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I matter, but I don’t count: Reflections on saying Kaddish

In some places I could pray out loud, in others I could whisper. And then there were the shuls where men told me God didn't want my prayer
Illustrative (Original photo by Nati Shohat / Flash90)
Illustrative (Original photo by Nati Shohat / Flash90)

When my mother, Pnina G. Schacter,  פנינה בת לאה פעשע וחנוך העניך, died on October 31st, 2018, I was determined to say Kaddish in her memory over the course of the year. My mother had expected no less of me.

And, so, every morning, I drove to my local synagogue, Young Israel Ohav Zedek, North Riverdale/Yonkers, parked in the lot behind the synagogue, and entered through the back door, ensuring the quickest route to the women’s section. I arrived with a fresh cup of coffee in hand, my tangible reward for waking up early to come to shul. I’d drop my handbag on my seat, pick up my favorite siddur, peer over the mechitzah, and I would begin to count …. 1,2,3 …… 7,8,9   — ah … but  9+me does not = 10.

I matter, but I don’t count.                                                                                                    I’m seen, but I don’t count.                                                                                                        I count, but I am not counted.

I was so appreciative of the men who came to shul at 6:20 and 6:30 every weekday morning. Most of those men did not say Kaddish, but their presence enabled me to do so. I was reliant on them, but I could do nothing to help out. Not being able to contribute left me feeling helpless.

I matter, but I don’t count.                                                                                                    I’m seen, but I don’t count.                                                                                                        I count, but I’m not counted.

That my presence was recognized and had value, but that I didn’t possess the same halachic status as the men — I didn’t count — felt to me like contradictory realities.

Yet each morning, I chose to daven in my shul, or, if I was traveling, pray in another Orthodox shul. Each time I consciously made this choice, I knew I would experience conflict, and not only about my not being counted. My morning ritual, which helped me maintain my identity and sanity, was to sit when the prayer leader recited the morning blessings, which included thanking God for not having been created a woman. I sat in my seat and I drank my coffee, my silent and unnoticed act of civil disobedience. No one paid attention and, frankly, no one cared. But I noticed and I cared, and it helped me maintain my equilibrium.

I had decided to pray in a place where the majority of my fellow daveners shared my commitment and connectedness to tradition. On those rare occasions when I did pray in a space where I counted, and where I possessed the same halachic status as a man, I was discomfited by my awareness that my personal adherence to a variety of halachic norms and behaviors was usually not shared by many of those present. Although I challenged myself regularly — why not pray in a space where I counted — I continued to daven in my local synagogue.

When traveling, I researched in advance whether a particular Orthodox minyan would welcome a woman who wished to recite Kaddish.

I rated Orthodox shuls as follows:

  • My A-rating went to those shuls that encouraged women to say Kaddish out loud.
  • My B-rating was awarded to a shul that would at least be tolerant of  my recital.
  • And my C-ranking was assigned to a shul that was hostile to women saying Kaddish.

I said Kaddish in all these settings.

My most distressing moments occurred when the men in the synagogue wanted to silence me, wanted me obliterated, and preferred that I were not present.

When I said Kaddish for my father, we visited friends in their summer home, and my only option was to join a C-rated minyan. I prepared myself to whisper Kaddish, and was confident that God would hear me, even if I wasn’t audible. But when I arrived in shul on Friday night, a woman was singing in full voice, and so I reassessed my decision to whisper Kaddish and instead settled on reciting Kaddish in a low voice.

On Shabbat morning, the women’s section was empty at the beginning of the service, so I said Kaddish even lower than I had the previous night. The mechitza in this synagogue was fashioned with a thick curtain. I could not see the men, nor could they see me. After I recited Kaddish, I heard rustling on the men’s side, and what sounded like tense talking. I couldn’t see what was happening — but I was uneasy.  Later, towards the end of the service, when a woman tapped me on the shoulder and told me that the president of the synagogue would like to speak to me, I was worried. When I walked out to speak to him, he said, “I’m sorry, I’ve been told by a number of people that the rosh yeshiva is very upset that you’re saying Kaddish.”  I responded, “I don’t want to upset the rosh yeshiva, but what is the policy of the synagogue?” He explained there was no policy, that a woman had not said Kaddish before, but nevertheless, to please stop. I started to cry and returned to my seat. I said Kaddish, but in a whisper. The rosh yeshiva’s feeling of discomfort trumped my distress.

When my husband and I went back for Mincha/Maariv, we were greeted outside the shul by a man who told me that he had heard that my father was a great man, and that he had done many wonderful things for Klal Yisrael. We thanked him. I was completely caught off guard when he then said, “Your father was such a great man, it would be my honor to say Kaddish for him, in your stead.” I said, “No, it is not your honor, it is mine, and I’m not sharing it.”

For this man, not only did I not count, but he wanted me to give away what I felt was my right and obligation. He wanted to substitute his male self, for me. I did not count.

