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May 24, 2017 by

When You’re a Woman and You Need to Say Kaddish

generic prayerIt was November, 2013, my first week back at work after my father’s rapid death from a fall two weeks before. On my lunch break, I was in the middle of a very crowded crosswalk on 6th Avenue, in the West 40s of Manhattan, when my cell rang. It was from my synagogue; Rabbi Felicia Sol was returning my call after I had left a voice mail message informing the “life cycle emergency” department of Dad’s death. Not being a regular attendant at Sabbath services, I was touched that she had reached out to me. I ducked into a glassed-in corporate garden on the corner of 6th and 43rd, where we spoke in the relative privacy of that very public space.

I have never been that religious a Jew; I was raised in the Reform tradition by a mother who’d been raised Orthodox and a father who’d been raised an ethnic, secular Jew. Though Reform, my mother always lit the candles and said the Sabbath blessings before dinner on Friday nights. Despite my dad’s upbringing, his wishes were for a traditional Jewish burial, complete with a cotton shroud and a shomer—a volunteer to guard the body from hospital deathbed to grave. Our family had completed the one-week shiva tradition the week before.

I told Rabbi Sol that the hardest thing at that moment was being surrounded by people going about their business. They seemed rushed and focused, certainly unaware of the heartbreaking pain and loss I felt inside, which was surely not evident on my face.

Rabbi Sol said, “That’s what saying kaddish is for.”

I knew the Jewish memorial prayer from years of saying it in synagogue on Yom Kippur, but I didn’t really know Hebrew and still counted on the transliteration to help me mumble along. In Judaism, after the first seven days of mourning we can enter the world again, but traditional Jews say kaddish at the synagogue every day for 11 months, after the death of a parent, sibling or child.

“I’m not so sure what I believe,” I said.

“That’s OK, she replied, “the thing about kaddish is, you’re recognized as a mourner. You’re right, when you walk through the streets there’s no sign on your back declaring your loss. But in synagogue, you stand up in the community and the community then recognizes you are a mourner and treats you gently, or reaches out to you in your grief. This alone can be a comfort.”

I decided to give it a try. My brother, who worked five blocks away from me, was attending a minyan in the Diamond District every day before work. Jewish ritual requires that 10 people be present before kaddish can be said. These 10 people are called a minyan, which, in Orthodox Judaism, means 10 men. So, I went online and looked up minyans near my job in the Time-Life Building, and found one on one of the higher floors of the building itself. I called the number.

“Hello?”

“Hello, I’m calling about a mid-day minyan.”

“You want a minyan?” he asked, in a heavily accented voice.

“Yes.”

“Are you saying kaddish?”

“Yes.”

“I’m sorry, we don’t have them in the building anymore. The diamond dealers no longer rent the upper floors, so we don’t have enough need. If you need a minyan, there’s one on West 47th street.”

That’s how I found myself on my lunch hour soon after, entering an unobtrusive building in the center of the south side of 47th street, deep in the heart of midtown Manhattan’s diamond district. I saw a small sign on the ground floor, and after double-checking that this rundown old building was the right place, followed hurried office workers into a small crowded elevator. I got off on the fourth floor, and followed the photocopied signs and arrows through narrow hallways until I came to an open door. A large, tired-looking woman, wearing a headscarf, sat on a folding chair just outside it, with a basin and a pitcher filled with water on a small table beside her.

I heard the sound of mumbled prayers inside, and started to enter the foyer.

She stopped me before my feet had crossed the threshold, and said, in a strong Eastern European accent, “You can’t go in there.”

“Why not? I’m here to say kaddish for my father. He died very recently.”

“Well, there are only men permitted in there and there is no divider. I’ll have to ask the rabbi what to do.”

Then she rose painfully slowly from her chair, shuffled inside the foyer and consulted with an older man with a long beard and a black hat. As they were discussing my plight, men—young and old—straggled in, some dressed in Hassidic garb and others as typical office workers. They washed their hands over the basin, with their backs to me, and entered the back room. After some time, the bearded man came out and said the rabbi was busy giving a lesson so he couldn’t interrupt and the lunchtime prayer would begin shortly. He told me I’d have to wait, but I objected. Then he came up with an idea.

“Write your father’s name on this piece of paper, and I’ll bring it inside and ask one of the men to say kaddish for your father. You will have fulfilled your obligation.”

“No, he’s my father. It’s not simply an obligation, I want to say kaddish. I want to say his name aloud.”

The bearded man was clearly unhappy with my response, but went inside again. As latecomers continued to pass me by, I glanced at my watch and managed to somehow slip past the woman, now dozing off and on, and stand in the foyer just inside the door. From there I could see the mostly black suited men bending and mumbling, davening, inside the unfinished office space. 

As my lunch hour was drawing to an end, the man finally came out and once again asked me to write my father’s name, not Max, but rather his Hebrew name—Mendel Ben Avraham—on a piece of paper.

I started to argue, but then he said, “You can’t come in. You can’t stand here looking in, but you can stand just outside the door and listen. You’ll hear a lot of davening, but listen carefully for your father’s name. Just after that, you’ll know it’s time for kaddish, and you can say it quietly when the man inside says it and the congregation and rabbi respond.”

