It's been over 8 months since my sister Sue passed away at the age 48. The shock is gone, but the sorrow catches me by surprise unexpectedly at times, even now. Sue's struggles with MS had changed her personality in many ways, and the way that she dealt with the world, through a veil of chronic illness, didn't always leave her the easiest person to understand or interact with. Her fil took me aside after the funeral and told me I should be relieved at her sudden and painless death. She was beginning to truly become an invalid and he knew that she wouldn't want to live that way. She left this world still walking, talking, laughing and in control of her body and senses. That is a blessing.
I found "Living the Year of Kaddish" almost by accident. I was, as a joke, compiling a list of "Living a Year" memoirs. Seems I'd inadvertently stumbled upon and read several and decided to see just how many had jumped on the intentional living bandwagon. "Living a Year of Kaddish" is thoughtful and poignant and different from the others of this genre in that the author is already living intentionally as an Orthodox Jew. Kaddish is simply an act of intentional worship within that tradition. Kaddish is the Jewish tradition of mourning a close relative; a parent, sibling or child. Goldman, the author, is saying Kaddish for his father. His relationship with his father, like most of ours with our parents, was complex. This has been my problem this past year as well as when my mom passed away. How do we mourn and grieve appropriately those whose death is painful but also, perhaps, because of chronic pain and illness, whether physical or emotional, a relief . Sorrow and guilt get muddled by the relief from obligation.
Kaddish, a prayer offered with regularity during a specific period of time,offers the solution. A Jew prays the prayer of mourning for a year on the Jewish calendar within the community of a minyon (10 men within the Orthodox tradition) each morning, noon and evening. Throughout and at the end of Kaddish, the community resounds with "Amen." Goldman speaks about those he met through praying Kaddish throughout the year. Those praying for their own families, for someone else's family, for the millions who died during the horror of the Holocaust and had no one to pray Kaddish for them. I envy this tradition. A form. Substance. A daily act and ritual that defines and justifies the grief and sorrow one has over a painful loss. A time and sequence. A community that mourns with those who are mourning. Sweet comfort.
Our culture says, far too often, "move on." And yet I know so very many who don't. Those who have lost a child, a parent, a spouse. That loss defines them. Keeps them from appropriately supporting others in their own grief, keeps them from loving healthily and wholeheartedly those among the Land of the Living. Keeps them looking backwards, always hoping for a glimpse, or a dream or a vision of those who have passed away. Perhaps, like Saul, desperately seeking comfort or command from those who have left us, demanding that we do the right thing all on our own, know our own minds, stand for justice rather than ease, demanding that we get over the childish insistence that we get our own way. Our culture lacks substance during the time of important passage; death. Passage for the deceased and passage for those of us left behind. We now navigate through life without them. How can it be that a father continues on beyond a daughter, a sister just 12 months and 1 week younger lives in a world that her big sister no longer contains? Yes, death is an important passage, just as much for those of us still alive. I'm the big sister now, not a middle. My family of origin that not long ago consisted of 5, is now a measly 3.
Goldman writes this, "At a time of great loss, the natural inclination is to question, rebel, reject and diminish God. But the tradition calls on the mourner not merely to praise God, but to lead others in this ancient praise poem, "Yitkadal veyitdakash sh'mei reabah, " it begins. "May His great name grow exalted and sanctified forever and ever." He goes on to say that Kaddish "thrusts the mourner out of his or her home and into the community at a time when it might be easier to withdraw and quietly grieve. Community has therapeutic properties." And finally, in the same section, "Kaddish binds the mourner to the past and the present."
After the year of Kaddish there continues a yearly remembrance of the lost ones lives in the annual yahrtzeit; a child says Kaddish in a minyan and then friends and relatives gather in remembrance. This serves two purposes, to continue the sadness and contemplation over the loss of a close relative and secondly, to sponsor a celebration of the life of the deceased. I love this idea. My two youngest children were born after my mom passed away. A celebration such as this would keep her memories intentionally alive for them. And, again, it binds those of us navigating through life without our loved ones to both the past and the present.
Goldman writes throughout this memoir of the angst he felt as the child of divorce. The angst he felt as the son of a distant father. The angst he feels as an orphan at 50. But the form of his faith traditions give him the ritual and connection to clarify and make sense of the gifts he received from his parents union, his fathers love, his family that has been, once again, through the finality of death, reconfigured.
Kaddish is an affirmation of life. A magnificat. The Lord God Almighty gives and takes away and he is worthy of praise at all times. I sorely wish my faith tradition had rituals such as these. Rituals to lean and rely on during times of pain and loss. Still, reading Goldman's book and hearing of his struggles as the son of imperfect parents, who is honoring them with all that he knows how, was good. Relational complexities are allowed and expected, even while honoring the life that is now gone. A beautiful memoir. And soothing balm to others walking a path of sorrow.