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Thursday, January 31, 2019

Hierarchy of sorrows

It happens not infrequently that after services, someone I don't know will ask me for whom I'm saying kaddish. When I say my father, the next question is often "how old was he?" When I answer "90," they usually say something like "well, he lived a good long life." That's true. Life expectancy in the United States currently stands at 78.6 years, and, for men, 76.1 years. (For women, it's 81.1. Interestingly, life expectancy rates have declined for the last two years, perhaps because of the opioid epidemic.

Of course, no matter the age of your parent, his or her death is, in most cases, a life-changing and devastating event. It's true, however, that I can take some comfort in the fact that he did live a relatively long and certainly full life, maintaining his critical faculties until the end. It's not like the parents of friends of mine who died tragically in the prime of their life, of sudden heart attacks or cancer. My father had a heart bypass operation at age 60 which saved and his life and prolonged it for many years. While he never expected to outlive my mother, who died age age 79 of pancreatic cancer, I am beginning to feel a sense gratitude that I had him for seven more years in relatively good health and spirits.

Last week a met a man in shul who was also saying kaddish. The gabbai (synagogue leader) asked me if he could take over the davening (leading the prayers) at Ashrei, the psalm that begins the concluding portion of the morning service. I was more than happy to oblige. After the service, the man held a small kiddush with cake and scotch--both very tasty. I learned that he was observing the shloshim (30 days after burial) for his son. The loss of a child. The ultimate tragedy. The unthinkable. The sorrow of all sorrows.

It turns out there's even more to the story. His son lived in the same city as my parents. His son led prayer services during the high holidays at the same synagogue as my parents attended. My parents knew him, or knew of him. He and I are connected not only in the present, through our shared kaddishes, but also in the past, through the link between his son and my father. Not all sorrows may be equal, they lead us to the same place: to shul and kaddish.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Trifecta of sorrow

Today I pulled off a trifecta of sorrow: morning, afternoon and evening. I began the day with leading prayers during Shacharit, the morning service, as I am a "chiuv," that is, have priority in leading prayers over all others except those observing the yahrzeit of a parent. As I stand alone next to the bima, the prayer stand, and recite the words of the various prayers and say kaddish, I think of my father (sometime, not all the time) and how much I miss him, his voice, his insights, his humor, his presence.

Then I went shopping at Costco. I'd usually go with my father. He loved going to Costco. He'd pick out some item of clothing, or something else he needed and would feel immensely satisfied. I don't know why Costco shopping gave him such pleasure, but it did, and, inside the cavernous store, I felt his absence.

In the afternoon, I went to the funeral of the mother of a friend. There I was again, less than three weeks removed from my own father's funeral (tomorrow marks the third week of his death), inside a funeral home, listening to a eulogy, gazing at a coffin, witnessing it being hoisted into a hearse, and attending to the haunting words of El Maleh Rachamim, the prayer for the soul of the departed. "Oh God, full of compassion, Who dwells on high, grant true rest upon the wings of the divine presence, in the exalted spheres of the holy and pure, who shine as the resplendence of the firmament, to the soul of . . . who has gone to her supernal world, for charity has been donated in remembrance of her soul, may her rest be in Gan Eden (the Garden of Eden). Therefore may the All-Merfciful One shelter her with the cover of His wings forever, and bind her soul in the bond of life. The Lord is her heritage, may she rest in her resting place in peace, and let us say: Amen."

In the evening, I went to a movie at synagogue called "Who Will Write Our History," about the heroic--really beyond heroic--efforts of Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto, led by Emmanuel Ringlebloom, to document their oppression and ultimate destruction. (See I had had asked my rabbi if I could attend because one is not supposed to go out to movies during the year of avelut (mourning), though in this case the purpose was educational, not, by any stretch of the imagination, entertainment. He said I could.

