Lilith Feature

Feminist Mourning

The Mourning Minyan

by Greta Weiner

When our mother died in July 1976, my sister and I became mourners for the first time. There was no discussion between us over whether we would recite Kaddish, for we never questioned our obligation to do so. Our mother did not teach us that daughters had different obligations to their parents than sons, and she provided us with a role model by going to the synagogue daily to recite Kaddish for her father when we were very small.

We were totally unprepared for the religious experiences awaiting us in the next eleven months.

While our strong attachment to traditional Judaism had led us to believe that the experience would provide comfort, we could never have imaged the spiritual strength we would derive from reciting Kaddish with members of the Jewish community. On many occasions, total strangers welcomed us into their midst with warm hospitality, and made great efforts to console us.

But we would never have believed either the torment we would feel as a result of the hostility we faced when, on other occasions, we would be treated as “intruders” by male Jews who did not wish to pray with women.

The Kaddish is a prayer sanctified by its association with death, although there is nothing about death in it. It is an affirmation of life and faith. The Kaddish contains phrases about life when the thoughts of mourners are filled with death; it emphasizes peace when the emotions of the bereaved are in a state of upheaval; and it stresses commitment to God when faith is uncertain.

The Kaddish reinforces the spiritual bond between generations. Jewish Law requires children to recite it at services three times daily for 11 months after the death of a parent. In accepting this obligation, children honor their parents by publicly accepting their moral teachings, and by exhibiting to the community their continued love and respect for them.

Although its recitation is a personal tribute to a particular parents, because of its holiness as a prayer the Kaddish must be recited in public—defined as at least a quorum of ten adults (minyan). This prohibition against saying Kaddish in private prevents mourners from withdrawing from the community during these intense emotional times, and encourages them to seek comfort among other Jews. They experience together a feeling of community—a sense of uniting in prayer and sharing in sorrow.

Thus, reciting Kaddish not only unites parents and children, it brings together the community of Jews.

While all children must observe the other obligations of mourning, in traditional Judaism the obligation to recite the Kaddish falls upon the son only, never the daughter. Female children are exempt from this obligation because of “family responsibilities,” regardless of individual circumstances or desires.

Traditional Judaism does not recognize the definition of minyan as a quorum of ten adults, qua adults. A minyan must consist of ten adults who are bound by the obligation to recite certain time-bound prayers, including the Kaddish. Since women are exempt from this obligation by Jewish law, and their voluntary assumption of it is not recognized as fulfilling any obligation, they do not fit into the definition of adults who can be counted in the quorum. Only males have this obligation; thus, only males count.

Thus, according to Jewish law, daughters need not publicly express respect and affection for a deceased parent. And too, Judaism need not provide them with a buttress against loneliness and withdrawal during mourning by insisting that they join with other Jews for daily services.

Our first encounter with the problems we would face as Jewish women attempting to fulfill voluntarily the obligation of saying Kaddish came on the very day that our mother was buried. My sister’s rabbi of 16 years came to her home that evening to express his condolences and to conduct services. When it was time to begin, he refused to do so. Numbed by all of the painful experiences of the day, we did not understand his action until he pointed out that only eight men were present. My sister immediately began to call neighbors and friends, but no one was at home. In desperation, she begged him to conduct services with the people present, but he refused again and left the house.

We decided to hold services that evening—even without the rabbi. Our family joined together in prayer, and when it came time for us to recite our first Kaddish outside of the cemetery, our father, in a strong voice, led us carefully through it. Thus, on the very evening of our mother’s burial, our family broke with tradition in order to unite in tears and reaffirm our commitment to God.

The next morning, we began the routine which we were to continue for the next 11 months, getting up at daybreak to attend services. The small group of men in the chapel welcomed us and helped us prepare for the morning service. When it came time for the Kaddish, we stood alongside others whose faces were lined with sorrow. We all recited the Kaddish together, and my sister and I experienced, for the first time, that feeling of community—that sense of sharing. It did not seem to matter whether we were male or female: we were all Jews praying to our God.

My sister and I travelled extensively throughout the country during the year for professional reasons, and we became acquainted with several Jewish communities. Our experiences of meeting, praying and being a part of these different groups for even a short period of time was very rewarding, and, for the most part, the hours spent in synagogue were filled with comfort, understanding and mutual support. Our identity as Jews was our passport to these communities. But on too many occasions, our identity as women excluded us. This exclusion depended on two factors: 1) how closely its members adhered to the Orthodox treatment of women, and 2) whether there was a minyan without us.

