The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 22

If I’m being honest, it’s easier to read and write about kaddish than it is to bethink myself of memories, even privately.

– Me (Blog #13)

At first, I thought I would study the kaddish in my father’s memory to suffuse the rote with meaning, perhaps to even make it interesting.

Quickly, I came to realize that my approach would not be that of Leon Wieseltier in his dense Kaddish volume, wherein he published the notes from his yearlong deep dive into the halakhic and aggadic texts on kaddish, death and mourning. His was truly a feat for the generations, unearthing countless layers of seemingly impenetrable bedrock, but for me these same traditional texts beckon foremost as springboards, anchoring me in the Jewish fundament, yes, but also inviting my meandering responses.

I find that the texts are endless, but my ends somehow defy them. At times I am utterly unmoored and teetering, with no text but that of my stifled, pounding heartbeats, as I flail wildly for ancient wisdom.

That’s how it is now.

* * *

My feelings are my primary sources, perhaps to the detriment of my intellectual development. What did I learn today… What did I learn today… What…

What did I feel today?

– Me (Blog #4)

This is what I wrote back in early September, but I’ve continued to lean heavily on Jewish texts to buttress me. Can I write without citation?

* * *

I’ve been reflecting upon the kinship I feel with many of the women who contributed personal essays to the book Kaddish: Women’s Voices. Three facets of their shared experiences speak to me in particular, the third of which I will explore below:

  1. Most obviously, the contributors to this volume are sharing the intimate details of their kaddish odysseys, as I am attempting to do. This I expected.
  2. For most of the authors, the decision to recite kaddish was not a foregone conclusion. Few women in traditional Jewish circles attend shul on a daily basis, and not all communities are supportive of or friendly towards women who want to take this religious obligation upon themselves. Whether to recite kaddish at all, how often to recite kaddish, whom to recite kaddish with, and many other related deliberations speak to my experience – even though I am a man. Such reflections have been weaving their ways through my own writings.
  3. Many of the women (I counted 14) related their kaddish journeys in some way to their children. This theme was absent from Wieseltier’s Kaddish, for he didn’t have any children of his own during his year of mourning.

* * *

My 3-and-a-half year-old daughter… insists upon coming with me to shul every week…

Last week I and a few others noticed that my child was reciting the mourner’s kaddish along with me, as I stood beside her.

– Me (Blog #5)

My daughter is no longer 3-and-a-half years old. In early February, she’ll be turning four, and she’s been growing up so, so quickly. (Those of you who are parents can appreciate this.)

Unfortunately, due to daylight savings time, my child hasn’t come to shul with me since late October – she wakes up groggily from her afternoon naps just as I am running out the door for mincha on Fridays and Saturdays and cannot get ready in time to join me. Still, she often reminds me that she’ll be returning as soon as the spring rolls around. I’ve been missing our shul time together, but I must also admit that it has been liberating to have these prayer times entirely to myself.

Perhaps because I’ve recently been feeling alone on my kaddish journey and aware that my daughter is no longer an active participant, I’ve taken to deliberately mentioning my father to her in conversation. For Chanukah, I bought her a nice children’s camera, reminding her that Dedushka Shurik was an avid photographer, and I have also introduced her to peanut butter spread on apple slices, which my father would often snack on enthusiastically (he always ate the entire apple).

* * *

Alexander Bogomolny, the man who knew to cherish and praise the beauty (of math, of nature, of people of different ages, of family ties and relationships) and made us all appreciate it more. You are deeply deeply missed…

While there are many, many words and long texts that have already been written; and many more could be and should be written in your memory, I miss one very significant aspect of yours: what a great, special, kind, and devoted GRANDFATHER you were and you will always be in my mind. The special connection, love, appreciation, and joy that you brought to each other from the very first months of our daughter’s life and since then are not forgotten and will never be… We love you, we miss you, and we always will.

