Saying kaddish gains one entry into a club one never wanted to join. Even if we opt out, we’re members. The big revelation is that we have — always had — a reserved place here, alongside the entirety of the Jewish People. This place, reached only through devastation, provides a thoroughly new perspective, a prism through which we see added new dimensions. Every day, a new truth. And mostly, the value lies not in what was revealed, but rather in one’s privilege to bear witness, or even, remarkably, to take part.
My year of kaddish began in summer. At a time when we enjoy a loosening of rules and strictures, I was in the odd position of needing, depending on, rigid traditions. I felt lost, as I never had before. Only my unshakable belief in my place overcame my lack of surefootedness as each day I took a deep breath, and walked into a new unknown. More than anything I needed to feel grounded, to belong. And each day a community encouraged and welcomed me. Wherever I found myself, I noted variations, but even moreso the similarities. Eventually the ‘known’ outweighed the ‘unknown’, and I took strength in my constant position amongst the richly varied minyanim. Every single day contributed its own unique thread to what became a beautiful living tapestry of perspective and support. I belonged.
Among my most uplifting memories are those of the Baseball Diamond Minyan. Once or twice a week our shul baseball team played in a nearby park, and timing was such that mincha and maariv took place around game time. The boys, who included my two sons, established a tradition of convening a minyan so I could say kaddish within walking distance of my spot in the bleachers. The respect and reverence shown by those young men reflect the very best of our community, and instill faith in our future. I couldn’t have been prouder.
One winter’s day it was in a shul I dropped into because it was geographically convenient. I listened as the leader repeated the Amidah in a strong voice with a clear Russian accent. And when he got to m’kabetz nidchei amo Israel (Blessed is He who gathers the dispersed of His nation, Israel), I smiled as it all fell into place before my eyes.
Perhaps the least inspired of the three hundred or so kaddishes I recited occurred on a hectic Sunday afternoon. I got stuck in traffic, clearly losing at Beat the Clock. At the posted mincha time, I was still at least five full minutes away from my destination. Suddenly spotting an unfamiliar synagogue, I swerved off the road. Running in, I asked where services were being held. A wedding was taking place, and the building was buzzing with happy guests. Completely out of place, I bolted upstairs in search of the rabbi. I found him, with a small group of black-hatted gentlemen. “Just finished”, he said. “Sorry”. ‘But I’m saying kaddish. I have nowhere else to go at this point. Please.’ “Well”, he said dubiously, “there are ten here…. I guess if someone were willing to say kaddish, you could follow along.” I looked around at the faces observing me with a mixture of curiousity and pity. No-one moved. Until one did, saying ‘Sure, I can do that’. We each grabbed a siddur, the rabbi helpfully gave me the page number as I scrambled to keep up as my day’s hero zipped through kaddish. It wasn’t pretty, but it was.
The logistics of getting to prayers on time each day determined what an evening out would look like. One of the few times I went to a public event was to hear Natan Sharansky, a hero of mine, in conversation with the Honourable Irwin Cotler, former Justice Minister and a driving force behind Mr. Sharansky’s freedom. The evening took place in the grand sanctuary of Beth Tzedec, and I was so happy that I’d be able to attend prayers on-site beforehand, seamlessly. I got there early, and found my way down the hallway to a classroom. Eventually the room filled with men and women, including a very familiar-looking gentleman that I just couldn’t place. He, too, was saying kaddish. Afterward, we all wished each other well, and I made my way to my seat in the auditorium. Only as he took his seat onstage did I realize the familiar face belonged to Mr. Cotler. As he paid tribute to his late father, whose yahrzeit he was observing that night, I again felt that unbelievable sense of connectedness, of belonging, to something awesome.
Another moment of clarity: In November 2014, a massacre took place in Har Nof, Jerusalem. A morning minyan was shattered; four decent, innocent men and a heroic policeman murdered. A sixth victim was left comatose, his murder completed eleven months later. That man was originally from Toronto, a schoolmate of mine so many years ago. After he died, someone published a poignant essay noting that he had been cut down in the middle of the Amidah — he had taken the three steps back that open the prayer (“Lord, open my lips, that my mouth may declare Your praise”), but never got to take the three steps to mark its completion. And so for six months, every day, I brought him with me when I took those forward steps.
Oseh shalom bimromav.….may He make peace upon us and upon all Israel. Amen.