The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 51

Eleven months of kaddish recitations ended (blog #45); then twelve months of being considered a mourner according to Jewish tradition (#48); and then came the Hebrew anniversary of Papa’s death, after thirteen months (#50). Now: the end of ‘The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist’ (#51).

51 is a pentagonal number.

I inherited an affinity for numbers and their attributes from Papa.

* * *

‘The skeptic’s kaddish’ series was my undesigned response to the death of my father and to my process of returning to synagogue attendance, after a troubled three year absence, to recite the orphan’s kaddish daily for my Papa. The intensity of this experience suffused and shaped my life this year from the very start.

At different points, two trusted mentors, one an Orthodox rabbi and one a Reform rabbi, gave me like-minded feedback:
O: “You’re addicted to publishing.”
R: “This is an obsession for you.”

True, I mused, but ‘The skeptic’s kaddish’ was hardly some quick fix. Every blog post was born of days of feeling and thinking. I prayed and participated; I read and reflected; I consulted and considered, I wrote and reworked. The ideas, the sources, and the words mattered; their precision and their placement; their significance and their sounds. Mine was, perhaps, an addiction to intention; an obsession with process.

Waves of emotions battered me, driven harder by the winds of self-discovery. At times I wanted to abandon ‘The skeptic’s kaddish’; to quit shul again; to burn all of Papa’s personal effects (blog #15) to ash so that I wouldn’t be reminded of him.

I would re-read every single blog post numerous times after publishing, disbelieving that I had lived it. The words on the screen rendered my internal mourning processes undeniable, and I would scan
them
over –
and over
again. Had I truly
felt that way? Did I
still? Eventually, I
didn’t, and I’d be
driven to
write –
again.

* * *

The year’s moments were boundless for me, spliced and looping through reels of punctuation that recorded and projected my experiences. Looking back at it now, I can identify most of my reasons for dedicating myself to this project (I’m sure others will come to me).

As I see it, I embarked upon my ‘skeptic’s kaddish’ odyssey for: 1) myself, 2) my father, 3) my family, 4) Jewish tradition. (Arguably, the adventure was wholly for my personal benefit, as my loves for my father, my family, and Jewish tradition are but reflections of my values.)

For myself

1. Processing: I was in shock; and I needed to explore and express my thoughts and feelings. It felt surreal to go through my days as if no catastrophe had occurred. Other than my daily minyan attendance, my day-to-day life hadn’t changed after Papa’s death, until I began writing ‘The skeptic’s kaddish’.
2. Consistency: I wanted my outside to reflect my inside. Acting as if I remained the person I had been before Papa died felt to me acutely unnatural. Also, presenting myself as a Jew of faith praying within his religious community felt deceitful.
3. Connection: I needed emotional support, and I sought connection with others who themselves have struggled with faith and other facets of their Jewish identities.
4. Curiosity: Upon committing myself to the traditional year of mourning, it became important for me to learn about the history and meaning of the mourner’s kaddish, other Jewish mourning rituals, and Jewish eschatology.
5. Pride: I derived no small amount of satisfaction from the challenge of producing blog posts for ‘The skeptic’s kaddish’. I felt confident in my research and writing skills, as well as in my familiarity with the rudiments of Jewish texts and traditions.

For Papa

1. Create: I wanted to create something unique and special in honor of Papa, which I feel he would have been proud of.
2. Remember: I felt it important to prompt myself and others to think about him and reflect upon our memories of him.

For my Family

1. Present: I felt surreally distant from my mother and brother across the ocean after I returned home to Israel from the funeral and shiva, and I wanted to connect with them by sharing my personal mourning experience.
2. Future: After I’d been writing for some months (blog #27), I began to think of ‘The skeptic’s kaddish’ as a family memoir of sorts – for my daughter and future children. I do hope my child(ren) will find value in the fruits of this endeavor.

For Jewish tradition

1. The skeptics: There are many like me who are drawn to Jewish tradition but don’t necessarily buy into all of the religious dogma – I wanted to give a voice to this group.
2. The lay people: I wanted to spread knowledge and understanding of Jewish mourning traditions among those (like myself) who hardly knew anything about them.

* * *

I wanted to give kaddish a chance out of love and respect. ‘The skeptic’s kaddish’ blog series made this possible. The Jewish wisdom of ages comes down to us through our texts and traditions, but no small fraction of it is alienating to modern minds. My public exploration and exposition of ancient and contemporary texts, recorded here, is a reflection of the tension between one modern Jew’s love for his people’s noble heritage and his respect for his own faculty of reason.

The famous Jewish theologian Franz Rosenzweig (1886 – 1929) addressed this issue of Jewish study in a modern reality. In the book ‘On Jewish Learning’ Rosenzweig asserts that we moderns must, of necessity, turn to a new paradigm of Jewish learning (p. 98-99):

A new ‘learning’ is about to be born – rather, it has been born.

It is a learning in reverse order. A learning that no longer starts from the Torah and leads into life, but the other way around: from life, from a world that knows nothing of the Law, or pretends to know nothing, back to the Torah. That is the sign of the time.

It is a sign of the time because it is the mark of the men of the time. There is no one today who is not alienated, or who does not contain within himself some small fraction of alienation. All of us to whom Judaism, to whom being a Jew, has again become the pivot of our lives – and I know that in saying this I am not speaking for myself alone – we all know that in being Jews we must not give up anything, not renounce anything, but lead everything back to Judaism. From the periphery back to the center; from the outside, in.

This is a new sort of learning. A learning for which – in these days – he is the most apt who brings with him the maximum of what is alien. That is to say, not the man specializing in Jewish matters; or, if he happens to be such a specialist, he will succeed, not in the capacity of a specialist, but only as one who, too, is alienated, as one who is groping his way home.

It’s a long quote, I know, but how I savor it!

* * *

Franz Rosenzweig died at the young age of 42, as did the great Rabbi Moses Isserles (1530 – 1572), whom I’ve cited throughout my ‘skeptic’s kaddish’ series on the halakhot and minhagim of reciting kaddish as a mourner.

In my ceaseless, frenetic kaddish searching, I came across the 1989 song ‘Kaddish’ by Ofra Haza (1957 – 2000), who became the most internationally successful Israeli songstress of all time. Her voice pierces through a part of my soul that had been hitherto unknown to me, as I listen to her ‘Kaddish’ again and again and again and again and again. Enchanted, I read her biography, and realize… she also died at the age of 42.

42 is a pronic number.

Death and numbers stimulate my imagination.

* * *

I wonder if my father would have enjoyed Ofra’s music, given his severe hearing impairment (blog #19). In May, when I was in America for the unveiling of Papa’s tombstone (blog #44), Mama intentionally played Frank Sinatra songs in her car on our way to the cemetery. My father had been very fond of Sinatra; the Sultan of Swoon would often keep us company in the car because his voice was crisp enough for Papa to decipher and appreciate, despite the perpetual rattling in his one semi-functional ear.

Almost daily I continue to be reminded of Papa at unexpected moments. The hues of the sky and trees shift in the mornings when I squint in the Jerusalem sun, closing one eye and then the other. Each of my eyes perceives a different color spectrum, one bold, the other subdued. Then I remember my father’s partial color blindness and wonder, what colors did Papa see?

