How praying every day helped me heal from grief — in synagogues all over the world
By Paula Shoyer
When Jews lose a parent, tradition teaches that we should say kaddish — a blessing praising God — every day for a year. Kaddish cannot be recited quietly at home. It is a community prayer, one recited only out loud in the presence of at least 10 Jews.
Saying kaddish for a parent is a serious commitment. It eats into family time, work time and, most of all, sleep. You plan your day around it.
My mother died a little over a year ago. And as I look back on the past year, this demanding practice of saying kaddish every day, no matter where in the world I was, helped me more than anything else to heal.
I travel for work and sometimes for pleasure, so I had to find minyanim — gatherings of at least 10 Jews — wherever I went.
Some experiences stood out. Like being handed a shot glass of hot Turkish coffee in the middle of a Sunday morning service at a Sephardic synagogue in Fortei dei Marmi, a tiny beach town on the Ligurian Sea in Tuscany.
Being recognized by a fellow food blogger, the Kosherologist, at Congregation Beth Jacob in Atlanta. He gave me a ride back to where I was staying, which was clearly out of his way.
Saying kaddish among friends in Italy in the sitting room of the house featured in the film "Under the Tuscan Sun."
While spending a week at Camp Ramah in New England, saying kaddish among my children and their friends, learning new tunes even at my age.
I learned that for speed, you need an Orthodox minyan; for ruach, or spirit, you need a Conservative synagogue in South Florida, where no one is in a rush.
In Denver, a friend had alerted the leaders I would be visiting. I was given an honorary role in the service and a hug and words of comfort from every attendee.
In Stamford, Conn., the rabbi himself gave me a ride back to my hotel.
The rabbi at Ohev Sholom in the District would weave food into his morning talk every time I showed up.
At Camp Ramah Darom in Georgia, where I taught cooking classes, I went to morning minyan with the 14- to 16-year-old campers. As we approached the end of services, I started to panic, wondering whether they even say mourners' kaddish at camp. Then a camper stood up and started reciting it, as he had lost a parent, too. As we said the kaddish together, the torrent of tears rolling down my face forced me to put on my sunglasses. I was wrecked for the next hour.
The synagogue I went to in London always had a quorum, but in Barcelona, my daughter and I sat in the shul for 45 minutes, and they never had a minyan. At the Jewish museum in Dubrovnik, I kept counting people walking in, hoping I could get to 10, but I never did.
As a woman, I was never counted as one of the 10 participants by an Orthodox minyan, but I was never ignored. Orthodox rabbis literally ran after me after services to ask who I was and to welcome me. Yet I felt marginalized when one Orthodox synagogue had no designated section for women and I was instead given a chair in the hallway to sit in. Many Orthodox women say kaddish for loved ones; Orthodox shuls should always have a place for them.
My minyan experiences taught me to value daily prayer. When you lose a loved one, prayer feels very empty because your prayers for the well-being of the deceased went unanswered. In the early weeks, I said the words shaking. I just couldn't believe that my beautiful mother was gone, 12 weeks after her cancer diagnosis. Nothing made sense anymore.
But I managed to focus on others while I prayed, and by directing my energy toward others as well as my own pain, the daily experience became meaningful. Losing a parent or loved one is a lonely experience; grieving as a group is much less lonely. Every mourner has a story, some more tragic than yours. I said kaddish in New York City standing next to a mother who lost her 21-year-old daughter in a bus accident when the young woman was on her way home from a service trip in Guatemala. As deep as my pain was at that moment, only six weeks after losing my mother, I had to imagine that there could be even greater loss, and my heart broke for that family.
And once you see the power of one single Jew to make a minyan, you show up. People do not appreciate the minyan until they have to.
Other Jewish mourning practices helped me through the year. As is tradition, I didn't go to live music concerts; every time I heard live music, it made me unbelievably sad. I didn't go to bar and bat mitzvah parties or community celebrations, as a rule; when I went to a few cocktail hours, I found that making small talk with people, when you are consumed with sadness, is just too hard. It is easier to stay home. These Jewish restrictions give you room to deal with your grief; it takes time to want to reengage fully in a joyful world.
I just went to my first concert in a year, and it felt right. When I smiled and tapped my feet, the joy wasn't qualified by the heavy feeling I had experienced for 12 months. It is as if the formal ending of the year lifted the heavy clouds, and the sun is just starting to come out. There will be more cloudy days ahead, but the sun now comes through more often. My mother's memory is part of my daily life even without the minyan as a reminder.
I thank all of the people who made up minyanim for me all year. I will never take a minyan for granted again. It is a lifeline for the mourner. At every stage of your grief, there are those in attendance who are nearing the finish line of their mourning and those who are just beginning theirs. You can draw strength from the veterans and provide strength to the newcomers. As I heard from my wise fellow mourners: In many contexts in life, the most important thing is just showing up.