When the rabbi’s wife died

Jewish wedding: No rabbi? No problem!

Did you know that according to traditional Jewish law, no rabbi is necessary for the performance of a Jewish wedding? That’s right: Jews don’t need rabbis to get married.

Okay, so what are the essentials?

  • The groom gives the bride something of at least a certain minimum value (usually a wedding ring that he puts onto his bride’s right index finger) and then makes a formulaic proclamation about her now being consecrated to him, all of which must be performed before two kosher witnesses;
  • A ketubah (wedding contract outlining the husband’s obligations to his wife) is signed by two kosher witnesses (not necessarily the same ones) prior to the wedding ceremony and then given to the bride during the ceremony.

That’s it.

Now, there are various ways to give honors to family and friends at a Jewish wedding, and I would say that no honor is considered greater than serving as one of these kosher witnesses. After all, it is they, rather than the officiating rabbi, whose roles are required by Jewish law.

Theoretically, if one of the kosher witnesses is revealed to be unkosher (not living up to certain religious standards) that would invalidate his testimony as a witness and render the wedding illegitimate.

Okay… so what?

Well, when my wife and I were planning our wedding, we really delved into the [religious] details of the ceremony and celebration.

We thought about how to strike a balance between Jewish tradition and feminism; how to ensure the comfort of our ultra-Orthodox wedding guests at our modern minded ceremony; how to make Jewish tradition accessible to our many secular friends and family members; whom to give which honors to…

My wife and I each assigned a witness to sign the ketubah and observe the ceremony beneath the chuppah (wedding canopy). Understanding the fundamental significance of these two kosher witnesses, and wanting our marital union to be religiously ironclad, each of us picked the most pious, God loving people that we knew. My wife picked the father of her adopted Israeli family, and I picked one of my Torah instructors, Rabbi Meir:

I starkly remember a rabbinic panel on prayer, held at the Pardes Institute. One devout rabbi (a teacher of mine whom I had specifically asked to sign our ketubah out of awe at the earnestness and intensity of his relationship with God) explained that he felt closer to God than he ever did to other people. He related that he would pour his heart out to God in prayer every single day in a way that he couldn’t with others. Upon hearing this, a second rabbi shed tears before the other panelists and demanded, “How do you get that way?”

-Me, ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish #5’, Sept. 7th, 2018

Oh… I see where this is going

Years passed.

I hadn’t seen this rabbi in more than half a decade when I read that his wife had very unexpectedly died.

She was such a lovely woman; I had been to their home for Shabbat several times over the years and would also chance to speak with her every year at our community retreats. Truly, I cannot say enough good things about her; she was incredibly humble and gentle. While both had been born only children, together they raised a gorgeous family of nine in Israel.

Nobody expected her death.

Malka had led an active life and suddenly she found that walking up the stairs was presenting a challenge… The doctors were shocked, given her healthy lifestyle and outward appearance, that she needed to undergo triple bypass surgery. Over the course of several days following that surgery, Malka fought and then faded. And then- she was gone.

Visiting the rabbi

In Jewish tradition, mourners accept guests to comfort them for seven days following the funeral. These seven days are called the ‘shiva’, which is derived from the Hebrew word ‘sheva’, meaning ‘seven’.

Based upon my own experience as a mourner, it has become very meaningful to me to show support for others in mourning, particularly those who are dear to me. Thankfully, a friend [with a car] who had also studied with Rabbi Meir proposed that we visit him at the shiva together.

Beyond wanting to show my support to my teacher, I was curious to see how a man of iron faith such as Rabbi Meir might deal with the unexpected death of his wife of fifty years. He spoke of Malka and shed tears before his visitors (something I had never imagined I’d see him do); and, somehow, through it all, he continued to exude that deep grace and dignity, which he is known for. He was shattered, but his faith in God remained unassailable.

Rabbi Meir shared that he had just retired after more than forty years of teaching Torah, and they had been discussing how they would spend their years together after the COVID-19 insanity settled down. Malka died very shortly after his retirement.

Split screen in my mind

Writing about Papa is difficult for me, but perhaps writing about Mama is even more so because she is alive. After all, Papa doesn’t have to live with the consequences of what I write about him.

My parents had been planning on selling their home (the house where my younger brother grew up) and moving to North Carolina. With him permanently out of the house and me far across the ocean, they no longer needed their large house. They hadn’t found a buyer for the house yet, but that was their goal.

