In many a shiva house, books of consolation and Jewish ritual are as ubiquitous as archival photos and cellophane-wrapped platters of food. You’re likely to find Leon Wieseltier’s “Kaddish,” Rabbi Maurice Lamm’s “The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning” and perhaps Rabbi Richard Hirsh’s “The Journey of Mourning.” A new book by Michal Smart and Barbara Ashkenas, “Kaddish, Women’s Voices” (Urim) belongs on the table.
Smart and Ashkenas have assembled a sisterhood of articulate mourners, 52 women who contribute essays about their experience saying Kaddish. These are women who’ve committed to saying Kaddish regularly with a minyan over the course of 11 months. While many women from Conservative and Reform backgrounds have taken on the obligation and are counted in the minyan, Orthodox women who choose to say Kaddish are still pioneers in many synagogue settings.
In a quote on the book jacket, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin points out that the late Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik ruled that women may recite the Mourner’s Kaddish from the women’s section of the synagogue — even if she is the only one saying it.
Earlier this month, “Kaddish, Women’s Voices” was awarded a 2013 National Jewish Book Award in Contemporary Jewish Life.
In an interview, Ashkenas, an artist and educator, explains that she began thinking about a book like this while she was in mourning and saying Kaddish at her Orthodox synagogue — she realized that there wasn’t a book from a woman’s perspective. When she mentioned the idea to friends and family, they encouraged her to put together a book of women’s stories. At their first meeting to talk about the possibility of collaborating on the project, Ashkenas and Smart met at a café and heard Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” playing in the background — they discovered that the song was played at Ashkenas’s mother’s and Smart’s father’s funerals. They then brought together a dozen women who had experienced mourning, and began planning the book.
“Loss was the currency of intimacy,” Ashkenas explains.
When they began, the editors thought of the book as geared to Orthodox women, but opened it up to some non-Orthodox voices as well, including a Reform rabbi, as they thought the subject could have wider appeal.
Smart, who teaches widely on Jewish texts and philosophy and pioneered Jewish environmental education, says that when she got started, she expected the essays to be about saying Kaddish. But she was “humbled to discover that they were about so much more. They’re about healing from loss, forgiveness, and letting go of unfulfilled dreams.” The pieces are also about personal relationships, community, observance, memory, connection to God and love.
Each piece is grounded in sadness and loss, yet the overall impact of reading essay after essay is somehow life affirming. The authors have moved beyond their grief, and the recitation of the Kaddish prayer — even for the one essayist who writes about not saying it — has been helpful and, for some, a gift.
Hodie Kahn writes of latching on to the words “not as a final goodbye but as an extended farewell” to her late father, a Holocaust survivor who never had the chance to say Kaddish for his father. Others write of the ritual of going to shul three times a day (or two, when the Mincha and Maariv services are combined, or, for some once or as often as they can) as an opportunity to stay in the presence of their loved one. For Shelley Richman Cohen, saying Kaddish was a means for her to continue doing for her late son, offering her devoted care, as she had done in his too brief lifetime.
The essays are openhearted, thoughtful and sometimes provocative. Some writers don’t hide their anger at the practices of orthodoxy that can exclude them — when there are nine men present and she doesn’t count as the 10th, when men on the other side of the mechitzah refuse to say amen to her Kaddish, when some shul members ask her to stand outside. Other women are more accepting, willing to attend services but have their husbands take responsibility for saying the Kaddish, and some just want to say Kaddish quietly and don’t want to get involved in anything more than that. Several mention moments of great kindness.
In the very last essay, Smart writes about the multi-faceted meaning of the Kaddish prayer, reminding readers that Kaddish makes no mention of death, and that, rather, it is a prayer of praise to God, formulated in the future tense.
“The cosmic chorus of praise links all realms of existence: the human and the non-human, the temporarily physical and the wholly spiritual, the living and perhaps the dead,” she writes.
“Through Kaddish, we affirm that notwithstanding our pain and the hiddenness of God, the universal endeavor is nonetheless worthwhile. We remain willing participants and extol the divine vision that underlies our existence. And who can do so more poignantly than the recently bereaved?”
There’s a certain repetition in the 52 essays, not unlike the prayer itself, but each contributor adds something of value to the conversation. They cover the trajectory of being a newcomer to this club they wished they didn’t belong to, stumbling over the Aramaic words, to — as the months go on — being the one to show others the place in the prayer book. Many describe the power of the forged community of fellow mourners.
When I said Kaddish for my beloved father a few years ago, I found that, after 11 months, I didn’t want to stop. Finding shuls in unusual places, making new friends among the regulars, walking to shul in the early morning light, had become a shared adventure and a way to remain close to him. I never stopped telling my Kaddish buddies of his greatness. I’ve been struck by how there’s a ritual for so many moments in Jewish life, but none for ending the period of saying Kaddish. One day, you no longer stand with the mourners, or you don’t show up.
Several contributors mentioned the difficulty of ending. In fact, Judith Schwimmer Hessing didn’t stop, but continued attending the daily minyan. Belda Lindenbaum writes that dealing with the finality of her mother’s death at the end of eleven months was more painful than she expected.
Smart begins each of the book’s 12 sections with one of her own powerful poems. One begins, “Grief Comes in Waves/knocks you over/scours, salty torrents/then releases/retreats“
Also included are several informational pieces by men: Rabbi Mark Dratch, the director of JSafe and a former pulpit rabbi in Stamford, Conn., where both authors live, on the halacha of women and Kaddish; Rabbi Daniel Cohen of Congregation Agudath Sholom in Stamford on “One Kind Gesture” and educator David Walk, also of Stamford, on the laws of aveilut, or mourning.
After working on the book, Smart says, “I’ll never hear the words the same way.” Both Smart and Ashkenas say that whenever they hear a woman saying Kaddish, they moves closer to be sure that the woman hears her amen, to make sure she knows someone is listening and responding.
This review originally appeared in The Jewish Week