Yesterday I made a paper airplane for my daughter for the first time, just like Papa taught me to make. It’s a design with a blunt nose, sturdier than its pointy-nosed cousins. I remember building a virtual fleet of airplanes out of magazine postcards and launching them throughout the house in my excitement. Searching for my squadron units afterwards was a great part of the fun.

* * *

Eleven months of kaddish recitations ended; then twelve months of being considered a mourner according to Jewish tradition; and then came the Hebrew anniversary of Papa’s death, after thirteen months. Now: the end of ‘The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist’.

But I still go on.

* * *

Fin.

give-grief-words

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 50

Papa’s first yahrzeit fell out on the Shabbat before last.
So… what did marking this date change for me?

* * *

Some things are inevitable.

Even before learning anything meaningful or interesting about the orphan’s kaddish, I knew that I would attend minyan every day to recite it for Papa.

I also knew that this would last for the duration of eleven months; that the process would inevitably end.

Throughout the year, I wrestled with the boundaries of tradition. Why must I stop reciting kaddish after eleven months (blog #21)? Should I? Will I? Why am I not considered a “mourner” during the thirteenth month of this Hebrew leap year, before the first anniversary of Papa’s death (blog #32)? How do I feel about this? Do I cease to consider myself a “mourner” after twelve months, without having marked Papa’s yahrzeit?

Still, from the first, I never struggled for a moment with the notion of hosting a kiddush at my early morning Shabbat minyan to commemorate Papa’s yahrzeit. On August 6, 2018, not even one month after my father’s death, I e-mailed the kiddush coordinator:

– May I reserve a date for July 2019?
~ Surely – just tell me which shabbat
– The last shabbat in July 2019
~ Booked!

Kiddush at shul was within my comfort zone; I could see the hints of its contours on the horizon all my kaddish year (blog #7).

* * *

In truth, the kiddush at shul is not considered a  Jewish mourning ritual in halakhic literature; but it has become commonly accepted; and, in some communities, expected.

Sponsoring this kiddush to commemorate the first anniversary of my Papa’s death must therefore be understood in the social context of the process that I went through this year in my community. It was not an isolated event.

Upon my father’s death, I opted in to the traditional Jewish mourning experience, grounded in ancient texts and customs. I would come to shul every day and be seen by the same, increasingly familiar faces; and over the course of my year I formed some new relationships and strengthened other bonds that had already existed. Countless times, I lifted a glass and recited blessings in honor of other people’s parents; I shared in their experiences and partook of their contributions to our community.

My kiddush for Papa marked the end of a chapter for me, of course, but it was also, simply: THANK YOU.

* * *

yahrzeit is a 24-hour commemorative experience. Many who do not otherwise attend shul regularly will nonetheless show up for the each of the three daily prayer services (evening, morning, afternoon) to say kaddish on a parent’s yahrzeit, along with the mourners who recite it daily. If one is marking a yahrzeit, he is given precedence in leading the prayers so that he may recite more kaddishes that day.

On Friday evening, I asked the gabbai for permission to lead the evening prayers after the Kabbalat Shabbat service. Then something within me trembled. As a mourner this year, I would never have made such a request! After all, according to Ashkenazi custom, mourners do not lead the services on Shabbat and festivals, as taught by Rabbi Moses Isserles (1530-1572) (Yoreh De’ah 376:4):

האבלים אומרים קדיש אפילו בשבת ויו”ט (בא”ז בשם ר”י מקורביי”ל) אבל לא נהגו להתפלל בשבת ויו”ט (כן הוא בתשובת מהרי”ל) אע”פ שאין איסור בדבר The mourners say kaddish even on Shabbat and festivals (in the ‘Or Zarua’, [as is taught] in the name of Rabbi Isaac ben Joseph of Corbeil), but they do not lead the prayers on Shabbat and festivals (according to the responsa of Rabbi Yaakov ben Moshe Levi Moelin), even though there is no prohibition in this matter.

Over the course of my kaddish year, I became programmed in particular behavioral norms. As a mourner, I was encouraged to lead services – and I’d come to prefer that somebody in mourning (although preferably not me) would do so (blog #24). However, we mourners were never to lead services on Shabbat, for its atmosphere is one of joy; and ours is an air of grief.

* * *

My first orphan’s kaddish recitation that Friday evening after Kabbalat Shabbat tore through my chest cavity with the force of a whole year’s worth of daily doxologies. The muscles of my face knew every syllable intimately, but I was two months out of practice since my de-kaddish’ment. Anxiety gripped me, as I stumbled over one of the final phrases.

Then that first kaddish of Papa’s yahrzeit was over, and my heart was fluttering as I made my way to the dais to lead ma’ariv. I knew I wouldn’t be leading services again in his honor until the 24th of Tamuz the following year.

Standing at the center of the sanctuary, I draped a prayer shawl over my shoulders and breathed out heavily, centering myself. I would now lead the evening prayers so that I could recite every single blessing and kaddish, so that I could lead the orphan’s kaddish at the end…

According to tradition, I hadn’t been “in mourning” for the entirety of the previous month, and I hadn’t recited kaddish at shul for two months’ time, but somehow I’d never shaken myself out of my familiar mourner’s headspace…

That Shabbat evening, I led a service from the rostrum that no mourner would think to lead, in order that I could lead the mourners.

Against the joyous Shabbat backdrop, I grieved before the community.

* * *

Leading Shabbat services on Papa’s yahrzeit took some emotional preparation, but I’d been easing my way towards this moment for months; and I know the standard liturgy. Reading the Haftarah on Saturday morning after leading shacharit, however, was another matter entirely. I hadn’t done that since I was thirteen years old (blog #48).

I rehearsed at home over the course of the week, twice meeting for guidance and support with Rabbi Lockshin in the evenings. My printed copy of the Haftarah, which I read from at shul on Papa’s yahrzeit, was covered in highlighter markings. I wouldn’t have been able to even begin to chant it without my blue and green scribbles. Careful to at least pronounce the words correctly, I chanted the text to some tortured tune and recited the corresponding blessings.

Finally, it was over. I looked at the gabbai for confirmation.

– Am I done?
~ Yes, unless you want to lead Musaf.
– Oh no, that’s quite enough, thank you.

And then I was off to prepare for kiddush.

* * *

My wife and I had thought through the menu for our kiddush. There were four different kinds of herring, two sorts of cheese, and crackers (the kiddush staples). Everything else was in memory of Papa. My wife prepared my father’s favorite Olivier Salad, much like the one Mama had prepared for the unveiling (blog #44), as well as a delicious cake with chocolate cream and pineapple slices, which she’d always prepared for his visits to Israel (Papa and I both prefer creamy desserts). My wife, mother and daughter brought these just in time for the kiddush, which began at 8:30 in the morning.