I was rocked by Papa’s death, but I didn’t have to physically face its reality on a daily basis if I didn’t want to. After all, I was still living with my wife and daughter far away in Israel and working at the same job. That surreality of returning to “normal” was, in large part, what prompted me to recite kaddish for Papa every day, as well as to pursue my Skeptic’s Kaddish writing project during my year of mourning.

For Mama, everything changed dramatically. Where would she live? What would she do with the rest of her life? Whom would she do it with? Clearly, she still had to sell her too large house, but then– what?

That was another reason why I started blogging about my mourning experience – I wanted to feel closer to Mama and Eli, and I aspired to helping them feel closer to me, despite the more than ~9,000 kilometers between us.

As I sat at that shiva several weeks ago, listening to my dear teacher crying over the unexpected and sudden loss of his beloved wife Malka, part of my mind found itself with Mama on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean…

… wishing that we were not so far apart.

Home, or: No longer

     Grand Empty 
     on cul-de-sac woodsy
Trees evergreen young once 'fore masonry veneer
Recalling perhaps
          her helpmate and compeer

     Grand Empty 
     on cul-de-sac woodsy
Stairs high to the front whispering not welcome
Dreading that walls wide
          still farther shall become

     Grand Empty 
     on cul-de-sac woodsy
Corners abound below ceilings tall daunting
Rattling inside 
          rooms barren she's haunting

     Grand Empty 
     on cul-de-sac woodsy
Windows against woods cannot show the future
Her healing restricted 
          by cold concrete sutures

     Grand Empty 
     on cul-de-sac woodsy
Termites at the sign devouring hopes gladly
Vermin pernicious
           would see this end badly


Books and activities for multilingual children

There are several reasons why my 5½-year-old, despite living in Israel and despite only having one parent whose speaks English at a mother tongue level, speaks, reads, and writes English as fluently as she does.

I suggest that parents should assume that all children are capable of absorbing languages like little sponges. Nevertheless, let’s assume for a moment that your child never learns to speak, read, or write in your native language. In such a case, your child must still -at minimum- be able to understand your speech if you remain stubbornly consistent about speaking to them in exclusively one language. That is a gift.

* * *

While I’ve touched upon our approach to communicating with our daughter in our respective native tongues (mine: English, my wife’s: Russian), speaking has been only one of several critical components to our strategy.

First of all, multilingual children must have age-appropriate books on their shelves of all the languages of their homes. Reading is crucial to linguistic development. With almost no exaggeration, I would say that not a day goes without at least one of us reading a book to our daughter. (I literally just took a break from writing this post to read ‘Walter the Baker’ to her.)

* * *

I must give my mother her much due credit.

The reason my mama deserves credit is that she is very thoughtful about pedagogy, and she has gifted our baby all sorts of puzzles and children’s games that have made learning English fun. From her earliest days, our 5½-year-old was surrounded by alphabet jigsaw puzzles, word-spelling memory games, alphabet dice, etc., etc.

Now, I don’t personally have any experience with children’s games in languages other than those of our home, but my wife found Russian alphabet jigsaw puzzles and other Russian spelling games, as well as a terrific website for Russian children’s books. I would imagine that such things are available in most countries – you just have to seek them out, and the Internet makes that so much easier than it once was.

The proof is in the pudding – our daughter knew both the Russian and English alphabets by heart (both the names of the letters, their sounds, and their shapes) before she was 2½ years-old, and she learned the Hebrew alphabet by the time she was three (Hebrew has never been our priority in the home).

* * *

By the time she was four, she was asking to use our computers and telephones to send messages to her grandmothers. At first I was worried that this would make drafting letters by hand unappealing to her, but that was not the case.

My wife taught her to form Russian letters at around the same as when she began learning to write in Hebrew at preschool. Seeing this, I encouraged her to try her hand at English, and soon she was copying sentences from her Russian and English children’s books at home.

Then, during the initial COVID-19 lockdown, she and I played a game (at the encouragement of my Mama, I think) in which we would take turns writing snippets of stories that we would make up, folding over the papers strip by strip, such that only the most recently written lines could be seen. Finally, we would unfold the papers and read the silly stories aloud to one another, giggling.

