Friday, December 31, 2004

Yahrzeit for Chaim Bermant

22 Tevet 5765(Monday 3rd January 2005) marks the Yahrzeit for my Father who passed away on 20th January 1998 at the age of 68. Here is an article I wrote the year after I was an Avel


The Rough Guide to Mourning

Bereavement is a part of life we all have to face at one time or another.When my Father died prematurely at 68, I became aware of the many obligations and restrictions associated with mourning. I was obliged to say Kaddish during the three daily services; avoid live music, public performances, theatre and celebrations, unless they had some religious content. My initial reaction was to feel, "I'm miserable enough, why must I contend with all these restrictions?• As my period of mourning draws to a close, I am finding myself looking back with some nostalgia at the past twelve months.

Being a mourner radically changed my daily routine. Reciting Kaddish three times a day meant revolving my entire day around Shul times. If I wanted to meet friends in town, I had to check the time, so that I could go to Maariv beforehand. If I had a late night out with friends, I couldn•t sleep in the next day, as I ran the risk of missing the morning service. If I was invited out to lunch, I had to rush off before dessert, in order to catch Mincha. If I was planning a trip, I had to find a destination with a Jewish community and a Shul. Not only was I obliged to recite Kaddish during the three daily services, but as Kaddish is set at the beginning and end of prayers, I had to stay right through till the end. (I wonder, if the real reason the Rabbis instituted Kaddish, was to ensure that a shul always had a minyan)?

The Kaddish, in rigorously structuring my day, took my mind off myself. By going to Shul as regularly as I did, my social life soon became dominated by it. Shul became a "Mourners Club"•. I recognised regular faces, and realised how much I had in common with people I had previously never spoken to. We swapped notes on the best (and quickest) minyanim, shared our frustrations at the restrictions, and offered each other consolation. The conversation usually began: "So how many months have you got left?"

My life wasn't just dominated by my own Shul, but dominated by "Shul" per se, because wherever I went, I was always looking at my watch, ever vigilant that prayer time was coming round again, and that I must find somewhere to daven before it was too late! As a result, I never left home without the Shul Guide in my pocket. Produced by •Beis Chinuch Lebanos•, it tells the time of any service, at any Shul, anywhere in the country. After eleven months, I have become something of a Shul expert myself, and have compiled my own list of the best and worst:

Hendon Adass was good to go to when I began work early in the morning. It is one of the earliest minyanim in London but also one of the most expensive! Being a fairly wealthy congregation, it is frequented by a host of charity collectors, and I was likely to be penniless by the end of the service. It was difficult to turn a page in my siddur without one collector or another thrusting their open hand underneath my nose. Some of the institutions are legitimate, others are rather dubious. If I asked for a charity number, I was likely to get funny looks. So many collectors in attendance meant the jingling of money throughout the service, which at times seemed to be in rhythm with the prayers. 

The worshippers are smartly dressed and clean shaven. With their large trilby hats and long raincoats, they reminded me of gangsters from out of 1920's Chicago. I half expected them to whip a Tommy gun out from under their raincoat! The •Load of Hay• Pub next door to the Shul, provides ample parking for the congregants, and the first time I attended, I assumed they had a drinking problem! If a friendly minyan is wanted, Elstree and Borehamwood is a good choice. You may not get much prayer done, but you•ll feel at home, especially if you like Scottish humour, as provided by Rabbi Plancey. Last time I was there, I was so deep in conversation with the Rabbi, I nearly forgot to say Kaddish! If you prefer to keep yourself to yourself, the Golders Green Beth Hamidrash, (Munks) may be up your street. The prohibition of not talking during prayers is taken so seriously, that they don't even talk to you afterwards! If you want to lead prayers, you would be advised to turn up in a trilby, otherwise you haven•t a chance. And only one person at a time says Kaddish, so if you're ignorant of this and recite Kaddish aloud, some of the congregants will shush you down.

There are countless other Minyanim I could mention. There is Springfield Road in Clapton Common with its dilapidated décor, ageing congregants and friendly Rabbi. Agudat Yisrael in Stamford Hill, attended by congregants in long Kapotes and speaking a Galiziana Yiddish, left me wondering what country I was living in.  Lubavitch in Kingsley Way is full of exuberant American students, and has a Beit Midrash piled to the ceiling with dirty plates from the previous Shabbat, waiting for someone or some miracle to clean them. Finally, there is Hagers in Golders Green, where they daven Mincha as late as 10PM in the summer, and say Maariv at a pace that even a dyslexic person might find frustrating.

Shuls to avoid are those with entrances at the back. Anyone who regularly travels on the tube will be familiar with the rush hour crush and the familiar announcement, "move on right inside the car". I would suggest putting this message at the Shul entrance, for many congregants have a nasty habit of reciting their prayers the second they enter, leaving little room for anyone else and resulting in a massive crush.

Eleven months later, I'm no longer a member of the "Mourners Club". Having said Kaddish nearly two and a half thousand times, it was very difficult to stop. Every time I saw mourners getting up, my instinct was to get up and say kaddish with them. I publicly stated seven times a day that I was Fatherless. Now I'm just another congregant and   have to let go. Although I often resented getting up early for Shul, I now find it strange not to have to. Though I can now go where I want and when I want, I'm in no rush to go to the cinema, concerts, the theatre, comedy clubs, night clubs, or Carnivals. I have realised that the last eleven months wasn•t about having restrictions. I could have done all of those things but I chose not to.

Instead, I  chose to spend more time with my family, renew old friendships, and build new ones. I have come out of the year with a different set of priorities. I now know why the mourning period for a child lasts twelve months and why a spouse's lasts just 30 days. It is easy to forget the influence our parents have on us, and the sacrifices they make. Does a spouse need reminding? 

When my father died, I was keen to keep up many of his activities, and it seemed natural to take his Seat in Shul. But I was told that mourners don•t sit in their Parent's seat, but sit in another part of the Shul. It all seemed a bit daunting, sitting somewhere else, and alongside new people. It was so easy before. I sat by my father's side, was introduced to his friends, and let him do all the talking. I  could no longer sit in his shadow, and now had to start from scratch, as though I were a new member. I had to introduce myself to my neighbours, and be someone in my own right. Together with Kaddish, sitting in a different part of Shul has made me feel like an adult member, in a way that I have never felt before.

This year has taught me much about my Judaism, and how public it all is. Whether it's a circumcision, Bar Mitzvah, marriage, or burial, the drama is played out in front of the entire community. They share in each occasion, and by doing so, support one another, for this is what a community is all about.