaze has moved on to the next shivah, the next crisis, the avel (mourner) continually vocalizes his/her often complicated grief and reminds the fellow congregants that he/she is still in need of attention. The Kaddish is a positive, affirmative prayer, and the congregants, even if they don’t know the mourner, cathartically respond again and again, “amen”—we agree, we affirm the truths of your complex relationship with the one you have lost. The congregants thus verbally comfort the bereaved, and I find it meaningful that this interaction, both with God and one another, is part of the daily davening.

Kaddish comes at various times in the service. I sometimes I ponder that here, at some random time in the day, I find myself in shul, contemplating the one I lost. Here, at this random moment, I remember you. I consider the dreams that you merited to fulfill, that you raised six children to lives of Torah and mitzvot, which was your way to rebuild the Jewish people after the Holocaust. And I also ponder the dreams that you were not given the time to fulfill, including more time to learn Torah and write. I vocalize my grief by chanting a well-worn prayer of positivity, ultimately wishing peace and serenity to the Jewish people, and I hope, somehow, that these prayers resonate and reach the heavens.

Epilogue

On Wednesday, December 16, mid-Hanukkah, I said the final Kaddish in my neighbor’s backyard at minḥah, as the darkness and snow descended in tandem, as surreal as the rest of the past eleven months. And, with ma’ariv, I became the agent for others’ memories when I responded to their Kaddish, as I was done reciting mine.

I would like to thank the indoor and outdoor minyanim at Beth Aaron, Netivot Shalom, and the Jewish Center of Teaneck, all in Teaneck, New Jersey, for making me feel welcome. I found saying Kaddish to be very meaningful in helping me maintain a connection despite the ultimate distance.

Yehudit Robinson is a Judaic studies tutor and is the founder and director of mytorahtutor.com. An earlier version of this piece was published in the New Jersey Jewish Link. 

Callouts:

By reciting the Kaddish, the mourners announce themselves as a sub-community seeking support.

I find it meaningful that this interaction, both with God and one another, is part of the daily davening.

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