Kaddish Yatom. The orphan’s mourning prayer. These ancient Aramaic words that Jews have chanted for more than 2,000 years have an eerily mystical sound about them, of another world, even though they refer to the one we live in.
The prayer structure of the mourner’s recitation and the congregation’s response and affirmation enable the mourner to be comforted by the community even though death is not mentioned in its content.
But 40 years ago, they were anything but soothing for me.
The first time I ever recited this ancient prayer was at my mother’s funeral on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, where she was being buried. As her corpse was laid deep into the ground, I whispered these words to myself. My brother, being a male, was invited to recite the Kaddish in front of all those who came to pay their last respects. When I asked the funeral organizers to join him, as my mother’s younger child, I was denied with a curt and contemptuous “no.”
As a 16-year-old girl, I was being deprived of most of the Jewish burial traditions that I so wanted to partake in — in these most tragic and meaningful moments of my mother’s life and my own — because I was a female.
Sobbing, I was physically held back by the Orthodox women staff, not from the grief of six traumatic months of failed cancer treatment ending in my mother’s death on my birthday, but from the sheer fury caused by the situation and the callous discrimination of my right to take an active part in the funeral side by side with my brother.
It was indeed ironic.
My mother, Sadie, Sarah Morris z”l, a Marxist revolutionary in her younger days, a pioneer woman on a new Galilee kibbutz before the State of Israel was declared, and in later years, a leader in Naamat, the women’s trade union movement of Israel; she fought for the advancement of Jewish and Arab women and represented the Israeli women’s rights movement at conferences worldwide.
Here, at my mom’s own burial, her teenage daughter was denied that right to be part of this sacred Jewish ritual of burial. My teenage fury and those tears of rage at the discrimination and bullying by the haredim who conducted the funeral were memorably powerful, those shards of pain deeply embedded.
As I recited Kaddish on Shabbat recently in her memory at Makom LA synagogue, 40 years on, these painful images emerged and were mourned by the flood of my salted tears. I remembered that intense anger, hurt and fury.
But, this yahrzeit, there was also a deep smile and sense of particularly Jewish justice and rectification. I felt the pride that came from making the choice last year to pursue rabbinic studies at AJRCA, as a female.
This choice is one significant way to honor my mother’s blessed memory and to acknowledge through positive and affirmative action all that she represented for me as a woman fighting for her convictions, not only for equal opportunities but for the need to walk the talk of pluralism, fighting sexism, chauvinism and prejudice because of gender discrimination.
I often wonder how she, as a sworn atheist, would have regarded my decision to become a rabbi. But my soul tells me that hers was very present at her funeral, and that somehow she would have witnessed how her beloved 16-year-old daughter was treated.
In Pirkei Avot, the Wisdom of our Sages, we read the words “asse lecha rav,” make yourself a rabbi teacher. There is nothing like human experience, no matter how young, to make this happen, and the force of memory to incur change.
The Kaddish speaks of life and the glory and kingdom of God, and ends with the call for peace amongst the people of Israel.
Perhaps in my mother’s death, and at this painful closure of her life, my silent recitation of the Kaddish marked the moment of a new birth, also painful and yet necessary for the planting of that seed for change. In her death, my mother’s legacy gave me the most beautiful gift and lesson she could ever have given me in her lifetime. And hopefully in my becoming a rabbi, perhaps officiating at someone else’s mother’s funeral, and inspiring young Jewish women to become community leaders.
May her memory always be for me and my daughters a blessing and an opportunity for making Judaism accessible to all, and enabling all to experience meaningful ritual, role modeling for Jewish women’s spiritual leadership. We must walk the talk of B’tzelem Elohim, recognizing that we all should be treated as equals in life, and in death.
Only then will we find the “peace” that the Kaddish celebrates at its conclusion.