When I was in graduate school, my father had a sudden stroke and died a few days later. Our small family—I am an only child—was rocked by this unexpected loss. Jewish rituals of bereavement and mourning gave us an accessible script to follow, but I personally drew little solace from them, especially at first.
Traditional Judaism affords close family members a period of aninut, intense mourning that begins immediately upon a death and ends with the funeral. During this period, the tradition goes, mourners are in a state of spiritual disorientation and are freed from performing any of the other death-related rituals. Rather than liberation, for me aninut largely consisted of handling my dad’s immediate affairs—setting up a funeral, returning his leased Audi, figuring out the passwords to his computer. These chores kept me busy, but at a safe distance from emotion and grief.
After the funeral, the week of shiva felt like an unwelcome imposition for me; I can think of few things more stressful than dreaming up polite banter with near-strangers who’d never been in your childhood home and likely never would be again, at least until the next funeral. All I wanted during that week was to be alone in my old bedroom, eating takeout in my underwear. I excused myself a few times during shiva to be by myself, leaving behind quiet groups of family and friends to take meandering walks around the neighborhood, surveying the recent store openings and closings on Broadway. I was unmoved by the deli platters and gigantic candle that promised to burn for seven days back at home.
What resonated with me most was the obligation to recite the kaddish—the mourner’s prayer—daily for a full year, a duty that lasts this long only for children mourning their parents. For most of my father’s friends and extended family, the formal period of mourning began and ended with the funeral. For a smaller cadre, including my mother, it lasted a little longer, but I—and only I—had been tasked with such a long period of sacred obligation. I felt a special calling to say kaddish, that this was the kind of script I could follow.
Besides, I reasoned, I would soon be starting a new job at a giant corporation, for which I’d be traveling constantly, bouncing around the U.S. and living out of a suitcase. The hours would be grueling, and I knew I’d be homesick. Finding a local shul wherever I was would be a way to center myself, to remind myself of who I was and what was on my mind. Morning minyan might not help me connect with my father, who was not a religious man, but could help me stay connected with the reality of his death and with myself.
A week after my father’s funeral in Manhattan, I was back at graduate school in Syracuse, and I made the early morning drive to the larger of the city’s two Conservative synagogues to say kaddish for the first time. I had been there once before, on Yom Kippur. Then, the giant pitch-roofed sanctuary was packed, removable walls fully retracted, and I was able to blend in without much effort. Early on a weekday morning in late June, things were obviously different. A few cars clustered in the enormous suburban parking lot.
A dozen men and one woman sat quietly while someone—I imagined, the rabbi—prayed aloud from a podium at the front of the room. I smiled tightly, eager to seem confident and nonthreatening, and took a seat—not too close to the front, but not too far back either. Almost immediately a youngish man closer to the front of the room caught my eye and smiled.
Within a few minutes, he’d sidled up to me and began making small talk, asking me the kinds of questions a younger version of myself would have loved to be asked. Who was I? Where was I from? Did I know other young Jewish people who, maybe, would want to come for a Friday night program sometime? Would I be back for services again? I was terse with my answers, but the questioning continued until the recitation of kaddish.
“Sorry,” I interrupted the man, gesturing toward the rabbi. “This is the part I’m here for.” Surprised and somewhat chastened, he quickly took his seat and I closed my eyes to begin saying the mourner’s prayer for my father, alone for the first time since his death.
When it was over, the man returned. “I’m so sorry,” he said. “I didn’t realize. Who are you saying kaddish for?”
“My father,” I heard myself saying. “He died last week.” The man offered his condolences and signaled to the rabbi. “Rabbi, this young man just lost his father.” The rabbi approached to shake my hand. I repeated my brief tale of woe: “My father just died. That’s why I’m here.” He winced apologetically, patted me on the shoulder and went back to his study to bring me a book he thought I would find helpful. Meanwhile, others approached and introduced themselves. I was the guest of honor at a party I couldn’t wait to leave.
When I was younger, I loved being the center of attention in synagogue.
I started going to the weekly children’s services at my parents’ Conservative congregation when I was in second grade, soon after I began Hebrew school. I went without my parents, neither of whom had received formal Jewish education and who both preferred to spend their Saturday mornings doing other, presumably less sacrosanct things. By the time I was in middle school, I deemed myself ready for the grownup service in the main sanctuary. After services, I would walk home from synagogue and catch an episode of Saved by the Bell over a lunch of prepackaged vegetable sushi my mom would pick up for me.
I wasn’t a particularly spiritual kid; I never thought much about God, and I mostly zoned out or took a stroll around the building during the long sermons and the Torah reading. But I was drawn to the rituals and the rules. And I was drawn even more to the star power a Jewishly literate, seemingly parentless preteen commands when he steps into services, throws on a tallis, and knows all the words.
