Chaim Trachtman
Chaim Trachtman

Mourning in a year of mourning

My father died on the evening after Shiva Asar b’Tammuz, the start of the traditional three-week period of collective mourning until Tisha b’Av. In a normal year, that should have made my immersion into mourning (aveilut) a little bit easier because everyone would be sharing some of the restrictions of mourning with me for at least a brief period of time. But, 2020 was not a normal year. It was a year like no other, one that will be highlighted in bold font in history books of the future. This was the year of COVID-19

Because of the practices that were adopted in the struggle to contain the spread of the viral infection — social distancing, wearing masks, working from home, synagogue closures, curtailing religious gatherings — Jewish ritual life was dramatically altered. That in addition to the closure of funeral homes, shuls, schools, movies and catering halls, meant that life, as we know it, ground to a halt. Mourners could not attend minyan to say kaddish and there was no public celebration of smachot. Now, almost one year later, although shuls have opened once again, sanctuaries are still less than half full. Many shul members remain fearful of davening inside and pray in outdoor minyanim, bundled up in parkas, ski caps, and gloves. Luckily, my father was able to have a meaningful funeral with family members and friends in attendance and the opportunity to share heartfelt eulogies for my father. I sat shiva in my backyard and many friends and relatives came to comfort me. Since my father’s passing, I have said kaddish with a minyan every single day in both the morning and evening. But many who have lost loved ones during this time have not been so fortunate. For many, the experience of mourning has been solitary, truncated and far removed from familiar patterns of behavior. Only time will tell what the long-term impact these events will have on Jewish practice.

But I would like to ask a different question. How does an individual mourner like me react to loss in a year of global, universal loss? I have experienced the passing of my father and I am in midst of the traditional Jewish year of mourning. At the same time, the world has endured global loss and is in the midst of a period of meta-mourning, if you will. How do these two cycles interact with one another? I would like to focus on three elements that I see as intrinsic to the mourning process and compare how they unfold during both the personal and global mourning — actualizing the profound sense of loss of the loved one, the awareness of time and human finitude, and maintaining hope for the future.

Many customs have arisen over the centuries in traditional Judaism, to express the mourner’s sense of loss of a parent. There are familiar practices like refraining from attending weddings, not listening to live music, or not cutting your beard. During this COVID-infected year, there are far fewer weddings, most of them tiny, precluding anyone’s attendance. No one is going to the symphony or rock concerts. There is little incentive to shave. I have not been missed any events that I had been eagerly anticipating this year. In this regard, COVID-19 has taken the sharp edge off my year of mourning. Nearly everybody has experienced loss and has been involuntarily forced to comply with many of the Rabbinic ordinances for mourning. However, halakha embraces large-scale actions and minute details. For many, the focus on the legal quantity of matza that must be consumed at the seder, the required stability of the walls of a sukkah, the provenance of every item in a chocolate cookie is off-putting. But appreciating the granular texture of the law can be instructive, in fact uplifting. Yes, we should not lose sight of the forest for the trees. But sometimes, the trees are all you have. If you nurture them, then they can reconstitute the forest.

Mourning my father during the past year where the broader gestures were rendered irrelevant has made me cognizant and appreciative of many of the less prominent restrictions and prompted me to rethink the details and value them that much more. Many people are wearing the same casual Sunday clothes day in and day out and are probably not buying as many new shirts, skirts or outfits. I am no shopper and I am generally not that mindful of the clothing I wear. Nonetheless, when I recycle through the same set of shirts over a two-week period, I am mindful that my year, like the year of all those who have lost a loved one, is different than most people who are working to overcome the pandemic. In a world of mounting communal losses that can be shockingly desensitizing, there is a pressing need to personalize the death of loved ones and the details of Jewish tradition have helped me accomplish this.

