by Rita Plush (New York, NY)
I was not a religious woman. I did not keep kosher. I drove and carried on the Sabbath, but when my mother died in 1995 I decided to say Kaddish for her. She had honored the role of motherhood in her quiet and loving way for so many years of my life; it was my turn to honor her. When I told her rabbi I’d decided to take on the responsibility of Kaddish every day for 11 months, he said it wasn’t expected of me. A polite way of saying I wouldn’t be included in the minyan, the ten people required for communal worship—ten male people that is.
A bar mitzvah boy, still sleeping with a nite-lite? According to ancient rabbinic decree and prevailing diktat in the Conservative movement then, that pisher would be counted; he was up to the task. A 58-year-old female who had raised three children, gone to college and was running a business? Talk to the hand! No matter; I wasn’t there to make noise and change the rules of female inequality in Jewish ritual. I was there to pay tribute to my mother’s passing, a loss so profound, it felt as if my very connection to the universe had been broken.
Yiskah-dol v’yiska-dosh sh-may ra’bbo begins the ancient Aramaic prayer.
The words had a power I could not name but when I recited that opening line, I was part of the world again! Part of all Jews who, for centuries past, had shown their respect for their loved ones the way I was respecting my mother. I felt connected to them and to Jews in present time, whoever and wherever they were, remembering their beloveds as I was. I was not alone in my grief. Yet a need began to bloom in me. Reading the Kaddish phonetically was not enough; something was missing.
Had been missing, every time I held a siddur. When I sat and when I stood during High Holiday services; when I bowed my head and beat my breast, following the prayers and blessings, silently reading in English. I wanted the language of my ancestors on my lips. I wanted to read Hebrew.
And so I learned, in a classroom with other like-minded adults, part of National Jewish Outreach’s Read Hebrew America program, hieroglyphs in the booklet, square and blocky, rather than actual letters. I tried to commit to memory the significance of the undersized T’s, the dots and dashes under a particular letter—the new world of sound that was Hebrew. It took study and time; it took some sweat as I labored over a service’s opening prayers while the morning minyan was wrapping up the closing Aleinu. But I kept at it and after a few months I was reading along (struggling along, is more like it) feeling the presence of the matriarchs, Sarah, Rebekah and Leah, my matriarch, Malka, now among them.
Soon after my mourning period was over, my synagogue became egalitarian—sort of, or as my Grandmother used to say, nisht du, nisht ort, not here, not there. To appease the older, more traditional-leaning congregants, women were included in the minyan in the smaller, downstairs chapel, while upstairs in the main sanctuary, it was business as usual. So be it; they built it and I came, called upon to be present for others saying Kaddish, as others had been present for me. Every Tuesday morning, with gratitude and my faltering Hebrew I joined the minyan and helped a mourner honor their loved one.
In time, my synagogue became fully egalitarian, and it felt good. It felt right to be a fully acknowledged member in good standing of my Jewish community. But whether I was counted downstairs, upstairs, or no-stairs, it didn’t matter. In the tradition of my people I had given tribute to all my mother was to me. And… I learned my alef beis.
Rita Plush is the author of the novels, Lily Steps Out and Feminine Products, and the short story collection, Alterations. She is the book reviewer for Fire Island News, and teaches memoir, Continuing Education, Queensborough Community College. If you’d like to learn more about Rita and her work, visit: https://ritaplush.com