Given that I was raised in a secular Jewish family, I give myself credit for observing the religious laws of Shabbat and kashrut. Also, given that I was raised in the United States of America, I give myself credit for bringing my daughter up in the State of Israel. Bully for me.
I am, somewhat inexplicably, a tremendously proud Jew.
This is not to say that we Jews shouldn’t be proud of our ancient tradition, storied history, and civilization-shaping impact. We absolutely, very much should be. Nevertheless, given the West’s ethos of universalism today, particularly in the USA where I was raised, many Jewish moderns are not much interested in their roots. In this context, I would describe the extent of my Jewish pride as ‘inexplicable’ to me.
Once, more than a decade ago, I was told that living as a religious Jew in modern society is a countercultural choice. This came as a surprise to me – what was countercultural about actively seeking a meaningful connection with one’s heritage? I had never considered that my fascination with Judaism might be inconsonant with the 21st century West. Over the years, however, that innocently seeded idea wormed its way through my mind’s soil, gradually extending and deepening its roots.
* * *
God knows I’ve had my religious ups and downs.
Before Papa died in the summer of 2018, I had been going through a three year period of religious crisis, and I was suffering for lack of connection to my Jewish community. My soul’s pain was endless, but I couldn’t bring myself to pray. That’s hard for me to share, but it’s true.
Nevertheless, after learning of Papa’s death, I realized that I had to take the recitation of the orphan’s kaddish upon myself, as expected by Jewish tradition of a son. I couldn’t fathom the guilt I would certainly feel if I chose to pass on the once-in-a-lifetime year of mourning for my father. What would all of my Jewish studies and explorations have amounted to if I had opted out of this custom?
Kaddish recitation for a deceased parent involves eleven months of thrice daily prayers with a quorum of ten Jewish adults, usually at a synagogue. Listing all of the many reasons why this was challenging for me would require an entire blog post, but one stood out. I felt like an utter fake, praying daily at synagogues with various groups of seriously committed Jews. What the hell was I doing?
My rationality demanded that I mark the experience with my own words, which were, and remain, less than faithful. Once I began writing that year, 30 days after burying my father, I found that I couldn’t help but continue to pour myself entirely into my ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’. The project indeed sustained me – I made it through the entirety of that kaddish year. Those many personal reflections and deep doubts, bared so publicly, preserved my sanity.
But later there would come consequences.
* * *
Firstly, looking back at it, I was successfully constructing a powerful, personalized religious experience, the most powerful one of my four decades. Even today, more than a year after completing my year of mourning for Papa, I’m still living off of my kaddish’s fumes.
Secondly, unlike the experience of my three-year spiritual drought, which ended with Papa’s death, I no longer seriously aspire towards a connection with any concept I have remaining of the Divine. Given the perhaps inevitable route and landing-place of my kaddish odyssey, which saw me chasing after my inner demons and angels alike that year, I have ceased believing that such a thing is even plausible. It is my responsibility to myself to create meaning, but that’s easier said than done.
* * *
I suppose that, like any other not-so-devout Jew, I was heading for disappointment after the daily intensity of my kaddish journey, but I couldn’t see it looming.
At first I continued attending services every day, deliberately focusing on the kaddishes recited by those who were in mourning. I would respond to them forcefully, as the Talmud suggests but hardly anybody does:
|אריב”ל כל העונה אמן יהא שמיה רבא מברך בכל כחו קורעין לו גזר דינו||R. Joshua b. Levi said: He who responds, ‘Amen, May His great Name be blessed,’ with all his might, his decreed sentence is torn up|
Somehow, by centering myself and responding loudly, I felt that I was still a participant in the prescribed mourning process, despite having concluded my designated year of kaddish.
Then winter rolled around and the rains came. During my year of kaddish, I would walk with my trench coat and umbrella through the rain to shul, splashing determinedly through the puddles, but I was no longer expected to… and, besides… we had switched apartments and the walk was slightly longer now…
I didn’t want to admit it, but my will to attend daily prayers was fading. Then, out of the blue, a pandemic broke out: COVID-19, they called it.
Everything changed. At first prayer services were cancelled indefinitely. Eventually, they were held again in smaller numbers and only outdoors. All attendees had to wear face masks and sit two meters apart from one another. I attended morning services on Shabbat thrice this summer – twice to honor two friends’ deceased parents and once to honor my own Papa on the 2nd anniversary of his death… but it seemed that the flitting flies enjoyed the sun’s warm morning rays more than I did.
* * *
The line between truth and excuse can be a fine one, and perhaps I have crossed it.
Pandemic, relative inconvenience and discomfort, the near sublimation of my beloved prayer community… Beyond my kaddish recitations, I used to find the motivation to attend services in the company of my friends and acquaintances.
And, of course, how can I doubt the earnestness of my commitment to Judaism? Haven’t I chosen to make my life in Israel? Haven’t I adopted religious Sabbath observance? Haven’t I… Haven’t I… Haven’t I…?