Short story: Comfort (III)

Wait for it… wait for…

The tall blonde’s thin cotton skirt swished as she walked by the loquat trees not far from the edge of the sidewalk. Behind her the sun continued its descent towards the distant Mediterranean, its beams piercing through the branches. The Star of David hanging from the her tanned neck sparkled.

Osnat trained her lens upon the Star of David, noting the small beads of sweat glistening on the young woman’s bronze skin. She seemed a wistful beauty, a perfect subject for Osnat’s new sunset photo series. Zooming in and out as the blonde glided around the corner, the older woman let her camera do the work, capturing the pinks and purples of the sky behind the young lady as she made her way to the nearby Jerusalem bus stop. Yosef would have so appreciated the girl’s air of pensiveness…

The middle aged woman traced the camera’s edges with her fingers, remembering how her husband had once held his beloved instrument, one hand under the lens, the other steadily gripping it along the side. In the years before his death, Yosef had taken such pride and pleasure in his hobby, presenting his work at local fairs and framing his favorites for friends and family. In those later years, he was hardly ever without his camera, always looking for graceful birds in flight or unsuspecting children at play. His photography still remained, lining the walls of their house.

After Yosef’s abrupt death, Osnat had taken to emptying out his bedroom and office, unable to gaze at his bookshelves and assorted tchotchkes without sobbing. It was thus she came upon his camera equipment in the office closet. At first, she couldn’t bear look at it, but as the weeks had gradually turned into months, Osnat eventually found herself laying Yosef’s many camera lenses, tripods, flashes and more out on her husband’s bare desk. The bird photographs on the walls looked at her.

It was then that Osnat had decided to teach herself photography. Their son Ephie’s daily kaddish recitation for his father at shul brought her great comfort, knowing that Yosef would have expected and wanted that traditional honor, but she, as a woman, felt out of place among the stern, bearded prayer-goers. Osnat would honor Yosef’s memory through the lens of his own camera.

* * *

Mincha, the afternoon prayer, ended with the recitation of the mourner’s kaddish, which Ephie always stood for. Even after he’d completed his year of kaddish, the young man had continued coming to shul, just as his father had done before him. Ephraim wasn’t much of a believer, but he respected those who somehow managed to find and hold on to faith, including his Abba who had continued attending services long after he’d completed his year of mourning for his father.

He glanced out the window at the sky as its pinks and oranges darkened to purples. Eema was probably out with her camera somewhere, looking for new subjects to capture for her new Jerusalem Sunset series. He knew that she didn’t feel entirely comfortable at shul because of its male-centeredness, which bothered him also. That’s why she’d been so glad that he’d been the one to recite kaddish for Abba.

Of course, some ladies did occasionally come to services to recite kaddish for their parents from the women’s section in the back, but they were hard to see, seated behind the deliberately tall latticed mechitza that separated them from the men’s section. Also, many were self-conscious about their secondary role in the gendered public prayer space and didn’t recite their kaddishes loudly enough for the men to hear them and respond. They were largely unheard and invisible.

Since completing his own year of kaddish, Ephie had come to feel very strongly, as Yosef had before him, about supporting other mourners in the community with a firm, resounding response to their kaddishes; and his seat happened to be in the back, just in front of the women’s section.

Conscientiously, the young man always made sure to time his response with the female mourners behind him: “Yehe shmeh rabba mevarakh leʻalam ulʻalme ʻalmaya!”

* * *

Osnat stood and stretched her legs as the young woman’s bus drove off.

Ephie would soon be praying ma’ariv, the evening prayer service. His Abba’s shul had practically become a second home to him, ever since Yosef died. It pained her to see that the young man was still grieving so deeply, but he had to know that no amount of kaddishes would ever bring Abba back. “At some point, she sighed, “we all have to start living again. The old men at shul were undoubtedly kind souls, but how would Ephie ever meet a young lady if he couldn’t leave the past behind him?

Quietly, Osnat turned in the direction of the Old City, seeing the Western Wall in her mind. Hashem, I’m not a religious woman, but surely You know my heart. Please – help my Ephie heal… it’s already been four years since his Abba died. Please – help my baby move on from his Abba’s death. Please. Please, my Lord. Help him.”

