An Arab friend?

I entered college in the Fall of ’98. Back then, I was a secular Jew and very proud of my Jewish identity. Keeping Shabbat, kashrut, praying three times daily, etc. meant very little to me; I understood those Jewish traditions only vaguely.

It so happened that my university had a very small Jewish population; and I was moved, therefore, to represent my people. While I knew next to nothing (compared to now) about Judaism, I had a positive association with wearing a kippah because I had worn one at Hebrew school in the afternoons at my synagogue. To me, the kippah was a symbol of my Jewish identity; for me, at that time, it had nothing to do with religion. That first semester, I committed myself to wearing my kippah all day, every day – I wanted everyone on campus to know that there was a Jew among them.

Wearing a kippah came to change the course of my life dramatically, but that’s a story for another time. Right now, I want to focus upon an unexpected friendship that came about because of that decision.

* * *

Freshman year, I took a chemistry course that was required for engineering students, and I saw a young man sitting in the middle of the huge auditorium, wearing a black velvet kippah. Excitedly, I plopped myself down in the seat next to him. Hi, my name is David, and I just started wearing a kippah every day!

The young man gave me an odd look, and that moment led to a truly wonderful college friendship.

* * *

2ยฝ years ago, I published a blog post on The Times of Israel: ‘Speak to me in Arabic’

At that point, I was entering my fourth semester of spoken Arabic at the Polis Institute here in Jerusalem. Most of my classmates were Europeans and Americans who had come to Israel to work at embassies, consulates, the UN, and various NGO’s, and they all had Arab coworkers and/or Arab clients. They had people to practice with at work.

For those few of us students who were Jewish Israelis, we all agreed that outside of our Polis classroom, we had very few opportunities to speak Arabic in our daily lives. I knew that once I left my Arabic studies, my language would begin to deteriorate for lack of use. My 5th semester of spoken Arabic was my last – I had signed up for it before Papa died, but I really should have dropped it because I could barely focus in the wake of his death.

And so it was. I left my spoken Arabic studies, and my language skills began to deteriorate. I continued attempting to speak in simple Arabic to taxi drivers, pharmacists, etc., but obviously that’s not nearly enough to maintain one’s language skills.

* * *

Yesterday evening, our daughter and I went out with friends to a park and then to a pizzeria; and it so happened that our waiter was an Arab. As I always do, I haltingly told him that I speak a bit of Arabic – that I had studied at the Polis Institute. The conversation grew from there (in three different languages), and the waiter suggested that we exchange phone numbers. His name is Nasser (he writes ‘Nsser’).

Nasser and I now have plans to get together for coffee, and once my daughter returns to preschool in September and my schedule opens up, we’ll get together again to help one another with our language skills. English in exchange for Arabic ๐ŸŽ‰๐ŸŽŠ

As I told Nasser, this is the first time that an Arab has offered me his friendship.

To be fair, I did befriend an American from the Polis Institute whose husband is an Arab from Jerusalem, and we’ve had them over for Shabbat meals several times in the past couple of years. They’re a sweet, kindly couple, and our daughter has grown to love them in particular… but our interactions have all been in English because that is the most natural language for the five of us when we’re together.

For the first time in my 10+ years in Israel, I now have a friend to speak with in Arabic; and I am hoping that this new relationship will be a lasting one.

Speak to me in Arabic

I published this approximately 2ยฝ years ago on the Times of Israel

* * *

February 20, 2018

This week, I am beginning my fourth semester of spoken Arabic at the Polis Institute.

In truth, I should be working to improve my Hebrew. I can get by on the street, and I’m always able to compensate with some combination of English and Russian when necessary, but my written Hebrew is not what I want it to be, as a resident of Israel. My career potential here would certainly be higher if I invested my time in studying Hebrew, but I’ve been studying Arabic.


Before moving back to Israel, the thought of studying Arabic never crossed my mind, but as a Jerusalem resident, I feel compelled to learn it.

On a basic level, life in Israel is simply richer for people who can speak Arabic. Twenty percent of Israeli citizens are Arabs (not to mention the non-citizens who also work, study, pray, shop, etc. in Israel). I hear Arabic on the streets of Jerusalem, and I hear it spoken by many of the salespeople at my local supermarkets, banks, pharmacies, and shwarma stands. I see Arabs at the mall, but I never see Jews and Arabs shopping together or drinking coffee together. I’m not saying it never happens, but the rare instances of Jews and Arabs socializing together are the exceptions that prove the rule.

