No matter how familiar you are with death, it’s impossible to be prepared for the loss of your mother.
Death is the subject I deal with daily as the executive director of the Hebrew Free Burial Association, in New York. HFBA arranges approximately 350 burials a year, and at least twice a month I am in one cemetery or another as part of my job. But my work didn’t inure me against the profound sadness I felt when my mother, Dorothy Koplow, Chaya Doboh bat Meir v’Breindl, died in the summer of 2010, at the age of 90.
My mother was observant all her life, and despite many personal hardships and misfortunes she endured, her faith in God and Judaism was rock solid. I regret that I never asked her why her faith was so strong. In my grief I needed to draw strength from her faith to help me through the mourning process. I decided to say Kaddish for her daily, although in the Orthodox tradition that is still an unusual obligation for a woman to assume, as public prayer requirements differ for men and women. I could have opted out of saying Kaddish altogether.
Yet I felt a strong need to sanctify my mother’s memory. Wasn’t I her child just as my two brothers were? Hadn’t I suffered her loss just as they did? I viewed Kaddish as a way of bringing my mother’s soul to repose. I also knew it would help me accept her death and affirm my belief in God. I felt it was an honor to recite it daily, and an honor to observe the laws of aveilut (mourning).
Much has been written about the Kaddish prayer. Mourners recite it although it doesn’t reference death or mourning — instead it praises God. The prayer is mostly in Aramaic, except for the last few lines, making the words more challenging to pronounce than the usual liturgical Hebrew. One has to be focused and concentrate to pronounce the words correctly, especially the Kaddish D’Rabbanan, the Rabbis’ Kaddish, which contains an additional paragraph in Aramaic. When I was in a comfortable prayer setting, that is when the men slowed down so that I could keep up with them, I could focus on why I was saying it. The rhythm created by the words was comforting. As the year progressed, I was able to think more about the meaning of the words.
At the beginning, I was concerned about finding a shul where I — possibly the only female mourner — would feel comfortable. I needn’t have worried about my regular synagogue. On the day I got up after sitting shiva, I arrived to a public welcome from one of the regulars. He said he hoped that davening within a community of mourners would bring me strength and consolation. The tzedakah box was also made accessible to both sides of the mechitza (the divide between the men and women’s sections) so that the entire community could easily participate in this mitzvah. I had never noticed that the seats on the women’s side of the beit midrash (study hall), where the daily prayers took place, are folding chairs, while the men’s sections boasts upholstered chairs. One morning early on, I arrived to find a single upholstered chair on the women’s side. After davening ended, the man who had welcomed me a few weeks back said he wanted me to be as comfortable as the men.
I found another congenial shul in midtown Manhattan where I went to pray Mincha (the midday prayer). Generally there was at least one other woman at this minyan, sometimes more, often also saying Kaddish. During my first visit there, the rabbi wrote down my name and my mother’s. Often at Mincha, he remembered to mention my mother’s name. I became a loyal attendee at this shul because it meant so much to hear my mother’s name said out loud.
Unfortunately, sometimes I couldn’t make it back from work in time for Maariv (the evening prayer) at my shul, and I had to say Kaddish at a less welcoming place. I was usually the only woman present. My experience there, where I had to rush through Kaddish to keep up with the men, felt so belittling. I felt like a little girl running on short legs after the big boys so that I could be part of the group.
Sometimes I could catch up, but when I couldn’t, I was simply ignored. I thought they might get used to me as time passed, but nearly every time I davened there, I experienced the same coldness. I tried not to care, but became infuriated. I wrote to the shul’s rabbi to complain. He was apologetic, even sympathetic, but ultimately the situation remained the same.
I do not seek to beat down the walls of the mechitza. I grew up in the Modern Orthodox world and choose to remain in it. What I question are the shuls where women are not seen as equal members of the kehilla (community). How much would it take to make a woman feel welcome at a daily minyan?
So much of being in aveilut involves restriction, if observed traditionally. You are conscious of all the things you cannot do: No live music. No parties or theater. No new clothing. Saying Kaddish, however, is something you can do. It let me believe that I helped my mother’s soul move to its eternal rest. And paradoxically, it helped me move away from the pain of her last days and her death.
It has been a year since my mother died. For the first few months and on holidays it was difficult for me to say Kaddish without falling apart. The end of the 11-month Kaddish recitation period was also challenging for me. Although it was a struggle to get up every morning before 6 a.m., it was hard to stop saying Kaddish. I had begun each day with the Kaddish prayer and therefore each day began with a connection to my mother. When that obligation ended I felt I was letting go of my mother in an intangible way — her soul no longer needed my help. For me it was the final difficult separation.
I gained tremendous respect for the men who commit themselves to daily minyanim, so that mourners can say Kaddish. I knew that I would only be a visitor in their “club” for 11 months, although some mornings I still try to go. I am grateful to the men at my shul and to the men at the Midtown shul for welcoming me and helping me learn how to honor my mother’s memory with love and respect while encouraging me to move forward.
Since June 2010, Hebrew Free Burial Association has been incredibly blessed with a volunteer minyan, men who come to the HFBA Mount Richmond Cemetery in Staten Island to make a minyan for our many burials where there are no friends or family to accompany lonely souls on their final journey to the grave. These men carry the coffin, recite Psalms and say the special Kaddish that is said only at the grave. I am deeply moved by this cadre of volunteers who perform this incredible mitzvah, which is now so much closer to my heart. I feel very gratified that Kaddish, which gave so much meaning to my year of mourning, is recited at the grave of everyone buried by Hebrew Free Burial Association.
Most of all, I am grateful to the Kaddish, whose incantatory language took me out of my suffering, one day at a time.
Amy Koplow is the executive director of the Hebrew Free Burial Association. She lives in the Riverdale section of the Bronx