April 30, 2024
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April 30, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Today marked the completion of 11 months of saying Kaddish for my father.

The first time our daughter Ayala met her brother Joseph, she was watching him sleep in his swing. I asked her if she thought he was dreaming, and about what. And she said yes, about Zaydie.

I hope and pray he was. That somewhere between wombside and earthside he and my father spent a life’s worth of time together. We will do our best to make sure he knows Zaydie as well as he would if he were still with us, because the thought of Joseph never having the chance of building his own memories of my dad and experiences with him is simply unbearable and unbelievable.

The past nine months were so strange. Being filled, literally, with the promise of new life, while simultaneously grieving and facing that loss everyday at shul while saying Kaddish through morning sickness, restless nights, busy work days and juggling Ayala, who certainly has felt my absence at bedtime and wake-up because of this commitment. I hoped for an intermission between Kaddish and a new baby, but instead we have this overlap, this space where the most joyous and the most devastating live in parallel. They always do, but this is a magnitude and extreme I never expected.

I shared a variation on these remarks at Joseph’s bris, and a few friends said they were reminded of a book, “The World to Come” by Dara Horn. Briefly, a Chagall painting is stolen at a museum cocktail hour and the reader is then taken along its origin story, through the lives of 20th-century Yiddish writers and artists and the life of the family who once owned said painting.

So of course I immediately read the book, and I was truly at loss for words upon finishing it. There are so many layers, so many parallel stories, and in each one, there are strands of liturgy and Torah, art and history woven throughout. This book beckons a second read—my head is spinning trying to connect all the pieces together. There were several passages in particular that stunned me, this one is particular:

“I believe that when people die, they go to the same place as all the people who haven’t yet been born. That’s why it’s called the world to come, because that’s where they make the new souls for the future.

“And the reward when good people die, is that they get to help make the people in their families who haven’t been born yet.

“They pick out what kinds of traits they want the new people to have—they give them all the raw material of their souls, like their talents and their brains and their potential.

“Of course it’s up to the new ones, once they’re born, what they’ll use and what they won’t, but that’s what everyone who dies is doing, I think. They get to decide what kind of people the new ones might be able to become.

“That’s why your children will be lucky, Sara, because Dad is going to help make them who they’re going to be—just like my father helped make you.”

Dara Horn also wrote “Eternal Life,” one of my and my dad’s shared favorite books, and I wish I knew if he read this one. Like so many other books I read this year, this book would have had significantly less impact had I read it before my dad died, as if they were all written with me in mind.

There is so much about this book that mirrors my own life, my own thoughts, the special things I shared and loved with my dad, the remarks I shared at Joseph’s bris, down to the artist who created the cover art for this book, the Empire State Building featured prominently on the cover and my family’s love of Marc Chagall.

What were the odds that I would read this book, this past week of all weeks? That I would read it in the wake of having a child named for my father? I had a conversation in the first weeks following my dad’s death, with someone else who lost a parent at a young age. He said he feels his mother’s presence constantly, that she is a guiding force in his life, and I just so desperately wanted that. Some sort of sign that he sees us, that he knows what we’re all up to, that he’s there, just waiting for us to engage.

I don’t know if this book was a sign or what; I’ve always been wary and over-questioning of signs. I used to say that signs are God’s way of giving you what you need to live in the present, something tailored to meet you where you’re at, to help you feel seen, aligned. And that’s what this book felt like. Even before I started it, just by looking at the cover and skimming the back of the book—that familiar and urgent feeling of utter alignment came rushing back.

But that’s the thing. It’s a feeling and nothing more. What you do with the feeling, what it propels you to do or create is how you ensure feelings like this take the form of something lasting, enduring and worth sharing.

I have such mixed feelings about my 11 months of Kaddish coming to an end. And those mixed feelings were more intense this past week than ever. I was so close to being done, and there was this intense urgency to just be done already. But that feeling was accompanied by a certain possessiveness. I didn’t want this time taken away from me, this structure that has been so anchoring (and disruptive) during this collision of grief, pregnancy, newborn life and adapting to life as a family of four.

I know this time won’t be replaced with another ritual or routine; it will get sucked into the chaos of life. I wonder if I’ll even feel its absence, or will the return to business as usual be seamless, as if these interruptions to my life never happened? I will miss the space it forced me to create—sometimes I davened, but more often than not I read, wrote, made coffee runs, checked Slack and work emails, posted on Instagram, messaged with friends. I’ll miss the camaraderie of saying Kaddish with other mourners, the unspoken bond we share and the faces that have grown familiar and comforting over the past year.

But I won’t miss going to shul by myself on Shabbos evenings when bedtime got too late for it to be a family affair; I won’t miss the fury and rage I feel when people mere feet away from me have the nerve to speak during Kaddish; I won’t miss the stress of catching Kaddish during winter commute days—raw grief, early pregnancy and early sunset are a trifecta of misery.

Sometimes I wondered how my dad felt about this commitment. I wish I had asked him when he was alive, not that it would have affected my decision, just to know his thoughts on the matter, especially given that he was an atheist and generally did not participate in shul life. There were times when Kaddish clashed with matinee times and I’m certain my dad would have preferred I see the show. But maybe I’m wrong.

It’s hard to say whom this practice is truly geared towards—is it more for the deceased or for the mourner? It seems to me, after all this time, we both need it for vastly different reasons and I could never have imagined not doing this for my dad, for myself.

And needless to say I couldn’t have done this without Daniel [my husband]. Saying Kaddish is definitely not designed for people in my stage of life—this commitment does not pair well with raising children. I’ve missed countless bedtimes, wake-ups and pickups, and no one felt it more than Lala. Fortunately she has the memory of a goldfish when it comes to these kinds of things, but for Daniel, it lingers and it’s hard to be greeted by “No Daddy Mommy” day after day. I don’t even know how to articulate my gratitude for his unwavering support, encouragement, patience and love throughout this. You’re the best; you’re my favorite.

Now that I think more about it, this time and space once taken up by Kaddish will likely be filled by Joseph. Ayala too, but largely Joseph, given his current routine and schedule. Which feels fitting for so many reasons. But mostly because little Joseph fills part of the gaping hole big Joseph left behind. I am certain, especially given how soon after my dad’s death baby Joseph came into the picture, that my dad sent him to us, that parts of my dad live within him—that this very boy was given to us in light of our loss.

And one last excerpt from the book to close off:

“It is a great injustice that those who die are often people we know, while those who are born are people we don’t know at all. We name children after the dead in the dim hope that they will resemble them, pretending to blunt the loss of the person we knew while struggling to make the person we don’t know into less of a stranger. It’s compelling, this idea that the new person is so tightly bound to the old, but most of us are afraid to believe it. But what if we are right? Not that the new person is the reincarnation of the old, but rather, more subtly, that they know each other, that the already-weres and the not-yets of our world, the mortals and the natals, are bound together somewhere just past where we can see, in a knot of eternal life?”

Sarah Bierman is a user experience researcher by day and an artist by night. Originally from New York City, she lives with her husband and two children in Stamford, CT. She shares her art and writing on Instagram, @bluestbunny.

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