A few months earlier, I had a similar experience in Israel. After minyan one evening, I was stopped by a man on my way out of the synagogue, who asked me if I had a brother. I said, Yes. He wanted to know why he wasn’t saying Kaddish for our father. I explained that he was. He then wanted to understand why I was. I explained that I felt it my honor and privilege, as well as responsibility, to say Kaddish for my father. With deep sincerity, he asked if I was interested in giving tzedakah (charity), and he would hire yeshiva boys to say Kaddish. I asked, “So Hashem would prefer to hear the tefillot (prayers) of random yeshiva boys — than my Kaddish?” He attempted to explain why their prayers were better than mine, but I didn’t stay long enough to hear his full explanation. As we walked back to our hotel, my son, who had joined me, complimented me on my self-restraint.

These men felt the need to challenge my decision to say Kaddish, to educate me that the tefillot of men were much more preferable to Hashem than mine. None of them knew me, and I was not a newcomer in their community who was asking them to change their customs.  They felt the need to assert themselves, to make me feel that my choices were wrong.

And then there are the inevitable distressing moments, when I’m standing in shul, before Mincha in almost any Orthodox shul, and the gabbai — almost always self-appointed — bangs on the shulchan, (table), and loudly pronounces, “Does anyone have a chiyyuv (obligation)? Does anyone have yahrzeit for a parent?” Does he really mean, ANYONE?  No, he doesn’t mean anyone — because I’m in the room, and if I raised my hand and said, I’m in shloshim, or tonight is my father’s yahrzeit he would not invite me to lead the services. Saying ANYONE pretends I’m not in the room, that he doesn’t see me. Unwittingly, he has erased me from the room; he has annihilated me.

Not only don’t I count, I don’t matter. What the gabbai in an Orthodox synagogue should say is “Are there any men in the room who have a chiyyuv?” That comment is not annihilating; rather, it reflects the reality that we know — and that we choose.

These dispiriting experiences were offset by the multitude of times when I recited Kaddish in an A-rated shul, and the women who davened alongside me would invite me to move to the neighborhood so I could encourage other women to say Kaddish in full voice.

I spent a number of weeks recently in Washington, DC, and I attended the morning prayer service in an A-rated shul — Kesher Israel. The first time I arrived, I wanted to make sure my advance assessment was correct, and that I could indeed say Kaddish out loud. When I recited my first Kaddish, and I heard a robust “Amen” in response, I relaxed. A few days later, and feeling comfortable, I was startled when one of the gabbaim motioned to me towards the end of davening to come to the back of the shul, so he could speak with me. I had an internal dialogue with myself: Did I offend? Had I done anything wrong?

What the gabbai did tell me was that the shaliach tzibbur (man leading the prayers) was observing yahrzeit that day — and that the synagogue had a custom that the leader would say the next Kaddish by himself, without being accompanied by the other mourners.

I thanked him profusely for his kindness. This man had noticed me; it mattered to him that I was in the room; and he didn’t want me to feel embarrassed when the leader would begin to say Kaddish and I would not understand why everyone else was silent. He walked over to my side of the shul, and called me over to explain. His behavior was thoughtful and deeply kind.  I did not count, but I did matter.

A few months ago, a dear friend’s father was being posthumously honored at a Chabad dinner. When the cocktail hour began, I wondered how I would be able to say Kaddish during mincha. When I noticed that a number of men gathered on the porch outside the dining hall, I asked a male friend to accompany me. I didn’t feel comfortable joining on my own. When I determined who “managed” this minyan, I informed him that “I’m going to be davening Mincha and saying Kaddish,” and asked him, “Where would you like me to stand?” He pointed to a glass door, and instructed me to stand on the other side of the door, inside the building. If I did what he asked, I would not have been able to hear the davening. Instead, I walked to the furthest point on the porch behind where the men had gathered, and hugged a wall. When it was time to say Kaddish, I looked up to see who would start the recital. It was quiet. I began to say Kaddish. No one joined me. As I continued, I noticed three men who had been standing in front of me, moved back closer to me, and leaned in to say Amen. I was shocked. I did not count — but I did matter. Chabad received a lovely donation from me that night.

Choosing to daven in a space where I mattered but didn’t count shaped my daily shul experience. Identifying with conflicting principles, is a reality for many of us in a variety of areas in our lives. Some of us experience conflict when we identify with an American political party, but feel deeply distressed by policy decisions made by that party. Some of us identify as Zionists, but may not agree with certain policies of the Israeli government.

Experiencing both the “mattering” and the “not counting,” and keeping this tension alive makes for a richer, more textured, and nuanced life. I did not want to give up on either of these sides of the conflict. Knowing that I was choosing to remain conflicted, deciding that I want to live and pray with a community that shares my personal halachic adherence to a variety of halachic norms and behaviors, while not being counted, made the experience tolerable. As more and more women are choosing to say Kaddish audibly in Orthodox davening spaces, I want to impress on my community that when women are present, it is imperative that the women know they matter.

I feel blessed that, in my home synagogue, Rabbi Shmuel Hain, along with many members of my community, made our shul an A-rated davening space, a place that during my year of mourning, I was supported, heard, and seen, and I knew I mattered, even though I didn’t count.

About the Author
Ms. Schacter is a psychoanalyst in private practice on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, seeing both individuals and couples. Ms. Schacter is on the faculty of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a Rabbinical School in New York where she coordinates the students' professional development, and teaches Pastoral Counseling.
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