– My wife, two days following the funeral (lightly edited)

A couple of days after the funeral, my wife wrote this from our home in Israel. I read it before going to bed that night in America, and I read it again after awaking. It was then, sitting alone in the stillness of my parents’ kitchen that I sobbed for the first time. I arrived at shul with my eyes tearing, avoiding the other petitioners’ gazes as I recited kaddish.

My father cherished his granddaughter. He nannied her for two months full-time by himself when she was only several months old, and he returned for each of the following two summers to care for her during the Augusts when her daycare was closed. This year, he had deliberately been planning to visit us during Sukkot to spend time with her while she was on holiday.

I have no memories of my years as a baby or toddler, and I don’t recall what my father was like with my younger brother, but he seemed to me a transformed person when he was with my daughter. He adored her utterly, and gave of himself completely and unconditionally. I have never known and cannot imagine a gentler, more caring grandfather. My baby’s loss of such a precious dedushka remains the hardest loss for me to accept.

When he died, we told her that he had been sick and then moved to a faraway place where he would no longer be ill, but he could no longer come to visit us. Upon leaving Israel for the funeral and shiva, I told her that I was going to America to help Dedushka Shurik move. Even today, I continue to struggle with how to talk about this with my not-yet-four-year-old daughter and attempt to nurture her memories of him. I’ve told her that I am reciting kaddish for my papa at the request of my mama (in part), but what can I relate to her about kaddish beyond this?

Before I returned to Israel, my mother took the last bills from my father’s wallet and purchased four sets of Play-Doh for my daughter as a final gift from Dedushka Shurik. We’ve given her two of them thus far and will give her the other two on coming special occasions.

Can one send presents to his loved ones from “a faraway place,” I wonder?

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 20

I heard something beautiful this week.

Two of the regulars at my morning minyan completed their eleven months of kaddish, just days apart, each reciting a prayer written by Jerusalem’s esteemed Rabbi Benny Lau (b. 1961) in memory of his own father. The first petitioner read softly through barely stifled sobs, but I managed to catch the words two days later during the second mourner’s recitation and then found the text online:

אבינו שבשמים
זכיתי להשלים אמירת קדיש לעילוי נשמת אבי מורי, מאז עלייתו לגנזי מרומים ועד עתה
השתדלתי לכבד את אבי בשנה זו בכל כוחי ובכל מאודי
ועתה אני עומד לפניך נרגש ואומר: עשיתי ככל אשר ציוותנו
כעת הזאת, בעומדי לפניך בזמן מנחה
אשא תחינה לפני כסא כבודך שיעלו כל תפילותיי לפניך לרצון
ותיטיב לאבי, הריני כפרת משכבו, את מקומו בעולם שכולו טוב
בקרב כל הברואים שהאירו את פניך בעולמך

לָכֵן בַּעַל הָרַחֲמִים
יַסְתִּירֵהוּ בְּסֵתֶר כְּנָפָיו לְעוֹלָמִים
וְיִצְרֹר בִּצְרוֹר הַחַיִּים אֶת נִשְׁמָתוֹ
ה’ הוּא נַחֲלָתוֹ
וְיָנוּחַ בְּשָׁלוֹם עַל מִשְׁכָּבוֹ, וְנֹאמַר אָמֵן

I also took the liberty of translating it:

Our Heavenly Father,
I was privileged to complete the recitation of Kaddish for the raising up of the soul of my father, my teacher, from his rising to the troves of the highest heavens until this moment.
I strove to honor my father this year with all my strength and all my might.
Now I stand before You emotionally and say: I have done as You commanded us.
At this moment, standing before You at mincha time,
I shall raise a plea before Your throne of glory, that all my prayers shall be brought before You and are acceptable to You for the good of my father, for I am the atonement for his resting-place, his place in a world that is all good,
Among all the creatures who illuminated Your face in Your world.

Therefore, may the All-Merciful One
Shelter him with the cover of His wings forever,
And bind his soul in the bond of life.
God is his heritage;
May he rest in his resting-place in peace; and let us say: Amen.

One’s kaddish journey must necessarily end. Inspired by Rabbi Lau, a tentative, personal prayer has cautiously started taking shape in my mind… perhaps I would recite some of it in Russian or English.

