Shira Pasternak Be'eri
Living and loving in Jerusalem
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Finding my Kaddish voice

As if saying Kaddish as an Orthodox woman wasn't challenging enough, COVID-19 upended the entire process
Illustrative, adapted from a photo by Geralt, Pixabay
Illustrative, adapted from a photo by Geralt, Pixabay

I shed many tears during my year of saying Kaddish. Most of them had nothing to do with the loss of my father. It was in the music that I missed him most, during the Friday night service, when the harmonies were particularly beautiful, and on Shabbat mornings, when the congregation sang one of the tunes played at his funeral. Some were tears of gratitude, some of frustration, some from feeling diminished, some of affirmation. Most of them surrounded the very act of saying Kaddish as a woman in an Orthodox synagogue, a lonely experience, in which women often find themselves with no voice or with no response to their prayer.

Following is a series of vignettes from my Kaddish journey, which took an unexpected turn towards the end. They are all set in South Jerusalem, where women often recite Kaddish in Orthodox synagogues. But even there, it can be complicated.

The power of an “Amen”

It was a balmy Friday night at Arnonim, the synagogue across the street from my home, where I can tumble out of the frantic finishing touches of Shabbat preparations and into the world of prayer. Kaddish was still a relatively new experience for me. I had undertaken to say it in the daily morning services and in all three services of Shabbat day. Friday night, somehow, added itself, since the singing moved me and connected me with my dad.

At the start of my Kaddish journey, I was accompanied by my husband, whose mother had passed away four months earlier. We stood on either side of the woven mechitza that separated the women and men, chanting the prayer in unison, with Leonard taking the lead. I timed my Kaddish to his strong voice and slow, deliberate recitation, synchronizing the Aramaic words to his singsong. Joining forces assured me that someone would respond to my prayer, since, on weekdays, I was largely alone in the women’s section, and on Shabbat, for some reason, the women didn’t seem to answer at all. With our voices merged, whenever Leonard’s prayer garnered an “Amen” or “Yehe Shme raba mevorach,” my prayer did as well.

I cherished those responses. They confirmed that I was accepting God’s decree, sanctifying God’s name, and restoring the image of God diminished by the loss of a human life. They attested to my father’s commitment to Jewish tradition, and ratified that he had raised children who are committed to tradition as well. They carried my prayers up to the heavens and brought whatever mystical benefit Kaddish brings to a soul. And as I stood in public, vulnerably announcing my status as a mourner, the responses from the community were a source of consolation and comfort for my loss.

On this particular summer’s night, I was running late. When I arrived at the synagogue, the women’s section, usually relatively empty on Friday nights, was full of tourists on a Jewish heritage tour. I couldn’t sit anywhere near my husband, and found myself standing in the back of the hall, behind the talking visitors. When Kaddish began, waves of recitations rose up from the men’s section. They had different wordings and were recited at different speeds, cascading on top of each other cacophonously. The voice closest to me was that of a man reciting Kaddish at breakneck speed. Try as I might, I could not keep up with him.

Alone despite the crowd, I was distressed and flustered. My prayer was a monologue rather than a dialogue; no one seemed to hear it at all. But then, amidst the din, a woman I didn’t know made her way to the back of the room and came over to stand beside me. For the rest of my Kaddish, she answered at each responsive pause.

I reached the end of the prayer, and burst into tears. Drawing on her own experience, my new friend consoled me on my loss, assuring me that it gets easier as the year goes on.

“Oh, I’m not crying because my father died,” I exclaimed, “I’m crying because you answered my Kaddish!”

After thanking her profusely, I silently resolved that if I ever see a woman saying Kaddish with no one answering her, I will stand next to her in support and will say “Amen.”

Kaddish overrun

There’s a unique form of Mourner’s Kaddish that is recited by non-mourners. I first encountered it at Beit Boyer, the synagogue where my husband and I are active members. Founded on a commitment to maximal participation of women in ritual within the confines of Jewish law, Beit Boyer should have been the ideal place for me to say Kaddish. And it was — as long as there were mourners in the men’s section.

