Sometimes, you know when it’s your last chance to do something—you run to catch the train or worse, the plane, and you miss it. Sometimes you don’t even know until after the event has passed- and you missed out. Sometimes you think it’s your last chance, last hour, last minute, and you prepare yourself for that, waiting up nights to hear the phone ring, holding your breath waiting to hear the bad news. And you alternate between telling yourself that you had no choice because your job, your children, your life is here, and it’s not your fault, and telling yourself that you moved and it is exactly your fault that you aren’t /can’t be there now.
These thoughts and more went through my head as my father was dying, almost five years ago. Thankfully I had an intuitive husband who made me go visit during a summer that I wasn’t going to, for a three week trip that stretched to five (plus two extra days thanks to a hurricane). Then, less than a month after I left, the nurses said it would be any day now, and I got back there in time to get a pleasantly surprised welcome by a man who was not ready (just yet) to give up. Every time I had left for the year or two before, there was massive heart-wrenching guilt that I had to overcome in order to live my life here, 6,000 miles away. After he passed we had a quiet two years, until my mother was diagnosed with cancer too. She fought as hard as she could, even surprising her doctors and staying with us a year longer than they thought she would. Later, when my young daughter asked what all of her prayers were for, I told her that maybe it was those prayers that gave grandma that extra year. In the meantime, I went as often as I could, so that I wouldn’t miss any last chances if I could help it.
When my father passed I said kaddesh only for the ‘week’ (it was two and a half days) of shiva and on Shabbat, and then paid for someone to say it daily. I don’t think it ever sat right with me, but being one of three girls, I did what I thought was done. However, sometime between the two, my mother mentioned having said it for both her parents, as she was an only child. When she got sick and we knew it was coming, I resolved to say kaddesh for her.
Although mourning is an individual process, even when there are many family members, I felt both alone and yet not alone. I did not expect to have such a public year of mourning, or to become so vocal, learning to speak up for myself (and others). I was surprised when my voice instituted a change in our synagogue, tangible proof in the form of a sign requesting men to stay out of the women’s section.
This ability to say what I needed to say is definitely something I got from my mother, and I know she would be proud. I felt so much support from my community and friends in this that I could not feel I was alone. Even more, my husband and children had to manage without me sometimes and change schedules so I could do what I felt I had to; I appreciate this more than words can say. The opportunity to be there for various women was also inspiring; that we could say kaddesh together and know that someone was next to us, listening and answering, was also a comfort. I found support in the men who spoke to me sometimes after davening (prayer), both those I knew and didn’t know who said a kind word, giving me chizuk (strength) for doing this, or who just asked how I was. There were those who made sure when they saw me that kaddesh would be said so I didn’t need to worry about a repeat of the disheartening time I made it to the service to find that everyone just left at the end instead of saying it, as well as a friend who invited me to her minyan where it’s okay if a woman says it on her own and made sure to accompany me there. There was also one particular time I noticed (it may have happened more, I don’t know) a man walking over to my section so that he could hear and answer me. All of this support meant so much at a time when I needed it, when I needed to know that even though mourners are isolated in their grief, there are people helping them stay up and go on. There were some negatives, but I choose to look at the positive.
In the last few weeks of my 11 months (the required time for saying kaddesh), I was in America, in order to have the unveiling. During that time I had a run-in with a prayer leader who felt it necessary to say to me (when I asked if kaddesh was going to be recited) that I have to say it quietly. Needless to say, I did not take this lightly. I found an opportunity to speak to him about the way he informed me of this (less than politely), and when, instead of being apologetic, he told me I was wrong, I reluctantly informed the rabbi of the community, who assured me that he would speak to him. On the other hand, I was also at minyanim where when I made sure to inform the leader about my kaddesh, they reacted positively. On top of that, when I went to certain minyanim there were other women there (my morning time choices didn’t always coincide with theirs) and made sure to answer me. These women had also said kaddesh for parents, and continue to go to minyan, which is a wonderful, positive step that I may try to follow (thank you, Nechama and Patty). I think it will help with the way I am feeling right now, because as I am still a mourner yet kaddesh is over, I feel like I am in a kind of “no where land”. I think it is by taking positive steps that we contribute towards a legacy, rather than sinking into depression when thinking of our loss. The last few weeks also caused me to think about some of the difficulties I had when I was saying it at home in Israel, namely the practically daily changes in which nusach (translate that, would you?) we were saying leading to differences in when the kaddesh was said—which led to some confusion until I figured it all out. But all in all, I realized that while I appreciated being in a place where I could count on the prayer being the same, I also appreciated how much diversity we have in Israel, the place where all the exiles will gather- as proven.
Finally came the last day- my last chance, except for yahrzeit, to bring an aliyat neshama for my mother. I didn’t manage to make it every day as we spent some of this visit doing nice things- which meant I didn’t always get to minyan. So I knew that no matter what, I was going to make it to this last one. We had dinner in Teaneck, and my brother in law helped me find a shul close by. One last thank you here, to Teaneck Beth Aaron, to the women there, and to Rabbi Larry Rothwachs. Why? Because I found that the fight had been won there—the sign was already up. (Although I personally shiver at the word ‘occupy’.)
I have not fought this fight on my own, as my cousin Levi said at my mom’s headstone unveiling, “Come to Chabad, our women have been saying kaddesh for 200 years.” Well, I’m not part of Chabad, but it is empowering to know that I am truly not alone. Earlier in the year some friends sent an excellent article by a mourner who is far more famous than I, and I thank them for sharing Mayim Biyalik’s article about her own kaddesh experiences.
In truth, this year, and the kaddesh, is about reminding mourners that they are not alone. Even if you have lost both parents, you still have Hashem. I, thank G-d, also have wonderful in-laws who are more like a second set of parents, an amazing family, friends and community.
In that spirit, I want to mention that a week ago today marked the start of the “Three Weeks” for our nation, the weeks in which we mourn for the Temple we lost 2,000 years ago. We mourn together, grieving over a time when so much diversity drove us apart. We mourn a time when we focused on each other’s differences, rather than the knowledge that no matter what, we are all one People. In America I met parents who were sending their children (okay, letting them go) to Israel to join the army, to be part of protecting our people, our land. This is a time where we need to see that even if the rest of the world supports us (which is not currently the case-an understatement), we need to remember to support each other. It should not matter what someone else is wearing or doing. A rabbi (I wish I could remember who) once said that we should each be worrying not about our neighbor’s spiritual needs and our own physical needs, but about our neighbor’s physical needs and our own spiritual needs. Take this time to mourn what we lost but remember that we are the ones building towards the future, developing a legacy. Rather than being depressed, instead of focusing on negativity, do something positive so that next year, this time period, these three weeks, will be a time of rejoicing, a time when Jewish unity will return with our Temple. But only we can bring it about, hopefully making this year the last chance to mourn. As Mayim points out, in words that have spoken to me all year, I am not alone but part of this nation of Israel, in asking for Hashem to bring peace to all of our nation.