To India (and others) with love

How did I end up on WordPress?

The Times of Israel website is an international news portal, read by millions of people around the world every month, and, of course, the percentage of its readership that is Jewish is particularly high, as one would probably expect.

Given this, I naturally decided to publish my ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ series there following my father’s death. The decision was an instinctive one.

Later, after I’d completed my year of reciting kaddish, I eventually decided to transfer the ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ to this personal WordPress blog, primarily so that I, my family, and our friends could more readily browse and navigate my yearlong kaddish journey in honor of Papa.


The WordPress that readers do not see

WordPress, WordPress, WordPress.

I suppose I should have expected nothing less in 2020.

In a world of soundbites, Tweets and Instagram posts, I rejected those limited mediums in favor of substance. I’ve always been a writer at heart; blogging came naturally to me. But- inescapably- today’s WordPress is just another node on the social network.

Those of you who don’t blog on WordPress wouldn’t know that WordPress encourages its bloggers to create Facebook and Twitter accounts for their blogs, as well as to monetize our blogs in various ways. It also goes a step further – the website provides us with readership statistics. Look how many people have viewed your blog today! Look how many people have commented! Look have many people have ‘liked’ one of your posts! Look! Look! Look!

Look to see what countries most of your views are coming from! Look! Look! Look!

In any case, I don’t quite understand it, but it seems that most of my views are coming from India and surrounding countries.


Would you like to understand me?

And, so, I find myself in an unexpected position, as everything I write is from a distinctly Jewish perspective. I don’t have any personal connection to India (although I ❤️ Indian food), but apparently many residents of India, among others throughout Asia, find my content intriguing.

On the one hand, some ideas and values are universal, and I relish discussions on culture, religion, and politics across international borders. On the other hand, being committedly Jewish is a very particular experience in some very fundamental ways, and I’d like to expound upon some of these for my new readers. Based upon our interactions, it would seem that you’d like to know more about where I’m coming from.

Below are some preliminary personal reflections on how I relate to being a Jew.


Judaism: not a “religion”

Much of this feels odd for me to write because it’s all so ingrained in me, but, still, let’s lay out some basics.

The first thing that I would like to make clear is that Judaism is unlike every other “religion” that I am aware of in one very specific way (feel free to challenge me with contradictory evidence). The reason I put the word “religion” in quotes is – Judaism is not really a religion. Or, rather, if you want to insist that it is a “religion” (as some do), then you must make a distinction between “Judaism” and “Jewishness”.

In Russian, for example (but not in colloquial American English), there rightly exist two separate terms: 1) Yevrei (A Hebrew; a Jew by nationality) and 2) Iudei (A person of the Jewish faith). A Yevrei is analogous to an Indian, and a Iudei is akin to a person of the Hindu faith.

For the vast majority of Jewish history, no such distinction existed because, as I’ve written, previous to the Jewish Emancipation in the 18th and 19th centuries:

… one had been either a Jew living among Jews in a Jewish community according to Jewish traditions or: not. There existed no distinction between ethnicity and religion.

The more curious among you may be interested to know that a Jew by the name of Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677, Dutch Republic) was the first Jew to publicly challenge the basic tenets of Jewish faith, including the core doctrine that the Torah is of Divine origin. Spinoza was an Enlightenment philosopher and the Jewish community expelled him for his iconoclastic views. In those times, a Jew could not declare his rejection of the Jewish faith and expect to remain in the Jewish fold.

In the modern day, this is no longer an issue outside of the most traditional circles. Many Jews comfortably identify as agnostics or atheists, while maintaining their cultural Jewish identities and even affiliating with Jewish religious communities. In many conversations of mine with religious people of other faith traditions, I have found that this concept is very challenging for them. Can there be such a thing as an atheist Christian or Muslim?


Peoplehood: a primary facet of Jewish identity

Personally, I have always felt very comfortable in my skin as a Jew, and I was always proud of my ethnic identity even as a child, long, long before I decided that it bore deep exploration.

As I have explored the many facets of Jewish identity over the years, as well as my respective degrees of attachment to them, my thinking has gradually evolved, and ultimately, I’ve come to some fairly straightforward understandings of myself.


An understanding of peoplehood as extended family

I had a wonderful conversation not so long ago with somebody who had converted to Judaism through an Orthodox conversion process. Of all the Jewish denominations, Orthodoxy (in all its variants) is the most legalistic. It is the most committed to the observance of halakhah, which is Jewish religious law.

