RJ Spring 2001

On Being the Kaddish

by Patricia Z. Fischer

Discuss this article and related issues with author Patricia Z. (Jess) Fischer.
Please visit the RJ Authors Forum.

Thus, even when they are gone, the departed are with us.... We remember them now; they live in our hearts; they are an abiding blessing.

--Gates of Prayer

Gregory Barry, our firstborn son, was killed in Lebanon on June 9, 1982. It was the third day of Operation Shalom HaGalil, not yet called the War in Lebanon.

On Tuesday, June 15, at 10:00 in the morning, Rabbi John Friedman knocked on my office door. Nothing in his demeanor alerted me that something was amiss. He closed the door and said, quite simply, "Greg has been killed." I just screamed. I don't know where it came from; I am not a screamer, but I screamed. I howled at the top of my lungs. NO!!! NOOOOOOOO!! I screamed at the rabbi, I told him he was wrong, I screamed at God, I screamed at Greg, I howled in rage and protest as women before me have, until I was spent. I did not cry; after the screaming, I was ice.

I called my second son, Alan, who was in California with his father (from whom I am divorced), and phoned my own father, who told my mother. I could not. At home, friends met me and helped me pack. By 4:00 PM, Neil, my youngest son, and I flew to New York to make a connection to Israel. We were met at the airport by my brother Michael, his wife, and their son. Michael had boarded the plane without even a toothbrush or a change of underwear. In Israel, we were met by people from Kibbutz Gazit, where Greg had made his home. They, too, had learned of his death only that morning and were in a state of shock and despair. We were enveloped in love and shared grief.

That Thursday, June 17, at 3:00 in the afternoon--the traditional burial time in Israel--we walked slowly to the kibbutz coffeehouse. Greg's body lay in state in a flag-draped pine casket as all the adults in the kibbutz gathered outside. The casket was loaded into the back of a jeep. Some two hundred mourners walked behind it, slowly and in silence, to the cemetery, a distance of about a mile. The sun shone and the wind blew through the pines. I was conscious of Greg's spirit everywhere. We buried him in a traditional military ceremony. The kibbutzniks shoveled the earth into the grave; my brother helped. Eight women soldiers, not yet in their twenties, laid flowers on the grave. Rifles were fired three times in his honor. Afterward, we all felt lighter, relieved. We left Israel the next morning.

On Friday evening, June 18, we arrived home, met by Alan, my parents, and the rest of my brother's family. On Sunday we went to a memorial service for Greg at our synagogue, Judea Reform Congregation in Durham, NC. The temple was overflowing with friends and associates, young people with ashen faces and glazed eyes, mothers with wet cheeks and fathers with tight mouths and profound sympathy in their eyes. Afterwards, we sat shivah and felt the unimagined wellsprings of community support. I was comforted by a certain knowledge of the presence of Greg's spirit, which had surrounded me and given me strength throughout my hours in Israel, and which was still palpably present. My spiritual awareness has always been stirred by the daily miracles of life itself--by leaves and flowers and bugs and birdsongs. That week, all things small and alive stood in contradiction to the terrible thing that had happened.

Our rabbi, John Friedman, sat with me on the deck in the sunshine. He said, "You know, now you are the Kaddish. Usually the child is Kaddish for the parents, but you are his Kaddish." I did not know what he meant; the Kaddish is a prayer, not a person. "What do you mean?" I asked. He told me that it is the responsibility of the Kaddish to keep the memory of the dead person alive: not to forget, not to let others forget.

* * *

In the weeks that followed, I cried, but not yet to the depths of my crying. The prospect of that kind of crying, of the uncontrolled and uncontrollable letting-go, was terrifying, for that would mean facing the images of death I carried with me, thinking of Greg's having been killed without me there, without my being able to comfort him, remembering him as he was--tall, handsome, bursting with life and passionate love for Israel, embracing experience with his whole being. How could I face the total, permanent separation that all my crying would signify? To really cry would be to sink into grief so profound that there might be no way back from it. I was seized by terror at the merest glimpse of the abyss of despair that would surely swallow me if I let go; I was too frightened to admit the tears. Better to back off, to travel, to embroider, to visit with friends, to return to work, to "get back to my life." And I was moderately successful. In Israel they had told me to be strong, and I was strong.

Gregory had gone to Israel immediately after his graduation from high school to work on a kibbutz. He fell in love with the country and its people and found there a purpose for his life. Israel gave him the opportunity to contribute as an adult to something he believed in. A year later he became an immigrant, and by the time of his death he had lived there nearly three years. In October of 1982 I returned to Israel to begin the sabbatical year I had planned before he died.

I cried all the time in Israel. I cried on city buses in Haifa where I lived; I cried on buses between cities. I cried on the kibbutz and I cried in Jerusalem. The more I cried, the more I remembered about Greg--and the more I could focus on other things when I was not crying. I came to welcome the tears, to believe they were the source of my strength. It was wonderful to be in Israel, closer to the memories, near people who understood loss, and my loss. I was strong. I taught at Haifa University, made friends, learned Hebrew, studied, and remembered.