Today she and I are going to her friend’s 4th birthday party, and our little girl is now comfortably writing out the words of the birthday card with minimal assistance in English. If we were to be attending a Russian language birthday party, she could do the same.

* * *

I’ve mentioned our strategy of watching Disney movies with our daughter, but now I want to touch upon something else: YouTube.

The Internet is such a resource. Looking back at my own childhood, I am certain that if I’d had access to Russian videos on the Internet, my Russian would be better than it is today. I do speak the language comfortably, but I make grammatical mistakes, and my vocabulary could use quite a bit of buffing. My daughter, on the other hand, has easy access to videos in all of her spoken languages, and when she comes across unfamiliar words and concepts she knows that her parents will be more than happy to explain them to her.

Of course, it’s important to vet the videos that our children watch, but there are so many wonderful children’s educational channels, videos, and songs on YouTube – they’re not hard to find. Even cartoons like Peppa Pig, Ben & Holly’s Little Kingdom, Masha and the Bear (originally in Russian), Pororo the Little Penguin, Maya the Bee, etc., etc. are educational in terms of developing a child’s vocabulary. These feed children’s imaginations, and I have found that our daughter is particularly curious to learn new words if they play into her fantasies.

Also, storybooks and videos reinforce each other. Our child is always more excited to read stories that are based upon videos that she’s seen, and vice-versa. Also, she likes comparing her books to corresponding videos – what are the differences in the storylines, for example? What do different versions of the same story emphasize?

Of course, parents shouldn’t aim to zombify their children in front of computer screens, but there do come moments when children reach a point of exhaustion and are unable to focus on more demanding activities such as drawing, reading, puzzle solving, etc. We have found that with careful supervision, watching videos has made a very positive contribution to our child’s development.

* * *

In short, resources are available to us in a way that they never were when I was a child. If your children’s development is a priority, it shouldn’t be difficult to fill their lives with all sorts of educational games, books, videos, etc. Children’s activities lend themselves readily to learning and development if they are introduced and conducted thoughtfully and with intentionality.

On raising a multilingual child

A friend’s wife is due to give birth this month, and we’ve had some conversations about raising a trilingual child. His family speaks English at home, his wife grew up in Italy, and together they live here in Israel. Their languages are English, Italian, and Hebrew. This is not quite the same as but bears similarities to my own family’s reality. My wife was raised in Russia, I was raised in the USA, and we and our daughter live in Israel. Our languages are English, Russian, and Hebrew.

This sort of thing is common in Israel because ~30% of Israeli Jews are olim, meaning that they come from other countries of origin. Among the sabras (Jews born in Israel), most are 2nd– or 3rd-generation Israelis. Due to its immigrant nature, Israel is one of the most multicultural and multilingual societies in the world. It is not unusual for Jewish Israeli families to speak some language other than Hebrew at home.

The differences in our family’s respective situations favor mine when it comes to raising a multilingual child. Firstly, I was raised in a Russian-speaking home and am conversant in the language, and my wife can get along well enough in English. Secondly, Israel has a sizable Russian-speaking population, making Russian one of the easiest languages to impart to an Israeli child (unlike Italian).

Still, I’ve been giving this matter some thought, and I think that there are some universal strategies that parents should employ if they aim to raise multilingual children. Following are my preliminary thoughts.

* * *

The first and perhaps most important piece of advice is for each parent to consistently speak to the child exclusively in one language. We received this sound advice from my mother years ago, before our daughter was born. (Although, I dare say that the Russian my parents and I spoke while I was growing up in the USA gradually morphed into a unique, Bogomolny-style Runglish over the years.)

Your self-designated language should not be the same language your child hears at school. I was raised in the USA, and I attended public school. My education was in English, but my parents spoke with me in Russian. Most children will have no difficulties functioning and even potentially excelling in the language of their classrooms, which will become dominant for them, particularly in reading and writing.

It’s fine to speak to your child in your self-designated language while speaking to others in another language. For example, I always speak to my daughter in English, but I speak to my wife and other family members in Russian, even in my daughter’s presence. (You must be able to pivot between languages quickly because you must focus on addressing your child exclusively in your one designated language.)