* * *

The young man completed his prayers and glanced around the sanctuary. Were there any mourners present to recite the kaddish? No, it seemed not, he thought sadly. Ephie always felt a sense of incompleteness when no mourners were available to recite the kaddish after services. Somehow, he felt that tradition had actually intended people’s personal kaddishes for the entire community, including the souls of Abba and Saba.

Suddenly, the sound of a door swinging at the back of the women’s section caught his attention, and Ephie made out the sound of somebody walking quickly, nearly running, towards the mechitza. Through the latticework, he could barely make out a female worshipper and heard her clear her throat nervously. Softly, she began reciting the kaddish, muffled through her tears.

None of the other men had noticed the woman’s entrance, and they were too far away to hear her… the necessary prayer quorum was already dispersing!

Ephie stood in place, seriously, deliberately, and intoned his response loudly for all the rest to hear: “Yehe shmeh rabba mevarakh leʻalam ulʻalme ʻalmaya!” The elderly petitioners stopped and looked around the room, trying to figure out whom Ephie was responding to. Through the stillness, they finally heard the woman’s kaddish and crying. Collectively, the men moved closer towards the mechitza to better hear her kaddish.

B’rich hu, they responded together, and then: Amen; Amen!

The mourner completed her recitation, and the men smiled at Ephie as they threw on their jackets and headed for the exit. The sexton patted Ephie on his shoulder; “Tzaddik,” he whispered.

Ephraim shrugged shyly and returned his siddur to the bookshelf, before reaching for the light switch. As he made his way down the corridor, he heard a woman’s voice behind him: “Excuse me? Were you the one standing next to the mechitza?

The young man turned to see a beautiful blonde with tear stained cheeks standing before him. I’m Nechama, she told him, “And I just wanted to say ‘thank you.’”

An Arab friend?

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

Peaces, or: Jerusalem

I.

     You, wholly holy; we, ever so lowly
     Slip on limestones bearing your name
     Winter winds whip our brollies
     As we boldly, with folly
     Venture out to the streets in the rain
     Yet your sun's more unworldly
     Harsh gold rays broil slowly
     Through the Mid Eastern summer's domain
     And though your fate seems lonely
     We who are yours know
     Only
     The truest of passions are pain

II.

         I-
       Live you and love you
     I'm in and I'm of you
     Your hilltops have
     ruined my knees

         I've-
       Found naught above you
     But should I unglove you
     How bloodied would your
     knuckles be?

III.

     Yerushalayim
     a city of two
     peaces 
       at war 

     peace 
       rooted 
     in wholeness
     completeness completely
     sundered and some dare
     to brandish those plowshares

     not plowing, not sharing, not caring
     that their swords were beaten
     out of shape for a reason
     not for men to be beaten
     broadsided by the flat sides
     pierced through to their insides
     ruptured

     ruptured 
     peaces begging 
     begging begging isn't
     peace the beginning
     isn't
     
     peace
       rooted
     in wholeness

     begging isn't

IV.

     Plead 'next year in Jerusalem'
       That loss to our children remain unknown

     We've yearned ev'rywhere and always
       Here we belong; the Jews' hearts' one true home

     Your rhythmic rhymes stretch space and time
       A new bridge of chords; an old wall of stones

     Plead 'next year in Jerusalem'
       That loss to our children remain unknown

V. haiku

     Could she possibly
     lose you, blissfully skipping
     downhill to preschool?

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 51

Eleven months of kaddish recitations ended (blog #45); then twelve months of being considered a mourner according to Jewish tradition (#48); and then came the Hebrew anniversary of Papa’s death, after thirteen months (#50). Now: the end of ‘The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist’ (#51).

51 is a pentagonal number.

I inherited an affinity for numbers and their attributes from Papa.

* * *

‘The skeptic’s kaddish’ series was my undesigned response to the death of my father and to my process of returning to synagogue attendance, after a troubled three year absence, to recite the orphan’s kaddish daily for my Papa. The intensity of this experience suffused and shaped my life this year from the very start.

