Ritual Smooths Salve on Long-ago Loss

by Linda K. Wertheimer
Originally Posted on Jewish Muse

Ignorant of my faith, I could not turn to Judaism when my brother died 25 years ago. Ritual was not a part of my upbringing, and it lingered in the shadows through my 20s and most of my 30s. Only in the last decade have I started to follow the path that Judaism sets for mourners. Jewish ritual now smooths salve on the long-ago wound.

I am no longer in the throes of grief, yet I, like all mourners, need to acknowledge year after year that my brother existed, that my family and I suffered a huge loss, that we have lived years without him, and that yes, it is possible to live a happy life after loss. I need, too, to let community surround me when I remember my brother.

My following of mourning rituals intensified the most shortly after I turned 40. I began studying for an adult bat mitzvah ceremony that I led in the May of 2006. The date of my ceremony chose the portion I would chant in my Torah. But fate played a hand. My passage was about the circle of mourners described in the book of Leviticus. I chanted the portion, then analyzed it. Judaism, I said at my ceremony, gave mourners a gift: a structure for grief. It is too late to change how I mourned my brother in the first years after his death. Back then, I worked hard to push aside the pain of grief. I tried the common American way: Move on.

In my studies for the bat mitzvah, I learned about the Jewish rituals I missed in the aftermath of my brother’s death. Jews commonly observe shiva, seven days in which mourners refrain from work and life’s normal routines. Then, there’s shloshim, the 30-day period of mourning that follows where mourners slowly re-enter normal life. I observed none of those, but other rituals I could practice throughout my life have become a mainstay.

For me, the ritual starts with a flame, the flame of the tiny wick of a white memorial candle I typically buy at a grocery store. On the eve of my brother’s yahrzeit each year, I light the candle. Sometimes, I say the Mourner’s Kaddish before lighting the candle. Sometimes, I just light the candle and think of an internal prayer in memory of Kevin, who cared little for Jewish ritual. Throughout the 24 hours of the candle’s life, I occasionally glance at the flame. Sometimes, it as if my brother’s spirit dances in the shadows reflecting against our kitchen wall. The light is warm, healing and comforting because every year, I let that flame glow.

I now make it part of my mourning ritual to go to a Shabbat service to hear my brother’s name read. Sometimes, I go alone, but many times, as I will do tomorrow night, my husband – who I only met in 2005 and married the next year – stands next to me to offer a hug if I need one. Some years, I cry when I hear the name, Kevin Wertheimer. Sometimes, I smile. Sometimes, the emotion hits as everyone stands and recites the Mourner’s Kaddish, a prayer in which God is praised repeatedly. It is a prayer that asks us to still praise God even when our hearts are so heavy. I have never been sure if I believe in God. But I believe that something nonhuman does play a role in helping us recover when loss seems insurmountable. I say the Kaddish, and I do feel a sense of something supernatural.

In recent years, I also have gone to memorial services connected to the most significant Jewish holidays, like yizkor at Yom Kippur, and have written about these experience in previous articles and blog posts. I let myself on the anniversary of my brother’s death and at these services think of my fun-loving brother Kevin and how I miss his presence in my family’s life.

I mourn for what he has missed and for what I missed because of his absence. Most importantly, I do not mourn alone.

My writing here comes from several sources, from my yet-to-be-published memoir about journeying through grief and getting closer to my Jewish faith and from the speech I wrote for my adult bat mitzvah ceremony in May 2006. What do Jewish mourning rituals do?

As I wrote in my bat mitzvah speech:Jewish mourning rituals recognize that the loss of a mother, a father, a brother, a sister, a spouse or a child is a heart-wrenching grief. The rituals give us tools to cope, but we can’t use them if we don’t know what they are or how to begin. Don’t force the hurt and anger out in that first week. Share your memories and the tears as well as the laughter. Then, gradually, when the timing is right, embrace the joys of life.

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12 Responses to “Ritual Smooths Salve on Long-ago Loss”

  1. avatar

    This sensitive meditation on the meaning and power of yahrtzeit and Kaddish comes at the season of my yahrtzeits both for my father, who died on February 6, 1956, and for my mother, who died on March 8, 1982.
    When I said Kaddish for my father, it was mostly at Conservative congregations, and I rose with the other mourners. By the time of my mother’s death, I had committed myself to Reform and to a congregation, so when it was time to say the Mourners’ Kaddish, I rose with the entire congregation, and found the experience less meaningful than had been the case 26 years earlier.
    I feel as if the Reform movement, with the almost universal custom of having the entire congregation recite the Mourner’s Kaddish, has taken away the ritual tool the Kaddish is supposed to provide. If I recite Kaddish every week, where’s the significance of my yahrtzeits?
    And if everyone rises with me, where’s the significance of my yahrtzeits?
    I have never bought into the rationale for having everyone rise that we are mourning the victims of the Shoah who have no one to say Kaddish for them — our observance of Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, provides the opportunity for that collective yahrtzeit. My theory is that the everyone rise phenomenon was a device to “protect” people from having to call attention to themselves. (Reform Halacha as written by Emily Post.) Now, in a more narcissistic era, the old way is creeping back in, as the mourners rise when their loved one’s name is called, and only then are joined by the congregation.
    My personal accommodation to the prevailing custom is to join the congregation in rising, and to recite only the traditional responses — amen, brikh hu, and yehei shmei rabah mevorach.
    Linda has pointed out the potency of the Kaddish as a restorative in our times of grief. It can be even more potent if we reserve it for those for whom it was intended, the mourners.