When speaking with your child, if you need to use a word from another language, you may, but only if you explain why you are doing so. For example, you might say, “I don’t know how to say such-and-such in English, but in Russian I would use the following word…” or: “in English there’s no word that means such-and-such exactly, but in Russian one could say…”

In the above situation, you must communicate to your child that you this is not ideal. Explain that you prefer to express yourself properly in your designated language, and then: you must actively look for a way to do so. For example, you may pause the conversation to search through a dictionary or ask another English speaker how they would articulate your idea in English. By striving to express yourself correctly in your designated language, you are showing your child that this is important to you.

Also, to the extent possible, discuss differences in grammar and vocabulary between languages with your child. Often, multilingual children (and adults) will accidentally apply grammar from a more dominant language to a less dominant one. The words we choose may also work in one language, but not another. Certain terms in different languages may share some meanings but be used differently. Every time such examples arise, these are opportunities to highlight the differences that exist between languages. Parents should share these insights as the hidden treasures of expression that they are.

It’s important for parents to correct one another’s language errors. It’s also important for parents to ask one another (and eventually the child) how to articulate ideas correctly in their respective, designated languages. Make it clear that not only the child is learning how to speak correctly. The parents’ acknowledgement of their own fallibility and their openness to being corrected is important. For example, when I speak Russian or Hebrew, I always ask my wife if I’m unsure of how to structure a sentence. For us, language is a family project; we each try to help one another speak correctly and don’t take offense when somebody corrects our mistakes. I’ve told my daughter, in seriousness, that as she gets older she will eventually be able to assist me with my Hebrew.

I hate being cliché, but you should find enjoyment in this endeavor. You should, of course, enjoy watching your child develop into an empowered, articulate person; and you should enjoy your own learning and development, which will occur in parallel.

* * *

In this stream of consciousness, my focus has been upon speaking with one’s child. Of course, there’s so much more than that. Books, games, videos… I will have to write more later.

Still, there’s one more thing that I must add. It is so obvious that it may not even occur to you, but I have seen its truth firsthand. You must invest as much as possible of your time in your child if you wish to impart your language to them. I cannot overemphasize this point. It’s not only about the educational value of interacting with you – it’s more. If spending time with you becomes a major, central part of your child’s life, then they will want to speak the language has been designated as yours… because that will be their key to you.

Why so public?

A friend asked me fairly recently: why do you write publicly?

Now, granted, I am certainly not the only individual to share very personal experiences and reflections online. I have read many a personal post on the Internet, on subjects ranging from deep loss, personal experiences of abuse, and reflections upon God.

We all know that the youngest generations (not me) have grown up on social media and the Internet. Many young people are often more comfortable communicating online and representing themselves online than they are in person. Personally, I use almost no social media at this point, but I came of age in a world in which blogging publicly about one’s self doesn’t seem so queer.

On the other hand, I should provide additional context: Papa was a very, very private person, as has been my Mama for as long as I can recall. In my youth, our family culture of privacy was entirely natural to me because it was all that I knew. I recall, for example, my parents being displeased when our next-door neighbors renovated the windowless side of their house, which faced ours, to include a large window. That felt like an infringement upon our privacy.

* * *

For the most part, I am no fool 😉

If I were aiming for a career in politics, I would never have launched a website like this. I am also, in general, making an effort to avoid posting information that could damage me professionally or personally. Someone might judge me for my worldview, but that is a concern that I have been surmounting.

Writing publicly about myself has become increasingly (but not entirely) natural to me over past few years, but it wasn’t always so. Previous to embarking upon my very personal and public kaddish journey, I never, ever imagined myself doing such a thing. To be honest, it’s hard for me now to believe that I managed it – logistically, technically, intellectually, and most of all: emotionally.

My first ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ blog post was really my Rubicon, particularly because I titled it “#1”. I didn’t quite know what I would write, but I knew that it was only the beginning.

* * *

I was so vulnerable at the start, yearning for as much support as possible. I posted that first blog post and shared it with family, friends, community members, and coworkers. I wanted them to respond and offer their condolences, and I received them.

As one would rationally expect, I received fewer responses after posting my second kaddish blog post. Irrationally, I felt hurt. With each subsequent post, the numbers declined, and then they leveled out. For most of my kaddish year, I was probably receiving three to ten responses per blog post, including e-mails, messages, and conversations. I didn’t keep tabs, so that’s just an estimate.

Still, I continued writing, and I came to realize something. I wasn’t writing for affirmation. I was writing primarily for myself. In fact, it was my drive to continue despite the low response rate (relative to how many people I was sharing my posts with), which brought this home to me.

