Second Prize in the Tilia Klebenov Jacobs Religious Essay Prize Category, Soul-Making Keats Literary Competition 2016
“Nine Is the Loneliest Number”
Each time we heard a noise, all heads turned toward the door, hoping for new arrivals. We were nine people, sitting in the small chapel at Congregation Beth El watching the minutes tick away, waiting for a tenth so we could start the service. By 8:10 p.m., it was clear. We wouldn’t have a minyan – the first time since I’d begun saying the Mourner’s Kaddish.
What do I do now? I can’t NOT say Kaddish.
The requirement for a minyan to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish derives from the Old Testament:
"And I shall be sanctified in the midst of the children of Israel." (Leviticus 22:32)
The Talmud concludes that the "sanctification" of God, the essence of the Mourner’s Kaddish prayer, should occur in the "midst" of a congregation of ten. Reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish is a public act.
My father believed that the passage of his soul through God’s judgment stage and its subsequent ascent to Paradise depended on the twice-daily recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish in the presence of the minyan for eleven months. I had undertaken this act of love. I was in my synagogue to bring honor to my father so God would bestow His blessings on him and his eternal soul.
In the back of the small chapel hung a call list – people living near the synagogue who had agreed to be phoned at the last minute when a minyan was needed. I walked to the bulletin board – a woman on a mission. Scanning the list for addresses closest to the synagogue, I felt my apprehension tightening my throat. I took a deep breath as I dialed the first number.
“Hello.” I introduced myself. “I’m at Beth El” my voice quivered like that of a young child who had broken a family heirloom. “We don’t have enough people for the evening minyan and I was wondering if you could help us out.”
“How many do you need?” asked the first congregant I called.
“Just one,” I said, my voice almost a question. “We only have nine.”
“I’m on my way.” Not a moment’s hesitation.
By 8:25 the “standby” had arrived and we began to pray.
Reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish for my father had changed me. I hadn’t been the kind of person who asked for what she needed. In retrospect, I realized my courage came from the need to elevate my father’s soul. I wondered, would I have made the call if the stakes hadn’t been as high? My father’s death had emboldened me. I carry that gift to this day.
At Beth El, an egalitarian Conservative synagogue, each of the 1,000+ congregant families is assigned to “minyan duty” one week during the year. When the designated congregants did not come, those of us wanting to recite the Kaddish were left without the requisite quorum.
Over the months that followed, whenever we had less than the necessary ten people, I went into classrooms and offices and asked others to fulfill the minyan. If the rest of the building was empty, I called people on the call list until we got ten. I never experienced any resistance. When I was present, we delayed the start of the service until we had a minyan. I was undeterred.
“Before I started saying Kaddish, what did you do when you didn’t get a minyan?” I asked Sam, who came every Sunday evening and served as a kind of unspoken minyan captain.
“When only nine people were present and someone needed to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish, we would open the arc and count the Torah as ‘the tenth man’,” he said.
That alternative was as unacceptable to me as it would have been to my father, who had served as the Monday morning “minyan captain” at his synagogue for ten years. His job was to ensure a minyan every Monday morning. Every Sunday night he stayed on the telephone, sometimes for hours, calling congregants until he had firm commitments and was confident that there would be at least ten. He never accepted the idea of a Monday morning without the requisite number. He was determined that those who wanted to recite Kaddish could do so.
His commitment to his responsibilities as “minyan captain” was a testimony to how deeply he believed in saying Kaddish and in the importance of the minyan. He had not only recited the prayer twice daily for eleven months for each of his parents, but he had devoted himself to ensuring the process for others for ten years. I had a new appreciation for my father’s selfless devotion to the service of others.
My father was unwilling to break from tradition and conduct the service without reciting Kaddish or to say the Kaddish with less than ten people. This acorn had not fallen far from its tree.
That Sunday evening I vowed that, when my Kaddish period was over, I’d put my name on the call list and consider my responsibility to minyan duty as seriously as my commitment to jury duty. And that is exactly what I did.
I naïvely believed that my father’s dedication to ensuring a minyan was standard in Jewish communities everywhere. His wholeheartedness framed my expectations of others. But early occurrences at Beth El changed my thinking. I saw that many Jews were less committed than my father had been to saying the prayer for his parents and less committed than I was for my father.
I got spoiled by being able to phone congregants until we got ten people. When other congregations didn’t get the requisite quorum, I was surprised. My expectations were similarly distorted by belonging to an egalitarian synagogue where, as a female, I was counted in the minyan. When other synagogues didn’t include me in the ten person count, I was thwarted in my ability to pray for my father’s soul. One such experience occurred in Raleigh, North Carolina.
In preparation for a business trip to Raleigh, I turned to Oscar Israelowitz’s United States Jewish Travel Guide. There I learned that the only place in Raleigh with a morning minyan was the Chabad, an ultra-Orthodox sect of Judaism that excluded women in the count for making up the minyan. And I had already been told by a Chabad rabbi that “Women don’t recite Kaddish.” It was with great trepidation that I picked up the telephone and contacted the rabbi in advance of my trip.
“We don’t always get ten men for our morning service so I’m glad you’ve called me ahead of time. I’ll make telephone calls to ensure a minyan for you when you’re in Raleigh.” His offer reminded me of my father.
