Magnified and Sanctified: Women and Kaddish at the Western Wall

04/08/2013 12:05 pm ET | Updated Jun 08, 2013

Last week, 15 narrow-minded, hard-hearted men tried to outlaw women saying the Kaddish at the Western Wall. There was so much blowback for these dubious caretakers of the Western Wall that they rescinded their ban on women gathering to mourn their dead at Judaism's holiest site.

I cannot imagine, I do not want to imagine, that we have returned to a time where being a woman is both demeaning and dangerous. I remember the night before my father's funeral I found a tattered prayer book from my Yeshiva days. It was small and square -- the kind of prayer book I've seen women praying with at the Kotel. Its pastry thin pages suggested a modesty that diminishes a woman's place in the Jewish world. As I held my little prayer book, I strained to read line after line of the tiny Hebrew letters. I read through the chewy Aramaic of the Mourner's Kaddish. I would be my father's Kaddish -- the very embodiment of blood and memory.

Saying the Kaddish for a loved one used to be an all boys' club. No son, no Kaddish, unless you paid a man -- yes there is still such a thing -- to recite the Kaddish for the 11 months a child mourns a parent. The reason for jumping through this Kaddish loophole is to satisfy traditionalists who opine that women are not obligated to fulfill commandments that require time spent outside of family-related duties.

The first time I read through the English translation of the Kaddish prayer, I was astounded that there was not a single word about death. The prayer begins with the phrase "magnified and sanctified" -- words that enlarge God's stature and anoint Him as holy. Tell me why a woman can't praise God and be counted among a minyan -- albeit even if that minyan is solely comprised of other women -- to feel comforted in her time of grief.

My father was buried on the eve of Rosh Hashanah in 2002. At the time, I decided to attend a daily minyan for 30 days to say the Kaddish for him. It was almost Thanksgiving when I realized I had gone long past my original self-imposed deadline. I wrote in my journal, "I'm both surprised and fulfilled that my daily recitation of the Kaddish has become a part of my days. In remembering my father every day, I have an ongoing dialogue with him. I have space and time to contemplate my life as a mother and a wife and a daughter."

I'm always on the lookout for father-daughter Kaddish stories. While researching my memoir I came upon a story that took place in 17th century Amsterdam. A man with an only daughter and no sons planned ahead for his Kaddish. After he died he arranged for a minyan to study at his house every day for 11 months. At the conclusion of studying Torah it is customary to say a version of the Kaddish. Given these circumstances, his daughter could recite the Kaddish in an adjacent room as the male students responded "amen" to her Kaddish.

Another father-daughter Kaddish story: Henrietta Szold, the daughter of a rabbi and the founder of Hadassah, was the oldest child in a family of eight daughters and no sons. She declined a male friend's offer to say the Kaddish in her place when Szold's mother died in 1916. Szold wrote:

The Kaddish means to me that the survivor publicly and markedly manifests his wish and intention to assume the relation to the Jewish community which his parent had, and that so the chain of tradition remains unbroken from generation to generation, each adding its own link. You can do that for the generations of your family, I must do that for the generations of my family.

One of my father-daughter Kaddish stories: I was visiting Rome where there are more than 900 churches. But I was determined not to skip a day of saying the Kaddish during my 11 months of formal mourning and I went to the Great Synagogue there. Armed policemen surrounded the courtyard of the synagogue, and a security guard asked my husband -- not me -- what business he had there. I told the young guard, who was wearing a kippah, that I needed to say the Kaddish for my father. "Americana," he sighed. Inside, the daily minyan was formal, like walking into a sepia photograph, with the cantor and rabbi wearing traditional robes and hats. Ken and I had to sit separately. A divider, improvised with a row of tall potted plants as stiff as the policemen outside, walled off the women. The women talked throughout the service until I rose to say the Kaddish. The woman next to me said, "Ladies don't have to." I told her that I wanted to say the Kaddish. Although the cantor blasted through the prayer, I managed to keep up and the women said "amen" to my Kaddish.

Who will tell the women in Rome who magnified and sanctified my Kaddish, that their amens were not only irrelevant, but that they could be illegal in Jerusalem? I suppose it's the 15 men of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation who tried to hijack Judaism.