Today is my father’s yahrzeit, the Hebrew anniversary of his death. It’s been nine years. Normally, on my father’s yahrzeit, I rearrange my schedule to say Kaddish for him, the prayer that we recite on such an occasion, praising God. Normally, I go to synagogue three times: once in the evening, again in the morning, and a third time in the afternoon to ensure that I say this prayer three times over the course of the Hebrew day. Normally, this is on my calendar months in advance and I commit to nothing else so that I can spend a few minutes with dad, and maybe, if I’m lucky, a few minutes with God.
This year is different.
This year, I have chosen to do something else.
Mind you, this decision is somewhat unusual for me, especially those who know me well. During the year after my father died, I remember how I feverishly jumped through hoops so that I could recite the Kaddish prayer every single day. When I was away from a Jewish community, I had a team of friends who were near a synagogue who would say Kaddish on my behalf. (I still have their names and the dates they said Kaddish for me marked in my Bible, next to the psalm that I read instead). There were literally dozens of shuls where I said Kaddish, in several states. In the city, I would run up and down on the Manhattan A-train stairs, just to get to services on time, sometimes with just a moment to spare, sometimes even at the tail end of the prayer. Sometimes, admittedly, I would even say it on the streets of NYC when I was fairly certain that there were ten Jews around me. They didn’t even know they were participating in a minyan, a quorum of Jews necessary to recite this prayer.
I became addicted to Kaddish. I became addicted to this aspect of the Jewish tradition because my world was so torn upside down. At the time, Kaddish provided me with so much meaning and an opportunity to heal. Sure, it was nice to be with other people, standing next to other men and women who felt my pain as well, as they said Kaddish for their loved one. Sure, it was nice to cling onto this routine, as my world was in utter chaos. In fact, when I said my final Kaddish during that year, it was painful to let go of this prayer. I remember sponsoring a breakfast that morning, with fresh bagels and schmear, after services at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where I was studying to become a rabbi. And the tears that I let out as I said that final Kaddish, with the words so vividly escaping my lips, somewhat by rote, somewhat by an act of God because I did not want to end them…well, those were powerful, too.
But I was literally driving myself crazy to get it all in. And, looking back, at least this year, my experience feels a little different.
Growing up, I was the “perfect child,” or at least I was held to that standard. My father, of blessed memory, grew up with such a challenging childhood, literally wearing the same clothes every day to school, not growing up with a father of his own during the most formative teenage years of his life. And so my father, with only the best of intentions, had every hope that I would be the child he never was: the one who got straight A’s, the child who was involved in nearly every extracurricular activity and received a full tuition scholarship to college, the child who picked up the pieces of a broken family after we lost my 18-year old sister when I was thirteen. Thirteen.
Needless to say, I was under a lot of pressure. I never had the courage to break away from the expectations that were placed upon me. I loved the validation that I received when I did well and this validation motivated me to do even more, to “be” even better.
But I was not better. And I was not being. I was living the life of someone else. I was living the life of this person on a pedestal who I strived to be.
So this year I will not be going to shul. I will not be saying Kaddish. I will not rearrange my schedule, though this date has been on my calendar for months now. And, no, childcare and self-care are not the issues. Instead, I will spend that time with my beautiful daughters. As a full-time rabbi and mother of two, my time with them is so precious. This year, I will read to my girls the book “Stones for Grandpa,” by Renee Londner, a book that describes the Jewish tradition of putting stones on a tombstone. This year I will light a candle and tell my daughters “Pop-Pop” stories, how he loved antique cars and tandy cake. This year, I will devour lots of cocktail weenies (one of his favorites) in his memory. This year, I will be free to do what my heart so yearns to do: turn the words of the Kaddish praising God into actions of love and praise with my children. Isn’t this what it means to praise God?
Before my father passed away, he asked me “Sun, (that was his nickname for me – long story!) when I die, will you say Kaddish for me?”
I’m saying Kaddish for you this year, dad, just a very different kind of Kaddish. Here’s to a great day in your memory with your grandbabies. I love you and miss you every single day.