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Among the Mourners

As a woman, I felt left out of Jewish mourning rituals after my father died. Thirty years later, I found a new place where I finally feel like I count.

by
Anna El-Eini
April 14, 2020
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

I was 16, getting ready to present an assembly about Yom Kippur to my mostly Christian high school in Brighton, a small coastal town in England. It was still early, and my father was the only other person awake; he had just finished his Turkish coffee as I placed Jacqueline du Pre’s “Kol Nidrei” on the turntable and read over my notes before school. He entered the music room and asked if he could watch me practice. My father spent very little time in this room, and often it was not Jacqueline du Pre playing, but David Bowie, very loud, door closed, “Ashes to Ashes.” Even as a child I was conscious that my father and I had never really spent any time alone together. Other than this one day, this one morning in the music room, I can only remember occasional afternoons spent watching Liverpool FC games on TV together, and eating buttered toast with slices of fresh tomatoes that my father liked sprinkled with lots of salt.

I remember deciding to run through the whole assembly for him, not just my reading. I set the needle back to “Kol Nidrei,” and pretended to file into the room, just like the Jewish girls would file onto the school stage later that morning. I moved one step to the left before changing each note card, and read all the parts out loud. My father asked me to play the music one more time, and I sat on the floor at his feet, resting my head on his knees, as we listened. Jacqueline du Pre plays “Kol Nidrei” as though the cello were made for the sole purpose of bringing music to this prayer. As though Bach’s adagios and every other magnificent piece of cello music ever written only exist because “Kol Nidrei” exists.

My father had been to Israel a few months earlier, and he’d never really talked about it, but now he told me about his trip, and the synagogue he had discovered in the heart of Jerusalem. He had wandered through the Mahane Yehuda market, and stumbled upon it by accident, when he noticed people abandoning their market stalls and filing in for Mincha. He went back to the same synagogue every morning of his stay in Jerusalem.

“You will love the market when you go.”

I liked that he said when you go.

“It’s like a maze! They have stalls for everything–meat, fish, 50 kinds of white cheese, 30 kinds of challah, the most beautiful fruit you’ve ever seen!” And then he added, because he knew there was nothing I loved more in the world, “And red peppers piled up to the sky!”

The synagogue was small, and he said he liked to stop for a moment on its single, stone step that was worn in the middle where people had stepped into the synagogue for over 100 years. He liked the feeling–that he was one person, and all of these people, at once. Then he would kiss the mezuzah, and enter to pray. He told me the synagogue was open all day and all night with a custodian who looked like he was also about 100 years old, always there to welcome you and watch over you.

“Can we go together someday?” I asked him.

We listened to the whole record. The house was quiet. No one came in to disturb us. When the music ended my father’s face was utterly changed. I mentioned it to a friend at school that morning.

“I’ve never seen my father so happy,” I told her.

Students came up to me after the assembly and said they loved the idea of Yom Kippur–that forgiveness should be given and received at the start of every new year, and that everyone must examine themselves through the same lens through which they examine others. The same girls I shared The Jam and The Who records with, and danced with at Elvis Costello concerts, asked about the cello piece.

That afternoon my friend and I walked home talking about the Yom Kippur assembly and the upcoming Duran Duran concert, and all the ways we both wanted to be more spiritual. She wanted to grow closer to Jesus, I wanted to know God. I asked if she’d heard of the new Christian rock group U2 and she said she hadn’t, and I promised to bring her a tape.

“‘I Will Follow’ will blow your mind,” I told her.

She waved goodbye at her street, and I walked home. My youngest brother was home alone, and we were getting along just great, we even agreed about what to watch on TV. Then a man named Dr. Hope called from a hospital to tell me that my father was dead, and that he needed authorization to perform an autopsy.

“Are you 18? You have to be 18 to authorize the autopsy, and we’d like to get started right away.”

“No–” I stammered.

“No, you’re too young? Or no, you don’t want to authorize the autopsy?”

My brother’s face was the color of ashes.

“No.”

