Artists want to hear that…

No matter how short the presentation, how fragmentary the excerpt, or how early the stage of development, artists want to hear that what they have just completed has significance to another human being. This natural condition can be so intense at times as to appear desperate.

– Liz Lerman & John Borstel, ‘Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process’, page 19

Hey, look at me! I’m honoring Papa!

My second annual kiddush on Shabbat in memory of Papa was a success. Our early morning prayer community isn’t very big (because not a lot of people like waking up so early on Saturdays), and therefore our kiddushes are intimate affairs of twenty to thirty people. By those metrics, the attendance on Saturday was great. Some friends even showed up who had been unable to attend services beforehand, as did my rabbi.

In fact, I could tell that many of our kiddush regulars BCE (Before COVID-19 Era) were very happy to show up and enjoy the camaraderie with their friends. This is the way it used to be every week; this is the way it should be; this is the way we want it to be – now I know for certain that it’s not just me.

* * *

Papa, as I’ve written and said many a time before, did not stand on ceremony, nor need it. He wouldn’t have expected me, nor wanted me to host an annual kiddush in his honor, and I can’t truly claim that I did it for him – it was really for myself. At the event, I said as much, and I added that none of our traditions or rituals are necessary for us to be good people – that may be one of the truest lessons that I learned from both of my parents.

Sometimes, I can’t help but feel that all of my writing, my hosting of kiddushes, and my bringing attention to how I continue to honor Papa are largely to make myself look good in the eyes of others. On the other hand, A) that’s not my only motivation, B) I don’t know how else to memorialize him, and C) doing these things keeps me from slipping into a dark depression.

* * *

Yesterday I went out and purchased a memorial candle holder for Papa’s yahrzeit, which will be from Wednesday night to Thursday night this week.

Mama gave me the idea because she’d found a candle holder online made by the same artist. Hers is wooden and hand painted with an image of Jerusalem, which, for all of us, is a reminder of Papa’s great love for this holy city.

My candle holder is blue, which was Papa’s favorite color, as he once informed my daughter, and it’s made of metal – a different medium. I like the metal, unpainted pieces more than the wooden art, but that’s just a matter of taste.

This coming Wednesday evening, we will light the candle, and we’re thinking of going out to a local café for dinner and dessert. I want to do something that my daughter will remember, and this would be the first time that the three of us have gone out together since the COVID-19 pandemic first exploded back in March. Also, I think that Papa would be happy to know that we’re doing something fun together in his memory.

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, 31

Does the traditional recitation of kaddish do honor to the non-believer?

I don’t see why not, but there are those for whom this is a sticking point. Writer and poet Aurora Levins Morales was uncomfortable with the notion of reciting the traditional kaddish for her atheist father; she instead wrote a personal version of it to honor him (from her website):

My father… was an atheist, and I couldn’t bring myself to say a traditional kaddish for him, but he did believe in forces greater than himself, and I decided to write my own kaddish celebrating his faith in their endurance and hopefulness.

Rabbi Marjorie Berman faced a similar conundrum when her anti-religious mother passed away, and while she didn’t rewrite the kaddish itself, she took a non-traditional approach to its recitation (from ‘Ritual Well’ blog):

It didn’t feel right to join a daily minyan … my mother was anti-religious. I decided the best way to remember her was to take a daily morning walk with a friend and say kaddish by the water in a beautiful and wild park…

At first, I too was struck by the incongruity of honoring my father this way.

He was an atheist… He had not recited kaddish for his father or mother because it wasn’t something that held meaning for him, and I don’t think he would particularly want me to recite it for him.

– Me, Blog #1

Nevertheless, I happen to be inclined towards tradition (partially for lack of imagination). This sentiment resonates:

The kaddish is my good fortune. It looks after the externalities, and so it saves me from the task of improvising the rituals of my bereavement, which is a lot to ask.

– Leon Wieseltier, Kaddish, p. 39

My father may not have held a traditional belief in God, and he may not have been religiously oriented, but he held the Jewish heritage in high regard (blog # 10). He would have wanted to be buried according to Orthodox customs, just as he was; he would have respected my decision to recite the mourner’s kaddish for him in a traditional way.

Those of us who opt for the traditional approach are no less empowered to personalize our kaddish experiences. Jewish educator Nili Isenberg put the words of kaddish to the tune of Adele’s song ‘Hello’ (see the video above) while reciting kaddish for her father; artist Max Miller made a painting of every synagogue in which he recited kaddish (maxmillerstudio.com) in his father’s memory; and I have my blog.

Reflecting upon this now, I realize that my father’s religious beliefs and practices have only barely and almost imperceptibly shaped the contours my kaddish journey. This series should more aptly be called ‘The skeptic’s kaddish for his loving father’.