  2. avatar

    Larry –
    I, too, grew up in the Conservative movement, and found the Reform tradition of having everyone stand for Kaddish extremely hard to adjust to – especially because at the time I “switched over” (due to my marriage to a Reform rabbinic student) I was not saying Kaddish for anyone myself.
    Your comment about saying Kaddish every week definitely rang true for me. I, too, adopted the custom of saying Kaddish only for my mother’s yahrzeit – or in the week following another (non-immediate) family member’s death. Because if I don’t stand, I do draw attention to myself, which is not what I am trying to do. Especially as a rabbi’s wife – I get enough attention as it is 🙂

  3. avatar

    I was raised at Temple Beth Israel in Skokie, IL. There, the custom was for only those who mourned a recent loss, were observing a Jahrzeit, or felt otherwise moved to stand and recite Kaddish together. Those who were seated either joined only with the responses “amen” and “b’rikh hu” etc, or read the whole thing quietly but got louder for those responses. I always thought it was sort of weird and cult-like to mumble some words and then suddenly get loud for others, although it makes some sense for only the mourners to rise. Nevertheless, I appreciate the custom at some congregations of the entire group rising to say Kaddish together. The way I prefer to look at it is that the non-mourners are showing their support for the grieving by standing in respect for them and their loved ones. This is clearly a matter of personal taste, though, and obviously one congregation can’t please everyone.
    Yesterday, I attended a Service at Chicago Sinai Congregation for the very first time, and observed the curious custom of reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish with Ashkenazic pronunciation even though the rest of the Hebrew in the Service (and YES, there IS Hebrew in their Service) was in more or less standard modern Hebrew pronunciation. I viewed that as one small concession to nostalgia in an otherwise ultra-modern congregation.

  4. avatar
    Linda K. Wertheimer Reply February 28, 2011 at 10:59 pm

    Thank you all for your provocative and interesting comments. In recent years, I have belonged to two Reform temples in the Boston. Both, in my view, paid respect to the mourners – and also made it clear who the mourners were so the congregation as a whole could offer support.
    At Temple Isaiah in Lexington, where I now belong, the rabbi calls out the names of the deceased whose yahrzeit is being celebrated – and the mourners stand. He does the same for congregants there to mark shloshim. Then, once all of the mourners stand, he asks the congregation to join them in solidarity. I find that a particularly moving moment – when the people around the mourners stand essentially as a way of offering comfort.
    I, though, have never experienced it any other way and did not begin going to services to mark my brother’s yahrzeit until the last decade.
    To me, the moment is about providing a sense of community.

  5. avatar

    Jordan, I was not aware that Sinai had switched to Sephardit Hebrew,although I seem to remember that their update of the Union Prayer Book uses it for transliterations (which they, to their credit, pioneered). If I’m not mistaken, the Mourners’ Kaddish is transliterated both ways.
    It’s my sense that most congregations that were late in switching from Ashkenazit to Sephardit were reflecting a detachment from Zionism and Israeli Hebrew. (An exception was Chicago’s Emanuel Congregation, whose rabbi was himself a refugee from Nazi Germany, and wanted to preserve the use of European Hebrew to honor the Six Million. Ironically, during Rabbi Schaalman’s tenure, only the mourners rose for Kaddish — I don’t know what the minhag there is now that he is retired. When comments arose about remembering the victims of the Shoah, the accommodation was to have one person designated to rise with the mourners and recite Kaddish for the Six Million.)

  6. avatar

    A profound reflection on ritual and the power to help us heal. Thank you. I’ve also found the book Mighty Stories, Dangerous Rituals useful for helping congregational leaders think more meaningfully about ritual and its place in the life of a faith community. http://congregationalresources.org/mighty-stories-dangerous-rituals-weaving-together-human-and-divine

  7. avatar

    @ Ms. Wertheimer:
    I really like the idea of the mourners standing first, and then everyone joining them out of respect. That does seem like it would be profoundly moving and symbolic, even though it’s such a small detail. I wonder how widespread that custom is…
    @ Larry:
    Yes, the transliterations of the major Hebrew responses in the UPB-SE are all in Modern Israeli pronunciation (which I recently learned is NOT the same as Sephardic). The only exception is the Kaddish, for which both types of transliteration are provided. On Sunday, the majority of those present were clearly using the Ashkenazic pronunciation, probably from memory rather than from the transliteration.
    I can only speculate that some of the reasons for continuing to say Kaddish in the Ashkenazic fashion might be to honor the German/European founders and previous members of the congregation (not just the Six Million), to honor the European origin of enlightened thought and rational religion, and, perhaps paradoxically, to offer a slight nod to the Orthodox tradition from whence came the original Reform Movement in Germany. I have a feeling that, at least at Sinai, the use of Ashkenazic Hebrew no longer has to do with anti-Zionism or a denial of the reality of a renewed, modern Israeli State and culture. I think most of the congregation, like me, are probably non-Zionists, but I doubt that their choice of Hebrew dialect is a conscious rebellion against the prevailing Zionism in the Movement and the Jewish community in general. On the other hand, there is a large American Flag to the left of the Ark, and no Israeli flag to be found anywhere.

