When the rabbi’s wife died

Jewish wedding: No rabbi? No problem!

Did you know that according to traditional Jewish law, no rabbi is necessary for the performance of a Jewish wedding? That’s right: Jews don’t need rabbis to get married.

Okay, so what are the essentials?

  • The groom gives the bride something of at least a certain minimum value (usually a wedding ring that he puts onto his bride’s right index finger) and then makes a formulaic proclamation about her now being consecrated to him, all of which must be performed before two kosher witnesses;
  • A ketubah (wedding contract outlining the husband’s obligations to his wife) is signed by two kosher witnesses (not necessarily the same ones) prior to the wedding ceremony and then given to the bride during the ceremony.

That’s it.

Now, there are various ways to give honors to family and friends at a Jewish wedding, and I would say that no honor is considered greater than serving as one of these kosher witnesses. After all, it is they, rather than the officiating rabbi, whose roles are required by Jewish law.

Theoretically, if one of the kosher witnesses is revealed to be unkosher (not living up to certain religious standards) that would invalidate his testimony as a witness and render the wedding illegitimate.

Okay… so what?

Well, when my wife and I were planning our wedding, we really delved into the [religious] details of the ceremony and celebration.

We thought about how to strike a balance between Jewish tradition and feminism; how to ensure the comfort of our ultra-Orthodox wedding guests at our modern minded ceremony; how to make Jewish tradition accessible to our many secular friends and family members; whom to give which honors to…

My wife and I each assigned a witness to sign the ketubah and observe the ceremony beneath the chuppah (wedding canopy). Understanding the fundamental significance of these two kosher witnesses, and wanting our marital union to be religiously ironclad, each of us picked the most pious, God loving people that we knew. My wife picked the father of her adopted Israeli family, and I picked one of my Torah instructors, Rabbi Meir:

I starkly remember a rabbinic panel on prayer, held at the Pardes Institute. One devout rabbi (a teacher of mine whom I had specifically asked to sign our ketubah out of awe at the earnestness and intensity of his relationship with God) explained that he felt closer to God than he ever did to other people. He related that he would pour his heart out to God in prayer every single day in a way that he couldn’t with others. Upon hearing this, a second rabbi shed tears before the other panelists and demanded, “How do you get that way?”

-Me, ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish #5’, Sept. 7th, 2018

Oh… I see where this is going

Years passed.

I hadn’t seen this rabbi in more than half a decade when I read that his wife had very unexpectedly died.

She was such a lovely woman; I had been to their home for Shabbat several times over the years and would also chance to speak with her every year at our community retreats. Truly, I cannot say enough good things about her; she was incredibly humble and gentle. While both had been born only children, together they raised a gorgeous family of nine in Israel.

Nobody expected her death.

Malka had led an active life and suddenly she found that walking up the stairs was presenting a challenge… The doctors were shocked, given her healthy lifestyle and outward appearance, that she needed to undergo triple bypass surgery. Over the course of several days following that surgery, Malka fought and then faded. And then- she was gone.

Visiting the rabbi

In Jewish tradition, mourners accept guests to comfort them for seven days following the funeral. These seven days are called the ‘shiva’, which is derived from the Hebrew word ‘sheva’, meaning ‘seven’.

Based upon my own experience as a mourner, it has become very meaningful to me to show support for others in mourning, particularly those who are dear to me. Thankfully, a friend [with a car] who had also studied with Rabbi Meir proposed that we visit him at the shiva together.

Beyond wanting to show my support to my teacher, I was curious to see how a man of iron faith such as Rabbi Meir might deal with the unexpected death of his wife of fifty years. He spoke of Malka and shed tears before his visitors (something I had never imagined I’d see him do); and, somehow, through it all, he continued to exude that deep grace and dignity, which he is known for. He was shattered, but his faith in God remained unassailable.

Rabbi Meir shared that he had just retired after more than forty years of teaching Torah, and they had been discussing how they would spend their years together after the COVID-19 insanity settled down. Malka died very shortly after his retirement.


Split screen in my mind

Writing about Papa is difficult for me, but perhaps writing about Mama is even more so because she is alive. After all, Papa doesn’t have to live with the consequences of what I write about him.