* * *

I happen to be inclined towards tradition.

Most of Jewish mourning practice is custom, rather than halakha. The recitation of the mourner’s kaddish is a widely held custom, not unlike reciting Psalms at the unveiling of the tombstone, usually including segments of Psalm 119.

Psalm 119 is unique among the Psalms in its length, for it contains eight verses corresponding to each of the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet – a total of 176 verses. In the Talmud, Tractate Brachot 4b, this Psalm is referred to as the eight-faceted Psalm (תמניא אפין), and thematically it describes the Psalmist’s striving to live according to the Torah of God. Rabbi David Kimhi (RaDaK, 1160–1235) points out that every single verse contains one of eleven words that refer to Torah:

בכל פסוק ופסוק יש בו 1) דרך, או 2) תורה, או 3) עדות, או 4) פקודים, או 5) מצוה, או 6) אמירה, או 7) דבור, או 8) משפט, או 9) צדק, או 10) אמונה, או 11) חוקים, ואלא המילות הם חלקי כל התורה Every single verse contains [one of the following]: 1) derekh, or 2) Torah, or 3) eidot, or 4) pekudim, or 5) mitzvah, or 6) amirah, or 7) dibur, or 8) mishpat, or 9) tzedek, or 10) emunah, or 11) hukim, and these are the words that [together] are [all] the parts of the entire Torah.

Stop.
I’m getting carried away already.
(texts do that to me)

Why am I doing this?

* * *

Before delving further, I must articulate a truth: I have never found the recitation of Psalms meaningful.

Most individual psalms involve the praise of God—for his power and beneficence, for his creation of the world, and for his past acts of deliverance for Israel. The psalms envision a world in which everyone and everything will praise God, and God in turn will hear their prayers and respond.

Wikipedia

I praise God very sparingly and with sincerity only in my own words. I tell God that I doubt His existence more often than I make requests of Him. I find the faith-oriented language of the Psalms unrelatable in both form and content, and I find their rote recitation mindless under the best of circumstances. I am not in possession of simple faith.

In Jewish tradition, however, the Psalms are a big deal. Rabbi Levi Cooper, a former teacher of mine, wrote (Jerusalem Post):

Rabbi Avraham David Wahrman of Buczacz (1771-1840)… cited the Midrash which describes King David as requesting from the Almighty that his Psalms be granted unique status… Psalms should be read and pondered. Moreover, readers of Psalms should receive reward as if they were studying difficult passages of the Oral Law(Midrash Shoher Tov 1:8).

Rabbi Cooper suggests we ponder the Psalms. This, at least, is a step up from mouthing their syllables endlessly, brow furrowed; torso swaying; hands clenching on bus rides.

Psalms will be recited at the unveiling of my father’s tombstone, and I have an opportunity to prepare myself accordingly. I am indeed inclined towards tradition, but disinclined towards ceding my mental and spiritual faculties to its champions. I am skeptical of God’s good nature and concern for His creations, but I am mistrustful too of my narrow, human inclinations.

Some say this is what we do. I say no; this is what we’ve been doing. We’ve been reciting Psalm 119 to honor our loved ones by selecting from it those verses that correspond to their names. My father was א-ל-כ-ס-נ-ד-ר (Alexander), comprised of seven Hebrew letters, each of which is represented by eight verses.

I will turn to our tradition for wisdom; and then I will respond.

* * *

Radak’s 11 keywords for Psalm 119

Before tackling the first eight verses of Psalm 119 that correspond to the letter א (alef*), let’s get back to Radak and the eleven keywords of this particular Psalm. This will be instructive to our learning, as we make our way through the verses.

*A side note:
Alef means to learn/ study/ train/ teach, according to the Talmud in Tractate Shabbat 104a; therefore א-ל-פ (a-l-f) is the root of the word אולפן (ulpan), which is an institute or program for the intensive study of Hebrew.

Radak explicates each of the eleven terms as follows (translations mine):

Torah means ‘the attribute of the mitzvah, [which focuses on] how it is performed’. Derekh means ‘the improvement of [your] character traits’. Hukim are ‘the mitzvot whose reason[s] have not been revealed’. Mitzvot are ‘those of which it is [explicitly] stated [in the Torah] that these are commandments’. Mishpatim are ‘the laws between man and his fellow [man]’. Eidot are ‘the mitzvot that [serve as] testimony and memory’ [of the revelation of Torah and God’s supremacy]. Pikudim are ‘the mitzvot instructed by common sense, which are [naturally] stored and archived in man’s heart’. Tzedek is ‘the justification of the mitzvot, for they were uttered in righteousness’. Dibur and Amirah are ‘[the verbal expression] basic to all mitzvot; and dibur and amirah are also reminder[s] of the promise, which God promised’. Emunah is ‘the fulfillment of God’s word[s] at the Creation of the World’.