On the morning of my workshop, my client loaned me her car and I arrived at the Chabad well before the 6:45 a.m. start time.
At 6:45 Rabbi Pinchas Herman arrived and unlocked the door. Underneath his dark brimmed hat was a kind face with sparkling eyes. His smile radiated from the bushy reddish beard that showed signs of early greying. He directed me to a small room where my eyes remained fixed on the door. One . . . two . . . three . . . arrivals until nine men, including the rabbi, were present. With the rabbi standing at the front of the room, I was reluctant to keep checking my watch. Finally, to ease my escalating tension, I looked. 6:55 a.m. My hopefulness ebbed. No minyan. I slumped down into the seat as the number nine became a finality.
“Since we don’t have a minyan, and it appears we won’t have one, I will conduct the morning service,” the rabbi began. Looking directly at me, he said, “I’m sorry that you won’t be able to recite the Kaddish.”
I forced a smile, hiding my disappointment. The rabbi did not get a minyan and I didn’t count. I was present but extraneous. I couldn’t walk out. Where else would I go? At Beth El, I would have counted in the minyan and we would have recited the Mourner’s Kaddish. Sitting in the Chabad’s multi-purpose room, unable to recite the Kaddish, disheartened and stuck, I lost sight of the importance of prayer and of being in community. But I would not forget my manners. Nine men had come out for me to honor my father’s memory.
“Instead, I will read a portion from the Mishnah,” the rabbi continued, bringing me back from my thoughts.
Study is one of the highest mitzvot in Judaism. In the absence of a minyan, it is tradition to study a passage from the Mishnah in lieu of saying Kaddish. The rabbi was offering his best alternative. But I could not focus on the words of the Mishnah for all the words of disappointment and indignation that were swirling in my head.
I thought about my youth when I believed that, if I did everything “right,” my needs would be met. Even though I had learned – repeatedly -- that doing everything right did not guarantee my desired outcomes, I had never quite shaken my hopefulness. In this situation, I had researched the location of the synagogue, called ahead several times, borrowed my client’s car, and arrived at the congregation early, only to be unable to recite the Kaddish. This incident touched that old childhood wound of feeling penalized despite being the “good girl.”
I had automatically, and erroneously, assumed that the Chabad would behave as my father had. My own presumption set me up for disappointment. I began to see my father’s relentlessness as something unique and very special.
My father’s death was giving me a chance to learn more than just the customs and traditions of Judaism. I was slowly realizing my folly in expecting that others would behave as I wanted them to. It was time to release that belief and practice greater compassion. Yet I still worried.
As I drove from the Chabad to start my day’s work, I verbalized my fear for my father’s soul into the empty car.
“I tried, God, I really tried. What was I to do when I had to depend on ten other men to enable me to pray? Please don’t let this situation reflect on my father and your determination for his soul.”
The number nine haunted me throughout the eleven months. A few months later, on a Sunday morning at Beth Sholom Congregation, a Conservative synagogue in Frederick, Maryland, I and another woman sat in the synagogue with nine men.
“We don’t have enough men to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish,” the rabbi said.
I wanted to shout, “Count ME! Count ME!” Instead I restrained myself. I stayed quiet, fearing rage would spill from my lips. After all, I was in a synagogue.
We two women shared a wordless look. I shrugged my shoulders all the while biting my lip. Visible to each other and in full view of the men, our presence was clearly disavowed. We were alone in a congregation of fellow Jews. When it was time to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish, the rabbi skipped that prayer. I gasped. My hand tightened its grip on my prayer book. I saw the other woman’s lower jaw quiver. I stayed until the service ended when I left the synagogue without a look or a word to anyone. Flight felt like the only recourse for my sick heart.
My father was the model for my staunch dedication to this process. And my home congregation was the model for egalitarian prayer rituals. But my extensive work-related travel put me in other cities and synagogues. I had naïvely anticipated acceptance for my commitment and overlooked the fact that other, more traditional groups would not embrace my effort as my home congregants did.
Nine was only one person short to pray for my father’s spirit.
Only one missing soul to help me bring honor to my father in God’s sight. Nine left me powerless. Nine deepened my grief.
For many months, I relied on faith that my commitment would be judged by God to be as praiseworthy as the recitation of the prayer itself. Gradually I came to believe that God weighed my intention – my kavanah – more highly than my occasional inability to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish. It was then that I knew God would shine his light on my father’s soul and let him rest in peace.
Tilia Klebenov Jacobs Religious Essay Prize Category
Soul-Making Keats Literary Competition
Tilia Klebenov Jacobs (Framingham, MA) holds a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School and a BA in Religion and English from Oberlin College. Her nonfiction has appeared in The Jewish Magazine as well as the anthologies Phoenix Rising and The Chalk Circle. Her first novel, Wrong Place, Wrong Time, was an Amazon bestseller, peaking at #46 in the Kindle store, and won the Beverly Hills Book award for Best Thriller. Her second book, Second Helpings at the Serve You Right Café, received honorable mention in the London Book Festival. Tilia has taught middle school, high school, and college; at present she teachers writing classes for prison inmates. She is also a reviewer for IndieReader.com.