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The Last Kaddish

Mourning for my mother saw me through anger, doubt, and numbness—and brought me closer to her

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(Photoillustration Ivy Tashlik; original photo Shutterstock.)
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I thought I should save my mother during her lifetime and of course I couldn’t; how preposterous to think that I could save her now that she was dead? And yet, this is precisely the Kaddish proposition: A son must say Kaddish to save his mother from Gehenna. The Kaddish is thought to raise the soul of the deceased out of the depths, to lighten her “punishment” and to “cool” down the fires of the afterworld—to lighten her load. Saying it is a son’s sacred obligation. We have it by way of tradition that all but the very wicked spend “only” 11 months in Gehenna; hence the Kaddish is said for 11 months only. As it is in death, so it is in life—a boy feels impelled to save his mother.

Anger at God and at the ways of the world might have at least energized me while I said Kaddish, but worse, far worse than that were periods of seemingly no feeling at all. The Kaddish often seemed its own punishment, superimposed and out of place. Obsequious and coerced praises to the Creator of death and life—Heaven forbid—a catechism to numb the mind and the soul. The mourners’ drone.

Thankfully, these periods of “deadness” did not at all characterize my very “good” mourning year. In fact, it was powerful forces set in motion long ago that led me again and again to the prayer stand—to say the Kaddish and to do it well, with feeling.

Looking back on the past 11 months, I can see that there were incidental “pleasures” or satisfactions in saying Kaddish. It made me face, at 49, my own foray into old age—getting to be an old man, with irreparable losses and gray whiskers, someone who might be called on in shul to utter something wise on occasion even though he is no rabbi.

Through those months, through the disbelief and the anger and the numbness, I said Kaddish with one goal in mind: Say a beautiful prayer in the name of a beautiful woman—my mother. Mostly, I succeeded; and multitudes stood behind me responding in unison to my Kaddish: Yehei shmeh rabba mevarakh lealam ulalmey almaya. May his great name be blessed forever, and to all eternity.

Now she and I must endure one more horrible separation. The Kaddish will no longer bind us. She no longer has need of my rescue. For these past 11 months, she needed my prayer. I who could not save her in life may have saved her in death. But that is over now. What will become of me and her? Time will certainly try to break those bonds. Time always seems to win. But I am not convinced. Time and consciousness exist in two separate realms. Years go by, but a son remembers.

In a sense, the Kaddish prayer was meant for my mother: a mixture of right-ness, righteousness, and piety—the spiritual equivalent of the “stiff upper lip.” There is a God despite it all. Though we may not see him—we want to see him—this is how he is seen. There is an old saying from the Rebbe of Kotzk: “Where is God?” a man asks. “Wherever you let Him in,” the rebbe answered. My mother surely would have agreed with the Hasidic master.

That first morning in shul after my Yom Hafsakah, it was quiet after service. No Kaddish. The silence was, unexpectedly, absolutely beautiful.


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Poupic says:

This account hit me hard awakening an old pain. After the war at a Jewish orphanage I refused to recite the Kadish while waiting for my parents “to come back.” Our tradition was that the orphans recite the Kadish. My phase of religiosity was brief. Before the orphanage, not yet 10 I asked how could it be possible that God existed with my parents taken away. After the orphanage the doubt became a certainty. Shomer Israel? 6,000,000 Jews gone including my parents and Jews still prayed to this Shomer Israel? Yet, to this day, I feel terrible that I could not recite the Kadish when I could have. Of course today it would be just mumbling something with zero value since I non- longer believe in such fairy tales.

In August we said our last Kaddish for our beloved daughter, Lauren. Words escape me, the pain ripples through my soul with each sunrise and each sunset. Kaddish, after 11 months, fused with my psyche. It lives in me each and every waking moment and connects me with all those who went before me.

fred capio says:

how many times to you pray for the living?

This is a very moving tribute to a woman beautiful in deeds as well as in appearance.
Dr. Feuerman proves himself a worthy son once again.

Any answer to you would be worthless.

You’re neither interested in a number or intent.

And yet, you can always have the opportunity to say the Kaddish. If not for your own parents after tradition, than for someone else.

The shul my family belonged to growing up recites the Kaddish on Yom Kippur for the six million right before Yiskor even though it has been well over a year.

Remember, it is a tradition, not a mitzvot, and as one who has said it for both mother and father, find that, as with many of the Jewish customs for mourning, to be a source of comfort and hope.

Rabbi David Wolpe offered some words on the subject in the New York Jewish Week back in September that may offer some insight on the words as something other than mumbling. Here’s the link:

Well said Simon.

I remember the empty feeling after saying the last Kaddish for my mom at the end of the 11 months. It is almost surreal when you then sit rather than stand.

fred capio says:

interesting how you treat the living… but once they are dead there is always the Kadish…

fred capio says:

Ecclesiastes 9:5,6,10

Plumbline says:

1 Thessalonians 4:13-17……..

…13 And now, dear brothers and sisters, we want you to know what will happen to the believers who have died so you will not grieve like people who have no hope. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and was raised to life again, we also believe that when Jesus returns, God will bring back with him the believers who have died.
15 We tell you this directly from the Lord: We who are still living when the Lord returns will not meet him ahead of those who have died. 16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven with a commanding shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet call of God. First, the Christians who have died will rise from their graves. 17 Then, together with them, we who are still alive and remain on the earth will be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. Then we will be with the Lord forever.

Plumbline says:

John 11:24-26………..

24 Martha said to Him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. 26 And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?”

Plumbline says:

I feel your pain Doug……….God Bless you from Phil in Canada…..
Luke 7:11-15……….

11 Now it happened, the day after, that He went into a city called Nain; and many of His disciples went with Him, and a large crowd. 12 And when He came near the gate of the city, behold, a dead man was being carried out, the only son of his mother; and she was a widow. And a large crowd from the city was with her. 13 When the Lord saw her, He had compassion on her and said to her, “Do not weep.” 14 Then He came and touched the open coffin, and those who carried him stood still. And He said, “Young man, I say to you, arise.” 15 So he who was dead sat up and began to speak. And He presented him to his mother.

fred capio says:

I think you are at the wrong blog

Not interesting at all. I don’t suffer fools gladly and your query falls into that category. Your response is equally disgusting and deserves similar scorn.

As a member of several Chevra Kadisha, I’d be grateful for those quoting Christian scripture to find alternative places. Doing so here just misappropriates our traditions and liturgy.


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The Last Kaddish

Mourning for my mother saw me through anger, doubt, and numbness—and brought me closer to her

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