My father was a very religious Jew, and when his parents died, he said the Mourner’s Kaddish for my bubbie and zayde twice a day, every day for a year. When he died last November, I wondered, “Who is going to say Mourner’s Kaddish for my dad?”
I belong to a Conservative congregation but I don’t consider myself very religious at all. My two sisters are even less religious than I am. Did I really want to take on this obligation? It sounded too depressing — being around all those sad people. I was torn. On the one hand, my dad would never really know if I said Kaddish for him or not. On the other hand, it was the right thing to do because it was so important to him.
Growing up, when I didn’t want to do something, my dad would say, “Just do it. I don’t care if you want to or not.” That stern voice in my head convinced me to make a commitment to say Kaddish two nights a week for a year. How hard could it be? The service at Beth Shalom (my shul in Howard County) is only 15 minutes long, and that’s the least I could do for my father. He gave so much to others during his lifetime. Besides, I would be helping to elevate his soul to olam habah, the next world, according to Jewish belief. How could I deny my father his chance to be close to G-d for all eternity? Little did I know that I would be benefit from this experience far more than I could even imagine.
The first couple of months were tough because I still really missed my dad (and my mom, who had predeceased him). I was jealous of many of my friends who still had both of their parents alive and well. Why me? Why did I have to be the one standing here and saying Mourner’s Kaddish? It didn’t seem fair. Why couldn’t my parents have lived longer?
One night during those first couple of months, I noticed a new face at shul. Suzanne introduced herself to me. After the service, we talked about our dads and it turned out that our fathers both died on the exact same day, Nov. 19, 2017. That fact felt like it was more than just a random coincidence. I immediately felt a strong connection to Suzanne. Unknowingly or knowingly, our fathers brought us together. Maybe it was their way of introducing us to each other. Who knows? I only knew that I didn’t feel as lonely as I did when I first started saying Kaddish. I now had a friend to sit with.
Attendance at these evening services was quite low and some evenings we didn’t even have a minyan. The low shul attendance was in direct contrast to the crowds of people that showed up for minyan at the homes of families who were sitting shiva. The outpouring of support was amazing, which is really a nice thing about belonging to a shul.
The home services were very different from the shul services. They were more haimish and cozy. My favorite shiva was one in which the family shared their memories of a very special man named Joe. His nephews talked about how Uncle Joe loved visiting Ireland and going to Irish pubs. To express their love for him, the boys (young adults) wrote an Irish ballad about him. One summer, they accompanied Uncle Joe to Ireland and performed their song at his favorite pub. This song quickly became a part of the family’s legacy. To my amazement, they sang this merry ballad for all of us, in the middle of shiva, with the perfect Irish brogue and many of us were laughing and crying at the same time.
This past Yom Kippur, I unexpectedly found myself with tears in my eyes during Rabbi Grossman’s Yizkor sermon. Dana, who I recently met at minyan, turned around from the seat directly in front of me and handed me a tissue. I felt a bond with Dana, as she had just lost her father, too. It was like being in a club where the members empathized with each other and brought comfort to each other, even in the form of a Kleenex.
I have less than a month left of saying Kaddish for my father. Looking back, I am glad to have fulfilled this mitzvah to the best of my ability. It was not only healing for me, but the sense of community that I felt was very strong. I’m going to miss some of it, but the good thing is that I can go to minyan and Shabbat services anytime I want. Even though it annoyed me as a child, I’m glad my dad was a bit pushy when he said “just go.” I needed that. Sometimes the effort you put into something, even if it’s not wholehearted, can be very rewarding.
Debbie Bastacky is a Howard County resident and librarian at the Baltimore County Public Library Arbutus branch.