One death at a time, please

Should I have recited kaddish for Babushka?

Babushka Masha z”l

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

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

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

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


Nobody else would have done it

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

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

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

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


I did not want to do it

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

… Actually…
That not quite true.

The truth?

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


Why didn’t I want to?

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

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

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

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

That year, I wanted to focus exclusively on Papa.


A discrete year of mourning

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

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

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

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

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


Still, I wanted a way to mourn for Babushka

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

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

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

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

But I knew I was lying.

My lack of reverence

I used to have reverence for rabbis, but I barely remember it.

Last night I was at a wonderful rooftop get-together for a friend of mine (‘C5’) who just recently made Aliyah (repatriated to Israel as a Jew). It was lovely, particularly for me because I’ve been spending a lot of time with my daughter recently and needed some space. Chips, beer, and engaging conversation reenergized me.

This friend was a member of my Talmud class last year, as was another friend (‘A5’) who attended the celebration. Both of these friends plan to continue studying Talmud under the young rabbi this coming year, unlike me. They’re both very religious and religiously-oriented… and SO [damned] respectful.

My young rabbi friend (our Talmud teacher) joined us on the roof later in the evening, and suddenly my friends’ and another young woman’s tones changed.

Should I cover my shoulders? I didn’t know that you had invited a rabbi.
Is it okay that we’re drinking?
Oh no… do you think he’ll be offended that I’m wearing pants tonight? I left my skirt at home!

I was startled. Really? He’s our age – a really cool guy and a friend of ours. Don’t worry about it guys, seriously!

Then, seemingly somewhat inebriated, ‘C5’ asked the young rabbi some serious questions about sexuality vis-à-vis rabbinic sensibilities and proceeded to share a brief reflection of his regarding his appreciation for the depths of the young rabbi’s humanity, open-mindedness, and inspirational teachings. ‘A5’, who was sober, also shared some very personal thoughts and nodded in agreement to ‘C5’s words. It was sweet and unexpected.

* * *

There was a time, certainly less than ten years ago, when I would turn humbly to rabbis for direction – a time when I specifically desired to hear learned rabbinic perspectives – a time when the words of Torah scholars carried more weight than those of the laity – a time when I was apprehensive of their answers but yearned for their affirmations.

And now that is all gone. No reverence remains in me.

I barely believe in a God who cares about my actions. Barely, barely, barely, if at all. I barely believe that rabbis are any wiser about the nuances of human nature than other learned, experienced people. Barely, barely, barely, if at all. I barely believe that there is anything worth believing in that we cannot perceive in our daily, earthly lives. Barely, barely, barely, if at all. I barely believe in anything.

And while there are many reasons that I’ve decided not to continue with the young rabbi’s Talmud class, one reason is that I am repelled by various faith statements that I heard in the shiur. It’s nice that other people believe, truly, but one may keep it to one’s self unless somebody engages them in a conversation about religious beliefs.

I believe that reciting the Book of Psalms does nothing at all for your mother-in-law’s health; sharing your dubious religious convictions alienates me. Further, I don’t want blessings on my behalf after we’ve eaten cookies. I don’t want traditional statements of intent on my behalf before we engage in Talmud study. It’s all sheer bunk, I maintain, and believing in it doesn’t imbue one with holiness, wisdom, righteousness, or truth; and- such nonsense only distracts me from serious Torah study.

I do respect the young rabbi greatly – as much as I would any other seriously committed and capable professional in any line of work. Also, I consider him a close friend, greatly enjoy spending time with him, and would go out of my way for him without a moment’s hesitancy. But. I don’t revere him. And. I don’t revere what he stands for.

Also, I must add that I have studied Talmud with a number of learned and amazing instructors… and no theological assertions were ever woven into any of my previous classes. They are, at minimum, not necessary.

* * *

Next year I will instead be taking a class on theology with Rabbi Daniel Landes. I rather enjoy discussions about God and the supernatural when I deliberately choose to engage in them – and when there is room for me to inject my doubts and reservations into our classroom discussions.

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.

Because God

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?

‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ (#25), Jan. 12, 2019

Not long after completing my year of mourning, I joined a Talmud class taught by a friend of mine, a young rabbi.

