Rabbi Deborah Glanzberg-Krainin, Ph.D. interviewed her friend and colleague Rabbi Vivie Mayer about ritual mourning following her father’s death.
DGK: Vivie, thanks for agreeing to have this conversation. I hope you will be able to share some of what you have learned during this year of mourning.
VM: Part of what has been interesting about this experience is that it is both deeply personal and entirely universal. That is part of the nature of grief. I will give you an example. I went to minyanThe group of ten adult Jews needed to read from the Torah and to recite some of the most important communal prayers. In Orthodox communities, a quorum of ten men is traditionally required. Today, most liberal Jewish communities count all Jewish adults as part of a minyan. at a local synagogue last week. There was a woman I did not know who was also saying kaddishThe Aramaic memorial prayer for the dead. Mourners recite this prayer at every service, every day, in the presence of a minyan (prayer quorum) over the course of a year (for a parent) or thirty days (for a sibling or offspring). The prayer actually makes no mention of the dead, but rather prays for the sanctification and magnification of God's name.. As we walked out she told me she was there to observe her father’s yahrzeit(Yiddish) The anniversary of a death, usually marked by the lighting of a 24-hour yahrzeit candle and the recitation of Kaddish, the memorial prayer. For U.S. Jews, the unveiling of the headstone usually takes place on or around the first yahrzeit.. “It has been thirty years and it feels like yesterday,” she said. We looked at each other, hugged and cried. Then we went our own ways. I don’t even know her name. But we connected. Another example: when I was in IsraelLit. ''the one who struggles with God.'' Israel means many things. It is first used with reference to Jacob, whose name is changed to Israel (Genesis 32:29), the one who struggles with God. Jacob's children, the Jewish people, become B'nai Israel, the children of Israel. The name also refers to the land of Israel and the State of Israel. the month after my father died, I found a place where I could say kaddish every afternoon. There was another woman saying kaddish as well. We were there together—showing up and standing next to each other. At the time, she was in the eighth month of mourning. When I was back in Israel last month, I went back to the same congregation. And to my surprise, the same woman was there saying kaddish. I learned that her mother had died three months after she finished saying kaddish for her father. So there we were standing together again. In a way, it is like being soldiers together. We are walking parallel lines.
DGK: Have you found comfort in these kinds of connections?
VM: I wouldn’t say that any one interaction was comforting. But as these experiences built up over time, it was very comforting. I feel like I am part of the “kaddish club.” I feel connected to everyone in it. And that is comforting.
DGK: I’m interested in your description of experiences building up over time. Do you have other examples of how the passage of time affected your experiences?
VM: For me, kaddish changed over time. At the beginning, it was the focus of my whole day. It shaped everything. I had to getA writ of divorce. Traditionally, only a man can grant his wife a get. Liberal Jews have amended this tradition, making divorce more egalitarian. out of bed in the morning, which was really helpful and important. I would think about my day through the lens of minyan attendance—carefully mapping where I would be and how I would get to say kaddish three times that day. It gave me structure, and that was good and important. I still make sure I get to minyan three times a day, but it doesn’t organize my time with the same intensity it did at the beginning. I missed minyan when I was sick, on an airplane, or caring for my granddaughter. But those were very rare occasions.
DGK: What did it feel like to miss a time?
VM: It was ok. My brothers have been saying kaddish also. If I miss a kaddish I know that one or both of them will be saying it. It feels like we are all working together, that we are bound together in this enterprise.
DGK: We have been talking a lot about how this period has affected you emotionally. Can you say anything about your spiritual experiences during this time?
VM: The emotional and the spiritual have been connected for me. There have been lots of times when I have wanted to stay in bed in the morning. I have wanted to just check out. But no, I have to get out of bed and to pray. I have to stand up and literally speak out loud. I think about this when I recite “What good am I if I go down to the depths…how could I praise you?” We can’t praise God from the depths; as long as I’m praising I’m not totally down. So I keep doing it. It keeps me afloat.
DGK: There is a tradition that says we recite kaddish to accompany the soul while it travels to its final resting place. Does that speak to you at all?
VM: There is an idea that linear time is disrupted when someone dies. At the moment of burial, one’s whole life is present because we are burying a whole self. So if the deceased is an old woman she is also present as a baby, a child, in her middle age. For me, accompanying my father’s soul through kaddish is also a break with linear time. I relate to time differently. But the main thing I have learned is how much we don’t know. I don’t know what it means to accompany a soul, I don’t know what it means to mourn. I know less now than I did before. But that is okay. My cousin Dan Levkoff was from the south. And he used to always say “Y’all don’t know nothing.” That was his signature quote. And I think about it all the time now. There is so much we don’t know. “Y’all don’t know nothing.”