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Thursday, February 21, 2019

A Wedding and a Vow Fulfilled

My brother got married last Sunday. It was truly a joyous occasion. But it was also tinged with sadness. This was the first family simcha (joyous occasion) that neither of my parents attended. My niece got married a few years after my mother died. At least my father was there. He carried with him the spirit of his wife, my mother, and we felt her absence. Now there was another simcha. I carried with me the spirit of both my parents. My brother drank the wine of the sheva brachot (blessings recited under the wedding canopy) from our father's kiddush cup, his presence marked.

God willing, there will be many other joyous family occasions. One day, I pray, my children will marry. There will be a wedding. One that my parents would so much have wanted to be there for. Hopefully I will be there. But I will inhabit more than myself. For I am now an inhibitor of spirits, of memory, of influences born of years in their presence and, now, their physical absence.

During the wedding, we prayed the afternoon Mincha service. I led it, cell phone in hand, because I have a chiuv (obligation) to lead the services in honor of my father. My brother and I said kaddish. We mourned. Then we celebrated.

Before my mother died, I spoke to her about my brother. He was going through a difficult time at the time. I made a promise to her. I told her that if and when he got married, I would dance for her at the wedding. Last Sunday I was able to fulfill that promise.

Saturday, February 16, 2019


When my father died, I already needed a haircut. I usually get a haircut about every 5-6 weeks, and it had been around that long since my last one. As he became more ill, I should have remembered that you are not supposed to get a haircut for at least 30 days after your parent dies. But I had other things on my mind. Nor was I expecting him to die when he did.

Then, after the shiva ended, and I took a walk around the block to signify my reentry into society, I did two things: I took off the ripped shirt I had worn every day of the shiva and I shaved. You are not supposed to shave during the shiva. (You can shave during aninut, the period between death and the funeral, and I did shave the morning of the funeral.) Not shaving is part of a series of prohibitions during the shiva that resemble those on Yom Kippur: no bathing, no shaving, no wearing of leather shoes, and no sex. (Of course you can eat, and I ate very well as friends brought over lots of food).

I shaved because I don't look very good with a beard and I hated the feeling of my stubbled face. I had a beard many years ago, and it never looked that great on me. I've been clean shaven ever since. I also was planning on returning to work the next day and couldn't see myself facing my colleagues and students with week old facial hair. I was even hoping the rabbi would give me permission to shave just before shabbat during shiva, to look good in honor of the Sabbath, but he said no. On this matter, I felt that since I had asked for rabbinic guidance, and he had given me the straightforward halakhic stance on the matter, I needed to heed his counsel. So I had to wait until after the shiva was over.

Of course, there are some that say that you are not allowed to shave until after the shloshim ends (30 days after burial). Norman Lamm, in his popular book on Jewish mourning practices, The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning, states that "shaving is permissible only after thirty days, and for parents only until the mourner experience the social reproach after the shloshim" (p. 125, emphasis in original.) However, he backtracks on this and seems to endorse a more lenient approach owing to our age where most people are clean shaven: "those who shave daily and who need a smart appearance for parnassah (to earn a living), their business or profession, may shave after shivah." (Ibid.)

I was also about to go out and get a haircut on the day after shiva ended. But then I remembered that maybe I shouldn't. So I checked both Lamm and my Rabbi. Both were adamant: no haircuts during shloshim. Lamm explains this as "another indication of the withdrawal of the mourner from society. It is part of the general mourning pattern of forsaking personal appearance and grooming at a time of great personal loss (Lamm, p. 124).

And so my hair grew and grew. My grey, nearly all white now, stringy hair. Then, even after the shloshim ended, I was supposed to wait to get my hair cut until I was socially reproved. Social reproof is the concept that you are not allowed to groom until it appears objectively objectionable to others. A friend of mine who was a rabbi at the time and wanted to shave after his shloshim asked one of his congregants what he thought of his beard. The congregant said it looked pretty good on him. That was not the answer he was looking for so he asked another congregant who said it looked like he could use a shave. That was his cue to get himself to a barber.

I was not going to wait for social reproof because I was already getting sick and tired of this long hair. My hippie days are long past. But I had an even better excuse to get a haircut. My brother is getting married this weekend. I need to look good for his wedding. I don't want to appear as if I am still in mourning at his joyous occasion. I don't want the photographs from the wedding to show me clearly in need of a haircut. And so I got one a couple of days ago. I look and feel a lot better.

In shul this shabbat, I told my rabbi, the same one who admonished me not to cut my hair during the shloshim, that I had gotten a haircut. I said I felt I should get one before my brother's wedding. He responded: "good call."

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

"How are you feeling?"

A lot of people who know me have been asking me lately, "how are you feeling?" It's nice, because it shows people care about me and recognize that, in a way, I am not the same person I was before my father died, before the trauma of experiencing the death of the person who brought me to life and who was with me for 63 years.

The problem is that I don't have a good answer. I am not really sure how I'm feeling. I don't feel happy, though I am still able to laugh and enjoy companionship. Nor, however, do I feel devastated, depressed or immensely sorrowful. I am not crying much, just a tearful kaddish every now and then. Memories of my father float through my mind at random times during the day. Sometimes they are pleasant ones, of meaningful time spent together, sometimes difficult ones of times we weren't that close or from the painful final weeks.