Orthodoxy (and Conservative Judaism as well) maintains the traditional legal definition of ‘Who is a Jew’, which is as follows: one must either 1) be born to a Jewish mother, or 2) convert to Judaism before a council of 3 adult Jewish males who committedly live according to halakhah.

The Orthodox convert with whom I was conversing laid out the following train of thought for me:

  1. Halakhah is God’s Law.
  2. God’s Law defines who is a Jew, including the setting of the standards for conversion to Judaism.
  3. Conversions to Judaism performed according to halakhah are legitimate, and conversions conducted by other standards are illegitimate. (Reform Judaism, for example, does not consider halakhah binding.)
  4. Any understanding of Jewish group identity not based upon God’s Law is inherently unreliable and based upon human, limited biases.
  5. These limited human biases regarding the matter of “Who is a Jew” ultimately have no bearing upon “true reality” (which is entirely defined by God’s will) and boil down to nothing more than mere human racism.

In the interest of dialogue, I responded as follows:

  1. It is natural to love one’s family, including family members who may have different ethnic identities than one has him/herself.
  2. According to Jewish tradition and religious doctrine, the Jewish people are the descendants of our forefather Abraham and foremother Sarah, and this, according to our tradition, includes all converts throughout the centuries.
  3. It is therefore no more racist for a Jew to have a special love for his/her people than it would be for someone to love their extended family, and neither halakhah nor God need enter into this equation.

That’s how I see it. The Jewish people are an extended family.

By the way, there is another simple reason why my love of the Jewish people is not racist: conversion. Simple put, the Jews have never been an exclusive club. While we are, indeed, a people, any human being on earth can join our tribe.


An understanding of peoplehood as another step beyond the monkeysphere

Are you familiar with Dunbar’s number? It’s a very important concept, otherwise known as the monkeysphere. I’ll quote Wikipedia:

Dunbar’s number is a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships—relationships in which an individual knows who each person is and how each person relates to every other person… Humans can comfortably maintain 150 stable relationships…

150 stable relationships is the average limit for us humans, but that’s not to say that all of those relationships are equally meaningful to us. Within our respective monkeyspheres, we usually care most about our nuclear family members, then our friends, and then our communities, right?

Of course, we humans are also naturally concerned with other human beings far beyond our monkeyspheres. For example, we are likely to be concerned with the well-being of other people in the cities and countries where we reside. Many of us are even concerned with all of humanity’s well-being – otherwise why would one be concerned about global pollution and carbon emissions?

There is clearly a spectrum for every one of us, ranging from the most particular to the most universal relationships, and one of my rabbis once made a beautiful point to me in this vein, regarding the concept of Jewish peoplehood.

Essentially, he explained, our universal concern for others throughout the world is grounded in our ability to empathize with and appreciate the worth of every individual human being. We are capable of relating to the humanity of those whom we will never meet because we intimately recognize the humanity of those who are within our monkeyspheres, and we intuitively understand that all humans have close, stable relationships with other humans – just as we do ourselves.

If we take this a step farther, we can make the following argument: our relationships with our nuclear families inform our relationships with our circles of friends, which in turn inform our relationships with our communities, which in turn inform our relationships with those who live in our cities, etc., etc.

Essentially, each of our spheres of concern allow our limited human minds to grasp the concept of the next larger sphere beyond it. One cannot truly be universally concerned for all of humanity if one does not first understand the experiences of being human and of maintaining close human relationships.

My relationship to my people is one of my many spheres of concern. Because of this relationship, I am better able to value your humanity, dear Reader, even if we’ll never meet.

By the way, the fact that my people live throughout the world in different countries and cultures makes it all the easier for me to relate to people who may have very different life experiences than my own.


Carrying my people with me everywhere

At its core, the Torah has always been a legal system. Regardless of whether it is of Divine origin or not, it is the Law that we have lived by since first becoming an independent nation. Of course, we became a nation some three millennia ago – at a time when all nations were known by their gods; and the One God, the Creator of the Universe, was, for the ancient Israelites, their Monarch.

There was a time when I had convinced myself of the Torah’s Divine origin. I believed that, ultimately, all of halakhic practice came from God, and that I was obligated by God to adhere to it.