Regarding local and regional politics, I’ve spoken with many people across the spectrum about their views on the Israeli-Arab conflict. I’ve had engaging political conversations with left-leaning and right-leaning Jews regarding the peace process, the territories, the settlements, etc., but it’s come to bother me that I’ve never spoken to an Arab about these same issues. I’ve heard countless Jews (both Israelis and non-Israelis) talk about their perceptions of Arabs. I’d like to hear from some Arabs about their perceptions of Jews.

Granted, many Arabs do speak either English or Hebrew (and I once met one who spoke Russian), but not all do. Also, I feel that it’s a sign of respect to learn another people’s language. Whenever I’ve made an attempt to speak with an Arab in his/her native tongue, the response has always been positive, appreciative, and often curious. Whenever I’ve asked them to translate something for me, or to help me phrase something correctly in Arabic, they’ve been all the more appreciative and glad to help me. I feel that my efforts bring down an unspoken barrier between me, the Israeli Jew sporting a beard and a kippa, and the Arabs I interact with.

This experience has also led me to realize something about myself. On the one hand, I’m very skeptical (even cynical) about the prospects for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. I don’t foresee a peace agreement in my lifetime. However, I’ve realized that I do retain hope for peace, and I believe that it can only be achieved by thawing out relations between the people who actually live in Israel and the territories. No document signed by the Israeli Prime Minister, the President of the PA, and other international leaders will bring peace here. This situation is inherently different than the “cold peace” that we maintain with Jordan and Egypt because the lives of Israelis and Palestinians are so intertwined. Again, twenty percent of Israel’s citizens are Arabs with relatives in the territories and most consider themselves Palestinians.

This brings me to another very obvious point, which I’ve alluded to. Beyond transactional interactions, I have nobody to speak Arabic with outside of Polis. Four months went by between my second and third semesters, and without the regular opportunity to speak Arabic, my fluency greatly deteriorated during that summer. The most valuable aspect of the Polis teaching method for me is that the language classes are taught immersively in the target language (like a Hebrew ulpan). This is how I best acquire languages – by using them. My Hebrew, for example, has improved tremendously in recent years because I work in a Hebrew speaking environment. Unfortunately, unlike my American and European Polis classmates, I have no substantive interactions with Arabs outside of the classroom.

In short, I need to make friends with Arabs who are willing to speak with me in Arabic. There are coexistence programs available for Jews and Arabs to meet one another, but these are not run in Arabic. I know of language exchange initiatives (I could help somebody with their English in exchange for help with my Arabic), but these meet infrequently. Something that I have not yet explored are opportunities to volunteer in the Arab community, which might allow me to interact with Arabs in their native tongue. I’m very open to ideas – I’m no political activist in the field of Jewish-Arab relations, but I wish to move beyond simply existing side by side with the Arabs around me. I want to gain more insights into their culture and worldviews. I want to engage with them in a substantive way. Most importantly, I want to practice my Arabic with native Arabic speakers, but I don’t know where to turn.

Any thoughts?

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 Deโ€™ah 376:4):

ื”ืื‘ืœื™ื ืื•ืžืจื™ื ืงื“ื™ืฉ ืืคื™ืœื• ื‘ืฉื‘ืช ื•ื™ื•”ื˜ (ื‘ื”ื– ื‘ืฉื ืจ”ื™ ืžืงื•ืจื‘ื™ื™”ืœ) ืื‘ืœ ืœื ื ื”ื’ื• ืœื”ืชืคืœืœ ื‘ืฉื‘ืช ื•ื™ื•”ื˜ (ื›ืŸ ื”ื•ื ื‘ืชืฉื•ื‘ืช ืžื”ืจื™”ืœ) ืืข”ืค ืฉืื™ืŸ ืื™ืกื•ืจ ื‘ื“ื‘ืจ 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 ‘chizรบk’ (ื—ื™ื–ื•ืง) – 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’ (ืงื“ื™ืฉ) and ‘kiddush’ (ืงื™ื“ื•ืฉ) share a common Semitic root: Q-D-ล , 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’ (ุงู„ู‚ุฏุณ), which means: “The holy [one].”

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

ื™ึดืชึฐื’ึทึผื“ึทึผืœ ื•ึฐื™ึดืชึฐืงึทื“ึทึผืฉื ืฉึฐืืžึตื”ึผ ืจึทื‘ึธึผื 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, 28

I harbor doubts.

