I remember sitting with the Rabbi and Cantor. The Cantor is the one who sings the prayers. They both knew my father so well. The entire family had gathered in rabbi’s study. We discussed what would be said at the funeral and what we wanted the rabbi to say. If you have ever experienced this “let’s talk about the dead” ritual then there is no need for me to go into detail. If you have not: then lucky you. It is cathartic, emotional and really damn sad. At the end of it all, the rabbi asked for questions. Now was my time. “Rabbi, Dad wanted someone to say Kaddish for him.” I waited, looking expectantly at my brother. Apparently my father had never asked him. So I opened my mouth and here is what came out: “I would do it but I guess a woman does not count.” Now, this is a very Conservative synagogue and so his response floored me. “Of coarse women count. What a wonderful commitment to make in honor of your father.” Ok. Done. I am now committed in front of the rabbi, Cantor, God, and my children. Oy Vey!
I called a young girl I knew who had recently converted to Orthodox Judaism. I figured if anyone would know where I could go to begin this commitment she would. And she did. I live on South Beach, an hour away from my father’s synagogue with traffic or I would have gone there. She told me the services were held at 7:30 am at the Cuban Hebrew Congregation in conjunction with another synagogue, Temple Emmanuel. I got to the synagogue about ten minutes before the services. Only, I couldn’t find an open door. I walked around the building three times, knocking on the various doors as I searched. By the third pass I was balling like a baby. Only then did I see a parking lot and a car pulling in through the gates. I guess I was terrified. This was going to change my life and I knew it.
The chapel is small. I have my father’s Tallit, a prayer shawl and his yarmulke, a beautifully embroidered skullcap. I figure if I count then I am going to be embraced by the traditional garb that my father wore when he went to synagogue. I bring the yarmulke to my mouth to kiss it before I put it on. I can smell my father’s scent, as surely as if he is there with me. Tears sting my eyes. I kiss the Tallit and wrap it around me. I feel his presence. That was reason enough for me. If I can connect to him by putting my tush in a chair, then so be it.
Those first weeks I was so lost I cannot begin to tell you. Thank goodness there was a man who called out the page numbers. Everything was in Hebrew. I had a Bat Mitzvah at thirty-seven, my pink Tallit stage after experiencing Israel for the first time. But my command of Hebrew was abysmal. I could figure out some words but I only recognized about two thirds of the letters. And let’s be clear, these men were davening, singing, mumbling, swaying, and reading so quickly it would not have mattered if I could read. By the time three words came out of my mouth, they were on to the next page. The good thing, on most days we finished in half an hour.
They were all so kind to me; respectful on my grief and my confusion. The big challenge was that in order to say Kaddish, the prayer for the dead aloud, you need ten people. It is called a minion. (Remember women now count.) On Monday and Thursday they read the Torah in every morning service throughout the entire world. On those days we had our minion and I could say the prayer aloud. On other days if we did not have the required number I said it to myself. Do I believe G-d would be upset if I said it aloud with only five or six people, or even just one other person? No. But this is our tradition and you will hear me speak about that often. Tradition is the magic that draws me to my heritage. I feel terrible admitting this, but in the beginning I didn’t like Monday and Thursday because that meant I would be in services longer. And forget about holidays or the new moon, those services could stretch on forever. By the way, on Saturday I go to Temple Israel, a Reform congregation. When I am there I understand what is going on but I miss the mystical chanting. Somehow the English seems to diminish the service somehow.