On this autumn morning, my husband, who was also saying Kaddish, could not be at services and I was the only mourner in the synagogue. This should not have been a problem, because the rabbi who serves as the community’s halakhic decisor holds that a woman can say Kaddish on her own. In recent years, however, the men of the community had been disregarding this ruling. Whether it was because they saw themselves as protecting “the custom of Israel” or “the dignity of the community,” saving men from being aroused by a woman’s voice,” or sparing women the discomfort of saying Kaddish alone, for several years, non-mourning men had been saying Kaddish at Beit Boyer whenever a lone woman mourner began to say it. And on this morning, as I started my first Kaddish of the daily prayers, a non-mourning man launched into Kaddish as well.

I actually enjoyed saying Kaddish together with others. I took comfort in being part of a group with similar loss, I liked having my words buoyed by theirs, and I welcomed the amplified communal responses to the shared prayer. But when I was joined by a man who was not in mourning, the experience was painful and demeaning. My accompanist was not expressing his own loss and did not share mine. As a result, rather than amplifying my Kaddish, his Kaddish was diluting my prayer. Rather than bolstering my words, his words were overrunning them. Rather than feeling supported, I felt like I was being silenced.

Some women don’t mind saying Kaddish with a non-mourning man. Others actually prefer it to saying Kaddish alone. But at Beit Boyer, women give sermons as part of the Shabbat service, say Birkat Hagomel on their own after surviving life-threatening situations, and serve in the highest positions of lay leadership. In such a setting, it was incomprehensible to me that I was not being allowed to say Kaddish on my own, especially since the rabbi had deemed the practice permissible. Rattled, I left the synagogue and relocated to one with a later service, where I was able to say Kaddish as part of a group of fellow mourners.

Later that day, one of the men of the community, who had noticed my departure, called me to say that he had phoned the rabbi on my behalf, and the rabbi had reiterated his position that women can say Kaddish on their own. I was moved by my neighbor’s attempt to enable me to say Kaddish comfortably, but I didn’t pursue the matter with the synagogue board. I was in mourning and vulnerable, and lacked the strength to make waves.

From that point on, whenever I was on my own in the mornings, I planned my synagogue attendance based on where there were likely to be male mourners. This usually brought me to the local municipal synagogue, where there were many mourners and I was unlikely to find myself reciting Kaddish with a non-mourning man. And if I did, I would relocate elsewhere.

My year became one of synagogue wanderings, as I moved from place to place in order to shield myself from the discomfort of Kaddish overrun.

In the women’s section at Beit Boyer (Courtesy)

An unexpected complaint

It was a winter’s weekday morning at Shai Agnon, the municipal synagogue that my husband and I attended when we needed an early start. Women’s Kaddish is accepted at this synagogue, although women may not say the prayer alone. And when women say it as part of a group, given the large number of worshipers, the layout of the synagogue, and women’s own discomfort with praying loudly, their voices are rarely heard.

On this morning, my husband and I had said the opening Kaddish prayers together, on either side of the mechitza. But when he was called to his hospital, I was left on my own. I remained in the front row of the women’s section, just behind where my husband had been seated, with very little space between me and the other men in his row.

At the end of the service, I timed my recitations of Kaddish to the loudest voice in the men’s section, so that my experience would be a responsive one. Aware that I was a visitor in a community that is somewhat more stringent than my own, I recited the text fairly quietly, concerned that without the cover of my husband’s voice, the men sitting near the mechitza might be bothered by the sound of my prayer.

At the end of the service, as I was leaving the building, a man I didn’t know approached me in the foyer.

“If you say Kaddish,” he started saying in Hebrew…

“Oh no, here it comes,” I thought. “I’ve been saying Kaddish for six months and no one ever has lectured me about how I’m not allowed to do so.” I braced myself for the speech.

“If you say Kaddish,” he continued…

“You need to say it loudly, because I have to answer.”

I was stunned.

“That’s okay,” I stammered. “There are lots of other mourners in this synagogue. When you answer their Kaddish, you are answering mine as well.”

The man found my answer unacceptable.

“It doesn’t matter if there are other mourners,” he insisted. “If I am near you, I need to answer your Kaddish. So you need to say it loudly.”

My eyes misted over. Despite the mechitza, I had somehow been seen. And this man was insisting that I be heard as well. I thanked him and wished him a good day. Wiping away my tears, I headed toward work, stepping out into a world that was a bit brighter than it had been a few minutes earlier.

