In the first weeks of saying kaddish for my father, the sun still hung below the horizon when I’d wake to go to minyan. I’m just now out of sheloshim, the first thirty days of mourning proscribed by Jewish law, and now, instead, the morning sky is the cold milky white of late winter.
Watching the sun’s placement in the sky with each subsequent day of kaddish is just my way of seeing how Jewish practice entwines iteself with the calendar. I notice this most often when I rush home from work on Fridays in the waning sunlight of fall and winter to light the Shabbat candles. And again, I notice it as the Friday workday stretches out in spring and summer, as candle lighting gets a little bit later each week.
The rhythm of the calendar is comforting and familiar. There is the cycle of holidays, each flavoring its season. Sukkot in autumn to mark a harvest most of us don’t participate in; Pesach as a harbinger of spring, with its emphasis on birth and renewal. Chanukah gives us a festival of light at point when the sun shines the least and Purim offers us a giddy release from the dullest, dankest part of winter.
The earth spins on its axis each day, and journeys around the sun through the year. Judaism takes its cues from the earth, adding a month every so often when the man-made lunar calendar becomes skewed away from the proper season.
When I arrive each day at New City Jewish Center for morning minyan, there are always a few men and maybe one or two women who have arrived before me. In our congregation, we count the women, and it was only once that we didn’t have enough to relinquish saying the barchu, reading from the Torah, repeating the amidah, or saying kaddish, those things that require the presence of ten.
Because I have chosen to wear a tallit when I attend shul on Shabbat, I decided that if I were going to go daily to morning minyan, I should take on the mitzvah of laying tefillin. At first I struggled with the leather straps and peculiar looking boxes. there’s so much you can get wrong about them, it seems, where I place the box on the bicep or against my hairline. The leather itself, twined around my forearm is forbidding. On the men who wear a white tallit with black stripes, the straps appear to be an extension of them, a if they’ve leapt off the fabric and woven themselves onto their arms.
I’m learning the nusach, though not very successfully and have led different parts of the service. It all seems very foreign, performing these rituals barely awake, my mind still fuzzy and unfocused. It’s not like Shabbat, where I’ve always managed to hustle to get myself up, dressed and presentable to make the walk to shul before the Torah reading.
Sitting in the back of Karsch Chapel, I try to focus on the prayers, but at times my mind wanders. Sometimes each thing I have to do for work on that coming day shuffles through my head like cards in a deck. Other times I try to find the “why” in this process, that began with my father’s burial and last for another ten months. What about my father’s death compels me to come to minyan each day? While proud to be Jewish, my father didn’t find much value in ritual or observance. If he could see me, he’d probably think I was crazy. It didn’t help when my mom said, “Don’t make yourself sick over it. You know your Daddy wouldn’t care.”
Is attending minyan for the dead or is it for the ones they leave behind? The question almost seems absurd. Clearly it’s not for the dead in any tangible sense. I mean, it’s not like my attendance is going to impress my father at this point, if it ever would have.
Rabbi Maurice Lamm wrote in his book Consolation: The Spiritual Journey Beyond Grief: “Ritual is the most maligned of religious values, for we raely appreciate or even realize the benefits we get from it. Ritual is a superb emotional stabilizer for individuals. It is a remarkable unifier of people and of communities that may be separated by great distances. And ritual, more than any other behavior, transmits the values of one generation to another, because its shared language and meaning transcend time and place.”
Minyan provides both time and space. While I may not consciously use it as a place to “work through” my father’s death, it nonetheless provides a something unique, set aside and separate, unlike anything else I do each day.
One day soon I’ll notice that the sun is up above the housetops when I head to prayers. Pesach will come, then Shavuot and the fall haggim as I work my way through the year of mourning. The minyan will be there throughout, steadfast in its ways, there to offer community and comfort for those who need it.
There are so many people to thank for their acts of kindness during and after the shiva. I need to get around to writing notes in response to all the food that was brought and the donations that were made, and clearly, this space is not meant for that.
However, there are many I do need to thank in the aftermath of my father’s death — so many who helped here at work, in Dallas, during the first days of shiva and here in Rockland County once we had returned.
First I have to thank Lauren Mikalov, the Jewish Reporter’s assistant editor, who managed to get this paper out last month. She handled it with class and ease and I owe her one.
I also want to thank my other co-workers, Sheila Ortiz, Shikma Malka, Kathy Bookman, Laurie Hoffman, Rabbi Aryeh Meir and Roberta Seitzman for their sympathy, help and support. As well, I would like to thank the JCC’s executive director, David Kirschtel, and Wayne Brown, JCC marketing and membership director for taking care of things on their end.
In Dallas, I can never thank enough, the members of Shearith Israel’s morning minyan, a group of expert daveners with Texas accents, who made me feel comfortable at a time when I was anything but. I also want to thank the Reuben Gittelman Hebrew Day School family for its aid.
I could not ask for better friends than Carol King Berkman, Pam Ostrofsky, and Abby Singer, who covered the mirrors, ordered the Chinese food and did who-knows-what-else before we’d even returned to New City. Rabbis David Berkman and Henry Sosland and Susan Mitrani-Knapp deserve particular thanks for their kindness, knowledge and support.
But most of all, I need to thank those of you who attend the NCJC daily minyan, simply for being there.
March 8, 2008