The Kaddish of Pandemic

by Judy Bolton-Fasman

I read the obituaries of those who have died in the pandemic, and say many of their names softly before I recite the five paragraphs of the Kaddish—the Jewish prayer of mourning. A new day, a new set of names. I make my way through the prayer’s chewy Aramaic, memorializing the lives these people lived. “Magnified and Sanctified is His Name,” begins this invocation of praise that somehow gets away without mentioning a single word about death. Yitgadal, viyitkadash sh’may rabbah. Amen.

I began reading obituaries in earnest after 9/11. I did my reading late at night into the early morning. It was a dark time, so spooky, the perfect atmosphere to take in the holy biographical details of the dead. Newsprint blackened my fingers. Myriad stories crossed my kitchen table, each obituary delivering a frisson of recognition. So many names of the dead were on my lips. Survivors as well. I felt guilty that reading the obituaries made me grateful—I was still alive. I was not in the wrong place at the wrong time and so I woke up each morning with my husband. I recognized my blind, dumb luck. But how much of that luck can anyone have in a lifetime? Yitgadal, viyitkadash sh’may rabbah. Amen.

That feeling of mourning the 9/11 victims extended into 2002, when my father died two days before Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. That was almost 18 years ago; the number 18 in Hebrew letters spells out chai—life. I love the number 18. I love any number that is divisible by three. Luckier still if the number is divisible by nine. I habitually add up the license plates I see in traffic, holding my breath for that magical factor of three or, better, nine. I wait to press the send button at a time on the clock that adds up to a multiple of three. 9:09 —morning or night — is my favorite time, and also my son’s birthday. A friend once said that my superstition around numbers felt like OCD to her. I don’t disagree. Obsession and compulsion are the very traits that got me into this obituary-reading business. Yitgadal, viyitkadash sh’may rabbah. Amen.

This pandemic has seen us into a new year of protracted grief. Now, reading the obituaries of the dead is different. As horrific as 9/11 was, those deaths are now over and accounted for. Finality helps with the mourning. Yitgadal, viyitkadash sh’may rabbah. Amen.

The first time I recited the Kaddish as a full-fledged mourner was for my father. Parent, sibling, child—one degree of separation—these are the people for whom one formally says the Kaddish. Even in death, there is a slim hierarchy. Yitgadal, viyitkadash sh’may rabbah. Amen.

Children mourn parents for almost a year—11 months to be exact. Jews grieve their siblings and children for 30 days, a holdover from times when so many young children died in other epidemics, due to other diseases. After all, the daily recitation of the Kaddish takes time and endurance. Yitgadal, viyitkadash sh’may rabbah. Amen.

It’s easy to count wholesale passings; so much harder to honor every life. Statistics mar individuality beyond recognition. In this pandemic, bodies have piled up in refrigerated trucks. They continue still. When the death toll was just over 100,000, the New York Times memorialized those deaths on their front page; a thousand names to represent the thousand names behind them. Yitgadal, viyitkadash sh’may rabbah. Amen.

There are nearly 3,000 names carved into the bronze walls that surround the reflecting pools at the World Trade Center. The AIDS Quilt has 48,000 memorial panels, and there are 58,000 names etched into the granite at the Vietnam Memorial. In my synagogue, the Yizkor Wall—The Wall of Remembrance—memorializes hundreds of names in tarnished brass letters. A small yellow bulb lights up on a given yahrtzeit—the anniversary of a death. Yitgadal, viyitkadash sh’may rabbah. Amen.

Each of the 1,000 names listed in the New York Times came with a personalized line—like a flash obituary. I was so overwhelmed I could just randomly read the names and their taglines, which served as epitaphs. These are the new tombstones. It nearly felt like when, as a kid, I would press my finger on a spinning globe. Wherever my finger landed was the place I’d live. The game’s unpredictability made me homesick even before my finger settled on a piece of geography. Back then, I was sure I did not want to live on a mountain or in the ocean. Today, I am sure I do not want to mourn so many people, yet I cannot look away. Yitgadal, viyitkadash sh’may rabbah. Amen.

Upon hearing of a person’s death, one says the Hebrew phrase Baruch Dayan Emet. Blessed is the true judge. That’s a warm-up for the Kaddish. Yitgadal, viyitkadash sh’may rabbah. Amen.

“Kimarlee Nguyen, 33, Everett, Mass, writer who inspired her Brooklyn high school students; Adam Kovacs, 72, New York City, cartoonist and an expert on musicals; Genowefa Kochanek, 98, Massachusetts, survived the German occupation of Poland during World War II; Maria Pino, 67, Albuquerque, New Mexico, Navajo teacher with a sense of duty; Charles Jernigan, 61, celebrated Hartford Public High School basketball player; Nancy A. Richard, 83, her dinners were mouthwateringly good and usually topped off with a homemade pie or cake; Sawarrelita Redmond, 52, Riverdale, IL, youngest of 21 siblings.” Baruch Dayan Emet. Yitgadal, viyitkadash sh’may rabbah. Amen.