I would have been fine, really, I would have been one of the many, many people in this world who lose a loved one, mourn for them, accept that they are gone, and move on to cherishing the good memories, erasing the bad. That could have been me. Except that we sat shiva for my father for seven days at my house, the way you’re supposed to, ripped clothes, low chairs, all of it. And each night the rabbi came to my house and he shook the hand of every one of my brothers and condoled with them, wished them chayim aruchim, and utterly ignored my mother, my sisters, and me. Each night he came into our house, never once spoke to us, never once shook our hands, and never once wished us long life. The men in the house grieved and mourned all day. The women baked and cooked all day, and sat like unused furniture in the living room at night.

I never said Kaddish for my father. I was told I needed a man to say it for me. So I would go early to synagogue each day and wait outside, and I would ask a man who looked kind, “Please would you say Kaddish for my father?”

Often, they would say, “It’s forbidden, both my parents are still alive. I’m sorry.”

One young man said Kaddish for my father at youth services, and he was the first man who looked like he meant it as he prayed for my father–for this girl he did not know, and for her father. His parents were both still alive, but he set this aside; my loss mattered more.

So Kaddish was said for my father, but not by me.

Before this, prayer had always seemed personal, something between God and me. Stuck behind the wrought-iron mechitzah at my Orthodox synagogue, I would take time out from chatting with the other girls and women to pray alone, especially for Elohai Netzor I paid little attention to the men performing on the bimah. I was lucky that I wasn’t bound by any kind of dress or social code beyond what was expected at synagogue, so I was mostly free to develop my own true faith. I relished Shabbat and the festivals; I liked the practice of keeping kosher at home. This is where my early love of Judaism really came from.

On Shabbat, I would celebrate Friday night with my family, go to synagogue on Saturday morning, and go record shopping with my friends in the afternoon.

“You’re not supposed to shop on the Sabbath, are you?” my friends asked me once, as we mined the bootleg tapes at the open-air market.

Of course not, but it felt pretty good to score a Japanese recording of The Jam’s “Sound Affects” tour, and eat ice cream on the beach with my friends, especially after spending the morning behind a screen.

The festivals came one after the other, and our house was always full of company and fantastic food. I was so confident in my own little version of Judaism that I had carved out for myself, that I was just as happy saying the Shema each night as I was at morning prayers at my mostly Christian school. I loved to sing the hymns and I was in the choir–“God” substituted easily for “Jesus.”

I had no idea that other synagogues already existed where men and women prayed together, and girls had proper bat mitzvahs. At our synagogue, the girls read Eshet Chayil, a Woman of Worth, in English, instead of reading from the Torah. When my time came, I refused to have this kind of bat mitzvah, without knowing of any alternative. My all-girls school had already taught me to believe that I was a woman of worth.

I moved happily through my teen years with my own mixtape of Jewish rituals, the hit single still being Elohai Netzor, but enriched by my newfound love for both tikkun olam and Israeli music. I started a Jewish prayer group at my school. I fought against apartheid and racism, and to free Soviet Jews; David Broza’s “Yihiye Tov” became my nightly Shema.

But after the shock of my father’s death, with no way to properly mourn him in the synagogue I had grown up in unless that 10th man could be found, my faith as I had once known it was lost.

I finally got to Israel a year after my father died. I stood in front of the Kotel in Jerusalem and listened to the church bells ringing and the muezzin calling in the holiest of holy cities, and I said Kaddish for my father. But there was another place, a place that had given my father such incredible peace in his turbulent life, that still remained for me to seek out and maybe there, I would say Kaddish, and I would know God was taking notice, and that my father could hear me.

I wound my way through the stalls of Mahane Yehuda. I stopped to eat a platter of hummus and pita, and a large red pepper with feta cheese. I drank café Turki, without cardamom, the way my father drank it. I spoke broken Hebrew, bartering and making small talk everywhere I went, every step feeling like a step my father had once taken. I asked after the synagogue he’d mentioned, and was met with incredulous laughter.

“There are so many! You are looking for one small synagogue in Jerusalem, and you don’t even know what it’s called?”

“You think because it has a blue door you will find it? Come I will show you 10 synagogues with a blue door!”

But I did find it. I found it exactly as my father had described it, and when I asked the ancient custodian if he remembered a man from England, who had come every day for a week, about a year before, he remembered my father by name.

“Yitzhak, betach.” Isaac, of course I remember him. “You don’t meet a man like him every day.”

