My most disturbing dream

I’ve had a recurring dream, in which Papa somehow comes back to life some months after dying, only to die again permanently several months later. For some unclear reason, his temporary resurrection is not made public to everyone; and we are all aware and certain that it is, indeed, temporary. The details are very hazy to me, but my dream-self experiences this scenario as having been true. In other words, my dream-self perceives this as an actual memory, rather than as a fantasy.

In this dream, I try to explain to Papa and to myself why I am continuing to mourn him during that interim period between his two deaths. In other words, why did I continue reciting kaddish during the traditional Jewish year of mourning that began with his original death, and why did I continue writing every week about my mourning, while knowing that he wasn’t really dead, even though his reprieve from death was temporary?

My dream-self offers several related answers.

  1. First of all, my dream-self explains, Papa was in the USA, and I was in Israel so even though Papa magically came back to life, I never actually saw him in the flesh after his resurrection so he was still dead from my dream perspective.
  2. Secondly, since I knew that Papa’s days were numbered anyway, and since I’d already commenced with my traditional year of mourning, I had to continue going through the motions because his resurrection was supernatural anyway, and our tradition doesn’t account for such surreal circumstances.
  3. Thirdly, Papa really was dead, sort of. In my dream-memory he was somewhat ghostlike, hanging out at home all day and avoiding the outside world.
  4. Fourthly, the situation was too strange to explain to everybody who was reading about my mourning experience on a weekly basis. My dream-self reasons that it wouldn’t have made sense to my readership that Papa wasn’t dead during my year of mourning for him. My dream-self further reasons that I will tie up the loose ends later by writing an additional blog post at some point after my year of mourning has ended to explain the unusual circumstances of Papa’s supernatural resurrection and second death.
  5. Fifthly, what my dream-self doesn’t want to admit to my resurrected Papa is that my identity has become too wrapped up in my response to his death. I’d invested so much mental and emotional energy and time in writing my Skeptic’s Kaddish series that I had become the “Skeptic’s Kaddish”, and if I had publicly revealed to the world that Papa had been resurrected, it would have unraveled my entire sense of self.
  6. Lastly, my dream-self doesn’t even want to tell Papa about my Skeptic’s Kaddish series because he fears Papa’s disapproval. Papa was a very private person and probably wouldn’t have liked me writing about him, and what if he would have felt that I was just using his death to gain attention?

Whenever I wake up after having this dream, I feel that I need to write something about Papa to further expound upon my experience of losing him.

In the real world, I know that this dream is imagined, supernatural, impossible nonsense; I know that it’s nothing more than the concoction of my subconscious mind; but I’m constantly left wondering who David ben Alexander would be if Alexander had not died that day.

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.’”

Blemished mourning

Through the cracks

After Papa died in the summer of 2018, I was intent on chronicling my year of mourning as thoroughly as possible; but, unavoidably, many of my kaddish experiences fell through the cracks between my blog posts… I had neither the bandwidth nor the time necessary to cover every significant moment.

Each kaddish blog post of mine took on a life of its own. I would begin by recording some preliminary thoughts and then allow my reflections on the Jewish texts I’d been exploring to guide my hands across the keyboard. Usually, I would reach “the end” of every blog post upon realizing that it was complete… but there was always, always more to be written.

That’s part of why I’m blogging to this day.

Week after week I remember telling myself that I would include those inevitably omitted moments in future blog posts… but I could never quite keep up with life, and my project was, naturally, limited to my one year of mourning.

Admittedly, there were certain things that I was uncomfortable sharing publicly during that painful period, such as my decision not to recite kaddish for Babushka, my mother’s mother, who died several months after my Papa did… And some of those reflections, perhaps, I will never share.

There was one particular incident, however, that I very much did want to reflect upon in my Skeptic’s Kaddish series, which I never got around to because of timing.


Jewish tradition

The traditional Jewish mourning period for a parent is twelve Hebrew months, unlike the mourning period for other immediate family members, which lasts for only thirty days.

