Saying Kaddish for a Friend

Last week, one of my best friends, Stan Pollan, died. We both moved to Madison around the same time 32 years ago and met a few months after we moved here, when his wife Ellen was pregnant with their eldest son, Henry. Stan’s parents and my wife Sheryl’s parents had been friends for many years before we met and encouraged us to get to know each other when we started living in the same city. Stan, Ellen, Sheryl and I are forever grateful for the encouragement our parents gave us to get to know each other.

About two weeks before Stan died, he asked me to say the mourner’s kaddish for him after he died. Stan was born Jewish, but he was not very observant. We regularly invited his family to our house for Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) and Passover, which they appreciated. However, the only time I saw him in a synagogue was on Yom Kippur, when he would come to my synagogue to say the mourner’s kaddish for his parents after they passed away. So, of course, while dismayed that my dear friend was dying, I was honored to be asked to fulfill one of his dying wishes.

What I did not anticipate was that as Stan’s death drew nearer, his family asked me to organize and officiate at his funeral. I am not a Rabbi and I have never officiated at a funeral, but despite the challenge, I was further honored by this expanded role. I worked closely with Stan’s sister-in-law, Cheryl Siegel, to whom I will be forever grateful for her deep sense of caring for what Stan and his family wanted at his funeral. As she and I both told each other, through Stan’s loss, we each made a new best friend in each other.

It was very important to me that the funeral honor Stan’s wishes, as well as those of his immediate family, so I talked with Ellen and Stan’s sons the day after he died to discern what they wanted. They made clear that they wanted the service to be short, simple and sweet, including some music, and to be sure that any Hebrew was both translated and transliterated so all those present could understand and participate. Over the next two days, working with Cheryl Siegel, Ellen and her sons, Stan’s brother Jim, our friend Jason Garlynd, who did a reading at the family’s request, and the musicians, Jeff Laramie and Bruce Wasserstrom, we pulled the service together. Just an hour and a half before the service started, I picked up the copies of the service we quickly created from the copy shop.

Jeff Laramie opened the service with a beautiful rendition of the Beatles’ song, In My Life, during which some thunder roared. I told the mourners that was Stan applauding. I also made clear to them that I was not a Rabbi and this was my first time officiating at a funeral. Despite that, I have since heard that many people told the family that the “rabbi” did a good job. Someone even asked me for my card after the service. I reminded them that I did not officiate funerals professionally.

Before we got to the kaddish, I led some readings that all the mourners said together. However, since the family wanted Jason Garlynd to do a reading, he agreed to read the following:

Ahavat Olam-Love of the World (interpretive version-Rami Shapiro)

 We are loved by an unending love.

We are embraced by arms that find us

Even when we are hidden from ourselves.

We are touched by fingers that soothe us

Even when we are too proud for soothing.

We are counseled by voices that guide us

Even when we are too embittered to hear.

We are loved by an unending love.

We are supported by hands that uplift us

even in the midst of a fall.

We are urged on by eyes that meet us

even when we are too weak for meeting.

We are loved by an unending love.

Embraced, touched, soothed, and counseled…

Ours are the arms, the fingers, the voices;

Ours are the hands, the eyes, the smiles;

We are loved by an unending love.

The next day, we received a call from Stan’s eldest son, Henry, who invited my wife and I to join him and a few friends on a canoe trip the following day. We were honored to be asked so we gladly joined Henry, his best friend Ben, Jason and his son True on the Bad Fish Creek which due to heavy rains had swollen into a raging river. Henry wore his father’s captain’s hat and it made me think back to when Sheryl, Ellen, Stan and I canoed together when Henry was very young. Despite very challenging conditions, including capsizing, navigating logs through rapids and ducking under many branches, we all had smiles on our faces and felt that the blue heron that led us down the river may well have been Stan’s spirit guiding us along the way.

P1030752

From left to right, Jason, True, Sheryl, Henry and Ben, at the end of a lunch break.

There is a Jewish tradition that we say, May his memory be a blessing, after someone dies. I truly believe that Stan’s memory is and will continue to be a blessing and through the many memories of his kindness, his life will truly be eternal.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

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