I’d known Joel since I was 14, when we bonded over golf, skiing and baseball. Over the years while he was married to my sister, our relationship ebbed and flowed, as is often the case with brothers-in-law. Since their divorce I ran into him once at a local golf course where I ended up playing with him, and saw him once again at my niece’s wedding.
The news of his death was not a surprise as he had been terminally ill for a while. What was surprising was the request from my sister that I officiate as the rabbi at his funeral. My sister had maintained a good relationship with Joel after their divorce and was very involved with his caretaking during his illness. While it is true that I was ordained about 30 years ago at Yeshiva University, I am by no means a professional rabbi. I don’t really know how to “officiate” at a funeral, and was also reluctant because I knew that I would meet a great deal of resistance if I were to impose my own halachic standards on the proceeding. While I am Orthodox, my sister and niece are not. They were not interested in an Orthodox funeral, just for me to be the rabbi. All the other details, such as washing the body, shrouds, round-the-clock guarding the body, simple pine box, they just wouldn’t get, and certainly wouldn’t go for. On the other hand, there was my mother, reminding me of how tragic it would be to have a strange rabbi do the funeral and urging me not to deny my niece this request in her hour of grief.
After discussing this with my own advisers, especially my wife, I decided that what I would do is say a few prayers — I know how to do that — while my niece would give a eulogy. To my mind, I was not exactly “officiating” or being the “rabbi” but just lending a hand. I didn’t feel completely right, but better than I would have felt had I totally declined.
When we arrived at the cemetery for the gravesite service, the crowd was sparse, and I wasn’t even sure there were 10 Jews, not to mention a minyan of men. I was worried about this in terms of the Kaddish prayer, and decided that the best thing to do would be to have my niece say it in English. It was a spur-of-the-moment compromise between my concern that the ancient Aramaic Kaddish not be said without the proper quorum, but that some form of it be said for the deceased.
Just before the service I gathered with the mourners: my niece, Joel’s brother and father, and explained to them that it was traditional at this time to tear their garments as a sign of mourning. My sister interjected and said, “Oh, can’t they use the ribbons?” My niece looked at me, hoping to spare her lovely black dress, and I said, “Sure, that’s fine.”
And then came the conversation about Kaddish. I suggested what we would do at the gravesite, and then added, “Someone should say Kaddish for him for a year.”
“What does that mean?” my niece asked. I explained that the prayer should be said for 11 months, at least once a day, and with a minyan. “Well, I’m an atheist,” Joel’s brother responded. “I think religion is all myth,” he added as if I didn’t get his point the first time. Joel’s father, now in his late 80s, told me there was no way he could get to a synagogue. He lived with his atheist son, on whom he was dependent for transportation, and the nearest synagogue was at least 40 miles away. I then told them that they could pay someone to say it. “How much is it?” Joel’s father asked. “About $400,” I answered. Silence. They looked at me as if I had four heads.
The next day I was in synagogue, where I find myself most mornings, thinking about the events of the previous day. Overtaken with sadness, I had difficulty focusing on my prayers. Sadness for Joel, for my niece and the other mourners, and for that most ancient of prayers that has sustained and brought solace to the Jewish people for centuries. During my parents’ generation it seemed as if everyone knew and appreciated the significance of Kaddish, and rarely did people die without it being said for them. It is an expression of God’s dominion, of his providence in the lives of his children. And yet, so many of his children have now forgotten its words and meaning. As the moment for the mourners’ Kaddish approached, I stood and uttered the words: “Yitgadal V’yitkadash…” along with the other mourners.
I said it for Joel, for his family, and for all those who are unable to say it themselves. I’ve been saying it every day since.
Andrew Kane is a clinical psychologist and author, most recently, of the novel “Joshua: A Brooklyn Tale.”