At first, I felt reignited. Years had passed since I’d last studied Talmud, and my year-long kaddish writing project, which had been firmly grounded in Jewish learning, had whetted my yen.

Soon after, I was struggling.

After my year of self-directed reading and reflection, the group learning felt inhibiting.

I tend to pick apart the letters and roots of words, to compare them to other languages and time periods; I also delight in grammar and sentence structure. The words and their personal relationships are beautiful to me. Which of them are intimate lovers? Which are parent and child?

Beyond this, I’m not one to inherently accept the ancient sages’ interpretations of the text, and they are often wont to make their cases precisely by playing with words and language. (I still recall my disagreement with the great Rashi over his language-based interpretation of Psalm 119:113.)

It soon became apparent that our group’s goals conflicted with my learning style. The rabbi was aiming to cover particular Talmudic passages (known as sugyot) during class time, and my nitpicking was impeding us.

Now, there are those for whom the holiness they experience in the study of traditional texts is motivating. Given my close relationship with Rabbi Daniel Landes, for example, himself a teacher of Talmud for nearly half a century, I know that he experiences the (self-)revelation of and by God bursting forth from the Torah. This, he explains, is how he teaches his students.

If revelation is not bursting forth from the Torah, he asks, why bother?

Why indeed? I ask myself because the truth is that I do not experience God in Talmud study. Perhaps I do not experience God at all, and certainly not bursting forth from anywhere.

There were times in years past when I managed to convince myself that I was “experiencing” God, but those moments were very few and were primarily born of my desire to motivate myself to adhere to the strictures of a religious Jewish lifestyle. That’s really what it came down to.

Some people, at birth, are dealt external factors like religious upbringings and parental expectations, drawing them to religious observance. For others, like me, every step towards greater observance of halakha is inevitably another step away from even the most understanding of non-traditional families.

Nevertheless, I am motivated, to an extent, to observe Shabbat traditionally, to live in Israel, to engage with Jewish texts, etc. I regard world Jewry as my far-extended family; and preserving our heritage and sense of peoplehood is, therefore, of utmost importance. Given, there are many different strategies for instilling children with strong Jewish identities; but I am convinced that a family’s commitments to Shabbat observance and residing in Israel are the most effective.

The problem, of course, is that most strategies arising from such a motivation as mine are prone to falling apart because they don’t necessarily infuse religious practices with meaning. In other words, going through the motions only because they happen to belong to one’s own people rings hollow. Why, as Rabbi Landes would ask, bother?

Let’s consider Shabbat, for example. If I am only keeping the Sabbath to inculcate my daughter with the values of Jewish tradition, family time, and [invaluable] weekly respite from our daily commutes along the information superhighway, what’s to stop me from breaking the Sabbath when she isn’t looking? After all, my personal desecration of Shabbat could be subtle; it could go unnoticed, leaving my daughter’s experience of the ‘Day of Rest’ intact.

Text study is much worse.

Whereas most religious observances are performed in family or community, and a simple Jew may find or assign plausible personal meanings to such lifestyle choices in these contexts, traditional text study is only inherently appealing to the devout and the bookish.

Actually, this is untrue. Most students of Talmud sit in seas of other talmidim, awash in a self-reinforcing Torah culture, buttressed by the talmidim’s families and communities. They need not actually reflect upon what they believe in or be inclined towards study; it’s enough for most to “know” that they are playing out their heavenly assigned roles in perpetuating the culture of their ancestors.

So my quandary bears framing:

Given that neither my family, nor my community, encourage me to learn Torah, and given that I do not experience God bursting forth from the texts of my beloved heritage…

In fact, given that I don’t think God actually cares whether or not I am studying Torah, and given that I don’t think God is in any way invested in the banal details of the Jewish religious laws that I am studying under my friend’s kind and knowing guidance…

What
is
left
for
me?

I don’t wish that I believed in God’s investment in our lives for Truth’s sake (because this isn’t true), but it would certainly make my commitment to living a religious lifestyle so much easier for me. Alas.

“Because God” is the most unarguable, compelling rejoinder – it’s no wonder that religious Jewish communities and their leaderships are so invested in perpetuating this ancient axiom,
but my heart rejects it,
and it’s not for lack of trying.