It is impossible not to be moved by the story as well as the awful images of suffering, especially on the faces of young children, inside the ghetto. If these were not enough to bring one to tears, the moment when the archive is dug up underneath the Warsaw rubble, five years after the war, having been buried deep under the ground, miraculously surviving the utter destruction of the ghetto, is overwhelming.

So there you have it: kaddish, a funeral and the Holocaust, all rolled up into one 12 hours period. And just to top it off, I watched Ingmar Begmann's The Seventh Seal. Bergmann's stark movies are matching my mood these days, so I'm making a project of going through all of his major works. The movie ends with this famous scene, most of the main characters being led off to their end in a dance of death:

Friday, January 25, 2019

Shiva thoughts of comfort

Sitting shiva is one of the most intense experiences, religious or otherwise, that I've experienced. The days, at the time, felt very long--the prayer services began at 6:45 a.m. and visiting hours ended at 9:30 p.m.--but, looking back, the week went quickly. It's been slightly more a week since I "got up" from sitting shiva, yet it feels as if it happened long ago. As intense as the experience is while undergoing it, it vanishes just as quickly.

I remember everyone who visited. I don't remember everything I or others said. Some conversations were just about catching up with old friends, others about recent or long ago recollections of my father. Some of the words spoken dissipated shortly afterwards, others were burned into my psyche.

One friend commented on the phrase with which visitors comfort mourners: "May God comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem." (המקום ינחם אתכם בתוך שאר אבלי ציון וירושלים) 

Except that it phrase doesn't use a usual word for God. Rather, it uses the odd formulation "The Place (המקום)." My friend suggested that "The Place" could refer not only to the God but also to the physical space one inhabits. This was quite fitting as I sat shiva in my father's "place," his apartment, which he furnished so beautifully from a lifetime of collecting art collecting with my mother, z'l. And so my friend suggested that my father's place could also serve as a source of comfort. Comfort can come not only from heaven, but from the world humans create as well.

I was speaking with another friend about my father's love of classical music. He grew up idolizing Arturo Toscanini, even giving my brother the middle name Arturo in his memory. He had a massive LP collection. Those thick black box sets formed part of the backdrop of my childhood. But during his last illness, he stopped listening to music. Whenever I suggested putting on some music, he shook his head no. I thought it would have soothed and comforted him. When I mentioned this to my friend, himself a musicologist, I remembered that my father sometimes made arm movements that seemed as if he were conducting. My friend said that meant that my father was listening to music: he no longer needed to hear it; he had internalized it. He took his music with him. A comforting thought.

I shared an image to another friend about what I felt like being parentless. I imagined a door opening into a dark, dimly lit, space. Someone was shoving me from my familiar world into that space. I would have to find my way in this new uncharted and unlit space. My friend suggested a very different metaphor of living without parents. She said that a parentless child is like a young tree in a forest which has lost the canopy of the trees above. A much more hopeful image. A young tree, even though less protected, continues to grow. One day that tree will provide the canopy to newer trees.  Protection is wanted, but not forever provided.

I will carry these thoughts of comfort during this year of mourning, and beyond. 

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Missing Prayers

Many things have changed since my father died. No more visits. No more phone calls. No more meals together. No more talks.

This absence is reflected in words now missing in two of my daily prayers. The amidah or standing prayer, also known as the Shemona Esrey, is a compilation of nineteen blessings. The first three are considered blessings of praise, the last three blessings of thanksgiving, and the middle thirteen blessings of petition. The fifth of these petitionary blessings asks for healing from God, the true and compassionate healer:
A person reciting this blessing in private prayer can add his or her own request (indicated in purple) for the healing of body and soul of a particular person. (see For about the last ten weeks of my father's life, as the seriousness of his illness became clearer, I added these words to my daily prayers. (Of course, I know the limited efficacy of doing so, having prayed for my mother and other relatives and friends before they died.)