Am I not sufficiently devastated by my father’s death? How can I bring myself to write about this creatively, as I do, playing with language and imagery? Why do most other people grieve privately, rather than making a public spectacle of their mourning processes?

It isn’t easy to write these blog posts, but it feels impossible for me not to. I simply don’t know what else to do with myself.

* * *

Words from the prayers spring out at me this year. Two of the Amidah’s (the core of the prayer service’s) nineteen benedictions, recited back-to-back, bring Papa to my mind (blessings #13 & #14):

ื™ื’ ืขึทืœ ื”ึทืฆึทึผื“ึดึผื™ืงึดื™ื… ื•ึฐืขึธืœึตื™ื ื•ึผ, ื™ึถื”ึฑืžื•ึผ ื ึธื ืจึทื—ึฒืžึถื™ืšึธ ื™ึฐื”ึนื•ึธื” ืึฑืœึนื”ึตื™ื ื•ึผ… ื•ึฐืฉึดื‚ื™ื ื—ึถืœึฐืงึตื ื•ึผ ืขึดืžึธึผื”ึถื, ื•ึผืœึฐืขื•ึนืœึธื ืœึนื ื ึตื‘ื•ึนืฉื ื›ึดึผื™-ื‘ึฐืšึธ ื‘ึธื˜ึทื—ึฐื ื•ึผ. ื‘ึธึผืจื•ึผืšึฐ ืึทืชึธึผื” ื™ื™, ืžึดืฉึฐืืขึธืŸ ื•ึผืžึดื‘ึฐื˜ึธื— ืœึทืฆึทึผื“ึดึผื™ืงึดื™ื 13 To the righteous… and to us, may Your compassion be aroused, Lord our God… Set our lot with them, and we will never be ashamed, for we trust in You. Blessed are You, Lord, support and trust of the righteous.

My father was a righteous man, certainly
more so than I.

I will remain
proud of him always. Do I, therefore,
trust in God, whose concern and involvement I impugn?

ื™ื“ ื•ึฐืœึดื™ืจื•ึผืฉึธืืœึทื™ึดื ืขึดื™ืจึฐืšึธ ื‘ึฐึผืจึทื—ึฒืžึดื™ื ืชึธึผืฉืื•ึผื‘, ื•ึฐืชึดืฉึฐืื›ึผื•ึนืŸ ื‘ึฐึผืชื•ืื›ึธื”ึผ ื›ึทึผืึฒืฉึถืืจ ื“ึดึผื‘ึทึผืจึฐืชึธึผ, ื•ึผื‘ึฐื ึตื” ืื•ึนืชึธื”ึผ ื‘ึฐึผืงึธืจื•ึนื‘ ื‘ึฐึผื™ึธืžึตื™ื ื•ึผ ื‘ึดึผื ึฐื™ึธืŸ ืขื•ึนืœึธื, ื•ึฐื›ึดืกึตึผื ื“ึธื•ึดื“ ืขึทื‘ึฐื“ึฐึผืšึธ ืžึฐื”ึตืจึธื” ืœึฐืชื•ึนื›ึธื”ึผ ืชึธึผื›ึดื™ืŸ. ื‘ึธึผืจื•ึผืšึฐ ืึทืชึธึผื” ื™ื™ , ื‘ึผื•ึนื ึตื” ื™ึฐืจื•ึผืฉึธืืœึธื™ึดื 14 And to Jerusalem, Your city, may You return in compassion, and may You dwell in it as You promised. May You rebuild it rapidly in our days as an everlasting structure, and install within it soon the throne of David. Blessed are You, Lord, who builds Jerusalem.

Jerusalem lived in my father’s heart, eternally
home to his soul.

He always wished to be
buried in Jerusalem, but moved away
from his one true home for the betterment of his children.

* * *

These many years later, I remain most comfortable with the prayers that I learned in preparation for my bar mitzvah during ‘Junior Congregation’. The tachanun prayer is not recited on Shabbat, and so I only learned [of] it much later.

Tachanun appeals to God to have mercy on us for our sins; usually, I don’t recite it. I have sinned, but God is of no help when it comes to living with myself, and the wicked still remain unpunished. People’s assertions of Divine judgment aim to gird the devout* and assure the anxious*, but I am neither.

