The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 3

Shortly after I returned to Israel after sitting shiva for my father in New Jersey, I was asked to help make minyan at somebody else’s shiva so that the daughter of the deceased could recite kaddish.

It was high summer in late July, but the evenings in Jerusalem were breezy. The shiva house was no further from my home than the synagogue, and given my own status as a mourner it felt natural to help another mourner recite the mourner’s kaddish. I came to the shiva house for the last four evenings of the shiva as requested, while the bereaved daughter and her children mourned in Jerusalem.

Only a man could lead the worship, but I demurred when asked. This was not my shiva house. My father did not exist here. The deceased man’s grandson led the afternoon and evening prayer services, which I felt fitting. He wasn’t a “mourner” by Jewish tradition, but his mother was. At the end of every prayer service, the departed rabbi’s daughter and I recited the mourner’s kaddish together.

I had been back home and reciting kaddish every morning and evening at the synagogue in Jerusalem at that point, but this kaddish experience was different.

Orthodox synagogues can be refuges of anonymity. I had been showing up every day at the assigned times for morning, afternoon, and evening services; sitting apart from the other congregants; doing my duty; walking out quickly. The afternoon and evening services were held twenty minutes apart so I would usually step outside to read the news or chat with my brother in America. I kept my own counsel as much as possible.

The shiva house, by contrast, was inherently more intimate in its limited space and in its intentionality. After mincha, somebody would share words of Torah in honor of the departed rabbi, and his family and friends would share recollections and reflections. Leaving the cramped apartment between mincha and maariv was impossible. There was no retreat.

I learned that the rabbi’s daughter had been taking care of her father for many years as his health and mental faculties deteriorated, unlike my father who had died unexpectedly and within hours on the very day that my mother had brought him to the hospital. The departed rabbi had served in the United States military during World War II, making him a generation older than my father who had been born just months before his beloved State of Israel. It wasn’t fair of me, but I couldn’t help drawing comparisons.

The rabbi’s daughter was sitting shiva, and I was already past that stage, in the shloshim period of my mourning. According to Jewish tradition, her wound was fresher than mine, her mourning more acute, but this did not feel true to me. For four days I listened as strangers honored the memory of a rabbi that I’d never known, all the while grieving silently, alone by the wall, over the untimely death of my own father, but not saying a word because it wasn’t my shiva house.

During those early weeks, my daughter still got upset every evening when I left home for the synagogue, and I couldn’t linger at the shiva house after maariv to bid the rabbi’s daughter my condolences or any farewell – she was surrounded by too many people. I wanted to be with my wife and child; to hold my daughter; to put her to bed. I had spent a week across the ocean from my child during my week of shiva, and she still remembered my abrupt, extended absence. I felt that she was anxious about my disappearing again and wanted to reassure her.

Those four evenings were the most jarring that I can ever remember.

Still, there is no question in my mind that I would do it again, and I would do it for any mourner. Jewish tradition requires us to join the community in our mourning, as personal and painful as it may be. We may want to withdraw; we may want to dissolve into the wall; we may want to hide from the world; but our tradition says no! You, Mourners, more than any others, you must join the community every day for an entire year of mourning. You, Mourners, mourn not your parents alone, for your loss is that of Our People Israel.

This very evening, the rabbi’s daughter will be holding prayer services and a memorial ceremony at the synagogue to honor her departed father, marking the end of her shloshim period. I am going to attend this event, and I now know that my father will also be among us.

Since my father’s death, in my mourning, I’ve connected and re-connected with a lot of different people. The following beautiful insight was sent to me by the wise and kind Rabbi Stanley Davids (emphasis mine):

The discipline of Kaddish is healing. The requirement for a community within which to say Kaddish is strengthening. The audience for our Kaddish – well, we can debate that. At least we would both agree that the mourner is part of that audience. In that sense, the Kaddish that I recite for others is at least in part directed toward me. Kaddish brings us in touch with the searing reality of our situation. Kaddish also stirs up memories that can be quite wonderful.

