Thursday, July 27, 2023

Q&A with Sarah Birnbach




Sarah Birnbach is the author of the memoir A Daughter's Kaddish: My Year of Grief, Devotion, and Healing. She has worked as a human resources management consultant and a family therapist. She lives in the Washington, D.C., area.


Q: Why did you decide to write this memoir about saying Kaddish [a Jewish mourners' prayer] for your father, and what impact did writing the book have on you?


A: I wrote this book for several reasons:  to show the importance of prayer and a supportive community (in this case minyaneers) to help a mourner to heal; to inspire others to support mourners at their times of sorrow; and to inspire those of any level of observance to appreciate that Judaism’s mourning rituals offer a caring community and stability at times of chaos. 


I also hoped that my story would inspire rabbis and lay leaders to encourage and open opportunities for women to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish after the death of a loved one.


I believe it was a Chinese poet who once said that “to create something in words is like being alive twice—once when you live it and again when you write about it.”  


Transcribing my journal entries from the year after my father died (which started me thinking about writing a memoir) enabled me to reflect on my experiences, and to interpret the events and my feelings about them in a way that was impossible as I was living that first year of intense grief.


I saw my journey—and my determination and perseverance—through a new lens. I was able to appreciate all the support I had gained from others, and recognize the many blessings I had received. I learned ways to comfort other mourners and discovered that a quiet presence can sometimes speak louder than words.


Q: How would you describe your relationship with your father, and also your relationship with your mother?


A: My relationship with my mother was very conflictual. She angered easily and became physically and emotionally abusive. 


My father was the complete opposite—gentle and kind with a light-hearted sense of humor. My devotion to him rose from the safety I felt in his presence, as my mother never displayed anger when he was home.


It is this devotion that motivated me to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish for him for the full 11 months, as he believed that reciting the Kaddish would elevate his soul to Paradise. 


As an adult, I can now understand my mother’s struggles as a working woman with three small children who received little support from her husband, a fact due to two realities: 1) Dad worked six 12-hour days each week, and 2) my parents fell into the post-WWII stereotypical roles.


I also now understand how the lack of nurturing parents left my mother without a role model for tender and patient parenting. I have much more compassion for her now than I had growing up.

Q: What do you think the book says about the role of women in Judaism, particularly when it comes to the act of saying Kaddish?


A: In an early chapter of A Daughter’s Kaddish, I relate the story of my father’s request that I hire a man to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish for him after his death. My immigrant paternal grandfather maintained his Orthodox views about the role of women in Judaism and he transmitted these views to my father.


In the extensive reading I shared in my memoir, I found conflicting perspectives about a woman’s ability to recite the Kaddish—everything from being forbidden to being permitted. Since my father had no sons, I undertook this responsibility to elevate my father’s soul, unaware of the challenges that lay before me.


I belong to an egalitarian Conservative synagogue where women have equal rights and responsibilities as men, including inclusion in the minyan. However, I traveled extensively for my job and was often in unfamiliar synagogues where my gender precluded me from reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish.


My memoir recounts my experiences—some where I was embraced for my prayer practice and other places where I was denied. I hope my story shows readers that it is possible for women to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish in the traditional way if they want it badly enough. And I did.


I am glad to say that, since the time of my father’s death, more opportunities have opened for women to be counted in the minyan, and to recite the Kaddish. Now, more and more women are undertaking this responsibility. I hope my memoir vitalizes this momentum and that this progress continues.


Q: Rabbi Mindy Avra Portnoy called the book “A heartwarming, sometimes heart-wrenching, and always honest story.” What do you think of that description?


A: I appreciate Rabbi Portnoy’s description of my memoir; I think it perfectly characterizes my story.  Well-written stories of loss can be heart-wrenching. Similarly, stories of love and devotion can be uplifting.  


If my love for my father and my devotion to honoring his soul elicit a response from other readers similar to that of Rabbi Portnoy, I will have succeeded as a writer.  


It was important to me to ensure that my story was honest. Some people ask how I was able to remember all the small details in my memoir. While some details (such as wearing Mary Jane shoes with little white ankle socks on the High Holy Days) are etched in my memory, I relied heavily on my journals to inform my writing. 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am working diligently on book promotion. As I can, I am doing research for my next book—about my father’s frontline infantry experience as a Jewish soldier in WWII Germany. 


In 2022 and again earlier this year, I retraced his footsteps from the frontlines of Germany and I’m reading memoirs of front line soldiers to better understand the life of an infantryman. My father, like most infantry soldiers, never talked about his war experiences.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: The power of journaling, daily prayer, and an understanding community supported me through my grief.


After the nodal events of the first year pass, significant dates (e.g., birthdays, anniversaries, Father’s/Mother’s Days) will continue to generate memories and longing. I hope readers will reach out to friends and family on these days even long after the death of a loved one, because grief has no expiration date.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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