Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Kaddish for the Living

I never understood the significance of saying Kaddish for a loved one until I was forced to say it myself.

Yom Hazikaron, Ramle - US Embassy, Tel Aviv
I suspect this is true for many Jewish individuals: Although we may think we understand the importance of a religious tradition, we often don’t appreciate its purpose until one day, overcome by the moment, we’re forced take it on as our own. Consumed by grief we repeat the words that we have heard week after week, year after year. We say them at first because we are supposed to. Later we come to realize that we say them because we want to – we need to. Something in the cadence, the somber march of the words gives us purpose and makes us feel that for the first time that week, we have a way of expressing our loss and pain and ultimately regaining who we are.

The first time I said Kaddish for my father three years ago, it seemed like an insurmountable challenge. His death had been expected, yet acknowledging it in public required an acceptance that seemed beyond comprehension. Saying those words publicly, before a minyan*, seemed impossible. But by the fifth or sixth day a sense of acceptance had swept over me. My father was gone and I was honoring his life and his significance with these words.

Man Wrapped in Prayer Shawl (1909) - Leopold Pilichowski
Still, I seemed unable to internalize the importance of saying Kaddish any farther than my obligation to do so. Over time, it became an obligation I took on, a mitzvah I claimed personally. In an odd way it gave meaning to my father’s difficult death, all the months he had suffered from Parkinson’s Disease, and the gallant and determined fight he waged to the end. It reassured me that even in the cruelest of circumstances, there is continuity, and that it is through our part in that continuum that their lives continue to be acknowledged.

As I found out during those first few weeks however, finding closure is an individual process. A half hour after watching my father die, I found myself sitting in a mortuary with a family member while he efficiently arranged for my father’s cremation.

In the eyes of some of my family members, cremation was my father’s last wish. It was a final if not efficient form of closure. After all, from their perspective, what more could be wished by a scientist who had devoted his entire career to the clinical explanation of life?

They didn’t know of the discussions my dad and I had about Judaism. They didn’t know that a year before he had died he had asked to borrow the book, To Be A Jew by Hayim Halevy Donin, and had on several occasions engaged me in discussions about Jewish life cycle events. My father, who had been raised secular but had taught me everything I knew about the true meaning of being Jewish had never lost his desire to know and connect with his heritage.

But he still believed that identity was a personal decision, and that it was up to each of his kids to define that question individually. And I suspect that is why to this day, we each claim to understand a distinctive piece of who he was, and what he truly believed. Saying Kaddish for him may not have been what he expected of me, but I think he would have been happy to know I did. Kaddish didn’t just fulfill a religious obligation; in this instance, it gave acknowledgment to the fact that in his own way, he lived his life as a Jew.

My brother’s death last March however, carried a different understanding of the importance of saying Kaddish. An unexpected death catapults one into the present. It is a brutal reminder of the disconnect we have with life, and the fact that even what we believe to be the most consistent can suddenly inexplicably be stripped away from us.

Man visiting a grave site, Mount St. Olives - Ian W. Scott

I am convinced that the ancient rabbis understood this.  Tradition both binds a community together and mollifies in moments of pain, and there is nothing that quells grief better than consistency of action and the sense that even in the midst of turmoil our ancient traditions still go on.

It was my father’s passing that gave me an understanding of the importance of saying Kaddish, but it was my brother’s death that taught me that Kaddish is truly meant for the living, not for the dead. It honors the dead, but it upholds the living by reaffirming that it is our most personal and sacred traditions that affirm who we are.

Mourner's Kaddish  - prov. by Erika Herzog
In the intense few moments after I stood up the first time to say Kaddish for my brother, I realized that it was the Mourner’s Kaddish that was giving me strength to honor his memory, not the other way around. The cadence of the Aramaic words had a purpose beyond their spirituality, and that was to provide direction and focus for the mourner. The words may express our innermost prayers, but it is its rhythm and its essence that allow us to grapple with the most basic and human of instincts: the need to know that we go on in spite of the loss around us.

My brother’s death, which occurred three years to the day after my dad’s, will always have an inextricable link to my father’s yahrtzeit. Even though his heart stopped beating only moments before midnight, David wasn’t pronounced dead until the following day. The EMTs spent two hours – well into the early morning of the following day - trying to revive him, to no avail.

And yet, it seems fitting that my brother’s yahrtzeit should fall on a different date than my father’s. Their deaths will remain entwined in memory, but the distinctiveness of who they were will reaffirmed by the simple, though painful act of saying Kaddish two days in a row.

The Mourner’s Prayer, eloquent, stately, but understated, is Judaism’s greatest acknowledgement of the sanctity of life. It gives closure to the irreconcilable and reminds us that memory has a purpose that is best reflected in the accomplishments of the living.

* Conservative and Reform Movements define a minyan (quorum) as a group of at least ten Jewish men or women (e.g., who have reached the age of bar/bat mitzvah). Orthodox Movement define a minyan as at least ten men.

Six candles for the six million (Pearl Harbor) - US Navy

1 comment:

  1. Oh well done, Jan. I know this wasn't going to be an easy one for you to write. I think both your father and your brother would be proud - as you should be yourself. This is beautifully eloquent and I was very moved.