My father, Herman Weisman, was a modest man, but also a man of passion, quiet courage and determination. He survived the pogroms in Russia, witnessing the murder of his father; he escaped from Russia with his mother and brothers; experienced deep poverty during the depression, worked long grueling hours while attending school; was an unassuming World War II hero; an actor, playwright and university professor. At the onset of my mother’s debilitating illness when we were all young children, he reared us alone, while caring for my mother, and pursuing a successful career.
My father, at age 93, was physically and mentally many years younger than his age. He wrote plays diligently, winning awards for his plays and having them performed in theaters in Washington, Baltimore and Manhattan.
On Tuesday, April 13, 2010, his life and ours suddenly changed. The woman who cooked and cleaned for my father found him confused, dazed and bruised on his head. The senior neurosurgical resident at Georgetown University Hospital painted a grim portrait of his condition (bilateral subdural hematomas or blood clots surrounding his brain) indicated that my father would live no more than a few hours. In fact, he survived for months, until September 5, the 26th of Elul, when he fell in the bathroom and died instantly.
How could this strange Aramaic chant, which doesn’t mention death, increase the merit of my father?
The more I learn about God and about what is truly real and important, the more I appreciate the sterling values my father gave to my sisters and me, and to our children. My father gave me the gifts of his kindness, his humility, his compassion, his courage, his endurance, his fortitude, his determination and tenacity to do what is right, his fierce commitment to justice, and most of all his love.
So how could I repay my father for the gifts he bestowed to me?
I knew little about saying Kaddish or its significance, but I read everything I could on the subject, and had many questions. How could this strange Aramaic chant, which mentions neither death nor mourning, be important in increasing the merit of one’s father? And what does this “increasing the merit” actually mean?
With these questions, I was determined to go to shul at least once a day for the next 11 months, to say Kaddish, even though my Hebrew was poor and I could not daven (pray) proficiently.
On a daily basis, I needed to find a minyan close to where I work at Johnson & Johnson headquarters in New Brunswick, New Jersey. I soon found Congregation Poile Zedek, a historic synagogue two blocks away from my office. The members were almost all Russian and Ukrainian immigrants.
That took care of the morning, and for the afternoon Michah/Ma’ariv, I discovered the Yavneh House of Princeton. Soon I was getting to know the regulars in each of these places, and the 2-to-4 others also saying Kaddish.
My life began to revolve around Kaddish. I had to arrange my work schedule, travel schedule, and social schedule around getting to at least one minyan per day. Gradually I was getting the hang of each of the three daily services, but no sooner would I get confident, than I would be thrown a loop by going to a shul with a different style of prayer: Askanaz, Sephard, Ha-Arizal, Mizrach and Temani.
I felt a connection, a bonding, a closeness that seemed that both our souls needed.
Given my struggles in mastering the variety of services and the time commitment, I wasn’t sure why I was determined to keep going, but it seemed important. I knew I was on a mission to increase the merit for my father – though I still wasn’t sure what that meant, or whether I believed my daily Kaddish had any effect on it. But somehow it seemed right. I was doing something special for my father, the man who had given me so much. I was thanking him and appreciating him and giving him something that I was never quite able to do when he was alive. I felt a connection, a bonding, a closeness that seemed that both our souls needed.
Clarity and Connection
At the same time, I would feel doubts. Is this real? Where’s the evidence? This is foolish! But why reject something that feels so real, that inwardly I knew was meaningful and more real than the daily grind of the material world, where we seek comfort and gratification, but seldom achieve lasting pleasure?
Saying that Kaddish, day after day, I experienced the kind of pleasure that comes with the gift that God gave the Jewish people thousands of years ago, to be a holy people; the gift, privilege and responsibility to be a light onto nations; the gift of Torah, the guidebook that shows us how the spiritual illuminates the material – the gift that makes sense out of the apparent nonsense of daily life.
Between Yom Kippur and Sukkot, on a business trip to Washington, DC, I went to Kesher Israel in Georgetown. The congregation and rabbi warmly welcomed me. It was an interesting crowd: students and faculty from Georgetown University, businessmen on their way to work, retired older men sharing the latest news of the neighborhood, politicians including Senator Joseph Lieberman, and sitting near me, a man with long gray hair wearing cowboy boots. I later learned this unorthodox-looking, orthodox man was Leon Wieseltier, author of the book Kaddish, a wonderful history of the mourner’s Kaddish and a personal meditation about the Kaddish experience, which I had just begun reading.
One of the earliest sources associating Kaddish with mourners is a story about Rabbi Akiva, who saved the soul of an evil man condemned to purgatory. This man had left behind a pregnant wife who gave birth to a son. When the son grew up, Rabbi Akiva took him to the synagogue to join in the recitation of Kaddish. Later the departed soul appeared to Rabbi Akiva and thanked him for saving him from the depths of punishment by teaching his son to say Kaddish.