After a year of studying Torah in Jerusalem, I traveled to Russia for a summer to work at a JAFI children’s camp. There, I was one of only two observant people on staff (the other was my not-yet-wife). We two were the only ones limiting ourselves to kosher food, and I was the only one who prayed three times a day, donning phylacteries and prayer shawl every morning.

Even back then, believing as I did that I was following God’s will, the experience of committedly adhering to the traditional Jewish way of life in the diaspora left me with an unexpected insight, which had nothing to do with the spiritual or the supernatural.

In a substantive way, our lives in our respective countries are defined by local legal systems, languages, and popular cultures. Humans are of particular nationalities while they live in their home countries, but once they emigrate, how many future generations maintain the nationalities of their parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents? Let’s say a couple moves from India to the USA. How strongly will their American-born children identify as Indian? What about their American-born grandchildren?

Every summer that I traveled to work in Russia, the traditions of the Jewish people surrounded me like a bubble, reinforcing my national identity. One who follows the traditions of the Torah can never fully assimilate into another culture; (s)he can never cease identifying as a member of the Jewish people, even as (s)he may very strongly identify with the country in which (s)he resides.

As a Jew who finds tremendous personal meaning in his ties to the Jewish people, the calculus is quite simple.

A father’s legacy

During my year of kaddish, as I wrote and prayed, I came upon the blog of a retired professor and rabbi on the Times of Israel. Rabbi Prof. Esor Ben-Sorek remains a prolific blogger on the TOI, and he has continued writing in memory of his beloved Rahel who encouraged him. It so happens that he and I agree on nearly everything related to American and Israeli politics, and I’ve very much enjoyed reading his writing over the last years. Still, the blog posts that most draw me are those in which he expresses his grief at losing his lifemate of fifty-six years.

Rabbi Ben-Sorek and I have corresponded and found a common language, sharing our writings and reflections with one another. I feel lucky to have met him, albeit only virtually.

Just today, unexpectedly to me, he wrote a moving piece about my ‘Kaddish Blog’ (the project that eventually seeded this website), in which I journaled my reflections about the experience of daily reciting the mourner’s kaddish for a year following Papa’s death. I am profoundly touched. Shabbat shalom to you, Rabbi.

Below is the text of his post in full:

* * *

‘A father’s legacy’
by Rabbi Prof. Esor Ben-Sorek

Rabbi Prof. Esor Ben-Sorek

Many of us often give thought how to best preserve the memory of a departed loved one.

My simple way is to fulfill my wife’s dying words to me “do not stop your writing. It will be good therapy for you”. I have continued my writing but I cannot recognize any therapy. My grieving continues after four years since her death.

I am inspired by the brilliant writing of one of our TOI bloggers, David Bogomolny in Jerusalem.

He set a goal for himself to preserve and to share with us treasured memories of his beloved father, Papa Alexander.

In fiction or in poetry he has brought his dear father to life and through David’s loving and sentimental words all of us who have read his legacy can feel that we too once knew him.

Some time ago I had been in correspondence with David and at one time I suggested that he compile his separate stories into a book to be submitted for publication. It would be remarkable reading for all of us, especially for those of us who have lost a dear one in our immediate family.

Precious words create precious memories and with those memories kept alive our departed loved ones continue to live on within us and can be passed along to our children as part of their very own legacy.

I have tried over the past four years to compile a book based upon the 103 love-letters that Rahel and I exchanged with one another prior to our marriage in Tel-Aviv in 1960. But as I re-read many of them I decided that they were too personal to be shared with strangers. Only one of my three children has read some of them and she too has found them filled with loving words, emotional words, which bring tears to the eyes.

I know that feeling only too well. I don’t have to re-read the letters to recall the memories. Each room in our home is filled with Rahel’s photos, some standing on tables, some hung on the walls. I have created, in my daughter’s words, “a shrine for Ima”.

A shrine, for me, represents a place for religious devotion. Her “shrine” is rather a place of constant memory which can be seen as I enter any and every room. I see her smiling at me and I try hard to smile back at her but the tears overflow and my eyes grow dim.

My son is a doctor and on more than one occasion he has suggested that I consult with a psychiatrist to overcome my depression which, in my son’s words, has lasted far too long. As a doctor he has dealt with death many times. But the death of his mother, my wife, he has learned to overcome with emotion and great love and respect for her. He makes a point of visiting her grave at the cemetery from time to time.

