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.

With, or: Without them

I want to want repentance
I want to want God
I want to want to pray at all
But that is all I've got

A Jew can just excuse himself
A Jew can disbelieve
A Jew can just participate
To find some small relief

Ours is not a religion
Ours is not merely faith
Ours is not in our hearts or minds
It's in our DNA

I'm there because they draw me there
I'm there because of them
I'm there because of smiles and hugs
Where I don't feel condemned

Sometimes I recite all the words
Sometimes I do as they
Sometimes I feel that God has heard
For that is what they say

Community grants me peoplehood
Community grants excuse
Community grants permission
To pray to "You Know Who"

Believe I not in Yom Kippur
Believe not in the least
Believe absent community -
- I'm barely sorry beast

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 7

Last Shabbat was Shabbat Shuva, which is the Shabbat between Rosh HaShanah (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), and a member of the community shared a brief drasha (words of Torah) with the kehila (congregation) on Friday evening. To my mind, her question was classic and critical: Which is the holier day—Yom Kippur or Shabbat?

Shabbat is mentioned hundreds of times in the Torah; the fourth commandment tells us we must observe Shabbat. On the other hand, Yom Kippur is only mentioned three times in the Torah; it is not included in the Ten Commandments. (Also, the commandment to fast on Yom Kippur is not in the Torah.)

The young woman further pointed out that seven members of the kehila are honored every Shabbat morning by being called up to recite a blessing upon the Torah. On Yom Kippur only six get called up to the Torah, and this is clearly a matter of hierarchy: five are called up to the Torah on all of the major Jewish festivals, four are called up at the beginning of every Hebrew month, and only three are called up during the week – on Monday and Thursday mornings.

So… what?

* * *

Here’s the question: to what extent are reflection and repentance processes that we should be engaged in throughout the course of the year? Shouldn’t our weekly spiritual respite on Shabbat serve as an opportunity for cheshbon ha-nefesh (an accounting of the soul)? To what extent does Judaism stress the exceptional, intensive “leap of faith,” compared to our daily or weekly deeds of gradual growth?

* * *

I read Leon Wieseltier’s personal account of reciting kaddish during the High Holy Days. As it happened, just before Rosh HaShanah, I arrived at that those pages of the book Kaddish, which paralleled my own kaddish journey along the Jewish calendar. (Its sixteen sections are marked only by Roman numerals and one cannot search the book by topic.)

The author writes (p. 233):

[The rabbi wants] to consider the manner in which an eleventh-century thinker understood the distinction between the wicked, the righteous, and the souls who are neither wicked nor righteous… I have been trying to puzzle it out for almost half a year. Maybe that is why Yom Kippur is a bit of a fizzle this year. This year, every day has a touch of this day.

Yom Kippur is tomorrow evening, and I’m pondering this. Why was Wieseltier’s Yom Kippur a “fizzle” after months of study and reflection? Why cast this in a negative light? Isn’t it only natural? Isn’t a Yom Kippur “fizzle” better than a “bang” of atonement?

* * *

I am finding that it is precisely the long period of reciting the mourner’s kaddish, which makes it so effective for me. The regular repetition of the now familiar words and associated rituals is always there for me, day after day, after day. Memories of my father and reflections upon our relationship flit through my mind constantly. Perhaps I will always think of him even after this year is over, but somehow I feel an unspoken imperative in the kaddish’s daily demands – remember your father to yourself and to others.

I have evidence… from this year in shul, that… a man dies with the death of his body, but… He survives himself… in the people he loved… I can be sure that [my recitation of the mourner’s kaddish] is proof of his posterity. (Kaddish, p. 242-3)

* * *

A new friend from my regular minyan turns out to be Professor Emeritus Martin Lockshin who shares a chapter on kaddish with me (which he wrote for a recently published book also called Kaddish), in which he writes (p. 346):

The Mourner’s Kaddish makes no reference to death, dying, mortality, sadness, life after death, parents, bereavement, or the precariousness of the human condition.

This is a fundamental point. My father is nowhere to be found in the kaddish. He is to be found in my recitation of the kaddish. My father survives himself in me.

* * *

It takes me time to decipher my emotions so the lengthy mourning period is helpful. (And – if I only reflected and repented on Yom Kippur I would have no idea what I was repenting for.)

But there’s more.

Given the structure and opportunity for meaningful reflection over time, one cannot but change. A year thinking about, praying about, and writing about one’s father… that year is transformational. I know what my tradition expects of me, and I know who I am today, but I don’t know where this will lead.

I know that I will be sponsoring a small kiddush next year to commemorate my father’s yahrtzeit after completing this year of mourning. I’ve reserved the date far, far in advance. I hope to make it a truly lovely tribute to my father, but now I’ve opened my mind’s door to the future and find myself thinking about how these eleven months of kaddish will inevitably end. It’s surreal. The commitment is so intense, so encompassing – life is a perpetual kaddish to me. What will I be without it? Who will I become because of it? I can only give myself over to it.

* * *

An exchange with my mother brought a memory back.

I was ten or eleven, I think, when we took a trip to Disney World. Funny enough, I don’t remember much of the vacation, but I remember my father teaching me a trust exercise in a Disney parking lot, while we waited for our shuttle. Upon some coaxing, he convinced me to fall backwards, ceding my body to gravity; and he caught me before I hit the ground. After the first time, I was enthused; and he was the one who eventually put an end to our game.

