In late August, The Sisterhood launched a series examining the role of women in Jewish mourning traditions. Grieving for a loved one is fiercely personal; doing so as a woman, guided by Jewish laws and rituals, can be comforting or restricting, depending on one’s experience. We asked you, Sisterhood readers, to share your stories. Many people responded. Some women felt marginalized, even alienated, by their limited roles in the mourning process. Others felt invigorated and strengthened, and found deep comfort in community. What resulted was a portrait of Jewish female mourning. This series, which includes essays from writers and submissions from readers, will appear on The Sisterhood blog this week. —Abigail Jones
The following stories from Sisterhood readers are just a sample of the many we received. They have been edited for style and length.
I stand on the other side of the mechitza. I have no desire to do otherwise. So when my father passed away a few years ago, I would have been more than happy to shed my tears out of view and among the company of just other women — steadied by their collective strength, strengthened by the knowledge that afterward they would be there for me, bringing a hot meal and a solacing word.
But it was not to be.
A Reform clergyman was going to officiate at the funeral. I knew what that meant. During the eulogy, he would talk mostly about how my father loved ice cream and poker — which was true, but not the point. A Jewish hesped (eulogy) is a time to speak about the good deeds that the deceased has done — the mitzvos, the charitable causes they believed in and supported, the simple acts of kindness they did in a way that was uniquely their own.
I felt that someone needed to speak about that. So I did give a hesped. But inside — behind my inner mechitza — I was crying, both for my father and our traditions, whose wisdom and beauty have become buried under so many layers of misunderstanding and neglect.
—Libi Astaire, 59 years old
When my grandmother died, I arranged for her to be buried in her mother’s nightgown. No one in my family had known that such a garment existed. I knew, because during the time I got to care for her in the years before she died, she had told me all about it.
I was responsible for my grandmother’s life in many ways, tending to her business and personal affairs because my father and his brother did not. I was also responsible for the arrangements after her death, arranging a traditional burial, complete with a shomer, someone to accompany her body, all the way from Los Angeles to her resting place in Florida.
A grandchild is not obligated to follow Jewish mourning practices (a spouse, child, parent and sibling are the only relatives designated as mourners by Jewish law) and in many ways, traditional Jewish ways of showing allegiance were closed to me in my grief. I wanted to mourn for my grandmother the way Judaism had taught me. Instead, I felt like a second-class griever.
When my grandmother left this world, I was singing to her, a Hebrew poem I learned from my UCLA Hillel years before. She stirred, something shifted in the air, and the next moment, I knew she was gone. I was alone in the room with her tiny body in my arms. I stopped singing.
—Mayim Bialik, 37 years old
There Was No One Else
In my world, female speakers address female audiences, unless…
That unless happened to me when my uncle died. There was no one to eulogize him. He left no children. His wife wasn’t a public speaker nor were the other next of kin. It’s likely that someone from the funeral home could have cobbled together words of parting but the notion of a send-off by a stranger seemed like an insult to my uncle’s warm, generous soul.
Could I step up to the plate? I asked one of the rabbis in my community, and not someone known for his liberal views.
“Is there any one else to do it?” he asked. No, I replied. “Then go ahead,” he said.
And so I stood in front of the coffin, draped with a black cloth and I told the crowd how upon arrival in Auschwitz my uncle ripped apart his brand new suit rather than give it to the Nazis. I told them how, while a foreman at the camp, he helped his inmates, instructing them to pretend to work so as not to kill themselves through exhaustion. And I told them about his postwar life — how he made it in business but always acceded to any request for charity. My words spilled out to quickly. I had a catch in my throat and there were wet eyes in the crowd. The mystics say that the dead are present at their eulogies. I hope that my uncle was there and I hope he was smiling.
My arm, like my heart, was aching. I’d been hand-grating white rose potatoes in an attempt to recreate my Bubbie’s potato kugel. My father was still sitting shiva for Bubbie. She was the last of my grandparents, a glorious blend of old Jewish world and new. She was a very modern Orthodox rebbetzin, but she was also my quintessentially “American” grandmother with no trace of a Russian accent. She put herself through the University of Chicago at a time when such opportunities for women were scarce, taught inner city children, was always dressed to the nines — and loved me fiercely.
