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, 30

Last week, I laminated a copy of my parents’ wedding invitation, which I found in my Babushka’s apartment (my mother’s mother) after she passed away in late September. She was gathered unto her ancestors less than three months after my Papa (Blog #8). A day or so later, it happened that my aunt gave me my Dedushka’s (my mother’s father) scarf, which he used to wear. She wanted somebody in the family to have it.

I wonder at myself and at all of us. All this seems futile; what do we actually achieve by any of it? It reminds me of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s (1907-1972) description of the human condition from The Insecurity of Freedom (p. 257):

We are all very poor, very naked, and rather absurd in our misery and in our success. We are constantly dying alive. From the view point of temporality we are all dead except for a moment.

Given this, Rabbi Heschel comes immediately to his point:

There is only one bridge over the abyss of despair: prayer.

Really? I wonder at this also. The orphan’s kaddish has brought me back to the synagogue, and I have indeed been working at prayer, but my ‘bridges’ are, at best, under construction. My most lucid prayer moments inevitably find me teetering on rickety, jutting platforms over Heschel’s ‘abyss’, scrambling to return unto myself.

* * *

I’ve been reciting kaddish for seven months (7 / 11 ≈ 64%) and blogging about it for six, but my mind continues turning to the most fundamental of questions.

A friend asked why I am saying kaddish. A good question. These were my answers. Because it is my duty to my father. Because it is my duty to my religion. (These are the strong reasons; the nonutilitarian, nontherapeutic reasons.) Because it would be harder for me not to say kaddish. (I would despise myself.) Because the fulfillment of my duty leaves my thoughts about my father unimpeded by regret and undistorted by guilt. On the subject of fathers and sons, my chore may keep me clear.

Leon Wieseltier, Kaddish, p. 25-26

Yes, Mr. Wieseltier. I relate to your answers, but there are at least two more components to my own experience, which I find even truer when it comes to my kaddish blog series. Indeed, I wonder if you felt similarly when you were conducting research for your tremendous opus. Rabbi Martin Lockshin, whom I believe you know, captures the first of these:

Reciting Kaddish allows mourners to feel that they are doing something difficult, making a sacrifice, in order to honor a parent’s memory.

– Lockshin, Kaddish, p. 345

Writing these blog posts is challenging: intellectually… emotionally… spiritually; this project is hard on me. Waking up early every morning for kaddish is truly a challenge, but nothing like plumbing my soul and memories, nothing like my public quest for meaning. I am striving to create something special that my father would have been proud of; something that I can be proud of.

This brings me to a second motivation, which poet Robert Hayden (1913-1980) tenderly breathed into graceful language in his poem ‘Words in the Mourning Time,’ found in his Collected Poems (p. 90):

I grieve yet know the vanity of grief.

This quote should be the epigraph for The Skeptic’s Kaddish for the Atheist. Simply put, I wouldn’t be writing if no one was reading; and that is okay. I write for myself, for my father, for my mother, for my brother, for my daughter, for all of our family, for all who loved my father, for all whom he loved, and for anybody else who may be moved or changed by these words. I do believe I have something to share with you.

Vanity can mean:

    1. Pride;

* * *

    1. Futility

Heschel battled the futility of the human condition with his own mighty faith and prayers, but he also recognized the modern Jew’s detachment from tradition. He writes (Insecurity, pp. 214-215):

The daily observances of countless rituals [have] ceased to convey any meaning; they [have] ceased to hold any answer to the countless problems of the individual soul, just as the ancient teachings seemed to be totally unrelated to the modern situation… We cannot come to the Jews and merely say, ‘Continue!’ The wells that our fathers had digged have been stopped. We have to bore new wells.

This encapsulates my kaddish project this year: I am boring a well of meaning for myself herein, the drill of cutting language. I am, as Heschel writes so eloquently, trying to take responsibility for [my] Judaism (Insecurity, p. 191):

Every individual is a pillar on which the future of Judaism rests. There is no vicarious Judaism: no institution can discharge the responsibilities of the individual. Tradition is not the monopoly of an elite. Each Jew is obliged to say: ‘Into my hands has been given the future of the entire people.’

And in Heschel’s own words, I find my answer to his challenge. I know how to construct a ‘bridge over the abyss of despair’. We, each of us, are its pillars.

True, as Heschel writes, “From the view point of temporality we are all dead except for a moment,” but this is only from the perspective of the individual. The Jewish nation (or humanity for that matter) has lived through many moments and will live through many more.

* * *

Every single cell in the human body replaces itself over a period of seven years. That means there’s not even the smallest part of you now that was part of you seven years ago.

Steven Hall, The Raw Shark Texts

I recently had an insight.
Another way of thinking
about death
if you will.

We are all cells in the organism of the Jewish nation (or humanity for that matter), and every single cell will come to be replaced. Together,

we are Judaism.

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 29

No small number of the memories evoked for me by my father’s death are those of his most oft used expressions, but his voice is fading from my recollections. I am struggling to hear the sound of him; but his turns of phrase, textured with his rhythm and inflections, are looped and shuffled.

