Together, or: Eventually

                                         there
                    you are 

                              stretching upwards and sideways
                                           squirming wriggling everywhere
                                        going 
                 nowhere 

           even the walls are beyond
                            you 
                         are trapped in a narrow cup

        going nowhere
but down down down
                    and out 
                              eventually

                              but
         we do 
have a bit of time together, don't we?
stay with me for Shabbat, won't you?

I hope you won't go out like last time

black wick stuck in the stiff cold wax
suffocated by frozen white bubbles I 
was not at all ready for your absence 

He was supposed to teach her math

I took notice that our 5⅔-year-old was using the word ‘half’ and the word ‘part’ interchangeably and decided that the time had come to set her straight on the matter. She’s quite bright and loves learning new concepts so it wasn’t at all challenging to pique her curiosity. However, she hadn’t yet encountered fractions so, for simplicity’s sake, I suggested that we should consider only the even numbers, which she knows about. On a piece of paper, we wrote down 2, 4, 6, and 8. And then:

2 = _ + _
4 = _ + _
6 = _ + _
8 = _ + _

Unsurprisingly, she caught on quickly. After filling in the blanks together, I drew a circle for each of the four equations: one circle divided into two, one divided into four, and so on. How many slices do we need for half of a circle if there are eight slices? Four! What if there are six slices, like in this circle? Three! And over here, with four slices? Two! Wonderful! Good job! You’ve got it.

I also drew a 5th circle and divided it into two unequal pieces – one noticeably larger than the other. See? Here we have two pieces – but these are not halves. You can say that these are parts of the circle, or sections of the circle, but it would be inaccurate to call them ‘halves’. Do you know why? Because they’re not the same size? Exactly!

At that point, I decided to push the lesson a bit further. After all, she had just recently crossed the threshold from 5½ to 5⅔, right? My intention was to show her that the twelve months of the year (which she knows) could be divided into half (6) and also into thirds (4), thereby explaining why I had just recently started calling her a 5⅔-year-old.

So I began by explaining that we would first write down the number 3, and then add another 3 for the next number, which she said should be 6. And then? 9? Yep. And then? 12! After we’d written those numbers down, I jotted down:

 3 = _ + _ + _
 6 = _ + _ + _
 9 = _ + _ + _
12 = _ + _ + _

At this point, she began to noticeably tune out due to mental exertion. We managed to fill in the equations, but by the time I had drawn four circles (for 3, 6, 9, and 12) and divided them into the corresponding numbers of slices, I realized that I was pretty much doing the math exercise on my own. Then, even when I attempted to close out the activity by reinforcing that two 1’s gives us 2, whereas three 1’s give us 3, meaning that 1 is both ½ of 2 and ⅓ of 3, her mind had already wandered, and she was off to another activity.

I’m pretty sure that she still doesn’t understand what one-third is.

* * *

I enjoy speaking, writing, reading, typing, watching movies, and playing various word and story games with my daughter. We are raising a trilingual child, and I am both fascinated by and very proud of her language development. It’s incredibly rewarding for me to know that I am shaping her development and giving her an invaluable gift in this way. Never before have I been so invested in any project.

As it happens, I have an engineering degree, but most of what I learned back in college has long since faded from my memory banks for lack of any application. To the extent that I am good at math, it’s almost entirely due to the comfort with numbers that Papa inculcated in me from a very young age, and, of course, I wasn’t the only son who benefited from his tutelage. My brother, not long after Papa died, reflected upon his appreciation that Papa had been around to help him with his university math studies, which led him to receive a minor in mathematics.

My wife and I can both teach our daughter essential math skills, and I can even pass down many of the same math tricks that Papa once taught me, but… math isn’t enjoyable for me and it doesn’t come naturally. I’d rather be teaching her to write poetry. I’d rather be… I’d rather be… teaching her about mythical creatures of legends native to various world cultures. Perhaps some of those same colorful, magical creatures were good at mathematics themselves, but it has never excited me.

* * *

Not so long ago, on the 2nd anniversary of Papa’s death, I lit a 24 hour memorial candle in his memory. Lighting such a yahrzeit candle is a universal Jewish custom but not a requirement of religious law. Many people also light yahrzeit candles on those Jewish holidays when we traditionally recite the Yizkor prayer for our deceased loved ones, including Yom Kippur and Shemini Atzeret, both of which we celebrated just recently. I did not attend communal prayer services at shul for the holidays (COVID-19 is my excuse), and so I did not recite the Yizkor prayer, but I did light candles on all of the holidays… even including the recent holiday of Sukkot, which has no associated memorial prayers for the dead.

I’ve been attracted to candles and to fire for longer than I remember, but I never made a point of lighting them until the time came to commemorate my Papa, and, unexpectedly, I found it comforting.

