The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 42

Eleven months of kaddish recitations end for me on May 28 (Iyyar 23); I have been at the grind for ten months (10 ÷ 11 ≈ 91%). The grief is unabating. I remain shattered and scattered.

Last summer, I couldn’t bring myself to pour my endless despair out upon anyone. Having returned home to Jerusalem in July from sitting shiva in America, I instinctively reached out to my rabbi, but…

“May I see you? I am back,” in mid-July I e-mailed Rabbi Landes.
“Sure, when?” he responded two minutes later.
Suddenly, the simplest of questions had no answer.
All the time.
The following morning I wrote again:

I actually don’t quite know – I really want to see you, but I think I need a few more days to get back into my routine and begin to deal with work and parenthood again.
I’ve been going to minyan to say kaddish – that’s a big change for me. I’ll be in touch with you again – thank you for everything.

Three weeks went by.

I published my first blog post thirty days after burying Papa.

Unexpectedly, I felt something click other than my mouse button. Ten days later I published #2, drawn to the modest refuge I’d found before in the craggy crannies between words and letters.

* * *

This Pesach I had too much time with my thoughts, and darkness wormed in through the defenses of my flimsy redoubt. Actually, the walls had already started to crack at least one week earlier, during a Virtual Mourner’s Kaddish (VMK) call, a project initiated by Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie.

During our family’s holiday break last week, I was talking to my wife about the perpetual sense of isolation I experience among non-mourners and the unanticipated, visceral relief of that one VMK call. Our four-year-old daughter was trying to follow our conversation and inquired as to what we were talking about.

“Abba’chka is saying that he misses Dedushka Shurik very much.”
(she asks this about everything)
“Because he is my father and your grandfather; and I love him; but we’ll never see him again.”
“I know that;” she responded knowingly, “but he’ll always be in your heart.” (she’d absorbed this insight from her Mama’s font of wisdom)

* * *

VMK – context, concept

Renowned Israeli diplomat and holocaust survivor Naphtali Lau-Lavie (1926-2014) left behind two sons, both rabbis. Rabbi Benny Lau (b. 1961), the older son, is an Orthodox rabbi and community leader in Jerusalem. Upon completing his kaddish odyssey in honor of their father, Rav Lau wrote and recited an original prayer to mark the end of his journey (blog #20). A newly fashioned prayer in the religiously circumspect world of Orthodoxy is no small thing, yet his words continue to flow from mourners’ lips.

Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie (b. 1969), the younger brother, inhabits a Jewish society in the USA much different than that of his Israeli Orthodox family. Ordained as a Conservative rabbi, he had been a creative, non-Orthodox spiritual leader long before then; and he continues to operate beyond the bounds of denominationalism. Upon the death of their father, Rav Lau-Lavie initiated the weekly VMK conference call, and to this day, he or a staff person is on the phone every single week to support an intentional, international community of Jewish mourners.

My own kaddish journey led me first to Rav Benny’s original mourning prayer and eventually, perhaps inevitably, to Rav Amichai’s boundaryless VMK.

* * *

VMK – experience, expression

It wasn’t until February that I discovered the VMK by way of my endless kaddish excavations, and it wasn’t until mid-April that I was able to join the weekly conference call (every Thursday at 12:00 PM EST).

I dialed the phone number a couple of minutes before schedule and waited. Silence. Then the beeps began. A woman’s voice came on. “Hello, this is Shira from Lab/Shul. Welcome to the VMK call. Could each of you introduce yourself and say where you’re calling from?”

The names are rather a blur, but callers seemed to be phoning in from Canada and throughout the USA. “I’m from Jerusalem,” I said. “Wow,” she responded, “what’s the weather like?” Upon hearing my response, a gentleman in Toronto shared, “It’s snowing here;” and I laughed aloud at the contrast.

Pent up energy brought me to my feet, and I paced the hallway as I listened. Somebody else introduced himself and explained, “I’m not in mourning right now, but I’m calling to help make minyan for kaddish.” A lump rose to my throat and I noticed my mouth twisting in the nearby mirror. “Thank you,” said Shira, “I’m keeping count, and I’m sure more people will be joining us during the call.”