My parents had been planning on selling their home (the house where my younger brother grew up) and moving to North Carolina. With him permanently out of the house and me far across the ocean, they no longer needed their large house. They hadn’t found a buyer for the house yet, but that was their goal.

I was rocked by Papa’s death, but I didn’t have to physically face its reality on a daily basis if I didn’t want to. After all, I was still living with my wife and daughter far away in Israel and working at the same job. That surreality of returning to “normal” was, in large part, what prompted me to recite kaddish for Papa every day, as well as to pursue my Skeptic’s Kaddish writing project during my year of mourning.

For Mama, everything changed dramatically. Where would she live? What would she do with the rest of her life? Whom would she do it with? Clearly, she still had to sell her too large house, but then– what?

That was another reason why I started blogging about my mourning experience – I wanted to feel closer to Mama and Eli, and I aspired to helping them feel closer to me, despite the more than ~9,000 kilometers between us.

As I sat at that shiva several weeks ago, listening to my dear teacher crying over the unexpected and sudden loss of his beloved wife Malka, part of my mind found itself with Mama on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean…

… wishing that we were not so far apart.

The “synagogue of Satan”

A story of a much younger me.

Memories of the exuberance of my first year of college stay with me. I remember how exciting it was to sit down with a new friend at a café right across the street from our dormitory. How adult we thought ourselves, as we ordered our chai lattes (that was the first time I’d ever had one). Everything was so new and fun.

My new friend Adam was a devout Christian, having grown up in the ‘Church of Christ’ in Dayton, Ohio. He was truly a pure soul with deep faith. We became fast friends, and as I was often attending social events organized by our local chapter of the Jewish fraternity, he would cheerfully come along with me and hang out with the Jewish fraternity brothers, totally at ease in our company. Antisemitism was not in his heart; in fact, he hadn’t had any Jewish friends until coming to college.

The brothers extended a bid to him, as they did to all the other freshmen who were interested in joining. While the international ΑΕΠ fraternity is culturally Jewish, many chapters have non-Jewish members, and ours was no exception.

Adam, after some consideration, accepted the invitation and became one of my pledge brothers (probationary members). In fact, he was one of two Christian pledges that year (the other, Kenneth, was a Catholic). Sadly, when the pledge period ended some five weeks later, Adam dropped out due to religious considerations after he’d consulted with his family.


The incident

One incident involving Adam remains unforgettable to me.

Before Thanksgiving break, Adam and I were hanging out in my dorm room when he started to cry. I was shocked. “What’s wrong?” I asked. “You’re such a good person,” he responded between sobs, “I don’t understand how you can be going to hell.”

I remember talking to him, reeling from the realization that my friend actually believed I would be sentenced to eternal damnation for being Jewish. I told him that I was sorry he felt this way, but there simply wasn’t anything I could do about it. I was a Jew, and my belief system was different than his. Judaism doesn’t put much emphasis on an afterlife, and the concept of hell is not part of our faith.

Following that exchange, I was deeply shaken.

I went over to speak with Kenneth, my other Christian pledge brother, who told me that while he too believed that Christ is the Messiah, it was his belief that those who do not currently accept Jesus as God cannot be faulted. His view was that once Jesus returned, all of humanity would be expected to accept him, and only those who continued to reject him would be damned to hell. Ken’s understanding made more sense to me.

Interestingly, after we’d returned from Thanksgiving break, Adam had also found peace after consulting with his family’s pastor, and he’d somehow decided that I wouldn’t necessarily be going to hell… Our friendly relationship continued, but neither of us ever broached the subject again, and we didn’t spend as much time together as we once had. After that first semester, Adam left our university, and I never saw him again; I think he transferred to a Christian seminary.

That was more than two decades ago.


My take

I have never had a problem being friends with anybody who doesn’t have a problem with me.

Here in Israel, I very happily wish all of the Muslims I interact with a ‘blessed Friday (جمعة مباركة) and ‘generous Ramadan (رمضان كريم). I have fewer interactions with Christians in person nowadays, but I’m happy to wish any that I meet a ‘Merry Christmas’, and I once attended Christmas services at a Lutheran church in the Old City of Jerusalem with friends of mine.