Behind the mechitza at the Shai Agnon synagogue (Courtesy)

Going solo

My solo Kaddish voice broke unexpectedly.

Seven months into my year of mourning, my husband took his last three steps out of his Kaddish journey, and I was alone for the remainder of mine. By this time, the circle of mourners at Beit Boyer had expanded slightly and the male mourners had begun to stand at the front of the synagogue to chant Kaddish together, respectfully accommodating the slightly different textual traditions of the different mourners and reaching the responsive points simultaneously, which vastly improved the experience for all.

Without my husband for Kaddish cover, though, it was inevitable that the day would come when I would be the only mourner present. Now that the possibility of a non-mourner accompanying my Kaddish was a daily concern, I mustered up the strength to ensure that I would be able to say the prayer on my own. After a week of drafting and crafting, I sent a letter to the synagogue board requesting that the rabbi’s ruling that women can say Kaddish alone be upheld. It was then that I discovered that the man who had been most vigilant about ensuring that women did not say Kaddish alone actually agreed with the rabbi’s ruling, but had assumed that all women wanted Kaddish support. It is a shame that he had never asked.

The stage had been set. One weekday morning toward spring, the moment finally arrived. My husband scanned the men’s section at the start of the service and told me I was the only mourner present. “Ready?” he asked. Nervous, I said I was.

My first solo Kaddish was different than all the Kaddishes that had come before it. It was liberating to say the prayer without trying to synchronize my words with others to get a response. It felt different to be praising God in a loud, firm voice, and to have the community ratify what I said. But at the same time, it was uncomfortable to be so exposed, as I publicly recited my prayer in a space where women are usually neither seen nor heard. And it was a bit sad for me to chant the prayer tunelessly, lest the men be disturbed by the sound of a melodious woman’s Kaddish voice. My father, the musician, deserved a tuneful Kaddish.

As I made my way through the words, I remembered a friend who had been uncomfortable when non-mourning men had recited Kaddish with her at Beit Boyer throughout her Kaddish year. Perhaps after my precedent, men would ask women whether they want assistance, rather than assume that they do; perhaps women would be able to say Kaddish on their own, if that was their preference. Standing alone in the women’s section, accompanied by the women who were there before me and those who would come after, I felt it was a watershed moment. My voice broke and I reached the end of the prayer with eyes filled with tears.

Little did I know that this was to be my last solo Kaddish until the end of my Kaddish journey.

Kaddish lost and found

I lost my Kaddish in a supermarket.

It was at the local Shufersol, just after Purim. Israel was beginning to shut down because of the coronavirus, but synagogues were still open. We were shopping for Shabbat, sanitizing the surfaces we touched even before anyone else was doing that, because we were terrified of bringing COVID-19 into my husband’s hospital.

I had been uneasy in synagogue since the previous Shabbat, when we were warned not to exchange hugs, or to kiss the Torah as it passed. As I stood in the women’s section each morning, my solitude, usually a source of loneliness, was now a source of reassurance, but I was concerned about potential sources of contagion on the other side of the mechitza.

Walking down the deserted supermarket aisles that evening, I suddenly knew that I had to stop going to synagogue in the mornings. “Do me a favor,” I could hear my father shouting. “You don’t even have a chiyuv! You are not obligated to say Kaddish! Keep yourself safe. Keep your husband and his patients safe. I DON’T NEED YOUR KADDISH!”

My eyes clouded over as I realized that although my father might not need my Kaddish, I still did. But he was right. It was irresponsible to continue attending minyan. As it began to sink in that I may have recited my last Kaddish, I discovered that it is difficult to wipe away tears when you are meant to not touch your face.

Over the next six weeks, I lived in a world without Kaddish. I refrained from attending a nearby outdoor minyan because I thought the practice was bad public health policy, and that preserving life was more important than saying prayers for the dead. Saying Kaddish at a Zoom minyan soon emerged as a possibility, but it wasn’t a comfortable option for me, since the virtual minyan that I was invited to asked that only the prayer leader say Kaddish out loud, so as to avoid sound synchronization problems, and I would have had to leave my camera off because there was no mechitza, which made me wonder how exactly I would be participating. And to be perfectly honest, it was a relief not to begin my days with the stress surrounding the logistics of saying Kaddish as a woman in an Orthodox synagogue.

