OPINION: The great kaddish lockdown of 2020 

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OPINION: The great kaddish lockdown of 2020 

Award-winning film-maker Malcolm Green reflects on losing his father Harry to Covid-19, and the turbulent spiritual journey of mourning a loved one in unprecedented times

Malcolm Green
Malcolm Green with his father Henry
Malcolm Green with his father Henry

I’ll be honest.  When my late mother passed away in 2000, I figured that I’d say Kaddish for the duration of Shiva week, then I’d stop.  To be fair, at the time, I probably didn’t realise one was supposed to recite it for longer.  But even when I quickly learned that, as a son who’d lost a parent, I was obligated to ‘do Kaddish’ for an entire eleven months, I thought ‘No, not me, I’m not that frum’.

Yet, as that first week drew to a close, I reconsidered and made a compromise.  I’d do it for the month of Shloshim.  Again, I’ve got to admit, until that moment I don’t think I even knew what Shloshim meant.  It’s not that I was irreligious, I just wasn’t… er…. religious.  Yes, I was a member of a US Shul.  Yes, I was proudly Jewish.  And actively Zionist.  Yes, both my kids were at Jewish primary schools and could read Ivrit far more fluently than I.  But, I just didn’t feel completely at ease at weekday shul, and found the minyan to be somewhat intimidating to someone like me whose relationship with his tefillin could hardly be described as close.

However, due to the welcome I got at another central London synagogue,, I found myself staying with it for the entire year.  In fact it became a bit of an obsession.  Like exercise, I missed it if I missed it.  Filming around the world, the first thing I would do on arrival in a new city was to work out the Kaddish situation.  Which shul?  How close to my hotel?  How could I work the service time around my call or wrap time (that’s the time we film people need to arrive and leave on set or location).  Somehow, and with the help of numerous producers, colleagues and crew members, I made it happen at least once a day.  I said Kaddish in Buenos Aries, Cape Town, South Beach, LA, Budapest, Oslo, Sydney, Dubai, and places I can now no longer remember.

And, as my eleven months neared their end, I ached for the weeks to slow down.  I dreaded not having to say Kaddish each day as if that milestone, and the ascendence of my mum’s Soul was redolent of the fading physicality of her presence in my life. 

But, as she left, something returned in her place.  My connection with the spirituality of Judaism.  And the invisible bond with something deep and profound that I had never realised existed before.  Yes, I was involved in the Jewish community, through sport, youth work and creativity.  But that had always been a more earth-bound Judaism that kind of sidestepped the religious in favour of the cultural. 

So, Kaddish proved to be the red thread that led me closer to the religion.

Cut to a month ago.  As Coronavirus snuck across the planet, my 88 year-old dad, Harry, was still making a point to prove to my family and I just how strongly independent he was.  Living alone, and in complete denial about his advancing years and frailty, I now realise that my advice for him to stay home and safely out of harm’s way was never going to be taken seriously.  He just went out more, even if he was struggling to actually walk.  

I was in Copenhagen when I got the call that he’d fallen and was on his way to Northwick Park Hospital, a place that had become like a second home to him (as well as my sister and I) over the past two years as he’d fought ill-health or ‘underlying issues’ as we now like to call them.  From the moment he went in, the writing was effectively on the wall, and within a fortnight, my dad had passed away, fallen at the Battle of Northwick Park, in the great Covid war of 2020.   Yes, he had become one of those statistics we see nightly on the Covid-Curve charts in the Downing Street Briefing Room.  Thing is, my dad, wasn’t a statistic.  He wasn’t a number.  He was a flesh-and-blood, gentle human being whom we loved very much and were going to miss dearly.

I guess, because we were relatively early in the disease, the staff had cautiously allowed us to visit our dad in his last days and I am perversely thankful to G-d for allowing us to spend some final quality time with him, face-to-face or mask-to-oxygen mask, albeit with the awful deprivation of any physical contact.  We spoke together.  Made a few jokes together. And, yes, even said the Shema together.  And then, like a fading light, he was gone.  

Too quick.  Too soon, even at that blessed age.

I say this without irony, but fortunately, we were able to give our dad a funeral at Bushey, with strict limitations on attendance.  Immediate family only.  An outdoor service, which my sun-worshipper father would have approved of, a quick rush to the Grounds, and back for an even quicker kaddish.   Actually, beautiful and strangely fulfilling in it’s intimacy.

Then I was told that, because of the newly imposed lockdown, we couldn’t have Shiva, and wouldn’t be able to say Kaddish for the foreseeable future as I wouldn’t be in the presence of a Minyan.