I recited these words in my afternoon prayer about an hour before my father died. Then, for a few days, I didn't pray at all because I was an onen (עונן), the time between death and burial, during which I was exempt from positive commandments, including prayer. After the funeral, I resumed praying. When I came to the prayer for healing, just at the point when I would add the petition on behalf of my father, I paused slightly. My first inclination was to say it, since it had become part of my prayer routine. I then continued without saying it, noting as well as mourning its absence. No matter how ill your loved one becomes, you still pray for their recovery, for some kind of healing, if not in body then in soul. Death took away not only my father, but also my prayer for him.

After you eat a meal, you recite the Grace After Meals, Birkat Ha'mazon (ברכת המזון). Toward the end, there is a section called ha'rachaman during which various verses of a petitionary nature are recited. In the last of these, you add a prayer for your family, beginning with your parents:
The prayer reads: May the One who grants mercy bless my father, my teacher . . . ." My father was truly my teacher. After the first meal I had while siting shiva, I recited the Birkat Ha'mazon. Then I got to these words. I could no longer bless my father. When my mother was alive, I asked for blessings for both her and my father. After she died, I asked for a blessing upon my father. Now I can ask for neither. My family no longer includes parents.

I continue to see these words when I pray and when I recite the Grace After Meals. I see them and I skip them. They no longer apply to me. But they remind me that once I had parents, people who I loved, and then once I had parents who became ill, and then both of them died and no so I can no longer pray for them or bless them. I can recite kaddish for them. I can pray for their souls. I can also pray for myself. I do.

Thursday, January 17, 2019


Yesterday I "got up" from shiva. That meant that I got to leave my home. Actually, I am required, by Jewish law, to leave my home so that I can go to synagogue to recite kaddish, which I am supposed to do for the next 11 months. And so, around 4:25, I walked to synagogue for the 4:40 minyan (quorum). I was expecting to lead the services, as, for the next three weeks or so, I am "in shloshim," the 30 days following burial, and a person (man) in shloshim has priority to lead the prayer service over all others except for someone (man) observing his parent's yahrzeit (anniversary of death).

As expected, I led mincha (afternoon) and ma'ariv (evening) services, the first I'd attended since my father died. As I approached the bima (prayer stand), the rabbi mentioned that I had just completed my shiva and welcomed me back into the community. That felt nice. I recited the mourner's kaddishes that follow each service. I wasn't the only one reciting them. My voice joined with other voices. I wasn't alone. That also felt nice.

As I was leaving the synagogue following the conclusion of the services, I met a woman who had also been there. She asked me who I was saying kaddish for and told me she was saying kaddish for her father who had passed away just two weeks before. Her wound was also fresh. We talked about our fathers, our relationship with them, and our siblings and our relationship with them as well. The conversation flowed, our words fueled by shared grief. A bond of mutual recognition between mourners. That felt very nice. True consolation.

This, by the way, is another reason why it is good that women say kaddish for their parents. The more women who say kaddish, the more mourners there are to support each other. Women can offer mutual support to other women. But women, when they go to synagogue to say kaddish, can also give and receive consolation to and from male mourners.

Following the services I decided to do something nice for myself. I went to get some frozen yogurt at our local froyo store. I saw they still were selling pistachio flavored yogurt. For the last six weeks of his life, my father had trouble swallowing solid food, but he loved and practically existed on pistachio flavored ice cream and frozen yogurt. Everytime I went shopping, I would buy him more of it. And so, in his honor and memory, I bought some.

It didn't matter that it was really cold outside. I ate it as I walked home. I thought of him. It tasted really good. A small but significant added bit of consolation.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Getting up from Shiva

I "got up" today from Shiva. That is, the official period of mourning ended. It's called "getting up" because the mourner sits at the shiva, usually on a low chair or stool, to mirror, or to drive home, how low you feel.

