The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 3

Shortly after I returned to Israel after sitting shiva for my father in New Jersey, I was asked to help make minyan at somebody else’s shiva so that the daughter of the deceased could recite kaddish.

It was high summer in late July, but the evenings in Jerusalem were breezy. The shiva house was no further from my home than the synagogue, and given my own status as a mourner it felt natural to help another mourner recite the mourner’s kaddish. I came to the shiva house for the last four evenings of the shiva as requested, while the bereaved daughter and her children mourned in Jerusalem.

Only a man could lead the worship, but I demurred when asked. This was not my shiva house. My father did not exist here. The deceased man’s grandson led the afternoon and evening prayer services, which I felt fitting. He wasn’t a “mourner” by Jewish tradition, but his mother was. At the end of every prayer service, the departed rabbi’s daughter and I recited the mourner’s kaddish together.

I had been back home and reciting kaddish every morning and evening at the synagogue in Jerusalem at that point, but this kaddish experience was different.

Orthodox synagogues can be refuges of anonymity. I had been showing up every day at the assigned times for morning, afternoon, and evening services; sitting apart from the other congregants; doing my duty; walking out quickly. The afternoon and evening services were held twenty minutes apart so I would usually step outside to read the news or chat with my brother in America. I kept my own counsel as much as possible.

The shiva house, by contrast, was inherently more intimate in its limited space and in its intentionality. After mincha, somebody would share words of Torah in honor of the departed rabbi, and his family and friends would share recollections and reflections. Leaving the cramped apartment between mincha and maariv was impossible. There was no retreat.

I learned that the rabbi’s daughter had been taking care of her father for many years as his health and mental faculties deteriorated, unlike my father who had died unexpectedly and within hours on the very day that my mother had brought him to the hospital. The departed rabbi had served in the United States military during World War II, making him a generation older than my father who had been born just months before his beloved State of Israel. It wasn’t fair of me, but I couldn’t help drawing comparisons.

The rabbi’s daughter was sitting shiva, and I was already past that stage, in the shloshim period of my mourning. According to Jewish tradition, her wound was fresher than mine, her mourning more acute, but this did not feel true to me. For four days I listened as strangers honored the memory of a rabbi that I’d never known, all the while grieving silently, alone by the wall, over the untimely death of my own father, but not saying a word because it wasn’t my shiva house.

During those early weeks, my daughter still got upset every evening when I left home for the synagogue, and I couldn’t linger at the shiva house after maariv to bid the rabbi’s daughter my condolences or any farewell – she was surrounded by too many people. I wanted to be with my wife and child; to hold my daughter; to put her to bed. I had spent a week across the ocean from my child during my week of shiva, and she still remembered my abrupt, extended absence. I felt that she was anxious about my disappearing again and wanted to reassure her.

Those four evenings were the most jarring that I can ever remember.

Still, there is no question in my mind that I would do it again, and I would do it for any mourner. Jewish tradition requires us to join the community in our mourning, as personal and painful as it may be. We may want to withdraw; we may want to dissolve into the wall; we may want to hide from the world; but our tradition says no! You, Mourners, more than any others, you must join the community every day for an entire year of mourning. You, Mourners, mourn not your parents alone, for your loss is that of Our People Israel.

This very evening, the rabbi’s daughter will be holding prayer services and a memorial ceremony at the synagogue to honor her departed father, marking the end of her shloshim period. I am going to attend this event, and I now know that my father will also be among us.

Since my father’s death, in my mourning, I’ve connected and re-connected with a lot of different people. The following beautiful insight was sent to me by the wise and kind Rabbi Stanley Davids (emphasis mine):

The discipline of Kaddish is healing. The requirement for a community within which to say Kaddish is strengthening. The audience for our Kaddish – well, we can debate that. At least we would both agree that the mourner is part of that audience. In that sense, the Kaddish that I recite for others is at least in part directed toward me. Kaddish brings us in touch with the searing reality of our situation. Kaddish also stirs up memories that can be quite wonderful.

Sometimes Kaddish will be recited with an anonymous Minyan. Sometimes it will be recited in a Heimisch Minyan. Sometimes it will be recited while we stand alone. And when we have finished, we might just be one step further along the path of healing.

* * *

A brief technical review:

  1. The mourner’s kaddish is a prayer recited by Jewish mourners for thirty days following the death of a child, spouse, or sibling. Following the death of a parent it is customary to recite the mourner’s kaddish for 11 months.
  2. minyan is a quorum of ten Jewish males (in non-Orthodox communities: males and females) over the age of 13, required for reciting communal prayers (such as kaddish).
  3. Traditionally, mourners do not leave their homes during the week of shiva (the first week of mourning), and minyanim are held at the shiva house for each of the three daily prayer services.
About the Author
David Bogomolny was born in Jerusalem to parents who made Aliyah from the USSR in the mid-70's. He grew up in America, and returned to Israel as an adult. David has worked as a Russian-speaking Jewish educator for the JAFI, the JDC the Brandeis-Genesis Institute for Russian Jewry, Moishe House, and Olameinu. He now works for Hiddush - Freedom of Religion in Israel. He and his wife and daughter live in Jerusalem.
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