By Larry Gordon

Kaddish is often a lonely endeavor. I might have written that previously, but I took special note of this fact last Shabbos in one of my children’s shuls near Monsey, NY. You see, when you are on the move and reciting Kaddish
as I am this year for my mom, a’h, you have to at least mentally prepare yourself, for lack of a better description, for a new or at least different Kaddish environment every now and then.

It’s Shabbos morning and I enter a shul and look around, trying to case the place, so to speak. And as I glance around quickly, I wonder whether I will be saying Kaddish solo or I will have partners in the recitation that day.

So, does it really make a difference? I think it definitely does. When you are the only one saying Kaddish in shul at a given tefillah, or prayer, you kind of own the room for those 60 seconds or so. When there are others reciting the Kaddish as well, you have to make a combination of adjustments, sometimes on the spur of the moment.

The first order of business when others are saying Kaddish is to adjust your speed and cadence. If two or more people in the same minyan are reciting Kaddish, it is imperative that, if nothing else than for the sake of the rest of the minyan, the prayer be articulated in unison, with an expressive togetherness–even if you do not know the other folks saying the prayer–for all to hear and respond to.

This past Shabbos I was at a minyan in Rockland County, out of my usual domain, and as I start to say the Kaddish D’Rabbanan, the Rabbis’ Kaddish, someone else off to my right starts saying it, too. So I quickly realize that I’m not alone. And for some reason I feel that I am always the one who makes adjustments so that the prayer is uttered in unison and is palpable as well as understandable to those listening.

Anyway, now I know that I have company, so I am determined that later on in the davening, before the sefer Torah is taken out, I am going to be ready for my Kaddish-saying partner. Now that is all fine and good except that when we get to the next Kaddish he doesn’t say it, and once again I am flying solo.

Now that I have been saying Kaddish for nearly four months, I am slowly learning that the combinations of circumstances under which Kaddish is recited are probably too numerous to list in just one brief essay. The point is that by the next Kaddish, which is after Ein k’Elokeinu toward the end of davening and is once again a Kaddish D’Rabbanan, this other young man is also silent. But then a few minutes after Aleinu at the conclusion of the davening, I find myself once again with a Kaddish partner, thereby adjusting my tone and pace so that we at least sound like people on the same page, so to speak.

A few weeks ago, I had a similar experience, also on a Shabbos morning, but in a shul closer to home. It’s a shul that I am accustomed to attending so I pretty much know that at this point in time I am the only one saying Kaddish there–or at least I was at that point in time. So I was doing my thing, praising Hashem’s ways and the fashion and just way in which He conducts this world, but by the second Kaddish of the morning–the one after the Shir shel Yom–I hear someone nearby reciting the Kaddish with me.

Later on in the morning, at the end of Mussaf, as I was about to start the next Kaddish and I was waiting for the guy at the next table to begin Kaddish with me, there was total silence from him. After davening, I went over to the individual and wished him a good Shabbos and inquired nicely but curiously, saying, “What’s the story? Are you saying Kaddish or not?”

And it wasn’t because he was disrupting my rhythm; I just wanted to know what to expect going forward. So he explained to me that a few weeks ago an uncle of his passed away and he took it upon himself to say one Kaddish per day for him. The truth is that it really did not matter that much, but, what can I say–on some level it is good to know these things.

As long as we are on the subject of the challenges and sometimes complications of Kaddish, it has been pointed out to me that in Washington Heights, in what is commonly referred to as the “Yekke,” or German-Jewish community, only one mourner recites the Kaddish and all others just respond with Amen. The catalyst of the policy is so that the prayer is heard clearly and succinctly and that it does not turn into a congregational free-for-all with inaudible words and complete incoherence. I mentioned this to a friend, and he said that this is the way that Kaddish was intended to be recited originally, but that objective dissipated over the years and now everyone does their own thing. Except in the Heights.

That might be a smart idea, but what about the therapeutic aspect of the Kaddish commitment that lasts for a full 11 months out of the 12 months of mourning after the loss of a parent? I mean, do you have to run to shul to hear other people say Kaddish? I suppose if they are saying it for you with your loved one in mind you probably should be there.

And then there is the opposite situation of what I tried to describe above. That is when 80 to 90 percent of the people in shul are saying Kaddish and it is like one uniform chorus or hum. If this happens, it is usually at one of those office-based afternoon minyanim in the city. My impression is that these folks are davening with a minyan because they are saying Kaddish, and that once the year is over so will the commitment to run out of their office for Minchah every day conclude as well.

Now that I am in the thick of this, I have to say that I am reluctant to change my routine. I like to daven Shacharis in the same place and at the same time, and the same thing for Minchah and Ma’ariv, though that is not always possible.

One day a few weeks ago I was in Manhattan and was going to be near the Diamond Center, so I asked a friend to recommend a minyan. The minyan I selected–and there were plenty–was on the sixth floor of a skyscraper just off Fifth Avenue. One of the nice things about this experience is that no one knows you there, most are saying Kaddish, and it is easy to just blend in. I can contrast that with last Sunday when I davened Shacharis early at the Satmar shul in Monsey. I had davened there just once before, a few years ago. I can attest to this–Satmar and Chabad have at least one thing in common, and that is that they daven fast.

The other morning at the Satmar minyan there was just one other person saying Kaddish, and that young man was davening at the amud. It didn’t look to me like he was expecting me to join him, but we were a team, at least for that half-hour. And then the other day I went to a shul where I had not been in a long while with the foreknowledge that others were saying Kaddish. I wanted to see whether it was possible to just show up and chime in easily, but it really wasn’t. People who say Kaddish together for a prolonged period learn on some level to harmonize with one another. And that is just not possible when you show up somewhere new out of the blue.

Well, as you can see, I am in this for the long haul. I think that Kaddish means a lot of things to a lot of different people. I’m just not sure if the constant recitation is a way we slowly separate from the loved one or it’s the process of redefining the relationship and boosting it to a different and perhaps even higher level.

I was in shul at Minchah one night last week, and after the minyan the rabbi announced that the Minchah Kaddish was the last one that the individual leading the service would be saying. The young man did it stoically and nonchalantly, but afterward I could see on his face that it was not easy. He looked pained but also relieved. (Maybe he was thinking that now he can stay home once in a while and daven by himself without a minyan, as some of us do from time to time.)

At the end of the day, Kaddish is about proclaiming the greatness of G‑d and declaring our faith that whatever He presents us with is good. And that is even if it hurts and we don’t necessarily agree. Then again, maybe He puts us together with a random selection of others so that we can focus on just saying it together with others in the same situation, and that endeavor itself is distracting and maybe even a challenge in that the diversion it creates assuages some of the pain. I’m still not sure about that.

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