Nearly all of his go-to expressions were in Russian, with the exception of “אני כבן שבעים שנה” (blog #6). Translation reduces his idioms to their bare meanings, pulsing nothing like my heart’s memories. Still:

“Час смеха вырабатывает стакан морковного сока.”
An hour of laughter produces [the equivalent of] a glass of carrot juice.
i.e. laughter is healthy.
“Ну вот и все. Я разлагаюсь.”
Well, that’s it then. I am decomposing.
i.e. [said in jest:] this symptom is a sign of my old age.
“Если нельзя, но очень хочется, то можно.”
If one should not but very much wants to, one can (/it’s possible).
i.e. if you’re not supposed to, but you want to, go for it.
“Ну, мужик, ты влип.”
Well, Buddy (/Man), you’ve gotten stuck [in it].
i.e. I can’t save you from yourself.
“Это не стоит выеденного яйца.”
This isn’t worth an empty egg shell with the egg sucked out.
i.e. this is not worth a damn.
“Я простой человек (/еврей).”
I am a simple person (/Jew).
i.e. let’s not complicate things.

There are, of course, many others, but these are among those that spring out. In recent weeks, I’ve caught myself unintentionally channeling him, responding to my wife, saying, “I am a simple Jew.” Upon realizing that I’ve begun using this phrase on a regular basis it struck me:

This is something that Papa used to say.

* * *

I chanced upon a short, truly delightful book by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972): The Earth is the Lord’s. Actually, the book chanced upon me. It so happened that I was a bit late to my 6:45 AM Shabbat shacharit minyan several weeks ago, and my friend Dov noticed. He knows me well.

He knows that I like to sit at a table behind the prayer quorum on Saturday mornings with a book; he knows that I prefer not to disturb the women’s section during davening to peruse the bookshelves; he knows that I like Heschel. That week, my friend arrived to shul before me, and left several books waiting for me at “my” table. The Earth is the Lord’s was among them.

In his book, Heschel portrays the spirit and character of the Jews of Eastern Europe throughout the centuries. This passage got me thinking (pp. 37-38):

The earthiness of the villagers, the warmth of plain people, and the spiritual simplicity of the maggidim or lay preachers penetrated into the beth ha-midrashall were partners in the Torah. The maggidim… did not apply for diplomas to anyone. They felt authorized by God to be preachers of morals…

Ideals became folkways… the people itself became a source of Judaism, a source of spirit… Spontaneously, without external cause, the people improvised customs of celestial solemnity. The dictates of their own insight were heeded as commandments of highest authority.

This depiction of Jewish yore rendered me nostalgic and something else. It twinged of loss. Given the circumstances of my odyssey, I may have developed a heightened sensitivity to lack and absence this year, but Heschel’s portrayal did sting. Today’s traditionalist Judaism, for which tradition’s outward trappings are a primary goal (blog #10) unto themselves, is a top-down enterprise. The people no longer trusts its own insight.

Kaddish is, perhaps, the ultimate folk ritual. Rabbi Martin Lockshin highlighted this point in his chapter of Kaddish (p. 343):

The status that the Mourner’s Kaddish has attained in the last few centuries is strong proof of the enduring power of Jewish folk religion… It begins to be mentioned in codes of law only in the last five hundred years, although presumably it existed at the folk level for a number of centuries before that.

This is our ritual; we should own it. Make it meaningful; make it personal; make it matter. Where are today’s kaddish maggidim? Where is our creativity, our self-seeking? Where do we find ourselves in this process?

* * *

I have been searching for kindred kaddish spirits. Surely others must have written about their experiences, as they were living them, I thought, but the findings have been sparse:

In 2012, a gentleman named Chanan Kessler blogged his kaddish odyssey during his year of mourning. His dive into challenging theological and sociological questions, which I read through ever so greedily, as well as his dedication to his project; the regularity of his writing; and his openness towards confronting uncomfortable ideas reminds me more of my Skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist than anybody else I’ve discovered.

Other personal kaddish chronicles that I found include: Elie Rosenfeld (2005-06 – 1, 2, 3, 4) Tamar Fox (2008-09), Howard Labow (2012-13), Matthew Geller (2013), Judah Lifschitz (2014-15), Ed Colman (2014-15 – Posts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7), Mayim Bialik (2015-16 – Posts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19), Terry Friedman Wine (2015-2016), David Werdiger (2016 – Posts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6), Amy Fechter (2017-18), Rabbi Jennifer Gorman (2017-18 – Posts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29,) and Naomi L. Baum (2018 – Posts: 1, 2, 3). (do you know of others?)

(I’ve also found a number of individual essays and poems, which I list below. They are quite moving, both individually and collectively; but those that were written in retrospect were themselves shaped by kaddish experiences, rather than vice-versa.)

Most of these kaddish bloggers and essayists are not rabbis. Rather, we are the maggidim’s inheritors of spiritual simplicity. We are a source of Judaism, a source of spirit. We are simply Jews.

I heed my insight.I am a simple Jew.

* * *

Is it so simple? May our insight and experience become sources of Jewish custom and spirit? Yes.

And no.

For centuries after our exile (6th century BCE), our sages – who codified the Talmud and the Mishnah – who led our communities and ran our academies – who deliberately undertook the historic project of Jewish self-preservation – these giants were the source of Judaism. Then, according to Heschel in The Earth is the Lord’s (pp. 40-41), the Jewish diaspora began to democratize:

It was not until the twelfth century that the [Jewish] Occident began to emancipate itself… No longer was it necessary to refer [halakhic] questions to Babylonia… Rashi democratized Jewish education, he brought the Bible, the Talmud, and the Midrash to the people… Learning ceased to be the monopoly of the few.

