Sunday, August 5, 2018

Yortzeit Reflections: Sensitivity, Community & Chutzpah

Remarks shared at Congregation Ohab Zedek during Seudah Shlishit on August 4, 2018, on the occasion of my father's first Yortzeit - Mordechai Yosef ben Shmuel.  May his neshama have an Aliyah. 

There’s a saying that “the days pass slowly but the years fly.” I cannot believe I’m standing here today on my father’s Yortzeit, marking a whole year without him. It’s been a whirlwind year, with so many milestone moments, both related to remembering my father and adjusting to the new normal, as well as preparing to step into another new chapter in my future. I’d like to take a few moments now to reflect on what I have learned through this year of saying kaddish in shul regularly….

My father was one of the kindest, gentlest people you could ever meet. He was a quiet man, unassuming, sensitive soul, who loved to help people heal, both personally and professionally - he was a dental craftsman, skilled, caring and devoted to his art… I learned recently that he even talked about dentistry in his sleep. And my choice to say Kaddish this year, which started as a final gift that I could give him, actually turned into a gift for myself as well.

People have said some interesting things this year… well, people say interesting things all the time… and most are very well-meaning. One of the things I’ve heard a lot lately is how much extra time I’ll have on my hands once I don’t have to rush off to shul anymore. It’s true, I won’t miss springing out of bed at the sound of my alarm so I won’t be late for Shacharit - picture the cartoon Goofy landing on a pincushion - arms and legs taught and suspended inches above the mattress. I won’t miss barrelling, (yes barreling.. there’s simply no other word for it) down 95th street like an offensive linebacker, frightening dogs and people out of my way as I raced down slippery marble stairs just in time for Kaddish (I’m so grateful that there are now rugs to absorb the water and make that descent just a little less treacherous). I won’t miss interrupting dates and dinners to catch the last minyan - its hard to forget the night we left my future in-laws waiting in the restaurant between dinner and dessert while we headed down the street for Maariv after Tuesday night learning!

But there are plenty of things I will miss - and plenty of unexpected things I gained - from a year of saying Kaddish every day in all sorts of familiar and unfamiliar minyanim: and of these, the main categories are Chutzpah, sensitivity and community.

First of all, I have to say that my choice to say Kaddish was not a political statement of any kind, and certainly not an attempt to prove a point about women in Orthodox shuls, although I learned a lot about this topic too. It was not even a commitment to say Kaddish “all year,” but a choice I made (and continue to make) one day at a time. But as a woman choosing to say Kaddish, I surprised myself with a chutzpah I didn’t know I had, barging into Kollels and Chabad houses and collecting men for minyan during conferences and house parties. I advocated for myself with Rabbis and gabbaim, mourners and other congregants with the goal of ensuring a place to stand during the service and a pace for Kaddish that was reasonable enough to follow. Of course, what I felt to be “barging in” was in reality more of a gentle and respectful "acquaintance making" in my father's style, but it still felt strange on many occasions to wait for a mechitza to be set up or to wonder with trepidation throughout the entire service to find out whether Kaddish would be recited at the end. I developed a habit of doing research, calling ahead and arriving early any time I was too far from my “comfort minyanim” - OZ is one of these- where I knew what to expect. I even printed up “Kaddish cards”- business cards that could be easily passed through the mechitza to the minyan leadership, which included my father’s name and yortzeit, along with my blog address, for easy reference. These proved to come in very handy during the year, and my only regret is in misprinting the Hebrew month in which I printed them (after shloshim) instead of the actual Hebrew date of my father’s yortzeit - 24th of Av!

I also watched myself seek out other male mourners and advocate for my needs by asking the men to speak louder, stand near the mechitza, or adjust their pace. On one occasion I even asked certain gentlemen why they felt it necessary to wander through the women’s section during davening…. I’m not sure everyone was pleased with my requests all the time, and while at times I was quite embarrassed by my “big mouth,” I did feel a certain sense of satisfaction because of the way the community rallied to make small but powerful changes that made my Kaddish experience increasingly comfortable, and therefore more meaningful.