Interestingly, there were several who became very invested in my project, and they responded to nearly every single post. In some cases, they would respond to several posts at a time, but it was clear that they were reading every word I wrote. As time went on, the responses I received from these individuals became especially meaningful to me. While I did manage to discover my own inner strength, the confidence I had my voice was buttressed by these few.

And – I made it through that year. My kaddish project was successful in that I was proud of the result.

* * *

So many people write about so many different realms of expertise. Politics (at all levels), science, religion, you name it. I find that I’m barely an expert at understanding myself, but writing as I do is a great help to me.

Interestingly, I am not motivated to keep a private journal. It’s hard for me to explain why, exactly. There are certainly multiple overlapping reasons.

In part, I’ve come to perceive human beings as each having / being stories, which share many common themes. I may be a traditionally-inclined Jew in Israel who happens to have been thinking a lot about the themes of loss and legacy of late, but my life experiences and reflections have much in common with many, many other human beings. That’s what makes for compelling literature and movies – the relatable elements. I’m convinced that the Harry Potter series, for example, achieved such success partly because of how well J. K. Rowling sewed the world of wizardry into the fabric of a world that so resembles our own.

So, I like the idea that a random individual somewhere in the world might resonate to what I’m sharing. That’s a powerful thought and not unlikely.

* * *

“Why so public?” some ask.

Perhaps because it makes me feel as though I am somehow more than a single human story.

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 50

Papa’s first yahrzeit fell out on the Shabbat before last.
So… what did marking this date change for me?

* * *

Some things are inevitable.

Even before learning anything meaningful or interesting about the orphan’s kaddish, I knew that I would attend minyan every day to recite it for Papa.

I also knew that this would last for the duration of eleven months; that the process would inevitably end.

Throughout the year, I wrestled with the boundaries of tradition. Why must I stop reciting kaddish after eleven months (blog #21)? Should I? Will I? Why am I not considered a “mourner” during the thirteenth month of this Hebrew leap year, before the first anniversary of Papa’s death (blog #32)? How do I feel about this? Do I cease to consider myself a “mourner” after twelve months, without having marked Papa’s yahrzeit?

Still, from the first, I never struggled for a moment with the notion of hosting a kiddush at my early morning Shabbat minyan to commemorate Papa’s yahrzeit. On August 6, 2018, not even one month after my father’s death, I e-mailed the kiddush coordinator:

– May I reserve a date for July 2019?
~ Surely – just tell me which shabbat
– The last shabbat in July 2019
~ Booked!

Kiddush at shul was within my comfort zone; I could see the hints of its contours on the horizon all my kaddish year (blog #7).

* * *

In truth, the kiddush at shul is not considered a  Jewish mourning ritual in halakhic literature; but it has become commonly accepted; and, in some communities, expected.

Sponsoring this kiddush to commemorate the first anniversary of my Papa’s death must therefore be understood in the social context of the process that I went through this year in my community. It was not an isolated event.

Upon my father’s death, I opted in to the traditional Jewish mourning experience, grounded in ancient texts and customs. I would come to shul every day and be seen by the same, increasingly familiar faces; and over the course of my year I formed some new relationships and strengthened other bonds that had already existed. Countless times, I lifted a glass and recited blessings in honor of other people’s parents; I shared in their experiences and partook of their contributions to our community.

My kiddush for Papa marked the end of a chapter for me, of course, but it was also, simply: THANK YOU.

* * *

yahrzeit is a 24-hour commemorative experience. Many who do not otherwise attend shul regularly will nonetheless show up for the each of the three daily prayer services (evening, morning, afternoon) to say kaddish on a parent’s yahrzeit, along with the mourners who recite it daily. If one is marking a yahrzeit, he is given precedence in leading the prayers so that he may recite more kaddishes that day.

