The last Kaddish

The last Kaddish

I have been looking forward to Nov. 4 all year. It’s been circled on my calendar since last December and I thought the day would never come. It’s the day I stop saying Kaddish for my father. Don’t get me wrong; the 10-second prayer doesn’t bother me. But making it to services three times each day, running out of courtrooms and client meetings, unable to take any vacations in minyanically-challenged hot spots, reorganizing my daily schedule around 4:00 p.m. afternoon services, and crawling out of bed with a 10′ degree fever eventually took their toll. I know there are people, better than I, who attend daily services year-round, without any Kaddish obligations. While I envy their commitment, trust me, it is much harder than it looks. Maybe it’s the pressure of knowing that you have to say Kaddish zealously or your father won’t make it into heaven. I know that’s probably not accurate, but the mind of a mourner is often clouded with guilt and doubt.

Sometimes I enjoyed the challenge and met it with ad-hoc minyans in front of Cinderella’s castle, Section 10 of Yankee Stadium, a park in midtown Manhattan, the steps in front of an Atlanta courthouse, the top of Masada, and the new prayer area in Giants Stadium. (Although, ironically, on the advice of my rabbi and pilot, I skipped the obtrusive services in the galley of my daylong flight to Israel).

And what about the guy — every synagogue has one — who is the self-appointed Kaddish leader, artfully marshalling the competing mourners by raising his voice above the others and, through sheer brute force, commanding their allegiance to his pace and tone? I’ll miss that guy.

Wait a minute. Do I sound wistful and nostalgic? I am. And here’s the kicker: Notwithstanding the bright red circle on my calendar, I don’t want it to end. I am dreading Nov. 4. It’s almost like losing my father all over again. The last time I prayed and didn’t have to say Kaddish, he was alive. Kaddish is my last direct link to him. Sure, my open wounds have healed and my public grief has certainly been tempered by time. My focus has naturally turned to raising my own children, including the one formed in the wake of my father’s death. But, thanks in part to Kaddish, not a day has passed since his death that I have not thought about him. Three times each day for the last 11 months, I have been forced to focus on his absence and my loss. I’d like to think it would have happened anyway, but I would be fooling myself. I even thought about him on my flight to Israel because I blatantly did not say Kaddish. With the coming anniversary of his death, all vestiges of the formal grieving process are over. The "compelled" mourning that I once derided as artificial and meaningless, and the cold and foreign Kaddish with its tenuous historical link to death and mourning, proved more comforting and valuable than these words, or any words, could possibly describe.

When I started this process, I considered letting my kids off the hook when my time comes. There is a school of thought that says that a parent can discharge his or her children’s obligation to say Kaddish. At the time, it seemed like I would be doing them a favor. After having gone through it, however, I have come to understand that Kaddish (like most of the Jewish laws and customs relating to mourning) is a gift, an opportunity to maintain a connection to the deceased long after time would ordinarily fight off the memories. Sure, now I can go on vacation without worrying about saying Kaddish, but that means it’s going to be a vacation without my father.

But the same people who told me to say Kaddish for the year (actually 11 months) are telling me to stop saying it now. They seem to know what they are doing. But I am going to miss it, not nearly as much as I miss my father, but, in a way, they are one and the same. Thinking about him, drawing his lessons, recalling his wit, and passing his extraordinary wisdom down the line are now indoctrinated into my daily existence and are part of my normal routine. Thanks to Kaddish, it will extend long beyond Nov. 4.

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