I’m always curious to understand other people’s faiths and cultures and am eager to engage them in conversations about our respective worldviews.

Notre Dame de Paris. 3rd statue (from left to right) on the West Entrance, source: Wikipedia

Since college, I’ve learned quite a great deal about Judaism, and while I am no scholar, I have a solid understanding of the history between Jews and Christians throughout the centuries. I am aware, for example, of the beliefs represented by the crowned Ecclesia and the blind, defeated Synagoga statues, which feature prominently before some of the medieval churches that I’ve visited. In truth, I find such beliefs more a curiosity than offensive. After all, I walk the earth as a proud Jew, and I don’t feel defeated in the slightest (quite the opposite).

In short, a person’s humanity is of much more interest to me than their religious affiliation. In my four decades, I have met wonderful people of many different faiths (and many of no faith at all); and I have also encountered some horrible people who earnestly couch their xenophobia and horrid behaviors in religious language.


The Blogosphere

I created this blog for myself, my friends, and my family, giving no thought to other people’s blogs, intending only to pour out my thoughts and centralize the 51 posts that comprise my kaddish journey following Papa’s death.

Inevitably, I suppose, other bloggers began interacting with me, and I was drawn to read their pieces of prose and poetry. Many of our subsequent online interactions have been very rewarding and have fueled some interesting thoughts.

Among these new online friends, there are some devout Christians who write about their beliefs, and I’ve found none so sincere as Steven Colborne from London. I find his deep faith and daily drive to unravel the big questions of the universe very moving, even though he and I are of different faiths (and mine, unlike his, is uncertain).

Just two days ago, on Friday, Steven published a post titled ‘The Synagogue of Satan’, and before I’d even noticed it, he sent me the following e-mail (shared with his permission):

Hey David,
Just wanted to say hi and send my love.
I know the blog post I published this morning could be thought provoking for you. It is posted with the utmost respect for you and for the Jewish people. My intention is always to share the whole of Scripture to everyone who’s interested, because this is what I understand I am called to do by Jesus, who I understand to be God’s Messiah, and indeed God himself.
Have a wonderful day, friend.
Peace be with you! Shalom.
Steven

I was busy shopping for Shabbat on Friday (during the Winter months, Shabbat starts earlier so Fridays are quite busy with preparations), and I didn’t have much time to engage with Steven, but I shot off a quick response, letting him know that I was not offended in the slightest. Now, some hours after Shabbat has gone out here in Jerusalem, and I’ve had more opportunity to sit down and reflect upon Steven’s words, I want to offer him a simple, Jewish response:

Dear Steven,
I consider you a true mensch.
Shavua Tov,
David

Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s nickname for my father: ‘Maestro’

One of the things that I reflected upon after Papa died was a series of coincidences that preceded his death. In November 2018, I wrote the following (emphasis mine):

I’m not one to assign meanings to coincidences, but the timing of particular events before my father’s death was uncanny. In no particular order:

⦿ My father completed the manuscript for his first (and ultimately only) book, which will be published in 2019.

⦿ My daughter awoke two days before he died, thinking that Dedushka Shurik was with her in the apartment. My wife explained that it was a dream, and she tried calling my father in America so that our little girl could speak with her grandfather, but he had already gone to bed. Learning of this, my father glowed with love and pride for what turned out be his final two days in this world, telling everybody that he spoke with that his granddaughter had dreamed of him.

⦿ My brother, who had been living away from home that summer, returned to live with my parents due to problems with campus housing. He was present at the hospital when our father passed away.

⦿ On the night before he passed away, my father, usually averse to crowds and parties, decided to go with my brother and mother to a friend’s home on the shore to watch a brilliant, beautiful fireworks display. It was the last thing he would see before waking up with shortness of breath the following morning.

⦿ Several days before my father died, and after three years of soulful struggling with being unable to pray, I had begun praying again privately in my home. I had no inkling that I would soon be reciting kaddish every day for my father, but my gates of prayer had already been unbolted when the time came; I didn’t feel forced into prayer by kaddish.