On Friday evening, I asked the gabbai for permission to lead the evening prayers after the Kabbalat Shabbat service. Then something within me trembled. As a mourner this year, I would never have made such a request! After all, according to Ashkenazi custom, mourners do not lead the services on Shabbat and festivals, as taught by Rabbi Moses Isserles (1530-1572) (Yoreh De’ah 376:4):

האבלים אומרים קדיש אפילו בשבת ויו”ט (בא”ז בשם ר”י מקורביי”ל) אבל לא נהגו להתפלל בשבת ויו”ט (כן הוא בתשובת מהרי”ל) אע”פ שאין איסור בדבר The mourners say kaddish even on Shabbat and festivals (in the ‘Or Zarua’, [as is taught] in the name of Rabbi Isaac ben Joseph of Corbeil), but they do not lead the prayers on Shabbat and festivals (according to the responsa of Rabbi Yaakov ben Moshe Levi Moelin), even though there is no prohibition in this matter.

Over the course of my kaddish year, I became programmed in particular behavioral norms. As a mourner, I was encouraged to lead services – and I’d come to prefer that somebody in mourning (although preferably not me) would do so (blog #24). However, we mourners were never to lead services on Shabbat, for its atmosphere is one of joy; and ours is an air of grief.

* * *

My first orphan’s kaddish recitation that Friday evening after Kabbalat Shabbat tore through my chest cavity with the force of a whole year’s worth of daily doxologies. The muscles of my face knew every syllable intimately, but I was two months out of practice since my de-kaddish’ment. Anxiety gripped me, as I stumbled over one of the final phrases.

Then that first kaddish of Papa’s yahrzeit was over, and my heart was fluttering as I made my way to the dais to lead ma’ariv. I knew I wouldn’t be leading services again in his honor until the 24th of Tamuz the following year.

Standing at the center of the sanctuary, I draped a prayer shawl over my shoulders and breathed out heavily, centering myself. I would now lead the evening prayers so that I could recite every single blessing and kaddish, so that I could lead the orphan’s kaddish at the end…

According to tradition, I hadn’t been “in mourning” for the entirety of the previous month, and I hadn’t recited kaddish at shul for two months’ time, but somehow I’d never shaken myself out of my familiar mourner’s headspace…

That Shabbat evening, I led a service from the rostrum that no mourner would think to lead, in order that I could lead the mourners.

Against the joyous Shabbat backdrop, I grieved before the community.

* * *

Leading Shabbat services on Papa’s yahrzeit took some emotional preparation, but I’d been easing my way towards this moment for months; and I know the standard liturgy. Reading the Haftarah on Saturday morning after leading shacharit, however, was another matter entirely. I hadn’t done that since I was thirteen years old (blog #48).

I rehearsed at home over the course of the week, twice meeting for guidance and support with Rabbi Lockshin in the evenings. My printed copy of the Haftarah, which I read from at shul on Papa’s yahrzeit, was covered in highlighter markings. I wouldn’t have been able to even begin to chant it without my blue and green scribbles. Careful to at least pronounce the words correctly, I chanted the text to some tortured tune and recited the corresponding blessings.

Finally, it was over. I looked at the gabbai for confirmation.

– Am I done?
~ Yes, unless you want to lead Musaf.
– Oh no, that’s quite enough, thank you.

And then I was off to prepare for kiddush.

* * *

My wife and I had thought through the menu for our kiddush. There were four different kinds of herring, two sorts of cheese, and crackers (the kiddush staples). Everything else was in memory of Papa. My wife prepared my father’s favorite Olivier Salad, much like the one Mama had prepared for the unveiling (blog #44), as well as a delicious cake with chocolate cream and pineapple slices, which she’d always prepared for his visits to Israel (Papa and I both prefer creamy desserts). My wife, mother and daughter brought these just in time for the kiddush, which began at 8:30 in the morning.

I brought a bottle of AKASHI White Oak Blended Japanese Whiskey, which I’d purchased at the airport last summer on my way home for Papa’s funeral. It hadn’t been intended for this kiddush, but I hadn’t yet been able to open it. Also, I decided to bring a bottle of Beefeater Gin to mix with tonic water – this had been my father’s favorite drink. A bottle of orange juice and a big box of bourekas from Papa’s favorite local bakery rounded out the kiddush.

There was a second bottle of whiskey at the table, a majestic 18-year-old bottle of Glenfiddich brought by my Rav, Rabbi Landes. He had come to my minyan in continued support of me, and I was deeply moved by his presence at Kehillat Yedidya so early on a Shabbat morning.

Rabbi Landes graciously poured me a glass of Glenfiddich before I stood to recite kiddush for the community, but upon hearing my explanation for the bottle of AKASHI he ever so subtly poured me a second glass and switched the two while I was yet speaking. Later in the week, my Rav would call to provide me with further ‘chizúk’ (חיזוק) – encouragement. Thank you, Rabbi.

