Henrietta Szold’s letter to Haym Peretz on saying Kaddish for her mother, 1916. Reprinted from Marvin Lowenthal, Henrietta Szold: Life and Letters. New York: The Viking Press, 1942.
New York September 16, 1916 It is impossible for me to find words in which to tell you how deeply I was touched by your offer to act as “Kaddish” for my dear mother. I cannot even thank you — it is something that goes beyond thanks. It is beautiful, what you have offered to do — I shall never forget it. You will wonder, then, that I cannot accept your offer. Perhaps it would be best for me not to try to explain to you in writing, but to wait until I see you to tell you why it is so. I know well, and appreciate what you say about, the Jewish custom; and Jewish custom is very dear and sacred to me. And yet I cannot ask you to say Kaddish after my mother. The Kaddish means to me that the survivor publicly and markedly manifests his wish and intention to assume the relation to the Jewish community which his parent had, and that so the chain of tradition remains unbroken from generation to generation, each adding its own link. You can do that for the generations of your family, I must do that for the generations of my family. I believe that the elimination of women from such duties was never intended by our law and custom — women were freed from positive duties when they could not perform them, but not when they could. It was never intended that, if they could perform them, their performance of them should not be considered as valuable and valid as when one of the male sex performed them. And of the Kaddish I feel sure this is particularly true. My mother had eight daughters and no son; and yet never did I hear a word of regret pass the lips of either my mother or my father that one of us was not a son. When my father died, my mother would not permit others to take her daughters’ place in saying the Kaddish, and so I am sure I am acting in her spirit when I am moved to decline your offer. But beautiful your offer remains nevertheless, and, I repeat, I know full well that it is much more in consonance with the generally accepted Jewish tradition than is my or my family’s conception. You understand me, don’t you?

Suggested Discussion Questions:

1. What are Szold's reasons for wanting to say Kaddish herself for her mother? Do you agree with her reasons?

2. Imagine Haym Peretz's letter in which he offered to say Kaddish on Szold's behalf: what do you think his reasons were for offering? What do you imagine Peretz's response to Szold was?

Time Period: Modern (Spinoza through post-WWII)