The Last Kaddish
Mourning for my mother saw me through anger, doubt, and numbness—and brought me closer to her
I said the last Kaddish for my mother recently. It has been 11 full months since her passing and according to Ashkenazic Jewish custom, one stops here.
The next morning, someone in shul asked me: “No more Kaddish?”
“It’s the Yom Hafsakah,” I told him, the “day of stopping” as it is called in rabbinic literature.
“So fast?” he asked. “I can’t believe it’s a year already.”
No, it was not fast at all, I wanted to tell him. It was a very long 11 months. I literally ran up the small hill to the synagogue to say the Kaddish morning, noon, and night; through snow, ice, and rain; through hurricane and brutal heat. Whether I was at home or away, wherever 10 men gathered in his name, I said the Kaddish for her three times a day. I said it with my brother and with the other men in shul (my brothers-in-mourning), in unison and solo: May his name be exalted and sanctified … in a world he created according to his will … may his salvation blossom and the Redeemer come in our lifetimes and the lifetimes of the entire House of Israel …
In shul, by custom, the mourner leads the prayers. But there are other mourners, too, so one shares the prayer stand. Also, there is hierarchy, there is protocol. The fresher the grief, the more urgent the obligation; the one who is within the first 30 days of mourning trumps the one who is in the mourning year. And yet, one who has reached the “day of stopping” trumps everyone else again. Milestones “refresh” grief.
So, on that morning two weeks ago when I said my final Kaddish, I was chosen to lead the prayer. And I connected with my mother in that uniquely Jewish, distinctively communal way for the last time.
She was, above all, kind, even when she had reason not to be.
When I was barely 3 years old, I began a lifetime of kitchen pranks on her. One day at breakfast, she stood at the stove over an empty frying pan and asked me: “One egg or two?” Just to get a rise out of her, I said, “Six. I want six eggs.” She told me I’d never eat six eggs, but I promised her I would, so she made me a six-egg omelet. It was as big as a cake. I took two bites and could eat no more. Good-naturedly, she said, “You see?” Then she daintily tossed the rest of it out without a word. I never did that again.
In her final weeks I reminded her of this story. She gave a wan smile and remembered it exactly as I did.
When I was 5 or 6, my mother made a marble chiffon cake for her friend. She poured the batter into the cake tin and left it on the table for a few minutes. Unbeknownst to her, before she put it in the oven, I took a tablespoon and tossed it in. The cake baked with a spoon sticking out of the top. After getting over her initial shock, she said without a trace of anger: “It looks like I will just have to bake another cake—and we’ll eat this one.”
As an adult, I came to understand that this unwillingness to mistreat anyone was an essential piece of her personality. Nothing was worth fighting about or making someone suffer. Even if the rest of the family would curse the enemies of my father or enemies of the Jewish people, she would say, with her English accent: “They’re still people, for Heaven’s sake! One simply cahn’t mistreat people!”
I loved her a lot but, despite our close bond, I understood her only a little. She revealed almost nothing about herself save for one revealing sliver of a story from long ago. The year was 1947 and she was not yet a teenager; she had won the starring role in a production of Snow White in Bournemouth, the famous seaside town in England. But she never performed it. Her father yanked her from the role, deeming it inappropriate for a Jewish daughter from a Hasidic family. Though she later allowed that she had been “disappointed” at the time, she claimed to have shrugged it off. What was Snow White compared to the “riches” in store for a virtuous daughter of the Jewish people? It was left to her children to feel a modern American outrage: “You gave up a starring role?!”
She lived like many a Jewish woman of her generation: not a completely separate self, but more like a meeting place for other selves—including me. My life was hers and hers was mine, but she also belonged to her mother, her father, and her husband. If the work of life is to separate and become your own person, both she and I often failed at this simple but difficult task miserably—together and separately.
Like many sons, I embarked on a mom-improvement project for a good part of my life. I wanted to show her that the world was bigger than the kitchen, the shul, and her family’s storied rabbinic pedigree, of which she was deeply proud. She would buy none of that. She had her own way. As far as I could tell, she had her own contract with life: Be a good, loyal daughter to her parents and to the Jewish people, a good wife to her husband, dress well, speak regally—and the world will be decent and kind in return. She would never be seduced by the winds of grand desire or ambition or arrogance. For her, the little pleasures were the big pleasures: a Shabbes meal, a stroll, an episode of Masterpiece Theater, or later, Foyle’s War and Downton Abbey.
