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A Prayer for Dad

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This story begins on October 8, 2012, when my father died.

As I am an Orthodox Jew, there are numerous mourning rituals that have to be followed. One such ritual is to say Kaddish, a prayer that appears several times in all three daily prayer services, for a year. Kaddish can only be recited in the presence of a minyan, or group of ten men above the age of 13. (For the moment, let's put aside our feminist objections to this and just accept it as fact.) Traditionally, Kaddish is recited by the deceased's closest male relative. Most rabbinic opinions hold that it is permissible for a woman to say Kaddish; however, it's unusual, especially in right-wing Orthodox communities like mine.

Well, I've never claimed to be your typical Orthodox girl. As a feminist and an Orthodox Jew, I've struggled with traditions that exclude women.

At the funeral, I was too out of it to demand to say Kaddish, and my rabbi certainly wasn't going to ask me, a girl, if I wanted to. In the weeks after the funeral, I never bothered seeking out a minyan, since I usually just pray by myself at home. I had a [male] cousin saying Kaddish in my place, so it wasn't like my father's soul was depending on me to say the prayer.

This story reaches its climax on the last weekend of November 2012, at a hotel in Bushkill, Pennsylvania. My high school was hosting its annual Shabbaton, when students and faculty members alike packed their suitcases, boarded coach buses, and arrived at a remote hotel to celebrate Shabbat (the Sabbath) together.

On Saturday morning, every student was expected to wake up and run to Shaharit (morning prayers) at 9 a.m. Considering I went to sleep at 3 a.m., it's not surprising that I woke up late and got to Shaharit even later. It only occurred to me when I sat down and started catching up to the rest of the group that this was the first time I could say Kaddish for my father, since it was the first time I was praying in the presence of a minyan since his passing.

However, due to the controversial nature of a woman saying Kaddish, I was reluctant to say it without my principal's permission. Was it worth it asking? I knew that there was a 99 percent chance she would say no, so if I asked, my request would really just be making a statement. There was no way I could just jump in and start Kaddish when it came time for the prayer in the service. I asked my friend sitting next to me for her thoughts on the situation, and she concurred that there was little chance I would get the green light to say it. Scenes of my principal saying "oh, one of the men can say it for you!" or "but don't you have a male relative saying it?" swam through my head. These imagined statements so enraged me that I decided to get up and ask her. As I got out of my seat, she left the room. I decided that it was a sign from God that I shouldn't push it, it wasn't worth making a statement, I just wouldn't say Kaddish. Whatever.

But then, God showed me a different sign: a man began saying Kaddish. I could say it along with him.

I stumbled over the unfamiliar Aramaic words that comprise the Kaddish, my voice shaking out of fear that someone would shush me, call out "Women don't say Kaddish!" or otherwise call me out on my subversive behavior. But my fears were unfounded: I said Kaddish, and nobody tried to quiet me.

It was the first time I said Kaddish for my dad, but not the last. I did not say it on a daily basis, or with any sort of regularity; just whenever I found myself in a minyan. It's been about seven months since my year of Kaddish ended, and I am glad that I used this prayer to memorialize my father, even though it is atypical for a daughter to do so. Saying Kaddish showed me that I can assert my voice in religious spaces, something that I had never tried to do before. It showed my community that I am a full member, despite being a girl, dedicated to Judaism and its dictates. And I hope it showed my dad, wherever he is, that he has not been forgotten.