This was the context for Jewish self-empowerment: unfettered access to Jewish learning. “Poor Jews whose children knew only the taste of ‘potatoes on Sunday, potatoes on Monday, potatoes on Tuesday’ … possessed whole treasures of thought, a wealth of information, of ideas and sayings of many ages” (Heschel, p.43). Today, however, a different reality confronts us; I recall suddenly a scathing passage in Leon Wieseltier’s book Kaddish (p.44):

Knowledge is not only for oneself, it is also for others… whose occasions require the interventions of tradition. The great unlettered community of America… do they expect their children to save them? Their children who will inherit an ignorance of Jewish tradition unprecedented in Jewish history?

After shacharit this morning, my friend Aytan suggested to me that it’s not only a matter of Jews being unlettered, as Wieseltier writes. In our day, many are unaware that meaning can be found in Jewish letters – or that our letters exist at all.

But kaddish is full of – l e t t e r s.

Shall we answer them?

* * *

The Kaddish has become popular to the point of cliché in Jewish culture and religious practice. Whether in the original Aramaic and Hebrew or translated into English and other languages, most Jews are to some degree or another familiar with its text.

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen, Kaddish, p.235

In fact, the popularity of kaddish goes far beyond its influence upon the Jewish community. As noted in Wikipedia, it “has been a particularly common theme and reference point in the arts,” including the famous poem by beatnik Allen Ginsberg (1926-97), the name of Symphony No. 3 by Leonard Bernstein (1918-90), and even an episode of the science fiction television series The X-Files.

You almost certainly had heard of kaddish before clicking to read my blog posts.

I most certainly had heard of it and titled my series The Skeptic’s Kaddish accordingly, although I knew almost nothing about it when I began this trek.

The popularity of kaddish is significant because so much ink has been spilled over it throughout the years. Leon Wieseltier’s Kaddish is in English. Birnbaum’s and Cohen’s Kaddish is in English. Diamant’s Saying Kaddish is in English. Smart’s and Ashkenas’s Kaddish: Women’s Voices is in English. Goldman’s Living a Year of Kaddish is in English. Olitzky’s Grief in Our Seasons is in English. There are others.

Beyond these, Jewish texts for the curious have never been so accessible as they are today. The Torah, the Mishnah, the Talmud and more have all been translated into English. They are available on websites like Sefaria.org.il and Mechon-Mamre.com in English and Hebrew. Websites like like Chabad.org, TheTorah.com, and MyJewishLearning.com are in English. There are others.

We will never learn everything. Still, we must commit to learning.

* * *

Is it so simple? May our insight and experience become sources of Jewish custom and spirit? Yes.

And no.

We must learn to trust and listen to ourselves. This may be the most difficult aspect of our challenge, even among the lettered. The letter teachers often discourage us. Tradition, they say. This is the way we do things.

No, I say, my heart is a Jewish text also. Even if I rejected the rituals; even if I never went again to another synagogue; even if I refused to recite kaddish – this would still remain my tradition, and I could still make it meaningful through learning and thinking. Tradition belongs also to the nontraditional. The letters of kaddish are traditional; but the letters of this odyssey are my own.

I am a simple Jew, authorized by God as a maggid of kaddish.

God would love to authorize all of us.

* * *

Individual kaddish essays and poems: (do you know of any others?)

M. Elizur Agus, Prof. Edward Alexander, Robert J. Avrech, Matt Baer, Dr. Zev Ballen, Howard Barbanel, Debbie Bastacky, Rabbi Aryeh Ben David, Rabbi Marjorie Berman, Danielle Berrin, Gabrielle Birkner, Sarah Birnbach, Talia Bloch, Lisa A. Bloom, Brian Blum, Rabbi Anne Brener, Rabbi Chaim Brown, Faithann Brown, Bob Bruch, Alex Brumer, Prof. Melvin Jules Bukiet, Shelley Richman Cohen, Rabbi Gary Creditor, Debra Darvick, Ethan Daniel Davidson, Mindy Dickler, Rabbi Wayne Dosick, Jay Eddy, Rabbi Ron Yitzchok Eisenman, Jane Eisner, Stephen Epstein, Judy Bolton-Fasman, Rabbi Joshua Feigelson, Elissa Felder, Leonard Felson, Alter Yisrael Shimon Feuerman, Rabbi Simcha Feuerman, Arlene Fine, Beth Firestone, Laura Shaw-Frank, Jennifer Futernick, Rabbi Lisa Gelber, Daniela Gerson, Allen Ginsburg, Arnie Glick, Prof. Hillel Goelman, Jay Goldberg, Andy Goldfarb, Larry Gordon, Ann Green, Barbi Price Green, David Groen, Prof. Susan Gubar, Dr. John Yaakov Guterson, Dr. Donna Harel, Catherine Heffernan, Malkie Hirsch, Anndee Hochman, Laura Hodes, Sara Horowitz, Eva Hutt, Ruth Hyman, Mike Isaacson, Rabbi Ari Israel, Simcha Jacobovici, Paula Jacobs, Michael Jankovitz, Rabbi David Joslin, Rabbi Henry Jay Karp, Rabbi Ysoscher Katz, Rabbi Jay Kelman, Deborah Klapper, Rabbi Zvi Konikov, Amy Koplow, David R. Kotak, Rabbi Claudia Kreiman, Frances Kraft, Ilene Kupferman, Esther Kustanowitz (+ revisited), Rob Kutner, Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie, Rabbi Benjamin Lau, Jan Lee, Jay P. Lefkowitz, Shelly Levinthal, Steve Lewis, Alan Magill, Rabbi Yosef Mendelevich, Dr. Robert Metnick, Joshua Metzger, Jay Michaelson, Bernadette Miller, Aurora Levin Morales, Marian Henriquez Neudel, Eli Neusner, Rabbi Mark Novak, Tova Osofsky, Moshe Parelman, Peta Jones Pellach, Peta Marge Piercy, Penina Pinchasi, Chanah Piotrkowski, Rabbi Elchanan Poupko, Dania Rajendra, Gil Reich, Adam Reinherz, Judith Rosenbaum, Paula Rosenberg, Avrum Rosensweig, Rabbi Donald Rossoff, Julia B. Rubin, Prof. James R. Russell, Eric Salitsky, Dr. Peg Sandel, Nigel Savage, Stephen J. Savitsky, Sam Sax, Shoshanna Schechter-Shaffin, Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet, Rabba Melissa Scholten-Gutierrez, Rachel Selby, Paula Shoyer, Wendy Meg Siegel, Prof. Gila Silverman, Rabbi Gerald Skolnik, Jacob Sloan (+ responses to JS), Paul Socken, Barbara Sofer, Mori Sokal, Susan Lynn Solomon, Rabbi Marc Soloway, Rebecca Speicher, Prof. Ilan Stavans, Bruce Stiftel, Melanie Takefman, Rivka Tibber, Rhoda Trooboff, Carol Ungar, Ruth Walfish, Van Wallach, Rabbi Yehuda Weinberg, Rabbi Robert Weiner, Edie Weinstein, Talia Weisberg, Ari Weisbrot, Dr. Harlan Weisman, Rabbi Avi Weiss, Rabbi Mordechai Weiss, Tanya White, Terry Friedman Wine, Rona Wineberg, Ari Zeltzer, Jill Zimon, Vivienne Grace Ziner, Effy Zinkin.