At different points, two trusted mentors, one an Orthodox rabbi and one a Reform rabbi, gave me like-minded feedback:
O: “You’re addicted to publishing.”
R: “This is an obsession for you.”

True, I mused, but ‘The skeptic’s kaddish’ was hardly some quick fix. Every blog post was born of days of feeling and thinking. I prayed and participated; I read and reflected; I consulted and considered, I wrote and reworked. The ideas, the sources, and the words mattered; their precision and their placement; their significance and their sounds. Mine was, perhaps, an addiction to intention; an obsession with process.

Waves of emotions battered me, driven harder by the winds of self-discovery. At times I wanted to abandon ‘The skeptic’s kaddish’; to quit shul again; to burn all of Papa’s personal effects (blog #15) to ash so that I wouldn’t be reminded of him.

I would re-read every single blog post numerous times after publishing, disbelieving that I had lived it. The words on the screen rendered my internal mourning processes undeniable, and I would scan
them
over –
and over
again. Had I truly
felt that way? Did I
still? Eventually, I
didn’t, and I’d be
driven to
write –
again.

* * *

The year’s moments were boundless for me, spliced and looping through reels of punctuation that recorded and projected my experiences. Looking back at it now, I can identify most of my reasons for dedicating myself to this project (I’m sure others will come to me).

As I see it, I embarked upon my ‘skeptic’s kaddish’ odyssey for: 1) myself, 2) my father, 3) my family, 4) Jewish tradition. (Arguably, the adventure was wholly for my personal benefit, as my loves for my father, my family, and Jewish tradition are but reflections of my values.)

For myself

1. Processing: I was in shock; and I needed to explore and express my thoughts and feelings. It felt surreal to go through my days as if no catastrophe had occurred. Other than my daily minyan attendance, my day-to-day life hadn’t changed after Papa’s death, until I began writing ‘The skeptic’s kaddish’.
2. Consistency: I wanted my outside to reflect my inside. Acting as if I remained the person I had been before Papa died felt to me acutely unnatural. Also, presenting myself as a Jew of faith praying within his religious community felt deceitful.
3. Connection: I needed emotional support, and I sought connection with others who themselves have struggled with faith and other facets of their Jewish identities.
4. Curiosity: Upon committing myself to the traditional year of mourning, it became important for me to learn about the history and meaning of the mourner’s kaddish, other Jewish mourning rituals, and Jewish eschatology.
5. Pride: I derived no small amount of satisfaction from the challenge of producing blog posts for ‘The skeptic’s kaddish’. I felt confident in my research and writing skills, as well as in my familiarity with the rudiments of Jewish texts and traditions.

For Papa

1. Create: I wanted to create something unique and special in honor of Papa, which I feel he would have been proud of.
2. Remember: I felt it important to prompt myself and others to think about him and reflect upon our memories of him.

For my Family

1. Present: I felt surreally distant from my mother and brother across the ocean after I returned home to Israel from the funeral and shiva, and I wanted to connect with them by sharing my personal mourning experience.
2. Future: After I’d been writing for some months (blog #27), I began to think of ‘The skeptic’s kaddish’ as a family memoir of sorts – for my daughter and future children. I do hope my child(ren) will find value in the fruits of this endeavor.

For Jewish tradition

1. The skeptics: There are many like me who are drawn to Jewish tradition but don’t necessarily buy into all of the religious dogma – I wanted to give a voice to this group.
2. The lay people: I wanted to spread knowledge and understanding of Jewish mourning traditions among those (like myself) who hardly knew anything about them.

* * *

I wanted to give kaddish a chance out of love and respect. ‘The skeptic’s kaddish’ blog series made this possible. The Jewish wisdom of ages comes down to us through our texts and traditions, but no small fraction of it is alienating to modern minds. My public exploration and exposition of ancient and contemporary texts, recorded here, is a reflection of the tension between one modern Jew’s love for his people’s noble heritage and his respect for his own faculty of reason.

The famous Jewish theologian Franz Rosenzweig (1886 – 1929) addressed this issue of Jewish study in a modern reality. In the book ‘On Jewish Learning’ Rosenzweig asserts that we moderns must, of necessity, turn to a new paradigm of Jewish learning (p. 98-99):

A new ‘learning’ is about to be born – rather, it has been born.