I brought a bottle of AKASHI White Oak Blended Japanese Whiskey, which I’d purchased at the airport last summer on my way home for Papa’s funeral. It hadn’t been intended for this kiddush, but I hadn’t yet been able to open it. Also, I decided to bring a bottle of Beefeater Gin to mix with tonic water – this had been my father’s favorite drink. A bottle of orange juice and a big box of bourekas from Papa’s favorite local bakery rounded out the kiddush.

There was a second bottle of whiskey at the table, a majestic 18-year-old bottle of Glenfiddich brought by my Rav, Rabbi Landes. He had come to my minyan in continued support of me, and I was deeply moved by his presence at Kehillat Yedidya so early on a Shabbat morning.

Rabbi Landes graciously poured me a glass of Glenfiddich before I stood to recite kiddush for the community, but upon hearing my explanation for the bottle of AKASHI he ever so subtly poured me a second glass and switched the two while I was yet speaking. Later in the week, my Rav would call to provide me with further ‘chizúk’ (חיזוק) – encouragement. Thank you, Rabbi.

* * *

After returning home from shul that afternoon, I thought of several takeaways, based upon a conversation that ensued with Mama.

Firstly, I once again felt profoundly thankful that my mother had been able to join me for this capstone event, in support of my personal mourning process. Secondly, I was gratified to see that almost all of the kiddush food and drink had been obliterated by my little community. Despite their not knowing my Papa, their oneg Shabbat was brightened that morning because of our love for my father.

Thirdly, I was struck by the holy mundanity of communal kiddush.

* * *

The words ‘kaddish’ (קדיש) and ‘kiddush’ (קידוש) share a common Semitic root: Q-D-Š, meaning “holy” or “separate”.

The word ‘kaddish’ would seem to be an Aramaic word, meaning “holy”, and ‘kiddush’ is a Hebrew word, meaning “sanctification”. Having studied Spoken Arabic for several semesters, I’m also aware that the Arabic name for Jerusalem is ‘Al Quds’ (القدس), which means: “The holy [one].”

The very first line of kaddish, which I had been reciting all year is:

יִתְגַּדַּל וְיִתְקַדַּשׁ שְׁמֵהּ רַבָּא Yitgaddal veyitqaddash shmeh rabba May His great name be exalted and sanctified.

In theory, the purpose of the kiddush is to sanctify Shabbat, by reciting a blessing over a cup of wine, but on that early morning of Papa’s yahrzeit I saw this communal ritual in a different light.

While the words of kiddush are of lofty, holy intent, perhaps it is the gathering together in community and the sharing of simple, human pleasures that truly sanctifies the Sabbath and sanctifies our loved ones’ yahrzeits. For me, on that morning, and perhaps on every single day that I had recited kaddish throughout the year, it was my community that warmly embraced me.

* * *

Words from Leon Wieseltier’s book Kaddish come back to me (p. 250):

Kaddish is not said for the dead,’ the rabbi said to me tonight. ‘It is said for the living.’ But the living have needed to believe that it is said for the dead; and so the plot thickens.

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 49

She was not yet three-and-a-half years-old when her grandfather died, but death was still beyond her imagination. On the other hand, she understood quite starkly, with dismayed frustration, that her father was abruptly leaving home again… “I have to go help Dedushka Shurik move far, far away,” he explained too gently. “I’ll come back in just one week; and I’ll call you every day from America.”

Abba’chka and Mama’chka were both restrained, but the little girl sensed that something was amiss. The atmosphere in their apartment was thick with something heavy and foreign to her, and her parent’s tones sounded oddly muffled by the laden air around them. A disagreeable, viscous surreality was filling up the room, and it was somehow related to her Dedushka in America. She could grasp this much.

Moved to express herself, even as Abba’chka stood waiting to leave with his large, red and black suitcase, the little girl declared that she would draw some pictures for her Dedushka. Scribbling furiously with her blue marker on sheet after sheet of paper, with a fierce intensity that was rather unlike her, the girl produced a veritable stack of doodles “to give to Dedushka Shurik.” (She knew that blue was his favorite color.)

It all happened much too quickly for me.

* * *

In those few hours before I left for the airport, in those disintegrating moments, the euphemism of “moving to a faraway place” came to us fairly quickly. We were dazed, stunned, unsteady; our overriding instinct was to protect our [not a] baby.

She’s a sensitive child and has always suffered through our absences whenever one of us has traveled abroad without her; hence we’ve taken to preparing her for our departures well ahead of time. My Papa’s death came without warning, however.

Worse, I had been home for merely ten days after a week-long absence (blog #40), and my daughter had just come to rely upon the dependability of my presence again… days before I abruptly had to fly off again.

At three-and-a-half-years-old, she was already trilingual (she speaks English with me, Russian with her mother, and Hebrew outside the home), but for all of her natural eloquence she was barely out of toddlerhood and only beginning to engage our Shabbat guests with her earnest, all too serious-sounding queries at the table. Most of what she could express with accuracy was a repetition of conversations she had overheard.

Even after my return from the shiva, I found it difficult to determine the extent to which our child was capable of comprehending and processing the horror of what had transpired, due to her perfectly age-appropriate limitations. Certainly, I knew she hadn’t fully recovered from my extended, unexpected absence, for she continued to cry every evening when I would leave to recite kaddish for Papa (blog #3).

My wife and I were particularly wary due, in part, to my wife’s own childhood. At three-years-old, she had also lost her loving grandfather and, in the aftermath, developed deep anxiety about the possibility of herself or her loved ones likewise “disappearing” forever. The matter-of-fact explanation she’d received as a child had terrified her.

* * *

In the course of my research on Jewish mourning and kaddish, I happened upon this article by Rabbi Avram Mlotek on his five-year-old daughter’s confrontation with death: ‘My 5-Year-Old Confronts Death’.

Rabbi Mlotek ends the piece like so:

Ecclesiastes offers, ‘There is a time for everything.’

But for children, time bears no hold on reality.

It’s Sukkot eve and we put Ravi to bed, telling her if she goes to sleep nicely I’ll bring her to the sukkah later, to sleep on a blow-up mattress.

‘How long will you be?’ she asks. ‘An hour? A minute? A second?’

I smile because she doesn’t grasp the difference between these markers and that, for now, is truly wonderful.

This scene with little Revaya and her father is so true to life; and I find myself smiling at Mlotek’s depiction because my own daughter, now four-and-a-half-years-old, confuses days with weeks and seconds with minutes (although she knows the twelve months and four seasons in three languages) (yes, I’m boasting).

I read the article again, imagining my daughter asking all of the same questions that Ravi did: Is Dedushka Shurik really in the box? How did he get there? Are his white clothes comfortable? When do the kids get to shovel dirt upon the grave?

This whole scenario is so very plausible to me, so very, very plausible, but then it hits me: she’s not three-and-a-half any more.

My [not a] baby has always been articulate for her age, but our conversations today, one year after Papa died, are incomparably more substantive than they once were. My year of mourning coincided almost exactly with her first year of preschool, and her ability to express herself has exploded since last September. It was only two months ago that she squeezed my hand on our way to shul one Shabbat and contemplatively tested her developing understanding with me: “Is it right that my grandfather died?”

I will remember this particular year of my daughter’s life forever.

