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A Woman Saying Kaddish

kaddish Gila Silverman with her mother, Phyllis Silverman, and son Isaac

This article is reprinted with permission from Fresh Ideas from HBI.

Everyone who says kaddish for a parent for the full 11-months required by Jewish tradition has stories. Most people have at least one story of being welcomed at a synagogue far from home, feeling supported in their grief by the strangers in the minyan.

But, for women who say kaddish, there is also another kind of story. Most of us have at least one story of feeling uncomfortable or excluded, of a time when we were forced to confront the deep gendering embedded in Jewish tradition.

For me, ironically, that story happened at an academic Jewish Studies conference.

Mid-way through my year of saying kaddish for my mother, I was attending the Association for Jewish Studies (AJS) annual conference and I noticed that both egalitarian and "traditional" minyanim were on the schedule. As a single mother, saying kaddish every day was not feasible, but I had made a commitment to say kaddish two to three times each week. I was glad to see that I would be able to fulfill my obligation while traveling to attend the conference. I was also curious—what would minyan be like in this academic setting? Who would show up? Would anyone show up?

I had breakfast meetings in the mornings, so I could not attend the shaharit minyan, but at the appointed time for minhah, I left a session and made my way to the designated minyan room. Disappointingly, only three people showed up for the egalitarian minyan—all of us looking for a place to say kaddish. Several men wearing kippot were standing in the hallway, trying to gather people to make the "traditional" minyan, and they kindly invited us to join them in the room next door. I explained to them that I was saying kaddish and asked if that would be a problem for anyone. I knew that some Orthodox men would not want me to say the kaddish out loud, and I knew that if I joined their minyan, I would do so in a way that respected their minhag. They welcomed me and said that was more than fine.

But, when we entered the room, I realized that a floor-to-ceiling black curtain had been set up as a mehitzah, enclosing the "women's section" from three sides (with the back wall of the room as the 4th side). I wanted to respect the more observant expectations of this minyan, but I also knew that I could not say kaddish while standing behind an opaque curtain that separated me completely from the community that would say "Amen." Feeling slightly queasy, I quietly asked those who had welcomed me if I had to sit behind the curtain and asked if they would feel comfortable if I sat in the back of the "men's section." With their agreement, I quietly pulled a chair out from behind the curtain and sat in the back corner of the room. The other woman who was also saying kaddish did the same. Although we received several confused glances, no one said anything to us, and when we stood to say kaddish, I thought I felt a collective nod of understanding and support in the Amen's that answered us.

I left the room shaking slightly, realizing later that not only had the male mourner not needed to clarify that he could be there, but that he was also asked to lead the service, while I – if I had not spoken up – would have davenned invisibly behind a thick black barrier. Outside of that room, these men and I were peers and colleagues, sharing our scholarship and debating ideas at a professional meeting. But, inside that room, I was clearly not equal.

The next afternoon, the same scenario was repeated. This time there were only two of us for the egalitarian minyan, and we quickly again joined the traditional one. Once again, with a nod at those who had welcomed me the day before, I moved a chair out from behind the thick curtain and respectfully and quietly sat in the back corner. This time, the other female mourner wasn't there, but there were several Orthodox women. They came in, looked at me, looked at the curtain, and went to sit behind the curtain, leaving me alone in my corner. This triggered such mixed feelings – I completely respect their right to pray in whatever place they feel most comfortable, and yet, I also felt abandoned by those who could have supported me. There were more men that day too, and—based on their dress and davening style—more of a range of observance. I received more confused glances, although, again, no one asked me to move. I realize now that those women and men may have thought that I was intentionally violating the norms in order to make a political point. But, that was far from my truth. I simply wanted to honor my mother in the presence of community, as required by Jewish tradition.

I felt uncomfortably self-consciousness—whether from my own internalized perceptions and fears, or because of the looks I received, I can't say. I felt like an interloper and an outsider, instead of a member of the community. When it came time for kaddish, I very quietly joined in and then quickly left the room. One of the men who had so warmly welcomed me the day before came after me, to tell me that they would be doing ma'ariv in 15 minutes, if I wanted to come back. He must have seen the confusion on my face, because he added, "I know you're saying kaddish, so I wanted to make sure you know that we're also doing ma'ariv." I mumbled something about having to meet a colleague, and walked away, but his small gesture almost brought me to tears. He could not have known of my inner turmoil at that moment, but he recognized the importance of what I was doing and wanted to help make it happen.

As an anthropologist, I'm trained to look for the layers of cultural meaning hidden in even the smallest social encounter. There is so much hidden and revealed in this story, so many different ways I could interpret it. What struck me most at first, was my own visceral and embodied reaction—the nausea and shaking that accompanied my decision to move my chair and to stand in that room of men, as I honored my mother's memory by reciting the kaddish out loud. Later, as I thought more about what happened, and collected more stories from other women who chose to take on the kaddish obligation, I reflected on the social issues underlying this experience.

Previous generations of Jewish feminists, including my mother, fought for the right to say kaddish. While in most American Jewish circles, we have won this fight, we have yet to change the social structures that make that kaddish possible. Most minyanim are at times when parents of young children are getting them off to school or making dinner and dealing with after-school activities, homework, and bedtime. Because these home and parenting activities are still primarily women's work, this makes daily attendance at minyan, which is required to say kaddish, particularly complicated, if not impossible.

In addition, most members of the liberal American Jewish denominations do not see daily prayer as a religious obligation. Many non-Orthodox synagogues do not have a daily minyan and finding an egalitarian minyan in which to regularly say kaddish presents another layer of challenge. Where I live, in Tucson, Arizona, for example, there are 10 congregations, but only one that has an egalitarian daily minyan where I could say kaddish. And there too, like at AJS, there were often days when not enough people showed up to make an egalitarian minyan possible. At AJS, it was the Orthodox men who showed up to daven, the Orthodox men who already had the siddurapp downloaded on their phones, who came prepared to lead a service if asked, and who knew that it is their obligation to show up for the minyan— both for their own religious observance and to ensure that the minyan is complete for those who need it.

I learned many things during my year of kaddish. I learned that Judaism provides a rich and beautiful set of rituals to guide us in our grief. I learned that we never stop missing those we love, and that Judaism reminds us—through kaddish, yahrzeits, and yizkors—that remembering them is an integral part of continuing to live. I also learned that we need each other. Like so many Jewish traditions, saying kaddish cannot be done without a community. We need others to say "Amen" to our kaddish, and we need others to make the minyan in which that kaddish can be said.

As women, and as Jewish feminists, we, and our allies, have a responsibility to be there for each other. Those before us demanded the right for women to say kaddish and to mourn our dead in the full way prescribed by our tradition. Now, it is up to us to make sure that it is possible to do so without feeling uncomfortable or unwelcome. We need to make sure that egalitarian minyanimare available everywhere—in our own communities and in the places we visit. We need to show up, with an egalitarian siddur downloaded on our phone, prepared to lead a service, if asked, and know that it is our obligation to ensure that the minyan is complete for those of us who need it.

Gila Silverman is a 2017 HBI Scholar in residence. A cultural anthropologist working at the intersections of religion, medicine, and healing, she is currently affiliated with the Department of Religious Studies and the Arizona Center for Judaic Studies. 

 

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Monday, 20 September 2021

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