For centuries, Jews have turned to the Mourner’s Kaddish upon experiencing loss. For three years, I co-edited an anthology, Kaddish: Women’s Voices, that explores what the recitation of Kaddish means specifically to women. I am delighted to share a bit about this special project.
In Kaddish: Women’s Voices, women from around the world share their relationships with the family members they lost, how they struggled to balance the competing demands of childrearing, work, and grief, what they learned about Jewish tradition and themselves, and the particular challenges they confronted as women. The 52 essays are presented in 12 chapters to mirror the year of mourning, each divided by words of Kaddish and by poems that I wrote while in aveilut (mourning) for my parents.
As Editor, I did not seek to provide simplistic or uniform answers to complex and personal questions, or to force any one conclusion on the many points for discussion raised within its pages. In true Wexner fashion, women of diverse religious affiliations, backgrounds and ages contributed essays to the volume. In fact, the Table of Contents boasts the names of four fellow Wexner alums: Esther Reed (WGFA, Class 9), Laura Sheinkopf (WGFA, Class 9), Jennie Rosenfeld (WGFA, Class 14), and Debra Seeman (spouse, Don Seeman, WGFA Class 4).
It is not a mitzvah, a formal commandment, for anyone to say Kaddish. Yet many regard it as such, undertaking a fervent commitment to attend prayer services every day while in mourning. The primacy of Kaddish illustrates how religious customs can evolve organically, and testifies to the desire of those left behind to stay connected, and if possible to assist their departed loved ones.
Many people assume that the phenomenon of women saying Kaddish is a recent innovation, perhaps an outgrowth of secular feminism. In fact, women have been reciting Kaddish Yatom for hundreds of years in communities across the world. Nonetheless, the practice never became normative, and women who stand to say Kaddish in Orthodox synagogues today frequently find their motivation to be suspect, or encounter outright opposition. As more women opt to do so, synagogues are challenged to make room, literally and metaphorically, for women and their voices.
The grieving heart is torn open. And that openness is an opportunity to grow spiritually and to reorient one’s life. As essays poured in, I was humbled to discover that they were about so much more than Kaddish. They’re about healing from loss, forgiveness, and letting go of unfulfilled dreams. They’re about “choosing life,” and deriving personal meaning from traditional prayer and Halakhah. They speak the truth about family relationships; some loving, and others fraught with pain. They illustrate how a Jewish community can be embracing or exclusive. They testify to the spiritual hunger of Jewish women, their wisdom, and perhaps above all else, the power of love.
Death steals those closest to us and takes them to another realm, seemingly beyond reach. Through Kaddish, we extend our arms into that void, seeking to stay connected and to aid the departed on their journey. Knowingly or unknowingly, in so doing, the mourner embarks upon a journey of her own.
Kaddish, Women’s Voices recounts the journey that is Kaddish, its dark corners and unexpected vistas, with courage, generosity, and depth. It is a precious record of women searching for their place within Jewish tradition, and exploring the connections that make human life worthwhile. I hope readers feel as I do, that it is a privilege to accompany them, and we resume our own journeys enriched.
Michal Smart received her A.B. from Princeton University in Religion, and an M.S. from Cornell University in Natural Resources, as a Wexner Graduate Fellow (Class 6). Michal is also a Fulbright Scholar in Jewish Thought. She has worked to pioneer Jewish outdoor and environmental education, serving as Director of Education of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL), founding Yitziah: Jewish Wilderness Journeys, and as Executive Director of Camp Isabella Freedman. Kaddish: Women’s Voices (Michal Smart and Barbara Ashkenas, Urim Publications, 2013) is a winner of the 2013 National Jewish Book Award in the category of Contemporary Jewish Life and Practice. Michal can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.