* * *

Papa used to say that he couldn’t cry anymore; that he hadn’t cried for more years than he could remember; that tears simply wouldn’t come. Me? I cry for my father – but only in the absence of my nearly four-year-old daughter.

– Me, blog #27

In mid-January I wrote the above, as I continued to struggle with how to communicate our tremendous loss to our daughter. Several weeks prior, she had finally asked me what the “faraway place” that Dedushka Shurik had left us for is called (blog #23), and I had answered her that nobody really knows. Family, friends and acquaintances had all been asking me: why don’t you just explain it to her?

But I was scared; I didn’t know if she could handle it.

Then, in early March, my dear friend Yael who has supported many terminally ill patients and their families as a chaplain drew my attention to an NPR article: ‘The Dog Isn’t Sleeping: How To Talk With Children About Death’.

* * *

The article mentions a Mr. William Lee (1908-1982) who died of a heart attack at 74 years of age, but American children knew him by the name Mr. Hooper, and this is how he was referred to by the author.

Mr. Hooper had been a special friend to Big Bird, and the unexpected death of the actor who played him on Sesame Street inspired its producers to create an educational episode about death: Episode #1839. The executive producer would go on to explain that the Sesame Street team had followed their instincts to “deal with it head-on,” as reported in the New York Times on Aug. 31, 1983.

The clip above this post is powerfully poignant. The cast’s tears for their departed friend were all genuine. But… wait: what age is Big Bird meant to represent? 

From Wikipedia:

‘Although all the Sesame Street Muppet characters are technically ageless, Big Bird is psychologically written to represent a six-year-old.’

* * *

I was impressed by the substance and thrust of the NPR article, but its six takeaway principles weren’t all entirely appropriate for my daughter at a tender three-and-a-half, specifically:

  • The article first suggests that parents should “be honest and concrete” with their children. The author writes: “parents only complicate matters when, instead of being concrete, they resort to euphemisms.” While I would agree that this may be something to aspire towards, I have no regrets about telling my little daughter that her grandfather had “moved far, far away” when he died.
  • The fourth principle is: “Grown-ups, it’s OK to cry.” Sure, ideally our children would be capable of comprehending why their parents are crying, but what if they’re not? What if they’re just old enough to sense our hurt, absorb it and become overwhelmed with emotion that they have no capacity to describe? What if they’re not able to ask the questions necessary to better understand? What if they’re just too young?

For all of its truly helpful guidelines, the article’s one failure is its lack of context: What ages is this advice suitable for?

* * *

I am not the only one to have gone through a process this year, as my wife pointed out to me at Shabbat dinner last week. Our daughter had a deep attachment to her Dedushka, for he had spent an entire month or more nannying her every single year since her birth (blog #22).

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.

– Me, blog #15

Looking back, I feel that we did our best, gradually introducing concepts to our [not a] baby gradually, as she developed from a three-and-a-half-year-old into a four-and-a-half-year-old little girl.

We deliberately did not avoid speaking about Papa’s death to others in her presence, and I explained to her that I was reciting kaddish at shul for Papa as soon as she inquired about it (blog #22):

I’ve told her that I am reciting kaddish for my papa at the request of my mama (in part), but what can I relate to her about kaddish beyond this?

As she grew older and became more articulate, she gradually came to express more and more ideas surrounding the death of her Dedushka Shurik, and I answered her in ways that I sensed she could process. Even before she asked me about his being dead, I had intentionally been teaching her about living things (plants and animals), and I had shown her dead insects and dried leaves that had fallen from the trees. Without speaking directly about my father, I was attempting to explain his death.

None of us were prepared for Papa’s death, and all this year we’ve been keeping ourselves together as best we could.

God knows we really tried.

* * *

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 48

I am no longer a “mourner” according to tradition, but am I no longer mourning? This is beyond me. Can one truly mourn forever, or does mourning inevitably decay into normalcy?

Less than one Hebrew month remains until my father’s first yahrzeit, thirteen months since his heart stopped for the second time at the hospital. Papa died on July 7, 2018 – on Shabbat* one year ago on the Gregorian calendar. However, the Hebrew anniversary of his death is the 24th of Tammuz (כ״ד בְּתַמּוּז), which will be on Shabbat, July 27, 2019. (From Sabbath to Sabbath.)

*I learned something:
According to the Tractate Shabbat 30a-b of the Babylonian Talmud, King David died on Shabbat afternoon. (see text at the bottom.)
According to the Zohar, we traditionally recite the Tzidkatcha prayer (צדקתך, “Your righeousness”) during mincha on Shabbat in memory of three individuals who died on Shabbat: Joseph, Moses and David.  

* * *

Lassitude

With eleven months of daily kaddish recitations and a twelfth month of additional mourning restrictions behind me, my grief’s sails have been hanging [un]expectedly limp these days.

I’ve mentioned to my friend Dov that I am worn out from grieving and have been feeling uninspired of late; he suggests that I submit a truncated blog post, writing just that. I check with the Times of Israel blog editors: would that be acceptable to them? Deputy Editor Anne Gordon responds:

There’s no specific minimum, and in your case, we’re not worried, especially given that you’re posting [in] the context of everything else. Use your judgement. We trust you

I almost did it -almost posted nothing more than the words above- but our family happened to be moving into a new apartment last week, and time evaporated in the balagan (בלגן) that ensued.

* * *

Equilibrium

Weary from the move, I didn’t go to shul for several days last week so I brought my tefilin home one evening, intending to pray by myself.

Ultimately, I didn’t even put them on.

Sometimes I feel the need to reboot, and this is such a time. It’s an occasionally much needed reminder to myself that commitment to tradition is a choice.

… it is I who am granting our religion authority.

– Me, blog #6

Understand authority and you have crippled it.

Leon Wieseltier, Kaddish, p. 113

This week, I won’t be able to attend my weekday morning minyan, as my wife will be abroad, and I cannot leave our four-and-a-half-year-old daughter alone at home by herself. Perhaps I will get back into the groove of davening on my own. We’ll see.

* * *

Humility

My new landlord lost his father when he was but fourteen years old and spent that year of his childhood reciting kaddish at shul. I’m almost forty years old; his was a different experience.

Also, I’ve noted that the same eccentric gentleman who had once (until January – blog #24) regularly led the ma’ariv prayer on Saturday evenings at the close of Shabbat in honor of his father is now back at the rostrum. It turns out that his mother passed away some two months ago. Losing two parents in quick succession is another experience.

Reflecting upon these and other stories of loss that I’ve encountered, I recall a piece of wisdom from Sherri Mandell who lost her thirteen-year-old son Kobi to Arab terrorists in 2001 [link]:

Humility means that I recognize that one day even grieving will assume its proper proportion. In time, I will learn to give death its measure, and no more.

These words are directly from the chapter titled ‘Humility’ in Sherri’s book: Blessing of a Broken Heart.

* * *

Denouement

Papa’s yahrzeit is imminent. With kaddish recitations no longer drawing me to shul, my thoughts turn towards the kiddush I will sponsor after my Shabbat morning minyan. By coincidence*, it turns out that Mama will be in Israel then; she will stay with us for Shabbat and come to shul for the kiddush.

