Eleven Months of Kaddish
It is late at night on the eve of the first yahrzeit, death anniversary, of my dad, Alan Soloway, Aharon ben Avraham HaCohen u’Sarah, and I feel very reflective of the emotional and spiritual arc of this intense year. Tonight I was celebrating the joint Bat Mitzvah of Bella and Noa, twin daughters of very close friends in London at a very wonderful party, populated by well over 50 joyful teens and pre-teens and a lovely group of old friends. As the long, hot summer evening sky was beginning to darken, my awareness grew that as this festive day of life drew to a close, its end birthed the day commemorating my father’s death, the last day of a year of mourning. We gathered an ad hoc maariv minyan, ten people willing to be part of evening prayer service, allowing space for me and another friend in the very early stages of mourning for his mother, to say kaddish. We went upstairs to a balcony overlooking the final, fun moments of the party below and it felt perfect. Even though the people there were enabling me and Johnny to recite this ancient, traditional mourning prayer, somehow we each felt something special in bringing loss and memory of parental love into the rhythm of life. My father always loved a good party and would have really appreciated this one, so beginning his yahrzeit in that time and space was special. Something about bringing people together in an unusual context for this ritual adds power and meaning to it, and it reminded me of the other minyanim in basements, on mountain tops, in ski lodges, on beaches, during meetings, that each told part of the story of my eleven months of saying kaddish.
According to Jewish tradition, the period of mourning for a sibling, spouse and even a child, is thirty days, but for a parent, it is twelve months. The rituals of mourning give shape, meaning and structure to the days, weeks and months of this painful year, yet there is also an ancient belief that a child saying kaddish for a parent is somehow helping to redeem their soul, to help purify them so that they can peacefully move on to the next world. This process, we are assured, would never take more than eleven months, even for a wicked parent, and so the established tradition is to stop kaddish a month before the year of mourning ends. Those who strictly observe the traditional practices say kaddish three times a day with the required minyan (a quorum of ten Jews or Jewish men in some circles.) My last day of kaddish was a Sunday in Boulder, Colorado where a large crowd showed up for a very moving morning service in my community, which felt very honoring to me and to my father. During the kaddish-free last month of mourning, I somehow integrated and absorbed the very different people, times and spaces that held a sacred container for me to participate in this rite of passage. There were the kaddishes said in various established daily services in London, New York, Boulder, Denver, Camp Ramah in the Rockies, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and more; there were the planned and spontaneous gatherings in a wide range of indoor and outdoor venues; and there were the days in which I found meaning and comfort in reciting a different version of kaddish alone. Each of these three modes of mourning was a unique experience that shaped my year.
Early on in this journey, I was determined to fulfill the obligation in the most traditional way possible by being part of a minyan for all three of the daily services, which shifted to a desire for at least one kaddish a day with a minyan, and eventually I was content a couple of days in the week with an adapted form of kaddish recited alone. Established Jewish communities across the world have daily services that make it possible for mourners to fulfill their traditional duties and I have gained such respect and admiration for the faithful worshippers who show up day after day to ensure this great service to community. As a rabbi so used to leading others, there was something wonderful and comforting in anonymously joining a minyan on my travels in synagogues of all kinds around the world; I prayed in Orthodox, Conservative and Reform communities; Ashkenazi and Sephardi, Chabad and Yemenite. I feel blessed and lucky to be familiar enough with the Hebrew and structure of a traditional service to be able to lead and follow and know what to do. I also took seriously the obligation, when asked, for a mourner to lead the prayers. Most Tuesday mornings I joined the small minyan at Chabad at CU and was almost always invited by the rabbi to doven for everyone. When I found myself wandering the streets of Jerusalem’s most religious neighborhood, Mea Shearim, looking for an afternoon service (mincha), I was directed to the “Shtieblach,” which more resembles a train station than a synagogue. Five large prayer halls are constantly rotating with a new minyan beginning just as one ends. Above each hall is a red neon Hebrew letter from alef to hey, which flashes as a new minyan begins. A loud voice over a loud speaker announcing, “mincha b’gimmel, mincha b’gimmel – afternoon service in hall 3, afternoon service in hall 3!!!” Each of these halls was packed with 100s of bodies in black hats and coats and although somewhat out of place, I felt held by the same prayers, the same kaddish. After Talmud classes and random meetings in the Jewish community, gatherings with other rabbis and a JCC fundraiser, I would so often gather people when they least expected it to make a minyan so that I could say kaddish.
One night fairly early on in the mourning journey over a beer with a couple of guy friends, I voiced the idea that I would love to get a group together to climb a mountain as a way to honor my father. Simultaneously, another friend, Jason, put out the notion of wanting to create a strong circle of men to support me and give me space to be share openly about my dad. The two ideas merged and a group of almost twenty men met early one morning in Elul, the month that leads us into the High Holidays, where it is traditional to blow shofar every day. Men in their 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s gathered that day; some of us brought our prayer paraphernalia, like tallit and tefillin as well as our own shofars, and we hiked to the peak of Green Mountain where we found a magnificent, sheltered spot for our sacred prayer circle. I led us in a traditional service, but with a great difference. Although my ideological preference is for egalitarian prayer, this circle of men was so strong, so safe and so comforting. Our chanting mingled with the raw sound of the ram’s horn, the beautiful expanse of nature around us absorbing it gracefully, embracing it as one of its own. Such power and depth. From this masculine ritual came the invitation to share whatever I wanted to share about my dad as a way to honor both of us. My heart was strong and open and true words flowed with tears and laughter that gave permission for others to share their stories it felt as if we were an ancient tribe connected through the mountains, the sounds and the tradition calling to us through our ancestors. That Green Mountain kaddish opened our hearts.