But despite the relief, in the world of Kaddish lost I missed my morning minyan routine. I missed the daily remembrance of my father. I missed doing something active as a statement of my status as a mourner, rather than just refraining from wearing new clothes, listening to music, or going to social gatherings; while I had always liked saying Kaddish for that reason, my need for an active expression of mourning became more pronounced now, when there were no concerts or weddings or social gatherings in any event. It also weighed heavily on me that I had made a commitment to say Kaddish that I was not keeping.

Eventually the world started opening up a bit, and I found out that one of my regular Kaddish venues, the Shai Agnon synagogue, was beginning to have an outdoor minyan that would also be broadcast on Zoom. I only had two and a half weeks left until my 11 months of Kaddish were finished, but I was eager to restart.

That’s when I started saying Kaddish remotely.

My COVID Kaddish shul with just a handful of congregants, once synagogues had reopened (Courtesy)

Zooming ahead

It was an early Tuesday morning in my family room. As the sun glistened off the windows of the nearby Jerusalem towers and the birds chirped in the trees surrounding my apartment, I logged on to my computer. My synagogue was now a series of boxes against a black backdrop. I was startled by the image of the prayer leader in the center of the screen. Only his eyes and voice hinted at his identity. The combination of prayer shawl, phylacteries, and surgical mask was an eerie symbol of our brave new world.

In the surrounding boxes were a number of men sitting in front of bookshelves and windows. They were wrapped in prayer shawls, with tefillin bound to their arms and adorning their foreheads. Most of the boxes were simply black with white names, some of which I recognized: Danny, Arnie, Ephraim, hey – there’s Judy, she’s saying Kaddish too! Some had their volume on, but most were muted. I turned my volume on for each Kaddish, but said my prayer out of range of the mike. I liked knowing in principle that others could hear me, but actually preferred not to be heard. I didn’t want to interfere with anyone’s ability to hear the Kaddish prayers and “amens” of the outdoor minyan. And I wanted to be able to hear them myself.

I thoroughly enjoyed the Zoom service. I liked being able to pray in a stage whisper or while pacing, as it helped my concentration. I liked being able to dress only for God and not have to pile my hair into a hat to be appropriately dressed for shul. And I especially liked not being behind a mechitza. Zoom was somehow an equalizer. Although the prayer leader and participants at the outdoor service itself were all men, most of the men in the black boxes on screen chose to see and not be seen, just like me. I wondered whether weekday minyanim might continue to be broadcast from inside synagogues after the crisis passes, for the benefit of people whose health conditions preclude synagogue attendance, travelers in places where there are no minyanim, or parents who wish to participate in a few minutes of public prayer in between getting young children ready for school.

The Zoom minyan was so convenient that I added the afternoon and evening services to my daily routine, reciting two more Kaddishes each day to somehow compensate for the ones that I had lost. Saying chapters of Psalms and excerpts of Avinu Malkenu as supplications for world health was particularly meaningful; in fact, prior to joining the service from afar, I did not know that these prayers had been added.

As my Kaddish days dwindled, I was reluctant to part with the prayer. Hoping to make up for some of the Kaddishes that I had lost, I thought I could take on the Sephardic custom of briefly stopping Kaddish at 11 months and then resuming its recitation until the end of the twelfth. Given the leniencies that were being issued in response to the pandemic, I was sure I could swap my custom for this noble cause. But the rabbi I asked said there was value in keeping my own community’s custom, and that I should not publicly change my practice.

Sadly, I accepted that I had lost my Kaddish, found my Kaddish, but couldn’t prolong it any longer. It would soon be time to face my last Kaddish.

My corona Kaddish

It was a scalding Friday afternoon in Talpiot-Arnona. Ten men gathered for the afternoon prayer on a grassy field between gray, stucco shikun buildings. Five women assembled beneath the trees on the sidewalk, just on the other side of a low stone wall. We were all standing two meters apart and wearing face masks that had suddenly become mandatory – surgical, home-sewn, bandannas, even socks. The sun was blazing and the trees sported the neon green layer of new growth that marks the arrival of spring. I had not left my home for nine weeks, but Israel was opening up just as the time for my last Kaddish arrived.