* * *

The final essay in Kaddish: Women’s Voices is titled ‘Ten Plus One, Two, Three…’ by Chana Reifman Zweiter who describes reciting kaddish for her father only three months after her final kaddish for her mother. At shul, I’ve met others who have recited kaddish almost consecutively for two or even three years… an endless, aching blur of grief.

The traditional Jewish mourning process has a designated end, and mourning must be kept in proportion; on these matters, Maimonides’ (1135-1204) Mishneh Torah is clear (Book of Judges, The Laws of Mourning 13:10-11):

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.

 

I fear the end of this year, but
I can’t keep this up forever.

* * *

Anyway, Zweiter alludes to a Mishnah in her essay, which now springs out in my mind (Brachot 4:4):

רבי אליעזר אומר, העושה תפילתו קבע, אין תפילתו תחנונים Rabbi Eliezer says: If a man makes his prayers keva, it is not a [genuine] supplication.

 

One of the classic dichotomies occupying Jewish educators the world over is the tension between keva-קבע (fixed religious requirements) and kavanah-כוונה (intention). I posit that if not for our People’s ages-old commitment to our Law (keva), no Jewish educators would be around for such a conversation. Yet it remains that I and countless others chafe at arbitrary and anachronistic restrictions and commandments, which are meaningless at their best and immoral at their worst. Ancient keva needs relevant, modern kavanah. The issue cannot be ignored, lest you lose us.

The Talmud, of course, seeks to understand the Mishnah’s use of the term keva. The rabbis do tend to aim for precision (Brachot 29b):

מאי קבע? א”ר יעקב בר אידי אמר רבי אושעיא כל שתפלתו דומה עליו כמשוי ורבנן אמרי כל מי שאינו אומרה בלשון תחנונים רבה ורב יוסף דאמרי תרוייהו כל שאינו יכול לחדש בה דבר What is meant by keva? — R. Jacob b. Idi said in the name of R. Oshaiah: Anyone whose prayer is like a heavy burden on him. The Rabbis say: Whoever is not able to say it in the manner of supplication. Rabbah and R. Joseph both say: Whoever is not able to insert something fresh in it.

 

Indeed, what do we mean by keva? As we see above, the Talmud presents us with three possibilities, and Rashi’s (1040-1105) dependable commentary awaits us on inner edge of the Talmud:

כמשוי. והיינו לשון קבע חוק קבוע הוא עלי להתפלל וצריך אני לצאת ידי חובתי 1 Like a heavy burden. And this is the language of “fixedness.” There is a “fixed” law upon me to pray. And I must fulfill my obligation.
מי שאינו יכול. לכוין לבו לשאול צרכיו 2 Whoever is not able to. To direct his heart to ask for his needs.
לחדש בה דבר. בבקשתו והיינו לשון קבע כיום כן אתמול כן מחר 3 Insert something fresh in it – in his request. And this is the language of “fixedness” – as today is, so was yesterday, so will be tomorrow.

 

These reflect three successive spiritual challenges on my journey [this year]:

  1. If prayer is but a heavy, fixed burden, the weight of endless, repetitive meaninglessness will suffocate my will. My resentment and sense of estrangement from tradition will render the kaddish journey intolerable. The aspiration: measured doses of keva; a balance between regular daily recitations and room for breath and thought.
  2. If I am unable to find and express myself in [any of] the prayers, I am reduced to the function of a cog in the machinery of Jewish tradition. The aspiration: understand myself; relate to [some of] the prayers; weave self and prayer together in my heart.
  3. If my kaddish journey is not dynamically self-aware, if my daily words are never my own, then this is not truly my process. The well-intentioned life of pure keva ultimately remains one of alienation from the self. I am a Jew; it’s true, but I am also this Jew (just as my father was).

* * *

Often, my father and I did not communicate well. He would accuse me of nitpicking at his words and missing his broader points, and I would accuse him of the same. Once, in a pleasant mood, I told him that I was content with my life and received a lecture on lacking for ambition. “You’re content? That is worrying. You shouldn’t be content – you should always be striving for something.”