Shira softly shared some thoughts on the theme of Pesach and the symbolism of water in the festival. “With Passover so soon upon us, as our preparations for the holiday get underway, we often feel the absences of our loved ones all the more poignantly,” she observed. “Would anybody like to share something that is coming up for them this season? A memory or reflection?”

There were no interruptions during the call. Heartbeats elapsed as participants made time for one another to speak, punctuated only by occasional beeps as additional mourners joined our circle. Only four (or five) of us shared stories; the rest seemed content to listen quietly.

Finally the time came to end our call. “Thank you all so much,” said Shira. “We will now recite the kaddish together. Please feel free to share the names of your loved ones with us before the recitation.” Then, some of us more hesitantly than others, we spoke the names of those we’d lost. “Alexander ben Mosheh;” I felt my tongue render, “my Papa.”

Even at the end, during the recitation of mourner’s kaddish, only several of our voices were audible. Most had joined the call only to listen.

Only to listen

My energized pacing had continued ceaselessly throughout the call, driven by the springing of a densely coiled tension. I could feel my heart unclench, as the clasps of my reservations undid themselves.

In that impermanent VMK circle, the full weight of one’s mourning was expected and accepted; and grief found itself a more expansive canvas. Jointly, intentionally, we provided and received together – mutual human deliverance.

For all of my praying, my reading, my writing, I still have need of others to relate to me.

* * *

On the eve of Yom HaShoah, it is not for me to recount the heroism and accomplishments of Naphtali Lau-Lavie, for I have nothing to share but my naked amazement at this Israeli statesman who arose from the ashes of the Buchenwald concentration camp and succeeded at saving himself and his then eight-year-old brother who later became the Chief Rabbi of Israel. (see: Rav Benny’s beautiful tribute, which scrapes the surface of his father’s story.)

What I would, ever so humbly, like to share is that Naphtali Lau-Lavie left behind him a legacy in both of his sons that has touched my Jewish soul, and I am so so thankful for their combined inspiration and soulful creativity. Following is a snippet of Rav Benny’s tribute to his father, which moved me in particular:

The liberation from Buchenwald caught him at a crossroads. A young man, 19 years old, without parents, and tied to an 8 year-old boy…

For two weeks, my father… chose to suspend his relationship with the Master of the Universe. One morning, he received a note in Hebrew that said:

‘You must say Kaddish because your mother is no longer alive. She died in Ravensbrück.’

That is the moment when my father made the decision. No matter what may be going through your head, you do not abandon the tradition of your mother and father’s home.

That is how this great man found the strength of spirit to… reach a Jewish life in the Land of Israel.

* * *

In my mid-twenties I taught seventh grade Holocaust studies at the Hebrew school of my childhood while attending graduate school, and I absorbed and learned more about the Shoah in preparing for those classes than I’d ever assimilated as a teen. I also became more vulnerable in those years to the effects of my imagination upon my learning, not unlike the impact of my kaddish odyssey this year.

Sometimes I rise alone to recite kaddish, and sometimes I stand with many others, but always the voices of generations join with mine. On Yom HaShoah, during this, my year of mourning for my father, my mourner’s kaddish will be both personal and in honor of all the Jewish martyrs. I will recite in memory of and love for Papa, and I will recite for all who were lost to us at the hands of the Nazi genocide machine.

My ruminations recall a beautiful encapsulation of this kaddish dichotomy by Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Chelst from his book Kaddish: The Unanswered Cry (p. 7), and with this I leave you:

The Kaddish is a prayer whose utterance reflects the saga of the Jewish nation as a whole as well as the depths of emotion of the lonely Jew of faith. How powerful is the image of the Jews of the Kovno Ghetto reciting in one voice the Kaddish for their beloved, the 10,000 innocent martyrs killed by the Nazis only days before. No less moving is the image of the young orphan arising in the midst of a crowded synagogue, striving to maintain a link with his parents and the past through the Kaddish.


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