Local women reflect on saying Kaddish

Local women reflect on saying Kaddish

New anthology offers feminist perspectives on mourner’s prayer

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Pearl Tendler Mattenson of West Orange contributed one of the essays in the anthology.
Pearl Tendler Mattenson of West Orange contributed one of the essays in the anthology.

For a long time, E.M. Broner’s 1994 work, Mornings and Mourning, was the lone women’s voice in the literature on reciting Kaddish. Over the last two decades, that has slowly begun to change. 

With the publication last November of Kaddish: Women’s Voices, an anthology by Michal Smart and Barbara Ashkenas, the void has been filled by a range of women with different backgrounds, each with a unique story surrounding her commitment to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish, even in communities where some see the act as obligatory for men, and suspect among women. 

Two of the entries in the collection, which won a National Jewish Book Award in March, come from local women.

For Rabbi Esther Reed of Highland Park, saying Kaddish for her father involved the conflict between remaining authentic and true to herself, while maintaining sensitivity and respect for those in her charge as senior associate director at Rutgers University Hillel. 

As a person in mourning, she needed a daily minyan to say Kaddish. But she did not want to disrupt the daily minyan at Rutgers or cause offense among the Orthodox students who attend. “I recognized that the morning minyan was an Orthodox service, where students were not used to seeing a woman in tallit and tefillin,” writes Reed, a Conservative rabbi. “I didn’t want to threaten students who felt that the Orthodox community at Hillel was their ‘home.’”

She continued, “I wasn’t trying to make a statement. I just wanted to say Kaddish.” In the end, she devised a compromise: praying with the tallit and tefillin in a staff member’s office, with a view of the minyan, before joining the Orthodox worshippers to say Kaddish for her father. 

For Pearl Tendler Mattenson, a leadership and relationship coach in West Orange, saying Kaddish for her late sister revealed multiple layers of memory and even catharsis. Her sister, described by Mattenson as a “broken” soul with a host of mental health issues, died at the age of 46 in 2010. As she recited Kaddish at her Orthodox synagogues in West Orange (she is a member of both Ahawas Achim B’nai Jacob & David and Congregation Ohr Torah), Mattenson was in constant “conversation” with her sister, trying to reconcile her aspiration for a better relationship than they had with the reality that it was no longer a possibility. “Karen,” she found herself saying during the first 30 days of mourning, “there are so many ways that I failed you in life, I will not fail you now.” 

The act of saying Kaddish also has an impact on her identity as a sister, and as an educated and committed Jew. “I deepened my relationship to qualities of God, to kindness and compassion and appreciation. (Karen, I deepened my relationship to you. Is that possible? It’s true, though, isn’t it?),” she writes. “And with Kaddish behind me for now, I connect to God through my living relationships — through the divine in each of us.” 

In a telephone conversation with NJJN, Mattenson added, “I think Karen’s own struggles made it difficult to have that kind of open conversation with her.” Maybe through the essay, as well as through Kaddish, she said, her sister “could hear me in a way she couldn’t in life.”

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