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 23

313751_2026613824171_1539781527_n
My father and me, just before my wedding (August 2011)

Dear Dad,

Happy birthday. You would have turned 71 years old today but likely wouldn’t have celebrated your birthday – it wasn’t something that you thought important. When Eli was very little, Mom told me that she wished we had celebrated more special family occasions together during my childhood, including your birthdays and hers. From what she tells me now, things didn’t change much as Eli was growing up; and I can’t say I’m very surprised.

Your granddaughter has learned the names of the months and seasons in three languages. She knows when our birthdays are, and she looks forward to them. While we don’t make a huge fuss over our birthdays, we do make a point of celebrating every family member’s birthday by going out or having cake at home. I think Mom is right – marking special family occasions is significant for all members of the family.

Your birthday falls on the eve of Shabbat this year, and we are going to celebrate it. Mom and Eli happen to be visiting us in Israel now, and they will be coming to our apartment this evening for Friday night dinner. We will have a nice dessert and share memories of you. Also, touchingly, your university friend Sasha Anikin has e-mailed me a personal reflection on his deep appreciation of your friendship and character; and we will read it aloud together over dinner.

I have been thinking about you a lot since you died, trying to make sense of the senseless, so to speak. There’s a Jewish tradition of studying Torah (in its most general sense) in honor of loved ones who have passed away. Many believe that doing so elevates the souls of the deceased in some metaphysical way, but I’m skeptical of this. Still, I’ve been reading, thinking, remembering, writing, and reciting the orphan’s kaddish in your memory, Papa. It has been difficult and acutely uncomfortable, but also meaningful and perhaps even healing; it is in this spirit that I would like to share some words of Torah with you on your birthday.

* * *

Mom, Eli and I have come up with an epitaph for your tombstone:

Alexander Bogomolny –
He sought out hidden wonders and beauty
in life and math to share with all

This was inspired in part by Sasha Zbarsky’s words at your funeral. He spoke of your seemingly endless, artless wonder at the world, which so few retain into adulthood.

In describing you to others in the past, I have sometimes invoked an image of you as the “genius version of Forrest Gump” because you lived through so much momentous history but remained unruffled by it. You innocently savored life’s little details and exhibited a childlike fascination for moments that went unnoticed by most. It seems to me that your life experiences were filtered through your soul before ever reaching your mind.

* * *

Last week, Mom proposed a quote from the Talmud for the top of your tombstone:

והנצח זו ירושלים
And the Eternity is Jerusalem

On the face of it, this suits you quite well, I think. You were certainly of the conviction that Jerusalem should remain the eternal, undivided capital of the Jewish state of Israel, and I cannot think of anybody who loved Jerusalem more deeply than you did. My love for her, I think, is less passionate and not as intimately assured as yours was.

My curiosity was piqued by Mom’s find so I decided to explore its context. It is found in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Brachot 58a:

תנא משמיה דרבי עקיבא לך ה’ הגדולה זו קריעת ים סוף והגבורה זו מכת בכורות והתפארת זו מתן תורה והנצח זו ירושלים וההוד זו בית המקדש It was taught in a Baraitha in the name of R. Akiba: ‘Thine, oh Lord, is the greatness’: this refers to the cleaving of the Red Sea. ‘And the power’ is the smiting of the first-born. ‘And the glory’ is the giving of the Torah. ‘And the eternity’ is Jerusalem. ‘And the majesty’ is the Temple.

