“Yitgadal, v’itkadash, Sh’mei raba …”
I uttered the words of the Mourner’s Kaddish — the traditional Jewish prayer recited in honor of the dead — for the first time in my life after my father’s grave was covered with the earth. Even with the transliteration given to me by the rabbi, I found the prayer difficult to recite, in every sense of the word.
Following the funeral, we sat shiva — the weeklong mourning period for first-degree relatives — at my parents’ house. We held a minyan, a quorum of ten men, each night so that my sisters, mother and I could recite Kaddish for my father. As my father lived his life as an observant Jew, we felt that he would have wanted this at his house.
One day of reciting Kaddish at the cemetery soon turned into seven.
It is said that the departed soul is under Divine judgment for the eleven months following a person’s death. The Talmud states that: “A parent can bring a child into this world, but a child can bring a parent into the world to come.” This is why Kaddish is recited in the first year, in addition to other good deeds that are done on behalf of the deceased.
I am a working mother of three young children, so spare time is virtually nonexistent in my life. I did not believe that reciting Kaddish every day for 11 months could ever be practical — or even possible. But my husband was supportive and, as my father’s rabbi told us when shiva concluded, I could do it once a week. And if that became too difficult, I could do it once a month.
The first time I went to say Kaddish on my own at my synagogue, I felt alone and confused. I broke down during the middle of the prayer; I still couldn’t recite it correctly. But I pictured my father standing next to me — he was there for me, but I felt that he was also alone and confused. He was in this new realm, and yet he was still in limbo.
It is believed by Kabbalists that the year of Kaddish maintains a connection between the deceased and the living. It felt nice to connect with my father every day via prayer. Maybe we were both trying to find our way into the unknown, and were each other’s spiritual support.
One week turned into two weeks.
During that time, I met others at my synagogue who were also saying Kaddish. I befriended some of them, and they, along with the rabbi, became a source of comfort. After minyan, we traded stories about our loved ones. It was very therapeutic.
Two weeks turned into a month.
Something amazing happened: My husband and daughters began coming with me to the evening minyans. They initially came to support me, but they also wanted to learn on behalf of my father. My husband began reciting Kaddish for my father alongside me.
One month turned into six months.
I barely missed a day. If I couldn’t go in the evening, I went in the morning. Sometimes I did both. Most of the time I rushed there — I was still juggling my kids’ activities and my life. But attending the minyan became my spiritual haven, and it was helping me cope with my loss. I recited Kaddish over the open seas, in a synagogue in Barbados, and while in Iceland with my sister. I went to about 15 shiva homes to attend minyans. We picked up some new members along the way, and I had become one of the regulars.
By then, I could recite the Kaddish by heart. My two older daughters, 10 and 8, could read the prayer books rather well; they began to lead some of the songs and prayers. Their youth and energy bought light and life to those of us in mourning. My 3-year-old was pretty much a loose cannon, but even she never wanted to miss a minyan. They all knew we were doing this for Saba.
Six months turned into eleven months.
The last weekend of saying Kaddish approached. I expected to feel relief but, instead, I felt anxiety and sadness. What I had initially considered an impossible burden had become a blessing. The minyan and the prayers were a vital part of my healing process. Although I could return to the minyan as often as I would like — and I expect we will — I will no longer be in the inner circle. Once the mourning period ends, Judaism states that one must return fully into society. But I wasn’t sure I was ready for normalcy.
For my last day of Kaddish, we rushed into the service, having come back from visiting day at camp. My husband, our youngest daughter and I made the minyan just in time. An astounding thing happened: My daughter, who I believed was just running around all year, actually knew the prayers! On that last weekend, she went up to the bimah and led the congregation in some of the prayers.
The last time I recited Kaddish, I closed my eyes tightly, and recited the words, by heart and with all of my heart. I was just as emotional on the last day as I was on that first day, maybe even more so. It was time to let go. We had done what we had set out to do in the most organic fashion. Every day for 11 months, we elevated my father’s soul not just by reciting Kaddish, but even more significantly, my sisters and our children, the third generation, had learned on our father’s behalf.
My children had attended over 150 minyans and Shabbat services. They recited the Shema, psalms, and prayers by heart. These 11 months of mourning may be over, but we will not end our spiritual journey. Rather, we will continue with it — and in that way, my father’s soul accomplished exactly what it needed to do.
“Oseh sholom bimromov, hu ya’aseh shalom olaynu, v’al kol yisroel, v’im’ru. Amen.”
When I tearfully recited these last words of the prayer, I felt my father’s presence, just like the first time I recited Kaddish. But this time, he was not beside me. He had ascended up the stairway to heaven and was high above me. His soul was no longer confused or in limbo. And neither was mine.