January 7, 2019
My father died on the 5th of December, which is also the 27th of Kislev on the Hebrew calendar. For the past month, I have attended minyan (Jewish prayer services) twice daily in order to say kaddish for him. Traditionally, children recite kaddish for eleven months following a parent’s death, and then annually on the anniversary of the death. According to halakha (frequently translated as “Jewish law”), kaddish is one of a number of prayers which may only be recited in the presence of a quorum, defined as ten Jewish adults (males in Orthodox practice). During the first week of mourning (shiva), the minyan comes to the mourner, with daily morning and evening services taking place in their home. After that first week, it’s incumbent on the mourner to find or make a service.
So it is that in the last few weeks I have said kaddish in a host of locations: my parents’ living room in Ann Arbor, where, together with my brothers and mother, I observed the initial days of shiva; then in my own living room, where we also concluded it; in synagogues in Skokie (where I live), Lakeview (on my way to work), and Atlanta (where we went on a previously planned winter vacation); with the wrestling team at Ida Crown Jewish Academy; and in a suburban office building that holds daily afternoon prayer services. In the coming year, I fully expect I will find minyanim in dozens of more locations, on and off the beaten track.
There are two aspects of this activity in particular that strike me as meriting consideration for Sightings. The first is the way in which attending or forming a minyan highlights some inherent tensions in how we construe religious behavior as either public or private. During shiva, the Jewish public assembles within the mourner’s private residence, blurring the boundaries of public and private, as anyone and everyone is essentially invited to attend. After that first week, however, there are at least two different types of minyanim that happen, which are animated by a public-private tension. The first type is a standing public event, almost always advertised on a website, to which I bring myself as a private individual and join the public quorum. I know that morning services are held at 6:30 a.m. at one shul in the neighborhood, at 7:00 at another, and at 7:15 at a third. I adjust my schedule to fit the public services, and in so doing I conform my private needs and desires to the strictures of a public ritual—crucially, a ritual that would take place whether or not I was present.
Contrast this with a second type of minyan, which is essentially made on behalf of the mourner, so that they can say kaddish. This typically occurs in smaller communities, where services aren't held on a daily basis, as well as in non-Orthodox communities, which often struggle to draw daily quorum's precisely because their members aren't driven by the same sense of obligation to attend daily services. This second type also occurs when there are exigent circumstances—e.g., if I were in the boarding area for a flight to Israel (where I would expect to find many Jews) and the time for saying the afternoon prayer was approaching, I might go around and ask nine other Jews if they could join me for a minyan so I could say kaddish. Whatever the situation, in this second type of minyan, it is my private need that drives the creation of a public, as the quorum forms on my behalf and would not exist without my willing it into being.
The second aspect of kaddish that I find noteworthy for our purposes connects with the well-worn debate within religious studies between those who understand religion primarily in terms of belief and doctrine and those—particularly from traditions outside of Protestant Christianity—who see it as more about practice and discipline. Kaddish, not to mention the rest of the daily prayer liturgy, is an overwhelmingly fixed text even in the most liberal of Jewish communities. It is a mighty struggle for even the most advanced practitioner to recite these prayers so many times, over and over, with perfect intention every time. As a younger person, I would have found such rote recitation distasteful or even hypocritical. And yet, while plenty of Jewish texts espouse the importance of reciting prayers with intention, the truth that reveals itself in the experience of so much davening (prayer) is one attended to by the late Catherine Bell in her work on ritual, and which the late religious studies scholar Saba Mahmood articulated perhaps better than anyone in her book Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject: “Tradition … is not a set of symbols and idioms that justify present practices, neither is it an unchanging set of cultural prescriptions that stand in contrast to what is changing, contemporary, or modern. Nor is it a historically fixed social structure. Rather, the past is the very ground through which the subjectivity and self-understanding of a tradition’s adherents are constituted” (115). In performing rituals bequeathed to us from the past, we generate ourselves in the present.
My grandfather—my father’s father—passed away the year I was born. Then, as now, Ann Arbor was a Jewish community large enough to support Shabbat prayer services, but daily services were a challenge. Yet my father was committed and spent that year wrangling a minyan every day so he could say kaddish—calling people on the phone (he didn't have the luxuries of mass email, social media, or Doodle polls in 1976), showing up at the AEPi Jewish fraternity house and University of Michigan Hillel, and otherwise cobbling together nine other Jews to form a Jewish public. For his efforts, he earned a moniker that stuck with him for the rest of his life: “Minyan Lou.” I know it was not because he had perfect intention in every word he recited, or even because he knew the meaning of all the words he was uttering. Instead, what I more fully appreciate now that I stand in his shoes, is that my father was situating and constituting himself, and with him his family, within a tradition that is at once public and private, at once present, past, and future. And for that I am eternally grateful.
Image: The author's father, Louis M. Feigelson, participating in his grandson's bar mitzvah, September 3, 2018, Kol Sasson Congregation. (Photo Credit: Jennifer Frankfurter)