Larchmont Temple Chevra Torah

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?

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3 responses to “Saying kaddish for those you never knew

  1. Andi December 21, 2010 at 12:08 am

    As a Jew by Choice, I’ve always felt pretty strongly that since I technically do not have a Jewish family (though I do have Jewish relatives), I have a responsibility to say Kaddish for those who have no one to say it for them. I guess it is because I feel as if I have been honored by my acceptance into this peoplehood, so it is a responsibility and a privilege I’m happy to take on.

    This past week’s discussion of Joseph’s handling of Jacob/Israel’s death brought back many memories of when my dad passed away in 2005. My mom held a Catholic wake, funeral and burial for him, and even though I objected, I kept my objections to myself because I felt it was a better thing to be a good daughter and keep shalom bayit, peace in the home. It is a great comfort to me to read that Joseph had to conduct funeral arrangements for Jacob according to Egyptian traditions – we will never know why, or for whose comfort those arrangements and ceremonies were performed. The final burial at Machpelah reminded me of what it was like, after all the Catholic rites, to sit shivah in my home with my LT family. Just as Joseph and his brothers walked that final path from the border of Canaan to Machpelah alone, so it was for me to be able to mourn for my Jewish father with my Jewish family.

    Because my Jewish father was not as specific as Jacob was about where he wanted to be buried, the plaque that bears his name on our memorial wall is more real to me than the Catholic cemetery where he is buried with a verse from Matthew and a cross on his headstone. I know that knowing who he was, he would be pleased to be remembered in both places – by the Catholic wife and daughter he adored, and by the Jewish daughter who gave him back his past and his roots.

  2. egrotta December 18, 2010 at 6:25 pm

    While I understand the need to say kaddish for those who died in the Holocaust, and appreciate it, I wonder how often the custom of saying kaddish for those you don’t know came about.

    I for one am a bit bewildered when I’m in temple, hear the name of someone I know connected to someone in the congregation – a parent, a member whose children still live here – and they fail to come to say kaddish. Is it enough that we remember for them?

  3. IrvZuckerman December 18, 2010 at 4:23 pm

    The Kaddish is not monodirectional. While the congregation may acknowledge the names of the departed, the prayer itself is on behalf of anyone ‘whom it may concern.’ How else can we redeem the millions whose entire families were blotted out? The true strength of Judaism is that as long as one of us is alive to say the Kaddish, the tradition continues for all of us.

    When my brother died, we were in Tucson. It was on a Friday, and that night Claire and I went to a synagogue to say Kaddish for him. I had called Jeffrey, so I knew that my brother’s name would be added to the prayers at LT and that they had already been said. It then came over me; hour after hour through each time zone the Kaddish was making its way around the world. For my brother, for your father and, when the time comes, for all of us.

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