The year of mourning for a parent affects one’s perception of time. On the macro level, it heightens sensitivity to the passage of the seasons. As days grow shorter and mincha moves relentlessly back to 4 pm, one is made more acutely aware of the yearly cycle. On the micro-level, the need to get to shacharit on time to say the first Kaddish at the start of introductory prayers (psukei d’zimra) make mere minutes loom disproportionately large. In contrast, COVID-19 has flattened our sense of time. This monumental change in our lives — the collapse of distance between office and dining room, closed theatres and museums no parties, and distance learning — has wiped out many of the distinctions in time. The event horizon is monotonously level with virtually no planned signposts to mark the passage of time. In this regard, personal mourning has been a salve by restoring some definitive points in my day and week, times when I have to stop what I am doing, refocus on the religious task at hand (getting to shul and saying Kaddish), and step out of that timeless space. It makes me more cognizant that my own time on this earth is limited and that every moment matters.

Learning is a traditional way to honor the memory of relatives who have passed that builds something that will endure long after the mourning period. The custom of making a siyum, a festive gathering, to commemorate the shloshim, the end of the thirty-day mourning period, or the completion of the year is so widespread that sign-in sheets are a regular feature at many shiva houses. The celebratory meal that accompanies the siyum is yet another casualty of COVID-19. The venue for learning has also changed. Replacing face-to-face study, Zoom and Webex conferences are now standard. Steering clear of the broader still-to-be-defined implications of these changes, online learning has become a creative vehicle to foster connections and enable adults to find time to learn, form chevrutot, study partners, explore new texts and read about unfamiliar thinkers. My father thrived on learning with partners of all ages and backgrounds and would study anything with anyone willing to come to his apartment and spend time with him. In some mysterious way, the COVID pandemic has prompted me to forge connections for study. I am studying one of father’s favorite books with three friends, one in New Rochelle, one in Washington, and one in Raanana. I have reconnected with a wonderful old friend from medical school and made space to study with him on Zoom on Wednesday mornings. The virus has demonstrated that the world is a small, interconnected place. Just as COVID can be transported great distances in hours by travelers, the pandemic has fostered transoceanic learning and enabled people living in different time zones to convene in virtual rooms and learn together. Mourning, both personal and global, have spurred adults to rethink and reengage creatively with Jewish learning

That brings me back to shul, tefilla, and Kaddish. I am a regular shul goer. Nonetheless, I generally find the extraordinary attention and endless discussion about prayer and the structure of the service overdone. I am among those who bring a book or article along with my tallit to the synagogue and consider davening a success if I can finish the chapter or recycle the reprint. But this year has changed tefilla for everyone, myself included. It has forced us to take stock of the time we spend in shul. There are now more minyanim in varied venues. Some people continue to daven outdoors, even in the middle of January. The minyanim are smaller and the duration of tefillah is considerably shorter. At the same time, globally there are fewer minyanim and you need to register and sign a health waiver before you are allowed to join most of them. It is simply harder to sleepwalk through the obligation to pray. In previous years, when one could see the world while saying Kaddish, compiling a list of off-the-beaten-track places where you had davened was a common mark of distinction. Now, there are no speeches, no mishaberachs, no announcements, and only the essentials remain. The prayer experience is more concentrated and more intense. As has been noted by others, COVID-19 has shifted the balance of davening in favor of introverts who prefer smaller minyanim and who are glad to pass on a crowded noisy Kiddush after tefilla and has prompted a thoughtful reassessment of the format of services (see Lehrhaus essays).

Despite my resistance to putting so much focus on davening, no matter how far my mind roams, I find myself coming back to it. It would be pointless to spend so much time in shul without allowing the experience to affect you. In the world of prayer, the effects of COVID overlap with personal loss because davening during this year of mourning focuses the mind. It forces you to be in the moment, not look past the twice-daily services, and allow the power of prayer to include you in its sphere of influence.

