Sisterhood Blog

Mourning My Friend and My Dad

By Laura Hodes

Laura Hodes
Sisterhood contributor Laura Hodes’ father.

Last week I attended the funeral of a girl who was my age, 39. Jodi and I grew up together. We lived next door to each other as children, from when I moved into my house right before kindergarten until we left for college. For me she will always be that little girl that I played with for hours on her swing set, trying to break a Guinness Book World record for time spent on a swing. We were inspired by a “Brady Bunch” episode, and we played on the swings until it got dark and our parents called us in.

Jodi’s funeral was right before the days of Awe, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which are all about remembering and memories. As Dara Horn recently wrote in the New York Times, one of the central prayers in the Hebrew liturgy of the Day of Remembrance describes God as an ideal reader: “You remember all the forgotten things. You open the Book of Memories and it speaks for itself, for each person’s hand has signed it.” As she wrote, both prayer and fiction allow us to recreate, to re-live, to re-animate the past. Remembering is acting like God and, in essence, it is what a writer does. Remembering, or telling stories about our memories, I realized after my friend’s funeral, is the only way we can mourn — and the only way we can comfort mourners.

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Reciting Kaddish, As A Daughter

By Judy Bolton-Fasman

In late August, The Sisterhood launched a series examining the role of women in Jewish mourning traditions. Grieving for a loved one is fiercely personal; doing so as a woman, guided by Jewish laws and rituals, can be comforting or restricting, depending on one’s experience. We asked you, Sisterhood readers, to share your stories. Many people responded. Some women felt marginalized, even alienated, by their limited roles in the mourning process. Others felt invigorated and strengthened, and found deep comfort in community. What resulted was a portrait of Jewish female mourning. This series — comprised of essays from writers and submissions from readers — will appear on The Sisterhood blog this week. This is the fourth and final post in that series. —Abigail Jones

Judy Bolton-Fasman
Sisterhood writer Judy Bolton-Fasman, second from right, sits with her family in 1965.

The night before my father’s funeral, I found a tattered prayer book from my Yeshiva days. It was small and square, the kind of prayer book I’ve seen women praying with at the kotel. Its filo-thin pages suggested a false modesty that diminishes a woman’s place in the Jewish world. That siddur was also thick with line after line of tiny Hebrew letters. I lay down on my bed and read through the Kaddish prayer for my father, something that was unheard of for a woman to do 50 years ago.

Saying the Kaddish for a loved one used to be an all boys club. No son, no Kaddish — unless you paid a man (yes, there is still such a thing) to recite the Kaddish for the 11 months a child mourns a parent. Recently, there was a case of gender segregation and Kaddish discrimination at an ultra-Orthodox cemetery in Israel. A woman named Rosie Davidian was denied the right to eulogize her father at his funeral. Ms. Davidian took her case to the Knesset to campaign for women to grieve as they see fit. An invitation quickly followed, asking her to read her father’s eulogy on a popular radio show where millions heard her words.

My father was buried on the eve of Rosh Hashanah and I had the honor of eulogizing him. The next day I was part of the overflow crowd — the common folk who didn’t pay for the pricier sanctuary tickets across the hall. One of the rabbis met my eye from the bima. She nodded in sympathy as I said the Kaddish in front of 800 people, so nakedly, so publicly for the first time.

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Three Women and a Burial

By Jane Eisner

In late August, The Sisterhood launched a series examining the role of women in Jewish mourning traditions. Grieving for a loved one is fiercely personal; doing so as a woman, guided by Jewish laws and rituals, can be comforting or restricting, depending on one’s experience. We asked you, Sisterhood readers, to share your stories. Many people responded. Some women felt marginalized, even alienated, by their limited roles in the mourning process. Others felt invigorated and strengthened, and found deep comfort in community. What resulted was a portrait of Jewish female mourning. This series — comprised of essays from writers and submissions from readers — will appear on The Sisterhood blog this week. This is the third post in that series. —Abigail Jones

Thinkstock

Many of the essays in this moving series about Jewish women and mourning are about exclusion. I have a story about inclusion.

It begins in early February 2005. Just two weeks earlier, our family had celebrated the bar mitzvah of my nephew, the youngest grandchild on that side of my family. My parents were both quite ill by then, but still with us, and our small tribe of relatives gathered close in the way that lingers inside for sometime afterward.

Which is why the call from my cousin was so jarring. I can’t recall the exact words, only the horrifying message: R. was dead.