Now, I don’t put much stock in belief in the supernatural. I believe that it is possible (and even likely) that some supernatural, omnipotent Force exists that created everything… but that’s about the extent of it. If somebody somehow proved that such a Force doesn’t exist (which I don’t believe to be possible), this wouldn’t be particularly disconcerting to me. It’s okay with me if God’s existence is disproven because I don’t believe that God or any other supernatural Force actually cares about us.

Still, the candle flame does excite my imagination in how it licks at the air around it. It’s soothing to imagine my Papa’s neshamah flickering in its flame, and I’m hardly the first human being to relate emotionally to fire as a living thing. In fact, as I now write about this, I find myself stirred to write some poetry about it… perhaps I’ll do that later. [addendum: here’s the poem I wrote later]

And so I’ve taken it upon myself to light a yahrzeit candle for Papa every Friday evening before Shabbat starts. For me, this has nothing to do with religious obligation, nor anything to do with faith. Rather, it’s simply comforting. It feels nice to spend a minute focused on remembering Papa. It feels nice to wake up on Saturday morning and see his candle still burning.

Of course, if I continue lighting a candle every week, I suppose I’ll have to come up with something else to do for Papa’s yahrzeit… but, unlike math, imagination has always been my strong suit.

More skeptic than kaddish

During my first year of mourning, as I recited the kaddish on a daily basis, exploring and reflecting upon this famous Jewish doxology, I had neither the time nor the bandwidth to do justice in my writings to all that I was learning and pondering.

Among the many tidbits that I omitted was the following: traditionally, parents would refer to their sons as ‘my kaddish’, which is to say that the son himself was his parents’ kaddish by virtue of the fact that he was expected to take the responsibility of reciting the mourner’s kaddish for his mother and father upon their deaths, thereby redeeming and/or elevating their souls. In fact, this use of the word ‘kaddish’ is still mainstream in the most religiously conservative Jewish communities today. I am Papa’s kaddish, and I am Mama’s kaddish.

I wanted to recite the kaddish for Papa every day that first year, as is traditionally expected of a bereaved son, but I truly didn’t know if I could make it through an entire year of daily prayer services because I didn’t believe in any of the mythological explanations behind this ancient tradition. Blogging the ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ series that year generated the fuel I needed.

Somewhat paradoxically, it also reinforced my religious skepticism.

* * *

When I first met Orthodox Jews as a student in college, I would hear them express the following: “I’m not Orthodox. I’m just Jewish.” Here’s what they meant by this:

“There are no Jewish religious denominations because there is only one authentic version of Judaism, defined by the Torah and the mitzvot (Divine commandments). Reform Judaism, Conservative Judaism, and even Orthodox Judaism are meaningless concepts. All that matters is God’s will, handed down to us by an unbroken tradition going all the way back to the Torah that Moses received from God on Mount Sinai, and I am a follower of that tradition.”

Today, more than two decades later, I would also say: “I’m not Orthodox. I’m just Jewish” – but I mean something quite different by this.

I present as a Zionist, Orthodox, Israeli Jew. If you were to meet me, you would see a bearded male with a kippah on his head and sandals on his feet. Further, my family keeps a kosher kitchen, and we keep the Sabbath in a traditional way. BUT: I don’t believe that God commanded us to do any of these things, and I may well perform actions that I know are against halakhah (Jewish law) in private.

Contrary to mainstream Orthodox Jewish thought, I recognize the validity of all Jewish denominations as expressions of many people’s Jewish identities. BUT: None of them are home to me. All are institutions, networks of institutions, or umbrellas of institutional networks. They all have in-groups and out-groups. They all espouse some ideas that I accept, and they all espouse other ideas that I flatly reject. I trust none of them.

But I will always remain a Jew.

* * *

It was empowering to honor Papa’s memory by reciting kaddish daily for a year, as Jewish tradition demands. However, it was more empowering to do so with integrity.

Since I’m ‘socially Orthodox’, so to speak, which means that I look like an Orthodox Jew, can go through the motions of Orthodox daily life well enough to ‘pass’ as Orthodox, and prefer Orthodox prayer services, one of the most difficult things about publishing my ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ series in a public forum was coming out to the world (and more importantly: to everyone who knows me) as a somebody who doesn’t buy into the doctrine maintained by his religious community.

Unexpectedly, the acceptance and support that I received from friends and role models in my community that year made a profoundly positive impact upon me. People whom I think highly of as humans and Jewish leaders gave me respect for my kaddish project, validating me. Not one suggested that my beliefs were unreasonable or wrong. Rather, they engaged me in conversations, relating to my views as a legitimate side to the ‘conversation’.

