The Last Kaddish

The Last Kaddish

Associate Editor

An ethereal chasidic melody is sung in a small room by a minyan waiting for evening prayer. Yakov B., having led the afternoon prayer as mourners will, and having said the final Kaddish of his mournful year, now sits in a pew, closing his eyes. On waves of the wordless tune, his soul slips from earthly mooring; he has an inner vision: He is at a family simcha, the end of something. His father, for whom Yakov was saying Kaddish, looked young, beatific, in the middle of a circle dance. Forming the circle were relatives from this world and the next: children holding hands with parents, parents holding hands with the dead, and all ìholding handsî with sparks of light ó the unborn. There are lifecycle events and there are afterlife cycle events. This was reason to celebrate, Yakov thought: the end of Kaddish marking the time that his fatherís soul was judged and judged well. When the Heavenly tribunal judges the dead personís soul, acquittal takes 11 months; a guilty verdict takes 12. Kaddish stops at the end of 11 months, so as not to imply that the soul was anything but acquitted. Maybe allís well for the soul in the docket. But the 11th month, says Yakov and many recent mourners, are bittersweet for the one saying Kaddish. The first days of Kaddish come in on a hurricane of emotion and action: families ingather, friends comfort, rabbis counsel, visitors prepare food. Mirrors are made soapy or cloaked by sheets. The mournerís clothes are torn; skin is unshaved bristle. It is clear that something is going on and for whom it is happening. The last day of Kaddish, by contrast, is an orphan all its own. Chances are, no one at the shiva, or even the mournerís own family, is aware when the one saying Kaddish is in his or her final days. Leon Wieseltier, author of the recent masterpiece ìKaddish,î writes, ìIn the early months I thought it would be vulgar to know when the Kaddish would be over, as if I were eager for it to end; and as the months wore on, I did not want the Kaddish to end, and so I stopped marking time. I outwitted myself,î miscalculating the end of the 11th month. His Kaddish, he thought, was over. ìI told the rabbi that this is unacceptable, that I cannot simply stop, that I must have a last day with the Kaddish.î Then, with the proper date, comes the reckoning: ìThe sun will soon set on my mourning,î he writes. ìThe air was full of the fragrance of fireplaces. My mourning for my father slipped out of the world like my father.î He adds, by telephone, ìThe truth is, the end of mourning is a brutal experience. Because, if you follow the Jewish way, mourning becomes the organizing principle of your existence. ìPeople always praise the laws of mourning for their psychological shrewdness. Certainly in the immediate aftermath of the loss, these rituals and ideas can perform small miracles for the mourner. But I found that the 11th month had the opposite effect. By the time I got to the 11th month I started to panic: I was scared of coming back. I was scared of letting go of my father.î ìThe Sephardim do something brilliant,î says Wieseltier. ìAt the end of 11 months they stop for a week, then say Kaddish again for the remaining three weeks [of the mournerís year]. You donít want to go 12 months straight, so you knock off a week, have a disruption to indicate that you donít for a second mean to suggest that the soul is still being judged, then resume.î In the 11th month, did any rabbi approach you about the end of Kaddish? No, said Wieseltier. No, said many others to whom we spoke. At the end, mourners fly solo. Alan Leicht, a writer in Manhattan who finished his Kaddish this past month, said, ìI wouldnít call it an easy landing, but a real sense of achievement that my fatherís neshama [soul] is more in the gravitational pull of [the Higher World] than of this world. By the last few Kaddishes, it was not my soft landing, it was his! ìOver time,î says Leicht, ìthe sense of loss was replaced by a sense of closeness, of companionship with my father. I kept thinking that for 12 years (for a girl) or 13 years (for a boy), a parent is responsible for the soul of the child. Then, in the course of saying Kaddish, the child takes responsibility for the soul of a parent. It takes longer to learn how to be a child than to learn how to be a parent. Kaddish is the last step in being a child. That relationship canít exist anymore in physical reality, but it exists in the reality of Kaddish.î Karen Don, an attorney and mother of two, spoke to us in her final days of Kaddish, ending this month. Though sheís missed no more than three of the more than 1,000 prayer services in her 11 months, she, like Wieseltier, felt very much alone at the end, uncertain of exactly when her Kaddish was to conclude. Do we count from the burial? From the date of death? The multitude of customs can tease, almost taunt. If youíre going to reschedule your life to make it to a synagogue three times a day for 11 months, ìyouíre obviously putting that above all else,î she says. ìBut suddenly comes the day when this devotion has to stop being primary.î When it ends, ìI might do some learning with my women friends who are, or were, saying Kaddish with me; my Kaddish sisters, I call them.î One man, who declined to be identified, said that before his last Kaddish he planned to go to mikveh, or to do a mitzvah reminiscent of the deceased. Rabbi Dov Linzer, rosh yeshiva of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale Kollel, ended his Kaddish last week, on the 10th of Av. He said his final days were a lonely time: ìKaddish ends without notice.î He was appreciative that ìat the Hebrew Institute, Rabbi [Avi] Weiss will often get up after a davening that included someoneís final Kaddish and speak about the mourner and the person being mourned. I had never seen that done in any other shul, some recognition of the moment, instead of the 11th month just petering out.î Not everyone wants to be so public. Karen Don says, ìI have friends that want to come to the last Kaddish. But I donít know, thereís something so private about that.î ìA certain part of me didnít want to stop saying Kaddish,î says Linzer. He considered the idea of continuing to say the Kaddish DíRabbanan during the 12th month. That Kaddish, recited only after learning Torah, ìis allowed because it is not so tied to idea of the soulís judgement. In the end, I thought it would be inappropriate since no one else does it.î His family will collectively study the complete Mishnah, symbolically finishing on the anniversary of his motherís death. The special siyum Kaddish, which is said only upon completion of a Talmudic book, is particularly appropriate since it is almost identical to the graveside Kaddish, said only at the moment of burial. These two forms of Kaddish are the only time a Kaddish explicitly mentions the resurrection of the dead. And so it was recited: ìWe shall return to you … and you shall return to us. Our thoughts are on you … and your thoughts are on us. We will not forget you … and you will not forget us, neither in this world nor the World to Come.î

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