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.

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 (II)

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?” Ephraim mused.

“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, Yosef 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. His Eema had committed to learning how to use Abba’s photography equipment, and Ephie had somehow naturally taken over Yosef’s Kaddish.