In late 2006, I flew to suburban Detroit to see my dad in hospice care in my childhood home. I was eight months pregnant. The TV screen crackled with a videotape of my latest sonogram. The fuzzed-out image of a fetus was as close as my dad would get to seeing his grandchild—a parting shot in a life punctured by irreconcilable loss.
A rabbi was visiting, too, making the rounds of congregants staring down the ends of their lives. My dad introduced him as Rabbi Nevins; Rabbi Nevins urged me to call him Danny. I gave him the side-eye. I figured him for a young clone of his predecessor, an artifact of the old school who had run our Conservative shul on the principle that children—and their parents, and most other congregants—should be seen, not heard.
That older rabbi had officiated at my bat mitzvah and my brother Paul’s bar mitzvah and both of our confirmations. And yet, when my brother died suddenly at age 16, that rabbi seemed not to see the extreme circumstance as occasion for warmth and a delicate touch.
Within days of my dad dying, Rabbi Nevins changed my vision of what a rabbi can be. Ten years later, he changed my vision of what mourning can be—and not just for me.
Today, the country faces a grief crisis. Mourning has gone awry for millions. But mourners have also met the challenges of the pandemic with innovation. Jews, for their part, have embraced online Kaddish, outdoor Kaddish, atheist Kaddish, and more. What worked for me was something else—something I never expected, at a time I never anticipated.
My dad died a few days after my visit. Rabbi Nevins came over to talk about the eulogy. I had flown back to Detroit from New York, where I live, with a couple hundred pages of interview transcripts covering stories that my dad had been shaping and polishing forever: His pool-sharking in postwar Detroit and Venice Beach. The fictional fiancée he contrived to transfer his post-Korea assignment in the Air Force from Fort Wayne, Indiana, to San Francisco. The time the Egyptians captured his tour bus in the Sinai in ’73.
I handed Rabbi Nevins the transcripts. He blinked. Then something strange happened. He invited me to work with him on the eulogy. Stranger still, I discovered that I liked him. His officiating at the funeral strived to be sensitive and specific, while abiding by Halacha.
It was a revelation: a rabbi as rigorous as he was good-natured. Crafty, too. How better to co-opt the sharp-elbowed adult daughter than to recruit her?
Within hours of completing the week of shiva, I rushed back to New York—I couldn’t stay longer in Detroit or I would have been too pregnant to fly. I rushed to start my new job at Condé Nast, my mid-aughts dream. I rushed to move uptown, where an elevator building was better suited to strollers than our fourth-floor walk-up in the West Village.
Kaddish, I told myself, would wedge its way into the rush. It had to. My dad had said Kaddish for nearly three years of his life. As his eldest child, it was my turn to say it for him. I made other plans instead. Prenatal yoga instead of shacharit. Posh lunches on my new expense account instead of mincha. Concerts, the theater, after hours at the museums instead of ma’ariv.
I told myself that my choices echoed the bodily imperatives imposed by pregnancy, even as I suspected reasons far less glorious. Kaddish was inconvenient. And hadn’t I earned a premium on pleasure for enduring another early, untimely death in my family? My dad died when I was eight months pregnant; my brother died a couple weeks before I went to college. The constant was my refusal to see that I needed a reckoning.
In 1976, when I was 2 and Paul was an infant, our dad lost his own dad. Our grandmother pressed our dad into Kaddish. The daily frequency stunned him. If it was irritating that shacharit burned into his morning routine of newspapers and pushups, then it was downright unnerving when it burned into the bottom line because he could no longer see patients before their own workdays at the auto plants.
He said Kaddish anyway. Eleven months for his father and again, 13 years later, for his mother.
Three years after that, Paul was killed. My dad zombied through another 11 months, never mind that mourning a child is set at sheloshim, or 30 days. For years I understood his decision to stretch out Kaddish as another one of his routines. Like checking the stock tables in The Wall Street Journal. Or washing down coffee cake with skim milk. Or handball on Thursday night and Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning.
