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Tuesday, March 19, 2019


Sometimes I wonder what I'm doing up there at the bima leading prayers. I do that fairly frequently as I, as a mourner, have a chiuv (obligation) to serve as the Shaliach Tzibur (prayer leader). That obligation will last about nine more months, until I am done saying kaddish.

One of my central questions raised in my previous blog, written during the year I was saying kaddish for my mother, Hilda Kessler, z'l, was exploring the nature of the obligation to lead prayers. (see shunted-aside and why-i-am-leading-prayers) Now this issue occupies my thoughts less often. Perhaps I worked through that issue during my previous round of mourning or perhaps I am simply more focused on other issues now, or some some combination of both.

I do, however, appreciate when my "work" as prayer leader is recognized. It's not easy job. There are issues of timing, pacing, pronunciation, nusach (form of prayer), making sure you skip prayers that are not recited on certain days, making sure you don't go too fast but don't go too slow. It's a skill. See growing up as a Jew).

A couple of days ago, I was asked to take over the prayer service after the preliminary prayers. There was a bris (circumcision) taking place after the service, made obvious by the presence of the Elijah's Chair, the change in location of the service to a larger space, as well as the double the number of people who usually show up for a Sunday 8:30 a.m. prayer service. As I began the repetition of the amidah prayer, the mohel, the man who performs the circumcision, came up to the bimah and started setting up. First he washed his hands with hand sanitizer. Its smell wafted over me as and as I mouthed the words of the prayer. He moved the chair around. Then he began laying out the tools of his trade, various metal objects whose function I could not exactly determine.

To say this was a distraction is an understatement. A part of me wanted to stop and tell him to get out of my space, for the bima feels like my personal when I'm up there leading prayers. But my more rational side, fortunately, got the best of me. I figured it if the rabbis had any problem with what was going on, they would intervene, and they seemed more preoccupied with the upcoming bris than with my repetition of the amidah. In fact, most of the people there were there just to witness the bris and probably wanted me to get done with the prayers as soon as possible. I, however, took the repetition slow, with the baby in mind, figuring I would prolong his repose before the moment of truth.

After I had finished, the mohel wasted no time resuming his place at the bimah. The show was about to begin. Everyone seemed happy to see me descend from the bimah to the extent they paid any attention to me. I returned to my seat and removed my tallit (prayer shawl) and tephilin. The brit was in full swing. Before I could leave the sanctuary the baby was complaining vociferously about his foreskin having just been removed.

This evening I led prayers again at the evening service. That's a much easier job. When I was done folding the tallit that the shul requires me to wear (that's unusual since most shuls you only have to wear a tallit for the morning and afternoon services) I was about to leave and go home when a man, a stranger to me, came up to the bima to shake my hand and say "yishar koach" (good job). I was very touched. These little gestures mean a lot to me. They make me feel appreciated. They are also a recognition that the reason I am leading prayers is to give honor to my father. I felt honored and that honor is owed to my father in whose memory I am leading prayers.


Friday, March 8, 2019

Shabbat adventure

I am feeling very differently about this kaddish year than the one I underwent seven and a half years ago when my mother died. Then I was having anxiety dreams about missing kaddish. ( This time I'm taking my obligation to say kaddish as much as I can, but within the confines of living my life in the way I feel I want and need to. And so I've missed kaddishes because I've taken on some extra work obligations which results in getting home after afternoon prayers. I've also missed mincha (the afternoon service) because I had a doctor's appointment that was difficult to reschedule which ended too late for me to make minyan.

I've also missed some minyans because I'm part of a mind/body awareness training program that meets on weekends. To participate in these workshops, I need to stay in Manhattan over shabbat and so am not able to attend my normal synagogues. Last shabbat was one of these times, and I went to a synagogue that I've gone to before when I stay in the city. This time, however, they didn't get a minyan for shabbat morning. It was snowing and some older men who usually attend didn't make it. By 10:30, there were still only nine men. Due to my kaddish obligation, I was advised to try a different synagogue about a 15 minute walk away. I set out and found the shul. Fortunately they had a minyan. Before I knew it, I was being given an aliyah to the Torah and being encouraged to stay for a chulent kiddush.