*A pious friend tells me that there are no coincidences. I tell her that the title of ‘The Skeptic’s Kaddish’ is much more true to my nature than ‘The Believer’s Kaddish’ ever could have been. Also, it sounds more intriguing.

What traditions are associated with the yahrzeit? There aren’t many. I already know, of course, of yahrzeit candles. Apparently, this tradition goes all the way back to Talmudic times, as the rabbis ruled that one may not use the “candle for the dead” for the havdalah ceremony, performed upon the departure of the Sabbath (B.T., Tractate Brachot 53a):

אין מברכין לא על הנר ולא על הבשמים של מתים The blessings [for havdalah] may not be recited over the candle or the spices of the dead.

I also know that it is considered appropriate to donate to charity and study Torah on the date of a yahrzeit, but I wonder if there’s something more in our tradition. From the Hebrew volume Sefer Kol Bo al Aveilus (‘The Book Containing Everything on Mourning’) by Rabbi Yekusiel Yehudah Greenwald (1889–1955), I learn that there is also an ancient tradition of fasting on a parent’s yahrzeit, but further research suggests that this practice has mostly fallen into disuse. Regardless, we do not fast on Shabbat, which is a day of holy pleasure.

Then, by chance, my friend Aytan asks me if I’d like to read the haftarah portion on Papa’s yahrzeit.
What? Why?
I’m not entirely sure, but that’s the tradition.
Interesting! I’ll do some research on this.
Of course you will.

Chabad renders any “research” entirely unnecessary: a thorough answer can be found on their website.

* * *

Challenge

I haven’t read haftarah since my bar mitzvah nearly 27 years ago. I am… terrified?

Perhaps that’s too strong a word, but the performative aspects of Judaism have never been my strong suit. Even publicizing my intention to attempt this scares me – it may raise expectations that I may not be able to meet. Still… I will give it my all.

After all, I’ve come this far, haven’t I?

* * *

Memory

Memories of my bar mitzvah come back to me. I remember having no idea what a haftarah was, but I knew that I was expected to read it. Perhaps it was considered “half” as important as the “Torah”? Nobody thought to clarify this for me back then.

I remember chanting one of the kaddishes to the wrong tune; but I pushed my way through it. The rabbi, of course, noticed and remarked upon it later (in the spirit of constructive criticism).

I remember writing my bar mitzvah speech based upon my father’s reading of the weekly Torah portion. He drew a connection to the theme of family and progeny, and I spoke about being the first Bogomolny in several generations to celebrate his bar mitzvah, even as my grandparents sat in the front row before me. They had emigrated from the FSU only several years before, and I don’t think their English was strong enough to understand me.

I remember receiving many earnest compliments from the regular shul-goers in regards to my speech. It had been wordsmithed by me, but it had been inspired by my Papa.

* * *

Understatement

My father’s fingerprints are all over me.

* * *

Shabbat 30a-b

אמר לו בשבת תמות אמות באחד בשבת אמר לו כבר הגיע מלכות שלמה בנך ואין מלכות נוגעת בחברתה אפי’ כמלא נימא אמות בערב שבת אמר לו (תהילים פד) כי טוב יום בחצריך מאלף טוב לי יום אחד שאתה יושב ועוסק בתורה מאלף עולות שעתיד שלמה בנך להקריב לפני על גבי המזבח Said He [God] to him [David]. ‘Thou wilt die on the Sabbath.’ ‘Let me die on the first day of the week!’ ‘The reign of thy son Solomon shall already have become due, and one reign may not overlap another even by a hairbreadth.’ ‘Then let me die on the eve of the Sabbath!’ Said He, ‘For a day in thy courts is better than a thousand’ (Psalms 84): better is to Me the one day that thou sittest and engagest in learning than the thousand burnt-offerings which thy son Solomon is destined to sacrifice before Me on the altar.’
כל יומא דשבתא הוה יתיב וגריס כולי יומא ההוא יומא דבעי למינח נפשיה קם מלאך המות קמיה ולא יכיל ליה דלא הוה פסק פומיה מגירסא אמר מאי אעביד ליה הוה ליה בוסתנא אחורי ביתיה אתא מלאך המות סליק ובחיש באילני נפק למיחזי הוה סליק בדרגא איפחית דרגא מתותיה אישתיק ונח נפשיה Every Sabbath day he would sit and study all day. On the day that his soul was to be at rest, the Angel of death stood before him but could not prevail against him, because learning did not cease from his mouth. ‘What shall I do to him?’ said he. Now, there was a garden before his house; so the Angel of death went, ascended and soughed in the trees. He [David] went out to see: as he was ascending the ladder, it broke under him. Thereupon he became silent [from his studies] and his soul had repose.

 

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 47

Two weeks ago a middle-aged woman approached me at the back of the sanctuary, as I was readying to head home for havdalah.
I’ve been thinking about you recently. You must be nearly done by now… I’m almost at the end of my eleven months.
I recognized her immediately – the rabbi’s daughter (blog #3). She had lost her father not long after Papa died, just after I returned from shiva in New Jersey. I had been in the shloshim stage of mourning then.
Oh, hello! Yes, I completed my eleven months of kaddish just over a week ago, but the yahrzeit won’t be for another two months.
She nodded in understanding.
Yes, because of the Hebrew leap year – I also have an extra month. It’s good to see you again.
Thank you; it’s very nice to see you too.
The memories flooded back. Seemingly a lifetime ago, I had attended shiva at this woman’s home for four consecutive evenings to make minyan so that she could recite kaddish for her father.

A month later, in August, I wrote of that (blog #3):

The rabbi’s daughter was sitting shiva, and I was already past that stage, in the shloshim period of my mourning. According to Jewish tradition, her wound was fresher than mine, her mourning more acute, but this did not feel true to me. For four days I listened as strangers honored the memory of a rabbi that I’d never known, all the while grieving silently, alone by the wall, over the untimely death of my own father, but not saying a word because it wasn’t my shiva house.

* * *

Every ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ blog entry feels like it must be the very last. I post and think: That’s it. Done. I’ve wrung my heart out. The next post is always unfathomable to me until it is has become the last one.

In mid-December I found myself reflecting upon that shiva again in another blog post, shortly after I’d finished devouring a compilation of women’s kaddish stories. The months, it seemed, had done their work in grinding down the edges of my grief (blog #19):

Everything was about my pain then [i.e. in July, during the rabbi’s shiva], and I could hardly feel beyond myself. Since, the shock has faded; I am more conscious of death and less surprised by it. I have again become able to hear others’ stories.

* * *

Reading through my older blog posts, only snippets of observations and reflections feel authentically mine today, as if each of my entries had been authored by another member of a mourners’ support group, before passing my cracked, black laptop around the circle to the next.

My own words come back to me (blog #39):

By the time you’ve read this, it’s no longer about the character who wrote it. Who is David Bogomolny anyway?

* * *

One particular leg of my journey this year led me upon an intensive search for creative and modern expressions of kaddish. I found other kaddish bloggers (blog #29), as well as a musician who had put the mourner’s kaddish to song and an artist who had made paintings of every synagogue where he’d recited the kaddish in honor of his father (blog #31). At around that time I also came across another artist who had charted a unique, personalized kaddish journey, but this man’s story froze me. Steven Branfman had lost his son.

