Sign In Forgot Password

11 Months of Kaddish for My Dad

07/21/2017 09:32:23 AM


It is late at night on the eve of the first yahrzeit, death anniversary, of my dad, Alan Soloway, Aharon ben Avraham HaCohen u’Sarah, and I feel very reflective of the emotional and spiritual arc of this intense year. Tonight I was celebrating the joint Bat Mitzvah of Bella and Noa, twin daughters of very close friends in London at a very wonderful party, populated by well over 50 joyful teens and pre-teens and a lovely group of old friends.  As the long, hot summer evening sky was beginning to darken, my awareness grew that as this festive day of life drew to a close, its end birthed the day commemorating my father’s death, the last day of a year of mourning.  We gathered an ad hoc maariv minyan, ten people willing to be part of evening prayer service, allowing space for me and another friend in the very early stages of mourning for his mother, to say kaddish.  We went upstairs to a balcony overlooking the final, fun moments of the party below and it felt perfect.  Even though the people there were enabling me and Johnny to recite this ancient, traditional mourning prayer, somehow we each felt something special in bringing loss and memory of parental love into the rhythm of life.  My father always loved a good party and would have really appreciated this one, so beginning his yahrzeit in that time and space was special. Something about bringing people together in an unusual context for this ritual adds power and meaning to it, and it reminded me of the other minyanim in basements, on mountain tops, in ski lodges, on beaches, during meetings, that each told part of the story of my eleven months of saying kaddish.

According to Jewish tradition, the period of mourning for a sibling, spouse and even a child, is thirty days, but for a parent, it is twelve months.  The rituals of mourning give shape, meaning and structure to the days, weeks and months of this painful year, yet there is also an ancient belief that a child saying kaddish for a parent is somehow helping to redeem their soul, to help purify them so that they can peacefully move on to the next world.  This process, we are assured, would never take more than eleven months, even for a wicked parent, and so the established tradition is to stop kaddish a month before the year of mourning ends.  Those who strictly observe the traditional practices say kaddish three times a day with the required minyan (a quorum of ten Jews or Jewish men in some circles.) My last day of kaddish was a Sunday in Boulder, Colorado where a large crowd showed up for a very moving morning service in my community, which felt very honoring to me and to my father.  During the kaddish-free last month of mourning, I somehow integrated and absorbed the very different people, times and spaces that held a sacred container for me to participate in this rite of passage.  There were the kaddishes said in various established daily services in London, New York, Boulder, Denver, Camp Ramah in the Rockies, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and more; there were the planned and spontaneous gatherings in a wide range of indoor and outdoor venues; and there were the days in which I found meaning and comfort in reciting a different version of kaddish alone.  Each of these three modes of mourning was a unique experience that shaped my year.

Early on in this journey, I was determined to fulfill the obligation in the most traditional way possible by being part of a minyan for all three of the daily services, which shifted to a desire for at least one kaddish a day with a minyan, and eventually I was content a couple of days in the week with an adapted form of kaddish recited alone.  Established Jewish communities across the world have daily services that make it possible for mourners to fulfill their traditional duties and I have gained such respect and admiration for the faithful worshippers who show up day after day to ensure this great service to community.  As a rabbi so used to leading others, there was something wonderful and comforting in anonymously  joining  a minyan on my travels in synagogues of all kinds around the world; I prayed in Orthodox, Conservative and Reform communities; Ashkenazi and Sephardi, Chabad and Yemenite.  I feel blessed and lucky to be familiar enough with the Hebrew and structure of a traditional service to be able to lead and follow and know what to do.  I also took seriously the obligation, when asked, for a mourner to lead the prayers.  Most Tuesday mornings I joined the small minyan at Chabad at CU and was almost always invited by the rabbi to doven for everyone.  When I found myself wandering the streets of Jerusalem’s most religious neighborhood, Mea Shearim, looking for an afternoon service (mincha), I was directed to the “Shtieblach,” which more resembles a train station than a synagogue.  Five large prayer halls are constantly rotating with a new minyan beginning just as one ends.  Above each hall is a red neon Hebrew letter from alef to hey, which flashes as a new minyan begins. A loud voice over a loud speaker announcing, “mincha b’gimmel, mincha b’gimmel – afternoon service in hall 3, afternoon service in hall 3!!!” Each of these halls was packed with 100s of bodies in black hats and coats and although somewhat out of place, I felt held by the same prayers, the same kaddish.  After Talmud classes and random meetings in the Jewish community, gatherings with other rabbis and a JCC fundraiser, I would so often gather people when they least expected it to make a minyan so that I could say kaddish.

One night fairly early on in the mourning journey over a beer with a couple of guy friends, I voiced the idea that I would love to get a group together to climb a mountain as a way to honor my father.  Simultaneously, another friend, Jason, put out the notion of wanting to create a strong circle of men to support me and give me space to be share openly about my dad.  The two ideas merged and a group of almost twenty men met early one morning in Elul, the month that leads us into the High Holidays, where it is traditional to blow shofar every day.  Men in their 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s gathered that day; some of us brought our prayer paraphernalia, like tallit and tefillin as well as our own shofars, and we hiked to the peak of Green Mountain where we found a magnificent, sheltered spot for our sacred prayer circle.  I led us in a traditional service, but with a great difference.  Although my ideological preference is for egalitarian prayer, this circle of men was so strong, so safe and so comforting.  Our chanting mingled with the raw sound of the ram’s horn, the beautiful expanse of nature around us absorbing it gracefully, embracing it as one of its own.  Such power and depth.  From this masculine ritual came the invitation to share whatever I wanted to share about my dad as a way to honor both of us.  My heart was strong and open and true words flowed with tears and laughter that gave permission for others to share their stories it felt as if we were an ancient tribe connected through the mountains, the sounds and the tradition calling to us through our ancestors.  That Green Mountain kaddish opened our hearts. 

Sun, November 28 2021 24 Kislev 5782