Although I would have preferred not to attend services at Orthodox synagogues, this could not be avoided. They were often the only ones offering daily services, in some communities.

I’ll never forget my first experience at a daily service in an Orthodox synagogue. I knew that I would be separated from t he men, but I was not prepared for the accommodations which were reserved for me as a woman. When I walked into the chapel, I was led to two rows of pews in the back of the room behind a six-food closely-woven screen. I was able to see nothing in the room—not the ark, not the rabbi, nothing at all.

At first, I just felt isolated, but as I sat there longer, I began to have the feeling of being imprisoned. It was very difficult for me to believe that my religion expected me to pray from within a cage, and I knew that my mother would never have sanctioned the self-imprisonment of her daughter for any reason. As these feelings intensified, I left this section and stood by the back of the chapel by the door. I stayed there for the remainder of the service.

On another occasion, my husband and I went to a small synagogue where men were praying around long tables on the second floor of the building. A man came over to welcome my husband and to lead me downstairs to the bottom of the stairs. He put a chair there for me, and motioned for me to stay. I chose to ignore him, and went back upstairs in time to worship with the others.

Such experiences were not limited to Orthodox synagogues, however. I found that some of the men who attend daily services in Conservative synagogues also regard women as intruders. I remember clearly one particular incident at a Conservative synagogue. My husband and sons entered the chapel first. As my teen-age daughter and I were going in, a man pushed us back rather forcefully. With a smile on his face, he stated that he was sure that we understood how our presence would be “disruptive” to the men trying to pray.

Absolutely furious over both the physical and verbal insult, I told this man that I certainly did not understand, and that I had come to pray and say Kaddish for my mother. I then took my daughter by the hand and shakily walked inside the chapel. Although the service did proceed, the first Kaddish went unsaid. I looked around and noticed there were only nine men present, and my heart sank. Even my aggressiveness in demanding the right to pray could not gain me the right to recite Kaddish, because I did not count in the minyan. I left the synagogue that evening with tears of frustration.

Getting 10 men to fulfill their obligation to make a minyan was a dilemma facing many of the synagogues which we attended. The huge and elaborate structures were as empty as the one-room places of worship. And when nine men and I were present, the same scene unfolded: telephone calls were made, pleas were sent out, services were missed, and Kaddishes were not recited.

In the synagogue in which I prayed most often, this became a time to be dreaded by all. The men who prayed daily with me always breathed a sigh of relief when the tenth man appeared. Although these men have been committed to the Jewish laws concerning the minyan for all of their lives, my continued presence had given them ample opportunity to become conscious of the fact that their excluding me from the quorum caused me a great deal of pain. They recognized the signs of distress as soon as the rituals of “male head counting,” “male hunting,” etc., began. They knew that I felt insulted when they counted the men whom they “lassoed” in as they were passing by. They knew that I was indignant that they counted the men on the last row reading the newspaper or sleeping—and would not count me, when I was prepared to worship along with them.

The eleven months of mourning for our mother have passed, but the changes within us brought about by our experiences while reciting Kaddish are permanent.

My sister and I have experienced the beautiful moments of peace and community that Judaism has to offer those who follow its practices on a daily basis. But we have experiences also the feelings of anguish and anger that accompany the insults and exclusionary practices of discrimination. These experiences have made us more committed as Jews and more militant as women in demanding our right to be included on an equal basis.

We would like to encourage more women to recite Kaddish for their parents. It is important both for the mourners themselves and for all Jewish women. When discrimination is not encountered, they will indeed derive comfort and support from the community during a time of intense grief and loneliness.

But it is equally important that Jewish women become aware that this discrimination exists. Like most Jewish men, we are not involved in the daily minyan, and are unaware of the discrimination against women exhibited there by members of the Jewish community in the name of Jewish law. We can easily avoid this discrimination, but it will do little to raise our status and the status of our daughters to do so.

For generations, sons believed that reciting Kaddish demonstrated the deep and abiding honor in which they held the memory of their parents. We hope that women will believe that their reciting Kaddish for their parents demonstrates the same respect and affection.

