Eds. Note: Join Jenna on Monday evening, April 30 at the St. Paul JCC for a reading of her play “If You Don’t Weaken” – watch our Facebook page (facebook.com/tcjewfolk) for details.
For the past two weeks, Amy’s life has been a mess. Since her grandfather died she has been scrambling to run his movie-rental business, which hasn’t been going well since people started using Netflix. Her partner suggests porn—they are, after all, in a college town—and her best friend thinks she’s not jazzing up the store enough. But Amy’s main problem is a minyan—or in fact, the lack of one.
What Amy really wants is to say the mourning prayer (called Kaddish) for her grandfather; but finding friends (or even neighbors) to help her do it is almost impossible. She could join a shul (aka synagogue), but doesn’t really feel connected and doesn’t even know what she believes in a Jewish sense.
Amy is me—and of course, not me. She is a character I’m creating in a new play called If You Don’t Weaken.
When my father died in 2008, I tried to say Kaddish every day, but found it hard to get to my synagogue before work in the morning. Instead I went to another shul evenings, which was populated by older people and often struggling to find a minyan, or quorum of ten. That’s the minimum number needed to make a minyan, which is needed to say the Kaddish prayer.
If you had only to say it once, Kaddish would be easy. But to fulfill your obligation to the deceased, the prayer has to be recited every day for a year. The older people in the decrepit shul Amy attends explain that her grandfather’s soul will hover round her for the coming year to be sure she is all right; if she doesn’t keep saying Kaddish, her grandfather cannot move on.
I’m not sure where I heard this, but on days when I wanted to say Kaddish and we waited in vain for people to show up, I couldn’t help but wonder if it was true. As a child I heard stories about people going outside of their shuls and beating the bushes for a minyan, but never really understood why you needed one to pray. I still don’t, but like so many things in Jewish life, these laws are laid out for us and we seem to have no choice around following them.
I struggle with rules and laws, and often try to find the “want” inside them instead of the “need.” It’s likely because I am a rebellious soul who has trouble with authority (and what else is God but the Ultimate Authority?) Or it may be that I’ve never been able to control my curiosity, which is why I became a playwright; and that, of course, gave me the perfect excuse to explore things like this.
The word minyan is rooted in Hebrew and means to count or number. According to the Jerusalem Talmud, the requirement of a ten-person minyan comes from the combination of two Biblical words and verses. The first one is the word “congregation” in this verse: “Speak to all the congregation of the children of Israel, and say to them: You shall be holy.“ Congregation is also used in another verse: “How long shall I bear with this evil congregation which murmur against me?”
That sentence is supposed to refer to ten spies who were asked to bring back reports about ancient Israel. The second source is based on the term “children of Israel” which appears in the following two verses: “And I shall be sanctified in the midst of the children of Israel. And the children of Israel came to buy among those that came.” Here, the “children of Israel” are referring to the ten sons of Jacob who traveled to Egypt to find food during a famine.
Well, now we may be getting somewhere. Then again, I am not one of those “have to” persons. I prefer to look for why they might have wanted to insist on ten people, and go from there.
What Amy finds—and what I found too—is the minyan brings you to the same place every day, at the same time, so you can have a place to express (or at least get your arms around) saying goodbye to someone you love. Before and after you say the prayer (sometimes years after) you may have days when you want to say,
I miss you. I can’t even bear it here without you.
But there is no one you can really talk to about that, because, as we all know, death is inevitable and final (unless you are one of the lucky people who have no doubts about God and an Afterlife). Perhaps the Kaddish prayer, which doesn’t mention the word death and instead talks only of what is eternal, is a way to get us to move on, more than the people we are mourning.
At the same time, there is always a part of us that won’t and can’t. My father’s voice, smile, spark and spirit have informed the way I live and love. When I am miserable or anxious, I find myself talking to him and sometimes asking him for help; I don’t want to think about whether he can really hear me.
Even still, I think the act of going to a minyan—for yourself or for others—helps us call out to that presence, aloud. So the idea of at least ten people could be more than a rule here. It could be there to make sure you are feeling less alone.
I’m pretty sure Amy is going to discover that. She asks a pole dancer, Talmud Torah students, her African American mail carrier who was adopted by Jewish parents, a lawyer in her neighborhood, and a woman in the park who brings her dog. All of them join Amy and the older adults she befriends at a dark and crumbling shul to say the Kaddish.
I just hope they stay long enough to help her through.
(Photo: John Gilmore – 2007)