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Why I Was Denied the Right to Mourn My Late Mother

“You cannot say Kaddish.” Had those words had been said with sympathy, or at least respect for my loss, I wouldn’t be writing this.

On my first morning in Budapest, October 7, the 24th day of Tishrei, I saw an old man standing in a doorway of the Talmud-Torah behind the Dohany Street Synagogue. I asked if he spoke English. He said no, but I tried one more question.

“Can I daven Shaharit here?” I asked, referring to the morning prayer service.

“I think no, for woman.” He sounded apologetic.

“To say Kaddish for my mother,” the mourner’s prayer.

“Maybe,” he said with sympathy, and pointed to his watch.  “Seven and half.”

I got to the Talmud-Torah about five minutes early. The guard at the door moved to stop me until I said “Shaharit.”

The first man I spoke to shook his head as I spoke English, but pointed me toward a lone woman sitting at a table in an alcove at the side of the room. No English. A little Hebrew.

“Ani rotsah medaber Kaddish l’ima.” I don’t remember what she said or did, but I understood I had to talk to someone who wasn’t there yet. I waited beside her until she pointed out a man hanging up his coat.

“You cannot say Kaddish. This is not a Reformed synagogue.”

He spoke at me with such anger and contempt you’d have thought I’d asked to piss on the floor, not say a prayer for the mother I’m mourning.

I just stood there looking at him, literally speechless.

“You can ask someone to say Kaddish for you.”  It sounded more like a dare than an offer.

There were a dozen or so men waiting for him to start Shaharit. I cringed at the thought of going from one to another, asking in a language they didn’t speak, “Would you say Kaddish for my mother?” And who knew, they might send me back to the angry man. 

Image by Haaretz

I took the more painful, but less difficult path and asked the angry man, “Would you say Kaddish for my mother?” “What is her name? Her Hebrew name.” He practically spat the word Hebrew, as though he was daring me to know it. I told him, and instantly regretted it. The last thing I wanted was for this man to say Kaddish for my mother. I took a seat beside the woman at the table, crying through the first few prayers, following her page-turning when I got lost in the lightning speed of his chanting.

Near the end, a woman came in with several dishes and set them on the waist-high wall that marked half the border between the room and the alcove.  While others were still praying, several men wandered over to peak under the foil.  Women must be kept separate from men, lest they distract them from prayer, but food is allowed. When the service ended everyone helped themselves to breakfast except the angry man, who sat where he’d just stood to lead Shaharit and lit a cigarette. It felt, to me, disrespectful to smoke on what had served as the bimah. Even more disturbing was his hypocrisy. Having raced through the service, he now sat and smoked with leisure, this man who presented himself as literally holier than thou. With Yom Kippur so recently past, I thought about Isaiah 58:3-7: “‘Wherefore have we fasted, and Thou seest not? Wherefore have we afflicted our soul, and Thou takest no knowledge?’ … Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the fetters of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him, and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?”

But in my mind it became, “Is this the devotion you choose, to embrace Orthodox tradition while turning your back on gemilut hasadim (acts of loving-kindness)?”

Nihum avelim, comforting mourners, is a mitzvah, a good deed. As for causing mourners distress, is that not an aveirah, a transgression?

Since the 17th century, rabbis have been ruling on daughters saying Kaddish, and for each decision to allow it, a later one overrules it, from the Amsterdam Rabbinate vs. Rav Yair Chayim Bacharach to Yosef Eliyahu Henkin vs. Rav Shlomo Wahrman.

Jewish law exempts women from time-specific mitzvot such as praying in the morning; it doesn’t prohibit them. That prohibition is a tradition of the Orthodox. If women are allowed to say Kaddish they’ll want to daven Shaharit, and if that’s allowed they’ll want to be counted in a Minyan, or act as a hazzan and each blow against tradition will weaken it until it crumbles – so the overruling rabbis such as Rav Wahrman and Rav Yisrael Meir Lau argued.

Was the angry man angry because he fears such changes?

His way of defending Orthodox tradition struck a blow against gemilut hasadim. Try sitting on a three-legged stool when one of the legs is damaged. Without the third pillar of compassion, the world goes out of balance, and no set of traditions, however numerous and strong, can set it to rights.    Not only this Hungarian synagogue, but all Jewish houses of prayer must choose their leaders carefully, to ensure all Jews are treated with compassion, and that no one – especially no mourner – is ever again greeted with contempt.


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