* * *

After returning home from shul that afternoon, I thought of several takeaways, based upon a conversation that ensued with Mama.

Firstly, I once again felt profoundly thankful that my mother had been able to join me for this capstone event, in support of my personal mourning process. Secondly, I was gratified to see that almost all of the kiddush food and drink had been obliterated by my little community. Despite their not knowing my Papa, their oneg Shabbat was brightened that morning because of our love for my father.

Thirdly, I was struck by the holy mundanity of communal kiddush.

* * *

The words ‘kaddish’ (קדיש) and ‘kiddush’ (קידוש) share a common Semitic root: Q-D-Š, meaning “holy” or “separate”.

The word ‘kaddish’ would seem to be an Aramaic word, meaning “holy”, and ‘kiddush’ is a Hebrew word, meaning “sanctification”. Having studied Spoken Arabic for several semesters, I’m also aware that the Arabic name for Jerusalem is ‘Al Quds’ (القدس), which means: “The holy [one].”

The very first line of kaddish, which I had been reciting all year is:

יִתְגַּדַּל וְיִתְקַדַּשׁ שְׁמֵהּ רַבָּא Yitgaddal veyitqaddash shmeh rabba May His great name be exalted and sanctified.

In theory, the purpose of the kiddush is to sanctify Shabbat, by reciting a blessing over a cup of wine, but on that early morning of Papa’s yahrzeit I saw this communal ritual in a different light.

While the words of kiddush are of lofty, holy intent, perhaps it is the gathering together in community and the sharing of simple, human pleasures that truly sanctifies the Sabbath and sanctifies our loved ones’ yahrzeits. For me, on that morning, and perhaps on every single day that I had recited kaddish throughout the year, it was my community that warmly embraced me.

* * *

Words from Leon Wieseltier’s book Kaddish come back to me (p. 250):

Kaddish is not said for the dead,’ the rabbi said to me tonight. ‘It is said for the living.’ But the living have needed to believe that it is said for the dead; and so the plot thickens.

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 47

Two weeks ago a middle-aged woman approached me at the back of the sanctuary, as I was readying to head home for havdalah.
I’ve been thinking about you recently. You must be nearly done by now… I’m almost at the end of my eleven months.
I recognized her immediately – the rabbi’s daughter (blog #3). She had lost her father not long after Papa died, just after I returned from shiva in New Jersey. I had been in the shloshim stage of mourning then.
Oh, hello! Yes, I completed my eleven months of kaddish just over a week ago, but the yahrzeit won’t be for another two months.
She nodded in understanding.
Yes, because of the Hebrew leap year – I also have an extra month. It’s good to see you again.
Thank you; it’s very nice to see you too.
The memories flooded back. Seemingly a lifetime ago, I had attended shiva at this woman’s home for four consecutive evenings to make minyan so that she could recite kaddish for her father.

A month later, in August, I wrote of that (blog #3):

The rabbi’s daughter was sitting shiva, and I was already past that stage, in the shloshim period of my mourning. According to Jewish tradition, her wound was fresher than mine, her mourning more acute, but this did not feel true to me. For four days I listened as strangers honored the memory of a rabbi that I’d never known, all the while grieving silently, alone by the wall, over the untimely death of my own father, but not saying a word because it wasn’t my shiva house.

* * *

Every ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ blog entry feels like it must be the very last. I post and think: That’s it. Done. I’ve wrung my heart out. The next post is always unfathomable to me until it is has become the last one.

In mid-December I found myself reflecting upon that shiva again in another blog post, shortly after I’d finished devouring a compilation of women’s kaddish stories. The months, it seemed, had done their work in grinding down the edges of my grief (blog #19):

Everything was about my pain then [i.e. in July, during the rabbi’s shiva], and I could hardly feel beyond myself. Since, the shock has faded; I am more conscious of death and less surprised by it. I have again become able to hear others’ stories.

* * *

Reading through my older blog posts, only snippets of observations and reflections feel authentically mine today, as if each of my entries had been authored by another member of a mourners’ support group, before passing my cracked, black laptop around the circle to the next.

My own words come back to me (blog #39):

By the time you’ve read this, it’s no longer about the character who wrote it. Who is David Bogomolny anyway?