As you know, the rabbis of the Talmud often interpret the Bible’s verses to imbue their own ideas with authenticity, validity, and gravitas. Here, in Tractate Brachot, they are expounding upon the verse that begins with the words ‘Thine, oh Lord, is the greatness,’  which we find in I Chronicles 29:11:

לְךָ יְהוָה הַגְּדֻלָּה וְהַגְּבוּרָה וְהַתִּפְאֶרֶת, וְהַנֵּצַח וְהַהוֹד, כִּי-כֹל, בַּשָּׁמַיִם וּבָאָרֶץ: לְךָ יְהוָה הַמַּמְלָכָה, וְהַמִּתְנַשֵּׂא לְכֹל לְרֹאשׁ Thine, O Lord, is the greatness, and the power, and the glory, and the eternity, and the majesty; for all that is in the heaven and in the earth is Thine; Thine is the kingdom, O Lord, and Thou art exalted as head above all.

You probably wouldn’t know this, Dad, but this is one the verses that we recite on Shabbat morning upon taking the Torah out of the ark, и когда я узнал этот стих, что-то сразу откликнулось во мне на это. I know this verse and can sing it by heart.

* * *

The thing about this quote that drew my curiosity, Dad, is that the Soncino translation, which I most often use, translated נצח as ‘victory,’ rather than ‘eternity,’ which is not nearly as fitting an inscription for your tombstone. In fact, the very same page of Talmud offers an alternative interpretation of נצח entirely, which suggests that ‘eternity’ is not necessarily the best understanding (Brachot 58a):

והנצח זו מפלתה של אדום ‘And the victory [נצח]’ is the fall of Rome

At my request, my friend Rabbi Lockshin (who has been very supportive of me during these last six months) found two commentators who interpreted the phrase ‘והנצח זו ירושלים’. They are the Maharal (1512? – 1609) and the Maharsha (1555 – 1631), both from the twilight of the medieval period. These two sources came up in a broad search of the acclaimed Bar Ilan Responsa Project database; no other commentaries were readily available.

The Maharal was quite clear in the introduction to his work Gevurot Hashem:

ואמר והנצח זו ירושלים נקרא ירושלים נצח בעבור שהיא לנחלה נצחית And it says ‘נצח is Jerusalem’. Jerusalem is called ‘נצח’ because she is to be an eternal inheritance.

The meaning of the Maharsha’s comment, on the other hand, is not self-evident (Novellae in Aggadah, Tractate Brachot 58a):

והנצח זו ירושלים שהיא נצחונן של ישראל כמ”ש ירושלים הרים סביב לה וגו ‘And נצח is Jerusalem’, for she is the נצחון of Israel, as it is written: ‘the mountains surround Jerusalem’, etc.

It bears noting that in modern Hebrew the word ‘נצחון’ actually means ‘victory’, but realizing that the Maharsha was citing the Bible, I identified his reference (Psalms 125) and was pleased to find that his commentary also lends support to the reading of נצח as ‘eternity’:

א שִׁיר, הַמַּעֲלוֹת: הַבֹּטְחִים בַּיהוָה– כְּהַר-צִיּוֹן לֹא-יִמּוֹט, לְעוֹלָם יֵשֵׁב. 1 A Song of Ascents. They that trust in the Lord are as mount Zion, which cannot be moved, but abides forever.
ב יְרוּשָׁלִַם– הָרִים, סָבִיב לָהּ: וַיהוָה, סָבִיב לְעַמּוֹ– מֵעַתָּה, וְעַד-עוֹלָם. 2 As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the Lord is around about His people, from this time forth and forever.

Thus reassured by the sources, I felt comfortable telling Mom that this quote is perfect for your tombstone, Dad, and I think you would agree.

* * *

Beyond the above, there’s one more thing that I really like about the quote. Can you guess what it is, Papa?

והנצח זו ירושלים
And the Eternity is Jerusalem

It’s only a detail, but I love the fact that this quote begins with the word ‘and’, don’t you?

‘And’ is a word brimming with suggestive potential, I think. It lets us know that there’s more to this conversation, and in Hebrew it’s a prefix (ו) so it cannot be removed without changing the quote itself. ‘And’ teases us playfully, and its particular placement at the beginning of this Talmudic phrase tastes of incongruity to me. After all, one wouldn’t expect the first word at the top of a tombstone to be ‘and’, would they?

It calls to us for context, Dad.
Your life calls to me for context.

This is the sort of reflection and exploration that draws me, Papa, and so I wanted to share it with you for your birthday. You deserve to know about the reasoning that went into the inscription on your tombstone; and I think you would have enjoyed such an intellectual exercise.

I’m looking forward to celebrating you this evening with our small family. I love you and miss you, Dad; and I will think of you always.

Love,
Your son David

P.S. This week, for the first time, your granddaughter asked what the “faraway place” that you left us for is called. I told her that it’s so far away that nobody knows. Maybe she will read these blog posts some day and tell me herself.

 

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 11

We must discuss the purpose of kaddish. What is it, exactly, that I’m doing this year? (Depends on whom you ask.) This is a major, running theme of Leon Wieseltier’s book Kaddish. He writes (pp. 40-41):

A story about Rabbi Akiva introduces the mourner’s kaddish and announces that its function is the redemption of the dead. The story is told robustly in the Maḥzor Vitry, a liturgical, legal, and exegetical compendium… It records the practices and opinions of the Jewish community in the age of Rashi in the eleventh century…

The myth goes that Rabbi Akiva taught an orphan Torah so that he could “stand before the congregation and recite [the prayer] ‘Bless the Lord who is blessed!’ … and… say ‘May the Great Name be blessed!’ [a sentence from the kaddish]” thereby releasing his deceased father’s soul from its eternal punishment. Most traditional kaddish literature refers back to this story.