Before the coronavirus shuttered my world, I had intended to ask some of the women in my community to join me at synagogue on my last morning of Kaddish, so as not to end my Kaddish journey in the isolation of an empty women’s section. But now, with the end of my Kaddish approaching in a transformed world, I realized that I didn’t have to abandon that plan; in fact, I could expand it. Through Facebook and WhatsApp, I invited my friends – real and virtual, women and men – to join me via Zoom for the last afternoon service of my Kaddish year, so that their prayers and responses to my Kaddish could be counted to my father’s merit.

A virtual Kaddish invite (Courtesy)

Assembling an outdoor minyan, permitted for up to 19 people, was a bit of a challenge given the limitations on our mobility, which fortunately had just been extended from 100 to 500 meters from home. With a little help from my friends and a lot of online networking, a quorum of men – half of whom I did not know – had volunteered to attend. They were joined by a handful of women, who kept me from being alone in the ad hoc women’s section.

As we stood under the blue Jerusalem sky, standing with us, on three continents and in four time zones, were family and friends from every stage of my life and every community I have lived in. They included my friend Sally, who had woken up at 5:30 a.m. in Minnesota, my mother, who rose at 6:30 a.m. in New York, and many of my blogger friends, some of whom I have never met in real life. We recited the Mincha service and reached the end of Aleinu. The time for my last Kaddish had arrived.

My crowning corona Kaddish (via Zoom, courtesy Cory Shulman)

I took a deep breath, and began to recite the mourner’s prayer loudly, so it could be heard through my surgical mask. It was a tuneful Kaddish, sung in my husband’s cadence, which had been my gold standard for many months. Midway through the prayer, my voice cracked and began to falter. I thought of my father, taken from us so cruelly, just when we thought we were getting him back. I thought of my mother, sheltering at home in New York without her husband’s companionship. I thought of how fortunate I was to have been able to assemble a minyan for Kaddish, when Kaddish had fallen silent all over the world.

My final Kaddish was a Kaddish in which I could focus on the prayer and its meaning, rather than on the very act of saying it. It was a natural Kaddish, said for a loved one, heard and answered by all. It was how Kaddish should always be.

After the last “Amen,” I recited Rav Benny Lau’s prayer for the last Kaddish silently, since my tears prevented me from saying it aloud. As soon as I finished, my pocket began to vibrate, as messages flooded in from the friends who had been with me from afar, in 42 boxes, at the end of my Kaddish journey. Their warm, virtual hug was the perfect ending to a challenging Kaddish year.

Epilogue

Following my last Kaddish, I stepped out of the shade and into the sunlight, and set out for home, walking in my neighborhood for the first time since I had given up my synagogue attendance and had begun working from home over two months earlier. It resembled the traditional walk around the block at the end of shiva, except that rather than returning to normal life, I was entering a world in which a “new normal” remained to be discovered.

I continued participating in daily services via Zoom during my 12th month of mourning, answering the Kaddish prayers of others when I could no longer say my own. The weekday broadcasts continued even after synagogues reopened and prayers moved inside, and continues to this day, enabling those who cannot physically participate, or who want to avoid the additional risk, to have the experience of communal prayer. As synagogues around the world open their shutters and dust off their seats, I hope they will consider broadcasting their weekday services, for the sake of all members of their communities.

During my Kaddish year, I found my Kaddish voice. It was a voice that was rooted in tradition and commitment. It was a voice that strove to be heard, but that sometimes chose not to. It was a voice that required respect and was respectful as well. It was a tenuous voice that was dependent upon men, longed for the camaraderie of women, thrived on community, and craved communication. It was a voice that could easily be intimidated, and that had to learn to be proactive and look out for its own needs. It was a voice that grew stronger over time.

I found my Kaddish voice during a period in which we all lost our synagogue voices and Kaddish was stilled throughout the world. As we reenter our sanctuaries and establish our “new normal,” I hope that there will be increased sensitivity to the prayer needs of all, women and men alike, and pray that it will become easier for other Orthodox women to find their own Kaddish voices as well.

About the Author
Shira Pasternak Be'eri is a Jerusalem-based editor and translator. She is married to Leonard (aka Eliezer) and is the proud mom of three boys, two of whom are soldiers in the IDF. Born and raised in New York, she has been living in Israel since 1982. And yes, she is Velvel Pasternak's daughter.
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