*A side note:
The Hebrew word for anxious is chareid (ื—ึธืจึตื“).
The word for ultra-Orthodox is chareidi (ื—ึฒืจึตื“ึดื™).

Still, I do read the poignant tachanun prayer while the faithful are confessing, and my eyes often alight upon the following words from Psalm 6:

ื’ ื—ึธื ึผึตื ึดื™ ื™ึฐื”ื•ึธื”, ื›ึผึดื™ ืึปืžึฐืœึทืœ-ืึธื ึดื™: ืจึฐืคึธืึตื ึดื™ ื™ึฐื”ื•ึธื”–ื›ึผึดื™ ื ึดื‘ึฐื”ึฒืœื•ึผ ืขึฒืฆึธืžึธื™ 3 Be gracious unto me, Lord, for I languish away; heal me, Lord, for my bones are affrighted.
ื“ ื•ึฐื ึทืคึฐืฉืึดื™, ื ึดื‘ึฐื”ึฒืœึธื” ืžึฐืึนื“; ื•ืืช (ื•ึฐืึทืชึผึธื”) ื™ึฐื”ื•ึธื”, ืขึทื“-ืžึธืชึธื™ 4 My soul also is much affrighted; and Thou, Lord, until when?
ื” ืฉืื•ึผื‘ึธื” ื™ึฐื”ื•ึธื”, ื—ึทืœึผึฐืฆึธื” ื ึทืคึฐืฉืึดื™; ื”ื•ึนืฉืึดื™ืขึตื ึดื™, ืœึฐืžึทืขึทืŸ ื—ึทืกึฐื“ึผึถืšึธ 5 Return, Lord, release my soul; save me for Thy mercy’s sake.
ื• ื›ึผึดื™ ืึตื™ืŸ ื‘ึผึทืžึผึธื•ึถืช ื–ึดื›ึฐืจึถืšึธ; ื‘ึผึดืฉืึฐืื•ึนืœ, ืžึดื™ ื™ื•ึนื“ึถื”-ืœึผึธืšึฐ 6 For in death there is no remembrance of Thee; in Sheol who will give Thee thanks?

This translation of nefesh (ื ึทืคึฐืฉืึด) as ‘soul’ in verses 4 and 5 is off, but it’s understandable, given the juxtaposition to atzamai (ืขึฒืฆึธืžึธื™) in verse 3, meaning: ‘my bones’. The interpretive flaw above lies in the translator’s use of modern Hebrew to decipher biblical poetry.

In my quest, I have acquired the book Jewish Views of the Afterlife by Simcha Paull Raphael. The volume charts a journey through the evolution of Jewish eschatology, beginning with biblical times. Whereas in modern Hebrew, the word nefesh has come to mean soul (or: psyche),

[In the Bible] the Hebrew word nefesh does not imply a soul, or spirit, in contradistinction to a body. The differentiation between body and soul, with the accompanying notion of a soul exiting the body upon death, was totally foreign in early biblical times and did not emerge in the Jewish consciousness until many centuries later. Nefesh was understood in a unitive way as the totality of being – ‘man does not have nefesh, he is nefesh, he lives as nefesh.’

– Jewish Views of the Afterlife, page 56

In fact, the word ‘myself’ in Arabic (Hebrew’s sister tongue) is nafsi (ู†ูุณูŠ), which shares the same root as the Hebrew nefesh. Not only that, but in the Hebrew of our day ‘myself’ is atzmi (ืขืฆืžื™), which hearkens back to atzamai (my bones), which we saw in Psalm 6:3 above. This psalm isn’t drawing a distinction between the body and the soul, but rather seems to be underscoring the bottomlessness of the psalmist’s fright, which shakes his very core.

While alive, a human being is considered a nefesh hayyah (Gen. 2:7), a living nefesh, a vital psychophysical entity. Once dead, the individual becomes a nefesh met (Lev. 21:11, Num. 6:6), a dead nefesh, a depotentiated psychophysical entity.

– ibid.