Sensitivity is the second lesson, and as I’ve already alluded, there are so many things that one notices when one finds oneself in the same place for an extended period of time. Firstly, I noticed how arranging my work schedule around minyan time allowed me an element of relief in knowing that my davening would happen at a specified time that day. While I certainly disliked the initial sprint to get there, once I was in shul, I had the rest of the time to simply be… to be present, to think, to reflect, to fume, to strategize and to feel. I noticed some minor things such as how the shadows fell differently on my siddur depending on whether the mechitza was two inches to the right or left of usual, and how other seemingly small things, like word choice, had a major impact on how welcome I felt in a certain minyan. I learned that idle conversation next to the mechitza adversely impacts the quality of my davening, while a single “amen” to my Kaddish lifts my spirits for the rest of the day. I’ve learned that cameraderie in the recitation of Kaddish offers a band-aid to my suffering soul, while company in shul by women NOT saying Kaddish offers a comfort beyond the power of words, as well as a sense of normalcy in a period of upheaval and stress.

I learned to be sensitive to my family’s reactions to our shared tragedy and to how other people reacted to my outward display of grief. I learned to be sensitive to my wonderful fiance and his likes and dislikes, and to recognize his beautiful acts of generosity and patience through a tumultuous year of dating riddled with kaddish. And I learned to be sensitive to myself - to my own feelings, wants and needs and to be more direct and blunt than I have ever had cause to be in the past - and that advocating for myself, with a sensitivity to where the other parties are coming from, was an important step not only for me, but for any women and any mourners who will follow me (but not until 120 on all sides). I also recognize now, from the other end, that a community as a whole cannot be expected to feel the acute mourning experience of the individuals reciting kaddish on a perpetual basis. That said, I have sincerely appreciated the way my comments and requests have been received with empathy and sensitivity in most circumstances. I recognize that it was much easier for a woman to recite Kaddish in 2018 than it has been in years past, but we as a community still have a way to go. Even so, I’ve never been more grateful for Jewish community and I hope that my reflections here and in my blog will serve to help women feel even more comfortable, both here at OZ and in all the communities where we travel.

Mourning is a funny thing - as an Avel, one is supposed to separate onself from the community in celebrations, concerts and other happy gatherings. On the other hand, saying Kaddish requires one to step into the public eye to daven daily with a minyan. The overtures of this community, the connections I made this year, and the relationships formed will always hold a special place in my healing heart, including people in this room who don't even realize the impact they have made by their simple presence in shul. I appreciate every person in every city who turned to face me while I recited Kaddish, who offered a verbal response, or who simply stood still and quiet during the recitation. I am forever grateful to the men who either recited their Kaddish loudly or stood near the mechitza so I could hear them to recite Kaddish together. I am especially grateful to those Chazzanim who paused to breathe at the periods during Aleinu so that I could finish the last paragraph before launching into Kaddish at the end of the service. There are no words to express how I felt as certain members of this community took me under their wing, some even offering to interview the guy I was then dating to make sure he was going to treat me right sincemy father could not do so.

During this year I found myself in dozens of shuls in at least half a dozen states which showed me the breadth and depth of our greater Jewish community. With countless hours in places I’d never otherwise have ventured into, I learned about sensitivity and kindness in the most unexpected ways. Men I never met volunteered to recite kaddish along with me so that I did not need to recite it alone. Some communities had clear policies on women and kaddish and encouraged me to recite it ‘loud and proud’ (as we say in school). Men set up movable mechitzot upon my arrival in places unaccustomed to having women present. Rabbis reflected on the wording of annoucements and updated policies based on items I brought to their attention. And I met and shared memories with dozens of women who kept me company during their rotation of yortzeits and aveilut, finding myself surrounded and enfolded by a club no one wants to join that is built upon the poignancy of shared pain and effort of memory. I thank all the women who have come before me to pave the way and those who have kept me company through shared loss and commitment and every person, man and woman, who supported, encouraged, assisted and inspired me.

I’ve had countless hours to reflect on the whole experience, and have a blog dedicated to my thoughts on various topics related to Jewish mourning and women in shul in general. I welcome your feedback and encourage you to share the posts widely if they resonate with you. Regular synagogue attendance is no small feat - I admire anyone who manages to do so, since it required me to reorganize my entire schedule to achieve - but the benefits of community, connection, consistency, relationships, schedule, routine, etc. - are many.

My father was a man of few words, and I had a lot of time this year to reflect on their power. More than anything else, I’ve learned that words can hurt and words can heal and sometimes there are no words and sometimes words have no meaning and sometimes it’s important to say the words regardless - because the saying of them is one positive thing you can do to recognize the memory of a loved one, no matter what it takes to make it happen, because eventually, their meaning will penetrate and because the time it takes to say them is valuable time for reflection about loss and life and love.

In memory of my father, Dr. Maury Fechter - Mordechai Yosef ben Shmuel, I hope that these words will in some small way help to inspire chutzpah, encourage sensitivity and build community in the minds and hearts of all who hear them.

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