Why I Chose A Feminist Kaddish To Remember My Mother

I have been saying kaddish for my mother, Helen Scherer Miles z’’l, since she passed away April 2, twenty minutes after I arrived at her bedside on Long Island from New Delhi. I belong to a very warm and supportive community of a so-called Conservative synagogue in Rhode Island. But “Conservative” in American Jewish parlance can actually be quite progressive. One liturgical form this progressivism takes is the leadership that women assume in conducting daily services and in forming the minyan (prayer quorum) that such services require.

For congregants in mourning, there’s just one hitch to the progressive nature of these services: as holdover from Covid Time, some of them are conducted entirely by Zoom. That’s entirely fine by me, but when a Zoom-only service was scheduled for a day that represented a calendric double whammy – ongoing kaddish for my mother plus once-a-year yahrzeit for my father – I felt impelled to seek an in-person alternative.

So, on a Zoom-only “Conservative” shul morning, prior to my day of Jewish MBP (Mourning Both Parents), I make a shacharit (morning service) dry-run to an Orthodox synagogue. The rabbi and Persian-accented gabbai (sexton) are both welcoming, but the prayer form sounds quite different. In fact, it barely sounds at all: instead of the collective voice praying in my shul, punctuated by the “Silent Standing” prayer, practically all of the Orthodox prayer service is sotto voce: nearly-silent. It felt like a ritualistic paradox: twenty or so men collectively davening alone, praying separately together. 

Such services also make me feel like surfing: I struggle against the incomprehensible current until finally – sometimes by accident – I hit the murmured “barrel,” the sweet spot of the quickly moving prayer along which the regulars have been effortlessly gliding.

But this is not the greatest difference between the two services. It is rather the total absence of women in the Orthodox shul compared with the female majority in the “Conservative” one. (The Orthodox prayer room had a women’s only section, but it was empty.) And to these Jewish traditionalists, the sight of a woman donning tallis and tefillin (prayer shawl and phylacteries) would constitute a shonda (a disgrace), if not an outright hillul (desecration). But many “Conservative” Jewish women do just that: “lay” tefillin and wrap themselves in tallises. 

Mourner’s Kaddish concludes both services – but only the “Conservatives” invite the mourners to state the name of the person or persons for whom they are reciting the prayer for the departed.  

At the end of the Orthodox prayer service, the prayer leader – bearded, dressed in black – asks my name. I infer from his jacket and tie that he is the rabbi. He modestly admitted that he is. Rabbi Moshe S. then requests something of me that no one had ever done before: “May I give you a small teaching in memory of your mother?” he asked. I assented.

“It came to me while you were saying Kaddish. It is a teaching of Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg…

“‘What is the most difficult mitzvah to perform?’ he asked.”  Fortunately, Rabbi S. didn’t wait for me to guess, for I probably would have come up with a Jewish ritual law I never practice.  But before I can embarrass myself, he answers himself (and Rabbi Mecklenburg). “‘You should love your neighbor as yourself.’  How is that possible?  It goes so much against the grain.  How could God command us to do the impossible?”

“Rabbi Mecklenburg said this,” he goes on: “‘It means you should treat him the way you would wish he’d treat you.’”

“So appropriate for my Mom,” I reply. “Even with absolute strangers coming into her house for the first time, she was as kind and friendly as can be.”

I explain to the rabbi and gabbai that I intend to return to their synagogue on Monday morning, to say Kaddish for both my parents. “And what was your father’s name?” asks the gabbai with the Farsi accent. “Shalom ben Aleksander,” I reply, providing Dad’s Hebrew name. “Come Shabbat, too,” is the inevitable add-on. “I’ll be in Boston,” I reply, not adding that I would be attending a non-denominational synagogue. Both gabbai and rabbi nod knowingly.

Returning from Boston late Sunday night, I make sure to set my alarm for the alarmingly earlier Orthodox service: 6:45 AM in-person (as opposed to the more sleep-friendly 7:30 AM by Zoom “Conservative” one). Arriving in the parking lot at 6:35, I am surprised to see only two cars parked, both at the far end of the lot.  My surprise turns to perplexity when I see that the doors are locked and the lights are still off inside. Returning to my car, I check my cell phone. There is the explanatory text message, from 6:19 am.

“Rabbi D. just texted me that R. (the gabbai) says there won’t be a minyan today. He’s not sure why.”  The text follows with a suggestion to go to a shul across from a hospital but with no starting time or certainty of quorum. Given that I would probably be late, and that I am unlikely to know anyone there, I am unwilling to risk going on a wild minyan chase.  “A minyan in the hand,” I tell myself, “is worth two in the bush – even if the minyan is on Zoom.”

Just as I am about to roll out of the Orthodox parking lot, a car pulls up next to mine. Out comes an even more religiously Orthodox-looking man than Rabbi S. from the previous Friday. When I inform the hassid that the minyan has been canceled, he takes it with aplomb, shrugging with an “it happens” expression. “I haven’t seen you here before,” he then says. “Are you from around here?”  

“A long time ago,” I answer truthfully, not adding that it was decades before and on a day that I needed to say kaddish for my father. I provide the name of my current hometown across state lines. I also tell him the reason I have come this morning. 

“Have you ever heard of Rabbi Menachem Schneerson?” he asks. Warily – for now it’s confirmed I’m dealing with a missionary – I affirm, telling him that of course I know of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. “May I give you a gift?” he continues.  He opens his car door and hands me a copy of Toward a Meaningful Life, by the publisher of the Lubavitch Rebbe’s speeches. “Now we know why you came,” he says, without needing to add “even though the minyan was canceled.”

The hook successfully deployed, the line comes next: “Did you already put on tefillin this morning?  No?  Let’s go inside.”

Although I have a visceral allergy to donning those strange boxes and leather straps (and have even published about it) I accede: double Kaddish, High Rebbe gift, how can I refuse? So we go through the motions – the “laying” of phylacteries, abhorrent to this rabbi when a woman does it – and then I answer affirmatively – if a bit insulted – when he asks if I can read the Sh’ma in Hebrew. After I do so, and remove the tefillin in the requisite order, he says it again: “Now we know why you came.”

With hook and line already working, I resist the sinker, demurring from providing my cell phone number.  (Reluctantly, he instead accepts my email address.) Then I take my leave before any more requests are made.

And to where do I take my early morning leave? To my laptop at home, so that I can Zoom in to join the pious “Conservative” women who ensure that – even by Zoom on certain days – there is a morning minyan, and hence the opportunity for far less observant Jewish men like myself to say kaddish for their departed loved ones. Perhaps more important, this is a gathering – albeit online this morning – whose participants, women and men, know me by name and know how to palliate my grief.  And here they are, mostly female Jews, taking the numerical lead in providing the requisite ten Jewish people to make the prayers “count.” 

It is a far cry from the days of my bar mitzvah, when the sight of even a girl wearing a kippa (yarmulke) was halachically and viscerally anathema.  And I’m not even sure that we can say that these two variants of Judaism still constitute the same religion. No matter: when it comes to honoring the memory of my departed mother, it’s more than fine to say Kaddish with the women. Even – thanks to Covid – on Zoom.

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