I readjusted my posture as I sat on the uncomfortable wooden bench. To my left, my Mother sat singing the Friday night prayer. To my right, my Mother’s best friend’s two daughters sat shoulders drawn in. We were alone in the women section of the synagogue. Praying doesn’t seem so important when you have to battle a New York winter for it, especially on Friday nights, especially in the women section. But the lack of people didn’t make the room less stuffy. The overachieving heater was running a marathon, and the dark wood walls were closing in. At fourteen years old, the words of the prayer came off my tongue without a second thought, and although I doubted if anyone was listening, there was comfort in the familiar melodies.
As my mouth was automatically mouthing the words of prayer, my thoughts wandered, as they often did, to the irony and guilt of praying while not believing. However, I couldn’t submerge myself in my thoughts, not while the reason for my doubt was rooted in the two girls seated to my right—the daughters of my Mother’s friend who had passed away after a long battle with cancer. When I was first told their Mother was sick, I was also told to pray for her recovery, and I did. Every morning in my Jewish day school, we would begin the day in the synagogue, and their Mother was the focus of my prayers. However, my prayers weren’t answered, and she died, and so I stopped asking.
The Friday night prayers end with the Mourners Kaddish that is recited by those who had close relatives pass away recently. The two girls stood up and recited it. The dark beat of the prayer seemed at odds with their high voices. Their mouths were already familiar with the complicated Aramaic words, and their voices echoed: “Yitbarach v’yishtabach, veyitpaar v’yitromam, v’yitnaseh, v’yithadar v’yit’aleh v’yit’halal shmei d’kudsha“. Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored, adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One”. “Berich hu” “Blessed be He” We answered, they continued: “L’eila min-kol-birchata v’shirata, tushb’chata v’nechemata da’amiran b’alma” “Beyond all the blessings and hymns, praises and consolations that are ever spoken in the world” “ V’imru: Amen.” “And say, Amen.”. “Amen” I answered, my voice strained, my eyes stinging, my mouth forming against the word, a word familiar more than any other. Although I knew I wouldn’t be asking again, I could answer for them with no irony and no guilt.