  8. avatar

    It’s also worth noting that the Kaddish really should be pronounced in a way that sounds closer to Arabic, since most of it is actually in Aramaic, which probably sounded totally different from the Hebrew spoken contemporaneously with it! It’s funny how we apply the rules for two very different dialects of Hebrew to a totally different, if related language!

  9. Daphne Price

    Linda – my condolences for your loss – even (especially!) all these years later.
    I am struck by your line “Most importantly, I do not mourn alone.”
    My mother passed away this past November, so I am still in the throes of being in “avelut.”
    When she passed away, the outpouring of support – as evidenced by the 200 people who came to the funeral in Israel, the hundreds more visitors who paid us a shiva call in Toronto, the dozens of meals that were delivered during the week of shiva and in the weeks that followed, along with the very generous donations (made to various institutions in her memory) that poured in were all gestures that I found quite humbling – and were reminders that I too was not alone.
    Ironically, I find that I am most alone when it comes to reciting the Kaddish. I am Orthodox and attend only Orthodox services. Initially, I planned to recite Kaddish daily – but found it nigh unto impossible (though obviously not totally impossible – many men I know manage to do it) to get to minyan three times a day. Instead, like so many others, I committed to recite it on Shabbat (and of course, when I can catch a minyan at other times).
    But, despite being in a service with a minyan, I find myself feeling totally alone when it comes to reciting kaddish. There is always a man or two reciting kaddish on the other side of the mechitzah, but (and I guess here I can say thank Gd), mine is the sole voice on my side of the room.
    In some ways, I find the recitation of the kaddish daunting. Sometimes, it brings me comfort. But during so many other moments, it is a reminder to me that mourning is a process that in the end, I must go through alone.
    Thanks for this thoughtful posting, Linda.

  10. avatar
    Linda K. Wertheimer Reply March 1, 2011 at 8:23 pm

    Dear Daphne,
    Thank you so much for sharing your story. My heart goes out to you as you recover from your much more recent loss.
    My comfort with reciting the Kaddish and finding comfort from it is a much more recent experience. I definitely spent years mourning for my brother alone even though my parents of course too were mourning and so was my surviving brother.
    In my memoir, yet-to-be-published, I write about how mourning evolved for me from a very solitary to a communal experience. In those beginning years, I felt very very alone. I was disconnected from Judaism. I grew up with almost no knowledge of my faith.
    Even if I had been familiar with ritual, I do not know how much it would have helped in those early months of mourning. I suspect, though, it might have helped me at least do a better job of putting one foot after another.
    Today, the actual 25th anniversary of my brother’s death on the English or rather non-Jewish calendar, was a daunting day for me to get through in the past. Now it is much easier. I do credit the Jewish markers with helping me get through.
    May your mother’s memories help to comfort you in the months and years to come. For me, it is much easier to smile than cry now when I look at photos of my brother – who almost always was grinning ear to ear.

  11. Larry Kaufman

    @Daphne Price
    May I provide a perspective that may help with your sense of being especially alone because you are the sole voice on your side of the mechitza? In some Orthodox congregations, you would be discouraged if not forbidden to recite the Mourners Kaddish. So take comfort that you have found a minyan that welcomes you.
    This is from a responsum posted on JewishIdeas.org:
    “Question: May women recite Kaddish in the synagogue?
    Response: A contemporary compendium on mourning practices is the anthology written by Rabbi Chaim Binyamin Goldberg (P’nai Baruch, first published in 1986) and translated into English under the ArtScroll title, “Mourning in Halachah”. Concerning the issue of women reciting Kaddish, Rav Goldberg notes the following: “If the deceased left only daughters, although some have permitted a daughter to recite Kaddish at a prayer service in her home, virtually all other Poskim disagree and rule that a daughter should not recite Kaddish even in her home.” (Mourning in Halachah, chapter 39:21, p. 359) Thus it would appear that halakhic authorities are generally opposed to women reciting Kaddish whether at home or in the synagogue.”
    The article does go on to cite responsa from Rabbis Soloveichik and Feinstein that are more permissive.

  12. Daphne Price

    Linda — thank you for your thoughtful reply. I hope to be able to read your memoir once it’s completed. I’m sure it will be a helpful guide to others who struggle with loss and mourning and how to navigate the ever winding road on this difficult journey.
    Aryeh Lev — Thank you for your comments as well. Interestingly, I have been at 3 different synagogues to recite Kaddish. A modern Orthodox, more right wing Orthodox and at a Chabad. At no time was I discouraged or criticized for reciting the kaddish. Of course, in each instance, there was at least one man reciting kaddish. Had there been no men reciting kaddish, I would have been precluded from reciting it by myself.

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