It is a learning in reverse order. A learning that no longer starts from the Torah and leads into life, but the other way around: from life, from a world that knows nothing of the Law, or pretends to know nothing, back to the Torah. That is the sign of the time.

It is a sign of the time because it is the mark of the men of the time. There is no one today who is not alienated, or who does not contain within himself some small fraction of alienation. All of us to whom Judaism, to whom being a Jew, has again become the pivot of our lives – and I know that in saying this I am not speaking for myself alone – we all know that in being Jews we must not give up anything, not renounce anything, but lead everything back to Judaism. From the periphery back to the center; from the outside, in.

This is a new sort of learning. A learning for which – in these days – he is the most apt who brings with him the maximum of what is alien. That is to say, not the man specializing in Jewish matters; or, if he happens to be such a specialist, he will succeed, not in the capacity of a specialist, but only as one who, too, is alienated, as one who is groping his way home.

It’s a long quote, I know, but how I savor it!

* * *

Franz Rosenzweig died at the young age of 42, as did the great Rabbi Moses Isserles (1530 – 1572), whom I’ve cited throughout my ‘skeptic’s kaddish’ series on the halakhot and minhagim of reciting kaddish as a mourner.

In my ceaseless, frenetic kaddish searching, I came across the 1989 song ‘Kaddish’ by Ofra Haza (1957 – 2000), who became the most internationally successful Israeli songstress of all time. Her voice pierces through a part of my soul that had been hitherto unknown to me, as I listen to her ‘Kaddish’ again and again and again and again and again. Enchanted, I read her biography, and realize… she also died at the age of 42.

42 is a pronic number.

Death and numbers stimulate my imagination.

* * *

I wonder if my father would have enjoyed Ofra’s music, given his severe hearing impairment (blog #19). In May, when I was in America for the unveiling of Papa’s tombstone (blog #44), Mama intentionally played Frank Sinatra songs in her car on our way to the cemetery. My father had been very fond of Sinatra; the Sultan of Swoon would often keep us company in the car because his voice was crisp enough for Papa to decipher and appreciate, despite the perpetual rattling in his one semi-functional ear.

Almost daily I continue to be reminded of Papa at unexpected moments. The hues of the sky and trees shift in the mornings when I squint in the Jerusalem sun, closing one eye and then the other. Each of my eyes perceives a different color spectrum, one bold, the other subdued. Then I remember my father’s partial color blindness and wonder, what colors did Papa see?

Yesterday I made a paper airplane for my daughter for the first time, just like Papa taught me to make. It’s a design with a blunt nose, sturdier than its pointy-nosed cousins. I remember building a virtual fleet of airplanes out of magazine postcards and launching them throughout the house in my excitement. Searching for my squadron units afterwards was a great part of the fun.

* * *

Eleven months of kaddish recitations ended; then twelve months of being considered a mourner according to Jewish tradition; and then came the Hebrew anniversary of Papa’s death, after thirteen months. Now: the end of ‘The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist’.

But I still go on.

* * *

Fin.

give-grief-words

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 44

_1

Days before my father’s unveiling, my wife and I were taking our 4-year-old to see her first fireworks display on Yom HaAtzmaut at the Haas Promenade (Tayelet) in Jerusalem; she was skipping with excitement. Thankfully, she had napped that afternoon and could enjoy the late night entertainment. I was also impressed; the fireworks were bursting just overhead, impossibly close to us.

As we walked along the Promenade, we recalled how much my Papa had enjoyed strolling there with his camera equipment, capturing the renowned, panoramic view with his steady hands and patient eyes. Despite the festivities, I was somber, remembering him and contemplating my upcoming trip to New Jersey. It struck me that I should bring a chunk of Jerusalem stone from his beloved Tayelet to lay on Papa’s tombstone.

Pleased with myself, I sent a picture of the stone to my mother, who responded: “Beautiful! Wonderful idea! Bring one for each of you.” The next day, at my wife’s suggestion, we found four additional pieces of Jerusalem stone: a total of three for myself, my wife, and our daughter in Jerusalem, and two more for my mother and brother in America.

