Yesterday I was late to minyan. Why does that matter to an Orthodox woman? I almost didn’t go, but part of me said no, this is important. I will miss an opportunity if I don’t go. So I went for that part of me, and for women everywhere who feel they can’t or shouldn’t be saying kaddish for their parents. Don’t let anything stop you, especially not yourself. It’s too easy to give up on something you want.
When my father was niftar four years ago, we (as three sisters who would clearly not be saying kaddish regularly) hired someone to say kaddish. I did not try to go to minyan any more than I usually did, which was most Shabbatot. I said kaddish along with the men from the women’s section, and felt support from the one or two women close to me who noticed and answered not just the men, but me too. Yet I felt removed and uncomfortable, and also struggled with when and where I was supposed to be saying it. When the yahrzeit came around, I went to shul again, and since it was not a Shabbat (where I knew women would be at the minyan) I asked a friend to join me so that I would be heard.
The overall experience was frankly depressing. The only uplifting part was that when I first came back to sit shiva here, I asked for a minyan at my house so that I could say it and the shul was supportive. I was able to say kaddish for that brief period that was exclusively me being allowed to remember and honor my father.
This time around, when my mother was niftar, we again looked for someone who would say kaddish. But it didn’t sit well with me. My mother had once told me that she, as an only child, had honored both of her parents by saying kaddish, and I determined to do the same for her as best as I could. I did not and I am not taking it on as an obligation, because motherhood comes first, but I am lucky to be at the stage where my children aren’t so small that I can run out for minyan more often.
However, as Ruth points out, I am extraneous to the process. Minyan can start and end without me, and sometimes as I struggle to match my pace to the male mourners, I feel very frustrated. They don’t need me and in some places, they don’t want me. In one of the schools where I teach they are open and accepting, letting me join mincha and saying kaddish so I have someone to follow. In the other, they gladly asked a male teacher to say it on my behalf, which is not exactly why I asked if I could daven with them and say kaddish. The rav there feels that women should not be saying it at all. I didn’t start an argument with him, but isn’t a big part of kaddish that the children will honor the parents? Even further, isn’t it part of bringing the mourner back into the community?
My shul was again wonderful about getting a minyan and even a sefer torah and koreh to the house during shiva. They are also accommodating about the fact that I show up often, and I do feel that they are answering me as well, even from my place in the corner behind the mechitza. However, there have been quite a few times where the chairs in the downstairs women’s section were put away and I had to set one up for myself, as well as times like this morning where the mechitza was “nicely” folded up and put aside, and I had to set it up before I could start davening which made an indescribable ruckus. Again on the positive side, someone did see what was going on and help me, but still- it was frustrating, annoying and embarrassing that it had to happen at all. Don’t worry, any day now I will get around to calling the gabbai and fight for my right to have a place to daven. On the upside of that, I think we always appreciate more what we have had to fight for. (This thought makes me want to go off on a tangent about the current situation, because none of us live our lives in a bubble, but I am putting it aside for now.)
Part of my fight over whether or not I should go took place while we were away for chag. I made it to almost every single minyan, even when we’d had a long day out and I was tired. I missed one night’s maariv, and that’s it. On the last morning we had to struggle to get a minyan together, but since we’d brought nearly half of one we managed. Then I got very upset. Although my wonderful husband stretched out of his comfort zone and was the chazzan for both shacharit and musaf (no one else stepped up and we might have been there all day), at the end of davening when the time came to say kaddish, no one heard me and everyone left. Well, since the men were in a room and I and the one other woman were in the hallway behind them, I don’t blame them for not knowing I was there, trying to say kaddish. But I got angry, and wondered what all my effort was worth. I hadn’t been listening to the radio, but as we left shortly after this, I was so angry that I blasted music for the first hour of the drive, to “get back” at G-d because apparently He didn’t care what I did anyway. Once we made our first stop I started to feel calmer, and my husband and I started talking. What I got out of that conversation was the realization that 1) the men didn’t do it on purpose, 2) I was saying kaddish for two people, my mother and myself (and my sisters, I guess) and not for the minyan I happen to be davening with, and 3)men have it just as hard as we do. We may feel frustrated that we are not involved, but men have no choice because these things are their responsibility. Although I want very much to be involved because of saying kaddish, I do not mind that I am not obligated to do all these things that men must. We women can say “Oh, I have the children, I can’t make it”, or “I have to set the table”, etcetera. I am not blaming women for taking their own responsibilities seriously, I am just saying that we have an out, and sometimes we take it when we don’t need to.
I look at the men who I now see in shul three times a day, and I am amazed because they are dedicating so much of their time to Judaism and to G-d. So as frustrated as I feel sometimes (and the gabbai better watch out because he *is* going to get an earful), I know that I feel privileged to daven with these people, and that my husband accommodates my need to go to shul.
In the end, I think part of the reason I started going is also what is wonderful about the way Judaism deals with loss. Starting with suspending certain rules when you have a loss, to the way shiva is set up with people coming to see you and you not leaving the house (unless you have to travel, which believe me, is not a good way to spend your shiva), to the year of mourning. The rules force us to be with people, whether we want to or not. They make us sit and tell and retell the story of our loss, whether it was long and drawn out or sudden and shocking. This week I visited a friend who is sitting shiva for her father, whose passing, although he was sick, was sudden. As she said, “On Friday he was making schnitzel and by shabbos morning he was just—gone. And there we were, motzaei Shabbat, eating the schnitzels that *he* had just cooked.” She told me this with a look of shock and pain, even though it was days after. And she asked whether it was any better if you knew the end was coming, as we had. My only answer was that all death is terrible and difficult for the loved ones to deal with, each in its own way. I want to take a moment now to say that I, orphaned as an adult, can not begin to imagine what the Henkin children are now going through. To them, and now too many other victims of terror past and present, I would like to say Hashem yinachem otchem. During my shiva someone told me a beautiful and comforting thought; that even when a person is sitting alone, as I did, you say this statement in the plural because everyone who is in mourning has Hashem sitting with them.
Back on the train of thought—I think that a big part of why we are supposed to say kaddish (and not just pay someone for it) is the way it brings us slowly back into the community. We (mourners) go to shul, we are seen, people greet us, ask who we are davening for—it is an occasion to continue to receive comfort, and for people to communicate with us. And for women who feel pushed away from this, it is a missed opportunity, both for them and for their community.
I have not found nor looked for a women’s minyan, where instead of struggling to keep up or to be heard at all, I would be the one who is noticeably saying kaddish. I may yet give it a try, if my seating issues aren’t resolved. But I say to everyone, notice your mourners and talk to them, give them a chance to talk if that’s what they want or walk with them quietly if that’s what they need. A year of silence is too long, and yet not long enough to get over the immense loss of a parent. And women who want to say kaddish—don’t miss your own opportunity, whatever stands in your way. As with larger issues in our country, we need to remember that it doesn’t matter what others say. We need to stand up for ourselves, because we owe it to ourselves. Let our voices be heard.