Precision and systematization are the names of the game.

* * *

ר

ד

נ

ס

כ

ל

א

ה

ש

מ

ן

ב

ה

מ

ש

נ

PSALM 119:א (verses 1-8)

[CLICK for glossary]

א אַשְׁרֵי תְמִימֵי-דָרֶךְ– הַהֹלְכִים, בְּתוֹרַת יְהוָה 1 Happy are they that are upright in the derekh; who walk in the Torah of God.
ב אַשְׁרֵי, נֹצְרֵי עֵדֹתָיו; בְּכָל-לֵב יִדְרְשׁוּהוּ 2 Happy are they that keep His eidot; that seek Him with the whole heart.
ג אַף, לֹא-פָעֲלוּ עַוְלָה; בִּדְרָכָיו הָלָכוּ 3 Yea, they do no unrighteousness; they walk in His drakhim (plural).
ד אַתָּה, צִוִּיתָה פִקֻּדֶיךָ– לִשְׁמֹר מְאֹד 4 Thou hast ordained Thy pikudim that we should observe them diligently.
ה אַחֲלַי, יִכֹּנוּ דְרָכָי– לִשְׁמֹר חֻקֶּיךָ 5 My wishes are that my drakhim (plural) were directed to observe Thy hukim!
ו אָז לֹא-אֵבוֹשׁ– בְּהַבִּיטִי, אֶל-כָּל-מִצְוֺתֶיךָ 6 Then I shall not be ashamed, when I have regard unto all Thy mitzvot.
ז אוֹדְךָ, בְּיֹשֶׁר לֵבָב– בְּלָמְדִי, מִשְׁפְּטֵי צִדְקֶךָ 7 I will give thanks unto Thee with uprightness of heart, when I learn Thy misphatei tzedek.
ח אֶת-חֻקֶּיךָ אֶשְׁמֹר; אַל-תַּעַזְבֵנִי עַד-מְאֹד 8 I will observe Thy hukim; O forsake me not utterly.

It’s a happy coincidence that my father’s name begins with alef. I’ll be jumping around from stanza to stanza, based upon the letters of the name אלכסנדר, but the beginning is a fortuitous place to start – particularly with a Bible chapter of such daunting length. Wikipedia points out that “the grounds for the [Psalm] are established in the first two stanzas (alef and beth): the Torah is held up as a source of blessing and right conduct, and the psalmist pledges to dedicate himself to the law.”

There are three aspects to this first stanza that draw my thoughts.

The first thing I notice, given the glossary of eleven keywords that Radak provided us, is that the word derekh (or its plural) occurs thrice in this stanza, and the word hukim occurs twice. Verse 5 serves as a transition between the initial emphasis on derekh in verses 1, 3, and 5 to the later use of hukim in verses 5 and 8.

The first two occurrences of derekh are references to ‘ways of God’, whereas the third instance (verse 5) refers to the psalmist’s own human ways. These ‘ways of man’ are explicitly portrayed as lacking natural relationship to hukim (in the same verse), which are those Divine commandments that confound all human reason.

My second realization is that there exists another shift between verses 3 and 4, in the manner of how the psalmist is referring to God. In the first three verses, God is referred to in the third person, but verses 4-8 appeal to Him personally. This transition precedes the transition between derekh and hukim by just one verse.

It is as though the human can only bring himself to truly accept the incomprehensible hukim by way of personal relationship with God. Still, in verse 8 the psalmist promises to abide by the hukim regardless, in hope that he will not be forsaken.

Thirdly, the word אֵבוֹשׁ (I will be ashamed) in verse 6 immediately recalls for me the thirteenth benediction of the Amidah’s (the core of the prayer service’s) nineteen benedictions, which we recite thrice daily. That benediction, which refers to the righteous among us, reminds me of my Papa (blog #28), as I have written.

The Amidah requests that God ‘cast our lot with the righteous ones, and we will never be ashamed, for we trust in You’, whereas in Psalm 119 the author puts the burden upon his own shoulders: man will only cease to be ashamed once he has directed his ‘human ways’ to observe God’s impenetrable demands.

The relationship between shame and faith in God is not clear to me. Are we to be ashamed for doubting God or for something else? And how would devotion to God assuage our human shame? If a person of true faith were to sin, wouldn’t his shame be all the greater for his faith? And isn’t the pious man with no shame potentially a great danger?

Papa was righteous and pure of heart without having drawn inspiration from the Book of Psalms, and his personal ‘way’ was to be repelled by lack of reason. I am proudest of my parents for their authentic decency, and -even more so- for their integrity.