In the first year of her death I made a practice at first of visiting her grave once every week and then it became once a month and after four years of grieving and mourning the visits take place only before all Jewish holidays.

My legacy for her remains glued to my heart and cannot be separated from my body.

I envy David Bogomolny who is able so beautifully to remember his father and to transfer his grief and emotions into fitting words of a son’s eternal love.

You are able to read his love for his Papa and to share his emotions while my pain and repressed words remain more private and unknown to most of my readers.

I write what I can in fulfillment of the promise I made to Rahel. And I read aloud to her smiling portrait every article that is published. I wait for her response, her critique, her opinion. But there is only silence! I can expect no more.

But her legacy continues to inspire me with each word I put down on paper.

If you happen to read the work of David Bogomolny I hope you will find it inspirational as a son’s eternal legacy to his beloved father. Yehi zichro baruch. May his memory be a blessing.

Keyboard Judaism

When I discovered Orthodox Judaism at the age of eighteen, I experienced it as the meaningful vision for religious Judaism that I had never thought to imagine. Through many of the years that followed, even when I wasn’t a practicing Jew, I aspired only to Orthodoxy. I judged myself and others by the standards and positions of the mainstream Orthodox community.

Although there was deep dissonance for me between the ideals of the extended Orthodox community and the modern society I inhabited, I pushed it out of my mind. The confidence in Orthodoxy’s voice lent it credibility with me, and, like most that pass through this uncertain world, I found solace in certainty.

For me today, there lies elusive but enticing comfort in the unlikely possibility that the lives of individuals have purpose, and there also exists a second, concomitant comfort for me in the existence of my people. For complicated reasons, some indiscernible even to myself, I find great meaning in being a Jew. This lends me some sense of purpose, therefore I am invested in my nation’s continuity.

Either way, I must acknowledge to myself that I am done with Orthodoxy, but: ending this particular train of thought here would miss the point.

* * *

Being done with Orthodoxy in a world of limited communal options is a fairly meaningless sentiment if the remaining alternatives are lacking for me; and communities, as far as I am concerned, are the Jewish nation’s largest building blocks. With due respect to God, to the extent that I can muster it (a failing of mine), I find Judaism without community nearly meaningless.

While my thinking has evolved from Orthodoxy to Heterodoxy, and I have developed sincere respect for people’s personal agencies and choices, as well as a deep appreciation for the historical contexts and worldviews of the non-Orthodox denominations, I retain a concern about non-Orthodoxy, which hasn’t abated over the years.

Simply put, I believe that the greatest failing of non-Orthodoxy is the relative ignorance that the great majority of its adherents have of Judaism, including ignorance of Jewish history, language, theology, literature… you name it.

One need not follow Jewish religious law (halakhah) in an Orthodox way, nor follow it at all, but I cannot wrap my mind around the notion of a meaningful Jewish identity empty of Jewish substance. There is much to laud in non-Orthodoxy, and I am happy to do so, but non-Orthodoxy around the world seems to be moving increasingly towards human universalism, away from national particularism.

At some point, universalism does cease to be Judaism, but: ending this particular train of thought here would miss the point.

* * *

A serious, developing problem of mine is that I am increasingly creating my own religious experience, apart from Jewish community of any sort… and the developing of one’s own, private Judaism is distinctly a heterodox undertaking.

I recently wrote, regarding my kaddish blogging following Papa’s death:

… I was successfully constructing a powerful, personalized religious experience… Even today, more than a year after completing my year of mourning for Papa, I’m still living off of my kaddish’s fumes.

– Me, ‘Resting on Religious Laurels’, Sept. 11, 2020

Thinking on this further, I realize that I’m doing much more than ‘living off my kaddish’s fumes’. On this website, I have been, in fact, throwing endless words atop my spiritual pyre. Yes, true, I attended synagogue every single day for an entire year following Papa’s death; and, true, I recited the traditional orphan’s kaddish in his memory every day… but it was my thinking and writing, which imbued my kaddish experience with real meaning.

Now, having returned to writing some two-thirds of a year after completing my kaddish odyssey, I realize how much purpose this process continues to provide me with. While I think that Judaism without community is pointless, it would seem that the essence of my own Judaism is being actualized in the chair before my keyboard.

COVID-19 lockdowns have certainly limited my access to community during this last half year and more, but… I haven’t been desperately clawing for any opportunities for communal engagement (which yet exist), nor tearing at the gates of my synagogue to return to daily communal prayer.