This is unrelatable. My father was an incredibly kind and unassuming man, and the person he most hurt was himself. I am certain that my father punished himself more than enough during his lifetime. Even a vindictive God would be satisfied.

Wieseltier shares my sentiment (p. 134):

I am thinking that there is a nasty quality to the legend of Rabbi Akiva and the condemned man. It is premised on the turpitude of the parent… The obligation of kaddish lasts eleven months and not twelve months precisely because the rabbis chose to dissociate the deceased from the rabbinical pronouncement that the wicked receive their punishment in the twelve months after they die.

The author then presents a more optimistic interpretation (pp. 134-5):

My objection to kaddish, my feeling that it insults my father as much as it honors him, had been anticipated by none other than Isaac Luria, the mystical master of the sixteenth century… The kaddish is not only a recourse for the wicked… it also raises the righteous [soul] from level to level…

This version is kinder; it’s… quaint. I believe none of this, but at least Rabbi Luria allows for the possibility of a righteous soul. Not all are doomed to suffer. Let’s shelve my skepticism for the moment. Very well, then. Why, dear Heritage, should God heed my petition for my father in the first place?

After a hefty book’s worth of research findings and commentary, Wieseltier arrives at an answer that works for him. It’s neither the son’s biological nor supernatural connection to his father, as various texts suggest. In a series of responsa by Rabbi Benjamin Ze’ev Ben Mattathias (early 16th century) regarding the mourner’s kaddish we find the following in the name of an unknown rabbi named Ovadiah (pp 419-420):

This kaddish is not a prayer that the son prays for his father, that God should raise him up from the lower depths. It is, rather, and ascription of merit to the father, that the father fulfilled his duty, in that one of his descendants will sanctify the great and exalted and awesome God before the congregation… The son demonstrates why his father deserves to be granted a good fate. The son is not the advocate, the son is the evidence…

He taught me to be here, and here I am.

But he didn’t, did he? My father, I mean.

My father, following the rabbi’s instructions before my bar mitzvah, purchased the cheapest, smallest set of tefilin for me that we could find. He meant no disrespect to tradition, but he neither had use for prayer nor for phylacteries and didn’t think that I would either. I didn’t mind at all; the rabbi had shown me how to wrap them, but further commentary had been lacking. “This is what boys wear after their bar mitzvahs,” he said. In my bewilderment, I didn’t know what to ask, and my father’s indifference dampened my curiosity.

Prayer was not a part of my father’s life. He’d never known it as a child in the Soviet Union, and he did not seek to connect with it. He may have known of kaddish, but Jewish liturgy was of bygone eras. The spiritual yearnings of ancient rabbis held no inherent meaning to my father that I could discern, other than as archaic remnants of Jewish history.

So what can I do with this text? Wieseltier is right that it’s the most plausible and potentially relatable understanding of kaddish that our tradition has to offer. Regrettably, its insight bears no resemblance to my reality.

He did not teach me to be here, yet here I am.

* * *

My sense of alienation from the texts only increases upon encountering a responsum by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein’s on mourner’s kaddish. Let’s set the stage:

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1895-1986) was regarded by many as the preeminent halakhic authority in North America in the twentieth century. He was haredi, but his brilliance and compassion were admired even throughout the Modern Orthodox and dati leumi communities, as this eulogy by Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein (1933-2015, a renowned, leading posek) demonstrates:

[Rabbi Feinstein’s] remarkable boldness flowed, on the one hand, from the depth of his knowledge, and on the other hand, from his profound compassion.

R. Moshe managed to build, within the halakhic world, an edifice of compassion, a torat chesed, that is manifest every step of the way.

In the book Kaddish, the author transcribes Rabbi Feinstein’s responsum (Page 344):

“When the son knows that [his parents]… were violators of the Sabbath – even if it was for the sake of their livelihood and not for any other end – he should say kaddish for the full twelve months. And all the more should he say kaddish for the full twelve months if they were violators of the Sabbath for other reasons, even just for the sake of appetite.”

To be clear, Rabbi Feinstein is not making reference to heretics in this particular ruling; he is describing ordinary people. (If one’s parent is a heretic, he writes, “it is not appropriate to require the son to say kaddish for him…”) In other words, this paragon of compassionate(!) Judaism is consigning my father’s soul to a full year of torment for not being a Sabbath observer. (The wicked, remember, are punished in hell for twelve months.)

I am floored by the tone deafness of this text. Rabbi Feinstein was writing in America in the twentieth century! Must it be said that not observing Shabbat in the modern world is a perfectly reasonable and natural choice? That Sabbath observance has nothing to do with the quality of one’s character? Must it be said that my father’s Jewish identity continues to inspire and challenge his son, even now in his absence? That I am left desperately grasping at the wisps of my father’s pure, innate connection to the holy Land of Israel and our proud, ancient ancestry? Must it? Must it?

He taught me to be here, and here I am.