I’m 40 now. There are people in our learning group who are younger than I am and seem enthusiastic towards and energized by Talmud study. They remind me of myself when I was in my mid- to late twenties and early thirties… back when I was occasionally able to convince myself that I was experiencing God for a moment.

For me, the dry, technical details in the text are just that – dry and technical. All too rapidly, they dissolve upon the roof of my mouth like communion wafers. Now, that’s not to say that they have a bit of the devil in them,
but they don’t contain God either.

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, 42

Eleven months of kaddish recitations end for me on May 28 (Iyyar 23); I have been at the grind for ten months (10 ÷ 11 ≈ 91%). The grief is unabating. I remain shattered and scattered.

Last summer, I couldn’t bring myself to pour my endless despair out upon anyone. Having returned home to Jerusalem in July from sitting shiva in America, I instinctively reached out to my rabbi, but…

“May I see you? I am back,” in mid-July I e-mailed Rabbi Landes.
“Sure, when?” he responded two minutes later.
Suddenly, the simplest of questions had no answer.
When?
All the time.
The following morning I wrote again:

I actually don’t quite know – I really want to see you, but I think I need a few more days to get back into my routine and begin to deal with work and parenthood again.
I’ve been going to minyan to say kaddish – that’s a big change for me. I’ll be in touch with you again – thank you for everything.

Three weeks went by.

I published my first blog post thirty days after burying Papa.

Unexpectedly, I felt something click other than my mouse button. Ten days later I published #2, drawn to the modest refuge I’d found before in the craggy crannies between words and letters.

* * *

This Pesach I had too much time with my thoughts, and darkness wormed in through the defenses of my flimsy redoubt. Actually, the walls had already started to crack at least one week earlier, during a Virtual Mourner’s Kaddish (VMK) call, a project initiated by Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie.

During our family’s holiday break last week, I was talking to my wife about the perpetual sense of isolation I experience among non-mourners and the unanticipated, visceral relief of that one VMK call. Our four-year-old daughter was trying to follow our conversation and inquired as to what we were talking about.

“Abba’chka is saying that he misses Dedushka Shurik very much.”
“Why?”
(she asks this about everything)
“Because he is my father and your grandfather; and I love him; but we’ll never see him again.”
“I know that;” she responded knowingly, “but he’ll always be in your heart.” (she’d absorbed this insight from her Mama’s font of wisdom)

* * *

VMK – context, concept

Renowned Israeli diplomat and holocaust survivor Naphtali Lau-Lavie (1926-2014) left behind two sons, both rabbis. Rabbi Benny Lau (b. 1961), the older son, is an Orthodox rabbi and community leader in Jerusalem. Upon completing his kaddish odyssey in honor of their father, Rav Lau wrote and recited an original prayer to mark the end of his journey (blog #20). A newly fashioned prayer in the religiously circumspect world of Orthodoxy is no small thing, yet his words continue to flow from mourners’ lips.

Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie (b. 1969), the younger brother, inhabits a Jewish society in the USA much different than that of his Israeli Orthodox family. Ordained as a Conservative rabbi, he had been a creative, non-Orthodox spiritual leader long before then; and he continues to operate beyond the bounds of denominationalism. Upon the death of their father, Rav Lau-Lavie initiated the weekly VMK conference call, and to this day, he or a staff person is on the phone every single week to support an intentional, international community of Jewish mourners.

My own kaddish journey led me first to Rav Benny’s original mourning prayer and eventually, perhaps inevitably, to Rav Amichai’s boundaryless VMK.

* * *

VMK – experience, expression

It wasn’t until February that I discovered the VMK by way of my endless kaddish excavations, and it wasn’t until mid-April that I was able to join the weekly conference call (every Thursday at 12:00 PM EST).

I dialed the phone number a couple of minutes before schedule and waited. Silence. Then the beeps began. A woman’s voice came on. “Hello, this is Shira from Lab/Shul. Welcome to the VMK call. Could each of you introduce yourself and say where you’re calling from?”

The names are rather a blur, but callers seemed to be phoning in from Canada and throughout the USA. “I’m from Jerusalem,” I said. “Wow,” she responded, “what’s the weather like?” Upon hearing my response, a gentleman in Toronto shared, “It’s snowing here;” and I laughed aloud at the contrast.

