An Ashkenazi woman at the Moroccan boys’ club: Saying kaddish for my father
The week before last, between Mincha and Aravit prayers, I brought a bottle of arak to the Moroccan shul near my house, and placed it on the table where the men were sitting and socializing. While we Ashkenazim are used to seeing whisky and schmaltz herring on a shul table, for Moroccans, arak, or machya (ironically, “that which restores life”) rules. This particular bottle marked the end of 11 months of kaddish for my father, most of which took place at this little synagogue. I had been duly warned that, without the requisite bottle of arak, my father’s soul would not ascend.
When my father died last May, I decided to try to say kaddish for him at least once a day. None of his other children were doing it regularly, and I felt it was important for both his soul and mine. But never did I anticipate what a difficult undertaking it would be, in so many ways.
The only synagogues in my neighborhood that hold regular, weekday prayers are Moroccan. So, the day that I returned home from my father’s funeral and shiva in Canada, I made my way to the Moroccan shul near my home, just before Mincha. On weekdays, women are hardly seen at this shul, and its huge outdoor tent, built during the corona period and replete with tables, chairs, and a Torah ark, where prayers are held unless the weather is overly hot or cold, doesn’t really have a women’s section. Between Mincha and Aravit, there is often a drasha (a short Torah lesson), and after services, some of the men hang around drinking arak and/or wine… I nicknamed the place “the Moroccan Boys’ Club.”
“You?” they exclaimed when I first showed up there, intending to say kaddish for my dad. “YOU’RE going to say kaddish? You can pay one of the men to say it for you.” “It’s important for me to say it,” I responded. “Well, I guess you can say it in a whisper, in the women’s section [which was basically the hall leading from the outdoor tent into the actual synagogue],” a tall, bearded man said begrudgingly, looking down at me and almost spitting out the words, as if he were reluctant to let them leave his mouth. 12 years earlier, I had traveled on my own in Morocco for two-and-a-half months. It was one of the most insane things I’ve ever done, and wasn’t easy. But I survived, and sometimes even enjoyed it. And I would survive this, too. “Thanks,” I said to the tall, condescending man. “And you’d better get used to me, because I’m going to be here for the next year.”
Day after day, week after week, I appeared at the Moroccan Boys’ Club just before Mincha. There are fans in the main tent, but none in the passage that functioned as the women’s section, and I would sit and sweat through the service. In the winter, we moved inside, where there is a very narrow women’s section at the back, almost too narrow for the three steps backward that one takes at the beginning of the Amidah, separated from the rest of the room by heavy, carved-wood screens. Often, I’d arrive after prayers had begun and there’d be men sitting in it, and they’d all get up and shuffle out so that I could pray there, alone. I got used to rushing during kaddish, to quietly keep up with the men in order to be in sync with the congregation’s “amens.”
I became accustomed to the nasal tone and lilting melodies of the Moroccan prayer, and of the wording that was different from the Sephard prayers that I knew, a wording that seemed, somehow, more intimate with G-d. I learned which prayer leaders would force me to rush through the davening in order to make it to kaddish on time, and with whom I could relax. Sometimes the prayers were led by a teenage boy whom I’d known since he was a small child, and I felt a sense of pride in hearing his song. I sat through political propaganda spewed by a resident rabbi, biting my tongue for the sake of shalom bayit. And, on Saturday nights, after Aravit, I’d come out from behind the screen in the indoor shul, or into the main tent in the outdoor one, and listen to the Moroccan melody and wording for Havdalah, smelling a special little box of cloves that someone always made sure to hand me, or the sprigs of rosemary that they’d pass around, for a sweet week.
When we weren’t on daylight savings time, I had to leave work early in order to get home to daven, even though I work in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood. I never imagined how difficult it would be to find synagogues where a woman would be welcomed to say kaddish – once, I opened the door to a small synagogue near the shuk, just before Aravit, and a man asked hostilely “What do you want? This is a synagogue.”
But I did manage to find alternate shuls for the days I was not at home – another Moroccan synagogue, in Nachlaot, where I sat in the entrance hall, the lone woman, opposite a large and beautiful mezuzah; a homey synagogue in the German Colony, where there were other women; the big, central, Yeshurun synagogue, where a curtain was drawn to create a women’s section out of a makeshift kitchen; the 9 p.m. minyan in a school library in the Katamonim, where they had a fold-up screen on hand for the odd occasion when a woman would show up. A Shabbat morning service at a hotel in Herzliya, which was the only place I could find when I was cat-sitting there, as all the synagogues within walking distance apparently didn’t have women’s sections and/or did not permit women to say kaddish. I tried an online egalitarian minyan, but they rushed through the prayers so quickly that it stressed me out; and, occasionally, I joined the weekly online “Kaddish Club” from Lab Shul in New York, where participants each spoke about the person for whom they were saying kaddish, and then all said it together. But, by far, the vast majority of my kaddishim were said at the Moroccan Boys’ Club.
