My father died three months ago, and I have been reciting the prayer of mourning (Mourner’s Kaddish) for him since then, as I wrote about here .
I travel a lot for speaking engagements and have made it my business to find minyans everywhere I go; a minyan being a gathering of 10 people, which facilitates the recitation by a mourner of the Mourner’s Kaddish. I have recited Kaddish all over the country: in Manhattan and Queens; in Florida; in Savannah; and even in a hotel meeting room in South Carolina.
I traveled to Israel with my children and my ex-mother-in-law (we’re still close) for 10 days and we just got back. While in Israel, I had the opportunity to find minyans in a country where religion can be very complicated. Most of my minyan experiences were in a very religious yishuv (settlement) where my aunt and uncle and many cousins live.
Here are the top four things I found during this experience.
Hebrew is the universal language of the Jewish people, and that has never been as clear to me as on this trip, when sometimes the only thing I had in common with those I was praying alongside was that language. Hebrew as a spoken language was resurrected from the dead after it was not spoken as a common language for about 1000 years.
I was often praying alongside people who may or may not have spoken English, or who didn’t have much occasion to practice it. As long as I followed along in the prayer book in the language of Hebrew, I never lost my way. If I did not have Hebrew I would have been drifting. Even if I could only read it but not understand it, I still would have been able to follow along. I studied Hebrew in college, but even the Hebrew I was taught to read as a child growing up in a Reform synagogue in Los Angeles was enough to keep me oriented, and I am so grateful for that.
I decided to try out different minyans while reciting Kaddish in Israel. Where my family lives, there are many different types of minyans. I attended a Carlebach minyan which was always my favorite as a teenager visiting my family; it’s characterized by beautiful singing in the style of Shlomo Carlebach, and it’s moving and emotional and cozy and warm.
Then I attended a Sephardic service where I got to see something for the first time: a Sephardic Torah scroll, read in a large case standing upright! I have found that doing new things in my father’s honor, such as trying out new minyans and seeing new things in synagogue, is a way I can honor my father’s memory. One minyan I attended was a Moroccan service, since one of my cousins married a Moroccan and he offered to take me. I was the only non-Moroccan there, save for an Ethiopian man who favors this minyan.
At all of these different prayer services, I heard new things. Sephardic and Moroccan praying is a bit different: different melodies, different pronunciations that I’m not used to, additional words and phrases in the Kaddish itself, and even a different order to the service which it took me a bit to get used to.
But all of us are Jews. All of us were consistently united by prayer, with me saying Kaddish quietly from a variety of women’s sections, mumbling along in my Ashkenazi Hebrew. It occurred to me how united Jews are: We are all just a variety of customs gathered along the way over thousands of years of exile and outside influence and changes.
But we’re all the same when we say Kaddish, aren’t we? Just mourning and praying. The rest are just details—customs.
3. Location Location Location
Sometimes it felt lonely praying in such foreign places. I missed the guys I see at my regular minyan back home and the patterns of our praying which I have grown accustomed to over the past few months. It felt so different to be mourning in a foreign place. Sometimes I didn’t feel as moved as I like to; I felt like an observer sometimes. Did I really belong here? Had these communities I was praying in ever witness a woman reciting Kaddish? It felt isolating.
But what I realized is that the Power of the Universe is everywhere. It cannot be avoided. It is not hiding. That Power is literally all around us, so it doesn’t necessarily matter where I pray. Because everywhere is the place God can be found.
As it says in our prayers, melo chol ha aretz kvodo. All of the world is full of Glory. Everywhere.
Even though God is everywhere, I found on this trip that the loneliness that is only found in grief is also everywhere. Right. God is the transcendent Everything, and Everything never takes a break. It’s always there.
So too the isolation of grief is everywhere. It cannot be assuaged by a hug or a smile or a nod or even 10 men or the acknowledgment that you are a mourner. It matters so much to be part of a minyan, but ultimately, it doesn’t matter at all because I just want my father back. That sentiment followed me all the way to Israel and it stays with me no matter what.
Thank you to the men and women who may or may not have even realized I was a part of their minyan on this trip. Thank you to my family for bringing this eccentric and observant but rebellious soul of mine to their minyans with my grief. And thank you for the Source of all of it, for the Source of joy, for the night and its rest, for the blessings of Israel and of peace and comfort which my faith gives me without end.
At the end of every Kaddish, we say the following:
Oseh shalom bimromav. Hu yaaseh shalom aleynu v’al kol Yirsrael, vimru Amen.
May the One who causes peace to reign in high places cause peace to descend on us and on all Israel.
And let us say: Amen.