_3

Afterwards, my curiosity led me to Rabbi David Golinkin’s (b. 1955) research [link] into the origins of this particular custom, and I learned that its earliest mention in our sources can be found in a halakhic work by Rabbi Shalom Ben Yiẓḥak Of Neustadt (1350-1413):

… they pluck grass from a grave or they take a pebble and put it on the grave, it is because of kevod hamet [respect for the deceased] to show him that he had visited his grave.

The fundamentality of stone challenges my romanticization. It is permanent; solid; simple. Rabbi David Wolpe (b. 1958) writes poignantly [link]:

While flowers may be a good metaphor for the brevity of existence, stones are better suited to the durability of memory. In moments when we are reminded of the fragility of life, Judaism reminds us that there is permanence amid the pain. While other things fade, stones and souls endure.

Now our five Jerusalem stones rest atop the uneven surface of Papa’s tombstone; in my mind’s eye I can see them being blown off in a storm gust, landing at its base along with other memory stones. Mama has told me that the many pebbles she’d laid over the course of this year before the setting of the headstone were left undisturbed by the workmen, out of respect.

_2

* * *

In modern Hebrew, the word for gravestone is matzeivah (מצבה), which harkens back to the Bible. Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein explains [link]:

The common word for a tombstone in spoken Hebrew is a matzeivah (literally, ‘monument’), and, indeed, when Yaakov buried his wife Rachel, the Torah reports that he erected a matzeivah at her grave (Gen. 35:20). Elsewhere (Yechezkel 39:15 and II Kings 23:17), the Bible refers to graves that are marked with a tziyun (‘marker’).

However, these ‘monuments’ and ‘markers’ of the biblical era were not what we think of today as tombstones. Joseph Jacobs (1854-1916) and Isaac Broydé (1867-1922) unpack this in the Jewish Encyclopedia [link]:

The custom of marking a grave by a stone which bore an inscription describing the qualities of the deceased and giving his age and the date of his death was foreign to the ancient Hebrews. Stones were indeed used to mark the sites of graves… but they were not intended as monuments and bore no inscriptions. Even in the geonic period the custom seems to have been unknown to the Jews of the East, and it can not, therefore, have been current in Talmudic times.

So how, then, does rabbinic literature refer to tombstones? I wonder. The answer can be found in the Mishnah. In Tractate Shekalim the rabbis discuss the ancient tax, which went towards the maintenance of the Temple in Jerusalem.

There arises a question: what should be done with funds that one set aside for the Temple, which exceed a half-shekel of silver? On this, Rabbi Nathan the Babylonian gets the final word (Shekalim 2:5):

רבי נתן אומר, בונין לו נפש על גבי קברו Rabbi Nathan says: They [use the extra funds to] place a nefesh over his grave.

What?!

It’s true; Maimonides (1135-1204) uses the same terminology in his seminal halakhic opus – the Mishneh Torah (Book of Judges 4:4):

ומציינין את כל בית הקברות ובונין נפש על הקבר והצדיקים אין בונים להם נפש על קברותיהם שדבריהם הם זכרונם ולא יפנה אדם לבקר הקברות … and markings are made on the graves; and a nefesh is placed on the grave; and for the righteous, by contrast, a nefesh is not placed, for their words will cause them to be remembered; a person will not [need to] turn to visit [their] graves.

I am stunned. The word nefesh has come up before in my research (blog #28), but I never expected this. In modern Hebrew, the word nefesh has come to mean soul, and in biblical Hebrew it was “understood in a unitive way as the totality of being – ‘man does not have nefesh, he is nefesh, he lives as nefesh’” (Jewish Views of the Afterlife, p. 54).

oh…
… oh.
Perhaps I understand this.

The standard turn of phrase used in shul (shul’ish) when partaking of a kiddush sponsored in memory of somebody’s loved one is (blog #24): ‘L’ilui neshama’ (לעילוי נשמה – for the lifting up of [their] soul). The operative word for ‘soul’ here is neshama, rather than nefesh.