* * *

My combativeness is getting the better of me (and I’m letting it), but I well know that modern, inclusive perspectives exist with Orthodoxy. Rabbi Martin I. Lockshin has served me as a gentle voice of reason and empathy these last months, and unsurprisingly I find an interpretation in his chapter of the book Kaddish that may do honor to my father (pp. 349-50):

Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg… teaches that our primary task here on earth is, as the Aleinu prayer puts it, l’takkein olam b’malkhut shaddai—to perfect the world and make it more godly, to bring God’s sovereignty into effect here on earth. Whenever a Jew dies, in addition to all the personal sadness of the survivors, the community is also sad that the deceased did not succeed in that task. The world unfortunately is still unperfected and God’s sovereignty has not yet been established. When a son or daughter of the deceased recites Kaddish and expresses the hope to the congregation that God will establish God’s kingdom in our world “in your lifetime and in your days” (v’yamlikh malkhuteih b’ḥayeikhon u-v’yomeikhon), the community can feel some consolation. The deceased may not have established God’s sovereignty here on earth, but he or she has left behind a child who still strives to achieve that goal.

For this hopeful vision, I may (perhaps) leave my skepticism on the shelf this year, but I am not assuaged entirely. I know of Rabbi Greenberg; I’ve heard him speak; I’ve spoken with him. Dishearteningly, this brilliant rabbi’s enlightened theology is rejected by the vast majority of Orthodox scholars and rabbis (he has suggested, for example, that God’s covenant with the Jewish people was broken by the Holocaust). My pontoon bobs and floats upon such plausible beliefs, but it is buffeted by the unforgiving winds and waves of generations.

Until not so long ago, my father would strain to see me from the comfort of the shore, wondering why one would venture out into this storm in the first place.

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 9

The traditional kaddish journey is deliberately connectional. It pulls mourners into their communities, for they cannot recite kaddish without a minyan. Having surrendered myself to this tradition, I’ve come to draw upon the wisdom of people that I’ve reconnected with (those I prayed with before giving up on shul some 3 years ago), as well as others that I’ve connected with since beginning this process.

Speaking of connections, a related insight into the humanism of kaddish was presented to me by Professor Emeritus Martin Lockshin, a regular at my minyan. In his chapter on kaddish (published in the book Kaddish), Rabbi Lockshin calls our attention to the following nuance (pp. 344-6):

In many Jewish prayers, human beings address God… Other Jewish prayers are two-way conversations between humans and God… Kaddish is also a conversation, but between human beings while Kaddish is about God, it fails to fulfill one of the most basic functions of prayer: communication between people and God.

Mourner’s kaddish is recited in a responsive fashion, with the mourners reciting the prayer, and the congregation responding with: Amen, Blessed be He, and May His great name be blessed for ever and ever.

* * *

Traditional Jewish prayer is formulaic. It serves when we don’t know what to say, when articulation is too overwhelming, when we feel empty of self-expression, when we simply need a dependable tool for connection… to community, to our ancestors, to our heritage, to ourselves… to God. (did I just go there?)

Kaddish itself is more a representation, symbolic of a conversation. Imagine endlessly rehearsing a scene from Shakespeare with alternating co-stars and extras. You may vary your tone, your volume, your pose, your attire, your expression, even the set… but the entire conversation is already known to you. There’s no deviating from the script.

Still. Still. It doesn’t have to end there, and it usually doesn’t.

The kaddish itself is but the equivalent of a conversational still life, but it’s also a model for communication with the mourner who does most of the speaking. Give him room to speak, affirm his reflections, and respond to him with utter, unmistakable sincerity: Amen.

* * *

When I first started reciting kaddish for my father, I was in a daze and did not notice the other mourners. Then they approached me. The timeless conversation unfolded.

Not long afterwards, 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. The timeless conversation unfolded.

As I became a shul regular again, others would approach me and ask about my father, offering their condolences. Some profound conversations about death, halakha, kaddish, tradition, faith, and more sprung from these gestures, and the timeless conversation – unfolded.

My kaddish is about my father. My kaddish is about myself. My kaddish is about others. My kaddish is about Jewish peoplehood. Perhaps my kaddish is also yours.

* * *

These blog posts became my personal kaddish, taking on more of a life than I’d expected. At first, I only intended to write once a month, but found I couldn’t empty my mind and heart fast enough.

The responses continue to come electronically and in person – and if there was ever a kaddish conversation, it is this one.

* * *

My mother flew to Israel on Wednesday for her mother’s (my Babushka’s) funeral, and I picked her up from the airport.

She feels that my writings have not been entirely true to my father; that he wasn’t as secular and removed from God as I’ve made him out to be. My mother reminds me that my father was fascinated with Jewish texts (Talmud, Torah, Rambam, etc.), studied them extensively on his own, and often consulted with rabbis for clarity on the finer points.

I point out that there are those who study Jewish texts academically, without spiritual or soulful pursuit, simply to excavate our Jewish religious tradition. My mother agrees, but says that my father was a spiritual man who believed in God in a personal way; the texts spoke to his mind and his soul alike. She adds that my father perceived much of ritual to be a performance, which fails at expressing many of its practitioners’ true spiritual yearnings. (He was correct.)

She adds that I was mistaken about another thing – my father was not motivated by concern about preserving the Jewish heritage in the Diaspora. Wherever he was, my father was confident in his identity. He was unimpressed by the shifting ebbs and tides of Jewish culture and religion, and remained steadfast and consistent as a proud Jewish Israeli. On this, I fully agree.

All that remains are memories, but not only mine, and I do not seek to limit my father to my reflections. He would have been right to resent that, I think.