Modern Orthodox, I unhesitatingly eulogized her from the bima and poured earth from Israel into her grave. But the potato kugel was my Kaddish. A well known balabusta, Bubbie’s culinary triumph was her potato kugel. Superstitiously, I refused to make it before, but now I wished I could have sought her counsel (“Is that enough salt?”). Although I hand-grated only some of the potatoes through tears and let the Cuisinart do the rest — forgive me, Bubs — my kitchen smelled like hers and the kugel did look the same. But I know it will never be quite as good.
—Jessica Levine Kupferberg, 40 years old.
Whispering My Father’s Kaddish
August 27, 2013. It was my second day of college, the last day of saying Kaddish for my dad. When I went to Shacharit at the Hillel, the chazzan asked me if I wanted to say the prayer on my own or along with a man. I did want to say it by myself; it would have been the first time that I had ever done so. On the other hand, I was scared to do it solo.
As a feminist, I wanted to say the Kaddish alone in order to assert my voice and show that I am a member of the community. Since I was the only person on the women’s side of the mechitzah, I didn’t feel like I was part of any community. I felt like an outsider, a spectator rather than an active participant in the prayers. This isolation and consequent fear and intimidation crippled me, making me terrified to raise my feminine voice and say Kaddish alone in front of a group of men. So I whispered my own father’s Kaddish while a man, someone who I don’t even know, said it out loud.
—Talia Weisberg, 18 years old.
My father’s family — very Lebovitch. My brother’s smicha — HUAC, Cincinnati. My rabbinical training — Reconstructionist. My father had been the rabbi of a Conservative congregation when he suffered his fatal heart attack.
At my uncle’s house, they were starting to daven for the shiva minyan, starting with some Torah study. My family was sitting in the kitchen, processing food and words. They came to collect my brother to join the davening and say Kaddish.
We looked at each other and together came toward the room. Aghast, they said only my brother. We said, then neither.
This discourse repeated two more times, so my brother and I went to another room to talk. Eventually, they decided my brother had to say Kaddish, so if he insisted I come along, they would accommodate that by having us stand in the hallway at the back of the room so that I would be with him — but outside. We agreed to come into the room together and see the space. My brother immediately placed me inside the room and he toward the outside as we davened with appropriate responses from the siddur they had handed him as we entered and which I now held. When we came to the Kaddish, which they invited him to lead, we led together with my voice clearly intoning over the gathering.
—Rabbi Shafir Lobb
An Unexpected Sisterhood
When I lost my parents, I turned to my synagogue’s evening minyan. There, I unexpectedly found a sisterhood. Saying Kaddish daily put me into my community when I needed it most. I welcomed the structure of devoting a set time in my day to the weight of my grief. At minyan, I didn’t have to discuss anything, but if I wanted to, people were there.
One minyanaire, Becky, expressly told me that minyan was her mitzvah and she was there for me. She paid attention. If I needed tissues, she had them. I knew she would listen when I wanted to talk, but never tell me what I needed. After my 11 months ended, she stayed with me, holding me close during my first yizkor service.
Once I told her that I was worried about my grief at the b’nai mitzvah of my triplet sons even though nearly three years had passed.
“You enjoy the day. I’ll sit in back and be your designated crier,” she promised.
Reliably, she was there, performing her mitzvah, tears in her eyes. It helped me on so many levels. I am forever grateful.
—Amy Sessler Powell, 50 years old.
Mourning My Best Friend
“How do I explain our relationship?” I wonder when a shul application asks about my relation to the deceased in the “Yartzeit Information” box. I lost my best friend at 23. In college, we slept on each other’s floors, nursed each other through colds, and laughed together like hyenas. Together, we also endured her crushing, all-consuming depression. One evening I awoke at 4:00 a.m. to her empty bed and called her frantically. Upon answering she told me blithely that she was with a guy, and I offered to pick her up. She turned me down. An hour later she called back, and I tramped outside into the New England winter. Knowing she was safe was more important than the temperature.
In March 2011, she died, while I was six thousand miles away. After my parents called I tore my shirt. Halachically, rending garments wasn’t for me, but I did it without regret. I went to the Kotel that evening and recited Kaddish alone. Saying the ancient Aramaic prayer allowed me to feel productive and communalized my grief — despite its forbidden nature for single people and women. But there is no ritual, no acknowledgement for losing a best friend.