Certainly I’m disinclined towards mysticism, but I recall learning that the Kabbalah distinguishes between five levels of the soul, the most basic and earthly of which is the nefesh. It would seem that tradition is suggesting that this aspect of Papa rests forever in the earthly realm, represented by his tombstone. The mourner’s kaddish, it would seem, is not traditionally recited for the redemption of a parent’s nefesh.

* * *

Following three days of rain, the weather at the unveiling is lovely. The sun is shining; ghost white clouds billow softly on azure. Some twenty of us are gathered below the heavens at Papa’s grave; family and friends have arrived here out of love.

My mother addresses the gathered; she passes out packets containing seven of my father’s photographs (one for each letter of his name), the stanzas of Psalm 119 corresponding to ‘Alexander son of Mosheh – Neshama’ (אלכסנדר בן משה – נשמה), which I’ve studied in memory of Papa (blogs #31 thru #41), and the El Malei Rachamim prayer (blog #43) for my father’s soul.

Self-consciously, I read the 128 verses (16 stanzas) of Psalm 119 from the packet slowly, stumblingly. It takes forever. Hauntingly, my father’s friend Yossi chants El Malei Rachamim. Mama speaks. She reads letters from her sister Dina (in Hebrew) and Papa’s childhood friend Sasha (in Russian). She explains the inscription at the top of the Nefesh:

והנצח זו ירושלים
And the Eternity is Jerusalem

I am moved to provide further context for these words and read aloud the letter that I wrote to my father for his birthday – blog #23 – in which I explored the original source text and parsed the language. Then I share aloud a letter written by my wife for Papa; with a twinge, I feel that the heartfelt words of others are less onerous than my Psalm 119 recitation and blog post(s). Am I making mourning too complicated?

My brother then shares another of his clear-eyed reflections, and I recite the mourner’s kaddish along with Yossi who lost his wife quite recently. We pass little pebbles collected by Mama to each attendee, inviting everyone to place these atop the nefesh. I take to resting our five Jerusalem stones among the pebbles, shifting them around, so as to minimize their wobbling on the rugged surface.

All are invited back to our home for a beautiful meal lovingly prepared by my mother. She really poured her heart into it. She says that my father would have been pleased with the array of dishes set out for our guests, and I agree. On top of my father’s favorite Olivier Salad and countless other dishes, our cousin Lyonya has brought an enormous Napoleon Torte all the way from Boston, loving prepared by his wife Tanya. My father, my brother and I always, always relished Tanya’s Napoleons.

Eventually, the guests begin to say their goodbyes, and everybody disperses. I am left with warm feelings and memories. The event for me was perfect.

* * *

The following day is Thursday, and I join my third Virtual Mourner’s Kaddish (blog #42) conference call, this time led by Naomi from lab/shul. She shares with us a poem written by Jack Gilbert, in which he likens his grief over the death of his wife to the physically trying experience of carrying a heavy box:

Michiko Dead

He manages like somebody carrying a box
that is too heavy, first with his arms
underneath. When their strength gives out,
he moves the hands forward, hooking them
on the corners, pulling the weight against
his chest. He moves his thumbs slightly
when the fingers begin to tire, and it makes
different muscles take over. Afterward,
he carries it on his shoulder, until the blood
drains out of the arm that is stretched up
to steady the box and the arm goes numb. But now
the man can hold underneath again, so that
he can go on without ever putting the box down.

What do you think of his words? She asks. Do you find Gilbert’s simile relatable? Would anybody like to share a reflection?

My mind is still at the unveiling, struggling through the biblical Hebrew of Psalm 119 at Papa’s graveside. I had worked so hard to prepare for that reading, delving week after week into the verses and commentaries, searching for myself and my Papa in its words, pushing to find personal relevance and meaning in a tradition that I would otherwise have found meaningless. I remember my relief upon completing my analysis (blog #41); I’m done with 119, I’d thought.

I’d tired of carrying 119 all those weeks, and so I’d shifted, “pulling the weight against my chest” in that sunlight; but this too proved to be both relief and burden.

I realize that I will carry this forever.

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 28

I harbor doubts.