The biblical concept of nefesh hayyah/met appeals to me. It blunts the fangs of the unknowable; we are all nefesh, alive or dead. Raphael (ibid.) cites Johannes Pedersen (1883 โ€“ 1977), a noted Old Testament scholar, who stresses: “Life and death [in the bible] are not sharply distinguished spheres, because they do not mean existence or nonexistence.” This may hint at nihilism to some, but I find it comforting. To me, the notion recalls Genesis 3, which asserts:

ื™ื˜ ื‘ึผึฐื–ึตืขึทืช ืึทืคึผึถื™ืšึธ, ืชึผึนืื›ึทืœ ืœึถื—ึถื, ืขึทื“ ืฉืื•ึผื‘ึฐืšึธ ืึถืœ-ื”ึธืึฒื“ึธืžึธื”, ื›ึผึดื™ ืžึดืžึผึถื ึผึธื” ืœึปืงึผึธื—ึฐืชึผึธ: ื›ึผึดื™-ืขึธืคึธืจ ืึทืชึผึธื”, ื•ึฐืึถืœ-ืขึธืคึธืจ ืชึผึธืฉืื•ึผื‘ 19 In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken; for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.

We are

Nefesh / Dust


It’s really all
the same.

* * *

Going back to Psalm 6, another word bears attention: what is Sheol?

The nefesh hayyah, the living person, dwelt with family clan, tribe, or nation in the terrestrial realm. Upon death, the individual descended into the subterranean realm and as a nefesh met dwelt in the grave, in the family tomb, and eventually in Sheol, the abode of the ancestral dead.

– Jewish Views, page 56

Two particular and related aspects of death as understood in early biblical times appeal to me: 1) its amoral character, 2) its exclusive concern with the collective, rather than the individual. As Raphael explains (p. 53):

[Sheol] is not a realm of torment or punishment; it is simply the domain of the dead. The negative, punitive aspects that later characterized Sheol were almost completely lacking in its original conception.

And (p. 43):

From its inception, biblical Judaism… was concerned… not at all with the postmortem fate of the individual Israelite per se. In patriarchal and Mosaic times… there is no notion of an individual afterlife experience for the soul… nor any idea of a soul separate from the body.

It is not until the Book of Jeremiah (completed during the last half of the 6th century BCE) that “the concept of individual retribution, and hence individual responsibility, finally enters Jewish thought” (ibid., p. 61). Theologian John Hick (1922 โ€“ 2012) explains this theological shift in the context of the Babylonian exile in his book Death and Eternal Life (p. 70):

So long as the stream of national life continued in full spate… the immortality of the nation did not require an individual immortality… But with the crushing Babylonian conquest… and the exile… faith in continuing national existence was shaken and the individual became more conscious of his own personal status and destiny.

This is when the concept of Divine judgment was introduced into Judaism, and it came about as a response to national insecurity. If we hadn’t been exiled from the Kingdom of Judah, the entire mythology behind the recitation of kaddish and its supposed metaphysical impact upon the souls of our departed might never have developed.

This doctrinal shift leaves me cringing.

* * *

Not only does there exist no indication of Divine judgment beyond the written and spoken words of believers, but the biblical Jewish understanding of death in its national context has been abandoned by us. In the Book of Genesis, our forefathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were simply “gathered to their people.” To my heart, this imagery is achingly beautiful.

I am reminded of a section from a poem by Rav Kook (1865-1935) in the second volume of Orot HaKodesh (Lights of Holiness), which he titled the ‘Fourfold Song’. In it, he explores the theme of universalism vs. particularism and identifies five personality types, each of which “sings a song” expressing its primary mode of empathy. These are the songs of 1) the self, 2) the nation, 3) humanity, 4) the universe, and 5) God. Personally, I relate most closely to the ‘song of the nation’:

ื•ื™ืฉ ืฉื”ื•ื ืฉืจ ืฉื™ืจืช ื”ืื•ืžื”, ื™ื•ืฆื ื”ื•ื ืžืชื•ืš ื”ืžืขื’ืœ ืฉืœ ื ืคืฉื• ื”ืคืจื˜ื™ืช, ืฉืื™ื ื• ืžื•ืฆื ืื•ืชื” ืžืจื•ื—ื‘ืช ื›ืจืื•ื™. ื•ืœื ืžื™ื•ืฉื‘ืช ื™ืฉื•ื‘ ืื™ื“ื™ืืœื™, ืฉื•ืืฃ ืœืžืจื•ืžื™ ืขื–, ื•ื”ื•ื ืžืชื“ื‘ืง ื‘ืื”ื‘ื” ืขื“ื™ื ื” ืขื ื›ืœืœื•ืชื” ืฉืœ ื›ื ืกืช ื™ืฉืจืืœ, ื•ืขืžื” ื”ื•ื ืฉืจ ืืช ืฉื™ืจื™ื”, ืžืฆืจ ื‘ืฆืจื•ืชื™ื”, ื•ืžืฉืชืขืฉืข ื‘ืชืงื•ืชื™ื”, ื”ื•ื’ื” ื“ืขื•ืช ืขืœื™ื•ื ื•ืช ื•ื˜ื”ื•ืจื•ืช ืขืœ ืขื‘ืจื” ื•ืขืœ ืขืชื™ื“ื”, ื•ื—ื•ืงืจ ื‘ืื”ื‘ื” ื•ื‘ื—ื›ืžืช ืœื‘ ืืช ืชื•ื›ืŸ ืจื•ื—ื” ื”ืคื ื™ืžื™ And there is one who sings the song of the nation. He leaves the circle of his own individual self, because he finds it without sufficient breadth, without an idealistic basis. He aspires toward the heights, and he cleaves himself, with a gentle love, to the whole community of Israel. Together with her he sings her songs. He feels grieved in her afflictions and delights in her hopes. He contemplates noble and pure thoughts about her past and her future, and probes with love and wisdom her inner spiritual essence.