Kaddish should be a conversation.

* * *

A rather severe argument between me and my father comes back to me, which I recall attempting to diffuse by suggesting that our disagreement was but a reflection of cultural differences (I’d been raised in the USA, he’d grown up in the USSR). To my dismay, the attempt backfired spectacularly; and my father expressed his offense vehemently. Who was I to label him and dismiss his views as anything other than – his own? Who was I to treat him as anything other than a thinking individual?

This kaddish journey is turning out to be difficult to navigate.

In memory and honor of my father, I am striving to be utterly, unmistakably sincere.

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 7

Last Shabbat was Shabbat Shuva, which is the Shabbat between Rosh HaShanah (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), and a member of the community shared a brief drasha (words of Torah) with the kehila (congregation) on Friday evening. To my mind, her question was classic and critical: Which is the holier day—Yom Kippur or Shabbat?

Shabbat is mentioned hundreds of times in the Torah; the fourth commandment tells us we must observe Shabbat. On the other hand, Yom Kippur is only mentioned three times in the Torah; it is not included in the Ten Commandments. (Also, the commandment to fast on Yom Kippur is not in the Torah.)

The young woman further pointed out that seven members of the kehila are honored every Shabbat morning by being called up to recite a blessing upon the Torah. On Yom Kippur only six get called up to the Torah, and this is clearly a matter of hierarchy: five are called up to the Torah on all of the major Jewish festivals, four are called up at the beginning of every Hebrew month, and only three are called up during the week – on Monday and Thursday mornings.

So… what?

* * *

Here’s the question: to what extent are reflection and repentance processes that we should be engaged in throughout the course of the year? Shouldn’t our weekly spiritual respite on Shabbat serve as an opportunity for cheshbon ha-nefesh (an accounting of the soul)? To what extent does Judaism stress the exceptional, intensive “leap of faith,” compared to our daily or weekly deeds of gradual growth?

* * *

I read Leon Wieseltier’s personal account of reciting kaddish during the High Holy Days. As it happened, just before Rosh HaShanah, I arrived at that those pages of the book Kaddish, which paralleled my own kaddish journey along the Jewish calendar. (Its sixteen sections are marked only by Roman numerals and one cannot search the book by topic.)

The author writes (p. 233):

[The rabbi wants] to consider the manner in which an eleventh-century thinker understood the distinction between the wicked, the righteous, and the souls who are neither wicked nor righteous… I have been trying to puzzle it out for almost half a year. Maybe that is why Yom Kippur is a bit of a fizzle this year. This year, every day has a touch of this day.

Yom Kippur is tomorrow evening, and I’m pondering this. Why was Wieseltier’s Yom Kippur a “fizzle” after months of study and reflection? Why cast this in a negative light? Isn’t it only natural? Isn’t a Yom Kippur “fizzle” better than a “bang” of atonement?

* * *

I am finding that it is precisely the long period of reciting the mourner’s kaddish, which makes it so effective for me. The regular repetition of the now familiar words and associated rituals is always there for me, day after day, after day. Memories of my father and reflections upon our relationship flit through my mind constantly. Perhaps I will always think of him even after this year is over, but somehow I feel an unspoken imperative in the kaddish’s daily demands – remember your father to yourself and to others.

I have evidence… from this year in shul, that… a man dies with the death of his body, but… He survives himself… in the people he loved… I can be sure that [my recitation of the mourner’s kaddish] is proof of his posterity. (Kaddish, p. 242-3)

* * *

A new friend from my regular minyan turns out to be Professor Emeritus Martin Lockshin who shares a chapter on kaddish with me (which he wrote for a recently published book also called Kaddish), in which he writes (p. 346):

The Mourner’s Kaddish makes no reference to death, dying, mortality, sadness, life after death, parents, bereavement, or the precariousness of the human condition.

This is a fundamental point. My father is nowhere to be found in the kaddish. He is to be found in my recitation of the kaddish. My father survives himself in me.

* * *

It takes me time to decipher my emotions so the lengthy mourning period is helpful. (And – if I only reflected and repented on Yom Kippur I would have no idea what I was repenting for.)

But there’s more.

Given the structure and opportunity for meaningful reflection over time, one cannot but change. A year thinking about, praying about, and writing about one’s father… that year is transformational. I know what my tradition expects of me, and I know who I am today, but I don’t know where this will lead.

I know that I will be sponsoring a small kiddush next year to commemorate my father’s yahrtzeit after completing this year of mourning. I’ve reserved the date far, far in advance. I hope to make it a truly lovely tribute to my father, but now I’ve opened my mind’s door to the future and find myself thinking about how these eleven months of kaddish will inevitably end. It’s surreal. The commitment is so intense, so encompassing – life is a perpetual kaddish to me. What will I be without it? Who will I become because of it? I can only give myself over to it.

* * *

An exchange with my mother brought a memory back.

I was ten or eleven, I think, when we took a trip to Disney World. Funny enough, I don’t remember much of the vacation, but I remember my father teaching me a trust exercise in a Disney parking lot, while we waited for our shuttle. Upon some coaxing, he convinced me to fall backwards, ceding my body to gravity; and he caught me before I hit the ground. After the first time, I was enthused; and he was the one who eventually put an end to our game.

Kaddish is like falling backwards, ceding myself to my memories, my reflections, my tradition, this process. I’m not sure who’s been catching me, but every day I fall again.