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

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

* * *

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

יג עַל הַצַּדִּיקִים… וְעָלֵינוּ, יֶהֱמוּ נָא רַחֲמֶיךָ יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ… וְשִׂים חֶלְקֵנוּ עִמָּהֶם, וּלְעוֹלָם לֹא נֵבוֹשׁ כִּי-בְךָ בָטַחְנוּ. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יי, מִשְׁעָן וּמִבְטָח לַצַּדִּיקִים 13 To the righteous… and to us, may Your compassion be aroused, Lord our God… Set our lot with them, and we will never be ashamed, for we trust in You. Blessed are You, Lord, support and trust of the righteous.

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

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

יד וְלִירוּשָׁלַיִם עִירְךָ בְּרַחֲמִים תָּשׁוּב, וְתִשְׁכּוֹן בְּתוׁכָהּ כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבַּרְתָּ, וּבְנֵה אוֹתָהּ בְּקָרוֹב בְּיָמֵינוּ בִּנְיָן עוֹלָם, וְכִסֵּא דָוִד עַבְדְּךָ מְהֵרָה לְתוֹכָהּ תָּכִין. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יי , בּוֹנֵה יְרוּשָׁלָיִם 14 And to Jerusalem, Your city, may You return in compassion, and may You dwell in it as You promised. May You rebuild it rapidly in our days as an everlasting structure, and install within it soon the throne of David. Blessed are You, Lord, who builds Jerusalem.

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

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

* * *

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

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

*A side note:
The Hebrew word for anxious is chareid (חָרֵד).
The word for ultra-Orthodox is chareidi (חֲרֵדִי).

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

ג חָנֵּנִי יְהוָה, כִּי אֻמְלַל-אָנִי: רְפָאֵנִי יְהוָה–כִּי נִבְהֲלוּ עֲצָמָי 3 Be gracious unto me, Lord, for I languish away; heal me, Lord, for my bones are affrighted.
ד וְנַפְשִׁי, נִבְהֲלָה מְאֹד; ואת (וְאַתָּה) יְהוָה, עַד-מָתָי 4 My soul also is much affrighted; and Thou, Lord, until when?
ה שׁוּבָה יְהוָה, חַלְּצָה נַפְשִׁי; הוֹשִׁיעֵנִי, לְמַעַן חַסְדֶּךָ 5 Return, Lord, release my soul; save me for Thy mercy’s sake.
ו כִּי אֵין בַּמָּוֶת זִכְרֶךָ; בִּשְׁאוֹל, מִי יוֹדֶה-לָּךְ 6 For in death there is no remembrance of Thee; in Sheol who will give Thee thanks?

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

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

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

– Jewish Views of the Afterlife, page 56

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

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

– ibid.

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

יט בְּזֵעַת אַפֶּיךָ, תֹּאכַל לֶחֶם, עַד שׁוּבְךָ אֶל-הָאֲדָמָה, כִּי מִמֶּנָּה לֻקָּחְתָּ: כִּי-עָפָר אַתָּה, וְאֶל-עָפָר תָּשׁוּב 19 In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken; for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.

We are

Nefesh / Dust

Forever

It’s really all
the same.

* * *

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

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

– Jewish Views, page 56

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

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

And (p. 43):

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

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

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

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

This doctrinal shift leaves me cringing.

* * *

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

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

ויש שהוא שר שירת האומה, יוצא הוא מתוך המעגל של נפשו הפרטית, שאינו מוצא אותה מרוחבת כראוי. ולא מיושבת ישוב אידיאלי, שואף למרומי עז, והוא מתדבק באהבה עדינה עם כללותה של כנסת ישראל, ועמה הוא שר את שיריה, מצר בצרותיה, ומשתעשע בתקותיה, הוגה דעות עליונות וטהורות על עברה ועל עתידה, וחוקר באהבה ובחכמת לב את תוכן רוחה הפנימי And there is one who sings the song of the nation. He leaves the circle of his own individual self, because he finds it without sufficient breadth, without an idealistic basis. He aspires toward the heights, and he cleaves himself, with a gentle love, to the whole community of Israel. Together with her he sings her songs. He feels grieved in her afflictions and delights in her hopes. He contemplates noble and pure thoughts about her past and her future, and probes with love and wisdom her inner spiritual essence.

* * *

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

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

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

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