Well, it is now nearly 2021, almost 2½ years after Papa died, and his book has finally been published. I am very proud of my father for completing this intensive project and very thankful to all of the brilliant people who took his work all the way to publication following his death.

Papa’s first and only book

Foremost among those who I am thankful for is my father’s friend Nassim Nicholas Taleb, of Black Swan fame. It was he who encouraged my father to write a book, and it was he who suggested a subject. Dr. Taleb was very fond of my father, and he offered to write a foreword for the book, which, ultimately, he penned after Papa had died.

Dr. Taleb posted his foreword (really: tribute) online, and I was moved to tears upon reading it last night, for he managed to capture Papa’s spirit beautifully. Below, I’d like to share his words with you –


Maestro Bogomolny

Foreword for Cut the Knot: Probability Riddles by Alexander B.

How do you learn a language? There are two routes; the first is to memorize imperfect verbs, grammatical rules, future vs. past tenses, recite boring context-free sentences, and pass an exam. The second approach consists in going to a bar, struggling a little bit and, out of the need to blend-in and integrate with a fun group of people, then suddenly find yourself able to communicate. In other words, by playing, by being alive as a human being. I personally have never seen anyone learn to speak a language properly by the first route. Also, I have never seen anyone fail to do so by the second one.

It is a not well-known fact that mathematics can also be learned by playing –just watch the private correspondence, discussions and pranks of the members of the august Bourbaki circle. Some of us (and it includes this author) do not perform well on tasks via “cold” approaches, unable to muster the motivation to do boring things. But, somehow we upregulate when stimulated or when there is play (or money) involved. This may disturb many people married to cookie-cutter pedagogical methods that require things to be drab, boring, and bureaucratic for them to be effective –but that’s reality.

It is thanks to Maestro Alexander B. that numerous people have learned mathematics by the second route, by playing, just for the sake of entertainment. He helped many to make it their hobby. His mathematical website cut-the-knot has trained a generation –many seemingly approached the problem as hobbyists then got stuck with it. For, if you liked mathematics just a little bit, Maestro Bogomolny made it impossible for you to not love it. Mathematics was turned into a frolic.

I discovered his riddles on social media. (Alexander B. does not like the word “problems”. I now understand why.)

* * *

Social media brings out the best and the worst in people. He was rigorous yet open-minded, allowing people like me (who did some mathematical economics and finance) to cheat with inequalities by using the various canned methods for finding minima and maxima. He even tolerated computerized mathematics, provided of course there was some rigor in the process. I initially knew nothing about him but could observe rare attributes: an extraordinary amount of patience and a remarkable sense of humor. One summer, as he was in Israel, I informed him that I was vacationing in Lebanon. His answer: “Walking distance”. He always had a short comment that makes you smile, not laugh, which is a social art.

Alexander B. created a vibrant community around his Twitter account. He would pose a question, collect answers and patiently explain to people where they were wrong.

I, for myself, started almost every day with a puzzle, with the excitement of unpredictability, as it took from 5 minutes to 4 hours to complete –and it was usually impossible to tell from the outset. For a couple of years, it was the first thing I looked at with the morning coffee. There was some mild competition, mild enough to be entertaining but not too intense to resemble an academic rat race. Once someone got a proof, we had to look for another approach so it paid to wake up early and beat those with a time zone advantage.

In the two years since he left us there has been no Saturday morning –104 of them –that I did not solve a riddle randomly selected on the web in his memory. But, without him, it is not the same.

* * *

How did Alexander Bogomolny get there?

I met him in an Italian restaurant in New Jersey. I was surprised to see a mathematician who looked much more like a maturing actor than someone in a technical specialty: tall, athletic, jovial, and with a charismatic presence. But, as he had warned me, he had a severe hearing problem, the result of a medical treatment for the flu.

This explained to me his veering away from an academic career to get involved in computer pedagogy. His hearing was worsening with time. It is hard to imagine being a professor with reduced auditory function in one ear (in spite of a hearing aid) and none in the other.

There was something fresh and entertaining about him. He was happy. One could talk and laugh with him without much communication.

