Kaddish for a man I never knew

It was a Monday. I woke up early to get dressed, turn on the electric yahrzeit light and grab my tefillin so that I could go to shul to pray and say Kaddish, a memorial prayer, for…a man I never knew.

That man was my grandfather.

Each year I do this on the Hebrew anniversary of my grandfather’s passing. After my father died, I felt an obligation to recite this special prayer on behalf of my father, who would recite it for his father. But I never knew my father’s father. He died when my dad was 16. My dad would say: “you weren’t even thought of yet!”

I grew up in a very small Jewish community (we were the only practicing Jewish family). When it was time for my father to say Kaddish, he called up fellow community members and asked them to join him for a short service so that he could say this memorial prayer for his father. (We need 10 people for a minyan, a prayer “quorum”). Afterwards, my dad invited everyone to the local diner for breakfast. He enjoyed over-easy eggs, home fries, and dry rye toast with butter on the side. He liked his tea hot, full to the top, and with lemon.

There I was rushing to synagogue on Monday as if by rote and obligation, strapping my younger daughter into her car seat so she could join me. Why was I even going?

During the Torah service, the rabbi asked me if I wanted to chant the memorial prayer for my grandfather. I responded: “I’d love for you to say it.” I’m always saying it for other people, so it’s nice to be on the receiving end.

As I vocalized my grandfather’s name in Hebrew, I realized that it is the same as my brother’s Hebrew name, which felt uncomfortable. But that’s what happens when grandparents die before their grand-babies are born.

And then someone said it, first in English and then in Hebrew:

“May you be comforted only by good memories.”

“Good memories?” I thought.  “I don’t even have any memories.”

The only memory I have of my grandfather was of him standing in an old picture from the 1950’s or ’60s, one that was blurry at best. I clung onto that image, one which I probably saw only a handful of times and decades ago.

“I don’t deserve these blessings.” I thought. “I didn’t even know him.”

Just as the rabbi was finishing up the recitation of the Hebrew prayer, my daughter, who was resting on my hip, began saying “potty.” And so we rushed to the lady’s room. We missed most of the prayers that morning. In fact, by the time we got back, we made it just in time for the final Mourner’s Kaddish. I almost missed it completely. But, her timing had a way of making it work.

I held my daughter on my right hip as I said Kaddish. She nestled into my neck, thumb in mouth. Her closeness to me felt all-consuming.

And then it dawned on me.

I can’t remember if I vocalized my thoughts or if they were only internal, but I found myself saying to her:

“Someday, you’ll say Kaddish for me, baby…”

The intersection of my daughter’s presence and saying Kaddish for my grandfather – the connectedness of the generations…that was the way in which my grandfather’s memory comforted me. That was the way that we honored his memory, too.

Someday, maybe, my daughter will take her daughter to shul and say Kaddish for my dad, a man she would never know. And when her baby nestles into her neck, I hope she realizes that even without actual memories of her grandfather, she has the wherewithal to bring his spirit alive.

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