Given their ubiquity, it makes sense that obituaries are an ancient genre. They first appeared chiseled in stone and then written on scrolls. They appeared in both poetry and prose. They eventually leaped to newspapers, where they read like very short stories. And now they live on the Internet, too. Funeral homes host websites where friends and families can grieve together. In this pandemic, I have been to some Zoom shivas. From my delineated square on the computer screen, I say “amen” to the Kaddish that the mourners recite. Out of habit, I mouth the Kaddish along with them. Yitgadal, viyitkadash sh’may rabbah. Amen.

The night before my father’s funeral, I practiced reciting the Kaddish alone, in my girlhood room, with the pink bubblegum walls and matching shag rug that was graying under the dust. I found a small blue prayer book in the nightstand, stashed since my yeshiva days. But, after an hour, I gave up on sounding out the austere, black Hebrew letters of the Kaddish’s Aramaic. At the funeral, I settled on using the transliteration. My brother and sister struggled with the Kaddish, too. My mother said she knew the prayer by heart, but she needed someone to start it off for her. The effect was winding her up like a clock for the first words of the Kaddish to roll off her tongue. But in the latter half of the prayer, she fatigued and stumbled. Yitgadal, viyitkadash sh’may rabbah. Amen.

On the eve of Rosh Hashana, I returned home from my father’s funeral to an answering machine blinking with messages. They were all from the butcher who was waiting for me to pick up my order of kosher brisket for twenty. Each of his dispatches got nastier and nastier until he said he was charging my credit card and throwing out the brisket. Kaddish for the holiday. Kaddish for the dinner. Kaddish for decency and sympathy. Yitgadal, viyitkadash sh’may rabbah. Amen.

The year I said the Kaddish for my stern, much older father, I realized how desperate I still was to know him, to understand him. The repetition of the prayer day in, day out, led me to know its words by heart—ba’al peh. This Hebrew phrase literally translates as “by mouth,” and connotes the oral transmission of the Torah. For me, it means the words of the Kaddish have been imprinted on my heart. Yitgadal, viyitkadash sh’may rabbah. Amen.

I finally told my mother that the 30-year-old son of my first boyfriend died by suicide. She screamed in Ladino, “Barminam!” which roughly translates to “God forbid, the horror.” That one piercing word served as her Kaddish for the boy. Yitgadal, viyitkadash sh’may rabbah. Amen

Six weeks later, the coronavirus settled into my life by way of my mother. She’s a very old 85-year-old in a nursing home who can’t roll her wheelchair by herself. Although she’d tested positive for the virus, she never presented symptoms. I wasn’t surprised. When I had strep throat as a little girl my mother flouted her preternaturally robust health by licking my spoon. She shared a milkshake with me when I had the chickenpox. I don’t remember ever seeing her sick; the woman’s immune system was made of iron. It’s different now for her in the nursing home—she tells me she throws up a lot because she doesn’t like the food. But the woman beat the coronavirus. That means I do not have to launch myself into another year of Kaddish, not yet. Is it tempting fate to thank God for such a piece of luck with the first lines of the Kaddish? Yitgadal, viyitkadash sh’may rabbah. Amen.

When I’m in a less than generous mood, the words of the Kaddish are bloated and empty to me. Who feels like praising God from the depths of sadness and despair? The Kaddish pushed me to mouth words of adoration for God when I was at my angriest about my father’s death. Other times the prayer was a clarion call to remember, to memorialize, to love again. An “amen” punctuates each paragraph of the prayer. The root of the word amen is from the Hebrew emunah, faith. Amen is an affirmation, an agreement. But where do I search for my faith in the middle of a pandemic? Yitgadal, viyitkadash sh’may rabbah. Amen.

The Kaddish winds down with a wish for peace. Oseh Shalom bimramav, hoo yaaeshah shalom, alenu v’al kol Yisrael. May the one who brings peace to His universe bring peace to us, and to all of Israel. I whisper amen as I close the prayer book. I whisper amen as I close the newspaper. I say a pointed amen when I recite the Kaddish for my father, my aunt, my grandparents, my best friend, the victims of 9/11, the coronavirus dead. I have been accumulating the souls of the departed for a long time. There are so many souls that I can no longer limit my Kaddish to that slim hierarchy. I need to push my inner circle to the outer edges of humanity. Yitgadal, viyitkadash sh’may rabbah. Amen.