Over time, I took advantage of my Upper West Side location to visit other synagogues in the neighborhood, with a bias toward the smallest, most rickety shuls I could find. If I could bring down by 10 years the average age of one congregation, there was another a few blocks away where I could bring it down 20. I felt like a welcome curiosity to the community of synagogue regulars, and they seemed to delight in having me around. Old women kissed me on the cheeks, and old men gave me schnapps at kiddush. The rabbi would say hello and ask me all sorts of questions about myself, genuinely interested in my answers. I came to think of my Judaism as a kind of VIP, all-access pass. No matter where or when I showed up, I was an honored and important guest, and I reveled in the attention. I was a novelty—eager for the embrace of strangers, excited to be interviewed by them and show off my knowledge.
During the year after my father died, I wanted to turn in my all-access pass. The scene I’d endured at that first synagogue in Syracuse repeated itself again and again. And the prospect of constantly re-introducing myself and my reason for being at services felt awful, almost cruel. During shiva, visitors to a house of mourning traditionally don’t start conversations with the mourners for fear of exhausting or offending them (though in my experience, people are far more fearful of silence than giving offense). Rather, they should wait for the mourners to speak first, and only then offer their condolences and other warm words. I wanted this rule extended to morning minyan, so I could just show up, do my thing, and leave.
I didn’t make it to services daily, but typically I went once a week, sometimes twice. Wherever in the country my job took me, I would make early morning visits to the nearest Conservative or Orthodox synagogue (Reform temples, which had become my usual denominational choice, rarely host weekday morning services). I would navigate these empty, vast buildings at sunrise and find my way to the small rooms where minyans met. I knew that, without fail, I’d soon be explaining who I was and what I wanted to a stranger, who would greet me first with excitement and then with sympathy.
In most places, morning minyans are the province of the same klatch of oldsters who’ve been worshiping together for years, or decades. They know each other—their joys and their sorrows, who’s a Kohen and who’s a Levi, who brings the cookies on Wednesdays. The rabbi, if he or she is present, picks up one day’s sermon from where they left off the day before. Like clockwork, morning minyan endures, silently humming in the background of many congregations. For this group of hardy regulars, an unexpected young visitor can seem like a boon—an infusion of new blood, perhaps a harbinger of more young visitors to come.
Many synagogues today aspire to “audacious hospitality”—the term itself is written into the Union for Reform Judaism’s 2020 vision statement. But few congregations actually seem prepared for the traveler who walks through the doors seeking anonymity, not community. Jewish mourning rituals expect stability of place; people with mobile lifestyles and careers stand out wherever they go. Even the kaddish itself can feel isolating; in Conservative and Orthodox traditions, mourners rise and recite these prayers standing, alone, with the eyes of the congregation upon them. (Reform congregations mercifully rise all together for the kaddish; everybody is mourning somebody.) The itinerant young mourner, hopping from town to town through a year of bereavement, is always a new face to some new group of old Jews.
The following summer, I rounded the final turn on my year of private, public mourning. By this point my job had become exhausting; the constant travel all-consuming. I’d show up in a new office for a few weeks or months, have a bunch of meetings and then vanish to someplace else. Few colleagues or clients really knew me, my father or my story. At first I reveled in not feeling defined by my loss, but as the kaddish period ended, I found myself wanting it to last a bit longer. A lot of healing happens in a year, but as my father’s only child I—and I alone—was mourning in extra innings.
Finding time for kaddish became one way of reminding myself of the loss I’d suffered, when everything else in my busy, transitory life seemed to make me want to forget. While the seven-day candle had burned out long ago, the torch I carried still flickered a bit. A full year of mourning started to feel luxurious and, if I could get over actually being a stranger at services, I wanted to take all I had coming to me.
Standing out as a kid who knew his way around a siddur at one time made me feel good and special; standing out now as a young man at a daily minyan reopened, again and again, the anxieties I felt as a newcomer who wanted to be left alone. Showing up at these services was lonely, forcing me to engage—early in the morning, usually before coffee—with the pain of a loss I didn’t typically open conversations with.
But, I decided, perhaps that was the point. Amid the many chores, choices, and changes that come with the death of a parent, feeling alone—examined and different—is without doubt a part of the experience. Tradition demands that we enter these spaces each day, with intention, and sit with the pain, the silence when we can find it and the questions when we can’t escape them. A narrative needs refining, a script needs regular rehearsal. It’s been eight years since my father died, and each year I find myself back at morning minyan for his yahrzeit. Wherever I am, I feel a bit readier to stand up and stand out, alone in mourning and together with strangers.
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Matt Baer lives in Brooklyn with his wife and daughter.