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My Pandemic Kaddish

Why I said a prayer in honor of my mom for 11 months after her death

By Marc Silver

I walked into an unfamiliar synagogue on a Sunday morning in January 2020. There were about a dozen or so people there. Mainly older — in their 50s and up, I'd say. They all seemed to know each other. I was a stranger in their midst.

I had come to say kaddish, the Jewish memorial prayer for the dead.

Woman playing the piano, prayer, COVID-19 pandemic, Next Avenue
Marc Silver's mom, Shirley, was his piano teacher. During his kaddish, he would often sit at her piano and pray.  |  Credit: courtesy of Marc Silver, Adobe

Jewish law holds that when a close relative dies (parent, child, sibling, spouse) you recite the kaddish prayer every day for a set period of time. For a parent, that's 11 months.

It is a most curious prayer to recite after a loss. There is no line that reflects upon death. Rather it is prayer of praise for God, reaffirming faith at a time of sorrow.

Oh, and there's one more point to note. Jewish law states that you say the prayer in a minyan – a group of 10 or more worshipers. Orthodox Judaism only counts men. Liberal branches count everyone equally. The idea is clearly to be surrounded and supported by your community at a time of vulnerability.

I do not follow Jewish laws as a matter of faith. Like many Jews today, I make decisions.

So when my mother, Shirley Freeman Silver, died on January 7, 2020, I had to come up with an answer to the question: Would I follow the tradition of kaddish?

I do not follow Jewish laws as a matter of faith. Like many Jews today, I make decisions.


I know what my mother, who was not particularly religious, would have said: "Don't bother, it wouldn't mean that much to me, I just want you to remember me." 

That's how a part of me felt. Finding a daily minyan that matched my needs was a challenge. A century ago, when Jews typically lived in close-knit communities, synagogues were conveniently located. Not so much for secular Jews in the 21st century. And how could I squeeze a half-hour service into an already crammed day?

So maybe … no kaddish?

Then again, I like rituals. I like changing things up. And I knew that if I did not say kaddish, and regretted it, I could not go back and do it over.

A Moment to Reflect on My Mom

Gila Colman Ruskin, a retired pulpit rabbi (who married my wife and me) and Jewish mosaic artist, stressed: "It's got to have meaning." How would I know if I didn't try?

So I began in that unfamiliar house of worship, about a mile and a half from my house. The minyan met in an intimate chapel with stained glass windows.

The sun shone through on that first morning. The service lasted about 30 minutes. And I said the kaddish, a prayer in Aramaic, an ancient cousin of Hebrew. The English translation begins with these words: "Glorified and sanctified be God's great name throughout the world which He has created according to His will."

It was … a moment. A moment to reflect on my mom, on how hard the last months of her life were as her health began waning in her late 90s. A moment of tranquility in a room of strangers.

I went back the next day. And the next. And the next. Sometimes I was not in the mood to pray. Sometimes I was stressed – I have to get to work, I'm on deadline, gotta drive back home, hop on my bike and pedal 10 miles to work.

But I always came away from saying kaddish with a sense of calm, with a feeling of closeness to my mother.

As the first 30 days went by – the most intense period of mourning – I didn't really get to know the worshipers in that beautiful chapel. But their faces became familiar. Other mourners have told me they found a community in their kaddish, getting to know other worshipers. I found … silent support.

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Except for the one Saturday I tried a different synagogue.

It was an intimate setting; about 20 people sitting in a circle to pray. The rabbi asked me why I was saying kaddish. I explained, and he invited me to share a memory of my mother. I told how, as a piano teacher, she wanted to teach me even though everyone said: Don't teach your own kids! But she wasn't about to abide by that advice. She'd leave the house on a weekend morning, ring the doorbell and I'd let her in. She was Mrs. Silver, my piano teacher! And it worked. She was able to teach her kid!

Everyone loved the story. And as I told it, I realized perhaps for the first time how daring my mom was – to defy conventional wisdom and concoct a way to teach her child the keys.

My Own Ritual

And then, about a month into my 11 months of kaddish, the pandemic descended on our world. Synagogues were shuttered.

I could have Zoomed into an online kaddish, but I thought I'd try it on my own at home. (Rabbi Chaim Landau, who officiated at my mother's funeral and is Orthodox, told me: "If you said kaddish alone, it still counts and means as much…definitely.")

I could have Zoomed into an online kaddish, but I thought I'd try it on my own at home.

I created my own ritual – I'd read the prayer standing by my mother's grand piano, which I inherited. Then I'd play a piece of music I had studied with her (or wished I could have). I kept a photo of her by the piano so she was smiling at me as I prayed and played.

It was a time of peace and tranquility and contemplation. Mornings worked best for me – one day I skipped the morning, meant to say kaddish in the afternoon, forgot … and awoke in the middle of the night feeling like a derelict son and recited it silently.

Even though I chose a solitary path for my kaddish, I did visit a few online minyans. On Yom Kippur, I was deeply moved that the rabbi leading the kaddish said we would be reciting it for those Black lives taken by police officers in this country in the racially charged year of 2020 and in earlier years.

Part of the Rhythm of My Daily Life

When the 11-month deadline approached, I did not want to stop saying kaddish. It had become part of the rhythm of my daily life. But I recognized that the time had come.

That's one reason 11 months is set – to recognize that a mourner can return to their regularly scheduled life and not be bound up in grief forever. (Another is the belief that the prayer helps the soul of the departed ascend to an eternal resting place, and, as the sages put it, you'd have to be pretty wicked to need a full year of intercessionary prayer.)

But how do you stop saying kaddish? Back in the pre-pandemic world, the synagogue would give you a special honor at the service that day.

The 11 months of kaddish made me miss her so much, made me think of her every day and gave me a sense of inner peace.

In this time of COVID-19, I decided to create my own minyan, connecting with family members on a laptop. I asked them each to share a memory of my mother.

My nephew remembered her cool confidence. "If you were helping her make a cup of tea, she would tell you exactly how to do it without hesitation: 'Reach up in that cupboard - no, not that one. The other one!' Not in a mean way, just a strong, unwavering way." I never thought of my mother in that light but that was her! Strong and unwavering. That's why she decided to teach her son to play Mozart and Bach and ragtime, too. And in her 90s, it gave her great pleasure to make me a cup of tea.

The 11 months of kaddish made me miss her so much, made me think of her every day -- and gave me a sense of inner peace. There is an obligation. And I fulfilled it, with my own interpretation. But isn't that how rituals go?

You also say kaddish on the anniversary of your loved one's death. A few weeks after my 11-month kaddish journey concluded, I said it again. The words, which I now knew by heart, made me tear up and also filled me with love.

Who can ask for anything more from a simple prayer?

Marc Silver is a blog editor at NPR and author of the book "Breast Cancer Husband: How To Help Your Wife (And Yourself) Through Diagnosis, Treatment And Beyond." Read More
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