* * *

If my father hadn’t died so suddenly, I might never have started this ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ series; the daily surreality of the loss of my Papa remains no less intense for me today than my grief. Some people are given the opportunity to steel themselves, as their loved ones’ bodies deteriorate, but I learned of my father’s hospitalization and death quite unexpectedly, just after Shabbat had ended in Israel.

I take no small solace in the fact that Papa died quickly and painlessly. He had been put under and was lying unconscious when his being became fully depotentiated; Papa was gathered to his ancestors in the mere span of five hours.

When I called my father’s beloved cousins Senya and Bella in Israel during the shiva in New Jersey at my mother’s request, Bella listened intently to my description of Papa’s death, and then she said to me:

I understand. Your father lived and died like an angel.

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 25

Beyond purportedly elevating the soul of one’s departed parent to higher metaphysical planes or possibly demonstrating why one’s parent deserves to be granted a good fate (blog #11), the kaddish, according to the Talmud, also affects God Himself. In Tractate Brachot 3a, we read the following:

ื‘ืฉืขื” ืฉื™ืฉืจืืœ ื ื›ื ืกื™ืŸ ืœื‘ืชื™ ื›ื ืกื™ื•ืช ื•ืœื‘ืชื™ ืžื“ืจืฉื•ืช ื•ืขื•ื ื™ืŸ ื™ื”ื ืฉืžื™ื” ื”ื’ื“ื•ืœ ืžื‘ื•ืจืš ื”ืงื‘”ื” ืžื ืขื ืข ืจืืฉื• ื•ืื•ืžืจ 1) ืืฉืจื™ ื”ืžืœืš ืฉืžืงืœืกื™ืŸ ืื•ืชื• ื‘ื‘ื™ืชื• 2) ื›ืš ืžื” ืœื• ืœืื‘ ืฉื”ื’ืœื” ืืช ื‘ื ื™ื• ื•ืื•ื™ ืœื”ื ืœื‘ื ื™ื ืฉื’ืœื• ืžืขืœ ืฉื•ืœื—ืŸ ืื‘ื™ื”ื Whenever the Israelites go into the synagogues and schoolhouses and respond: ‘May His great name be blessed!’ the Holy One, blessed be He, shakes His head and says: 1) ‘Happy is the king who is thus praised in His house!’ 2) ‘Woe to the father who had to banish his children, and woe to the children who had to be banished from the table of their father!’


Apparently, God reacts to the kaddish. He is both 1) pleased that we honor Him and 2) remorseful at the destruction of our great Temple and our exile. There’s much to be explored in that juxtaposition, but my thoughts are wandering elsewhere.

The Talmud also suggests that those who respond passionately to the recitation of kaddish nullify the Divine decrees against them for the sins they’ve committed (Tractate Shabbat 119b):

ืืจื™ื‘”ืœ ื›ืœ ื”ืขื•ื ื” ืืžืŸ ื™ื”ื ืฉืžื™ื” ืจื‘ื ืžื‘ืจืš ื‘ื›ืœ ื›ื—ื• ืงื•ืจืขื™ืŸ ืœื• ื’ื–ืจ ื“ื™ื ื• ืฉื ืืžืจ (ืฉื•ืคื˜ื™ื ื”) ื‘ืคืจื•ืข ืคืจืขื•ืช ื‘ื™ืฉืจืืœ ื‘ื”ืชื ื“ื‘ ืขื ื‘ืจื›ื• ื” R. Joshua b. Levi said: He who responds, ‘Amen, May His great Name be blessed,’ with all his might, his decreed sentence is torn up, as it is said, “When retribution was annulled in Israel, For that the people offered themselves willingly, ‘Bless ye the Lord'” (Judges 5:2).