Is peace an appropriate ambition for the soul? Peace can be a means or an end, a condition of activity or a condition of stillness. If peace is a means, then it is desirable so that the soul can work freely, without interference, and expend its energies only on what is significant to itself; but then the soul is not peaceful, the soul bustles and strains. Such peace is an external peace. But dare one aspire also to an internal peace, to peace as an end, to a peaceful soul? Or is the end of activity also the end of meaning?

– Leon Wieseltier, Kaddish, p. 318

I’ve caught myself on the thought recently that kaddish is not a peaceful process. My soul is not content; my mind is perpetually occupied, straining for understanding. I cull stories of my father from relatives, sifting through my memories, putting them to word and context. An “advantage” of dying before your time: people yet live who remember you.

At the recommendation of a dear cousin, I have reached out to my father’s close friend from his youth who lives still in Moscow. His name is also Alexander, but he goes by Sasha, rather than Shurik (like my father). Hopefully, we will speak soon. Once again, I’m thankful to be fluent in Russian.

* * *

A Loose End
(a tangent)

I found a quote (while reading in shul this morning) from Rabbi Soloveitchik (1903-1993), which I would have liked to include in blog post #18:

[Halakhic man’s] approach begins with an ideal construction and finishes with a real one. To whom may he be compared? – To a mathematician who fashions an ideal world and then uses it in order to establish a relation between it and the real world… There is no phenomenon, being or creature to which the a priori Halakhah does not truly apply its ideal standard.

– “Ish HaHalakhah,” Talpiot 1, no. 3-4 (1944): 665.

 

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 19

Tired.

There comes a point at which the furnace begins to sputter. One seeks fuel, whereas once it was piled up everywhere. Just yesterday, it would seem, everything was aflame or imminently flammable.

Would I have committed myself to this writing project if my father’s death hadn’t been so unexpected and sudden? If I’d been more prepared?

At not yet eleven months old, my daughter once stayed overnight at the hospital to receive treatment for pneumonia. She was home the next day, her condition improved markedly. My father, on the other hand, succumbed to pneumonia on the day that mama brought him to the hospital. Before learning of his death, I remember thinking well… it’s pneumonia… right…?

Still,
I might never
have been
ready, regardless.

Some twenty-five years ago, I saved papa’s life off the shore of Belmar, New Jersey. We were scuba diving together, and I recall the urgent look in his eyes when he signaled that we needed to surface. A lifelong smoker (mostly on, sometimes off), his breathing was labored, and he was struggling to swim. Instinctively, I pulled him along the surface towards a jetty, lodging myself between the craggy rocks, he in my arms, bracing with my legs for life. As the waves burst over us, I shielded his mouth with my hand. Luckily, some passersby noticed us and we were pulled up onto the seawall. I was unpanicked because his death was obviously impossible. Later, standing by his hospital bed, I still couldn’t fathom any different outcome.

He was approximately twenty-five years old when his hearing was permanently impaired, leaving him entirely deaf in his right ear, with constant background noise reverberating in his damaged left. This was the side effect of being treated for meningitis with streptomycin for ten days in a Soviet hospital. He lay unconscious those ten days, and the doctors thought he wouldn’t make it. On the tenth day, he awoke. His constitution is incredibly robust, they said, few others would have survived this. That’s how I remember him – always strong and fit, entertaining friends by lifting heavy chairs with a single hand grasping the bottom of one front leg. For me,
his life went beyond
the human, his
death: unthinkable.

* * *

The 2016 book Kaddish, a series of essays written by scholars and rabbis, is lying before me. The third essay is ‘For a God Who Mourns’ by Rabbi Noah Farkas. I am struck by his sensitivity (p. 45):

I am always moved by the mourner’s ability to rise and declare God’s greatness in the face of death. It takes bravery to mourn, and it takes strength to mourn. Kaddish is recited as a memorial prayer, and it requires all of our courage to be singled out publicly as bereaved and to tell the story of those who died.