* * *

One particular leg of my journey this year led me upon an intensive search for creative and modern expressions of kaddish. I found other kaddish bloggers (blog #29), as well as a musician who had put the mourner’s kaddish to song and an artist who had made paintings of every synagogue where he’d recited the kaddish in honor of his father (blog #31). At around that time I also came across another artist who had charted a unique, personalized kaddish journey, but this man’s story froze me. Steven Branfman had lost his son.

Here is the father’s kaddish story in his own words:

Some concepts are hard to wrap my mind around and harder still to put words to, but the story of Steven’s grief over Jared’s death brought up a dreadful question: what if it had been somebody other than Papa? Somebody other than a parent of mine?

For all the pain behind my writing this year, for all my shock and despair at losing my father, I had always “known” that he would die before me. Given, he should have lived another ten or twenty years, well into his eighties or his nineties. Given, I’d never imagined him leaving us so unexpectedly or so suddenly, in a matter of greedy, insatiable hours while I was putting his beloved granddaughter to bed far across the churning waters. Still, stories of grown adults mourning their departed parents do not usually shatter us.

I acknowledge to myself: My grief has been bearable enough for me to blog about.

* * *

I was surprised when I found out that the halachic, traditional Jewish period for mourning a child is only thirty days. But one of the mothers explained why: it’s because you grieve the rest of your life. You don’t need need the rituals to remind you to grieve. You will think of your child forever.

 Sherri Mandell, The Blessing of a Broken Heart (p. 82)

This folk wisdom from Sherri Mandell’s book of loss and mourning hasn’t come up in any Jewish sources that I’ve seen, but our ancient traditions are ever hungry for relevance, and these bereaved mothers’ words are of the sheerest sagacity. Thoughts such as these leave me flailing to keep my head above guilt, but I’ve already steeled myself once before to admit this:

If you know me only through my blog posts, you might conclude that I think about my father all the time; but I am writing, in part, to remind myself of him.

– Me, blog #27

* * *

There were too, too many minutes in the few hours before Papa’s death, my senses vibrating at a frequency that was out of step with the usual rhythm of things. Then my cellphone screen lit up with a time-bending message from my brother, just as my daughter was complaining that she wasn’t sleepy: “Dead”. Collected and reeling, I placed the phone face down by the bedside, coaxing and calming my little girl as she fell aslumber.

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.

* * *

As I was perusing the bookshelves at my mother’s home in New Jersey last month, ‘The Blessing of a Broken Heart’ called to me. Mama, it turns out, had acquired the book some years ago because I’d shared the story of Koby Mandell with her – the boy who had once invited me to his bar mitzvah.

In the summer of 2000 I was in Jerusalem, studying at a yeshiva where Rabbi Seth Mandell was teaching. I was drawn to him because he dressed and spoke more like me than any of the other rabbis, and I always looked forward to seeing him on our weekly day trips.

It was on a walk along the ramparts of the Old City of Jerusalem that I met Koby, and we spent much of that tour chatting together. He was twelve years old and bursting with enthusiasm; and I felt drawn to that buoyant, American-mannered child who breathed in Israel so naturally. I still recall with amusement Rabbi Mandell’s teasing rebuke to his son: You can’t invite everyone you meet to your bar mitzvah, Koby. (I wouldn’t have been in Israel for the event anyway, and I’m pretty sure Koby knew that.)

At the end of the summer I returned to my university studies and the powder keg exploded. From the safety of America, I read about the devastating terrors of the Second Intifada.

I was shocked and shattered by Koby’s murder.

* * *

‘It’s hard for the one who dies, but it’s harder for those left behind,’ Koby said after two high school boys were killed by terrorists only two months before his own death.

 Sherri Mandell, The Blessing of a Broken Heart (p. 151)

Perhaps it’s trite to write, but there are different ways of knowing – different modes – different depths. This quote from Koby is intuitive, right? What could be more apparent?

Still, I somehow never used to think too much about “those left behind” before my Papa died. Sure, I felt bad for them; I knew that the living were left suffering, smoldering in pain; but my thoughts would inevitably alight upon those who had departed: so sad, so unfortunate, so terrible, so tragic; they had so much yet to live for… so… so… so…

Now that Koby’s insight has been absorbed into my depths
I’ll never again unknow it.