A daughter finds comfort in the loss of her father through the longstanding Jewish tradition of reciting Kaddish.
When you first lose your father, every day feels like Father’s Day. Not, of course, in the joyous way you tried to celebrate with him each year he was alive, but in the raw, aching way that comes with the daily struggle to comprehend the still-unfathomable notion that he’s no longer on this earth.
With the death of Clifford J. Hostein, z’l, on Jan. 23, I joined a club that I would prefer not to be in. No matter how much empathy you feel for friends and family who have lost a parent, you have no idea what it really means until it happens to you.
My father’s death also propelled me into the mysterious and shrinking ranks of another group — those who say Kaddish daily for a loved one. While not all Jewish traditions make perfect sense, this one — reciting the mourner’s prayer for a loved one each day for 11 months — does to me. It enables me to fulfill one of the central tenets of our faith — to honor your mother and father.
Saying Kaddish each day also allows me to direct my focus on the man who not only gave me life but showed me how to enjoy and appreciate it. Each day, I drift off from the prayer service to conjure up a memory of my father, a self-made and successful businessman who cherished his life, considered himself the luckiest guy in the world and gave of himself to so many through his warmth, kindness, humor and generosity. Indeed, it’s not difficult to evoke a daily image of him laughing, singing, loving.
I often wonder what Dad would think (maybe he knows?) about my sister and I both saying Kaddish for him. He might question the need; he knew how much both his daughters adored him, but did we have to go to such lengths? But deep down, I hope, he would be proud and honored.
In addition to facing my first Father’s Day without him, my family and I were also this week forced to confront his June 12 birth date. (The date also happens to be my husband’s birthday; until now, that uncanny coincidence had always been cause for a double celebration.)
Dad would have been 88 years old. Two years ago, he told his oncologist that the only thing he needed to live for was the Bar Mitzvah of the youngest of his five grandchildren — my son Sam. The melanoma that had been attacking his body for three years was advancing relatively slowly. His doctor said she couldn’t make any guarantees about his longevity, given his age, but she was pretty sure the melanoma wouldn’t do him in.
But my dad was a fighter, and he wanted to rid his body of the scourge of cancer. So he embarked on a series of experimental drug therapies. The last one killed him.
He had a bad reaction to the drug, and for the next six months, we witnessed a rapid decline. He was in and out of the hospital until my mom, with amazing fortitude, took over his daily care, enabling him to remain at home in their Manhattan apartment. And still he — and we — didn’t give up hope. After all, we reasoned, this was an experimental drug. So if the drug was eventually purged from his body, wasn’t it possible the ill effects it had caused could be reversed? But it wasn’t to be. He died 10 weeks before Sam’s Bar Mitzvah.
He was surrounded by his loving family. In the last hours, as he lay seemingly unconscious, we took turns talking and singing to him. I was laying beside him, singing his signature song, “Home on the Range,” and then, hesitantly, said the Shema. A minute later, he took one more breath and was gone.
That memory continues to simultaneously haunt and comfort me. Somehow, or so I choose to believe, hearing that eternal prayer helped him find the inner peace he needed to let go.
Now I am finding a sense of comfort in the daily recitation of another central prayer in the Jewish liturgy.
It can be quite a challenge keeping this commitment. I prefer egalitarian services, and there are fewer and fewer non-Orthodox congregations holding daily services. The Conservative communities that continue to do so struggle to draw the required 10 individuals.
Knowing that my work and family schedule would make getting to shul each day extremely difficult, I had the chutzpah to organize a daily minyan in my building. After all, I reasoned, I work in the Jewish Community Services Building, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia-owned facility in Center City that houses the Jewish Exponent and other organizations. How hard could it be to find 10 willing individuals to help form a daily minyan?
In fact, it’s been harder than I expected. But I’m not giving up and hope that those dear souls who are expending the effort to be counted know how much they are appreciated. I also find comfort in helping count toward a minyan at one of the synagogues in my area when I’m not at work.
So yes, it’s a challenge to say Kaddish, but it’s not a burden. It’s worth persevering, just as my father persevered in fighting his cancer and in living his life. It’s a way to show my love and gratitude for the man my father was and what he gave to this world, especially to me, his “little girl.” It’s the least I can do to honor my father, to make every day Father’s Day for him — and for me.
Kaddish for my father will end after 11 months, as is tradition, but his love, his name and his legacy will live on. And his memory is already a blessing.
Lisa Hostein is the executive editor of the Jewish Exponent.