Reconsidering Kaddish: Four new approaches to an old ritual

“Yitgadal v’yitkadash...” the words of the Kaddish have echoed through synagogues for centuries, traditionally intoned by a Jewish man in mourning during a prayer service, with nine other men — at various points — interjecting an “amen.”
February 3, 2016

“Yitgadal v’yitkadash…” the words of the Kaddish have echoed through synagogues for centuries, traditionally intoned by a Jewish man in mourning during a prayer service, with nine other men — at various points — interjecting an “amen.” But in this century, in various communities, Kaddish is getting a modern overhaul. Four emerging Kaddish innovations — two in Los Angeles, one in New York City and one in the United Kingdom — preserve the words of the prayer, while attempting to expand access to this ritual and to add layers of modern resonance our shtetl-dwelling forebears never would have imagined.

‘Hello From the Other Side’ (Los Angeles)

While saying daily Kaddish for her father this year, Pico-Robertson resident and educator Nili Isenberg found that Adele’s ubiquitous song “Hello” had stuck in her mind. In addition to the music, she said in an interview, “the actual words of the song resonated, about saying the words every day and trying to reach out to someone through these words.” So the mother of three took a literal note from pop culture, transforming the song into a ” target=”_blank”>LAReformMinyan.com). Instead of tasking one synagogue with running a daily minyan, six Reform synagogues — Congregation Kol Ami, Temple Israel of Hollywood, Temple Isaiah, Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, Leo Baeck Temple and Wilshire Boulevard Temple — have banded together, each taking responsibility for one day of the week. Each host synagogue may shape the service and schedule in its own way to suit its membership. The only requirement is that Kaddish must be recited. 

While many Reform Jews might not list a daily Kaddish minyan as a priority, Missaghieh believes that’s because they didn’t know it could be an option. “It was always seen as ‘only the traditional Jews do this.’ But with education and exposure and gentle invitations for people to do this in environments that are comfortable for them, it will become a need,” she said.

“It’s one of those ideas that was just waiting to be discovered,” Marcus said. “It takes a bit of commitment, but people realize the seriousness with which Kaddish is treated in the Jewish community. It’s fundamental to our longevity.“

Marcus realized that the six congregations launching the L.A. Reform Minyan Project evokes the six points of the Magen David (the six-pointed Jewish star). “To me, it’s a Venn diagram of intersecting triangles and finding that place in the middle. If there’s ever a time for a metaphor,” he said, “it’s totally the overlap, the rich center of the star that we’re making here. And it’s only possible if we do it together.”

‘Women Mourners: A Guide to Kaddish and Mourning’ (London, United Kingdom)

In the United Kingdom, the Orthodox movement is now encouraging women to engage in the Kaddish ritual if they want to, with a new guide published by United Synagogue (the U.K.’s council of Orthodox rabbis) titled, “Women Mourners: A Guide to Kaddish and Mourning.” The six-page booklet outlines the options for Orthodox Jewish women mourners regarding Kaddish and suggests other recommended acts of memory, effectively forming a Frequently Asked Questions-style guide. “Do I have to be observant in order to recite Kaddish?” is answered with the movingly inclusive, “Kaddish is something that every Jewish person can say in U.S. [United Synagogue] communities, if, sadly. they need to.” 

Other questions highlight imbalances that remain in Orthodox Judaism, and the potential roadblocks for women saying Kaddish. “What if there is no mechitzah [divider between men’s and women’s sections] when I get to shul?” reflects the reality: Most daily minyanim are attended solely by men, so women may need to call in advance to ask that the mechitzah be set up for services at which they are planning to say Kaddish. And “Should both men and women respond to me when I am saying Kaddish?” acknowledges that many men believe it is forbidden to answer a woman’s Kaddish. 

While the guide still expects women to join a minyan of 10 men (a female-inclusive minyan is not an option according to Orthodox Judaism), it does indicate a shift toward expanding access to the ritual of saying Kaddish.

Virtual Kaddish (New York and the world)

For those of any gender, especially those not connected to Orthodoxy or the culture of daily (or any) prayer, the New York-based Lab/Shul founded by Amichai Lau-Lavie has launched a virtual space for Kaddish recitation. This “experiment in virtual ritual reality,” as the Lab/Shul website terms it, is a free conference call. Callers “share their names and reasons for saying Kaddish, read a poem and learn a brief sacred teaching together, and then recite the Kaddish together.” The call often takes about 30 minutes. 

The concept evolved from Lau-Lavie’s Kaddish experience, he said in a phone interview. The rabbinical student, writer, educator and Storahtelling founder has a sizable following of friends and colleagues from his years in the Jewish innovation and education space, many of whom had expressed a wish to support Lau-Lavie as he mourned his father. Lau-Lavie explained that many of these people weren’t comfortable in a synagogue, or were “women where there wasn’t a friendly minyan available.” Their phone conference experiment — to stand with Lau-Lavie virtually as he said Kaddish — drew about 30 people from all over the world.  

Lau-Lavie’s year of mourning is over, but the call is still held on Thursdays at noon, Eastern time. Recent calls have drawn participants from Alaska, Arizona, Florida, New York and Massachusetts, as well as international calls from France and Israel. 

Because Lab/Shul is an experimental space — as the website calls it, an “artist-driven, everybody-friendly experimental community for sacred Jewish gatherings” — this service may evolve again to include video, but the Lab/Shul founder has his reservations. “There’s something comforting in just a voice,” he said, calling it “personal and anonymous.”

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