My father, a fan of life, music and his home state politician Joe Biden, died soon after the first case of Covid-19 was reported in Delaware — although fortunately not of Covid-19. He was felled by “natural causes,”also known as the physical vicissitudes of old age.
Dad’s death was not unexpected, but because of the pandemic, I have been grieving not only the loss of my traditionally Jewish, shul-going father, but also the loss of my ability to mourn him in the traditional Jewish way—including the opportunity to say Kaddish.
While knowing that I might find comfort in being only one of many who can’t go through the traditional motions of Jewish mourning, grieving for Dad has been difficult, beginning with being the only one in my immediate family who couldn’t be at his graveside funeral. Instead, from my home in New York City, I zoomed into the Jewish Community Cemetery in Wilmington, Delaware, and watched the rest of my family stand beside my father’s grave and shovel dirt over his casket. And even though I got my chance to speak, my semi-eulogy seemed too thin and diluted, and too short. I had thought about saying more—how Dad used to call me by one of two names, “Mars,” or the Yiddish “Malkele” — but I didn’t. Confined by the mandated distance, I couldn’t even shed tears.
My father’s death was not a tragedy. He had at least 90 good years, as his longtime lawyer opined when we gathered, over a year ago to talk about wills and powers of attorney. And, as Lauren Collins wrote in the May 11, 2020 issue of The New Yorker, “Parents die every day, and often their children don’t get to be with them.” So I tell myself not to compound my sorrow with self-pity.
Dad died six weeks after our family celebrated his 94th birthday at the assisted living facility, Lodge Lane, where my parents had taken up residence over the past year. My parents’ move to Lodge Lane, 11 months earlier, had been painful and difficult for everyone except my father. A performer since the age of 4, Dad sang to the nurses’ aides who dressed him, bathed him and gave him his medicine.
And whenever I visited, we sang tunes from our family songbook: Yiddish songs from childhood, such as Rozhinkes Mit Mandlen (Raisins and Almonds), his Boy Scout camp song, A Wise Old Owl, and 1940s hits such as I’ll be With You in Apple Blossom Time. For one of our last duets, during my penultimate visit to Wilmington in early March, he chimed in on Anchors Aweigh as I pushed his wheelchair down the hall. Dad, a WWII Navy veteran, couldn’t remember all the words, but he hummed what he couldn’t articulate.
For the past several decades, our time together had been marked by laughter, music, WWII talks and other reminiscences. Dad liked relating a story about starting to introduce himself to Joseph Biden in the 1990s when the former Delaware senator cut him short. “I know you, Lou,” Biden had said, giving him a hug.
When his doctor told me that Dad’s prognosis was days or weeks rather than weeks to months, I started thinking seriously about what would happen in the end. Would Dad make it to my younger son’s birthday in the middle of March, or my niece’s birthday, 5 days later? Would we all be able to say goodbye in person? And most important, how would my mother, to whom he had been married 71 years, be able to go on with her life?
One of the last things on my mind was whether or how I would say Kaddish for my father, and whether he would want me to. As a daughter, I knew I was exempt under Jewish law. But after Dad’s burial, when I asked my local Modern Orthodox rabbi about Kaddish, he sent me two prayers that can be used as “Kaddish for an individual,” from the 9th and 13th centuries. I began saying these after my daily recitation of the Shacharit (morning prayers), which I also took on after Dad died, and which he had recited daily for most of his life.
But I only thought of Kaddish as an obligation; I didn’t consider its cathartic potential until a friend, who had just completed a year of mourning, sent me a book called, Kaddish: Women’s Voices, a compendium of 52 essays on the intersection of Kaddish and grief.
I finished the book in one sitting, poring over passages such as “Saying kaddish was the last thing I could do for my father, and in some ways, it filled a hole.” I contemplated how this ancient prayer might bring Dad closer to me, even after his death. And perhaps it would help me atone for ever having hurt him.
Unfortunately, like so many other traditionally observant Jewish mourners during this pandemic, I have little choice but to wait either until this plague finishes passing over all our houses, or at least until saying Kaddish through zoom is declared officially kosher by most rabbis. Whether I can make the regular daily commitment over the prescribed 12 months of mourning—amid illness, family obligations, and the opprobrium of those who don’t countenance women saying Kaddish— is something I might have trouble sustaining even in the best of times. But my hope, God and science willing, is that I get the chance to try.
Marla Brown Fogelman is a writer now living in New York City. In addition to the Forward, her work has appeared in the The Washington Post, Tablet, Parents, and other national and regional publications.