—Adrienne Yoe, 26 years old.
Making Tradition My Own
My father, alav hashalom, died on a Saturday. Passover started on the following Monday night. Shiva normally doesn’t start until after the burial, and stops for holidays like Passover. However, my father wasn’t buried for 12 days, leaving me as an onen for nearly two weeks. According to Jewish tradition, I shouldn’t have had a shiva service until after the burial, but I had one in my home the evening after he died, anyway. In addition, he died and was buried in a place where there are no synagogues. I planned and led the graveside funeral service myself. We didn’t have a minyan, but a minyan gathered in my rabbi’s office back home, and I said the Mourner’s Kaddish with them over the cell phone while I stood at my father’s grave.
—Susan Barnes, 49 years old.
The Loneliest Experience
Every night since my father passed I am haunted by the words he said to me at the end of his life, when I called and he could barely speak. My beloved Abba, who knew eight languages and was eloquent in all of them, could no longer express himself. Nevertheless, in one of our last “conversations” Abba said, “Don’t forget” several times. When my brother asked what our father meant, I took a guess, and told my brother he didn’t want me to forget the beautiful zemirot we would sing together for Shabbat. However, I wondered whether what my father was really asking me not to forget was to say Kaddish.
When the day I had dreaded my entire life finally happened, I began saying Kaddish daily, no matter where I was — including Indianapolis, Columbus, St. Louis, Danbury, Kansas City and Cherry Hill. At home in New York, I say Kaddish daily, usually at one of two Orthodox shuls in my community.
It was in Columbus, Ohio, in a beautiful Conservative shul where I had my most profound Kaddish experience. I was not only counted but given an aliyah. I was in a strange community, where I knew no one, and yet was honored by being called to the Torah where my father’s name could be recited. Malka bat Harav Moshe Bezalel.
It is back in New York, in my own community where I find saying Kaddish the loneliest of experiences. It is ironic that Kaddish requires a minyan, a sense of community, but because I have the “wrong” body parts I am not counted in my community. With anger I often sit waiting for davening to begin as the congregants wait for the tenth man to arrive while I sit there uncounted, ignored and alone.
But the haunting words of my beloved Abba, “don’t forget” and what he might have meant by them trumps my own anger and I will continue to go daily to shul these last few weeks as I know in my father’s soul, I do count.
—Malka Margolies, 53 years old.
The Only Woman
At his deathbed, my father Robert Ottemberg first mentioned his mother, Else. At 18, on a train platform saying good-bye, she probably knew this was their final farewell. My father arrived in the Dominican Republic on December 7, 1942. A few months later, Else was murdered in Treblinka.
When the City of Bayreuth held a memorial service for its Holocaust victims. I went. No one had said Kaddish for my great-grandmother Frieda Fleischmann in over 60 years. The head of the Jewish community prohibited me from reciting Kaddish. I countered that I had not traveled so far not to say Kaddish. When he left the minyan, I became the 10th.
I am the only woman in the history of Bayreuth to pray at the Jewish cemetery. I was not triumphant. Else had only one son; he had only one daughter. Who else was to say Kaddish? It was my responsibility; I fulfilled it.
—Edie Abrams, 63 years old.
Mourning My Mom
When I lost my beloved mother a month ago, I was determined not to be marginalized as I had been during my father’s funeral and shiva 10 years earlier.
My father’s Modern Orthodox rabbi urged us not to respond to the embraces of friends at the funeral. He only agreed to attend shiva once at my parents’ city apartment. At his request, my mother, sister and I came to the synagogue each evening during shiva to hear Kaddish, only to find the main sanctuary cold and dark, with the men ensconced in the cheery annex used on weekdays. The annex did not have a mechitza, so we had to sit in the sanctuary row closest to the annex, the windows open so we could hear the prayers. This time, I explained that as our mother’s only children, my sister and I wanted to recite Kaddish. The empathic Chabad rabbi agreed — as long as a man said it with us. He allowed men and women to sit together at the funeral, and I gave the eulogy. Surrounded by family and friends, sitting shiva for my mother allowed me to grieve and commence healing — just as ancient Jewish wisdom intended.