Kaddish on a Knee

“How much LONGEEEEEEERRRR?!” my six year old whined through the silence. Only to shortly after be replaced by his nine-year-old sister, “I’m BOOOOOORED!”

My instinct was to shush them, to sternly show them with my squinting eyes and pointed finger to sit down and be quiet. But this wasn’t a mere interruption. This was a critical learning moment.

We were in the middle of taking a knee in their elementary school field for 8 minutes and 46 seconds to remember George Floyd and his horrific public murder. A first grader at their school organized a Black Lives Matter march from our library to our school and we were nearing the end by taking a knee with dozens of other families.

So this wasn’t a typical whining moment at the grocery store or while running an errand. This was an important moment that my children couldn’t yet comprehend. How to explain to two young, white children what this moment meant?

I scanned my mommy brain quickly to find the right words. There was something familiar about this experience to me of being quiet and solemn. It reminded me of synagogue, of saying Kaddish.

Kaddish is the prayer recited by those who are in mourning. Traditionally, just the mourners stand to speak the words aloud while others sit quietly and respond with “Amen.” It’s often recited in a rote and quiet way – mumbled and heavy, like all those saying it are taking on the full weight of its symbolic meaning in their voices.

But the actual words of Kaddish are not heavy and sad. In fact, they are hopeful and full of praise. Death is never mentioned in the prayer, only blessings for the Divine. Many have written and spoken about this juxtaposition – just when you are at your most shaken, with the least faith in anything, that is when you are called upon to stand amongst your peers and recite a prayer of praise and faith. It is a constant reminder in the darkest times that there is light and good to come.

Kaddish is one of the prayers that should only be recited in the company of others – at least ten others, called a minyan. Jewish people often form these minyanim just so that mourners – whom they might not even know – are able to say the prayer. The very structure of this mourning ritual teaches us that the sufferer should be surrounded by her community and that the burden is on those others – those with clear heads out of grief – to ensure the mourner has the community she requires.

Taking a knee in our elementary school field, a school that is mostly white, led by a young child who was also white, staying quiet and reverent, felt very much like being in synagogue for Kaddish. In our congregation, we all rise for Kaddish and recite it together. We do this in solidarity for others in our community, but also because we know that there are many who have died without anyone to say Kaddish for them. Many of us think of the millions who were murdered in the Shoah (Holocaust) who had no family left to mourn them. 

I did not know George Floyd, but I took a knee for him. There are thousands of Black and Brown people who have been murdered in this country, many under the veil of “the law.” I can only recite a few of their names. I took a knee for them, too. Right now, I am not the one suffering. I am not the mourner. I am the neighbor. I am the community member.

I wiggled my finger to my children, silently telling them to come to me.  

“You know how we must be very quiet and very respectful during Kaddish at the synagogue?” I ask them. Their little heads bobbed up and down. “This moment is like Kaddish. We are remembering the man who was killed by a police officer. We are being quiet for the same amount of time it took him to die so that we can understand just how long that was. There was so much time for someone to have done the right thing and save his life.”

They nodded. My little one only sort of understood. Later on, I would tell him about the brave football player who started the act of taking a knee during the national anthem.

They both sat back down quietly on the lawn, ripping up blades of grass. When we were invited to stand, my daughter exclaimed with big eyes, “That was a long time! That’s awful!” Yes, baby. It is awful.

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