The players in the orphan’s kaddish drama are four: 1) the deceased, 2) God, 3) the congregation, and 4) the mourner. So what does kaddish do to the mourner?

On this matter, the texts of Jewish tradition say nothing.

In his chapter of the book Kaddish, Rabbi Avi S. Olitzky reflects (p. 137):

Perhaps distressingly, the Kaddish reciter – the mourner – is the only one for whom the act of reciting Kaddish does not have any intrinsic benefit.

* * *

Rabbi Olitzky offers a response to the challenge he poses, but I am left dissatisfied (ibid.):

The simple, sublime act of getting lost in a sea of ‘responders’ as one of the few ‘reciters’ yields comfort.

Yes… But.

Rabbi, yours is the view of a Jewish leader invested in and committed to encouraging the perpetuation of the religious heritage that he serves. This may be what I should be experiencing in the ideal when reciting kaddish, but it’s contingent upon too many factors to be universally true: personalities-community-inclination-towards-prayer-comfort-with-tradition-state-of-mind-level-of-exhaustion-penchant-for-the-spiritual-degree-of-Jewish-self-identification-preferred-mode-of-self-expression-etc.-etc., etc.

Personally, I do find comfort in my community but mostly beyond the choreography of our rituals. Mine is in the conversations with friends new and old, in gestures of kindness, in proud, shared heritage, and in the candid embrace of our limitations.

Also, mine is in my ‘Skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist’ series. Truth, creativity and introspection are my comforts.

* * *

Ask not what your country tradition can do for you, but what you can do for your country tradition?

When I decided to recite kaddish for my father, I reasoned that this would be my return to shul. I would continue to attend daily services even after my yudaleph chodesh (ื™ืดื ื—ื•ื“ืฉ: blog #24); for the sake of my people, my heritage, my family, my…
Not good enough.

It is this, my blogging project, which truly makes daily shul attendance tolerable. It is the reading, the feeling, the thinking, the learning, the weaving…

Suddenly, I’ve realized: my study and reflection sustain my practice. What shall I do with myself when kaddish has ended? What shall I do with my Judaism?

The question hangs over me:
How shall I continue?

* * *

Suddenly, I’ve realized: I am not okay.

Last week, I almost dropped my Spoken Arabic class at the Polis Institute (my fifth semester). Winter break had ended, and class resumed on Tuesday. That morning, I simply felt that I couldn’t take it. I didn’t want to study Arabic – I wanted to read about kaddish. I wanted to remember my father. I e-mailed my teacher, informing her that I was dropping the course. I did not return to class that Tuesday.

By Thursday, I had received messages of concern from my classmates, and I was moved to return. After all, I reasoned, the semester ends in another two weeks. I can do this.
I can do this.
Withdrawing in unto myself betrays the spirit of kaddish, which must be recited in community.
I can do this.

* * *

Suddenly, I’ve realized: I must only go through this process at my own pace. (Vigilance required!)

I awoke at 6:36 on Friday, after the start of my regular 6:30 minyan at Kehillat Yedidya.
Well, I sighed, at least I can make it to shul for the final kaddishes.
And then the lightning bolt struck: Wait, I don’t have to take anyone to preschool this morning (my wife and daughter just left to visit family in Russia)… I could simply go to a different minyan.
Luxuriously, I got myself dressed, grabbed my tallit and tefilin and walked up the hill to the Shai Agnon synagogue for a 7:00 shacharit. I arrived at shul at 6:58, as the previous minyan was ending.
Does anyone have a แธฅiyuv (an obligation to lead the prayer service, often in memory of one’s parents)? asked the gabbai.
Looking around, I noticed only a single hand in the air – my own – and the gabbai gestured to me. Shit, what have I done? I thought to myself,
Shacharit is the longest service.
The gabbai approached me and whispered, This is a slow minyan – please don’t daven quickly.
I laughed.
Oh, don’t worry, I responded, that won’t be a problem.
Reassured, I led the davening at a comfortable pace, and I got through it. I can do this.
I can do this.