Here is the father’s kaddish story in his own words:

Some concepts are hard to wrap my mind around and harder still to put words to, but the story of Steven’s grief over Jared’s death brought up a dreadful question: what if it had been somebody other than Papa? Somebody other than a parent of mine?

For all the pain behind my writing this year, for all my shock and despair at losing my father, I had always “known” that he would die before me. Given, he should have lived another ten or twenty years, well into his eighties or his nineties. Given, I’d never imagined him leaving us so unexpectedly or so suddenly, in a matter of greedy, insatiable hours while I was putting his beloved granddaughter to bed far across the churning waters. Still, stories of grown adults mourning their departed parents do not usually shatter us.

I acknowledge to myself: My grief has been bearable enough for me to blog about.

* * *

I was surprised when I found out that the halachic, traditional Jewish period for mourning a child is only thirty days. But one of the mothers explained why: it’s because you grieve the rest of your life. You don’t need need the rituals to remind you to grieve. You will think of your child forever.

 Sherri Mandell, The Blessing of a Broken Heart (p. 82)

This folk wisdom from Sherri Mandell’s book of loss and mourning hasn’t come up in any Jewish sources that I’ve seen, but our ancient traditions are ever hungry for relevance, and these bereaved mothers’ words are of the sheerest sagacity. Thoughts such as these leave me flailing to keep my head above guilt, but I’ve already steeled myself once before to admit this:

If you know me only through my blog posts, you might conclude that I think about my father all the time; but I am writing, in part, to remind myself of him.

– Me, blog #27

* * *

There were too, too many minutes in the few hours before Papa’s death, my senses vibrating at a frequency that was out of step with the usual rhythm of things. Then my cellphone screen lit up with a time-bending message from my brother, just as my daughter was complaining that she wasn’t sleepy: “Dead”. Collected and reeling, I placed the phone face down by the bedside, coaxing and calming my little girl as she fell aslumber.

Disconcertingly out of sync, perceptions jumbled, receptors misfiring, I remain immediately near but never fully within the self I’d always known, receiving on an unfamiliar, piercing wavelength.

Slowly, slowly, I have come to understand
this: My pulse has been attuned to loss.

* * *

As I was perusing the bookshelves at my mother’s home in New Jersey last month, ‘The Blessing of a Broken Heart’ called to me. Mama, it turns out, had acquired the book some years ago because I’d shared the story of Koby Mandell with her – the boy who had once invited me to his bar mitzvah.

In the summer of 2000 I was in Jerusalem, studying at a yeshiva where Rabbi Seth Mandell was teaching. I was drawn to him because he dressed and spoke more like me than any of the other rabbis, and I always looked forward to seeing him on our weekly day trips.

It was on a walk along the ramparts of the Old City of Jerusalem that I met Koby, and we spent much of that tour chatting together. He was twelve years old and bursting with enthusiasm; and I felt drawn to that buoyant, American-mannered child who breathed in Israel so naturally. I still recall with amusement Rabbi Mandell’s teasing rebuke to his son: You can’t invite everyone you meet to your bar mitzvah, Koby. (I wouldn’t have been in Israel for the event anyway, and I’m pretty sure Koby knew that.)

At the end of the summer I returned to my university studies and the powder keg exploded. From the safety of America, I read about the devastating terrors of the Second Intifada.

I was shocked and shattered by Koby’s murder.

* * *

‘It’s hard for the one who dies, but it’s harder for those left behind,’ Koby said after two high school boys were killed by terrorists only two months before his own death.

 Sherri Mandell, The Blessing of a Broken Heart (p. 151)

Perhaps it’s trite to write, but there are different ways of knowing – different modes – different depths. This quote from Koby is intuitive, right? What could be more apparent?

Still, I somehow never used to think too much about “those left behind” before my Papa died. Sure, I felt bad for them; I knew that the living were left suffering, smoldering in pain; but my thoughts would inevitably alight upon those who had departed: so sad, so unfortunate, so terrible, so tragic; they had so much yet to live for… so… so… so…

Now that Koby’s insight has been absorbed into my depths
I’ll never again unknow it.

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 46

I continue attending minyan every day, despite having completed the traditional 11 months of orphan’s kaddish. I continue standing alone at the back, feeling forever a faithless foreigner.

Why do I –
go?
care?
bother?
… always the same tired questions.

Putting aside the old, stubborn basics, it is the kaddish that most draws me to shul these days. I may no longer be a kaddish’er, but the recitations of others sustain me.

For some days after my final kaddish for Papa, I continued reacting instinctively to the voices of the other mourners; catching myself after each false start of “yitga-“ and stopping abashedly, although hardly anyone noticed…

I’ve since adapted; mine is now to respond:
Y’hei sh’mei raba m’varach…

* * *

Throughout the course of these many months since Papa’s death, even at the very beginning, “I reasoned that [my recitation of kaddish] would [mark] my return to shul…” (blog #25). While I had grown very distant from Jewish community at that point, “part of my personal struggle for [those] past several years [had been] my concern that my… daughter… had no connection to synagogue or communal Jewish life…” (blog #1).

And, of course, there’s the matter of gender. As an adult male, I count for an Orthodox minyan, which means that my very presence in the room could make the difference for other petitioners, as to whether or not they may recite the orphan’s kaddish. The math is heartless: Are there ten Jewish men present? Very well, Mourner, you may recite. What, no minyan? Alas, then- no kaddish.

This is the same calculus that leads many female mourners to forgo further shul attendance after their final kaddishes. In my search for other kaddish bloggers (blog #29), I found Dr. Naomi L. Baum’s recounting of her ‘Last Kaddish’ for her mother, which brings home the point:

… after much soul searching, I concluded that I would not continue praying on a daily basis with a minyan.

Why not? First, I, as a woman, am not counted as a member in the prayer quorum, the minyan. If there are nine men, and me, there is no minyan. Only 10 men over the age of 13 are eligible to be counted for a minyan. After spending almost a year waiting on a daily basis for a quorum to assemble, the importance of the minyan is very clear to me. However, I am of no value there…

Unlike Dr. Baum, I am “of value” to the minyan regardless of my unease. Last September, two months after Papa died, I acknowledged my need of a daily minyan of religiously committed Jewish men, despite my misgivings about the rote practice of Jewish prayer and ritual (blog #5):

I am taking advantage of those religious Jews who perform the rituals with absolute consistency. They are committed; wherefore this mourner has a minyan.

Mine is hardly a model life of religious constancy, but I am moved to help make a minyan for the mourners of my community.  Also, I find myself thinking: were I to quit once more after these eleven months of daily shul-going, I might never find the strength to return again.

* * *

For eleven months, the relentless daily pulsations of kaddish across the taut fabric of time reverberate. It’s the rhythm’s reliable regularity whose abrupt end leaves one straining for melody after three hundred and thirty consecutive days.

A break in the flow, inconceivable, but I missed
one
day of kaddish.

