An Episcopalian Says Kaddish for Her Jewish Aunt

A page from the Bleichrode prayer book published in Berlin, 1923, showing the first lines of the Mourner's Kaddish in Hebrew script. Photos by BF Newhall

The first lines of the Mourner’s Kaddish on a page from the Bleichrode prayer book published in Berlin, 1923. The prayer book was on my aunt’s bookshelf when she died. Photo by BF Newhall

By Barbara Falconer Newhall

My Aunt Grace, who died in January, was Jewish. Most everyone else in her family – what was left of her family, that is: she was 98 years old when she died – most everyone in her family had remained Christian or had moved on to atheism, secular humanism or studied indifference.

portrait of a red headed woman, circa 1960. Ludington Studios photo.

My Aunt Grace ca. 1960. Ludington Studios photo

We, the nieces and nephews of our childless aunt who planned to attend her interment earlier this month, were left with the question – how does a gathering of Christians and skeptics say a parting prayer for a Jew?

As the religion writer in the family, I was appointed to figure it out.

I’d spent some time on the religion beat at a local newspaper, which meant, in the executor’s eyes, that I knew a little something about Judaism. Episcopalian though I was it seemed my years as a religion writer qualified me to be the designated prayer at our Jewish aunt’s gravesite.

My aunt had seen to everything else. She was a businesswoman who took care of business. With characteristic thoroughness, she had planned her interment down to the last detail. Mortuaries were lined up in Arizona, where she lived, and in Michigan, where she was born and had chosen to be buried.

She also had her casket all picked out. Like so much of the furniture she’d collected over the years, it tended toward the elegant, white with gold trim.

A svelte blue gown embroidered in gold was hanging in one of my aunt’s closets when she died. Pinned to the bodice was a handwritten note reminding her caregivers that this was to be her burial gown. The gown had long sleeves and a high neck, the better to cover the inevitable signs of aging, illness and death.

A grave site in Michigan at the little cemetery along Highway 10 between Ludington and Scottville

Brookside Cemetery in Amber Township, west of Scottville, MI. Headstones in foreground, farmland and busy Highway 10 in background. Photo by BF Newhall

Brookside Cemetery, Scottville, Michigan. My grandmother and grandfather’s graves are in the foreground to the left, my great-grandmother’s to the right. In the background, Highway 10 heading toward Lake Michigan. Photo by BF Newhall

awaited her. She would be buried there between her sisters, Emma and Ruth, not far from the graves of her mother, father and grandmother.

When we contacted the mortician in Scottville, he reminded us that it was still winter in Michigan. The ground was frozen. Our aunt couldn’t be buried until May, April at the earliest, after the ground had thawed.

Which gave me time to do some research. I knew that saying Kaddish was an important mourning ritual for Jews. You can say it for your mother or father, brother or sister, son or daughter, husband or wife.

But who could say Kaddish for my aunt?

Can an gentile say Kaddish? What if the minyan — the traditional gathering of at least ten Jewish men required to say Kaddish — is neither Jewish, nor 100 percent male?

My aunt had neither sons nor daughters to say it for her. Her parents and many siblings had preceded her in death. She was no longer connected to a congregation. She had outlived the rabbi who had overseen her conversion – as well as the husband who had inspired it in the first place.

If someone was going to say Kaddish for my Aunt Grace, it would have to be me.

A two-story yellow frame farmhouse outside Scottville MI that is more than 100 years old. It once belonged to the David Falconer family. Photo by BF Newhall

The Scottville, Michigan, farmhouse where my father and my Aunt Grace were born. The building is more than 100 years old. Photo by BF Newhall

I got on my computer. I googled Kaddish. I discovered that the Mourner’s Kaddish is not so much a prayer for the dead as a hymn in praise of God.

Interesting, I thought. And fitting. A woman who’d had a full 98 years on the planet had died. A hymn in praise of the source of her life seemed about right.

What didn’t go down so well with me was the excruciatingly medieval language of the Kaddish. God as male. God as king. God in (uppercase) His celestial heights. God’s great name. God’s will. God glorified, exalted, extolled and honored.

Not my kind of God. And not the kind of God that would open the skeptical hearts and minds of certain of the nieces and nephews who’d be gathering around my aunt’s gravesite.

What to do?

A little sleuthing and I learned that, sure enough, the prayer had its origins during a time of persecution after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. Small wonder that the rabbis who first prayed this prayer envisioned an almighty, ruler-of-the-universe God powerful enough to smite one’s enemies.

I emailed my Jewish friend Andrea for help. The next day, two translations of the Kaddish arrived in my in-box. One was a traditional, glorified-exalted-and-extolled translation. The other came from the Jewish Renewal movement.

It was from the latter translation that with great trepidation – I wasn’t a Jew, after all, let alone a rabbi – I composed a translation (adaptation?) of the Kaddish.

On May 27, a dozen or so nieces and nephews and a couple of long-lost cousins-once-removed gathered in the rain at the Scottville cemetery and said a few last words in memory of our aunt.

