Questioning faith in the parsha
Saying kaddish for those you never knew
Parsha va y’chi
My father’s father died during Passover in 1919, when my father was six, and so, as the oldest male in the household, it fell to him to become the man of the family, signing checks and saying kaddish.
One of my earliest and most enduring memories of my father is his voice — sonorous, deep, clear and resolute — saying the words of the kaddish. Each time we were in Temple I would stand next to my father, his arm around my shoulder more embracing and comforting that the fringe of any tallit, and I would hear his voice—pure, sure and strong.
“Yis gad-dal v’yis kaddash sh’meh rabo” he would say in the Ashkenazi pronunciation of his youth.
“Y’heh sh’lo-mo rabb-bo min sh’ma you v’cha-im, olenu v’alkol yis-ro-el…”
Passover, as you might imagine, was not a particularly joyful time in the Slavin household for my father and by extension the rest of our family.
In 1999 my parents were living in a nursing home. One February Shabbat I took my father to the home’s shul to say kaddish for his mother. He had begun a fairly rapid descent by then, and was having trouble following the prayerbook or hearing what was being said. And when it came time to say kaddish, his voice was weak and wavering.
When we got back to his room, he was in tears. “It’s my father’s 80th yahzeit this year….how will I say Kaddish for him?” he asked me.
“Don’t worry,” I told him. “I will take it over.”
My father died later that year and, true to my word, I continue to say Kaddish for everyone on his list.
I never knew my grandfather Isaac. I have only two pictures of him, and only the stories my father told me about him, stories recollected by a young child forced to grow up too quickly.
But I feel as though I know him. And, as I say kaddish each Passover, I wrap my arms around myself and feel my father’s embrace, and as I say the prayer my words are supported by my father’s, our words blending into a single voice.
This Passover will the 92nd anniversary of his death, and I will say kaddish for him. But I am left with a nagging and troubling thought:
Who will take over when I can no longer honor my promise to my father?