The day we bury my mother, the rabbi surprises me. He asks if I’d like to lead the Kaddish prayer alongside my brother.
He’s new to this orthodox Anglo-Jewish congregation, but perhaps he’s heard of “the scene” I made at my father’s grave thirteen years ago. In insult at being excluded when the shovel was handed first to my brother and then to my uncle, I’d grabbed it and offered it to my mother, then warded off all protests as first she and then I sent dirt thudding onto the pine boards of the coffin — the terrible, sobering sound of undeniable reality.
Now, as my brother and I lead the Kaddish together, there’s a murmur of consternation behind us. Women in orthodox Judaism are not even counted as part of the minyan, the community of prayer. What we are doing is distinctly unorthodox. But the ripple dies down as my voice rings out — louder and more confident than my brother’s since my Hebrew is fluent while he just sounds the letters.
I am surprised by how right this feels. Surprised at my agnostic self finding consolation in any prayer, let alone this haunting one whose words have nothing to do with death. On the page, it’s just another prayer in praise of God, whom I am in no mood at all to praise, even if I thought there was something as simple as a “who” to be praised in the first place.
But then this is not about God. It’s not even about what most of us think of as religion. It’s about tradition, and identity, and family loyalty.
It’s about gratefully submitting to familiar ritual when death has utterly disrupted the familiar.
It’s about standing up and being counted, not as a silent bystander in the gallery but in a daughter’s rightful place, at the head of the community of mourners.
It’s about honoring my mother. And in doing so, honoring all women.
— For Sybil, for Mothers Day.