November 26th, 2014

(relatively) recent

Reflections on saying kaddish for eleven months, and my experiences doing so in Israel

My blog post yesterday merely made mention that I'd been reciting kaddish for the last eleven months, but didn't go into what the experience was like. I wondered when I went to study at the Conservative Yeshiva in 2007 whether the experience would change me; after all, one hears of people who go to yeshiva and come back ultra frummers. In practice, of course, the Conservative Yeshiva was never going to have that effect on anyone; but I realised after a while that, rather than going to yeshiva changing me, it was more a case than I went to the yeshiva because I had already changed, myself. (If you'd told me barely more than three years earlier I'd have chosen to spend time studying at a yeshiva, I'd have laughed at you.)

So too was the case davening at every service for a whole year. I'd never done so for longer than a day or two beforehand; even when I was at the Conservative Yeshiva I routinely skived ma`ariv to avoid spiritual burnout. So, I davened every service because I felt it was the right thing to do: it's the Jewish way of dealing with bereavement, it's what we do, and connects me into a thousand years of tradition. Also, it's what my mother would have wanted (if not necessarily to that extent), and it felt a way of obeying the commandment to honour one's mother and father. But it hasn't made me anxious to run off to shul for services now the eleven months are over; I've gone back to my old routine of doing a little davening בְּיָחִיד each day without a backward glance.

Most of the past eleven months, I was attending services as part of a routine; when my routine got disrupted, things became... interesting, no more so than on my holiday this year.

aviva_m had been trying to get me to go to Israel on holiday for some years; I'd been resisting, as, unlike her, I've spent lots of time in Israel and felt I knew the country well. Early in the year, though, she said, "If you want to recite kaddish with a minyan three times a day, there's only one place in the world you can go on holiday where, no matter how obscure a place you are in, how middle-of-nowhere, you'll be able to find nine other Jews for a minyan to recite kaddish." And so it came to pass that we went to Israel.

One curiosity of davening in Israel is that, rather than starting to pray for rain on 4 December as in the Diaspora, they start on the seventh of Cheshvan. This means I started praying for rain on my holiday, stopped again a week and a half later when I returned home, and will start again in another week from now!

aviva_m had experience of Jerusalem and the south, but not of the north, so we spent most of our holiday in the Galil and Golan. Until the Russian aliyah of the late 1980s, the majority of Israelis were Sephardi, and the majority of frum Israelis still are, so I ended up davening mostly at a variety of Sephardi synagogues on my holiday. Amongst Ashkenazim, the most important mourner's kaddish is the one after Aleinu; amongst Sephardim, it's the one before Aleinu. Some shuls didn't even do the one after Aleinu; for those that did, it's only a half-kaddish which meant that (since I was saying the Ashkenazi wording) I'd suddenly find myself the only one still reading for the last two lines of the kaddish!

Back home, weekday shacharis is at 7:15am, or 7:05 on Mondays and Thursdays. In Israel, outside of the big cities, I was unable to find shuls davening later than 6:15; in many places it was at six o'clock. I think this is because in the height of summer, and to a lesser extent even in late October, you really don't want to be wrapping yourself in a thick woollen shawl once the sun's got high enough to start churning out heat; but this did mean that, as aviva_m pointed out, it was the only holiday we'd been on in which we were getting up earlier than we would for a normal working day!

Beforehand, I'd put quite a bit of time into trying to find out locations of shuls in Israel, and service times. (Once we were there, we also made use of the minyan finder on aviva_m's smartphone.) A useful starting point was typing in "synagogue" into Google Maps, but sometimes the shuls this showed me would be ancient ones, not used for over a millennium! (We did end up visiting some of these, but as tourists, rather than to pray!)

A bit after four, we'd have to knock off tourism in order to get me to shul for mincha. (Many touristy places shut at four in the winter anyway.) Occasionally, this would be a bit hairy. After we'd visited Banias up in the Golan Heights, we drove down to Kiriat Shemonah in the Jordan valley for mincha, only to discover that the shul I'd randomly picked couldn't get a minyan now the clocks had moved back and many people were still at work. In the end we managed to get the last three people by virtue of one man standing outside and hollering at passersby to try and get them to join us.

That was supposed to be our one day in the northern Golan, but, having only a bit of time left in the afternoon after visiting Gamla in the southern Golan, I drove aviva_m north to show her the view out over Syria east of the Golan, then further north still (it was further than I had thought!) to the Druze town of Majdal Shams, high on the slopes of Mt Hermon, to introduce her to Saḥlab (mmmm!). The minyan finder said the nearest shul was at Neve Ativ, a ski resort nearby, but when we got there we discovered it had no weekday services, and a passerby told us we'd have to go back down into the valley. Cue a frenzied drive nearly twenty miles west, but more pertinently a thousand metres down to get to Kiriat Shemonah before the end of mincha.

(Every time I'm in Kiriat Shemonah I say I ought to go to Metulla just to the north to have a look down into Lebanon; to date I haven't managed it, and I didn't manage it these two times either, as by the time I was out of ma`ariv it was getting dark.)

I thought the uncertainties of getting to synagogues I'd never been to, and couldn't always discover service times for, would mean that I'd miss lots of minyanim whilst I was in Israel; to my surprise, it wasn't until I came, near the end of my time in Israel, to the city with five thousand synagogues, that I missed a single one, and that turned out to be the only one in the whole two weeks.

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