In that company — a minyan mabe, maybe not — just before Aunt Grace’s white and gold casket was lowered into the sandy soil of Mason county, Michigan, a few miles from the farmhouse where she’d been born and a few miles from the Methodist church where she’d been reared, I recited the Kaddish for my aunt.

Mourner’s Kaddish for Our Aunt Grace

Praise and thanks be to God throughout the world, which was created according to His intention.

May God’s light and love and justice be present in our lives, in the House of Israel, and in all of those who seek the truth. And let us say, Amen.

We praise, we continue to praise. And yet what we praise is beyond the grasp of the words and symbols that beckon us toward it. We know God, and yet we do not know. But still we pray.

We pray that God, who upholds the harmony of the cosmos, will create peace within us and between us, and within all who dwell on this earth. And let us say, Amen.

A row of grave markers and a newly covered grave at the Brookside Cemetery, Scottville, MI. Photo by BF Newhall

My aunt’s freshly filled grave between the graves of her sisters. Photo by BF Newhall

Mourner’s Kaddish  from the Jewish Renewal Movement

 May the great essence flower in our lives and expand throughout the world. May we learn to let it shine through so we can augment its glory.

We praise, we continue to praise, and yet, whatever it is we praise, is quite beyond the grasp of all these words and symbols that point us toward it.  We know, and yet we do not know.

May the great peace pour forth from the heavens for us,for all Israel, for all who struggle toward truth. May that which makes harmony in the cosmos above, bring peace within us and between us, and to all who dwell on this earth, and let us say, Amen.

Mourner’s Kaddish, Traditional

 Glorified and sanctified be God’s great name throughout the world which He has created according to His will. May He establish His kingdom in your lifetime and during your days, and within the life of the entire House of Israel, speedily and soon; and say, Amen.

May His great name be blessed forever and to all eternity.

Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored, adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed be He, beyond all the blessings and hymns, praises and consolations that are ever spoken in the world; and say, Amen.

May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for us and for all Israel; and say, Amen.

He who creates peace in His celestial heights, may He create peace for us and for all Israel; and say, Amen.

Read more about my Aunt Grace at “How to Be a Glamorous Gal at Age 98.”  If you’d like to read more about my Scottville family, check out  “A Case of the Human Condition: Watching My Grown-Up Kids Disappear.”  For a story about my father, go to “How Much Life Is Enough?”

For more accounts of My Rocky Spiritual Journey, click on those words in the header at the top of the page.

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Comments

  1. Anthony Mack says:

    We are all two people, the logical and the emotional. When I started reading this, the logical me thought, “Why give a prayer at all? She’s dead and wouldn’t care either way.” But then, as I read on, the emotional me remembered how a little bit of ceremony helped me through a tough burial of my beloved dog Benny. By the time I got to the prayer, the emotional me filled my eyes with water and made it hard to read.

    Barbara, your attention to detail and dedication to your aunt is an inspiring and beautiful thing. I only wish Grace could have been there to hear it and thank you herself. In lieu of that, we all thank you for stepping up to the plate and showing the world she was still loved.

    • Barbara Falconer Newhall says:

      Thank you, Anthony. Sometimes having a chance to feel and express our love for someone is just as important as their being able to be on the receiving end of it. There was a lot of love present when the 15 or so of Grace’s nieces, nephews and distant cousins gathered for her burial. I think having a ceremony helped evoke that.

  2. Barbara – Your blogs about Grace made me teary and brought a smile to my face all at once. I truly miss her. She would be so honored and proud that you put so much time and thought into her service, and that you learned so much from her. While she is “Aunt Glamorous” to you, she’ll always be “Amazing Grace” to me. :)

    I’m signing up for your blog updates right now!

    Much love,
    Andra

    • Barbara Falconer Newhall says:

      Thanks for signing up . . . and big thanks for taking such good care of Grace. Sigh. I miss her too.

  3. Loved your story and the respect, love and care shown in the preparation and reworking of the old version into a beautiful and universal statement of praise. A wonderful prayer indeed.

  4. Sharie mcnamee says:

    Barbie, this is neat, what you did and how you made the translation or adaptation!

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  1. A Thousand Goddesses — Some Nice, Some Not So Nice — Take Your Pick | CauseHub says:

    [...] can read about one of Barbara Falconer Newhall’s personal heroines at “An Episcopalian Says Kaddish for Her Jewish Aunt.” For more of her thoughts on religion and spirituality go to “Forgiveness is Tough, Atonement [...]

  2. A Thousand Goddesses — Some Nice, Some Not So Nice — Take Your Pick | Nosmerca says:

    [...] can read about one of Barbara Falconer Newhall’s personal heroines at “An Episcopalian Says Kaddish for Her Jewish Aunt.” For more of her thoughts on religion and spirituality go to “Forgiveness is Tough, Atonement [...]

  3. [...] can read about one of my own heroines, my Aunt Grace at “An Episcopalian Says Kaddish for Her Jewish Aunt.”  More thoughts on religion and spirituality at “Forgiveness is Tough, Atonement Even [...]

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  5. [...] in Minnesota on May 25. And my brothers and I flew on to Michigan a few days later to bury my Aunt Grace in the Scottville cemetery. I tacked some extra days on to my Michigan trip so I could spend time [...]

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