Sort
of… *sigh*

It’s like this.
Several months ago, I was searching Expedia.com for tickets to return to New Jersey for Papa’s unveiling (blog #44) when it hit me: I was probably going to miss at least one day of kaddish in flight, perhaps even two.

I had a choice.
Direct flights between the Ben Gurion and Newark Liberty airports in June would likely have had Jewish prayer quorums on board (like my flight after the funeral and shiva last summer – blog #2), but not so the substantially cheaper flights with layovers in Europe.

Conflicted,
I consulted a wise mentor, who advised: Why don’t you ask somebody else to recite the kaddish for your father while you’re in transit? Startled at the simplicity of his suggestion, I wondered: Why hadn’t I thought of that?

Oh, that’s right…
I’d been swayed by Rabbi Benjamin Ze’ev Ben Mattathias’ (early 16th c.) sentiments, which were translated by Leon Wieseltier in his iconic Kaddish tome regarding “the custom of hiring the precentor or somebody else to say the kaddish in place of the son” (p. 388):

I do not approve of this at all, except when the deceased has no son or when the deceased has a son who does not reside in the community permanently… Why didn’t Rabbi Akiva hire somebody to say kaddish for that [deceased tax collector of Jewish legend, blog #11] and thereby release him from his suffering? Indeed, Rabbi Akiva preferred to leave him in his suffering until his young son grew up.

Rabbi Benjamin Ze’ev was hardly alone among the rabbis in his disdain for this practice. It is the orphan’s kaddish, is it not? Still, even and perhaps particularly into the modern day, kaddish recitation services have proliferated for the unable and the unwilling. Examples (in no particular order) include: [1], [2], [3], [4], [5], [6], [7] and many others.

I’ve been biased against this from the beginning. How could anybody else (other than my brother) say kaddish for Papa?

* * *

Author Nathan Englander published a work of fiction just over two months ago: ‘Kaddish.com’, and I was excited to acquire it (blog #39) during my year of mourning. The work is a light, entertaining read, but intellectually underwhelming. I had expected much more religious nuance vis-à-vis kaddish itself from Englander; and the story’s ultra-religious characters fell flat to me in their fervent obsessiveness.

Still, the book’s ending is poignant and touchingly redemptive.

Without revealing too much of the plot, the main character, who had years ago hired an anonymous stranger to recite kaddish for his father, ultimately commits himself to reciting kaddish for one hundred individuals every year for the rest of his life; but he intends to do this in the most intimately meaningful way possible (p. 199):

By the time the sun rises, Shuli… decides he’s sufficiently well versed in the first thirteen – not just in his command of the names but with the essence of the people behind them… To hold a full hundred in his head, he’d need a while longer, that was certain.

This is an example to follow. If I am to ask somebody else to recite kaddish for Papa, it must be a friend of mine. It must be somebody who has been devotedly following my ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ blog series; somebody who has come to know Papa and me better through my writing.

I ask a friend from my daily minyan to recite kaddish for my father while I’m airborne; he can’t do it – he’s flying to the USA that same night. I ask another friend from minyan, but both of his parents are yet living – it’s considered a bad omen to recite kaddish before their times have come. A third friend is already reciting kaddish that month for a cousin of his; and, selfishly, I want somebody to recite kaddish exclusively for my Papa.

Then I think of a good friend from another minyan nearby who has been kindly reading all of my blog posts. Hersh has already lost both of his own parents, and he takes his commitment to kaddish (and to Judaism; and to God; and to the dignity of others) very earnestly. Also, Hersh davens with a minyan every day – my request won’t be much of a burden for him.

Happily for me, my friend agrees immediately. A load is lifted. I am afloat with gratitude.

Ultimately, I am able to recite kaddish for Papa at the airport synagogue before my flight to America; but no opportunities present themselves upon my return. I pray alone on the layover flight to Switzerland; but I know that Hersh is in Jerusalem, faithfully reciting kaddish that day on my behalf for Papa.

Thank you.

* * *

Some reflections (after completing 11 months of kaddish):

  • Two weeks have transpired since my final kaddish (May 28); and nearly as long since my previous blog post. Time feels slower.
  • I have come one or two minutes late to shul several times since May 28, just after or during the recitation of the first morning kaddish. I tell myself that this is a coincidence, but I am not so sure; minyan attendance feels less urgent to me now.
  • On the morning of Shavuot, which was two days ago, I arrived on time for services, but no kaddish’ers were present for the earliest recitations of the morning. I felt discombobulated.
  • This morning, I was one of the first ten men present at shul; the mourners were able to recite kaddish without delay. I am “of value”.
  • I returned home from New Jersey with a book from Mama’s shelf, which I’ve now read and intend to reread: The Blessing of a Broken Heart by Sherri Mandell. It has left me full of impressions and emotions. Every chapter of her book reads to me like a kaddish blog post. I feel compelled to write more on this.

 

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 45

My grief is terribly indescribable and indescribably terrible. Writing about it twists my stomach into knots, clauses searing through my abdomen, as I tear into it with jagged words, gashing at sticky, fleshy gobs of disbelief that spill out in thick rivulets of revulsion.

That’s as far as I got with blog post #45 before Tuesday, May 28. I couldn’t force out any further words before the final kaddish.

I knew it was coming, but I couldn’t accept it.

It’s ridiculous, really.

* * *

In December, when I’d first learned (blog #20) of Rabbi Benny Lau’s (b. 1961) ‘prayer for the last Kaddish’, I’d been judgmental of the two women I’d heard reciting it. Wouldn’t it have been more meaningful for them to write ‘final prayers’ of their own? I thought. I will write my own prayer; I will use my own words.

Judgmentalism has always come easily to me.

Months later, as May 28 made its steady approach, I couldn’t find any inspiration. Worse, I was rebelling against the very premise of this prayer. I don’t care that eleven months of kaddish recitations have gone by. My ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ blog is my true kaddish for Papa;  I’ll continue with it until his yahrzeit. I don’t care about shul; I’m only going through the motions anyway.

I lie to myself sometimes. The truth is- I do care.

On May 26, two days before the final kaddish, I stopped by the bakery where Papa used to purchase bourekas on his visits to us during the summer months. How early do you open? I wanted to know. Fresh bourekas are available by 6:00, I was told. Good, that’s before the first kaddish of shacharit.

On May 27, one day before the final kaddish, I took a deep breath. I can’t write a personal prayer -I can’t even admit how much I care about this- but tomorrow is the final day of kaddish. This is the end. Will I really let it pass without notice? Damn, damn, damn it. Ugh! Truth is: I’m no different than any other mourner, overwhelmed and wordless. Maybe I should use Rav Benny’s prayer as those two women did… I suppose his words would feel no less foreign to me than the kaddish once did… 

Traditional Jewish prayer is formulaic. It serves when we don’t know what to say, when articulation is too overwhelming, when we feel empty of self-expression, when we simply need a dependable tool for connection…

– Me, blog #9

And so.
I pulled up Rav Benny’s prayer in my browser.
Despite and because of myself.

