The Seesaw is a new kind of advice column in which a broad range of columnists will address the real life issues faced by interfaith couples and families. Read the discussion and vote below for what you think is the best response to this particular quandary. You can email your own questions, which will remain anonymous, to: firstname.lastname@example.org
When Kaddish is a Domestic Disturbance
I am a Jewish man married to a non-Jewish women. My father is very sick, and will likely pass away in the next few months. I have not been particularly observant in my life, nor were my parents, but the idea of my losing my father has me seeking comfort in Judaism.
I told my wife about how you are supposed to say Kaddish every day for a year and she says she will do her best to support me, but that I needed to understand that leaving her alone with our two girls every morning is asking a lot. Seesaw, I can’t tell who is right and who is wrong here. Am I ridiculous to suddenly act like I am Mr. Jew and demand to mourn like a religious man? Or is she being insensitive to my grief and tradition? I am very emotional right now, as you might imagine, and could use some insight.—Sad in SoCal
This Might Be More About Childcare, and Less About Kaddish
LAUREL SNYDER: First let me offer my sympathies for what you’re going through. It sounds like a difficult time, and I wish you the best as you make your way through this hard year.
But I want to say that I don’t think this is an issue particular to intermarriage. We all grieve differently, and when someone suffers a loss within a family, the other members of the family generally make accommodations. If you found that going for a long run every morning helped you handle your father’s passing, I’d hope your wife would understand. Just as I’d hope you’d watch the kids each morning if the situation was reversed.
I’m curious to know what the usual balance of childcare in the home is. Honestly, I can’t help wondering if Kaddish-as-battleground is emblematic of other struggles. If your wife feels like the default parent, I can see how this might feel like a last straw for her. So I wonder if maybe you can trade-off in some other way? Offer to give her an extra block of time in the afternoon for something she cares about? Maybe you can handle bedtimes this year, while she handles mornings?
In general, I’m not in favor of my turn/your turn. But as the primary parent in my own home, I know I sometimes get to a breaking point. In those moments what I need most is for my husband to make it clear that he sees how much I’m doing daily, and that he values my time.
I can’t help thinking that your own insecurities over your sudden return to faith are causing you to focus on the wrong aspect of this argument, and that if you sit down and hammer out a fair division of labor with your wife, you’ll find her issues aren’t with Kaddish at all, but rather with her own exhaustion.
Kaddish Doesn’t Need to Be Every Morning
GABRIELLE BIRKNER: First, I want to acknowledge what a difficult time this must be for you. I hope you and your father can share some meaningful moments in his remaining days.
When it comes time to mourn your dad, it is understandable that you would seek comfort in Jewish rituals. Even the most secular among us may feel compelled to reconnect with faith traditions around major lifecycle events. It is also understandable that your wife would be concerned about the very real challenges of caring for two young children on her own, every morning for a year. That said, I wouldn’t be surprised if, in time, your wife is the one encouraging you to say Kaddish — if she sees that the daily ritual provides you space to process your relationship with your father, or just a useful rhythm amid otherwise disorienting grief.
One thing to consider: Kaddish need not be recited in the morning, and many Jewish communities have afternoon and evening minyans. These might enable you to say Kaddish during a short midday break, on your way home from work or even after your daughters are asleep.
But if you do miss a day, for whatever reason, there’s no need for self-recrimination, said Rabbi Asher Lopatin, President of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School in New York. Saying Kaddish, he said, is “not Torah law, it’s a custom,” and one that can be picked up the following day.
Take Your Kids to Kaddish
SCOTT PERLO: When someone dies, especially a parent, a great hole is ripped right through everyday life; one can hardly avoid seeing deep existential questions peer through from the other side. Death, for the mourners, is always a confrontation with loss, but it is usually a confrontation with a lot more than that. In those moments, the line between religion and life is very, very thin.
I think that turning to Judaism at this time is less a sign of new religiosity; your father’s illness is making you face your humanity – and his. For that reason, I think it’s essential that you follow your gut and make minyan when the time comes. Usually, in this column, all I’ve got to give is well-meaning advice; but this time I think I may have an actual solution for you: bring one or both of your children to synagogue with you. And though parents will recoil in horror at the logistical acrobatics involved, remember that your children, as a result, will remember for their entire lives how one mourns. You could not teach them better than by such an example.
It is possible that your wife is worried that you may be changing the terms of your relationship, and moving further away from her – time for a talk, I think. Regardless, in these circumstances she should endeavor to support you, and you’re going to owe her big time for making space for you to mourn. Find a way to pay her back.
Rabbi Scott Perlo is a rabbi at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington D.C, a unique institution that reaches out to Jewish and “Jewish adjacent” young professionals of all denominations and backgrounds.