Over time, I increasingly came to feel that my voice was truly valid – that I had something worthwhile to contribute to our people’s conversation about our shared heritage. My confidence grew, and so too did my self-identification with religious skepticism. I did not, by any stretch of the imagination, become more of a believer over that course of that year. If anything, I only came to feel more strongly about my lack of conviction in the fulfillment of God’s will and in the likelihood of His involvement in our lives.

I certainly wasn’t reciting kaddish for God, and I wasn’t even reciting kaddish for Papa, who wouldn’t have cared about this mourning tradition in the slightest. I was doing it for myself – and that is the only reason that Papa would have wanted me to do so.

* * *

Papa’s first yahrzeit (Hebrew anniversary of his death) brought my first year of mourning to a close. Experientially, this felt like the true end of my year-long kaddish journey, and I was determined to mark it at shul with the community that had made space for my kaddish all that year. Also, by sheer coincidence, his first yahrzeit fell out on the Sabbath, which is the day when shul-goers traditionally sponsor and partake in communal kiddush after Saturday morning services.

I continued going to shul for some months after that, but once the rainy season began (i.e. the Israeli winter), my motivation to walk to shul every morning through the dark and the rain decreased dramatically, and I stopped. As I would have expected, my personal prayer practice also fell apart in the absence of my shul attendance.

My intention was to return to shul in the spring, but then COVID-19 broke out, and that never happened due to the nationwide lockdown. Even after the lockdown ended, prayer services were restricted to the patio outside, prayer-goers had to sit far apart from one another with masks on over their faces, and our weekly kiddushes were cancelled indefinitely. Self-centered person that I am, I didn’t want to bear any of these personal discomforts for the sake of community, and I continued to stay home.

Over the course of the past month, several members of our Saturday morning minyan, including myself, hosted kiddushes in honor of their departed parents in the park next to the synagogue, and I attended prayer services on those dates before joining these social gatherings. Otherwise, I’ve continued staying at home and my shul attendance has remained practically non-existent.

In the spirit of honesty, I must share that it didn’t take much to dissuade me from waking up early in the mornings in order to spend an hour on walking back and forth to shul and praying there with my community. If one doesn’t believe that God commanded him to act a particular way, it becomes difficult to find alternative motivations that are sufficiently compelling in the long-run, or so I find.

* * *

The candle that we lit for Papa’s yahrzeit

And… so… while I hosted a kiddush in Papa’s memory two Saturdays ago (July 11th), the actual date of the yahrzeit fell out on July 16th, which was last Thursday. I’d known this for some time, and I’d thought I would make my way to shul that morning in order to recite kaddish in his honor. This is traditionally done, for once the first year of mourning has ended, one only recites the mourner’s kaddish in honor of his loved once annually, on their yahrzeits.

On Wednesday evening, as we’d planned, the three of us went out to a local café for dinner and dessert. We deliberately picked one that our daughter enjoys because her Dedushka Shurik (my Papa) would have wanted us to enjoy ourselves – of this I am certain. When we returned home, just before sunset, we lit a yahrzeit candle in his memory, and we very deliberately spoke of our love for Papa and his love for us so that our daughter would understand the significance of the day and of preserving our memories of Papa.

That night, I was writing poetry late at night, and I realized that I was extremely tired. The idea of waking up very early in order to drag myself to shul felt more than unappealing to me. I weighed my options: A) wake up early and go to shul to recite kaddish, or B) wake up at a more reasonable hour and forgo the annual kaddish recitation.

I chose not to go to shul.

* * *

I have justifications, but by the standards of the mainstream Orthodox Jewish community, they are all inadequate. I did not honor my Papa publicly in my community on the anniversary of his death, as sons have traditionally done for their deceased parents for hundreds of years, as I could have despite the COVID-19 restrictions. Now, I will only have the opportunity to recite kaddish for Papa next year – on his next yahrzeit.

But… I don’t feel too bad about it. I feel sad, but I’m honestly not sure if I’m simply sad because two years have already passed since Papa’s death, or if I’m additionally sad that I didn’t recite kaddish for him this year. It’s hard for me to tell.

Papa certainly wouldn’t have cared about me reciting kaddish for him on his yahrzeit. If anything, as I’ve said, he would have appreciated the idea of his loved ones enjoying themselves in his memory. He may have even empathized with the inclination to light a candle in memory of a loved one (even though he would never have done so himself).

Also, I really don’t feel religiously obligated to recite kaddish because I don’t feel any religious obligation. As traditional as I am, almost nothing I do is for the sake of God or done because I think He expects it of me or cares about my actions.

So – without any premeditation – I marked Papa’s 2nd yahrzeit much like a secular Jew might… and while I’m not yet sure how I’ll feel myself inclined to mark Papa’s future yahrzeits, I know that he would, first and foremost, want me to do whatever I personally find most meaningful. He would agree with the obvious: all of our mourning practices are intended to bring comfort to the living.

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, 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.