The first seven days after the funeral are known as the shiva, and these are the most restrictive days. Mourners stay at home during that period, seated on low stools and accepting visitors who come to comfort them. Following is the remainder of the first 30 days, called shloshim (literally: thirty), during which many restrictions remain, including not shaving and not getting a haircut.

After the shloshim, those mourning a parent continue reciting the mourner’s kaddish daily in a prayer quorum, usually for a total of eleven months, and several restrictions remain. These include not purchasing new clothing; not attending celebratory events; and not listening to live music.


The blemish

I had no difficulty in avoiding the purchase of new clothing, and I was mindful to avoid attending celebratory events. For example, my friend Arielle’s son Lavie was born during my kaddish year, and while I was excited to attend his ritual circumcision, I dutifully departed before the celebratory meal that followed.

Throughout the course of that year, I thought through potential challenges to my mourning practices in advance, and I conscientiously avoided missteps. The family outing that led to my mistake had been entirely unplanned.

Israel Independence Day, a Spring holiday, was several days before my flight to America for the unveiling of Papa’s tombstone in May 2019. We’d had no particular plans to celebrate, beyond watching the fireworks from afar and enjoying a family dinner at home, but my wife spontaneously suggested that we take our then 4¼-year-old daughter to watch the fireworks up close.

We were concerned because of the late hour but somehow managed to coax her into taking an afternoon nap so that she wouldn’t be overtired at night; then we were off, with her perched upon my shoulders.

My Jerusalem stone

At the time, I was also very preoccupied with the upcoming unveiling. In fact, when we arrived at Papa’s beloved Promenade for the fireworks, I took that opportunity to search for a Jerusalem stone, thinking about how I might place it atop his tombstone in a few days time.

This took place during my eleventh and final month of daily kaddish recitations, and I was emotionally and physically worn out. When the renowned Shalva Band, a group of disabled musicians, started playing beneath the fireworks, I was pleased to see them live, for I’d read so much about them in the press; and when the lead singer, a blind woman, joked that we would have to describe the fireworks display to her, I recall being very amused.


My realization

Days later, at home with my brother and my mother in New Jersey, it hit me. I had accidentally listened to live music during my year of mourning.

My brother and I were downstairs in the basement, discussing Jewish mourning traditions, when it dawned on me; I actually needed a minute to process this realization. “Oh…. shit.” In truth, I didn’t have any feelings of guilt because my error had been inadvertent; and I knew that I had been trying my best. Still, I did experience a pang of regret over having blemished my year of mourning… after having invested so much of myself in prayer, study, and tradition.


Today

Today, I find myself thankful for this memory… It has become one of many that I continue to reflect upon; and in retrospect, I’m actually pleased that my year of mourning for Papa was imperfect – because that is a reflection of myself.

One death at a time, please

Should I have recited kaddish for Babushka?

Babushka Masha z”l

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

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

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

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


Nobody else would have done it

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

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

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

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


I did not want to do it

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

… Actually…
That not quite true.

The truth?

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


Why didn’t I want to?

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

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

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

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

That year, I wanted to focus exclusively on Papa.


A discrete year of mourning

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

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

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

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

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


Still, I wanted a way to mourn for Babushka

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

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

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

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

But I knew I was lying.

Mourners relate to mourners

On a bright Thursday in August of 2014, my wife and I attended a beautiful Israeli wedding. It was a lovely outdoor wedding at ‘the Moshav’. We still remember the year of the event because it so happened that my wife was pregnant with our daughter at the time.

The chuppah (wedding canopy)

The bride was an olah (immigrant to Israel) from England, and the groom- an oleh from the USA. The sweet couple’s faces radiated sheer, loving contentment. Both of their families had flown in for the occasion, and they too exuded a glowing, collective warmth and welcoming joy towards all of us in attendance.

