The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 2

My mother has told me that she feels despair, loneliness, and “a terrible sense of loss.” I wonder what I’m feeling. There is something persistent throbbing a bit above and behind my solar plexus that I can’t identify.

Words have limitations. Are there enough of them across all the languages of the world?

Different languages have different limitations, perceived by and expressed differently to different people. My English is technically better than my Russian, allowing me more nuance, but the language of my family is Russian. There are depths of feeling that I cannot convey in English despite my proficiency, but I sound convincing in my efforts. I am crafting these sentences carefully, but they feel like hollow vessels.

Traditional Jewish liturgy is mostly in Hebrew so the prayer experience is different for one who speaks Hebrew than one who does not. It’s easier to pray meditatively if one is simply uttering sounds that hold no particular meaning. Some who learn the meanings of the prayers feel alienated from them.

Mostly in Hebrew.


The kaddish prayer is in Aramaic. My curiosity has led me to this tidbit online:

It should not surprise us that Kaddish is written either primarily or exclusively in Aramaic. Many prayers are, including Brich Shmeih (recited when the Torah is removed from the ark) and Yekum Purkan (recited after Torah reading on Shabbos). Chad Gadya, sung after the Passover Seder, is in AramaicEven Kol Nidrei, recited on Yom Kippur night, is in Aramaic!

Native Hebrew speakers do not speak ancient Aramaic any more than non-Hebrew speakers do. Kol Nidrei, for example, is one of the most famous and popular Jewish prayers, compelling even to many who never attend prayer services otherwise, but few understand its words. Do we seek atonement with words or limitations?

For most who recite kaddish every day at a synagogue, the words are sounds. There are several different kaddishes throughout the prayer services, and mourners recite two of them in particular: the mourner’s kaddish, and the kaddish d’rabanan (the rabbis’ kaddish). Two kaddishes are recited towards the beginning of shacharit (the morning service) on a weekday, and three more are recited at the end. There is a mourner’s kaddish at the end of the afternoon services and a mourner’s kaddish at the end of the evening service. Currently, during the Hebrew month of Elul, in advance of the High Holy Days, an additional psalm and mourner’s kaddish are recited at the end of each of the three services. On Shabbat, there are additional prayers and kaddishes. Mourners must remain aware of the service as it progresses and know which kaddish to recite and when. Mourners recite a lot of kaddishes. I recite a lot of kaddishes. I utter a lot of syllables.

This does not bother me. In fact, I don’t really care what the kaddish means. That’s not to say that I haven’t read the translation, but as long as I’m not uncomfortable with the kaddish’s meaning (and I’m personally fine with praising God in very broad strokes), I don’t actually need to find it relevant. Experientially, at its best, it’s an expression of emotions that I can’t articulate. Assigning labels to my feelings is fruitless for me – better to recite syllables. Over. and. over. and over. again. The sounds become a mantra over the endless repetitions.

Not everything can be expressed with language. Not everything needs to be.

I know my father loved me even though he wasn’t one to say so. He is no longer living, but I remain secure in his love – I don’t feel that it’s absent from me. Somehow, without specific words, he conveyed this to me. Perhaps I didn’t express my love for him well enough while he was yet living. Our relationship was not an easy one, and I was not the best son I could have been. I have a tendency to complicate things, and his approach tended towards a rational simplicity that I did not relate to. This, at least, is how I perceived us.

I wonder if he hears my kaddish.

* * *

A vignette

I first cried while I was at home for the shiva (first week of mourning), but I think I felt most raw on my journey back to Israel.

The last prayer service of the shiva was shacharit of July 15. I left for the airport that afternoon. At the terminal, I let some ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students know that I needed to recite the kaddish. They would have held a minyan (prayer quorum) anyway – I was just making sure that somebody would alert me when it happened.

As is customary, the mourner led the service. That was mincha (the afternoon prayer service).

When flying from Newark to Tel Aviv, the eleven hour flight is technically much less when measured in hours down on earth. This means that ma’ariv (the evening prayer service) is only several hours before shacharit. Some ultra-Orthodox men were discussing the arrangement of a prayer quorum in the kitchen area of the airplane. I let them know that I needed to say kaddish. I did not want to do this. I did not want to pray with a group of men on an airplane, disrupting the staff and causing them an inconvenience. I wanted to rebel. I wanted to skip saying kaddish on the airplane and return to my prayer schedule when I landed, but I literally couldn’t bring myself to do it. I couldn’t go from praying three times a day during the week of shiva to rejecting the Jewish tradition (even temporarily). I had to say kaddish for my father, and I needed these men in order to do it.

As the mourner, I led the evening and morning services, one not long after the other, which I hate doing. I wanted to be alone with my thoughts – to retreat away from these men. Let me say my kaddish and be on my own again. I don’t know you – I don’t want to pray with you. We are just random strangers, and yet, of course, we aren’t. They insisted that I lead the services.

I hated it. And I loved it. I had overcome myself.

Since returning to Israel, I haven’t led services again because I haven’t had to. Nobody has insisted upon it, and there are usually other mourners present. I am thankful to the people I pray with in Jerusalem for not pushing the boundaries of my comfort zone.

But I am thankful to those Jewish strangers on an airplane for making my kaddish possible.

11 thoughts on “The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 2”

  1. “Not everything can be expressed with language. Not everything needs to be.”

    Now this- THIS- resonates with me in oh-so-many ways.
    I’m ever so slowly going back and reading of the beginning of your journey through this loss- as you have commented that much I’ve written about my mother’s death has resonated with you, I was compelled to do so.

  2. Your comment about not needing to focus on the meaning of the words resonated with me. My husband has commented (we are American Jews) that he likes praying in Hebrew with the congregation and that reading the translation actually takes away from the meaning. Your explanation of that experience helps me to understand his. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Hi, Linda, nice to “meet” you 😀

      It does seem counterintuitive in some ways, but it feels true to me – in my personal experience. Although, for true believers, there’s not much of an obstacle in understanding all the words. I just happen not to be one of them 🤷


  3. Is it important to face East when reciting the kaddish? Is there an importance of praying the kaddish at certain times of the day or during specific get togethers / worship services / prayer meetings? I found it extremely interesting that as an athiest you felt compelled to continue tradition on the air plane. Thank you for sharing this deep and personal journey. If my questions are too personal, please skip over them as if I never asked. Thank you.

    1. Hi 🙂

      First, let me say that I’m very open about this whole experience, and I can think of almost no question that would be too personal. The questions you asked here don’t even register as remotely personal to me!

      So – here we go:

      1) In general, synagogues all face Jerusalem. For European Jewry, this means “East” (which in Hebrew is called ‘Mizrach’). Now, technically, it’s only particularly important to face towards Jerusalem when reciting the central prayer of the prayer services, which is directed at God. This prayer is called the ‘Amidah’. However, since the sanctuary faces Jerusalem anyway, one is likely to be facing that way when he/she recites the Kaddish too – even though that’s not technically required.

      2) Traditionally, Jews pray 3x a day – morning, afternoon, evening. The mourner’s kaddish is recited at the end of each of these services, and also at other points (particularly during the longer morning service). There are other versions of the kaddish (which are not the mourner’s kaddish) that are recited by mourners (or by the person leading the prayer service) during each of these services as well.

      3) I don’t identify as an atheist – I identify as an agnostic who would love to believe that there is a God who cares about him but cannot quite wrap his mind around the idea of a personal God.

      How’s that for answers? 😀


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