I recall forcing myself to drive to shul every day during the shiva in a community that was not my own. I recall returning to the shul that I had stopped attending several years earlier. I recall shuddering, my finger quivering over my mouse button as I clicked on ‘Submit for Review’ for the first and second times. Farkas’ acknowledgement is well taken; thank you, Rabbi,
but it fades.
It does.

With time, the bravery cools; strength steadies; courage gives way to commitment. I read and write and ‘submit’ these blog posts, but I am not so affected as I once was. My father is dead; what words can hurt me? Let all the world know that I’m grieving, I say. Deal with it or don’t, but I shall not sugarcoat my mourning.

I recently finished reading another book: Kaddish: Women’s Voices. It’s an easy read, technically. Not so easy, emotionally. On bus rides, while waiting for lunch dates, whenever a moment presented itself, I could read the women’s essays in this book, absorbing their recollections of and reflections on their experiences of loss and kaddish. My reading was impeded only by tears. Parents, children. The old, the young. Natural causes, accidents and suicide. Comparisons rendered absurd, pointless.

During my shloshim period (the first 30 days of mourning) it was almost unbearable for me to attend somebody else’s shiva. Of that experience, I wrote in the late summer [link]:

For four days I listened as strangers honored the memory of a rabbi that I’d never known, all the while grieving silently, alone by the wall, over the untimely death of my own father, but not saying a word because it wasn’t my shiva house.

And:

It wasn’t fair of me, but I couldn’t help drawing comparisons.

Everything was about my pain then, and I could hardly feel beyond myself. Since, the shock has faded; I am more conscious of death and less surprised by it. I have again become able to hear others’ stories.

And this is the simple, stark truth of it:
There is no time for any of us but borrowed time.

In her TED Talk (below), the author Fawn Weaver dusts off the obvious, which too often slips by us. Heed, friends, for your loved ones yet living:

The love we share in this moment is the only love we are guaranteed to give. When we argue with those we love most, we make an unwise and presumptive decision. When we slam the door; hang up the phone on someone we love; when we spew hurtful words, we make an assumption: that they will later be there to allow us to apologize for our words, to make up for our nasty comments. We assume that they will be on the other side of the door when we decide to open it. Or that they will be on the receiving end of the phone when we decide to call again. But what a tragedy it is for those who never get that chance.

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 16

The kaddish d’rabbanan (the rabbis’ kaddish) is recited by mourners during prayer services after sections of liturgy that take the form of Rabbinic discourse. As such, it contains a prayer for the well-being of Torah students:

עַל יִשְׂרָאֵל וְעַל רַבָּנָן, To Israel, to the teachers,
וְעַל תַּלְמִידֵיהוֹן their disciples
וְעַל כָּל תַּלְמִידֵי תַלְמִידֵיהוֹן, and their disciples’ disciples
וְעַל כָּל מָאן and to all who
דְּעָסְקִין בְּאוֹרַיְתָא, engage in the study of Torah
דִּי בְאַתְרָא (קדישא) הָדֵין in this (holy) place
וְדִי בְכָל אֲתַר וַאֲתַר. or elsewhere,
יְהֵא לְהוֹן may there come to them
וּלְכוֹן שְׁלָמָא רַבָּא, and you great peace,
חִנָּא וְחִסְדָּא וְרַחֲמִין, grace, kindness and compassion,
וְחַיִּין אֲרִיכִין, וּמְזוֹנֵי רְוִיחֵי, long life, ample sustenance
וּפֻרְקָנָא, and deliverance
מִן קֳדָם אֲבוּהוֹן דִּי בִשְׁמַיָּא from their Father in Heaven
וְאִמְרוּ אָמֵן and say: Amen.

The siddurim lining the shelves of the shul in America where I first began my kaddish journey did not include the word ‘holy’  (recited only in Israel); and I didn’t note its insertion into the Israeli version of the kaddish d’rabbanan when I first returned home to Jerusalem. Eventually, Zvi, a friend from minyan, pointed it out to me, and I began to recite ‘קדישא’ with intentionality. It has become a daily reminder of my father’s immeasurable love for Eretz Yisrael.

