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Kaddish in my Heart

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As a child, I often walked with my father to the Conservative shul he attended every Shabbat morning.  I loved the three block walk with him, loved to sit next to him on the pew and entertained myself braiding and un-braiding the fringes of his tallit. Even before I went to school, much less Hebrew school, this was our time together and the rituals and the music all became so deeply rooted, part of the core of who I am, of what I know.
 
One moment in the service was always of particular fascination for me as a small child.  It was the recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish although I didn’t know fully understand what it was or what it meant at the time.  I would crane my neck to see who was standing up and who wasn’t and at those times that my dad stood, well, I hopped from my seat to stand with him as well.  I wondered about the why, I wondered about the emotion I often saw in people, why this particular prayer affected them in a way that others did not.
 
Of course, as I got older, I understood the significance of rising for the Mourner’s Kaddish, of those newly bereaved and those who are observing Yahrtzeit.  I understood that the words of the prayer are really not about mourning at all but about celebrating the greatness of God.  Yet it was not until loss became a part of my life, sitting in the empty chair at the dining room table, that I began to see and understand saying Kaddish.
 
It didn’t happen right away. When my mother died, I was 25.  On some level, I understood that breast cancer was winning but my denial was a heavy cloak I wrapped around myself.  When my father called to tell me that she was gone, I grabbed the chain around my neck, the one I never took off, the one with the “Chai” that I had worn for years, and I pulled it off with force, with violence, with anger—anger at life, at God, at why my prayers and entreaties had gone unheard.
 
Nine years later, when my father died, I found myself still at war with my faith, still struggling to reconcile my strong connection to my identity as a Jew with the question of where was God, why was this happening, how could this be?
 
A decade later, on 9/11, my first thought—after checking on my husband and children—was to find my brother.  His Long Island home and work were too close, too vulnerable and I was afraid.  I couldn’t reach him by phone but email, finally, worked and I can still feel the relief I felt at that moment.  My first friend, my history and my future, he was safe and I could breathe.
 
Little did I know that less than three months later, his life would end in an accident at home.  His death was one that truly shredded the fabric of my life, leaving me with raw edges and threads that I have, over time, patched but that will never truly mend.  Saying Kaddish then became vital to me, not for the ritual of it as much as for the opportunity it gave me to let the pain come out, the pain that I only allowed myself to express in private places, the grief that I did not share.  It gave me a kinship with others who were suffering as I was, whose hearts physically ached as mine did—and still does.
 
Fast forward another decade and another profound loss—the death of my nephew, one of my brother’s two beautiful children, children who represented my brother’s continuity, his legacy. Saying Kaddish for my nephew no longer was the ritual I went to shul to perform, it was what I recited every morning and every night for a year. For me, the customary practices were not a fit.  These words were what I needed to do for Zachary, to somehow let him know—one more time, in one more way—how much I love him.
 
I have come to understand praising God in the Kaddish is the right answer; that we must be thankful for all that we have and all that we love.  None of us know what our trajectory in life will be, how long we will live or how well.  We do know that loss is a part of life.  It tests our resilience, our faith, our strength and our identity.  It reshapes us to the person we become, to the “new normal” in a life where the “old normal” can never be restored.  I have come to understand that Kaddish is more than the ritual of mourning, more than respecting those we have loved and lost.  It is what we carry in our hearts, it is the daily work of remembering and of going on, it is our unity with the past and our direction to the future.
 
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