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Reclaiming Kaddish as a woman

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My father died on Father’s Day. I was a teenager at the time and it did not occur to me to say Kaddish for him – not then, and not for years afterwards. It wasn’t that I was a neglectful daughter. But in the Jewish world in which I was schooled – the Jewish world in which my father raised me – girls and women did not say Kaddish.

Until relatively recently, this was true for most Jews around the world. Only feisty women sometimes dared to push back against the ingrained social traditions that saw sons, but not daughters, commemorating their parents by reciting the Kaddish. Most famously, Henrietta Szold, the American Zionist who founded Hadassah, graciously, but firmly, declined a male friend’s offer to say Kaddish for Szold’s late mother.

Szold acknowledged her friend’s kindness and the custom in which only male offspring recite the Kaddish. But, she explained, it was her obligation to mourn her own dead and, in so doing, to assert her place in a generational chain and in the Jewish community. In saying Kaddish, “the survivor publicly and markedly manifests his wish and intention to assume the relation to the Jewish community, which his parent had … so the chain of tradition remains unbroken from generation to generation, each adding its own link. You can do that for the generations of your family, I must do that for the generations of my family.”

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In 1916, when Szold took on what she saw as her obligation and privilege, she pushed hard against common practice. I don’t know what reception she received when she walked into synagogues that were unaccustomed to women participating in Jewish rituals. I do know that many women, well into the last quarter of the 20th century, often found it difficult to find a minyan that would welcome their recitation of Kaddish. Nowadays, however, most synagogues, across denominations, acknowledge women as ritual mourners – whether in the immediate aftermath of the loss of a loved one, or annually at the loved one’s yahrzeit.

If I am home when the yahrzeit for either of my parents falls, I know which daily minyanim welcome my presence. But like most women, I find that things become more complicated when I travel. While Jewish men might find themselves dragged into an ad hoc prayer service anywhere on the planet, women looking to join in so that they can recite the Kaddish often find themselves turfed out.

The brilliant Talmud scholar Judith Hauptman once suggested to me that if I could not find a simpatico minyan, I should gather together some people, dedicate the study of a text to my father, and follow that with a recitation of the Kaddish d’rabanan, or rabbi’s kaddish, so termed because it mentions our “rabbis (or teachers), and their students, and their students’ students, and all those who engage in the study of Torah.”

Last year, I knew I would not find a minyan on my father’s yahrzeit. I was away from home, participating in the Summer Institute for Israel Studies, a workshop for professors who teach courses about Israel. We had spent several weeks attending classes at Brandeis University and were flying to Israel that evening.

The group was diverse – men and women of different religious affiliations, or no religious affiliation at all. I asked my colleagues if they would help me commemorate the yahrzeit and they agreed. I talked about how the act of studying together for several weeks turned us into a community of sorts. We discussed the text of the Kaddish and I talked about my father. And then I recited the Kaddish d’rabanan. It was probably the least traditional yahrzeit commemoration, but it seemed a particularly apt way to memorialize my father, who taught in inner city schools in New York and bonded with students of all backgrounds. I think he would have loved it. 

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