Instead, I’ve been writing.

And now I wonder: is my Judaism without community any more Jewishly substantive than a Judaism without Jewish substance?

Resting on Religious Laurels

Given that I was raised in a secular Jewish family, I give myself credit for observing the religious laws of Shabbat and kashrut. Also, given that I was raised in the United States of America, I give myself credit for bringing my daughter up in the State of Israel. Bully for me.

I am, somewhat inexplicably, a tremendously proud Jew.

This is not to say that we Jews shouldn’t be proud of our ancient tradition, storied history, and civilization-shaping impact. We absolutely, very much should be. Nevertheless, given the West’s ethos of universalism today, particularly in the USA where I was raised, many Jewish moderns are not much interested in their roots. In this context, I would describe the extent of my Jewish pride as ‘inexplicable’ to me.

Once, more than a decade ago, I was told that living as a religious Jew in modern society is a countercultural choice. This came as a surprise to me – what was countercultural about actively seeking a meaningful connection with one’s heritage? I had never considered that my fascination with Judaism might be inconsonant with the 21st century West. Over the years, however, that innocently seeded idea wormed its way through my mind’s soil, gradually extending and deepening its roots.

* * *

God knows I’ve had my religious ups and downs.

Before Papa died in the summer of 2018, I had been going through a three year period of religious crisis, and I was suffering for lack of connection to my Jewish community. My soul’s pain was endless, but I couldn’t bring myself to pray. That’s hard for me to share, but it’s true.

Nevertheless, after learning of Papa’s death, I realized that I had to take the recitation of the orphan’s kaddish upon myself, as expected by Jewish tradition of a son. I couldn’t fathom the guilt I would certainly feel if I chose to pass on the once-in-a-lifetime year of mourning for my father. What would all of my Jewish studies and explorations have amounted to if I had opted out of this custom?

Kaddish recitation for a deceased parent involves eleven months of thrice daily prayers with a quorum of ten Jewish adults, usually at a synagogue. Listing all of the many reasons why this was challenging for me would require an entire blog post, but one stood out. I felt like an utter fake, praying daily at synagogues with various groups of seriously committed Jews. What the hell was I doing?

My rationality demanded that I mark the experience with my own words, which were, and remain, less than faithful. Once I began writing that year, 30 days after burying my father, I found that I couldn’t help but continue to pour myself entirely into my ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’. The project indeed sustained me – I made it through the entirety of that kaddish year. Those many personal reflections and deep doubts, bared so publicly, preserved my sanity.

But later there would come consequences.

* * *

Firstly, looking back at it, I was successfully constructing a powerful, personalized religious experience, the most powerful one of my four decades. Even today, more than a year after completing my year of mourning for Papa, I’m still living off of my kaddish’s fumes.

Secondly, unlike the experience of my three-year spiritual drought, which ended with Papa’s death, I no longer seriously aspire towards a connection with any concept I have remaining of the Divine. Given the perhaps inevitable route and landing-place of my kaddish odyssey, which saw me chasing after my inner demons and angels alike that year, I have ceased believing that such a thing is even plausible. It is my responsibility to myself to create meaning, but that’s easier said than done.

* * *

I suppose that, like any other not-so-devout Jew, I was heading for disappointment after the daily intensity of my kaddish journey, but I couldn’t see it looming.

At first I continued attending services every day, deliberately focusing on the kaddishes recited by those who were in mourning. I would respond to them forcefully, as the Talmud suggests but hardly anybody does:

אריב”ל כל העונה אמן יהא שמיה רבא מברך בכל כחו קורעין לו גזר דינו R. Joshua b. Levi said: He who responds, ‘Amen, May His great Name be blessed,’ with all his might, his decreed sentence is torn up
Tractate Shabbat 119b

Somehow, by centering myself and responding loudly, I felt that I was still a participant in the prescribed mourning process, despite having concluded my designated year of kaddish.

Then winter rolled around and the rains came. During my year of kaddish, I would walk with my trench coat and umbrella through the rain to shul, splashing determinedly through the puddles, but I was no longer expected to… and, besides… we had switched apartments and the walk was slightly longer now…

I didn’t want to admit it, but my will to attend daily prayers was fading. Then, out of the blue, a pandemic broke out: COVID-19, they called it.