Much of my energies are focused on renewing my work routine and hobbies, to the extent my shul (synagogue) obligations allow. In one way, I have more time now since I'm not spending time with him any more. On the other hand, there is much to do. His apartment and its contents needs to be disposed. Estate matters need to be dealt with. And so I am busy with my life.

So how am I feeling? It's an impossible question to answer at this point. Okay. Not okay. Well. Not well. A tangle of emotions and sensations. Maybe, in the coming weeks and months, I'll be better able to answer this question.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Questions of timing

Today was Rosh Chodesh Adar 1, the first day of the new month of Adar. This year, there are two months of Adar, Adar Aleph (Adar 1) and Adar Bet (Adar 2). That's because it is a leap year, which occurs 7 times every 19 years, and leap years have a second month of Adar. The purpose of the extra month is to keep the lunar calendar in sync with the solar year so that the holidays continue to fall out in the proper season (e.g., Passover in the spring, Sukkot in the fall).

My father died a month ago today. That sad day was also the first day of a new month, Rosh Chodesh Shvat (January 7). He took his last breath around 5:05 p.m. Since the Jewish day begins in the evening, his death occurred on the second day of Shvat. The second of Shvat is now marked as the day of his yahrzeit (anniversary day of death).

In three days, on the 3d of Adar 1, the period of Shloshim will end. That is because the period of Shloshim begins not on the day of death, but on the day of burial, which was the 4th of Shvat (January 10). Counting that day and 29 days afterward brings us to the 3d of Adar 1.

A few days ago, some friends of my parents decided to commemorate the Shloshim of his passing. They did it on the 30th day after he died, on Rosh Chodesh Adar 1 even though, technically speaking, according to halacha (Jewish law), the Shloshim was not until four days later. But it was the thought that counted, and the event was a moving testament to the impact my parents had on the Berkeley Jewish community. The learning centered around various teachings from Perkei Avot (Wisdom of the Fathers), a work that my father was particularly interested in.

The leap year will also impact the relationship of the kaddish obligation and end of the year of mourning to the yahrzeit. The Jewish calendar has 12 months. Kaddish is recited for 11 months. This is based on the idea that the purpose of kaddish is to bring merit to your deceased parent's soul, to elevate it to Gan Eden and that to say kaddish for the full year would imply that your parent's would was not worthy of being elevated within 11 months. Therefore, in normal years, a one month gap between the end of kaddish and the yahrzeit. (

So I asked my rabbi whether this year, which has 13 months, I would be saying kaddish for 11 or 12 months. In other words, do the two Adars count as one or two months for purposes of saying kaddish. It turns out that they count as two separate months, so there will be a two month gap between the end of the kaddish obligation and the yahrzeit. In addition, the year of avelut (mourning) is for 12 months, so the year will end a month before the yahrzeit. In other words, kaddish will end and then a month later mourning will end and then a month later I will commemorate the yahrzeit of my father's passing.

All of which feel like a long time from now. But then, after the 11, and then the 12, and then the 13th month has passed, it will feel like an eternity ago. Even the 63+ years I spent with him is receding slowly, inevitably, into the past.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Speed kills

Yesterday was Shabbat. I decided to go to an early afternoon mincha prayer service to give myself more time in the afternoon to rest. This early service, which began at 12:30 p.m., is called "mincha g'dola," the "great mincha." (see As most people go to the later mincha service, there weren't too many people (men), around 15-20. They were spread out all over, fairly typical for an orthodox setting, as most people tend to gravitate toward particular locations in the synagogue space.

I was, as usual, close to the back. Given the sparse crowd, I figured I might be the only one saying kaddish. But when we got to kaddish, another man, seated on the other side of the sanctuary, also began reciting kaddish. He was loud and going at a breakneck speed. His kaddish exploded like a bat out of hell. I had to make a quick decision: either try keeping up with his speed or say it at my own pace. The quickly ruled out the former; his was going too fast for me. But I wasn't happy with the latter option either, having two voices at completely different places in their kaddish at the same time. So I choose a third option: suspending my kaddish until he was finished and then continuing mine. Of course, once he was finished, the others began talking, thinking the prayer service was over. But I persisted in my kaddish, and they got the message, quieted down and responded to my kaddish. Afterward, the other kaddish-sayer apologized to me, saying he didn't hear anyone else saying kaddish. Of course, I thought to myself, he didn't hear: he wasn't listening.

At another synagogue where I pray, the rabbi will sometimes say kaddish along with the mourners just to ensure that everyone is going at the same pace. It's a good idea. The call and response of kaddish demands that people be on the same page. When kaddish is recited together, everyone feels that the other kadddishes are supporting and lifting up your own. Kaddish is not just between you and your deceased or between you and God. It's also between you and other mourners. I don't know what metaphysical effect it has on the soul of your loved one. But I know what effect it has one other mourners. It's comforting to know you are not alone. More, it's a way of binding people together in a shared experience. Unfortunately, that's not what I experienced today.