Posts Tagged ‘Jewish mourning’

Saying Kaddish for my Parents

January 27, 2016

imagesCAAHRQWLI’ve always been a bit ambivalent about observing my parents’ yahrzeits, the anniversaries of their deaths by the Jewish calendar. For one thing, neither Mom nor Dad had the temperament for traditional ritual observance — and they were skeptical, even scornful, of those who did.

Once in a while, Dad would light a yahrzeit candle for his parents during Hanukkah, because both of their birthdays had fallen at that time of year. He couldn’t seem to keep track of exactly when they died. Mom, for her part, didn’t light memorial candles for her parents at all. Whether this resulted more from her avowed disdain for them, from iconoclasm, or from disorganization I was never entirely sure.

So it’s a conundrum: in acknowledging my parents’ passing, I am in effect contradicting them. As pained as I am about who they were, I don’t find this kind of defiance as easy (or as gratifying) as might seem to make sense.

Mom and Dad divorced when I was a teenager, but they remained uncannily similar in some ways. Both had strong Jewish identities. Dad felt a deep kinship and intellectual connection with the Jewish civilization, but didn’t really see himself as part of a community. Mom loved Israel and Jewish culture, and because she had memories of going to synagogue with her grandfather to observe Yom Kippur, she fasted every year. But she did this alone, and never lasted long in any congregation.

I don’t think my parents would understand my need to mark their passing in the traditional Jewish way, and I’m not even sure they’d appreciate it. Dad once started a false rumor that my husband and I were Orthodox (he meant it with the dismissal one might express about someone’s having joined a cult). Mom knew she wasn’t a good mother, knew that I knew this, and might well denounce my saying kaddish for her as (in her words) “phony baloney.”

Kaddish is a prayer said in community, and for me that community is the large Reform congregation with which I’ve been affiliated for many years. I’m keenly aware, when I chant kaddish for my mother or father, that I am making a public statement. But I don’t intend to convey that I am honoring my parents, that I’m grateful for their guidance, or that I admired them.

These were destructive people. Dad was a batterer — of both Mom and us kids — and it was only when he began using marijuana every day, after my parents’ divorce, that he stopped hitting. He lived to 85 and never acknowledged his behavior. He was a narcissist, and seemed to take my achievements as a personal affront.

Mom, also a hitter, went long stretches without being interested in us when we were kids. When she did take an interest, it was often in order to manipulate, condemn or blame. She spoke openly on a number of occasions of “hating” several of her children, and, like Dad, she was not one to apologize. She walked out on us when I was 16.

Of course everyone has mixed feelings about parents, but I would guess my family insanity was more extreme than that of most of my fellow congregants. If my synagogue community understood my true feelings — that I grieve infinitely more for who my parents were than for their passing — would they judge me? Would they still support me, regard me as a legitimate mourner?

So it is that I’ve struggled for years with kaddish. My observance has been instinctual, something whose rationale I couldn’t quite articulate. But this past summer, when I went to services for my mother’s yahrzeit, something shifted.

My synagogue’s ritual committee had recently implemented a change. In the past, the congregation was invited to stand up as a whole before the rabbi would start reading the list of the deceased aloud. The change is that now, instead of this communal act, the congregation stays seated; individual mourners are given the option of standing up when the name of their family member is read. It is only when the whole list has been read that the congregation rises and we all say kaddish together.

This time, when my mother’s name was read, I rose alone. As I stood there listening to the remainder of the list of deceased, I could feel the congregation’s silent respect and regard for my loss and that of my fellow mourners. There was something about standing in isolation, and yet at the same time in community — the community of mourners, the community of seated congregants — that made me feel personally comforted, personally held in a way I hadn’t before.

I suddenly understood something: I am an integral part of my community. And kaddish is what people in my community do. This, the yahrzeit, is the time when I know I’m surrounded by comfort about the chasm of grief I feel about my parents. That grief may not be about the loss of them per se. But it is as genuine as it is enormous.

Here was my opportunity to mourn, and to feel that the depth of my loss is understood and respected regardless of any specifics. I don’t think I’ll ever again consider depriving myself of that experience.

The congregation rose to join us mourners, and together, we all began to chant. Yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’mei raba…


Published in Lilith Magazine, Winter 2015-16 issue

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Mourning Twice

September 8, 2011

imagesCAAHRQWL  “Well then,” Rabbi Straus counseled, “you’ll need to give yourself permission to mourn twice.”

The rabbi was new to our congregation, and I hadn’t met him yet; we were talking by phone.  “Mourn twice?”

“Once for the mother you had, and once for the mother you didn’t have.”

I’d just told Rabbi Straus that my mom was under hospice care and was unlikely to last much longer.  And I’d provided him with a brief background:  Mom was not a nurturer; she was difficult, and had caused her children a lot of suffering.  With her death imminent, I’d felt some urgency about pre-empting any assumptions Rabbi Straus might make about Mom.  I couldn’t bear to hear anything resembling a mother’s love is unconditional.

When I level with someone about my mother, I’m always a little startled to be believed.  Somehow, I expect a lecture:  surely she meant well; shouldn’t I have moved on by now, forgiven her?

And because my three sisters and I are very close with one another and have been so devoted to Mom, the claim that Mom was destructive or disturbed is bound to confuse.  She can’t have been that bad—you all turned out so well! runs the cheery skepticism.

She was that bad.  But when do I make the case, and when do I let it go?  If I smile and let things roll off my back, I feel I’m in some way complicit in the abuse and rejection that my sisters and I survived.  If I try to set the record straight, I worry that I sound shrill or not credible.

Mom died on August 2nd, and shortly afterward I spoke candidly with an elderly relative.  “Your parents treated you girls horribly,” she told me.  She also observed that Mom “lost interest” in us once we grew out of babyhood.  I was infinitely grateful for this validation, as I was when Mom’s physician reported that my mother had several previously undiagnosed psychiatric conditions as well as dementia.

I know this will sound odd, but lately I’ve been haunted by my own generosity toward Mom.  Why did my sisters and I move her back here nine years ago?  (Tellingly, she’d opted to relocate from Berkeley to New York just as my sister and I were starting families in the Bay Area.)  Why did we obsess over hiring only the most loving caregivers for her, include her in seders, bring her to the kids’ recitals?  Why the spontaneous Happy Birthday medley we sang at her bedside on her 89th birthday, just eleven days before she died?

What is the world supposed to think of those acts, but that they were the natural outgrowth of a wonderful relationship?

What I’ve begun to realize since Mom died is how humiliated I’d always felt by the way she treated me—how deeply, if irrationally, ashamed.  By integrating Mom into our loving families, my sisters and I were rewriting our story, joining the community of adults concerned about aging parents.  We couldn’t have the real thing, but at least we’d fashion a soothing retrofit.  It was what we could do.

One painful aspect of losing Mom is the use of phrases like “your beloved mother” in some of the many well-meaning cards and e-mails I’ve received.  It’s been an important part of my mourning process to thank each person in writing—with honesty.

Mom was a difficult person, I explain, and the challenge for me now is to sort through some very complicated feelings.  I greatly appreciate the support of community at this painful time.

I know my rabbi is behind me on this.

Published in the Piedmont Post, September 7, 2011

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