We are required to say kaddish with a minyan in order to feel that we are surrounded and supported by a community that says “amen” to our prayers. Initially, I was upset that the men couldn’t hear me, and, as such, weren’t saying “amen” to my kaddish, and that, when there were no male mourners present, the prayer leader would just rush through it. But I eventually realized that, because I was so outrageously obvious there, and everyone knew why I was there, that they were saying amen to my prayers in their hearts, if not with their tongues, even if not consciously.
Slowly, they got used to me. A couple of months in, a man in a beret passed me as he was leaving and said, “You know, it’s really nice that you come here every evening.” And shortly after that, while I was preparing to move house, the tall man who’d originally told me I could pray in a whisper in the women’s section, handed me a book of Jewish mysticism that he’d written, “so that you will have bracha (blessing) in your new home.”
* * *
My father loved animals. At the beginning of Covid, what bothered him the most was not being able to pat the dogs he passed on the street when going for walks. But he especially loved cats. As an excellent amateur photographer, he volunteered for many years at Vancouver’s SPCA, photographing the cats that were up for adoption. He wanted to help them find new homes, but he also just wanted to hang out with them, pick them up, and play with them. All of his children have inherited his love for cats. I feed about 30 street cats in my neighborhood. Most nights, I’d show up at the Moroccan Boys’ Club with a bag of dried cat food in hand, and between Mincha and Aravit, would do my cat feeding rounds. I knew that my dad, who probably couldn’t care less whether or not I said kaddish for him, would have been thrilled that I was feeding the street cats in between rounds of praying for his soul.
One day, about half a year into kaddish, as I was leaving the synagogue, a man who wasn’t usually there stopped me and said “You don’t have an obligation to say kaddish. You can pay one of the men here to do it.” And, as usual, I replied, “But I want to do it.” “But you don’t have to,” he repeated. As if it were a burden that I’d want to off-load. “Leave her alone. She’s allowed to say kaddish here,” said one of the regulars. I explained to the first man that I appreciated his thoughts, because I felt bad that the second man had snapped at him when he only meant well. But I smiled as I walked home.
One evening, I arrived at the Moroccan synagogue in Nachlaot just as prayers were ending. “I guess I’ve missed Aravit,” I said to a young man there, disappointed. “I wanted to say kaddish for my dad.” “How about tomorrow morning?” the man asked. “Give me his name and I’ll pray for him tomorrow morning.” He seemed to be a recent Russian or Ukrainian immigrant, struggling with writing my dad’s name and getting the spelling all wrong. But I didn’t correct him, because I was certain that G-d would understand whom he meant.
* * *
My dad taught me the word “rookery.” It was years ago, at dusk, as we were walking by the beach in Vancouver, waiting for the sunset, and there was a cacophony of bird calls from one tree. “It’s a rookery,” my dad said. “A place where birds come to roost for the night.”
Often, on one of the streets where I feed cats, at twilight (between Mincha and Aravit), when the sky is glowing indigo blue and the bright stars are just becoming visible, I’d hear a cacophony of bird calls from a big old pine tree. “It’s a rookery,” I’d think to myself. And I’d remember that sunset at the beach with my dad. And then I’d go to shul and say kaddish for him.
A few weeks ago, as the men at the Boys’ Club were sitting around after prayers, drinking arak and wine, I mentioned that I was almost finished my kaddish period. One of the men said, “Does that mean you’re not going to come anymore?” “You’ve become part of the landscape,” another added. “Have a glass of wine,” offered a third. “You have to bring us a bottle of arak if you want your father’s soul to ascend,” said a fourth.
* * *
During the first holiday of Pesach, I stayed at a friend’s on the other side of town, and davened at a Modern Orthodox minyan where many of my friends pray. During kaddish, some of the women moved closer to me to hear my prayer, so that they could say “amen” at the right place. Only then, a week before the end of my kaddish period, did I feel the embrace by a community that is the reason one is not permitted to say kaddish alone. I was so grateful that it brought tears to my eyes. But still, the Moroccan Boys’ Club was really my kaddish home.
* * *
I wasn’t in my neighborhood for my last kaddish. I went to the Moroccan shul in Nachlaot, where, for the first time, I sat in the women’s section upstairs, which had never been open before when I’d been there (“You see!” called out the other woman seated there to the men downstairs, “there IS demand for the women’s section, and you should open it more often.”). That night, the man who led the prayers was clearly a chazan, and he sang the service so very beautifully. I felt blessed to be there. And then I stepped out into the Nachlaot night, finished with my 11 months of kaddish, and melancholically recited Rabbi Benny Lau’s prayer to be said after the final kaddish. Feeling bittersweet, relief at no longer having to organize my life around getting to a woman-tolerant shul every day at a specific time, but also realizing that I was finishing with what had become a habit, a habit that held a daily reminder of my dad.
My father was the greatest fan of my writing. He’d distribute every new blog post to friends and family around the globe, and repeatedly encouraged me to publish a book. So, Dad, this one’s for you. In a couple of weeks, on your first yahrzeit, I plan to bring another bottle of machya to the Moroccan shul, along with some bourekas, olives, and pickles. And the boys will ask that your soul ascend as they praise G-d for creating the fruit of the earth, the fruit of the tree, the baked goods, and, of course, arak, along with all things created through His word. And this time, I will be the one saying “amen.”