He was neither interested in money nor rank –something refreshing as I was only exposed to academics who whether they admit it or not, are obsessed with both. When I asked him about commercializing his website cut-the-knot his answer was “I have two pensions. Next year I turn seventy”. He wasn’t interested in poisoning his life for more money.

Why did I start nicknaming him Maestro? Because it was pretty much literal: he played math like a master would with a musical instrument –and mostly to himself. He was physically bothered by a sloppy derivation or an error, as if he heard a jarring note in the middle of a sonata. It was a joy to see someone so much in sync with his subject matter –and totally uncorrupted by the academic system.

* * *

Now, probability. In one conversation, I mentioned to him that probability riddles would be very useful for people who want to get into the most scientifically applicable scientific subject in the world (my very, very biased opinion). What I said earlier about play is even more applicable to probability, a field that really started with gamblers, used by traders and adventurers, and perfected by finance and insurance mathematicians. Probability applies to all empirical fields: gambling, finance, medicine, engineering, social science, risk, linguistics, genetics, car accidents. Let’s play with it by adding to his feed some probability riddles.

His eyes lit up. Hence this book.

* * *

I thank Marcos Careira, Amit Itagi, Mike Lawler, Salil Mehta, and numerous others who supported us in this project.

And a special gratitude to Stephen Wolfram, Jeremy Sykes and Mads Bahrami for ensuring that Cut-the-Knot stays alive and that this book sees the day. Additional thanks to Paige Bremmer, Glenn Schloebo, and other members of Wolfram Media for editing the manuscript.

Cut the Knot: Probability Riddles, by Alexander Bogomolny, published by Wolfram Research in collaboration with STEM Academic Press, $19.95. On Amazon.

Memento

It’s easier for me to write about the past than the present, but I won’t attempt to evade this.

This story begins as follows:

Nearly 1½ years ago our family moved into our current apartment, and there were several issues to be dealt with, one of which was particularly unexpected.

For the first several weeks, I often felt a slight electric shock whenever I came near our kitchen appliances when in operation. At first, I thought that some of them were faulty, but the effect was always exactly the same whether it was the stove, the kettle, the toaster, etc… Something was clearly amiss, and it wasn’t one particular appliance. Eventually, an electrician arrived and swiftly identified the problem – the apartment’s wiring had been ungrounded.

Sadly, on an otherwise innocuous day, some weeks prior to the electrician’s visit, my wrist watch had brushed against the electric kettle while it was running, and the ensuing charge had warped the glass. That was the same watch I had found in Papa’s top desk drawer after his death and worn every day since his funeral a year earlier.

No less regrettably, my then 4½-year-old daughter, who was teaching herself to unclasp and reclasp my watch accidentally dropped the unfortunate memento onto the floor while she was fiddling with the band, and -of course- the warped glass cracked slightly.

Upset. I was really upset.

But, honestly, I had already been going back and forth over what to do with my watch back when it had been struck by electricity. On the one hand, it was Papa’s watch:

I wear my father’s cap; my father’s yarmulke; my father’s watch; his house shoes.

-Me, ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ #15, Nov. 11, 2018

On the other hand, the watch face was damaged… and blemishes irritate me. Despite the cost, I decided to purchase a new watch produced by the same watchmaker that Papa had selected. I picked one with a brown face that I liked in particular, from the same series.

The new watch arrived, and it was lovely. I admired it appreciatively and then put it back into its box… I didn’t like the idea of it getting scratched, which I well knew would happen once I started wearing it. Papa’s watch still remained on my wrist, but I somehow felt comforted knowing that my new undamaged timepiece was resting nearby on the bookshelf.

Over the weeks that followed, I found myself wearing Papa’s watch less often. Sometimes I would leave it on the table or on a bookshelf and forget about it… sometimes I’d remember removing it, but I wouldn’t be able to find it. Right now, his watch happens to be lying before me on the table as I sit here typing, but I haven’t been been wearing it today.

The thing about Papa’s watch is that it’s not just a random memento. Papa was very attached to wearing watches. Throughout my childhood, at all different ages, he would express bewilderment at my lack of desire to wear one, whenever I happened to not have a timepiece on my wrist. By the time cell phones became popular, I really didn’t see any reason to wear a watch, and even the watch my wife once bought for me as a birthday present eventually ended up in one of our bedroom drawers.