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Making Peace With ‘Who Shall Die?’

By Gabrielle Birkner

In late August, The Sisterhood launched a series examining the role of women in Jewish mourning traditions. Grieving for a loved one is fiercely personal; doing so as a woman, guided by Jewish laws and rituals, can be comforting or restricting, depending on one’s experience. We asked you, Sisterhood readers, to share your stories. Many people responded. Some women felt marginalized, even alienated, by their limited roles in the mourning process. Others felt invigorated and strengthened, and found deep comfort in community. What resulted was a portrait of Jewish female mourning. This series — comprised of essays from writers and submissions from readers — will appear on The Sisterhood blog this week. This is the first post in that series. —Abigail Jones

Gabrielle Birkner
The last photo Gabrielle Birkner took with her father, from Rosh Hashanah 2003.

When in the fall of 2003, I stood between my father and stepmother and recited what is, perhaps, the Days of Awe’s most haunting reading, Unetaneh Tokef — better known as the “who shall live and who shall die prayer” — I didn’t give much thought to the meaning of the words as they passed through my lips.

The coming days, the liturgical poem tells us, would determine who among us would live out another year, and who would die and how. Fire, water, sword and wild beast are among the terrifying options read aloud at High Holy Days services. Only repentance, prayer and charity could avert (or temper, depending on your reading) “the severe decree.”

By the time I stood for the prayer the following Rosh Hashanah my father and stepmother were dead. Murdered, during a home invasion, in a manner that the prosecutors called “especially heinous, cruel or depraved.”

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Q&A: Shira Hadasha's Rahel Berkovits

By Raphael Magarik

Courtesy of Rahel Berkovits
Rahel Berkovits

Rahel Berkovits is an Israeli feminist, a teacher of Jewish texts, and a founder of Shira Hadasha, which bills itself as an “Orthodox Feminist Congregation in Jerusalem.” Her recent book, “A Daughter’s Recitation of Mourner’s Kaddish,” delves into classical sources, and argues that under Jewish law women are permitted to recite Mourner’s Kaddish. She spoke recently with The Sisterhood about women’s issues in the Modern Orthodox and the Haredi communities, and giving women agency when it comes to saying kaddish.

Raphael Magarik: Coming from an Orthodox background, when did you start to write on halacha and gender?

Rahel Berkovits: I’ve been researching these ideas for a long time. I used to believe that to make changes [on women’s issues], you needed a big-name rabbi. The breaking point was the issue of women saying the sheva brachot [marriage blessings]. I did halachic research, I felt it was possible, and I thought, “I can’t do it unless I get the rabbinic stamp of approval.”

I spoke to some of my teachers, and they said, “What you say makes sense, but I won’t say it’s okay, because people will say I’m feminist or Conservative.”

I had this really ridiculous idea: Sometimes in halacha it’s the people with very big shoulders who make major radical decisions, because they’re not worried about what people will think. So I made this appointment to meet a prominent Haredi rabbi. He treated me so poorly. All he wanted to know was, “Did I have a TV in my house? What type of music was I having at my wedding?” I just remember walking home crying. At that point, I decided I was going to make most of my halachic decisions for myself.

How do you make sense of the simultaneous emergence of the progressive, feminist Orthodoxy of this book, on the one hand, and the struggles over women in Haredi communities, such as Beit Shemesh?

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On Shavuot, Kaddish for the Heroine of My Youth

By Alyson Gerber


This week, for the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, I will light a Yahrtzeit candle in my studio apartment and attend the memorial Yizkor service. The superstitious may disapprove since, thankfully, I have not lost anyone in my immediate family, for whom I would be required to go through these mourning rituals. Yet, I take this time to pause and honor Hedda and George Kury, who have been gone for seven years and who have no one to say Kaddish in their honor.

Growing up in middle-class, suburban Boston, I wanted to be just like Hedda, the glamorous socialite who bought me puffy dresses with matching overcoats and fur mufflers from Neiman Marcus. Her beautiful gifts made me feel like I belonged with the trust-fund babies at my preparatory school, where I was labeled a new money Jew. Hedda’s husband, George, a gentle dark-haired pathologist, was my grandfather’s friend and, for as long as I could remember, the stately pair was part of my tight-knit group that gathered on holidays.Although they’d survived the Holocaust and endured Communist Hungary, Hedda and George appeared to be living the American dream. 

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