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October 11, 2017 by

The Loneliness of Yizkor When You’re a Young Woman

Photo credit: Kevin Skobac

Photo credit: Kevin Skobac

With the month of Tishrei upon us, the mourners of Zion are in the midst of a Yizkor double-header.

Jewish mourning liturgy is dauntingly public. In most communities, the mourners stand and recite the prayers aloud or silently, while the rest of the congregation exits the room or sits and waits until it’s over.

Reciting the Jewish prayer of mourning, Yizkor, and its sister, Kaddish, has always been a lonely endeavor for me, because I’m a woman and many daily minyans still cater primarily to men. Even though more women have adopted this tradition in recent years, we are nevertheless an anomaly.

There’s another layer to my solitude. I’m always the youngest mourner—by far. I was 21 when my father died. Seventeen years on, I’m still young to be doing this.

I said Kaddish every day for 11 months after my father’s fatal heart attack. In the midst of my anger and confusion at his sudden and inexplicable death, Kaddish seemed one thing I could count on not to drag me deeper into spiraling grief.

I couldn’t attend our family’s Orthodox congregation. I would have been relegated to the back row of the sanctuary behind a fence. That was not my groove. But I found one quasi-egalitarian synagogue in Montreal with daily morning services. I didn’t know anyone there. Needless to say, I was quite the oddity: an opinionated university student among a dozen curmudgeonly, much older men.

In spite of it all, I found solace in Kaddish and an unlikely bond with my breakfast club. My newfound friends stood by me through bawling fits and the awkward moments when they realized I was intruding on their man-talk.

They included me in the minyan, or not—depending on who was leading prayers.

They tried to set me up with the cantor.

In that dim basement chamber, I found my comfort zone.

Later, during my post-university travels and in my first years in Israel, I continued to attend services to say Yizkor and Kaddish on holidays and on the anniversary of Dad’s death. After a polite welcome, I was always met with a variation of shock, sympathy, curiosity and bewilderment.

In Israel, I ended up at several Orthodox synagogues when Dad’s Yahrzeit fell on a weekday, because non-Orthodox synagogues usually aren’t open during the week. The men didn’t know what to say to me, and more than once had to fetch a well-hidden key to unlock the women’s section. At one South American shul, they had to put me outside the sanctuary because they didn’t have a space for women at all. No female had ever attended daily prayers.

This Yom Kippur, Yizkor was especially trying for me. As usual, I ended the service in tears, huge red sunglasses covering my private storm of emotion in the silent sanctuary. I wasn’t crying only because I missed my dad. As I stood among the members of my egalitarian congregation, all of them at least 20 years older than me, I realized how alone I still am. 

When I finally escaped to the bathroom to let out my pent-up sobs, I wondered about what other young women in my situation do. Then I realized that I didn’t know any other women in this situation. Not once in my 17 years of mournerdom have I encountered a fellow woman remotely close to me in age reciting Yizkor or Kaddish.

I don’t blame anyone for this predicament; other synagogue-goers mean well.  It’s just that it seems we as a people are not equipped to deal with young female mourners.

As Jewish rituals open up to women and our community becomes more diverse, it’s time for us to rethink our perceptions of mourning—and mourners.

We come from different backgrounds, generations and walks of life. Synagogue is not the right place for everyone to mourn, but it can be. The Jewish community should encourage women who choose to recite Yizkor and Kaddish.

What’s more, grief is still largely taboo, even in the age of live-streaming and social media. Let’s be more honest about death. I’d rather people ask me what I’m doing at Yizkor than stare, nod uneasily or ignore me.  It’s OK to ask how my father died. It doesn’t make me more upset. I find comfort in talking about him.

I wrote this piece to start a discussion and to reach out to other women in this situation. I’m sure there are many others out there. If we speak up, maybe we won’t feel so alone.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.  

  • Fran Rosenblatt Samuels

    Not that it’s a competition, but I have been lighting yahrzeit candles, leaving stones on gravestones, and attending yizkor services since I was six. I didn’t have company in my sorrow. My brother was eight years old when he went to shul every morning before school for an entire year to say Kaddish for our dad. None of the men even acknowledged him, a little boy desperately trying to be a man. My mother, a Holocaust survivor, lost a daughter by the time she was twenty-one. There were far too many women like her, none of whom had the opportunity to properly mourn. They carried their pain in their hearts. I am sorry for Ms Takefman’s loss and her ongoing grief, and I am sorry for her feeling a lack of community. I must say, however, that few things have made me feel as isolated, misunderstood or lonely as her notion that her “youth” in mourning makes her unique. She should have known better at twenty-one; she certainly should know better now.
    Frances R Samuels

    • Melanie Takefman

      Dear Fran, I am very sorry to hear your story. What a tragedy to lose a parent so young. Regarding mine, nowhere do I state that I am unique in the grand scheme of things. I describe *feeling* alone because I did not encounter others like me in my shul mourning experiences. I wrote this piece specifically to reach out to others who are in my situation – this was stated clearly in the text. Perhaps you should read until the end. With best wishes, Melanie

      • Fran Rosenblatt Samuels

        I did we didn’t till the end. More than once. I understand that you felt you were reaching out, but I also got them a very strong vibe that you thought you were the only one. Everybody has a story. Perhaps you should keep that in mind when replying to your readers.

  • Ronit Weldon

    I lost my mother when I was 20. That was 19 years ago. During that first year, I tried to attend the conservative congregation where my father worked, along with my brother and father. I can relate to being the youngest, but while it was mostly men and I wasn’t included in the minyan, there were other, much older women saying kaddish. I’m still one of the youngest at yahrzeit and at yizkor services. But now I only attend egalitarian services, where there are many other women and where we are part of the minyan. I certainly notice when there are younger people standing up, and acknowledge that life is fragile and precious at any point. Now I feel held when I say kaddish. I’m also now a mother myself, and I feel that preciousness of life daily in my bones. It’s hard to imagine being able to attend daily services, when I have parental and work responsibilities, the egalitarian shul doesn’t have daily services, and there are no shuls close to me where I now live.

    • shana deane

      i’m sorry it’s so hard. my egalitarian shul is also limited… only friday and saturday. at least to be blessed with that. an invitation: i have found these very nourishing and easy to fit into a busy schedule: weekly kaddish calls from Lab Shul every thursday at noon.

      Weekly Mourner’s Kaddish phone call – every Thursday at NOON EST – for the benefit of those of us who find attending synagogue/minyan a challenge for any number of reasons and yet wish to take time in honoring loved ones with a community of like minded souls. Also a way for friends and family to stand in solidarity and care with mourners. This is an experiment in virtual ritual reality.

      How it works: those of us reciting Kaddish in memory of loved ones gather on a free conference call, share our names and reason for kaddish, read a poem and learn a brief sacred teaching together, and then recite the Kaddish together. 30 minutes or so – depends on how many of us get on the call.
      Please join the Lab/Shul’s Kaddish Club Google Group to RSVP.
      Call into the free conference call number: 641-715-3296, Code:978294#

      Click here for a PDF of the Mourner’s Kaddish with transliteration and translation.