* * *

I had been in Israel four months when I received a letter from Claire, one of Greg's high school friends and a friend of mine. Greg's old gang had spent several evenings together during the college winter vacation, she confided, but they had hardly spoken of Greg, for they were afraid to upset each other. At that moment, I recalled Rabbi Friedman's words and finally understood them: to be a Kaddish is to be willing to suffer the grief of remembering.

Judaism teaches that the spirits of the dead live in eternal peace. But further, the prayers of mourning adjure us to remember the dead in order that they may live. In Gates of Prayer we read, "Now we know that they will never vanish, so long as the heart and thought remain with us. By love are they remembered, and in memory they live."

The Kaddish prayer, recited at the end of every religious service, assures that we remember the dead whenever we gather together to worship. Recitation of the Kaddish is a mitzvah, a commandment. Again from Gates of Prayer: "[The Kaddish] possesses wonderful power. Truly, if there is any bond strong enough to chain heaven to earth, it is this prayer. It keeps the living together, and forms a bridge to the mysterious realm of the dead. One might almost say that this prayer is the... guardian of the people by whom alone it is uttered; therein lies the warrant of its continuance. Can a people disappear and be annihilated so long as a child remembers its parents?"

Remembering the dead, then, is an injunction. It is the means by which the dead continue to live, and, more than that, it assures the survival of our people.

But to remember--really to remember, to remember in detail--brings with it nearly intolerable anguish. We suffer through the remembering and wonder how long it will last; wonder, as time goes on, whether it may be without end. We long to be free again, the grieving behind us. As the prayer book itself warns, "If we dwell too long on our loss, we embitter our hearts and harm ourselves and those about us."

But I have come to realize that to grieve is not merely to dwell on our loss. Yes, we cry for that--but also for the life that has ended. If it was a young life, we cry because the flower has fallen before fully bloomed. If the manner of death was painful or protracted, or abrupt and violent, we cry for that. There are tears of longing that are different from tears of self-pity, and there are tears of regret for business unfinished, and of remorse for injuries real or imagined that are now beyond repair. And there are tears that come with the simple rememberings, when a song or a glance or a smell reminds us of the loved one who has died.

The observer will see the tears and think they are all the same, that they all mean pain, will not know that the tears are the waters that soothe the pain and that they lubricate our memories. The observer will not know that if we seek to remember, we must be prepared to cry. That is what it means to be the Kaddish.

Is Greg never to be mentioned again by his high school friends? When they reminisce, will his life be taken from him yet again? Am I, his mother, to fear speaking of him, lest others are made to feel uncomfortable? Is his memory not available as a delight because it may also be a sadness? Surely Greg deserves more, better--he who was so energetic a participant in life, he who was so often the source of joy. The fact of his death must not be allowed to take precedence over the fact of his life. The years of his young life are not less worthy, less worth remembering than the years of the others, Greg's brother and friends, who have not died.

* * *

For a whole year, I could not rid myself of imagining the manner of his death. It haunted me until I cried my way into remembering, from my own childhood, Life magazine pictures of World War II, soldiers dying in battle, then war games my brother played with his friends, memories that brought terror--and detoxified the thoughts of my own son, shot. I am no longer haunted as I was; my work at remembering has moved me beyond the anger and beyond the terror, has enabled me finally to forgive Greg for dying and thereby hurting me so, has permitted me to move back, to the time before his death--to his life.

Greg's old friends are stiff with me, resent me as a reminder of their loss, perhaps also of their own vulnerability. I wish I could help them, for their sake and also for my own. They know so much about Greg, the everyday kinds of things I so want to hear about.

I have begun to ask friends and relatives what they remember. Usually it is very little, unless I persist, and then, as they shed their own tears, they tell me wonderful things--anecdotes, trivia, the pieces that linger--and trigger my own memories, permit me to recover more and more about Greg and his life.

* * *

It is more than a year and a half since Greg was killed. It is still difficult and likely always will be. I sometimes sense a pull to be depressed forever, that to feel myself fully happy would be a betrayal. But that, of course, is nonsense, for depression and sadness are only a small part of the grieving, of its purpose--which is to heal, to live.

That is what I have learned; that is what it means to be Greg's Kaddish. And that, finally, is what it means when we say his memory is a blessing.

Patricia Z. (Jess) Fisher, a former faculty member of the University of North Carolina School of Public Health, lives in Chapel Hill, NC and Haifa, Israel. This article has been adapted with permission from Wrestling with the Angel: Jewish Insights on Death and Mourning, edited by Jack Riemer, Schocken Books, New York, a division of Random House, Inc.

Discuss this article and related issues with author Patricia Z. (Jess) Fischer. Please visit the RJ Authors Forum.

Back to Spring 2001

Back to UAHC home page

Copyright © 2001, Union of American Hebrew Congregations