“Are you a real Sephardi?” he asked. “The type that eats rice on Pesach?”
“Yes, the real thing,” I answered, with more confidence than I felt.
I knew where the question was coming from and, although he meant no harm, it was really quite a painful subject.
We had just finished our evening prayers and I had joined the mourners in saying kaddish. I had used the Ashkenazi nusach (version).
When Rachel Fraenkel said kaddish at the graveside of her son, Naftali, while the entire nation looked on, I felt that she broke down the barriers to women participating in this important ritual – perhaps not in the charedi world but certainly in the Modern Orthodox world that I inhabit. Sadly, this proved not to be the case. My 11 months of kaddish have had some awkward and even hurtful moments.
It’s been a difficult year.
My mother passed away the evening after Yom Kippur – her first yarzheit is approaching. I undertook to say kaddish every morning, and more than once a day when possible. It was a voluntary undertaking. But in the modern world, every person who undertakes a religious obligation, does so voluntarily. It was a fairly simple decision for me. My mother had believed passionately in women’s empowerment and saying kaddish represented just that. If kaddish is important for the soul of the departed or if it is a way of comforting the bereaved, first and foremost, it is a sign to the community that the departed live on in those left behind. My mother was a remarkable woman. Her legacy lives on in her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. I felt that that should be publicly shown, in part through my personal effort. While one of my brothers would try to say kaddish three times a day, his work requires him to travel frequently. Often, he is in transit or in places where there is no chance of gathering a minyan. Between us, we knew that every day, at least one kaddish would be said.
It started at my husband’s beit knesset (community). I knew that I would be the only woman there at the 6:30 morning service but that did not bother me. Of course, it was a little uncomfortable knowing that someone had to unlock the door to the women’s section for me but as it was my husband doing so, I didn’t worry too much about it. Similarly, as he usually led the prayers, I was counting on him to give me time to articulate all the words. What neither of us expected was that some members of the small community would complain. If there are no mourners present, then they can save about 2 minutes. Some whispered that they should not be required to spend those extra 2 minutes if it is only a woman saying kaddish.
Of course, once Aharon let me know about that sentiment, I only attended that beit knesset when other options were not available.
My own community (Shir Hadash) is quite different – or tries to be. Women mourners are welcomed. At Shir Hadash, there were men who tried to assist by making sure that we had siddurim (prayer books), by praying loudly so that we could follow or signaling the right time to pray, and by answering “amen” to our prayers. I am very grateful for their support.
However, women are certainly not accommodated during the week in a way that makes their choice to mourn with a minyan easy or even comfortable. The women’s section for weekday services is behind the men. If the man leading the prayers has a soft voice, women cannot hear him. We have to guess the right time to say kaddish. If there is a group of men saying it, they stand together and keep a rhythm together and further exclude the women. It would be out of the question for a woman who had a different nusach to apply it, even though accommodation is made for men with such differences. We follow; we do not lead. So, I said the Ashkenazi version, not my “authentic” Sephardi version, never holding up the men and always in unison with any other women worshippers.
On more than one occasion during my 11 months, there were three or four women saying kaddish and only one or two men but the man or men still controlled the rhythm of the recitation. What is much worse is that some men who sat towards the back of the men’s section do not respect the women mourners and seemed to go out of their way to interrupt or distract.
On Shabbat, women sit parallel to the men and it is much more comfortable. But one thing still was clear – regardless of comparative numbers, we were not leading the kaddish. It still feels like a “concession” or a “kindness” that we can pray aloud, alongside the men. We should never take it for granted. I certainly did not feel it would be appropriate for me to require the men (and other women) to wait for me if I had a few extra words to insert (as the Sephardi version does.)
The real problems were when we were out of town. One Shabbat, we were in my daughter’s neighbourhood in Tel Aviv. It was pouring with rain and instead of continuing to the community with which we usually pray, we stopped in on a closer beit knesset. After the prayers, the rabbi (I assume he was the rabbi) came up to me in the women’s section and asked if I had been saying kaddish. I answered in the affirmative.
“Women don’t say kaddish,” he said.
I was gobsmacked. All I could think to say was, “They do in Jerusalem.”
Another time, in another place, when the lone male mourner realized that a woman was also saying kaddish, he purposely sped up and then changed the rhythm, in the knowledge that the men responding to his prayers would drown out mine. In some places, where women sit in high galleries, the men simply can’t hear a woman praying, so there is no chance for the community to respond to her prayers.
Luckily, I could return to Shir Hadash and other places in Jerusalem and know that I would be heard and that there would be respondents. One of my sisters was visiting with me one Shabbat and was very moved by the welcoming attitude. She said that she had attended her beit knesset far less in the previous few months since our mother’s passing. She felt that if she were there, then she should say kaddish. She said that the men had made her so uncomfortable when the words of kaddish were not familiar and when she could not recite it at a break-neck speed, that she had stopped attending. (She also commented that men who were not fluent may have had similar experiences but that someone would stand next to them and help them through. Not so with a woman.)
All in all, the men who treated my kaddish with the respect that they treated a man’s and my fellow female mourners provided a support community that meant that my 11 months’ kaddish were meaningful and provided a level of comforting. I thought about my mother every morning and hope that she read my thoughts.
It’s been a difficult year but it has also been a wonderful year. My second daughter married her bashert (destined partner) and last week, just as my kaddish ended, she gave birth to a beautiful daughter of her own, who will carry forward my mother’s name.
I am facing my first Rosh Hashanah without my mother and my first Rosh Hashanah with this wonderful new life. My mother was a pioneer in fighting for women to be heard and respected. I wonder if this little one will find a different world.