Pent up energy brought me to my feet, and I paced the hallway as I listened. Somebody else introduced himself and explained, “I’m not in mourning right now, but I’m calling to help make minyan for kaddish.” A lump rose to my throat and I noticed my mouth twisting in the nearby mirror. “Thank you,” said Shira, “I’m keeping count, and I’m sure more people will be joining us during the call.”

Shira softly shared some thoughts on the theme of Pesach and the symbolism of water in the festival. “With Passover so soon upon us, as our preparations for the holiday get underway, we often feel the absences of our loved ones all the more poignantly,” she observed. “Would anybody like to share something that is coming up for them this season? A memory or reflection?”

There were no interruptions during the call. Heartbeats elapsed as participants made time for one another to speak, punctuated only by occasional beeps as additional mourners joined our circle. Only four (or five) of us shared stories; the rest seemed content to listen quietly.

Finally the time came to end our call. “Thank you all so much,” said Shira. “We will now recite the kaddish together. Please feel free to share the names of your loved ones with us before the recitation.” Then, some of us more hesitantly than others, we spoke the names of those we’d lost. “Alexander ben Mosheh;” I felt my tongue render, “my Papa.”

Even at the end, during the recitation of mourner’s kaddish, only several of our voices were audible. Most had joined the call only to listen.

Only to listen

My energized pacing had continued ceaselessly throughout the call, driven by the springing of a densely coiled tension. I could feel my heart unclench, as the clasps of my reservations undid themselves.

In that impermanent VMK circle, the full weight of one’s mourning was expected and accepted; and grief found itself a more expansive canvas. Jointly, intentionally, we provided and received together – mutual human deliverance.

For all of my praying, my reading, my writing, I still have need of others to relate to me.

* * *

On the eve of Yom HaShoah, it is not for me to recount the heroism and accomplishments of Naphtali Lau-Lavie, for I have nothing to share but my naked amazement at this Israeli statesman who arose from the ashes of the Buchenwald concentration camp and succeeded at saving himself and his then eight-year-old brother who later became the Chief Rabbi of Israel. (see: Rav Benny’s beautiful tribute, which scrapes the surface of his father’s story.)

What I would, ever so humbly, like to share is that Naphtali Lau-Lavie left behind him a legacy in both of his sons that has touched my Jewish soul, and I am so so thankful for their combined inspiration and soulful creativity. Following is a snippet of Rav Benny’s tribute to his father, which moved me in particular:

The liberation from Buchenwald caught him at a crossroads. A young man, 19 years old, without parents, and tied to an 8 year-old boy…

For two weeks, my father… chose to suspend his relationship with the Master of the Universe. One morning, he received a note in Hebrew that said:

‘You must say Kaddish because your mother is no longer alive. She died in Ravensbrück.’

That is the moment when my father made the decision. No matter what may be going through your head, you do not abandon the tradition of your mother and father’s home.

That is how this great man found the strength of spirit to… reach a Jewish life in the Land of Israel.

* * *

In my mid-twenties I taught seventh grade Holocaust studies at the Hebrew school of my childhood while attending graduate school, and I absorbed and learned more about the Shoah in preparing for those classes than I’d ever assimilated as a teen. I also became more vulnerable in those years to the effects of my imagination upon my learning, not unlike the impact of my kaddish odyssey this year.

Sometimes I rise alone to recite kaddish, and sometimes I stand with many others, but always the voices of generations join with mine. On Yom HaShoah, during this, my year of mourning for my father, my mourner’s kaddish will be both personal and in honor of all the Jewish martyrs. I will recite in memory of and love for Papa, and I will recite for all who were lost to us at the hands of the Nazi genocide machine.

My ruminations recall a beautiful encapsulation of this kaddish dichotomy by Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Chelst from his book Kaddish: The Unanswered Cry (p. 7), and with this I leave you:

The Kaddish is a prayer whose utterance reflects the saga of the Jewish nation as a whole as well as the depths of emotion of the lonely Jew of faith. How powerful is the image of the Jews of the Kovno Ghetto reciting in one voice the Kaddish for their beloved, the 10,000 innocent martyrs killed by the Nazis only days before. No less moving is the image of the young orphan arising in the midst of a crowded synagogue, striving to maintain a link with his parents and the past through the Kaddish.