Life unexpected: Kaddish continues

The first day of Shiva dawns bright and early. It is 6:30 AM and I am already dressed in the same black tunic, the shirt that I ripped yesterday at my mother’s funeral as an overt expression of my heart that has been torn asunder. I will wear this outfit for the full week of mourning, not washing it, not changing it.  This is one more symbol prescribed by religious custom that helps to express the inexpressible. How could I possibly think about my clothes at a time like this?

I am in my parent’s house with my father and siblings, and we open the door to the men who have come to pray with us. There is more than a quorum, meaning that we  are able, according to Jewish law, to say Kaddish, the special prayer said by mourners. The men assemble in the living room and I stand near the kitchen, separate, but close enough to follow. My sister chooses a room farther down the hall.  It is challenging for me to keep up with the pace of the praying men. As a woman, I have been exempt from the obligation of daily prayer in community and am used to going slower when I pray by myself. I am no stranger to prayer.  Since childhood, I have said an abbreviated form of prayer most mornings, a practice that suited me well during my child rearing years.  In between waking the kids, getting them ready for school, fixing sandwiches, and making sure that all got out the door on time, there were just a few prayers whispered hurriedly in the kitchen.

Even now, as those busy years fade into memory, my daily prayers on good days are a hasty “good morning” to God in my living room. If I commit to a daily Kaddish, I will have to change my schedule. I will need to go to synagogue every morning to join a minyan, a prayer quorum, and stay there for the full service, at least a half hour on weekdays and two hours on Shabbat! Am I prepared to do this?

I will also have to familiarize myself with prayers that I have never said, and to learn all the fine points of the Kaddish. For example, I never realized that there are two different versions of Kaddish that are said during the morning prayer.

On this first day after the funeral, I find myself struggling to keep up, feeling a sense of pressure that is unfamiliar to me in the context of prayer. Until now, I had no active role to play in public prayer. I could sit and daydream. I could mumble the prayers at my own pace. I could communicate with G-d in any way I chose. Now, I have to keep up. I need to make sure that I am on the right page at the right time, and that I begin to say Kaddish at exactly the right moment. In these early days, I find myself stumbling over the words, losing the pace often ending up mumbling parts of the text and feeling that I have made a general mess of things.

As an Orthodox woman, I have never led public prayer services. The only prayer I have ever said aloud in mixed company is “hagomel,” the blessing of thanksgiving, in this case after giving birth. I wonder why I, a seasoned professional used to public speaking am finding it so difficult to say a simple prayer in public? I do not find it difficult to give a lecture to hundreds, to lead large workshops, or to give interviews on television – yet praying aloud in a room with less than twenty people causes my heart to pound and sweat to pour from my forehead. Raising my voice as a peer in prayer so that I can be heard, as I join my brothers in Kaddish is an entirely new experience in my religious life.

The week of Shiva progresses slowly. Each day feels like a week, a month, an eternity. The house fills with visitors from morning until night, each coming to pay respect, to comfort, to remember my mother.  The visits are bracketed by three prayer services each day: Shacharit in the morning, Mincha in the afternoon, and Maariv at night.  Each prayer service has at least one Mourner’s Kaddish, sometimes more.  I persevere despite my discomfort, chanting the traditional prayer along with my two brothers at every service.

Why do I continue?  The practice seems to have a certain momentum of its own that sweeps me along. I started saying Kaddish without planning or forethought, and since that fateful moment in the cemetery, I have just kept going.  As the Shiva week draws to a close, and I think about my next steps, a decision to stop saying Kaddish would be more difficult than deciding to continue. Momentum carries me along. I am not thinking about the future, about the long year ahead. My mourning has anchored me in the here and now: living in the present each minute is an hour, each hour a week. I am saying Kaddish now. After that, we will see.

I know women who said Kaddish three times a day for a year, others who said it every Shabbat, and others who didn’t say it at all.  Being a woman has its advantages. I can choose.

So why continue? For me, the Kaddish brings with it a very special feeling.  As I stand and chant the ancient words, I feel Mom’s presence surround me. I think of her and nothing else. I can literally smell and feel her: I am with her. The actual words of the Kaddish, a prayer sanctifying God’s name and praying for peace, have nothing to do with her death. Yet the only reason I am saying this prayer is because my mother has died. Every time I say it, I am reminded that she is not here. Every time I stand for the Kaddish, I am publicly calling attention to the fact that I am an orphan, that I have lost someone dear to my heart, and that I am in need of comfort.  Kaddish does not allow me, or my community, to forget my grief.

The minyan joins in responsively in the Kaddish prayer at eight prescribed places.  Seven of the communal responses are a simple “Amen.” One is a longer sentence, declaring that G-d’s name is blessed forever and ever.  This is the dance of Kaddish, I take two steps, and the community responds with theirs. I say a few more words, and the community answers. I feel the communal embrace, and it is warm and healing. Kaddish has set me apart, made me special and different, and called attention to my great loss.

According to Jewish tradition, saying Kaddish is something I can do for my mother’s soul. It is a way I can continue to honor her and do something for her, even after her passing.    Understanding exactly how the Kaddish benefits my mother’s soul is beyond logic and linear thought.  Entering the realm of the soul, I need to suspend my critical Western brain.  If saying Kaddish is good for my Mom’s soul, I reason, it is good enough for me.

I continue.

Naomi is sharing her experiences about saying Kaddish throughout the year. This is the second blog post in a series.

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.