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Psalms for a Loved One
We get out of the car. The cemetery is hot, but what else can you expect from a New York June? People are already gathered, waiting for the daughters and grandchildren of the woman whose grave will be unveiled as part of Jewish mourning rituals, two years after her death. I squint at the people gathered and recognize very few. Those I know kiss and hug me, murmur to each other, talk to me.
“How’re you doing, Ms. Feminist?” my cousin Emily asks me, and I laugh quietly, run a hand through my hair, anything to feel occupied. The group then makes its way to the plot.
The grave is beautiful. The stones look nice together, Baba and Zaidy’s, my grandmother and grandfather’s. The bed of stones that Baba always wanted covers the two resting spots like blankets. Since we are Orthodox Jews, their names are spelled out in Hebrew as well as English. Baba’s name is spelled wrong in Hebrew, but it doesn’t matter; it’s the right name, the name I will give to my oldest daughter, the name I can tell her belonged to a strong woman, a Holocaust survivor.
My aunt Laila, my mother, and I stand by the graves, Baba’s daughters and granddaughter. Her grandson, Laila’s son Danny, is standing farther away, not infringing on the women’s mourning.
Laila’s husband, Barry, hands out sheets with Hebrew psalms corresponding to Baba’s name. In Judaism, a person is identified by their first name, then bat (daughter of) or ben (son of), and then their parent’s name. It says Feige bat Solomon in Hebrew on the packet that Barry handed out. I ignore the misspelled Hebrew name, but I cock my head at Solomon. I am used to identifying Baba as Feige bat Ita, her mother’s name, who I call Bobbe, since I am part of a line, the Line, of strong women. Ita was another strong woman, a Holocaust survivor who lost everything, a woman whose name I will give to my oldest daughter as a middle name.
But the question still remains - who is Solomon? It takes me a second to remember that Solomon was her father, the one whose passport picture we have, who died in the Holocaust. Then I remember that a person is usually only identified by his or her mother’s name when they are ill. Once they get better, they are not their mother’s child anymore; they revert back to their father’s property. What man wants to own a sick person? Let the woman take care of it!
Chafing that Baba is identified as bat Solomon and not bat Ita, I open the packet and we begin to recite the psalms to myself. Barry calls on a man at a time to recite a psalm out loud. I don’t recognize most of the people in attendance; I assume they’re friends of Laila and Barry’s. Barry calls on these strangers, these male strangers, to recite a psalm to elevate Baba’s soul. Danny and Emily’s husband recite a psalm each too, yes, some people I do know, but these men that I don’t know, that never knew Baba, that Baba didn’t know, get to recite a psalm to elevate her soul, and I, her granddaughter, the continuation of the Line, don’t? Her own daughters, Line and non-Line, don’t even get the recognition? Instead men I don’t even know are allowed to say a psalm for her, simply because they were born without ovaries?
I begin to cry, partially because I miss Baba, partially because of the fact that Baba and Bobbe would have hated the injustice, hated it. There was a limit to how progressively they could think; they were products of their early-1900s communities. But if they had been raised in this day and age, they would have hated the fact that the men have all the power, and simply by the fact that you have two X chromosomes you are blockaded from saying psalms at your own grandmother’s unveiling.
The men finish the psalms and Barry starts saying Kaddish, a prayer said for eleven months after a person dies, at every anniversary of their death, and at their unveiling. I croak out an “amen” after he finishes a line. I’m hugging Ma around the shoulders so my mouth is next to her ear; she is startled by my croak of a response and shushes me in a loving way, hugging me. I still croak out a response and she shushes me again, but no. I will not be quiet. I will say amen to my grandmother’s Kaddish if it kills me or embarrasses me or both, even if it is recited by someone not her blood, by someone non-Line, by a man, when it should be my mother, the continuation of the Line, the woman who worked for nineteen years to have a daughter to keep the Line going.
As I hear Barry’s masculine voice say the Kaddish, I vow to myself that I will never let this happen to my mother. My mother deserves a Kaddish said by her own child, a Kaddish responded to by women, a proper Kaddish for a woman of the Line.
No matter what I have to do to make it happen, she will get it.