Sometimes Kaddish will be recited with an anonymous Minyan. Sometimes it will be recited in a Heimisch Minyan. Sometimes it will be recited while we stand alone. And when we have finished, we might just be one step further along the path of healing.

* * *

A brief technical review:

  1. The mourner’s kaddish is a prayer recited by Jewish mourners for thirty days following the death of a child, spouse, or sibling. Following the death of a parent it is customary to recite the mourner’s kaddish for 11 months.
  2. minyan is a quorum of ten Jewish males (in non-Orthodox communities: males and females) over the age of 13, required for reciting communal prayers (such as kaddish).
  3. Traditionally, mourners do not leave their homes during the week of shiva (the first week of mourning), and minyanim are held at the shiva house for each of the three daily prayer services.

17 thoughts on “The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 3”

  1. Hello, David. Inspired by how you respond to others’ work with your own, I offer this poem in response to this post:
    ben Alexander, he,
    like all of us, is one-in-we
    and needs community

    ben Alexander, who
    is I-apart, like me and you,
    needs his alone time too
    I appreciate that you took the time to write down and share your experience, allowing others to accompany you through grieving, toward healing..

    Peace, Stephanie

  2. Mourning is important and doing it in a community helps a lot of people. Yet, grief is a personal thing. Bottomline, healing takes time and it’s absolutely essential to let the wounds heal, especially the ones which can never be seen.

    Thank you for sharing your experience.

    I was shocked when my father’s elder brother passed away. I too felt that he was taken away untimely from us. It’s been a couple of years but I have still not completely come to terms with it. I have accepted it but not embraced it yet.

    1. ❤ Harshi ❤

      I'm so to hear about your uncle's death – for the living, I think it's harder when it's "untimely", as you say… I don't know if I'll ever come to terms with my Papa’s death, but my powerlessness in the face of his absence forces me forward… there’s no other direction for us to go.


  3. Thank you for the links to unfamiliar (to me) words; they are very helpful.

    There is something inherently human in grouping together to mourn, no matter what tradition we hail from. I know it was difficult for you to keep on with that, but the British tradition of leaving you to it once the funeral is over leaves a lot of people lonely. The loss is so great and, while the funeral gives a certain measure of closure, that is not the end for those left behind.

    I remember watching the news the morning after my beloved mother-in-law died in the early hours of the night before, and wondering for a moment why it wasn’t the main headline. Death is deeply personal and cataclysmic, and I wish we had a more inclusive tradition for our mourning period. Not just for my own loss, but so that I could comfort friends instead of feeling the need to give them their privacy.

    This post touched something deep within me . Thank you x

    1. Linda, I agree with you so much!

      You know, I’ve met several different people who converted to Judaism who did so because they were moved by Judaism’s mourning rituals, which they felt lacking in the traditions that they had been born into. I don’t believe in most of the supernatural mythology around my traditions, but the framework itself was immensely helpful for me in dealing with my grief.

      Thank you very, very much,

  4. This tradition is very deep and touching. Here, my family treats mourning in a very personal and closed way. No one really discusses thier pain. I feel after reading through this that your tradition, though Mayne uncomfortable at times, has a great healing power. I don’t imagine it dampens the pain, but knowing your not alone is probally a very healthy way to mourn. Thank you for sharing. I look forward to reading more.

  5. Thank you for visiting my blog and in turn leading me to yours. I’ve always wanted to learn about Jewish traditions, not from a theist viewpoint, but from the humanity that binds us all no matter the slot we’ve fallen into. Thanks again for the education, with the background of raw emotions – the true binding force.

    1. Hi, LCSC 🙂

      I’m so glad that you’re interested! That is very much where I came from – I am committed to Jewish tradition(s), but I’ve given up on trying to convince myself that they were Divinely commanded. There are other reasons to follow the tradition, but I also explore the limitations to these… and there are plenty of those too.


  6. Thank you for sharing your journey. Your words and expressions are deeply moving.

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