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Traditional synagogues are bifurcated by a wall, a mechitza, that keeps men and women in their sex-assigned place. In “Kaddish,” trying to reclaim his tradition in contemporary life, Wieseltier went to men’s side of the partition, leaving the other half of the sanctuary unexplored.
But what could Wieseltier have tried to say, if he wanted to right the wrong of ignoring half of our population?
The quarantining of women to the kitchen and child-bearing bed, far from the study halls and rabbinic pulpits, created a distinct female Judaica, evolving in the personal and domestic sphere. Women’s traditions were not preserved in brash books revered and elevated by the passing of time. It is very difficult to say what the legacy of religious Jewish women is beyond chicken soup and submissiveness.
Reading Wieseltier takes me back to my parents’ Sabbath table. After the soup, after a hymn had been sung and soda distributed to the children, my mother would sit, perched on the edge of her chair, pinching fingernails at the ready to silence any of us, as my father prepared to share a dvar Torah.
Rabbi so-and-so asks, he would say. Rabbis’ questions were not wild and unseemly like those of teenage girls. Rabbis’ questions were like the cover of a jewelry box being lifted — there was always a perfectly fitted cavity to be filled. And so Rabbi so-and-so teaches us, my father concluded.
When I was 9, my father and I developed a game. He would tell a parable and I would try to guess the story’s moral. All of the children could play, but he always asked for my interpretation before revealing the true lesson behind the story. My father didn’t know then how to say “I love you,” but that was his message as he facilitated an exchange that made room for my voice.
As I got older, his world offered no further room for our relationship to mature. How could my father love his daughter if, in his faith, all love was bound to Torah learning, and Torah learning was restricted to men?
The Kaddish, an obsequious prayer of 75 words, is traditionally recited by men at synagogue services for 11 months after a family member’s death. “Blessed, praised, glorified, exalted, extolled, mighty, upraised, and lauded be the Name of the Holy One,” and on and on. But there is also another Jewish prayer for death — the Shema.
Shema Yisroel Adonai Elohainu Adonai echad.
Hear O Israel my Master our God my Master is one.