Everything changed. At first prayer services were cancelled indefinitely. Eventually, they were held again in smaller numbers and only outdoors. All attendees had to wear face masks and sit two meters apart from one another. I attended morning services on Shabbat thrice this summer – twice to honor two friends’ deceased parents and once to honor my own Papa on the 2nd anniversary of his death… but it seemed that the flitting flies enjoyed the sun’s warm morning rays more than I did.

* * *

The line between truth and excuse can be a fine one, and perhaps I have crossed it.

Pandemic, relative inconvenience and discomfort, the near sublimation of my beloved prayer community… Beyond my kaddish recitations, I used to find the motivation to attend services in the company of my friends and acquaintances.

And, of course, how can I doubt the earnestness of my commitment to Judaism? Haven’t I chosen to make my life in Israel? Haven’t I adopted religious Sabbath observance? Haven’t I… Haven’t I… Haven’t I…?

Short story: Serious

The old men in their prayer shawls looked exactly as they did in that photograph that Eema had taken from the women’s section of the synagogue when she’d come to services for Abba’s first yahrzeit. Looking at the picture, one could almost hear the petitioners chanting softly to themselves as they swayed back and forth to their internal rhythms.

He had never been interested in photography himself, but he’d seen enough of Abba’s photography to know a good shot when he saw it. The lighting in the sanctuary was a soft gold, and the stern-looking bearded Jews, viewed through the lattice work of the mechitzah, had a distant, yet reassuring air of wisdom about them. “Why do so many people prefer to admire ‘wisdom’ from a comfortable distance?” mused Ephraim.

“Kaddish!”

The young man snapped out of his reverie and closed his eyes tightly, readying himself. The prayer leader, who had lost his mother just two weeks ago, and another elderly gentleman who had shuffled over to the lectern solemnly began reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish together. From the very back of the room, he could hear them chanting.

* * *

Almost four years. Almost four years. Almost four years. It never got easier. “I miss you so much, Abba… and I’m still coming to shul for Kaddish. I think you would have been proud of me.” Ephraim wiped his eyes. This was something he hoped that Abba would have appreciated. He was bearing Yosef’s vow.

Abba had always been a believer but never a synagogue-goer until Saba had died. Then, at the shiva, he had gingerly taken his father’s worn, leather-bound prayerbook off of the oaken bookshelf in the small, stuffy study where Saba had kept his Judaica library. He flipped reverently through the old siddur, turning to Ephraim with glistening eyes. “It’s time for Kaddish. Please gather the guests for minyan, Ephie.”

Dutifully, Abba led services and recited Kaddish thrice daily at Saba’s home for the seven days of shiva. Then he started praying every day at Saba’s synagogue: morning, afternoon, and evening. Kaddish for Saba became his project, and he took it seriously, scribbling notes in the margins and underlining the words of the old prayerbook in pencil, as he researched the history and meanings that underpinned the ancient doxology. The old men at shul had been very impressed with Abba’s seriousness. “Yosef is a good son,” they nodded approvingly. “Yaakov would have been proud.”

When Abba’s year of mourning had ended, he’d vowed to continue attending services to ensure that other mourners would have a minyan to recite Kaddish. He’d felt it was the least he could do for Saba’s community. “Also,” thought Ephie, “Abba hadn’t been ready to stop. One year of kaddish hadn’t felt enough.”

Whenever a mourner recited Kaddish, Yosef would close his eyes tightly, readying himself for the response. In keeping with a Talmudic text that he’d learned during his year of mourning, Yosef would shout his response to the mourners from his seat at the back of the sanctuary: “Yehe shmeh rabba mevarakh leʻalam ulʻalme ʻalmaya.” He’d actually written out the rabbinic text on the inside cover of the siddur:

אריב”ל כל העונה אמן יהא שמיה רבא מברך בכל כחו קורעין לו גזר דינו R. Joshua b. Levi said: He who responds, ‘Amen, May His great Name be blessed,’ with all his might, his decreed sentence is torn up
Tractate Shabbat 119b

* * *

It was only several years later that Abba unexpectedly died after a bout of severe pneumonia. He’d been so looking forward to marking his father’s fourth yahrzeit at shul, but he’d never made it out of Sha’are Zedek Medical Center, and just like that, Ephie found himself leafing through his father’s scribbles in the margins of Saba’s beloved prayerbook. Yaakov and Yosef would both have wanted him to take Kaddish seriously.