There have been many moving memoirs written attesting to the impact of the year of Kaddish on one’s religious awareness and sensitivity including works by Samuel Heilman (When a Jew Dies) and Naomi Baum (My Year of Kaddish: Mourning, Memory and Meaning). How has this year affected my religious practice? As I noted, I am a regular shul goer. For me, that means showing up for minyan in the morning most days. My attendance for mincha and maariv has been sporadic at best. Moreover, getting to shul on time was not my custom. I could be counted on to arrive 15 minutes after the designated start time regardless of whether that was 7 AM or 9 AM. Usually, my attention was more intensely focused on my book or article than on the siddur. This year is different. I am in shul twice every day and, amazingly, I am on time. As a mourner, I am asked to lead the service often, and so I am reading less but saying the words of shacharit, mincha and maariv with more focus and intent. Books are out. If my mind wanders even for a few seconds, I am in jeopardy of losing the place or pace and failing at my leading role. I scan the lines of the prayers with my finger to try to make sure I recite each word. Even then, my eyes often move faster than my fingers and tongue. There is no doubt that if there is a divine sensor calculating the time I have been davening with kavanah divided by the total time I have spent davening, then this year of mourning has significantly increased the ratio. If that is true for me as a personal mourner, I am certain that it applies globally to people praying during the year of COVID as well.

Looking back over the last eight months of reciting Kaddish, I feel as if I have passed through Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ five stages of the dying process – denial and confusion during those first 30 days, and then subsequently, anger that I have to be so attentive to all the details of the service, depression that it is still cold and dark when the alarm goes off in the morning, bargaining that I will be a regular davener during Pesach, and hopefully acceptance that I have honored my father’s life and memory with the dignity he deserves.

As I try to put my personal year into global perspective, I can identify three elements that characterize the human act of mourning — a reaction to the loss of a loved one, a sense of human vulnerability, and a recognition of how precious the gift of life really is and how thankful we need to be. I have tried to show how mourning during COVID has in some ways augmented and in other ways antagonized my appreciation of these dimensions of mourning. COVID has made mourning easier in some ways and more challenging in others. But I am confident that we will all eventually get vaccinated, medical care will improve, and COVID too will pass into the history books. The challenge now is how to enable an awareness of these elements of mourning to penetrate our consciousness on an individual and communal level, even as we live through a global crisis. When I say Kaddish before borchu or after saying tachanun in the morning and I hear everyone responding to my words in near unison, I am fully present, alert to where I am and what I am doing. When I make sure that I do not trip over the words of Kaddish d’rabbanan I am in the moment. When I drop whatever I am doing to get to shul on time, on those thankfully rare days when I have to walk in the rain to get to shul on Shabbat I am aware of my vulnerability. When I study with friends to honor my father, I realize how fortunate I am to be able to partner with these wonderful people. These same feelings animate the citizens of the world as they try to get through the year of COVID — trying to maintain connections to those they have lost, overcoming the anxiety that they too could fall ill, and being grateful that they can carry on with the good work they are doing and will continue to do when all the restrictions are lifted.

We usually experience mourning as individuals. COVID has created a unique matrix in which mourners like me have marked their year of loss. It has forced me to search more deeply for meaning in what I have done and said over the past 7 months. As Jews, we live on two planes — as individuals trying to lead halakhically fulfilling lives and as members of the Jewish people, trying to fulfill our role in history. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik articulated this as a convergence within each person of a destiny as a single human being and a destiny as a member of the Jewish nation. Perhaps this is the hidden blessing of the COVID pandemic, to make us more cognizant that our experiences are multidimensional and shared. Mourning in a year of mourning has made me think more deeply about the loss of my father because that loss occurred in a transformed world where others were also grappling with loss. This awareness may create a space for conversation and an impetus to explore our spirituality on all levels and truly make it a part of our everyday, hopefully, healthy lives, in the post-COVID future.

About the Author
Chim Trachtman is originally from Philadelphia. He is a pediatric nephrologist and a professor of clinical pediatrics at NYU Grossman School of Medicine. He is engaged in patient care and is the PI for both NIH- and industry-sponsored observational cohort studies and clinical trials in children and adults with glomerular disease. He is a board member for Yeshivat Maharat and edited a book entitled "Women and Men in Communal prayer (Ktav)" that discusses partnership minyanim. His wife is the current President of AMIT and he has three daughters and six grandchildren.
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