Saturday, August 4, 2007

Betwixt and between

I went to shul today. It used to be that I wouldn't have needed to say that--I'm in town, I'm fit to leave the house, of course I would be in shul on a Saturday morning. But I've, oh, I could say I've gotten out of the habit, but that would be a lie of ommission. I'm having a crisis of faith, if you can use the word "crisis" for something that's been going on for a year or so. I'm having a crisis of worship, too. Last High Holidays I had to leave in the middle of the first evening of Rosh HaShana because the liturgy reduced me to a weeping mess. My dog had just died; my water table had been a little high ever since Z. was born; all I could do was contemplate the faces of people whom I might have to mourn in the upcoming year. These are two names that didn't occur to me:

Helen Hill
Lana Schwebel

Both of them much too young. Both of them suddenly, through the wreckage of coincidences piling on coincidences. Both of them people I had not seen in years, but whom I was, in some basic way, trusting the universe to take care of, in the way you do when old friends are out of touch.

After Helen died, I heard pretty much immediately and after steeling myself to do it for a few weeks, I made it to shul just in time for the closing prayers, stood for kaddish, sobbed my way through, left immediately.

I guess I'm in better shape now. I heard the news only two days ago. I made it in time for the Torah service, took Z. and spent a little time with the other parents in the playground minyan, came back for closing prayers, stood for kaddish, did not cry, left immediately.

I've been Jewish for fourteen years. It's still less than half my life. In that time I've said kaddish for a lot of people, though thank god, none of such a close degree of kinship that I would be required to do so.

In saying kaddish for Lana today, for the first time in my life I formally mourned another Jew.

The kaddish is a responsive prayer, which is the source of its power. It's not alone in that: there are a few other prayers that also require a minyan (they are all responsive) and if you don't have ten Jewish adults, as jarring as it is to skip them, there is not a lot at stake if that happens for a week here or there. However, if you have lost someone sufficiently close to you, you are required to say kaddish for them daily for eleven months. If you undertake this obligation, you must join a minyan every day for that time, and synagogues struggle to gather minyans for mourners. It's a powerful connection to community.

It's not the mourning ritual of anyone on either side of my family. It is almost nonsensical that I would have said this prayer for the three of my four grandparents who died since my conversion. None of them would have counted in a minyan. But the other aspect of the kaddish being responsive is that you when you say it, you are leading the congregation in prayer. This is, in itself, considered to be a Good Thing, reflecting well on who you are and therefore on the people who raised you and influenced you. In saying kaddish for someone, you are showing the community and god that this person made you a better person. It is supposed to help the person with god during the year that their soul is being weighed--and that's why you stop after 11 months. You don't want to imply that god needs to take the entire year to make up god's mind.

Lana is the first person for whom I said kaddish who would have known all of that without my telling her. It was the first time I said it without also imagining the explanation I would need to make to the person I was grieving.


liz said...

I'm so sorry about the loss of your friend. It's so hard to lose someone you love, especially when you've been out of touch...


niobe said...

This is not your fault even a little, but this post is remarkably painful.

I went to shul about a month ago with a mother whose baby had been stillborn. She stood for kaddish, but, though I thought about it, I just didn't feel it would be right for me to do the same. So I sat there, quietly resenting the fact that there was no legitimate way for me to mourn.

Co said...

Religious services can be both difficult and healing in times of mourning. We were at services this past June and it came time for kaddish. It was only at that moment that I realized that it was the anniversary of my mother's death. Some years, such anniversaries go by without my noticing. Other years, they hit me hard. I don't know if I would've thought of it at all if I hadn't been sitting in services. Then my mathematical brain had to go and calculate that it had been 25 years since her death. Then I lost it.

I am not a Jew, of course. Neither was my mom. I didn't stand and say kaddish. But I started quietly sobbing as it was read. I couldn't stop the tears. I thought about how I was carrying new life inside meat the same age at which my mother's body succumbed to cancer.

Someone behind me just passed me a tissue. And I was able to stop crying eventually.

I was embarassed, but I really shouldn't have been. I think many religious rituals can be cathartic and healing. And I'm surely not the first person to start sobbing during kaddish.

I'm sorry you have suffered so much loss recently. And I totally get needing to leave services immediately after they've concluded sometimes. (I remember being 9 and going to Mass after my mom's death and begging my dad to leave right after Communion. I can't explain why, but I just couldn't bear to stay to the end. My dad understood and we left.)

I'm glad you were able to say kaddish for Lana Schwebel. And thank you for explaining its significance so beautifully.

(Now I will end this crazy long comment.)

David said...

Your post moved me to tears and hit my spiritual bones. Thank you so much for sharing.

S. said...

Liz, thank you.

Niobe, ahhhhh...I sent you email, but I also wanted to say publicly how sorry I am that I added to your hurt, accidentally or not.

Co, I think the difficulty and the healing have to go together. The only way out is through, you know? But it doesn't actually make it easier to know that.

I hadn't known about the coincidence of age--oof. Hugs and much, much, much sympathy.

David, thank you for coming by.

Magpie said...

Thank you for explaining it - I've never known much about kaddish.

I'm sorry about your friend.

ppb said...

I'm sure Lana would have appreciated it.

S. said...

Magpie, thank you for the sympathy--and glad to explain.

ppb, I hope so. She would also have told me why it wasn't necessary! But it was to me.

shira said...

I don't know who you are but I found your blog during one of my daily googles on my late professor Lana Schwebel. I wanted to direct you to, if you have not seen it already. I would love to be in touch via email,

Shira Schwartz
English Literature
Stern College
Yeshiva University