To say that was a blow was an understatement.  It was devastating.  The Shiva was a loss, but we could receive sympathy by phone.  The low chairs could be replaced by a makeshift low cushion.

But Kaddish…?  How could I not say Kaddish?  

You know, Shiva is a clever invention.  We withdraw from the world of noise and light and joy and activity to a cocoon of stillness and grief. Meanwhile, we’re conscious that outside our own personal mourning, normal life goes on.

But not this time.  Because this time, with the fear and anxiety of COVID, it was like the entire world was in a state of semi-mourning, grieving for a vanishing past and an uncertain and frightening future.  There was no normalcy going on around.

That made my loss, not just surreal, but even more distressing, also one that was impossible to absorb.  In fact, it was hard to properly grieve.  Where were the reference points of mourning?

However, solace came in the decision within my own community that at the Shacharit and Mincha/Maarive Minyanim, Kaddish could be recited by Mourners.

An apparently brave, bold move with necks clearly stuck on the line.  

For me, the fact that I would, in fact, be able to recite Kaddish in unison with a growing number of other mourners, albeit virtually on Zoom, was like a vaccine for the Soul.  The comfort and support that strange, simple Aramaic poem-prayer, about Life rather than Death, gave me was indescribable.  The fact that it’s recitation was supported and enabled by those who had a deep regular observance was both enlightening and hugely therapeutic.

So much so, that I have not missed one service.  I get up at 5.30, go running or cycling or walking, then back in time to shower and join the minyan at 7.00.  And later in each Groundhog day, I unstintingly, eagerly join Mincha/Maariv.  

Saying kaddish is something that anyone who has lost someone will know, has a meaning beyond it’s literal translation.  Despite it’s Middle-Ages origins and supposedly low Halachic significance, it seems to establish an almost magical connection, with other mourners, with G-d, with our Judaism and with the person we’ve lost.  I can’t articulate why.  But, it exists on a higher plane.

Okay, I’m sure I would have made it through the intervening weeks without it, but it made a tough time infinitely easier.  It brought something special and collectively meditative into each day.  To put into context, Shabbat has been my emptiest day of the week, maybe because I’ve had to wait until Havdalah before I can satisfy my Kaddish  craving and say it again.

And, believe me, I’m not normally a Havdalah kind of guy.

For my sister, this virtual Kaddish was strangely liberating from a female perspective, being able to mourn – and be heard to mourn – as an equal voice.  It was incredibly soothing for her.

So, I was looking forward to continuing this practice for as long as it it took, until the shul doors open and a physically distant community becomes merely a socially distant one, whenever that may be.

In my mind, as long as we could say Kaddish, I’d be ok.  Some semblance of normality would remain and I’d have something of my dad to hang on to.

But no more.  Now, along with the grounds of Kenwood and Brent Cross, even that’s been taken away.  

Now we’ve been ordered – er, I mean suggested – to say a memorial prayer in the place of Mourners’ Kaddish.  On the face of it, it’s logical.  The English words are all about Death and memory and the departed soul.  We even get to insert our departed’s name at a given moment.

But, somehow, it’s not the same.  

Don’t ask me why.  It’s just not.

And whilst I wouldn’t dream of criticising decisions or actions that are way off my Halachic pay-scale, decisions which I know are made with the best motives and intent, I can’t help asking… why?

Why, when we are all going through what we’re going through, when we are all suffering, when we are all anxious and scared, when we are all uneasily contemplating our collective and individual futures, why now are we being so intransigent, as if nothing out of the ordinary is happening?  What do we think will come or break down as a consequence?

Why are we adding yet another level of deprivation, adding further anxiety and discomfort to the double stress of Coronavirus and bereavement?

I know there are ‘reasons’.  And I genuinely don’t wish to make anyone uncomfortable.  Equally, at the same time, I am so very thankful that I at least managed to get a full month under my tallit-belt, before the great Kaddish Lockdown was imposed.  And I feel so sorry for those who now will not have that luxury.

Because I’d be lying if I didn’t admit suddenly feeling a bit disconnected.  From understanding.  From empathy.  From the Laws.  From the concept of Orthodox Judaism.

But most of all, from my Dad.  

And whilst, Kaddish debates rage, and our Togetherness threatens to fracture into disagreement, I have only one plea… 

‘…He who creates peace in His celestial heights,

may He create peace for us and for all Israel;

and say, Amen.’  

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