Saying Kaddish: My Journey as a Jewish Teen in Mourning

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On March 14, 2022, my father, Brian Wolkenberg, passed away after a 15-month battle with cholangiocarcinoma. He was buried in a shroud two days later and it was then that I began to seek refuge in one of my people’s most sacred texts—Kaddish Yatom.

The Mourner’s Kaddish finds its origins in a 13th-century Aramaic prayer. It is said at least once, often multiple times, during every traditional prayer service. As a Jewish child or teenager we often notice, if we are not told, the serious and solemn atmosphere that surrounds the recitation of kaddish. Many of us are not quick to understand the practice or reasoning behind this centuries-old tradition. If we have yet to experience death, it does not seem super relevant.

In spite of this, Mourner’s Kaddish is one of the most fundamental prayers in Judaism—the recitation being a symbol of life, tradition, and community. Though it is said to commemorate parents (and other relatives) who have passed away, the Mourner’s Kaddish does not speak of death or dying. Rather, the title comes from the Aramaic word for “sanctification” and the Hebrew word for holy, “kadosh.”

The text emphasizes the greatness of G-d and above all, praises the glory we have been surrounded by. It is important to note that kaddish is a prayer for the living, not the dead, and incorporates many Jewish values such as kindness, long life, and deliverance to people of the Torah. In theory, this prayer sounds great, but if the Mourner’s Kaddish talks so much about G-d’s greatness, how are you supposed to find meaning in the practice if your connection to Judaism does not come from G-d?

Understanding which aspects of traditional Judaism you believe in is extraordinarily difficult. In my experience, it is the practice of saying kaddish that gives it meaning as opposed to the words on the page. Our lives are like constantly raging storms, especially when someone has passed away. Adding a more calming constant into our lives is often one of the most beneficial choices we can make.

This being the case, I have made the decision to go to my synagogue with my mother almost every day to rise for my father and reflect on recent events. I am in no position to speak for other teenagers, but this nightly ritual has been deeply meaningful to me.

When I first walked into my synagogue to say Mourner’s Kaddish after nearly two years of not going due to the pandemic, I truly did not feel like an outsider. I was surrounded by at least nine other Jewish adults—some of whom were only there so that they could make a minyan for those in mourning.

As I stood up to pray, I was reminded of the way my father approached services. He rarely participated in the expected way. Most of his religious time in (and out of) the synagogue was consumed by reading and attempting to understand a few of the many teachings Judaism contains. Even if we had not been to the synagogue in a very long time, my dad was eager to relate the latest Torah portion to our everyday lives. He was Jewish primarily in the spiritual sense of the word. While his job may have led him to leadership in software development, his mind led him to philosophy and perspective. In the weeks leading up to his death, our conversations revealed how important it was to him that he be buried in a religious way. I say kaddish not only because it brings me comfort, but also because I know it would bring my dad happiness.

After roughly a week of these daily trips to the synagogue, I began to wonder what my true obligations were. What was I “supposed” to be doing in honor of my dad? Historically, sons have been the ones to recite kaddish. Even in recent years, women have been denied the right to eulogize their parents through prayer because of their gender identity. As the daughter of my father, who experienced his passing just the same as both of my brothers, I feel an overwhelming desire to memorialize my dad in this way regardless of how I identify.

No matter which sect of Judaism we each associate with, we will always receive numerous opinions on what we should or shouldn’t be doing Jewishly in regards to our sex or gender. In reality, the way we choose to remember and acknowledge the passing of a parent is not anyone else’s decision. If the act of saying kaddish (for the full eleven months, or even one day) is meaningful to you, old Jewish customs should not be what gets in the way of that.

Roughly one month into my mourning journey I have realized that my understanding of the Mourner’s Kaddish was not close to complete until I, myself began to say it. I may have disregarded this part of the service before; however, once death hit me and I began to memorialize my father, the meaning of Kaddish Yatom presented itself and I suddenly found value in the prayer I once ignored.

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Shaina Wolkenberg is a member of the class of 2025 at Deerfield High School in Deerfield, Illinois. She sings in choir, was featured in the school musical (Fiddler on the Roof), and is training as a classical pianist and vocalist. Shaina has also participated in mathletes and costume crew at DHS. She is passionate about fine arts, culture, and civil rights. Shaina dedicates her free time to her many hobbies including music composition, cooking, gluten free baking, and learning languages. She is notorious for her curiosity and never-ending questions for her rabbi.
Accompanying photo: “Taken” by Caroline Koppel