As per Jewish tradition, friends and community members hosted meals to honor the young couple for seven days following the wedding. These were the traditional ‘sheva brachot’ (seven blessings) meals prescribed by Jewish tradition, which holds that for seven days following the wedding, the bride and groom are to be treated like a queen and king and are to be invited to the home of a different friend or relative every evening for a large, celebratory meal.

That week sped by, and the following weekend arrived. The young couple and their parents went off, as planned, to spend Shabbat together in the Golan, near Lake Kinneret for some peaceful away time. The Golan offers countless fantastic hiking trails, and the newlyweds were so looking forward to exploring the luscious green mountains.

Early the following week, we learned that the groom’s father had died in a hiking accident.


I had met the groom in 2010, and we had studied Torah in the same beit midrash (house of [Torah] study) for two years. Afterwards, we had him over for Shabbat when he was off duty from the IDF, which he joined after completing his Torah studies and repatriating to Israel; and we shared Shabbat meals with him and his wife on several occasions.

He was among the gentlest and most earnest people I have ever had the pleasure of meeting, and I always enjoyed our interactions; but, having said that, we had never been especially close… although part of me hoped that we might become better friends once it became apparent that we had both decided to make our ways in Israel, away from our families in the USA.

His father’s unexpected death, following upon the heels of his beautiful, joyful wedding, rocked me. I couldn’t fathom his pain, nor the inky clinging shadow that would hang forever over his wedding memories.

Back then, before my father died (July 2018), I had almost no understanding of Jewish mourning traditions, which I would only become familiar with a few years later during my own kaddish journey. I understood the basics only vaguely.

Having been raised in a secular family, I hadn’t yet grasped how expected and normal it is in traditional Jewish culture to visit mourners during the week following the funeral (this is called ‘shiva’) to lend support. I didn’t appreciate how helpful it is to assist mourners in forming daily prayer quorums so that they can recite the mourner’s kaddish, the recitation of which requires that ten adult Jews be present. I felt incredibly awkward… who was I to intrude upon his grief? What consolation could I possibly provide?

I recall that week being very busy for me at work, and I suppose that I could make excuses as to why I didn’t pay my friend a shiva call, but ultimately – I simply didn’t know how to act appropriately. And… perhaps I was afraid of facing him in his grief.

Regardless, I didn’t pay a visit.


I could give other examples of my inability to relate to the grief of others, for I had encountered many who had lost parents, siblings, and even children… but suffice it to say that those memories of my obtuseness have taken on a particularly sharp, stinging aftertaste in the 2+ years since Papa’s death.

Towards the end of my first year of mourning, I confronted this change in myself:

Disconcertingly out of sync, perceptions jumbled, receptors misfiring, I remain immediately near but never fully within the self I’d always known, receiving on an unfamiliar, piercing wavelength.

Slowly, slowly, I have come to understand
this: My pulse has been attuned to loss.

-Me, ‘The Skeptic’s Kaddish’ #47, June 23, 2019

I’m being somewhat hard on myself, as is my tendency, but I am aware that what I’ve described is not entirely unlike any other major life-changing experience. Let’s take parenthood, for example.

While I’ve always enjoyed playing with children, babysitting, and working at various children’s summer programs, I never much cared to hear parents chattering excitedly about their offspring’s developments. Little Mary started walking? Great! Little Ahmed drew a car? That’s… wonderful… Little Hannah won the state spelling bee? … Hooray! … that’s…

I never much cared to hear parents chattering excitedly about their children’s developments – until I had a daughter; and suddenly, everything about child development was interesting. I could compare notes with other parents for hours. I could relate to their prides, their anxieties, their excitements…

That’s also how it is when you lose a loved one. It’s the club that nobody wants to join and nobody can quit. After Papa died:

… friends and family reached out to me in love. I was struck at how many of those conversations shifted away from my own father’s death, towards the piercing memories, the simmering hurts, and the irrecoverable losses of my comforters.

-Me, ‘The Skeptic’s Kaddish’ #9, Oct. 5, 2018

Parents relate to parents; mourners relate to mourners.

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.