On Kaddish

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Six hundred and thirty one kaddishes ago my dad passed away. Each day, since we buried him, I wake when it’s dark, retire when it’s dark, and fill the day with kaddishes. It’s a new life now, a new mindset, “When will I say kaddish? What am I doing today? I need to say kaddish.”

The repetitive nature of kaddish (the Jewish hymn for mourning)–each day, about seven times a day I say it–has made me obsessive. On a drive from Chicago to Pittsburgh, I was nervous I’d miss it one morning so I stayed overnight in a motel near a synagogue in Toledo, Ohio. I didn’t sleep that night, not for fear of bedbugs, foreignness, or crime, but because I was afraid I’d miss my alarm. At home it’s no different. I’m married to my clock: 12:17, 2:31, 3:48, 4:52, “I might as well get up; I don’t want to be late.” I cannot miss saying kaddish. I hire babysitters so I can go to the synagogue. When the babysitters are late I bring my daughters in their pajamas. Holding one girl in my arms, while the other two are bickering, I say it, “Yisgadal, vayisgadash, shmaeh rabbah.” In the same breath, I ask, “Dad, do you hear me,” and I wonder, “God, are you happy?”

I love when other people are saying kaddish–I just push the words out, like a bottle in the waves, and let my voice drift, swallowed up by the sound of mourners. My mouth moves, the words exit, and with closed eyes I see him. He’s healthy here. Sometimes, my dad is sitting on a stationary bike, in his bedroom, reading a magazine, as the pedals churn. Other times, as I stand in the synagogue, he’s there, beside me to my left, resting in the same spot where we sat together so often. He’s funny; he’s still wearing his red sweatshirt from Temple University–get it, “Temple”?

There are times that I’m a lone voice. No one else is saying kaddish, but me. The service breaks for kaddish and my words usher out across the room, piercing the silence–for me. I don’t know if anyone else hears it. It’s hard to find him here, when I’m alone. That’s the worst, I’m searching, trying to remember, and nothing, just words.

Since I started paying attention three months ago, people say kaddish in so many ways. Some race through it; others meander, overstressing syllables and creating awkward pauses in the text. I’ve heard people yell it, whisper it; one guy, I was convinced, was saying it in a Scottish accent, which is strange because he’s from Virginia.

Kaddish is the universal song of mourners. I’m saying it for my 61-year-old dad. She’s saying it for her 82-year-old brother. Rocky is saying it for Mickey, and the rabbi is saying it for people who can’t. Over the last few months, I’ve developed a spoken-unspoken bond with my fellow grievers. There’s a hurt we’re carrying and each time we say kaddish we audibly demonstrate that pain to the others present. We’re like a little sad society–exclusive eligibility, but always welcoming new members.

People say that it gets better with time. That’s not comforting. About 1,600 kaddishes from now I’ll be done for the year. Then what? It’s not like I can go back to how it was before. Do I ignore the roll of mourning voices? Do I stoically respond to someone else’s prayer? “Dad, if I close my eyes and talk to you then will I be crazy?” Will I sleep better knowing there’s no kaddish to rush to, or will I sleep worse?

Each night, as I conclude my kaddish, “Oseh shalom bimromav,” I say, “Good night Dad.  I’ll see you tomorrow.” About 1,600 kaddishes from now, as I finish that final one, what will I say? What will I tell him then?

I don’t know. I can’t think about that now, I have to go say kaddish.

Adam Reinherz is an instructor at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Pittsburgh.

2 thoughts on “On Kaddish

  1. Mona Klaber says:

    Adam, this is a most beautiful, poignant reflection. Your words are so powerful. I know your dad is shepping naches over you.

  2. Sallie Levi says:

    What a beautiful expression of your relationship with your Dad and the process. You write beautifully, simply and deeply from your soul.
    May your Kaddish bring great pride and comfort to your Dad and to you.

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