Sometimes I recite Kaddish with the kids — Dovid and Nison, 12 and 10 years old, respectively — and sometimes I let them go and do it together, on their own.
In the beginning, I said Kaddish with them, louder than their soft, childlike voices, because I did not want to hear them saying Kaddish for their father, our son-in-law Moshe Hirsch, z’l.
Was there a rationale as to why I do it one way or the other? I don’t believe so and there still is not; it’s just an impulse that says when it’s right and when they can do it on their own.
Now reflecting on the matter 12 weeks later, I have to say that davening with them in shul, sometimes Shacharis but more often Minchah and Ma’ariv, witnessing the dogged stoicism they are courageously displaying, as is their mom, our daughter Malkie, is a great inspiration for us and everyone around us, in the family and beyond.
My first newly developed and applied rule is that children at this age should not be left out there saying Kaddish, especially by themselves, as people will naturally turn around to see who it is and what the story is. So most of the time I say Kaddish with them for that and one other reason. The other reason, I have discovered, is that if I say it loud enough, then I cannot hear them that well, and somehow that seems better and somewhat comforting to me.
Depending on where we daven — sometimes at an Ashkenaz and sometimes at a Sefard minyan — we spend a few moments before the davening to go over the nusach and where and what type of Kaddish is recited. There are a few extra words close to the beginning of the Sefard Kaddish, which has an additional pause for Amen. Ashkenaz does not have that, so if we are someplace where we have not davened before, it is important to go over what we call the ground rules.
Nusach Ashkenaz has one Rabbinical Kaddish up top followed almost directly by the shorter Mourner’s Kaddish. Sefard has the Rabbinical Kaddish in the beginning and then has three at the conclusion of the davening so it all balances out.
Almost immediately — I’d say after just two or three weeks—the kids had Kaddish and the various changes and nuances committed to memory.
As for the occasions at which we are together in shul but I do not say Kaddish along with them, here are the rules I’ve created. If there are a lot of people saying Kaddish at a given minyan, I step back and let them join the Kaddish choir.
Some of that decision is made based on how big the shul is and where we are sitting. Another factor is the nature of the voices of the other people saying Kaddish in the shul. If one or more of the other reciters has a booming voice, that takes the attention away from the boys and I let them go at it alone, without me.
Over all this time I never asked either of them whether or not they want me to say Kaddish with them. Neither have they ever turned to me at any point and said, “Zaide, why are you saying Kaddish, too?” Whether I recite the Kaddish or not, they have not commented on it. They appear to accept it as it is and leave it to me to gauge their comfort level under the individual circumstance.
A few times I asked them whether they are aware of what the words of Kaddish are all about. I related a gentle explanation, and they also said to me that one of their rebbeim in Yeshiva of South Shore had gone over the words with them, as did one of their neighbors in Woodmere who is also saying Kaddish for his father.
The older of the two bigger boys — there are four boys and a girl — just turned 12 a week ago. From the start, he has been earnest and unrelentingly dedicated to saying Kaddish, without any excuses. This is the case even though he was told that others are saying Kaddish and that since he is under bar mitzvah, the obligation is more loosely structured. He listened to what was said but did not pay any attention to the advisory.
To that end, he seems to always be a half-day ahead of himself. In the morning, after Shacharis, we discuss whether he will be davening Minchah in yeshiva and then where he will daven Ma’ariv and who will accompany him and his younger brother. Then at night we talk about whether he will be making the bus in the morning or if he wants to daven at one of the many morning minyanim at the Young Israel of Woodmere.
It is becoming increasingly obvious after these three months that this young boy has speedily grown into a young man. Of course, it is way too early for that, but this is the fate that Hashem has delivered to Malkie, the kids, and all of us who are slowly adjusting to this new reality.
It is not an easy thing to be the center of attention in shul in this fashion. Back at the very beginning, when I was saying Kaddish with the boys, a person walked over to me after davening to ask why I was saying Kaddish too if I was not obligated to. Frankly, I don’t know what possesses people to ask questions of this nature, as it is a private matter.
But my response then as it has been the two or three other times the same inquiry was made is that the boys are saying Kaddish for their father; I’m saying Kaddish for the rest of humanity.
Another time someone who apparently had observed me saying Kaddish with the boys walked over to me after davening one day and said that he just had to tell me what a great ba’al chesed I am. I thanked him but then asked what it was he was talking about. He said that he was overwhelmed and impressed by how I undertook to take these two boys to shul and say Kaddish with them, as often as possible. I looked at him for a moment, trying to figure out what he was talking about, but then I saw in his eyes that he just did not know.
“What are you talking about?” I say. “These are my grandchildren!” He is taken aback and starts to turn red and then just cannot say he is sorry enough, even though there was nothing to apologize for. I explain that he was mistaken and that it is not about chesed; it is just about doing what needs to be done.
I completed saying Kaddish for my mom about a year before the boys began saying Kaddish for Moshe. Frankly, I thought at the time that I was done with it, and I just learned that it is not suggested that we think that way. What a miscalculation that was.
Sometimes, I stand behind the boys for Kaddish and watch them saying the words without looking into the siddur. They are so earnest, so committed, and, I have to say, brave. I observe them again and again doing what they want and need to do to stay connected to their tatty. They don’t flinch or hesitate. A few days ago, I told them that they have about eight months to go, which I later realized was not that long for me but close to an eternity for them. They didn’t react but just acknowledged what I was saying.
Then it was time to recite Kaddish again, and I watched their soft, sweet faces as their lips began to move on cue, performing what I would call a difficult and unnatural task. But they are such a remarkable inspiration and I am learning so much from a situation I could never have imagined.
I watch them stay serious and, most importantly, composed, and I think to myself that if they can do it, then I can do it, too.