That’s why my wrist was bare when I found Papa’s watch in his desk drawer before his funeral – I hadn’t been wearing a watch for years… but Papa had never, ever been without his.


I wore Papa’s watch for more than a year before its glass was damaged, and I continued to wear it daily for nearly a year following its disfigurement… but I seem not to want to wear it as much anymore.

I also have the beautiful new watch that Papa would have liked, but I don’t really want to wear it either… I don’t want it to get damaged, and -more importantly- it isn’t Papa’s watch… so what would be the point exactly? Also, wearing a new watch would require me deciding what to do with Papa’s watch, and I don’t really want to think about that.

The truth is that it’s not only Papa’s watch. One of his hats that I took back with me to Israel was his summer cap, made of polyester. During the hot months, which are the majority of the year here, I always wear that cap outdoors; and during the colder months I always wear his winter cap. Some time ago, I noticed that Papa’s summer cap had become slightly discolored and was staining the wall that it was hanging upon. When I put the cap down atop a piece of paper, it would also get stained brown…

I know that Papa’s summer cap has had its day. Once winter really sets in, I’ll switch back to Papa’s winter cap, and I doubt that I’ll return to wearing his discolored polyester cap again. But- what should I do with it? I don’t want to think about that either.

There are other such examples, but I’m not into belaboring the point, and I know that these reflections are rather prosaic. How much can one write about mundane effects? Also, I know that I don’t need to wear Papa’s clothes in order to remember him. Certainly my mother and my brother remember Papa in other ways.


I’m struggling with the realization that I’ve been letting go of my need for mementos…

I still have an unopened half liter bottle of AKASHI White Oak Blended Japanese Whiskey, which I purchased on the way to Papa’s funeral. That summer night, at Ben Gurion International Airport, I spontaneously bought myself three bottles- The first we drank after the funeral; the second I brought to the synagogue to mark the anniversary of Papa’s death; the third one has been sitting untouched since July 9th, 2018.

Honestly, I have no idea what to do with it.

Now, I don’t drink much, but I greatly enjoy a good whiskey, and I almost always have some at home. Two or three weeks ago, I suddenly had a strong hankering for a drink, and the only bottle available was that half liter bottle of AKASHI.

I resisted opening the AKASHI that day, and just today I finally stopped by the liqueur store (at my wife’s behest) to stock us up for the coming winter months. Even as I’ve been writing this post, I’ve been sipping on some Glenfarclas, enjoying the heat running down into my belly…

Why haven’t I opened that bottle of Japanese whiskey yet?

What is it that I am waiting for?

Blemished mourning

Through the cracks

After Papa died in the summer of 2018, I was intent on chronicling my year of mourning as thoroughly as possible; but, unavoidably, many of my kaddish experiences fell through the cracks between my blog posts… I had neither the bandwidth nor the time necessary to cover every significant moment.

Each kaddish blog post of mine took on a life of its own. I would begin by recording some preliminary thoughts and then allow my reflections on the Jewish texts I’d been exploring to guide my hands across the keyboard. Usually, I would reach “the end” of every blog post upon realizing that it was complete… but there was always, always more to be written.

That’s part of why I’m blogging to this day.

Week after week I remember telling myself that I would include those inevitably omitted moments in future blog posts… but I could never quite keep up with life, and my project was, naturally, limited to my one year of mourning.

Admittedly, there were certain things that I was uncomfortable sharing publicly during that painful period, such as my decision not to recite kaddish for Babushka, my mother’s mother, who died several months after my Papa did… And some of those reflections, perhaps, I will never share.

There was one particular incident, however, that I very much did want to reflect upon in my Skeptic’s Kaddish series, which I never got around to because of timing.


Jewish tradition

The traditional Jewish mourning period for a parent is twelve Hebrew months, unlike the mourning period for other immediate family members, which lasts for only thirty days.

The first seven days after the funeral are known as the shiva, and these are the most restrictive days. Mourners stay at home during that period, seated on low stools and accepting visitors who come to comfort them. Following is the remainder of the first 30 days, called shloshim (literally: thirty), during which many restrictions remain, including not shaving and not getting a haircut.

