“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 o’ 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:
D.B. COHEN LADIES & GENTS TAILOR
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.
On 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 chalkarid 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 the 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 little crepe-paper wrinkles on the aged 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?”
“But zedda said if I were the boy, I could be the kaddish.”
“Ai, what the zedda sagt! He mean a boy 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.”
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-kad-dash…’ “
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 beard 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 of two career women and the grandmother of 10-year-old feminist Jenna.