Before I ever had to say kaddish as a mourner, I was entranced by its music.
In 1934 the British writer Dorothy Sayers published The Nine Tailors, a fairly unconvincing mystery that provided a framework for a pastoral idyll. The book centered around bell-ringers who climbed up a church tower to pull the massive ropes attached to the brass behemoths that hung there. They were ringing the changes, following mathematical formulas that permitted subtle variations, playing the huge bells with paradoxical delicacy.
The kaddish is like that, I used to think before I had to say it. As we say the words, our voices ring the changes on them. As the kaddish shifts back and forth from Hebrew to Aramaic, the consonants that sound so strongly stay the same while the vowels that connect them move and flex and alter. And then the consonants change too, and the vowels begin their dance with them again. It is an incantation, I thought, hypnotic and beautiful. Surely the sound must soothe mourners as it sweeps over them.
And then, in December of 2000, my daughter Shira Palmer-Sherman died. I had to say kaddish for her. And it didn’t work.
I suspect that as is often true when a death is sudden, as Shira’s was – a college junior, she was a hit by a car as she tried to cross a street – the funeral was surreal. The mourners are still in shock; even the finality of the sound of dirt as it is heaped on the grave sounds as if it comes from another planet. Then shiva is like an oral exam in social skills, as people from the most unlikely recesses of your life, flushed out by tragedy, materialize in front of you. Shiva is a brilliant institution; as your numbed senses regain some feeling they are buffered by the demands imposed by all those people! In your house! Wanting to talk to you! Right now! I know that shiva is supposed to be quiet – visitors are supposed to sit respectfully silent until they are spoken to – but it didn’t work that way. The silence was a kind of vacuum that demanded to be broken.
Shira died on the first night of Chanukah, so each day the morning shiva minyan included a Torah reading. The Torah scroll stayed in our playroom those days, lying covered with a blanket, entirely out of place but looking natural, one more piece of oddness among many. We should have said hallel, too, but we didn’t. “There cannot possibly be hallel in this house,” said our rabbi. We lit the Chanukah candles each night but we did not say Sheheheyanu when we normally would have. There was nothing about that night that made us grateful to have reached it. We said kaddish many times during all those minyanim; I recited it numbly, not meaning it, just mouthing it.
Shira’s funeral was on a Sunday morning – Christmas Eve – and so shiva ended on Friday. After shul on Shabbat we walked around the block and a long tail of people followed us, singing a slow sad mournful niggun. It was snowing lightly that day, and the snow sparkled all around us; we walked through a shower of sparkling light and we stepped on the glitter. As we walked on Broadway I saw the shopkeepers peer out at us but the curtain of spangles separated us from them. “Is white the color of mourning?” I asked our rabbi. “No,” he said. “White is the color of Shira.”
And then we started going to the minyan, where we were to remember Shira by saying kaddish for her. At first I was protected by numbness, but as it wore off it was replaced by rage. The inadequacy of the tradeoff – Shira for kaddish – ate at me. I kept thinking of the T-shirts that say “My parents went to Las Vegas and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.” “My daughter died, and all I get is this stupid prayer,” I’d tell myself.
As my feelings resurfaced, I paid more and more attention to the words of the kaddish. They are not at all about death or memory. They are all about God. As we remember our dead, we praise God. That might work well when you say kaddish for a death that is more or less normal – for a parent, perhaps even for a spouse or a sibling who has had a long, full life. Then the words can help you remember the world’s glories as you recite God’s. They can help you hang on to the knowledge that life continues, that generations connect, that death is an inevitable part of life, and that as you say kaddish you are becoming part of an enormous chain of Jewish life, linking us at least as far back as the rabbinic period and as far ahead as imagination can take us.
But when the death is not normal – and when you tend to be word-conscious and naturally contentious, as I am – then the kaddish is not necessarily so helpful. I know that the general experience of saying kaddish is that the words cease to matter. It becomes a mantra, I am told; as you say it your mind might wander, but saying it nonetheless anchors your day. The minyan becomes your community, and you go from being a raw tear-stained newbie to an old-timer who has learned to integrate grief into life and who can help the next batch of mourners learn how to live with joy once more.
When you cannot heal, though, the words of the kaddish can come across as a fresh insult each time you say them, scraping off what little scar tissue has managed to grow over the wound since the last time. I found myself increasingly unable to say the words except theatrically, in a kind of lockjaw. Yitgadal vyitkadash shmei rabah, I’d drawl, as my lips stiffened on the words. Yeah, right, I’d tell myself. The only way I could permit myself to say them without choking on my own dishonesty was to tell myself that they were in the future tense. May Your great name be glorified and sanctified, may You establish your kingdom, may You bring peace. May that happen soon. Faster, please.
Mourners often use the minyan as a way to structure their day. That worked for me too. I would go every morning; I’d walk into the room and rapidly find myself propelled out of it. I’d go downstairs, to a room where folding chairs were kept, and I would throw the chairs. They’d thud against the walls – it was audible upstairs, I soon learned – and that would give me some relief. Then, my rage spent, I’d pick them up and restack them, and hurry upstairs to make sure I didn’t miss kaddish.
But it is also true that there is nothing else in American culture – and as Jewish as I am, the culture in which I live is American – that allows us to express grief or continue to mourn. We are supposed to move on. We are supposed to gain closure. There are no American mourning rituals; if we grieve too visibly we are sure to be offered medication. There is no structure to shield us as we regrow our flayed skin. The minyan, and the kaddish at its core, give us that structure, and it is pharmaceutical-free.
Now, seven years later, I still cannot say kaddish except ironically; my husband and daughter cannot stand too close to me when we say it because my still-burning rage continues to sear. I do not stay for yizkor because the idea of setting aside time to remember Shira makes no sense to me. As if I could go for as long as an hour without remembering! I wander in Riverside Park instead, and if it is warm enough I sit on the bench that bears her name, in front of the garden dedicated in her memory.
But when I look back I realize that the kaddish did help me after all. The words to some extent are a blank canvas, or perhaps a Rorschach test; you see in them what you bring to them and at times you get from them what you need from them. I needed a focus for my rage – and there it was. I needed a place where I could go and cry and throw chairs, and that’s what the minyan gave me. As imperfect as it is, it’s the best we can do.
How I long for a world where no one else ever will have to say kaddish for a child. But that world is not ours.
In loving memory of Shira Palmer-Sherman, z’l.