Shiva, which lasts seven days, including the day of burial, is both long and short. It's short because the day of burial counts as one day, even though it is really half a day since the burial doesn't usually conclude until mid day--around noon in my case--and the sabbath that comes during the seven day period isn't an official day of mourning, and then the last day--today--concludes after the morning services. It's also short because the time passes quickly. But it's long because you are doing the same thing every day: sitting in your low chair and talking to people who come in to offer condolences. And so by yesterday I was ready for it to end.

It ended today, the shiva and post-shiva time, delineated by a walk outside. After the walk, I came back to my home, took off my ripped shirt, had breakfast, sat down at my computer, and began working on the many tasks that lay before me. The day when my father died, I lost the only parent I still had. But today is the day that my post-parent life--my actual lived reality--began. This is what I "got up" to today.

Monday, January 14, 2019


I feel guilty. Lots of people tell me what a good son I was to my father, whom I called by his name, Sholom. (What a concept: I am not a son anymore!!) It doesn't matter what they tell me. I still feel guilty. I shouldn't--probably shouldn't--objectively. But I do.

Why do I feel guilty? I could have done more. I could have recommended my father go to the hospital before his kidneys started failing him. Maybe his bladder tumor could have been diagnosed earlier. (Probably nothing could have been done at that point in any case.) I could have spent more time with him. Never mind that, four years ago, I arranged for him to buy an apartment right next to me and we spent many hours together, over dinner, going to concerts and museums and on walks. I could have spent more time with him. I could have had more conversations with him. I could have asked more questions about his life, found out more about his childhood and experiences, developed deeper insight into his thinking, found out more about why he made the decisions he did, tried harder to uncover the many secrets that still, and now will always, remain.

And I could have been there when he fell out of his bed a few weeks ago, and I had to call an ambulance service to get him back into bed. Never mind that the next day I drove around looking for and buying guard rails so it wouldn't happen again. And then he made me feel guilty when he said I was too busy with my own life and should have been there. Never mind that he was already very ill and not thinking as clearly as usual. I could have been there. And I wasn't.

And I could have been there when he took his last breath. Never mind that I was there a few minutes before, stroking him and trying to comfort him. But I didn't say final words to him. And then I left to lie down for a few minutes because I had a headache. And then he took his last breath. And I wasn't there. And I could have been.

And I could have recited the deathbed confession, the וידוי with him. And I didn't, because I wasn't expecting him to die just then. Never mind that he had stopped eating a few days before. That in retrospect it was so clear that his last day could be any day and his last breath could be any time. At the time, which was only last week, only five days ago, I thought he had more time. Because I couldn't conceive that the end was upon him. And so I had my son run into my home, just next door, and bring a siddur and recited the confession and then lit a candle and called the funeral home and arranged for flights to California and for the funeral in Berkeley and wrote and delivered a eulogy and inform family and friends.

Never mind that I did all that. That I was a good, a pretty good, son. That I did my best to honor and care for him. It wasn't my best. It could, it should, it might, have been more.

I feel guilty. Maybe, hopefully, this journey, this unwanted journey, into mourning will change my feelings. It may take some time. That feeling isn't going away any time soon.

I'm sorry Sholom. Please accept my apologies.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Not ready

Tomorrow is the funeral of my father, Seymour Kessler, Sholom ben (son of) Meir Zev and Golda. He died two days ago. Since then it's been a whirlwind of arranging flights from New York to California, dealing with funeral homes in both places, coordinating with rabbis and much more. Tomorrow the days of preparation end. The awful and awesome and overwhelming task of memorializing and burying my father awaits. So too the beginning a life without parents.

I'm not ready. I'm not ready to become a mourner. I'm not ready to say kaddish, neither now nor every day for the next year. I'm not ready to begin going to shul every day and leading prayers. I'm not ready to begin the painful process of coming to terms with this heavy loss. I'm not ready to say goodbye. I don't want to. I wanted more time. But he was ready. He's left us. A door closed. Now I'm stepping into uncharted territory. Not by choice but because I'm being pushed into it. I have to, but I don't want to. I'm going. But I'm not ready.