I also feel particularly connected to my papa through this scholars’ kaddish, for he was a lifelong learner, driven by intellectual curiosity. Every day I look forward to this kaddish in particular, for the words of the shorter kaddish neither move nor speak to me. Reading, learning, sharing, discussing, processing and writing infuse my traditional Jewish practice with meaning.

* * *

Is Kaddish meant to express my loss or to contain it, I wondered? …

In the rabbinic tradition, the words of the Torah are famously described as black fire upon white fire. The black fire is to be interpreted… But the white fire, too, is laden with meaning… Black fire is language and thus contraction; white fire is reflection, emotion, expansiveness. In shul, I was white fire fighting with black fire, reaching for the words to enclose my feelings, but then spilling back again into the margins…

This beautiful metaphor can be found in an essay titled ‘Loss for Words’ by Prof. Rachel Mesch, published in the book Kaddish: Women’s Voices (p. 36), lent to me by my friend Debbie who is also reciting kaddish for her father. Mesch elegantly captures this aspect of the kaddish, which I’ve been grappling with from the first.

I must do something more, say something more, convey something more than the words of kaddish, else I will be burned empty from within. Wrestling with every word, I strive to express this searing experience to myself. Every blog post relieves, but the white fire is endless, boundless. Often I simply don’t know what to do with myself or where to put myself; my emotions startle me and defy my mind.

On an unsuspecting day in mid-August, I was singing to myself at home in the morning, readying for work. My wife and daughter were out with my mother-in-law, and I had no immediate responsibilities to my family for the first time since returning from the shiva one month prior. For some unknowable reason, the words that came to my tongue were from the famous ‘Song of the Sea’ in Exodus:

Ozi v’Zimrat Yah Vayahi li lishuah עָזִּי וְזִמְרָת יָהּ, וַיְהִי-לִי לִישׁוּעָה The Lord is my strength and my defense; he has become my salvation.

 

I didn’t notice my voice rising at first, but as it filled the apartment and space contracted, I realized that I was bellowing at the top of my lungs. Eventually, some part of me quieted, and the walls drew back. Tentatively, I raised my voice again, but this was apparently too deliberate. Something within me had shifted, and my singing settled into quiet contemplation.

* * *

What if there’s something other than contraction and expansiveness, between the black and white, restricted by the one and aspiring towards the other? Is it gray fire flowing out upon my keyboard? My words may be interpretable, but they have long since spilled out past the margins of my prayer book. Some truths do defy our comprehension, but still we are compelled to pursue them.

* * *

I share the imagery of black fire upon white fire with my friend Sagi, and he reflects that the concept of the Torah’s white fire (unknowable, uninterpretable truth) reminds him of Prof. Kurt Gödel’s (1906-1978) incompleteness theorems, the first of which posits that for any sufficiently expressive math system, there will always be statements that are true, but that are unprovable within the system.

This is not something that I recall my father specifically discussing with me, but I do remember seeing the book Gödel, Escher, Bach sitting on his shelf. I am sure he would have loved this comparison, tying together the Torah’s and mathematics’ pursuits of truth and the limitations inherent to both.

* * *

I am certain that this approach to my kaddish journey is heightening my self-awareness and lowering my barriers to vulnerability. It’s also interesting that kaddish itself is not the only way and not even the primary way that Jews may honor their departed parents. Rabbi Solomon Ganzfried (1804-1886) wrote (Kitzur Shulchan Arukh 26:22):

Though kaddish and prayers are helpful to the departed, they are not of primary importance. What is most essential is that their children proceed in the path of righteousness and, in that manner, bring merit to their parents.

These words are heartening, for I can only do what I can do, and I do it simply because I must. Ultimately, this is true for all of us who are mourning our loved ones.

Somewhere between our endless, unfathomable, and inarticulable experiences of loss and the unyielding rootedness of our traditions we come to discover our own gray fires. In mourning, we offer what we can.