Kaddish is like falling backwards, ceding myself to my memories, my reflections, my tradition, this process. I’m not sure who’s been catching me, but every day I fall again.

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 6

This morning, in the sleepy predawn, I walked to the synagogue carrying two blueberry pies in a plastic bag… instead of the bag containing my tallit (prayer shawl) and tefilin (phylacteries).

Damn. Damn. Damn.

* * *

Most of the time, my father’s sense of humor would annoy me, and I would let him know it. “That’s not funny,” I would say, and he would laugh, “Why not?” and continue laughing. It became a something of a joke between us (except it wasn’t a joke to me) – I would tell him that he wasn’t funny, and he would invariably laugh at my lack of appreciation for his tremendous wit.

My daughter tells me, “Don’t joke!” several times a day. She’s only three-and-a-half years old, and I already annoy her.

“Why?” I ask, “You make jokes… Mama’chka makes jokes… why can’t I?”

“I only tell you to stop joking sometimes,” she answers. (Only when it gets to be too much for her to bear?)

* * *

For more years than I can recall, my father would chortle over Rabbi Eleazar ben Aazariah’s statement (from the Mishna, Brachot), which was later included in the Passover Haggadah:

I am now as one who is seventy years old…

…אני כבן שבעים שנה

My father would humorously frame his bewilderment at new or uncomfortable ideas with this Mishnaic phrase, implying that in all his years he had never known of such a thing as – X.

Last summer was the last time I saw my father in person (he had a plane ticket booked to visit us for Sukkot this year… less than two weeks away), and I recall him sitting at our table, reflecting upon his age. “I’m 69,” he remarked, “‘I am now as one who is seventy years old…'”

…אני כבן שבעים שנה

He was seventy when he passed away.

* * *

Both of my father’s parents were in their nineties when they died. I’d always expected him to live as long as they had.

Amazingly, my younger brother sensed that our father was not long for this world. He noted my father’s health problems (although none of them were considered to be immediately life threatening) and the sadness in my father’s eyes. He noted my father’s fatalistic daily behaviors and approach to life. In retrospect, these have taken on a different light for me. True, I had noted my father’s deterioration, but never had I thought he would die so young.

…אני כבן שבעים שנה

* * *

My father and I were at the hospice in Maryland together when my grandfather passed away. We knew he was expiring. That’s why we were there.

To be honest, I didn’t feel much of anything at my grandfather’s passing. He’d come into my life from the former Soviet Union when I was a preteen, and I could hardly imagine a more withdrawn character. From my perspective, our connection was only by blood. I knew that he liked to play chess and took pride at adding vast numbers together in his mind. I also knew that he had been (justifiably) terrified of the consequences when my father applied for an exit visa to emigrate to Israel in the mid-70’s. My father and grandfather hadn’t been in contact for some fifteen years after my father’s departure from the USSR.

On the car ride back to New Jersey, my father mused, “Now I am the oldest generation of Bogomolny.” Yes, I thought, that’s the way it works. My father didn’t say anything else to me then or afterwards about his father’s death. I’m not sure how much it affected him, partly because he wasn’t one to wax introspective about such things.

Those were kaddish’less generations.

* * *

I often find myself coming back to Leon Wieseltier’s words in his book Kaddish. He saved my sanity this week in shul during Rosh HaShanah (the Jewish New Year), and I hope he will serve me during the long morning prayers on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). Unlike me, Wieseltier did not read books during High Holy Day services, but I must. “Kaddish is not for the faint of heart” (p. 154). I’m trying.

After relating a Talmudic text about a rabbinic father-son pair (Rabbis Dostai and Aftoriki) who opine on the matter of whether the tormented souls of the deceased are given rest on Shabbat, Wieseltier writes (p. 113):

Was it the fate of Dostai’s soul that moved Aftoriki to speak? Perhaps the father’s death freed the son’s tongue, the son’s mind.

Your father dies and you are free. And what do you do with your freedom? You think, and write, and pray, about your father. Congratulations!

Even as a son, you must speak in your own name.

Your analysis of your tutelage loosens it. Understand authority and you have crippled it. This is how authority changes hands…

I may have stopped breathing when I read this the first time. When I read it for the second time, I’m certain I wasn’t breathing. Am I free? Am I speaking in my own name? Is my analysis sufficient? Do I have authority?

Kaddish, page 247:

… I never rose at the crack of dawn to see my father, but now I rise at the crack of dawn to say kaddish for him… Our fathers did not have the authority to ask this of us, but our religion does.

But it is I who am granting our religion authority.

This generation recites the kaddish.

* * *

A tangential reflection.

I am challenged and thankful that the recitation of the mourner’s kaddish for a parent lasts for eleven months. This aspect, the duration of mourner’s kaddish period, has provided me a framework for my mourning, and I am finding it easier to explore, articulate, and share these reflections today than I did a month ago. I am relieved and grateful to find the kaddish healing.

* * *

An unrelated reflection.

The Jewish fast day of Tisha b’Av fell about a week after my return from sitting shiva in New Jersey, when I was still wandering around in a haze, feeling like I wanted to cry on the shoulder of everybody I spoke with. It was in that context that I greeted a friend on my way to shul on Tisha b’Av, ready to tell her: My father died.

I had forgotten (although of course she hadn’t) that there is a religious prohibition against greeting others on Tisha b’Av (for it is considered the ultimate day of Jewish mourning)… so I wasn’t able to share my grief with her, although I was truly hurting.

Sometimes, words and traditions fail me.