First Person: Kaddish For Leo Chester

First Person: Kaddish For Leo Chester

My father died 10 years ago and my mother almost 15 years ago, but I now find my self back in shul every morning saying Kaddish, this time for a friend. It is a sad duty to perform and a hard one. I’m not a morning person; getting out of bed and rushing off to shul is a struggle. But, as I did for each of my parents for 11 months, I am now doing for Leo Chester for a month.

Mr. Chester, who died in December at the age of 84, was the long-time president of my shul, Congregation Ramath Orah, in the Morningside Heights section of Manhattan. He joined the shul some 50 years ago and was in many ways the last link to the German and Luxembourg refugees who founded Ramath Orah in 1942. In his memory, several of us stepped forward and said we’d honor him with the daily recitation of Kaddish, each one of us for a month.

Being back in shul on a daily basis has its rewards. It is a community that is constantly changing. A man comes to say Kaddish for his father, a woman comes to pray for a sick friend, a family appears to name a new baby girl. Every day I learn something new or hear a new story, not only from the newcomers but from the regulars too.

As my month comes to a close, I realize that saying Kaddish for a friend is very different than saying it for a parent. I go to shul each day, but hardly with the same sense of fervor and precision as when I said it for my parents. While I used to rush to get to services on time, I now often arrive late and am happy to catch the Kaddishes at the end of the service. Where three services a days were once my goal, today one service often suffices.

But more than the numbers is the awareness. The other day, lost in conversation with a friend, the Mourner’s Kaddish was half over before I realized I was supposed to be saying it. In the year after my mother died and in the year after my father died, I felt a constant pall of mourning around me; I would never be so distracted. Now, as a surrogate mourner, I sometimes forget a Kaddish. After all, I am saying the Mourner’s Kaddish, but I am not really a mourner.

Place is important, too. While I sought out minyanim while I was saying kaddish for my parents — in such places as Paris, Jerusalem, Chicago and the Catskills — saying Kaddish for Mr. Chester only seems right in the shul where I got to know him.

Mr. Chester was a Shoah survivor who spent three years in Auschwitz before being liberated at the age of 20. He lost his mother and sister at Auschwitz and came to New York to rebuild his life in 1947. The Nazis tattooed a number on his arm — 133497 — but he never had it removed or covered it up. Late in life, he bought a Mercedes, not at all concerned that it was a German car. “I survived,” he said simply. “And they didn’t.”

I met him when I first moved to the Columbia University area 16 years ago and joined Ramath Orah. He was involved in every aspect of shul life, from the boiler to the bills to making sure there were lollipops for the children and schnapps for the grownups.

Kaddish was his special domain. When the time came to say it, Mr. Chester would announce in a booming voice: “Kaddish!” The pronouncement was an attempt — sometimes a vain attempt — to keep all the Kaddish sayers in sync. He then would lead the Kaddish.

One day I asked him who he was saying Kaddish for. “I say it for the six million who have nobody to say it for them,” he told me. “There were so many of them, I will never run out. I will never stop. For the rest of my life.”

When Mr. Chester died it seemed only appropriate to say Kaddish for him and, through him, for the people for whom he mourned.

It’s a different kind of a Kaddish than the one for my parents. The one for my parents — with all its intensity, grief and meaning — connected me back a generation. This new Kaddish for Mr. Chester connects me with the generations. n

Ari L. Goldman’s most recent book is “Living a Year of Kaddish” (Schocken Books).


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