In the Jewish tradition, when a death occurs, children of the deceased are supposed to attend services every day for 11 months in order to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish. In most traditional circles, this responsibility falls on the son, on the Kaddish’l, the one who says Kaddish.
People in our congregation care about each other, and this is most obvious when it comes to saying Kaddish at the daily minyan. When I became a minyan regular once again in November 1995 (seven years after saying Kaddish for my father) people were concerned: was I mourning the death of my mother?
She was not my mother but my grandmother. I am not her daughter or son. I am a granddaughter. How could I be the Kaddish’l?
Six months short of her 100th birthday, on the night of the second seder, my paternal grandmother. Shimkeh Hannah bat Mordecai Moshe v’Sara Riva, died. As we all gathered to bid her farewell, there were many things to do. My husband, a congregational rabbi, conducted the funeral and wove together the threads of Grandma’s life into a eulogy. I chanted El Moleh Rahamim. Grandchildren shared their remembrances, and Grandma’s coffin was carried by her grandchildren and their spouses.
My mother, Grandma’s daughter-in law, provided the seudal havra ‘ah, the consolation meal after the funeral, which was the opportunity for all of us to gather. We ate and talked and laughed, but when all was done, one question remained unanswered: Who would say Kaddish for Grandma? Her last years had been filled with loss. Death had taken away both of her sons, a daughter-in-law, and a younger sister. Now it was Grandma’s time, but who would be the Kaddish’l?
Mother told me that Grandma had set aside a sum of money to be donated to the Milwaukee Jewish Home in her memory, so that Kaddish would be recited for the year. I know that, in some circles, it is an old and venerated custom to pay someone else to take on the responsibility of saying Kaddish. Even so. I have always been bothered by it because I don’t think that such a personal obligation should be fulfilled by someone else. I remember reading that in 1916, when Henrietta Szold’s mother passed away, a caring male friend offered to take on the responsibility of Kaddish. In a letter, Szold replied, “‘When my father died, my mother would not permit others to take her daughters’ place in saying the Kaddish, and I am sure I am acting in her spirit when I am moved to decline.”
I told mother to give the bequest to the Home as Grandma had wished, but without the request for Kaddish. I would take on the obligation of Kaddish myself. As the weeks passed and saying Kaddish daily became part of my life once again, I realized I was inexplicably angry. Why? For what? The days passed until one day—weeks into my daily Kaddish—I located the reason: Things were out of order. I still missed my father. I was angry at having to take his place. I was angry at the turn of events that had forced Grandma to mourn her own sons. Once I named the source of my anger, the feelings slowly passed.
Saying Kaddish is not a static experience, and as the year drew to a close, my feelings in daily minyan stretched and changed. I felt increasingly gratified to be the member of Grandma’s family who was saying Kaddish for her. I was grateful that the Jewishness so lovingly taught to me by my family was enabling me to honor the memory and the heritage of those who came before me. And, most unexpected. I felt that I was daily giving a gift to someone long dead: my father. Seven years after his death, what a joy it was to serve him in this way. and to experience, as a total surprise, his ongoing company.
My father, Avraham Eliezer ben Yitzhak v’Shimkeh Hannah could not be the Kaddish’l for his mother, Shimkeh Hannah bat Mordecai Moshe v’Sara Riva, but I, his daughter, Sara Riva bat Avraham Eliezer v’Shonneh Minneh, could do it. I am the Kaddish’l.
Susan Drazen is executive director of Jewish Educational Services in Omaha, Nebraska.