* * *

But… Rav Benny is an Orthodox rabbi. His prayer, creatively innovative though it is, is a believer’s prayer. Its words not only flow along with the rhythms of Jewish tradition; they flow forth from it.

Skeptic that I am, I don’t accept some of Rav Benny’s premises:

אָבִינוּ שֶׁבַּשָּׁמַיִם… הִשְׁתַּדַּלְתִּי לְכַבֵּד אֶת אָבִי בַּשָּׁנָה הַזֹּאת… עָשִׂיתִי כְּכָל אֲשֶׁר צִוִּיתָנוּ… לָעֵת הַזֹּאת… אֶשָּׂא תְּחִנָּה לִפְנֵי כִסֵּא כְבוֹדֶךָ שֶׁיַּעֲלוּ כָּל תְּפִלּוֹתַי לְפָנֶיךָ לְרָצוֹן וְתֵיטִיב לְאָבִי, הֲרֵינִי כַּפָּרַת מִשְׁכָּבוֹ Our Father in Heaven… I strove to honor my father this year… I have done as you commanded us… At this time… I shall raise a plea before Your throne of glory, that all my prayers shall go up before You and be acceptable to You, and You shall do good for my father, for I am the atonement for his resting-place…

Where to begin?

Firstly, I couldn’t bring myself to write a personal prayer for my final kaddish precisely because I am still in my year of mourning for Papa. Rav Benny’s prayer refers to ‘this year’ in the past tense, as if his year of mourning ended upon his recitation of this personal plea, which took place after only 11 months (following his final kaddish for his own father).

Further: as far as I am concerned, my Jewish mourning experience lasts for the duration of 13 months from the date of my father’s death until his yahrzeit (this anomaly is the result of the Hebrew leap year, which has pushed the anniversary of Papa’s death back by a full month on the Hebrew calendar – blog #32).

Secondly, I don’t believe that God ‘commanded us’ to recite Kaddish for our loved ones. As of today, I remain entirely unconvinced of God’s involvement in our lives, let alone what He may or may not have commanded us to do.

Further: as we’ve learned on this kaddish journey, the recitation of the mourner’s kaddish is a tradition (not included on any list of 613 mitzvot), which was developed by human beings and incorporated into communal Jewish prayer during the medieval era.

Lastly, while I have been at prayer and praying every single day since my father was buried on July 9th, I reject the notion that I need ‘plea’ for my prayers to ‘be acceptable’ for Papa’s redemption. The God I may just be capable of believing in is just and merciful – He knows full well whether my prayers have been sincere and deserving or not.

Further: my father does not need anybody else to be an ‘atonement’ for him. He was among the most decent, most kindhearted, and most modest human beings that I ever met.
(This is not to say that he was perfect)
Further: I am certain that everyone who knew him well would agree with this.
Further: this is true regardless of religious doctrine, regardless of my father’s religiosity, and regardless of my religious proclivity.

So…

* * *

With humility and deep appreciation, I rewrote Rav Benny Lau’s prayer to reflect my beliefs and sentiments (the skeptic’s version of the believer’s prayer):

אבינו שבשמים Our Heavenly Father,
על פי דרישות המסורת according to the expectations of the Tradition,
זכיתי להשלים אמירת קדיש לעילוי נשמת אבי מורי I have merited to complete the recitation of kaddish for the rising up of the soul of my father and teacher,
מאז עלייתו לגִּנְזֵי מרומים ועד עתה from the time of his rising to the troves of the highest heavens until now.
השתדלתי לכבד את אבי במשך תקופה זו בכל נפשי ובכל מאודי I have striven to honor my father during this period with all my soul and all my might,
אך מבחינתי although from my perspective,
התהליך הזה לא יושלם עד היארצייט שלו this process will not be completed until his yahrzeit,
אשר יהיה בעוד חודשיים which will be in another two months.
ועתה עומד אני לפניך קצת נִרְגָּשׁ And now I stand before You, slightly anxious,
אבל גם בביטחון ואומר but also with confidence, and say:
עשיתי מה שנדרש על פי המסורת I have done that which is expected according to the Tradition.
כעת הזאת, בעומדי לפניך בזמן שחרית At this time, as I stand before You during the morning prayer,
אני מאמין שכל כוונותי ממשיכות לעלות לפניך לרצון I believe that all of my intentions continue to rise up before You and are acceptable to You,
ואני מאמין שתיטיב לאבי and I believe that You will do Good by my father,
שהרי היה הוא אדם טוב לב, הָגוּן וצנוע for he was a kindhearted, decent, and modest man,
ותעניק לו את מקומו בעולם שכולו טוב and You will grant him his place in the world that is all good,
בקרב כל הברואים שהאירו את פניך בעולמך among all the creatures who illuminated Your face in Your world
לָכֵן בַּעַל הָרַחֲמִים Therefore, may the All-Merciful One
יַסְתִּירֵהוּ בְּסֵתֶר כְּנָפָיו לְעוֹלָמִים Shelter him with the cover of His wings forever,
וְיִצְרֹר בִּצְרוֹר הַחַיִּים אֶת נִשְׁמָת אלכסנדר בן משה And bind the soul of Alexander ben Mosheh in the bond of life.
ה’ הוּא נַחֲלָתוֹ God is his heritage;
וְיָנוּחַ בְּשָׁלוֹם עַל מִשְׁכָּבוֹ, וְנֹאמַר אָמֵן May he rest in his resting-place in peace; and let us say: Amen.

I spent some time editing the text; once I felt satisfied with it, my friend Sagi (a native Israeli) was kind enough to review my Skeptic’s Prayer and ravel out my Hebrew. I read through it yet again at my desk, closed my eyes, and shuddered.

* * *

On May 28, the day of the final kaddish, my alarm rang at 5:30 in the morning. I got myself out of bed, mechanically went through my morning routine, and put one bottle of orange juice and one bottle of Monkey Shoulder Scotch whiskey into a sturdy, reusable shopping bag, along with my ‘Skeptic’s Prayer for the Last Kaddish’ in a firm, plastic sleeve.

I walked to shul and left the bag near the entrance; then crossed the street over to the bakery. At the back, I ordered two large, heaping boxes of sundry bourekas, and made my way over to the cashier, who happened to be the owner. So you came for the bourekas. He smiled. Today is my final kaddish for my father. I nodded. Of course I came. The man’s eyes lowered and rose to meet mine again. May his memory be for a blessing. Here, have a discount.

I recited each kaddish that morning as if I were parting with every syllable forever, but my voice held steady. At the end of services, the gabbai announced: David Bogomolny would like to invite all of us to partake of refreshments in honor of his father, and he will now recite a prayer to mark the end of his eleven months of kaddish.

After a brief introduction and sincere note of appreciation for my fellow petitioners, I read my Skeptic’s Prayer aloud so that all could hear me. My voice shook, but I managed to read it in its entirety. ‘May he rest in his resting-place in peace; and let us say: Amen.’

– AMEN.

Afterwards, standing at the refreshments table and surrounded by kind, familiar faces, I heard everybody making blessings in honor of my father. My legs felt unsteady, my breath uneven; my heart pounding as I let my breath out. Man… I could sure use some whiskey.