It took me a long time to see his quiet revision of the rules as precedent for me.
Nine years passed after my dad’s death. The youngest of my three children was about to start preschool. My time was opening up. Thoughts of the example I hoped to set for them crowded in. It was no longer enough to regret not saying Kaddish. It was time to act. But how?
I emailed Rabbi Nevins. We hadn’t seen each other since shiva but I had heard that he had moved to New York to work at a rabbinical school. I wanted to know: What options exist for the delinquent mourner?
“You can go say Kaddish,” he said over lentil soup in the seminary cafeteria. “No one will stop you.”
No one will stop you strangled me. There may have been tears. Kaddish had always been there. Every day, three times a day.
Rabbi Nevins proposed a weekly havrutah, or partner study, as a revised act of memorial. He had in mind a rabbinical student, also from the Midwest. I had never heard of havrutah or siyyum, the concluding presentation of a partner study. It sounded like Kaddish with a couple of asterisks. One for the bespoke format. The other for the cozy accountability structure. Not just to a study partner but also to Rabbi Nevins who brought out in me an uncharacteristic desire to please.
Now that he had laid a path for me, I had to choose: Was I going to act and finally unburden myself? Or had self-pity become the point?
When we first met, my havrutah partner, Elli, was annotating a copy of the Mishna. Blond curls tumbled past her near-bare shoulders. She wore drapey athleisure in sumptuous jewel tones.
I wondered: Is this what rabbinical students look like these days? Then again, was I the picture of the questing mourner? My skirts were too short, my lipstick too bright, my laugh too loud and frequent for the East Coast. It was a shiddach—two nerds in thin disguise who happened to hail from flyover country.
Over the next nine months, we met every Tuesday afternoon in the scruffy beit midrash of the rabbinical school. Our object of study was Semachot. Dating to 750 CE, it ranks among the earliest known texts to enumerate Jewish rules regarding the dying and the newly dead, burial and mourning. Semachot favors lists over stories. It’s a little snoozy. But if the text fell short of electrifying, well, does anyone swoon over the content of the Kaddish prayer? Doesn’t the minyan requirement of Kaddish point to community as the priority?
The Tuesday afternoon crowd of students and teachers and consulting rabbis in the beit midrash became my larger havrutah community. Unlike them, I was parachuting in to attend to unfinished business. I don’t keep kosher. Shabbat strikes me as a very nice idea that will never outrank all the other things that I want to do every Saturday. I lack the imagination to envision a God.
And yet, showing up every week was easy. Memorializing my dad Jewishly as he had done for his parents and as they had done for theirs—a custom unfurling across generations and the diaspora—that is a mighty force to behold. The weight of history can be a life raft, too.
On Tzom Gedalia—the Fast of Gedalia—Elli and I presented our findings at our siyyum. Rabbi Nevins presided. I recited the Kaddish D’Itchad’ta, the burial Kaddish, a bit of proof that I read Hebrew. Or that Hebrew, at any rate.
Six years later, the havrutah continues to pay off. When I think of my dad, my thoughts are no longer darkened by what I have not done. And yet, nothing can change that he died a tortured man. At the end of his life, in waning moments of lucidity, I heard him say more than once that he could reconcile everything about how he had lived except Paul and how he had died. Cancer was not the only poison eating away at my dad.
Sheloshim was not enough. Ten months of surplus Kaddish was not enough. Maybe nothing would have been enough. Now that I have children, I see that: Nothing is enough for the death of a child.
For a bereaved parent, peace of mind is out of reach. In different ways, it’s true for a sibling, too. But now I know what it means to act. Now I know the power of forging a fresh path. Now, as I take on the unfinished business of my brother’s story, I know this, too: In the name of the dead, it is never too late.
Rebecca Sonkin’s essays have appeared in The Washington Post, Tin House, Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. She is reporting a memoir about a deadly car crash.