We hope that no one and nothing will inhibit women from believing in the meaning and purpose of the Kaddish, and that no one and nothing will deny them the right to recite it alongside all members of the Jewish community. 

Greta Weiner is a graduate student in Sociology at the University of Virginia. She is currently living in Los Angeles and working on her dissertation on religious values and attitudes towards sex roles.


Over My Dead Body…

by Sibyl Cohen

The Jewish prayer book contains four different funeral prayers to call attention to the special praise due the dead person as an individual belonging to one or the other of four classes. These are:

  • all women;
  • ordinary men;
  • distinguished rabbis; and
  • men of eminence.

The special prayer that is read for a man is quite different from the one read for a woman. At the funeral of a rabbi, an introductory poem is read before the reading of the prayer for an ordinary man. There is a special additional poem for a man of eminence to be said prior to the prayer for an ordinary man.

The prayer said for a woman at her funeral begins:

A virtuous woman who can find—

Far above corals is her worth…

Give her of the fruit of her hands

And let her own works praise her in the gates… (Proverbs 31)

These words are said for all women—and only for women. These words are not praiseworthy. They are demeaning.

Consider first an interpretation that many women and most men would see as an offering of praise: a virtuous woman (dutiful, good) is worth far more than any valuable material goods. We praise her because we recognize her accomplishments—”the fruit of her hands…her own works…” What is demeaning is that a good woman is rated in terms of her productivity. Substitute “cow” for woman and any appropriate part of the cow’s anatomy for “hands” and you have a set of words that apply to any beast of burden you might wish to praise.

Compare the prayer said at a man’s funeral:

Better is a good name than

precious ointment

And the day of death than the

day of birth.

The end of the matter after all

has been heard:

Revere God and keep

His commandments.

For this is the whole duty of man.

May the pious be joyful in glory

And rejoice in their repose. 

This prayer begins by recognizing that a man has a name (“Better is a good name than precious ointment”). It is his name; he is responsible for it. The “day of death is better than the day of birth” because he has had the opportunity to do good things and to acquire a good reputation. He does not have a good name because he has been productive—has borne “fruit”—but because he reveres God and keeps His commandments. At the very least, this means he has been just and fair in his dealings with others and that he has obeyed God’s law, which must include efforts to study and understand it up to the limits of his ability. It does not matter whether there are any “fruits of his hands.” These words said for a man are not applicable to a woman. No woman has a name—good, bad, or indifferent. A woman is something someone “finds.” If you are a lucky woman, your productivity will be discovered and appreciated.

Keeping God’s commandments is surely necessary for a woman, but tradition has always “excused” the woman from certain obligations, most of which fall into the general categories of prayer and study. At least part of the rationale for “excusing” the woman is that she has other duties that make demands on her time and energy—duties toward her husband. Even unmarried women are “excused” because they are presumed to be part of a household headed by a male to whom they owe allegiance. This explains, perhaps, why the phrase, “this is the whole duty of man” is reserved exclusively for men. Although a man has duties toward women in “his” household, these are never such as to “excuse” him from prayer and study. But a woman’s duty is divided between God and some mortal man.

The word nefesh (soul) or a synonym does not appear in the prayer for a woman. Instead we pray that “the memory of His daughter…come into His presence.” The concept of soul is generally accepted as indicative of personhood. It follows, then, that in this prayer, women are not considered persons. The omission of this one term provides the key to understanding this prayer. Women have identity (a name) only in terms of belonging to some man—their fathers or their husbands. They own nothing except by permission of their owners. They certainly do not own themselves.

What we say to praise a woman at her funeral implies a denial of her personal identity, of her integrity, of the respect and dignity we ascribe to persons. These are reserved for men only. 

I count myself as a person. Do not recite the memorial prayer for a woman over me.

Sibyl Cohen has a doctorate in philosophy from Temple University in Philadelphia, where she lives. She teaches at University College, Rutgers-Camden.

The Kaddish

a children’s story by Martha H. Freedman

“Ai, if only she was the boy, she could be the kaddish!”

Miriam watched Grandpa shaking his yarmulked head at her. She summoned the courage of her five-and-a-half years to ask, “What’s the kaddish?”