The question was where to daven mincha. The latter shul didn't hold mincha services. I recognized one of the men there who I'd seen before at the first shul. He told me he would go there for mincha and so there would be a minyan. I trusted him.

A t late afternoon, I left my workshop for shul. Eventually, 10 men, including me, not more or less, arrived. Since they hadn't gotten a minyan for the morning service, and therefore didn't read the weekly Torah parsha (portion) for that week, the rabbi did something remarkable: he leyned (read) the entire parsha for the first aliyah, then leyned parshat shekalim for the second aliyah (a special reading for the sabbath that precedes the holiday of Purim), and then the regularly scheduled reading for the third aliyah. And all this could only have happened because I was there.

When you are saying kaddish, you can witness and be part of amazing things. As Shlomo Carlebach was found of saying, "You never know, you just never know."

Friday, March 1, 2019

Constructive feedback

When you are a mourner, especially at the beginning of the year of mourning, you get a lot of attention. One reason is that your loss is fresh. People are still finding out that your parent died and offering condolences. Not everyone knows why you're saying kaddish, so they ask, and you tell them, and then they offer condolences. "Sorry for your loss" is the most common response.

Then, all of a sudden, you are saying kaddish and, if you're a male in an Orthodox setting, and so inclined, leading prayers. As a shaliach tzibur (prayer leader), you're up there at the bima (prayer stand) and so everyone else is looking at you (actually not everyone, since some people are looking at their phones or just spacing out).

Since shiva ended and I began praying at shul (synagogue) on a regular basis, I've gotten some "constructive feedback" on my "performance" as prayer leader. Some people have shaken my hand afterwards and said "yishar koach," which loosely translates as "nice job." I've also gotten the usual response of either going to fast or too slow. The speed issue is especially tricky during the morning service when people, myself included, have to leave shul to get to work on time. I tend to think of myself as going slower than most prayer leaders, so I make a conscious effort to go a little faster than I would otherwise (except on Sunday mornings when the atmosphere is more leisurely). But I was recently told I was going to fast and leaving the congregants in a race to catch up to me. This was not a new critique of my davening. The same comment was made at the same synagogue when I was saying kaddish for my mother. ( Of course, I'd also come under criticism for going to slow. (

Another piece of feedback I've received is that my head tephilin were not on straight. Tephilin are the leather boxes containing verses from the Torah that you put on during the morning service (except on Sabbaths and holidays). You put one on your arm and the other on your head. The head one is supposed to look like this:

Apparently mine were slanted a little to one side. No one ever told me this before, either because I was putting them on properly or because no one ever bothered to mention it. But now it's being mentioned because I'm an object of attention. So I'm spending a little extra time trying to make sure they are on straight. Some people use a mirror to check to see how their tephilin appears on their head. That seems a little excessive to me. I haven't gone that far--yet.

Next, someone commented on my bowing. There are various points during the prayer service that you are supposed to bow. During the prayer (amidah), both individually and, when reciting the repetition, one bows when one says "baruch ata ha'shem" during the first blessing as well as the last line of the penultimate blessing.

In addition, one bows when one says "modim."

There is an addition bow when one recites Barchu, the call to prayer at the beginning of the blessings leading into the Shma Israel.

Apparently I wasn't bowing correctly. When you are praying privately, no one is really concerned  with when and how you are bowing. But when you are leading services, people see you and, at least some, are willing to make comments. I was told I wasn't straightening up fast enough before I said the name of God. You are supposed to be bend your knew when you say "baruch," which is related to the word "berech," which means knee. Then you are supposed to bow when you say "ata" (you). Then you are supposed to straighten up when you get to God's name, but not actually say God's name until you are fully upright.

When I went over these matters with a knowledgable friend, he explained that this bowing is different than the bowing at "modim" and "barchu." These bowings don't involve bending the knees, since you are not saying "baruch." Rather, one just bends from one's waist. Then you straighten up before you reach the name of God, which is the sixth word in the modim and the third word in the barchu.

Since these conversations, I've become more aware of my bowing technique. No one has commented or corrected me on it. I hope I can get this matter under my belt, so to speak, so I can get back to focusing on what really matters for me--dealing with my father's death and it's impact on me and my family.