I stood on the worn, stone step in the blue doorway of the old synagogue and I felt I was one person, and all the people, and my father. And I looked around the synagogue, so small and beautiful, with a turquoise blue dome, whitewashed walls lined with swollen bookcases, stained glass windows for the 12 tribes, and a raised bimah of weathered olive wood in the center. The ark was draped in a velvet curtain that was threadbare from use but the words of the Ten Commandments could still be made out in faded gold. The ner tamid had a real flame, flickering boldly, as though to say, “All who have been are still here.”

I looked up at the dome once more and there was a cupola with daylight falling softly into the tiny room. I felt the presence of God, really, I did, but what took my breath away was that I had found my father. And here was where I would say Kaddish for him at last, with my heart and my soul filling the words the way Jacqueline du Pre’s cello fills up the “Kol Nidrei,” and makes it kadosh.

I stepped forward.

Lo! Zeh asur!”

I turned to the tiny old man who stood at the doorway. I had understood him perfectly—no, it’s forbidden!—but was confused.

Nashim!” he shouted. Women.

He blocked my way.

“But my father–”

He had turned to stone. He would not move or speak.

“Just one minute. To look. B’vakasha?”

Tears started to rise, but I didn’t want to cry here where my father had been so happy.

The old man told me to follow him. I took one last look at that perfect room as it vanished behind a blur of blue, as he closed the door to the synagogue. We walked around the outside of the building and turned a corner. He opened a flat metal door that led into a bare, modern room with a few folding chairs. There was a small shelf on the wall with one or two prayer books. There was no ark.

Po.”

Women here.

For years after my father’s death, I worked as a Jewish youth educator. I helped students in high school and college reconnect with their faith and culture. I guided them in gathering the fragments of their identity—for many, from the ashes of the Shoah, for others, from the joy of shutting down for Shabbat, or marking the Jewish festivals with new friends and great food. But I couldn’t do this for myself. I knew I no longer belonged within the confines of Orthodox Judaism, and I floated from synagogue to synagogue, in Europe and Israel, searching for a place to rebuild my own Jewish identity. As a young woman, every mechitzah I sat behind, or gallery I looked down from, barred me from knowing God.

At the start of graduate school, my American boyfriend invited me to spend the High Holidays with his family. I walked into Temple Beth Abraham in Canton, Massachusetts, and knew that I had found a home in Conservative Judaism. But having a home and feeling at home are not the same. We later married and moved to Washington, D.C., and our new synagogue, Adas Israel, helped build our son’s Jewish identity on a rock-solid foundation of joy, social justice, and inclusiveness. When his bar mitzvah came around, the rabbi told us the tradition was to have the grandparents remove the Torah from the ark, and pass it dor l’dor–generation to generation–to the bar mitzvah.

“You want me to hand the Torah to my son?”

“Yes.”

My first yes. Not just for me, but with the added responsibility of passing our faith on to the next generation. I knew then that I was ready to have my own bat mitzvah, to be counted among men for a minyan, to make prayer as a community possible.

Recently, just before Yom Kippur, I was at a party for British expats who live in America, but still like to drink Guinness and listen to Britpop. David Bowie came on–loud, thudding–waiting for the gift of sound and vision. I couldn’t stop listening to the song all week. I listened to it one last time as we turned off the lights, and started our walk to synagogue for Kol Nidre. A few months earlier, I had been called to read Torah for the first time. I stood on the bimah, I wore a tallit, and I discovered at last what it means to place a yad on the Torah scroll, and sing God’s words to life. The kind young man who had said Kaddish for my father 30 years before, making us friends for life, received an aliyah. I had waited, waited all these years for the gift of sound and vision. Being counted for a minyan, I could now forgive those who had deterred me in mourning my father, and stopped me at the threshold of the little synagogue with the blue door in Jerusalem. Kol Nidre–all vows, all anger, made null. The next morning, before I knew what I was doing, I stood to say Yizkor for my father for the first time in 30 years. For the first time ever.

Now, when a stranger asks me, “Please, I need a minyan. Can you help me say Kaddish?” I tell them, “Yes, yes, of course.”

Anna El-Eini is a writer and gun violence prevention advocate.

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