Debate Magazine

Saying Kaddish Because I Should

Posted on the 14 December 2012 by Starofdavida
Saying Kaddish Because I ShouldDon't forget to submit an entry to the Second Annual Star of Davida Essay Contest!
I suppose this story begins on October 8, 2012, when my father died. As I am an Orthodox Jew, there are numerous mourning rituals that have to be followed. One such ritual is to say Kaddish, a prayer that appears several times in all three daily prayer services, for 11 months in memory of the deceased. Kaddish can only be recited in the presence of a minyan, or group of ten men above the age of 13. (For the moment, let’s put aside our feminist objections to this and just accept it as fact.) Traditionally, Kaddish is recited by the deceased’s closest male relative. It is completely permissible for a woman to say Kaddish; however, it’s unusual, especially in right-wing Orthodox communities like mine.
Well, I’ve never claimed to be your typical Orthodox girl.
At the funeral, I was too out of it to demand to say Kaddish, and my rabbi certainly wasn’t going to ask me, a girl, if I wanted to. In the weeks after the funeral, I never bothered seeking out a minyan, since I usually just pray by myself. I have a [male] cousin saying Kaddish, so it’s not like my father’s soul is depending on me to say the prayer.
This story reaches its climax on the last weekend of November 2012, at a hotel in Bushkill, Pennsylvania. Nearly every Jewish high school in North Americahosts an annual Shabbaton, where students and faculty members alike pack their suitcases, board coach buses, and arrive at a remote hotel to celebrate Shabbat (the Sabbath) together.
On Saturday morning, every student was expected to wake up and run to Shacharit (morning prayers) at 9 AM. Considering I went to sleep at 3 AM, it’s not surprising that I woke up late and got to Shacharit even later. It only occurred to me when I sat down and started catching up to the rest of the group that this was the first time I could say Kaddish for my father, since it was the first time I was praying in the presence of a minyan. However, just because I was physically capable of saying Kaddish doesn’t mean that I would be allowed to say it.
I knew that I would have to ask my principal for permission to say Kaddish. But was it worth it? I knew that there was a 99% chance she would say no, so if I asked, it would really just be to make a statement. There was no way I could just jump in and start Kaddish. I asked my friend sitting next to me for her thoughts on the situation, and she concurred that there was little chance I would get the green light to say Kaddish. Scenes of my principal saying “oh, one of the men can say it for you!” or “but don’t you have a male relative saying it?” swam through my head. These imagined statements so enraged me that I decided to get up and ask her. As I got out of my seat, she left the room. I decided that it was a sign from God that I shouldn’t push it, it wasn’t worth making a statement, I just wouldn’t say Kaddish. Whatever.
But then, God showed me a different sign, granted me an early Chanukah gift: a man began saying Kaddish. I could say it along with him.
I stumbled over the unfamiliar Aramaic words that comprise the Kaddish, my voice shaking out of fear that someone would shush me, call out “women don’t say Kaddish!” But my fears were unfounded: I said Kaddish three times, and nobody tried to quiet me.
I can’t say I didn’t expect a reaction to my unusual behavior. Luckily, none of the comments that were said directly to me were particularly negative. It was mostly questions, fueled by a genuine curiosity about what I was doing: Are you the only one saying Kaddish for your dad, or do you have a male family member doing it also? Do you always say it? Are you just saying it because you’re a feminist, or can girls actually say it? Is it traditional for a daughter to say it in addition to the guy who’s saying it?
And this is the story of how I said Kaddish. I don’t know when I’ll next find myself in presence of a minyan. Whenever it is, I’ll probably say Kaddish then, too. Because I can. Because I should. And if people don’t like hearing it, they can just plug their ears. Their disapproval will not shut me up. Ever.

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