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Opinions | Amid a Chabad minyan, a woman says Kaddish

Four weeks ago, on the yahrzeit of my mother, Tsina Tova bat Leib Yisroel, I went to Chabad of San Francisco’s daily minyan to say Kaddish. I’ve been saying Kaddish for many years, at many different shuls in the Bay Area, but this was my first time at the Chabad-SoMa shul.

During the service, I stood behind the mechitza (the divider between the men’s and women’s sections) and felt wave after wave of memory and emotion wash over me. In some Orthodox settings, I truly feel that I don’t count, but that morning it was palpable that my presence was recognized and respected.

I want to share my experience so J. readers who have lost a loved one — especially a parent — might seek the right minyan to say Kaddish on the yahrzeit.

It is a meaningful way to connect with a loved one, with who you were when you lost that person and who you are now, and to feel that there are other people in this world who can fill the void of the lost one. Fill, but not replace, of course.

I am an only child who lost her mother at the tender age of 15. My father was not observant and never said Kaddish or lit a yahrzeit candle. When I came back to Judaism in my mid-30s, I discovered that saying Kaddish can make me feel as close (or even closer) to my mother than I felt when she was alive.

I will briefly mention that I have encountered difficulties in some places trying to say Kaddish for her. But not on this year’s yahrzeit.

I want to publicly thank the Chabad-SoMa shul and a dear female friend who came to join me on the women’s side of the mechitza. They helped bring me close to my mother; they helped fill the void.

In fact, the mechitza and my friend filled the void in a way that a mixed setting would not have done. When I fumbled to turn the page for the first Kaddish recitation, my friend handed me her book already open to the right page. She was there for me. I remembered times that my mother was there for me when I was a little girl.

I also recalled how, some years ago, I encountered the book “Motherless Daughters” by Hope Edelman, a seminal work on the gender-specific loss of a mother by a daughter, at any age.

From my mother I inherited the knack for preparing for things in advance. As such, I started preparing for my yahrzeit ritual soon after Simchat Torah. I discussed where I wanted to go for my mother’s Kaddish with my husband, Michael.

Everything I do, I do with the love of my life — except this one ritual, because both his parents are still alive, here in San Francisco. I don’t feel separated from my husband when we sit on opposite sides of a mechitza, but the six times a year when he leaves the room at the start of the Yizkor memorial service, I always feel suddenly very alone.

After Michael and I agreed I would try the Chabad-SoMa shul this year, I sent them an email saying I wanted to be there and asking if they expected to achieve a minyan that Friday.

Then I asked a female friend who knows the siddur if she would join me. When she emailed back to tell me she would be honored, I knew I’d asked the right person.

Part of the Kaddish ritual is hearing someone else’s “amen” at the end of each verse. Knowing I would have this friend beside me, and 10 men on the other side of the mechitza, made my preparations complete.

Some years ago, I asked my father-in-law, Gabriel, about what is done if there is no man to say Kaddish when the time comes to recite it. After all, in an Orthodox synagogue, for a woman to recite Kaddish, it is necessary for at least one man to be reciting it.

My father-in-law’s answer was no-nonsense. He told me not to falter and not to wait. “Say it!” was his instruction. As a Shoah survivor, he made it clear that the importance of honoring your father and mother after they are gone trumps the rules of some shuls. When the situation dictates it, I follow his advice.

There are several opportunities to say Kaddish during a morning service.

As the service continues, the later recitations become more flowing and the sense of community stronger. At the Chabad-SoMa shul, the words were not rushed, and when I needed to repeat one of the Aramaic tongue-twisters, everyone waited silently.

No one talked over my Kaddish, my Kaddish for my mother. God willing, I will return to the same shul next year to say Kaddish for her again.

Chanah Piotrkowski lives and works in San Francisco. She is an alumna of Hunter College High School in New York City and Cornell University.