My mother was devoted to life. And during her lifetime, she abhorred death. She was beautiful and worked very hard at staying and looking young. She succeeded spectacularly. In photos taken 18 months ago, she looked decades younger than her 74 years. In fact, she never did grow old; instead she got sick. And yet, an enduring puzzle for me is that I did not feel abandoned by her when she died; in one of the ingenious, shadowy tricks of intimate relations, I felt as though I abandoned her.
My zayde, her own father, told me many years ago that one is “lucky” to say Kaddish. His parents were murdered in Maidanek. He did not know of the exact date of their death and only heard about it in England after the war—from survivors. He did not get to say Kaddish for anyone.
At times during the months when I led the Kaddish, I felt as though I was connecting not only with God and the cosmos, but with my mother’s soul suspended over earth, hovering. Often, especially in the beginning, I could see her life and the story of her life in front of me. I constructed a montage, a mental scrapbook in my mind: an old photo of her as a 5-year-old child in a siren suit during the blitz in London. Kodak images of her as a young mother looking like Jackie Kennedy while we were growing up. And how she looked in her last few months, deathly sick.
This last sad chapter, the winter of her death, led me to other thoughts as well: God doesn’t care about her or me, I’d think, and I don’t give a whit about him either. How could one feel otherwise? I watched her life ebb away quickly under the brutal strain of cancer. I have tried to forget, but I can never forget.
I thought I should save my mother during her lifetime and of course I couldn’t; how preposterous to think that I could save her now that she was dead? And yet, this is precisely the Kaddish proposition: A son must say Kaddish to save his mother from Gehenna. The Kaddish is thought to raise the soul of the deceased out of the depths, to lighten her “punishment” and to “cool” down the fires of the afterworld—to lighten her load. Saying it is a son’s sacred obligation. We have it by way of tradition that all but the very wicked spend “only” 11 months in Gehenna; hence the Kaddish is said for 11 months only. As it is in death, so it is in life—a boy feels impelled to save his mother.
Anger at God and at the ways of the world might have at least energized me while I said Kaddish, but worse, far worse than that were periods of seemingly no feeling at all. The Kaddish often seemed its own punishment, superimposed and out of place. Obsequious and coerced praises to the Creator of death and life—Heaven forbid—a catechism to numb the mind and the soul. The mourners’ drone.
Thankfully, these periods of “deadness” did not at all characterize my very “good” mourning year. In fact, it was powerful forces set in motion long ago that led me again and again to the prayer stand—to say the Kaddish and to do it well, with feeling.
Looking back on the past 11 months, I can see that there were incidental “pleasures” or satisfactions in saying Kaddish. It made me face, at 49, my own foray into old age—getting to be an old man, with irreparable losses and gray whiskers, someone who might be called on in shul to utter something wise on occasion even though he is no rabbi.
Through those months, through the disbelief and the anger and the numbness, I said Kaddish with one goal in mind: Say a beautiful prayer in the name of a beautiful woman—my mother. Mostly, I succeeded; and multitudes stood behind me responding in unison to my Kaddish: Yehei shmeh rabba mevarakh lealam ulalmey almaya. May his great name be blessed forever, and to all eternity.
Now she and I must endure one more horrible separation. The Kaddish will no longer bind us. She no longer has need of my rescue. For these past 11 months, she needed my prayer. I who could not save her in life may have saved her in death. But that is over now. What will become of me and her? Time will certainly try to break those bonds. Time always seems to win. But I am not convinced. Time and consciousness exist in two separate realms. Years go by, but a son remembers.
In a sense, the Kaddish prayer was meant for my mother: a mixture of right-ness, righteousness, and piety—the spiritual equivalent of the “stiff upper lip.” There is a God despite it all. Though we may not see him—we want to see him—this is how he is seen. There is an old saying from the Rebbe of Kotzk: “Where is God?” a man asks. “Wherever you let Him in,” the rebbe answered. My mother surely would have agreed with the Hasidic master.
That first morning in shul after my Yom Hafsakah, it was quiet after service. No Kaddish. The silence was, unexpectedly, absolutely beautiful.
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