His broad white beard lifted and fell in the flow of a sigh. “Not for you,” he said, his large frame lumbering out of the living room into the shop.

Miriam pressed her nose against the bay window, trying to push out the ache of his words. The cold moist glass soothed her lips as she stared upward.

“Mommy,” she asked, after a while, “how far away is heaven?”

Quietly, not to disturb the round baby boy nursing at her breast, her mother answered, “Pretty far, dear.”

Exactly how far, Miriam wanted to go on. Could you go up there to visit somebody? But she was afraid if she kept asking about it, Mommy would start crying again. Ever since Daddy went to heaven in the flu epidemic, Mommy cried when you talked about those things. And it made Miriam’s chest hurt.

She lowered her eyes to the bare winter yard. She wished this living room looked out onto the street like the one in the house where she’d lived with Mommy and Daddy. Now, at the grandparents’, there was a shop in front and you could hardly see the street, even though there was a giant window. She could read all the red letters on it




Next September, when she started school, she would learn to read the words.

Restlessly, Miriam turned to glance toward her mother. The baby was still grasping at the full whiteness of her. The two of them, huddled together on the rocker, looked like one. Miriam felt so alone, she tentatively reached out a hand. But Mommy sat there staring, not seeing anything.

With a small sigh, Miriam started walking around the room. She reached up to run her hands along the top of the gramophone and down the side to the handle. But she didn’t play music now.

Oh the wall above, inside a round picture frame, her uncle in his soldier suit and wide-brimmed hat looked down at her. They said he would be sad when he came home from the war and didn’t find her Daddy.

Trying not to think about that, she edged her way to the doorway of the shop. Grandpa stood with a tape measure around his neck, fitting a jacket on a figure with wire legs and no head. She looked wistfully toward the table on which large spools of thread and pieces of flat chalk and jagged samples of material on little cardboard squares were scattered. She longed to touch and arrange them, but the thought of going into the shop frightened her. Grandpa looked like God in the Bible storybook—and he didn’t like her because she wasn’t a boy!

Her lower lip trembled. Nobody liked her anymore. Daddy used to swing her up in the air and call her his big girl and Mommy used to play with her, too. But the whole world changed since uncles and aunts came to pack up everything and take Mommy and the baby and her to the grandparents.

Grandpa might like her if she could be the kaddish. Why couldn’t she? Suddenly, she thought of asking Grandma for the answer. Her dark eyes widened with hope as she ran back through the house in search of her.

Grandma was sitting at the round dining room table reading her Chumash book. A circle of light from the colored glass chandelier that hung from a chain like an open umbrella surrounded her. Her lined face followed each word, left to right, across the page. Miriam stood beside her a moment before speaking.

“Bubba,” she said—they liked her to say “Grandma” and “Grandpa” in Yiddish—”what’s the kaddish?”

Grandma held a finger on the open book and turned to peer over her silver-rimmed glasses.

“The kaddish,” Miriam prompted, reaching out to touch the little crepe-paper wrinkles on the age hands.

“Is a prayer,” Grandma answered after a moment.

“A prayer? I know what a prayer is.”

“Is special prayer—when someone die.”

“Oh,” Miriam considered this. “You mean so God will be nice to him?”

Grandma half-nodded.

“But zedda said if I were the boy I could be the kaddish.”

“Ai, what the zedda sagt! He mean a aboy goes to shul to say. Is why man pray for a son—to have a kaddish.”

“Doesn’t a man like to have a little girl?”

Grandma put her arms around her and drew her close. “Of course, of course,” she said. “You know your Daddy love you.”

As Miriam nested her curly little head on Grandma’s shoulder, she thought hard. after a few minutes, she lifted her lips to Grandma’s ear.

“Bubba,” she said, “I want to be the kaddish,”

Keend, keend, is not for you.” Grandma patted her comfortingly. “Don’t worry, everyone know you a good girl.”

Miriam’s eyes welled with tears. “But I want to be my Daddy’s kaddish!” she cried.

Pressed against Grandma, she wept until Grandma, drying Miriam’s tears with her apron, whispered a suggestion. Then, hand in hand, they walked to the doorway of the shop. Remaining there, Grandma urged her with a hug to go in alone.

Miriam took small, hesitant steps across the broad linoleum floor. She stopped alongside the sewing machine and watched Grandpa’s foot seesawing the square pedal while his hands swiftly guided the material past the plunging needle.