My dad loved the mountains and the sea; sailing and skiing were his favorite outdoor activities and he taught me both. Dad was 82 when he skied for the last time and appalled that Vail Resorts barely gave him a discount on a lift ticket! “If I am still skiing at this age, they should let me do it for free,” he half joked. My parents had a few vacations in Breckenridge and loved both the mountain and the town. One Monday in February, I was skiing with various friends in Breck and had access to a beautiful penthouse condo with a massive balcony overlooking the mountain. I knew that there were plenty of Jews out on the slopes that day, including good friends, and was determined to end the ski day with a minyan and a kaddish; I sent lots of text messages to make it happen. By 4 o’clock we had enough pledges to make the ten for participation in this apres ski minyan and, in the end, we were closer to twenty. I had memories of skiing holidays in Europe where my father instituted “the Four O’clock Club” at the end of a full ski day, which involved lots of local schnapps. Now I was creating my own version of this as a great way to honor my father’s memory. One of the participants was my good friend Dave, who happens to own an amazing brewery (Broken Compass) and supplied plenty of lovely craft beer to go along with the Breckenridge Bourbon. So, we gathered outside in the freezing air looking out over the runs we had skied, and I spoke about my dad and I led a diverse group of Jews in a mincha service and got to say kaddish in this place that he loved. Then, of course, we drank l’chaims to him and his soul skiing on different slopes. I felt so grateful that people made such an effort to show up and be a part of this, but soon realized that they were grateful to me too, thanking me profusely for allowing them to participate. This was an important lesson for me; a reminder that usually when we ask someone to help us perform a mitzvah, we are helping them too, and we all grow through connections that give meaning, especially when we share authentically with each other. That is where the true power of community comes alive.
At the end of April there was a family gathering in Tel Aviv for the Bar Mitzvah of Rafi, my dad’s cousin’s grandson. The Thursday night before, his parents hosted all of us who had come in from overseas for a dinner on the beach. Watching the Mediterranean spew its moonlit surf on to the sand with us all preparing to celebrate the initiation into tradition of this young man, made some of us really miss my dad’s presence there and, yet again, I decided we had to have a minyan by the sea to say kaddish to the soundtrack of crashing waves. There was no resistance, other than my own awkwardness in the request, and we shared memories of dad, and my mother, sister and I said those ancient words again; for us, for each other, for my dad’s soul. His cousin Derrick, the Bar Mitzvah boy’s grandfather, told me that night that one of things that he learned and treasured from my father from years ago was always to make the effort and choose to celebrate the happy occasions of family and friends wherever possible and show up, because for the sad ones you have to, so why not choose to for the joyful ones too? My parents always did just that whenever they could. I realized that’s why we were there in Tel Aviv; to continue that legacy of dad’s. Others shared memories of him too and far from taking anything away from the joyful Bar Mitzvah weekend, this minyan for kaddish actually added a richness and depth in a way that ritual can. Dad loved the sea, the water, possibly even more than the mountains, so minyan by the Med brought his seafaring soul to presence.
There were other extraordinary kaddish moments that punctuated these mourning months, out in the wilderness, on the trail, in classrooms and halls and basements. Yet, some of my daily practices, less by choice than by circumstance at first, were done completely alone in my living room. When I found the text of a special kaddish to be said when you cannot get a minyan, something shifted, giving me permission for a different and sweet daily remembrance that did not require community. Rabbi Dov Baer Edelstein, an Auschwitz survivor, wrote “In Place of Kaddish when there is no Minyan,” which became an important and very personal text for me.
El Elohai haruchot asher b’yad’cha nafashot hachaim v’hamaetim,
P’nei hayom b’hesed u’v’rachamim el tefillati l’zecher y’kari.
Z’chor na et col hahesed v’hatov sh’assah baolam hachaim.
Teyn lo menucha nechona tachat canfei hashechinah,
U’tz’rur bitz’rur hachaim et nishmato.
Yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’mei raba
Oseh Shalom bimromav, hu ya’aseh shalom aleynu v’al kol Yisrael, v’imru Amen
God of spirits, in whose hands rest the souls of the living and the dead,
Turn with lovingkindness and compassion to my prayer for the memory of my loved one.
Please remember all of the loving kindness and goodness that he did in the world of the living
Grant him peaceful rest under the wings of the Shechinah and bind his soul to the eternal bond of life
Exalted and sanctified be the great name
May the One who makes peace on high, make peace for us and for all Israel and let us say Amen.
My father was a self-defined agnostic and he may have found some of the effort I went to say kaddish a bit ridiculous, but I feel sure that that he would have loved some of them too. I am not sure what it means that I no longer have the official status of a mourner, now that the year on the Hebrew calendar is complete, and kaddish turns from a daily ritual to an annual one. I certainly do not know with any certainty in what realm my father’s soul continues to exist, other than the profound memories we have of him. I do know that the integration of these three different ways of saying kaddish; in the various established synagogues, minyanim in extraordinary places and moments of memory alone, framed my year and gave me strength. Each kaddish was an expression of a different aspect of my changing relationship with my father and, in the great mystery of it all, I do believe that this ritual, both traditional and creative, assisted dad’s soul in its continuing journey.