Despite his profound skepticism, Ephie went through the motions. He attended daily services at Saba’s synagogue, leading the prayers and reciting Kaddish for his father. The old men, he knew, believed that he was elevating Yosef’s soul, or redeeming it somehow, but he rejected such archaic superstitions. Kaddish only mattered because Abba believed in it… and also… The old men at shul were so damned endearing and supportive. They’d been truly devastated when Yosef died, just as they’d been upon Ya’akov’s death four years prior.

When his year of mourning ended, and despite his deep inner resistance, Ephie realized that his task wasn’t over. From the first, his Kaddish had never been intended only for Abba; it had been for everyone. Eema had committed to learning how to use Abba’s photgraphy equipment, and Ephie had taken over Yosef’s Kaddish.

More skeptic than kaddish

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

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

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

Somewhat paradoxically, it also reinforced my religious skepticism.

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

But I will always remain a Jew.

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

The candle that we lit for Papa’s yahrzeit

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

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

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

I chose not to go to shul.

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

Mourning in the 2nd year

I’m nearing the end of my 2nd year of mourning for my Papa who died on July 7, 2018. This ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ website, established ~8 months into this year has served as an emotional release valve, which I need more than I had realized.

The prose and poetry herein haven’t been exclusively devoted to memories of Papa or the perpetual pain of losing him, but it’s been a relief to have this depository. Also, it feels that all these reflections have been written by a reconstructed Me, permanently transformed in the wake of Papa’s death. Indeed, my loss suffuses every single letter.

Poetry has been an unexpected outcome of this website’s launch. Until recently, I hadn’t written poetry in some two decades, but I was moved to write a poem in memory of Papa, and the rusted floodgates crumbled. I’ve since written more poetry, including a second poem about Papa that I am particularly proud of, which I shared with several close acquaintances.

This led my friend Aliza to remark:

Wow. I can see you put a lot of thought and feeling into it. It made me understand better how central your father was to your life. I don’t think I really understood that before… I don’t think you have ever talked to me about your father and your feelings about him.

Aliza’s observation struck me, given that my conversations with her are always very transparent. Her words reaffirmed my own dawning realization: my ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ series, written during the first year after Papa’s death while I was reciting the mourner’s kaddish every day, had distracted me from grief. In fact, even the traditional daily grind of attending prayer services at shul to recite kaddish had served as a diversion.

In my final ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ (#51), written in August, 2019, I attempted to list all of the reasons I’d had for plunging into and following my project through. I wrote:

As I see it, I embarked upon my ‘skeptic’s kaddish’ odyssey for: 1) myself, 2) my father, 3) my family, 4) Jewish tradition.

Under the category of “for myself” I identified five personal needs that I had met by recording my mourning experience that year: 1) processing, 2) consistency, 3) connection, 4) curiosity, and 5) pride. Today, further removed from that kaddish journey, I realize that my project had met an additional need of mine: 6) coping. ‘The Skeptic’s Kaddish’ had soaked up most of my emotional energies.

* * *

Some say that the second year of grieving is more difficult than the first. Others disagree. I only know my own experience.

In my 2nd year of grieving (distinct from the previous year because I was no longer reciting kaddish) I have found myself dreaming about Papa on a regular basis. There have been all sorts of dreams. Some have felt real, and others I have known to be fantastical even as I lie asleep. Despite my efforts at self-care, a nihilistic cloud has been hanging over my heart and I don’t entirely know what to do about it. At the start of this 2nd year, I wanted to continue writing about mourning; but I didn’t want to become “that guy” – an obsessive, one trick pony; and I felt that anything more than my allotted year would be overly peculiar.

Also, my daughter has continued to grow up, and her comments and questions have been becoming increasingly exhaustive and exhausting. I always respond calmly and thoroughly to her regarding the implications of death, life, love, God, humanity, my own emotional state, etc., but these conversations often leave me curled up on the inside.

This all sounds very melodramatic. Indeed, loss has woven itself into the fibers of my soul, but this is the way of humankind. It’s a natural process that I have embraced. Truly, I am actually doing quite well – so no need to worry.

In fact, prior to the unexpected COVID-19 outbreak, I had been planning to find myself a therapist to discuss grief with (and I may still). However, as I draft this post I realize that expressing myself through writing during these last couple of months has been quite healing for me, and this time it hasn’t been a diversion.