The old men in their prayer shawls looked exactly as they did in that photograph that Eema had taken from the women’s section of the synagogue when she’d come to services for Abba’s first yahrzeit. Looking at the picture, one could almost hear the petitioners chanting softly to themselves as they swayed back and forth to their internal rhythms.
He had never been interested in photography himself, but he’d seen enough of Abba’s photography to know a good shot when he saw it. The lighting in the sanctuary was a soft gold, and the stern-looking bearded Jews, viewed through the lattice work of the mechitzah, had a distant, yet reassuring air of wisdom about them. “Why do so many people prefer to admire ‘wisdom’ from a comfortable distance?” Ephraim mused.
The young man snapped out of his reverie and closed his eyes tightly, readying himself. The prayer leader, who had lost his mother just two weeks ago, and another elderly gentleman who had shuffled over to the lectern solemnly began reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish together. From the very back of the room, he could hear them chanting.
* * *
Almost four years. Almost four years. Almost four years. It never got easier. “I miss you so much, Abba… and I’m still coming to shul for Kaddish. I think you would have been proud of me.” Ephraim wiped his eyes. This was something he hoped that Abba would have appreciated. He was bearing Yosef’s vow.
Abba had always been a believer but never a synagogue-goer until Saba had died. Then, at the shiva, Yosef had gingerly taken his father’s worn, leather-bound prayerbook off of the oaken bookshelf in the small, stuffy study where Saba had kept his Judaica library. He flipped reverently through the old siddur, turning to Ephraim with glistening eyes. “It’s time for Kaddish. Please gather the guests for minyan, Ephie.”
Dutifully, Abba led services and recited Kaddish thrice daily at Saba’s home for the seven days of shiva. Then he started praying every day at Saba’s synagogue: morning, afternoon, and evening. Kaddish for Saba became his project, and he took it seriously, scribbling notes in the margins and underlining the words of the old prayerbook in pencil, as he researched the history and meanings that underpinned the ancient doxology. The old men at shul had been very impressed with Abba’s seriousness. “Yosef is a good son,” they nodded approvingly. “Yaakov would have been proud.”
When Abba’s year of mourning had ended, he’d vowed to continue attending services to ensure that other mourners would have a minyan to recite Kaddish. He’d felt it was the least he could do for Saba’s community. “Also,” thought Ephie, “Abba hadn’t been ready to stop. One year of kaddish hadn’t felt enough.”
Whenever a mourner recited Kaddish, Yosef would close his eyes tightly, readying himself for the response. In keeping with a Talmudic text that he’d learned during his year of mourning, Yosef would shout his response to the mourners from his seat at the back of the sanctuary: “Yehe shmeh rabba mevarakh leʻalam ulʻalme ʻalmaya.” He’d actually written out the rabbinic text on the inside cover of the siddur:
|אריב”ל כל העונה אמן יהא שמיה רבא מברך בכל כחו קורעין לו גזר דינו||R. Joshua b. Levi said: He who responds, ‘Amen, May His great Name be blessed,’ with all his might, his decreed sentence is torn up|
* * *
It was only several years later that Abba unexpectedly died after a bout of severe pneumonia. He’d been so looking forward to marking his father’s fourth yahrzeit at shul, but he’d never made it out of Sha’are Zedek Medical Center, and just like that, Ephie found himself leafing through his father’s scribbles in the margins of Saba’s beloved prayerbook. Yaakov and Yosef would both have wanted him to take Kaddish seriously.
Despite his profound skepticism, Ephie went through the motions. He attended daily services at Saba’s synagogue, leading the prayers and reciting Kaddish for his father. The old men, he knew, believed that he was elevating Yosef’s soul, or redeeming it somehow, but he rejected such archaic superstitions. Kaddish only mattered because Abba believed in it… and also… The old men at shul were so damned endearing and supportive. They’d been truly devastated when Yosef died, just as they’d been upon Ya’akov’s death four years prior.
When his year of mourning ended, and despite his deep inner resistance, Ephie realized that his task wasn’t over. From the first, his Kaddish had never been intended only for Abba; it had been for everyone. His Eema had committed to learning how to use Abba’s photography equipment, and Ephie had somehow naturally taken over Yosef’s Kaddish.