After the shloshim, those mourning a parent continue reciting the mourner’s kaddish daily in a prayer quorum, usually for a total of eleven months, and several restrictions remain. These include not purchasing new clothing; not attending celebratory events; and not listening to live music.


The blemish

I had no difficulty in avoiding the purchase of new clothing, and I was mindful to avoid attending celebratory events. For example, my friend Arielle’s son Lavie was born during my kaddish year, and while I was excited to attend his ritual circumcision, I dutifully departed before the celebratory meal that followed.

Throughout the course of that year, I thought through potential challenges to my mourning practices in advance, and I conscientiously avoided missteps. The family outing that led to my mistake had been entirely unplanned.

Israel Independence Day, a Spring holiday, was several days before my flight to America for the unveiling of Papa’s tombstone in May 2019. We’d had no particular plans to celebrate, beyond watching the fireworks from afar and enjoying a family dinner at home, but my wife spontaneously suggested that we take our then 4¼-year-old daughter to watch the fireworks up close.

We were concerned because of the late hour but somehow managed to coax her into taking an afternoon nap so that she wouldn’t be overtired at night; then we were off, with her perched upon my shoulders.

My Jerusalem stone

At the time, I was also very preoccupied with the upcoming unveiling. In fact, when we arrived at Papa’s beloved Promenade for the fireworks, I took that opportunity to search for a Jerusalem stone, thinking about how I might place it atop his tombstone in a few days time.

This took place during my eleventh and final month of daily kaddish recitations, and I was emotionally and physically worn out. When the renowned Shalva Band, a group of disabled musicians, started playing beneath the fireworks, I was pleased to see them live, for I’d read so much about them in the press; and when the lead singer, a blind woman, joked that we would have to describe the fireworks display to her, I recall being very amused.


My realization

Days later, at home with my brother and my mother in New Jersey, it hit me. I had accidentally listened to live music during my year of mourning.

My brother and I were downstairs in the basement, discussing Jewish mourning traditions, when it dawned on me; I actually needed a minute to process this realization. “Oh…. shit.” In truth, I didn’t have any feelings of guilt because my error had been inadvertent; and I knew that I had been trying my best. Still, I did experience a pang of regret over having blemished my year of mourning… after having invested so much of myself in prayer, study, and tradition.


Today

Today, I find myself thankful for this memory… It has become one of many that I continue to reflect upon; and in retrospect, I’m actually pleased that my year of mourning for Papa was imperfect – because that is a reflection of myself.

One death at a time, please

Should I have recited kaddish for Babushka?

Babushka Masha z”l

This post is one that I deliberately did not write during my year of mourning for Papa because I felt guilty for going against my rabbi’s guidance, especially after I had sought it.

During the year following my father’s death, I was challenging myself to chronicle my yearlong experience of reciting kaddish for Papa. He died on July 7th, 2018, and I began my kaddish writing project 30 days after burying him. That year, as prescribed by Jewish tradition, I recited kaddish for Papa every single day (but one) for eleven months, and I also continued attending shul on a daily basis during the 12th month of traditional mourning, when I was no longer reciting kaddish.

Less than three months after Papa’s funeral, my Babushka, my mother’s mother, also passed away. Thus, within the span of three months, my Mama lost both her husband and her mother; my brother and I lost our father and our maternal grandmother (our last surviving grandparent).

When Babushka died, I seriously considered reciting kaddish for her. After all, I was already three months into my kaddish year.


Nobody else would have done it

I knew with certainty that nobody else in my family would recite the mourner’s kaddish for Babushka, just as I had known that nobody else in my family would do so for Papa. Ours is a predominantly secular family, and most of us are not familiar with prayers and shul norms.

Now, the tradition is very clear about which of our loved ones we are expected to recite kaddish for. Technically, Jewish laws of mourning only apply to those who have lost immediate family members. Traditionally, one only recites the mourner’s kaddish following the death of a parent, sibling, spouse, or child.

