Last Kaddish

On the eve of Yom Hashoah, the day we remember the 6,000,000 Jews who perished in the Holocaust, writing about my final  Kaddish, the prayer for the dead seems particularly appropriate.

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I have been counting down the days to this last Kaddish for my mother, for quite some time. At the eight-month mark, I had a sense of fullness, of having said Kaddish for a sufficient length of time. However, I was not giving up. I had made a silent commitment and was going to see this to completion. Thus, I continued setting my alarm six days a week at 6:01 in order to make it to minyan at 6:25.

This feeling of “enough already” symbolized for me the gradual recognition that my mother was truly gone from the land of the living and that I was ready to move on. I reflected that I have always been an impatient sort, rushing, and moving quickly, sometimes too quickly. Learning how to slow down and finish properly has always been a challenge. So here too, I am learning one of my life’s lessons.

Traditionally, children who have lost a parent say Kaddish for 11 months, one month short of a full year.  The reason for this is the belief that only sinners need an entire year to redeem their souls from Gehenna. Mom was a saint, for sure, and 11 months was definitely enough.

Marking the day of completing Kaddish, it is customary to bring a bottle of whiskey and raise a  toast “L’chaim,” to life! I wanted to thank all the male congregants of our small neighborhood synagogue, who supported me on this journey and made me feel welcome, but I knew that the 17th day of Nisan, the day I would complete the Kaddish, was in the middle of the seven-day Passover holiday. Since whiskey doesn’t come in Kosher for Passover varieties, that option would not work. I decided to pre-empt, and so Friday morning, the Eve of the Passover holiday, 14th day of Nisan, I brought a bottle of Scotch to the synagogue where the men and I toasted my mother’s soul, and blessed her with the traditional blessing that her “neshama,” her soul, should have an “aliyah,” an ascent. What exactly does that mean? I am not sure myself, but there is the belief that the neshama, continues to ascend after death, and each year comes closer to the Shechina, to G-d, thus this toast is most fitting at this time.

With the whiskey toasts behind us, and the Seder night as well, the 17th of Nisan drew closer, and I wondered both how I would feel and what I would do to symbolically note the occasion.  Over the last few months, I wondered whether I would continue praying with a minyan, a formal prayer service, on a daily basis. On the one hand, I had gained a lot from attending minyan regularly including a deeper understanding of prayer, a feeling that I had celebrated the holidays more intensely, and a gratefulness to God in a very concrete manner on a daily basis. However, after much soul searching, I concluded that I would not continue praying on a daily basis with a minyan.

Why not? First, I, as a woman, am not counted as a member in the prayer quorum, the minyan.  If there are nine men, and me, there is no minyan. Only 10 men over the age of 13 are eligible to be counted for a minyan. After spending almost a year waiting on a daily basis for a quorum to assemble, the importance of the minyan is very clear to me. However, I am of no value there, and that feeling of being redundant is frustrating. Several times during the year, there were nine men, and me. Thus, no minyan. At the close of 11 months of Kaddish, I was returning to my invisible status behind the mehitza, the separating wall between men and women.  I do not add to the minyan nor do I detract.

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The second reason revolves around my relationship to prayer. Despite the fact that this year I spent hundreds of hours in formal prayer, I am still not a good “davener,” a good “pray-er.” I would far rather spend my time learning Torah, or doing something else, and prefer short, succinct and personal prayers. I feel that my spiritual connection has strengthened over the year, yet my love of prayer, particularly the fairly long formal prayer service, has not developed. Thus, I have decided to enjoy my prerogative as a female who does not have the obligation to pray three times a day with a quorum, and will say my prayers at home, before going off for a bike ride or a walk. Reaching this conclusion, and feeling at peace with it, has been an important step for me on this journey.

On the 16th of Nisan, one day before my last Kaddish, I received an unanticipated phone call. A friend was on the other end asking me if I would be available to help the local Hevra Kadisha, Burial Society, prepare a body and purify it before burial. I had volunteered my services a couple of years ago to help with this difficult, yet vital work, but had not yet been called upon to participate.I immediately said yes.  How fitting, I thought, that on the day I finished saying Kaddish for my mother, I would help someone on her final journey.

So, here I am on this final day of Kaddish, the 17th of Nisan, facing Death squarely in the face, contemplating the great mystery of the soul that has departed and the physical body that has been left behind. Somehow, in the great cosmic adventure that is life, this is the way this year was supposed to end.

I have spent this past year dancing with death. Immersing myself in what has always held a fascination for me, I contemplated death, talked, lectured, read and wrote about death. Saying Kaddish everyday allowed me the time and space to mourn my mother’s passing and to be cognizant of the valuable minutes of my life, feeling grateful for all that I have been blessed with.  Each time I said Kaddish I thought of my mother. She has been fully present in my life this year and I have lived my life differently because of her. In the early months after her death, I often cried as I recited the Kaddish. As the months wore on, the tears dried, but the Kaddish never became rote. Reading the words carefully from the prayerbook, I did not rely on memory, although by this time the words slid easily off my tongue.

I wonder where my Mom’s soul is, and how she is doing. I realize that I will never know but that does not keep me from think about it. In the belief that somewhere and somehow messages get through, I send all my love out and my deep gratitude for having been born her daughter. It was my “zechut,” my privilege, to say Kaddish for my mother this year. I grabbed the opportunity with two hands and never let go. Until now. Now is the time to let go. Transitions are never easy and I wonder how I will feel tomorrow morning and the next, and the one after that, without “my” Kaddish. I know that this is the way of the world, the cycle of life, and the passage of time. May my mother rest in peace, and in the familiar words of the Kaddish, “May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for us and for all Israel; Amen.”

About the Author
Naomi L Baum, Ph.D., is an international consultant in the field of psychological management of traumas and disasters with an emphasis on resilience. She recently published a book, "Life Unexpected: A Trauma Psychologist Journeys through Breast Cancer." She is the mother of seven and grandmother of 12.
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