I knew that this was as far as he was willing to go for me, an annoying and clearly not religious Jewish woman. I noticed that the woman by the door, now fully awake, was looking at me with a disgruntled expression. Perhaps because I had slipped past her in the first place, or perhaps because, as a woman, I should have known better than to have attempted to overstep my bounds. I told the man my father’s Hebrew name and he wrote it down and brought it inside. Without any intention of causing a revolution, and feeling I had no other choice but to turn around and leave, I turned my back to the foyer, stood just outside the doorway and, facing what I knew was east, did as I was told.

The mumbled prayers had a certain rhythm; one ran into the next, so it was hard to know when a new prayer was being said. I listened carefully, afraid that I might miss my father’s name in the murmuring inside, but then I heard it—Mendel Ben Avraham Rosenbaum—and whispered quietly along with the stranger inside.

Yit ga gal

v’yitkadash

sh’mei raba…”

With tears welling up in my eyes, I thought of my father; a contentious man, he and I had not always gotten along. But as I matured, I came to understand him and in his later years, after I had bought my own apartment, I knew he respected me. That was further demonstrated when he, albeit grudgingly, gave over some control of the management of his and my mother’s healthcare. My mother has Alzheimer’s and, in the end, dad left the care of my mother to me, trusting me to make the right decisions. He raised me to be true to my core beliefs; would he have approved of me being at this minyan, where women weren’t allowed inside? I thought back to my childhood and remembered the time when Murray, the old man next door, had died. His relatives came to our house and asked my father and the older of my two brothers, Josh, to join a minyan. Josh had recently reached his bar mitzvah, so even though he was only 13 while my sister was 15, they asked for him, but not for her. When I asked why, my father explained that, in Jewish tradition, Josh was now a man. He clarified that, in our Reform tradition, my mother and older sister would have been included, but in Orthodox tradition, they didn’t count. Even then, as a child, I felt the unfairness of not being counted.

My paternal grandfather had been raised Orthodox back in Russia; I think there were even rabbis among his ancestors. Yet he renounced Orthodoxy and became a revolutionary. His story of participating in the Bloody Sunday demonstration and of his escape from Russia was family lore. His wife, my Grandma Rose, followed him to America, and managed to continue her religious traditions despite his renunciation. I remember him with warmth, but the family stories portray him as a very stubborn and angry man. He renounced the Communist Party at some point, during the Stalin era, I think, but never went back to Judaism. Yet my father found my grandfather’s tallit and tefillin after his death. He had never thrown them out and, like my father, he is buried in a Jewish cemetery.

Over the years, I have at times attended Orthodox services if I am invited to a wedding, bris or funeral. If I wanted to observe an important holiday while living abroad or traveling in a country with a small Jewish population, it was often my only option. I never felt at ease in the women’s balcony, watching the black-hatted men davening below. The rabbi never looked up; he never acknowledged the women in the congregation. The unequal treatment of women always rattled me, and I sensed the conflict between my respect for my roots and the ancient tradition. The inherent inequality was always evident for me, just below the surface.

When kaddish and the service were over, all the men headed back to their jobs and rushed past me without looking. I headed for the elevator and noticed that most of the Hassidic men chose to take the stairs. I knew that was because I was a woman and they didn’t want to risk bumping up against me in a crowded space. As he was heading into the stairwell, one man with a long grey beard turned to me and smiled.

“You did the right thing. May your father’s memory be for a blessing.”

I smiled back, feeling affirmation in his words.

Re-entering 47th Street, I mixed into the crowds on the sidewalk, no longer an anomaly. As I turned the corner onto Sixth Avenue, I left the Old World behind and returned to the familiar landscape of modern-day New York City.

Had this experience given me recognition and solace, as Rabbi Sol said it would? I can’t say that it did. On the contrary, rather than being recognized, I didn’t even count. If I stood out, it was because of being a woman. So, no, there was no comfort in that office hallway, but I did feel that I had participated, even marginally, in a ritual that recognized my father’s death and respected his life. Though I would never step inside that building again, I felt then, and still feel, that the man who last spoke to me was correct. I had done the right thing to honor my father. 


Judith Rosenbaum is a writer and photographer living in New York City. She is working on a memoir about three generations of women, and their stories from the old country, to the new world. She is also very involved in immigrant and refugee rights.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine. 

     


  • NYCMedic

    Ugh. There are plenty of orthodox minyanim that would welcome you in and you could say kaddish yourself. Yes, there will be a women’s section but you can still say kaddish and not pass a note to some guy.
    A minyan in a building is not the best environment–they are quite utilitarian.

  • Diane

    May the memory of your father bring you solace and some joy although the death of a parent always leaves a hole in our psyche. Your experience is why so many of us women raised in very observant homes have abandoned the “Orthodox” way of life. It is just outdated (and maybe fearful) ways that refuse to recognize woman as equals. Find a friend or family member and say kaddish with them, I am sure the Almighty will not be counting how many people are saying it or their gender..

  • Mgico

    Thanks for writing this. While I too deplore the narrow-mindedness and misogyny inherent in modern-day adherence to outdated Orthodox customs, your desire to honor your father and potentially obtain a bit of solace by performing an ancient ritual is very human and quite touching.