This is not to say that there aren’t exceptions – there are plenty! One will find Jews at shul reciting kaddish for many different people in their lives. Some are moved to recite kaddish for their friends or members of their extended families, particularly if they are aware that nobody else will do so; and sometimes those whom tradition designates as mourners opt to request that somebody else recite kaddish in their steads.

Reciting kaddish for Babushka was something that I was capable of doing, and it was something that nobody else in my family would think to do.


I did not want to do it

Still, in the innermost chambers of my heart, I did not really want to recite kaddish for Babushka.

… Actually…
That not quite true.

The truth?

In the innermost chambers of my heart, I did not want to recite kaddish for Papa and Babushka concurrently.


Why didn’t I want to?

Thankfully, my mother did not request this of me, as she had done after Papa’s death. If Mama had asked me to recite kaddish for her mother, I would have done so, but I’m certain that Babushka herself had no concept of kaddish whatsoever.

More importantly, I didn’t lend any serious credence to the supposed supernatural effects of reciting kaddish for a loved one’s soul. Papa’s soul, I was certain, would have been no worse off if I hadn’t been reciting kaddish for him. In essence, I knew that I was reciting kaddish during my year of mourning almost entirely for my own peace of mind.

Whereas my relationship with Papa was fraught at times, my relationship with Babushka could not have been any more simple; and the two of us were especially close during the last years of her life.

Obviously, there would never be any opportunity for me to work on repairing my relationship with Papa, but I wanted to do him that final honor, which was uniquely mine to offer; and I knew that I could do it in a way that he actually would have respected. Whereas he surely would have looked askance upon the performance of mourning rituals for the sake of propriety, he would have respected my studying them. Papa challenged me to delve into the history of kaddish, to learn it deeply, and to transform rote recitations of a popularized doxology into a meaningful, personal experience.

That year, I wanted to focus exclusively on Papa.


A discrete year of mourning

Jewish tradition is very specific about the lengths of official mourning periods, during which particular restrictions upon our daily behaviors apply. We mourn for a total of 30 days for spouses, siblings and children. We mourn for a total of 12 months for either one of our parents.

One of the texts I encountered that year was Maimonides’ (1135-1204) ‘Mishneh Torah’ (Book of Judges, The Laws of Mourning 13:10-11), which was quite stern with me:

אין מספידין יתר על שנים עשר חדש We do not eulogize for more than twelve months.
אל יתקשה אדם על מתו יתר מדאי שנאמר אל תבכו למת ואל תנודו לו כלומר יתר מדאי שזהו מנהגו של עולם A person should not become excessively broken hearted because of a person’s death, as Jeremiah 22:10 states: “Do not weep for a dead man and do not shake your head because of him.” That means not to weep excessively. For death is the way of the world.

Maimonides would have held that a son should not extend his mourning period beyond the allotted 12 months, and I well saw the wisdom in this.

I spent the latter half of that year dreading the end of my mourning period and knowing that I needed it to end. Experientially, I wanted to have a memory of my discrete year of mourning for Papa; I did not want to extend my mourning period for an additional several months.


Still, I wanted a way to mourn for Babushka

After Babushka died it took me a long while to get used to putting my headphones away before leaving the office every evening because she and I had been in the habit of speaking on a nearly daily basis just as I was leaving work.

True, I didn’t want to recite kaddish for her that year, but – I did want to mourn her Jewishly. Regardless of my faith (or lack there of), I love Jewish ritual and symbolism. Our tradition is full of riches, and I was looking for a gem.

I called my rabbi, hoping against hope that he would recommend something to me that wouldn’t involve reciting kaddish or studying Torah (both of which I was already doing for Papa):

Rabbi, my mother’s mother died. We’re going to the funeral today.
I’m so sorry. Your poor mother. Is she in Israel?
Yes, I picked her up from the airport.
How is she?
Sleeping. She’s worn out.
Please give her our heartfelt condolences.
Thank you; I will. Listen, I was wondering… is there a traditional way for me to honor her as a grandson? I know that I’m not obligated to…
But nobody else is going to do it? Listen, I think you should say kaddish for her. You’re already a couple months in; it would only be a few additional months at the end of your year.
… Thank you, Rabbi. I… I’ll do that.

But I knew I was lying.