The great Kabbalist the Arizal maintains that saying Kaddish helps to raise the departed soul from one spiritual level to even loftier levels of holiness.
This is not blind faith, but an innate knowledge that our sense of personal purpose, often elusive and hidden, can be revealed. When I acknowledged the importance of what I was doing, I gained an immense clarity and connection – even if I could not explain it to anyone, except my new friends, my fellow daveners, who needed no explanation. They were there for the same, deeply-understood reason – the same reason that our people have been doing the same thing through the centuries.
The peace and knowledge about what really matters went from ephemeral glimpses to a serene constancy in my life.
The peace, the knowledge, the understanding, the certainty about what really matters, went from ephemeral glimpses to a serene constancy in my life – whether I was at Chabad in Redondo Beach, CA; Young Israel in St Louis; Beth Tikvah in Naples, Florida – which didn’t have a daily minyan, but created one for me during the three days I was attending a meeting at a nearby hotel; and the small Sefardic synagogue in the Neve Tzedek area of Tel Aviv. And surely my favorite of the over two dozen places around the globe I attended during my 11 months of saying Kaddish was the Kotel, the Western Wall, where at any hour of the day I could find many different minyanim to say Kaddish.
The Final Kaddish
Then all of a sudden, it was over.
On my last day of saying Kaddish, the 26th of Tammuz, I said Kaddish during Maariv at Yavneh house in Princeton, Shacharit at Poile Zadek in New Brunswick, and Minchah at the Garment Center Synagogue in Manhattan, a few blocks away from where I was to give a keynote speech at a dinner event. There I was standing in the synagogue about to say the last Kaddish during my 11 months of mourning.
Aleynu, at the end of the service, was almost over. I remained standing. It was time.
Yisgadal v’yiskadash Sh’mei rabba…
I began to tremble.
B’allma dee v’rah chir’usei, v’yamlich malchusei…
I wasn’t sure I could make it through. My legs were weak. I felt like I was going to cry uncontrollably.
May God’s great name be praised to all eternity.
I stumbled through the next few verses of Aramaic:
Hallowed, and honored, extolled and exalted, adored and acclaimed be the Name of the blessed Holy One… May God grant abundant peace and life, to us and to all Israel. And let us say, Amein
I took three steps back on my trembling legs. Trying to keep my balance, I bowed left, Oseh Shalom bim’ro’Mav.
Bowed right, hu ya’aseh shalom, aleinu.
Bowed forward, v’a’ kol yisroel, v’imru Amain.
Three final steps forward. It was over.
I didn’t anticipate the sudden sense of loss, of emptiness, of deep sadness.
I sat down for a few moments, and then davened Ma’ariv. It was a blur. I don’t remember saying the Shema or Amidah.
Before I knew it, everyone was standing for Aleynu.
After Aleynu, the mourners remained standing for Kaddish. But for the first time in 11 months, I sat down, silent. Numb.
I spoke to the rabbi afterwards. He said what I felt was normal. The sadness will gradually dull over the next week or so, and life will go on.
My mission was over. It has not only been part of my life, it’s been my life. My mission, my deep, soulful connection to my father was gone. He’s gone. Nothing filled the hole that was growing inside me.
I walked slowly to the hotel in a daze. How can I possibly talk to anyone? How can I banter small talk during the cocktail hour before my speech.
I walked into the room. The organizers greeted me. Something surprising happened. A switch had flipped. The energy was restored. I was on again – talking, connecting, flowing. My father was back inside of me. It felt good to be in front of the audience. The tension was gone. I was relaxed, the words came out easily.
In the car ride home, I prayed. I thanked God. And I thanked my father.
The sadness was pushed away by the knowledge that my father was not gone.
Next day, I went to shul, even though I didn’t have the obligation to say Kaddish anymore. But I needed the warmth and the continuity. And the minyan needed me, the tenth man. I’m repaying all those who took care of me for those 11 months. I’m helping those who continue their period of saying Kaddish, and I watch the new ones joining us, some just as unsure of what they’re doing as I was 11 months ago, as they stumble through their first Kaddish.
I go because it feels good to join the generations of Jews before me who were blessed with the same traditions. I go because it makes the light inside me shine more brightly.
In the weeks following my last Kaddish, the hole inside of me opened and closed in unpredictable cycles. The sadness continued, coming and going, but gradually became less intense. And the hole gradually filled and stopped opening, just like the rabbi said. The sadness was pushed away by the knowledge that my father was not gone. He is with me today, with me every day. His values, his kindness, compassion, courage, endurance, fortitude, determination and tenacity to do what’s right, his commitment to justice and fairness, but most of all his love, is with me today, tomorrow and always. And I am passing these gifts onto my children, as they will to theirs, through the generations.