Swallowing hard, she cleared her throat.


“He slowed his pedaling.

Zedda,” she said, her voice rising shakily, “will you please take me to the synagogue to say the kaddish for my Daddy?”

Grandpa’s footwork came to a gradual stop. His gray head turned as he studied her serious little face.

“Next holidays you’ll go with the mammen,” his deep voice said, not unkindly.

Miriam shook her head, gathering strength in her determination. “No, I want to say it now, like a real kaddish.”

Nein, is not for girl, is for son.”

“I can say it as good as a son.”

“Grandpa reached for her hand. Patiently he tried to explain. “Always is for son to say in shul, to show he remembers.”

“A girl remembers, too.”

“Sure, sure,” Grandpa patted her hand. “Is all right, I know you remember.”

“But I want my Daddy and God to know!”

“Ai-yi-yi!” Grandpa looked to the ceiling. “Is not done. Men in shul not like, not let a girl—”

“Pop,” her mother’s voice from the doorway startled them both. “You let her her.”

At the sight of the two women standing there, Grandpa rose and threw up his hands.

Miriam was afraid he was going to send her from the shop; instead, his strong arms reached to lift her onto the big table next to the pressing machine.

“Learn good!” he warned, picking out a pair of trousers from the heaped pile to press. “Now say after me—’Yis-gad-dal, v’yis-kaddash…'” 

In a quivering voice, Miriam struggled to say the strange, difficult words that were now so full of meaning for her. Above the hiss and smell of the steam, she repeated and repeated them—it seemed like a hundred times—until she could say the kaddish without any prompting. 

Genug!” Grandpa said finally, reaching over to help her off the table. “You practice more tonight. Tomorrow we go to morning prayers, but I don’t know—” He shook his head.

Miriam fell asleep that night whispering the words of the kaddish. And bundled up waiting for Grandpa early the next day, she said them some more in her mind. 

The sun was not yet up to warm the cold day as they started out. Grandpa walked fast. Miriam had to take little skipping steps to keep up with him. They were halfway down a steep hill when he pointed out the synagogue at the foot of it. Fear overcame her as she thought about the men who didn’t want her there. She spun around to run back, but the hill made her think of the sliding board at the playground and how, when she reached the bottom, Daddy used to be there to catch her. Then she wanted to say the kaddish for him more than ever, and rushed to catch up with Grandpa.

As he led her along the aisle, Miriam tried not to look toward where the men were gathered. She stared fixedly up at the gold lions standing on their hind legs holding the white curved tablets.

When they reached the front benches, Grandpa pointed for her to sit down. The men were waiting for him. 

Wrapped in broad, fringed shawls and wearing yarmulkes, they began chanting prayers, swaying back and forth.

Miriam watched wide-eyed.

After what seemed a long time, Grandpa came back and took her hand.

Kum,” he said, “off’n bema.”

They had barely started up the steps to the little platform when murmuring swelled among the men. Their heads shook forbiddingly. Miriam stepped back to the floor while Grandpa went on to hold up his hands and say, “Shah!” But they kept murmuring.

Miriam stood rigid on the spot below. She bit her lips to keep them from trembling. They weren’t going to let her say it! She wouldn’t be the kaddish, after all. But she had to be!

Desperately gasping a long, deep breath, she cried out with all her might above the sounds of protest: “Yis-gad-dal, v’yis-kad-dash, sh’may ra-bo…”

The men quieted as her prayer, clear and plaintive, echoed throughout the synagogue.

They remained still after she finished.

Grandpa came down and lifted her up and, his bear brushing against her face, kissed her on the forehead. Flushed with fulfillment, she stood next to him while he folded his prayer shawl.

One by one, the men came over to shake her hand, or pat her on the head, or say, “Zehr gut, zehr gut.”

The sun had risen when they left the synagogue. Walking next to Grandpa, Miriam took off one of her mittens and slipped her fingers into his palm to feel the comforting pressure of his broad hand.

Close together and in step, they started up the hill for home.

Martha H. Freedman has been a free-lance writer for many years and a state government Information Writer. Since retirement, she’s working as a teacher of adult education creative writing courses. She is the mother or two career women and the grandmother of 10-year-old feminist Jenna.

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