Kaddish is probably the most widely recognised of all Jewish liturgies. Its themes are so evocative that it has even entered the secular world of literature and popular music.
Traditionally recited by the bereaved during the first year of mourning, it is an affirmation of our faith in G-d and a source of merit to the deceased as well as providing comfort to those who are grieving.
As far as I was concerned, however, before Kaddish changed my life, it was always someone else’s obligation. I never envisaged that one day it could possibly be mine too. That was because, blessed to still have both of my parents in my mid-sixties, I had come to believe that my situation wasn’t ever going to change. Even attending Levayas of other family members who were not as fortunate, did not truly teach me what they were going through. Perhaps this was an example of the Almighty’s way of insulating us against matters beyond our comprehension, enabling us to carry on with our everyday lives.
To be completely candid, going to synagogue was always more of a perfunctory exercise than an appreciation of the value of communal prayer. It all seemed a little contrived, trying to feel spiritual in surroundings which, in the main, were uninviting. Instead of Davening with Kavana, my time was spent – I suspect like many others – ‘running down the clock’ as they say in football parlance, until Kiddush beckoned.
This was all about to change in a most dramatic way, when I lost my father, aged 101, a year ago. Suddenly, I found myself on the Kaddish circuit with others at various stages of their ‘year’, all of us equally obsessed about being first in shul in the mornings and then again for Mincha and Maariv, without any real concept about the scale of the commitment into which we had entered.
However, when it came to the fear of being on show and fluffing my lines, or worse – missing the prayer altogether – I was on a different level from the rest. It was only when my position as new boy on the block had been filled by someone else that I realised I had got myself worked up unnecessarily and that no one really paid me much attention. Now that I was more seasoned, with bookmarks at the designated places in the prayer book ensuring that I didn’t miss my cue, I could start to relax.
Unless one has witnessed the process, there’s no way of appreciating the panic that takes hold while waiting anxiously for a quorum to appear so that Kaddish can be recited. No words of comfort such as, ‘The Halacha is only once a day,’ or, ‘You can always designate someone to say it for you,’ made the slightest difference. It was my obligation and I had to be able to fulfil it, come what may. Compromise for me was not an option. Fortunately, there was only one occasion when a Minyan was clearly a lost cause, that a group of us had to jump into a car in order to get to another synagogue in time to join their service. Speeding down the Finchley Road, prayer shawls flapping in the wind and Teffilin firmly in position, must have been quite a sight to the uninitiated!
Almost by osmosis, my previous daily schedule became subservient to Kaddish, rather than the other way around. A transformation was gathering pace that I seemed powerless to control and wouldn’t have wanted to, even if I could.
So far, so good!
That was until arranging our first holiday abroad threw up some unforeseen extra challenges. First, flights had to be at a time that enabled me to catch an early morning Minyan on the way to the airport. On more than one occasion, my family had to wait in a minicab with a meter running outside the Shul. Then, there had to be a synagogue offering daily services within walking distance of the hotel. No easy feat when, even in Israel, I found myself, more than once, the sole Ashkenazi struggling to understand what was going on in a Libyan/Yemenite Sephardic Minyan that I’d inadvertently wandered into.
No one claimed it was going to be easy. How right they were!
Eleven months on and I’ve just recited my last Kaddish, courtesy of yet another welcoming Chabad house; this time in Santa Monica California. To my surprise, far from the anticipated sense of relief experienced by many others for completing the endurance course, my feelings are more in common with a lead actor who suffers withdrawal symptoms at the end of an extended run.
So, what does the future hold?
One thing for sure is that I have no intention of returning to my former more insular existence. How could I, when there will inevitably be others in need of the same support I was offered? I now feel compelled to be part of a Minyan as many times as I am able so that, hopefully, those needing to say Kaddish should never be left waiting for that elusive tenth man!
©John Steinberg 2020
( Dedicated to my father O.B.M)
Chabad Hasidic Jewish movement
Davening Hebrew word for praying
Halacha Jewish Law
Kaddish Mourner’s prayer
Kavanah Hebrew word for sincere feeling
Kiddush A small meal eaten after Sabbath services
Levaya Jewish funeral
Maariv Jewish evening prayer
Mincha Jewish afternoon prayer
Minyan Quorum of ten Jewish men
Teffilin A set of small black boxes containing holy script worn by observant