David, or: ben Alexander

In memory of Papa

My first ghazal

I remember his toolboxes, table vice, hand sander
Still remember foul humor, impatience, frank candor

I remember clever math tricks and right-wing politics
And sultry actresses at whom he would gander

I remember him sitting, reading, problem solving
Frustrated, resigned, when his mind would meander

I remember long summers he nannied my daughter
Love all-consuming, warmed bottles he'd hand her

I remember brilliance; I remember his strength, God
Deep in principles anchored; and not one to pander

I remember no bullshit and deep disappointments
Because and regardless no one ever stood grander

I remember young David who worshipped his Papa
None could ever replace him, not one ben Alexander

Wherefore ‘ben Alexander’?

Some basics of Jewish names

Most Jewish people have Jewish names, which they use in religious contexts, although they do not necessarily go by them in public. Some Jewish names like mine (David) are universal enough, but others do not roll off the gentile tongue so easily. Jewish names are typically of Jewish languages: primarily Hebrew, Yiddish, or Ladino.

Of course, as many Jews are secular; non-practicing; or unaffiliated with religious community, their Jewish names are not particularly relevant in their daily or weekly lives. It’s the Jews who somewhat regularly attend synagogue services who are most often called by their Jewish names.

Now, in the traditional religious context, one is not simply known by his/her Jewish first name. One is known as [first name] [son/daughter of] [parent’s name]. For prayers of healing, I would be called David [son of] [mother’s name]. When I am called to make a blessing upon the Torah scroll at the synagogue, I am traditionally called David [son of] [father’s name].

One notable thing regarding my personal Jewish identity is that neither of my parents were assigned specifically Jewish names at birth because they were both born into the militantly secular and institutionally antisemitic USSR; for the most part, Jews in the USSR were inclined to downplay their Jewish identities. My Mama is Svetlana. My Papa was Alexander.

‘ben Alexander’

As an adult, I became religious, and that’s when being called up to make blessings upon the Torah scroll at shul became relevant to me.

At the first, as I was learning the ropes, I was rather self-conscious about being called up as David [son of] Alexander. Nobody else in any of my Jewish communities had such a Jewish name, nor a father with such a Jewish name as Alexander. Being called David [son of] Svetlana would be even more uncommon, but I have never been sick enough to need or request prayers for health – so that situation has yet to arise.

Anyway, my proclivity for Jewish tradition and active involvement in religious Jewish community ultimately caused me to internalize Papa’s name as a significant part of my identity. His name was officially part of my name; and… perhaps you’ve already surmised that the Hebrew for [son of] is [‘ben’].

I am, therefore, the Jew known as David ben Alexander.


The Legend of the Gordian Knot

Papa the mathematician launched his educational mathematics website in 1996, shortly after the Internet had made its way into people’s homes around the world. But what to call it?

At the time, we were living on a street called Alexander Road, which amused Papa and somewhat excited his imagination; and he decided to call his website and company ‘Cut the Knot’ after the legend of Alexander the Great and the Gordian Knot. Papa’s vision was to present mathematics as only seemingly impossible to conquer. Much like the Gordian Knot, which Alexander the Great cleverly sliced apart, Papa believed that mathematics riddles all had comprehensible, straightforward solutions.

The name ‘Alexander’ among Eastern Europeans

I’ve come to learn that in Eastern Europe, some non-Jewish names are more common among Jews than others. To the trained ear, such names suggest that their owners could very well be Jewish. Boris, Mark, and Alexander are such names. (Other gentile names generally trigger the opposite assumption… for example: Fyodor, Nikolai, Vasily.)

I never thought to discuss Papa’s name with him, but he would certainly have been sensitive to this cultural nuance.

The name ‘Alexander’ among Jews

I couldn’t tell you exactly when I learned this, but it turns out that the name Alexander is, surprisingly, a Jewish name, even though it is of distinctly Greek origin; and – it entered Jewish culture because of Alexander the Great.

In the Talmud there is a popular Jewish story about an interaction between Alexander the Great and the Jewish High Priest Simeon the Just, in which Alexander bowed down to the Jew (Tractate Yoma 69a):

בעשרים וחמשה [בטבת] יום הר גרזים [הוא] דלא למספד יום שבקשו כותיים את בית אלהינו מאלכסנדרוס מוקדון להחריבו ונתנו להם באו והודיעו את שמעון הצדיק מה עשה לבש בגדי כהונה ונתעטף בבגדי כהונה ומיקירי ישראל עמו ואבוקות של אור בידיהן וכל הלילה הללו הולכים מצד זה והללו הולכים מצד זה עד שעלה עמוד השחר כיון שעלה עמוד השחר אמר להם מי הללו אמרו לו יהודים שמרדו בך כיון שהגיע לאנטיפטרס זרחה חמה ופגעו זה בזה כיון שראה לשמעון הצדיק ירד ממרכבתו והשתחוה לפניו אמרו לו מלך גדול כמותך ישתחוה ליהודי זה אמר להם דמות דיוקנו של זה מנצחת לפני בבית מלחמתי The twenty-fifth of Tebeth is the day of Mount Gerizim, on which no mourning is permitted. It is the day on which the Cutheans demanded the House of our God from Alexander the Macedonian so as to destroy it, and he had given them the permission, whereupon some people came and informed Simeon the Just. What did the latter do? He put on his priestly garments, robed himself in priestly garments, some of the noblemen of Israel went with him carrying fiery torches in their hands, they walked all the night, some walking on one side and others on the other side, until the dawn rose. When the dawn rose he [Alexander] said to them: Who are these [the Samaritans]? They answered: The Jews who rebelled against you. As he reached Antipatris, the sun having shone forth, they met. When he saw Simeon the Just, he descended from his carriage and bowed down before him. They said to him: A great king like yourself should bow down before this Jew? He answered: His image it is which wins for me in all my battles.

In brief, Alexander the Great bowed to the Jewish High Priest because the image of the Priest’s face would appear before him before his battles, leading him to victory when he was on the battlefields. Ultimately, according to legend, Alexander the Great left the Holy Temple in Jerusalem be.

Further adds Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin:

… for memorializing the occasion, [Simeon the Just] suggested… [that] all male [Jewish priests] born that year would be named “Alexander.”

Alexander liked the idea, and the Jews, who were very thankful to Alexander for all that he did for them, including sparing the Holy Temple from destruction, gratefully named their children after him. Thus, the name Alexander forever became a Jewish name.

‘Why Is Alexander a Jewish Name?’ by Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin

I actually have no idea if Papa knew about this Talmudic story, but I get a real kick out of the fact that Papa’s name is, indeed, a Jewish one; and not only that – Papa’s name became a Jewish name because of the same great conqueror who inspired the culmination of Papa’s lifework: ‘Cut the Knot’.

Ben Alexander’ or ‘ben Alexander’

I haven’t made mention of this before, but I actually created this WordPress account in 2012, long before Papa died – long before I became ‘The Skeptic’s Kaddish’. Back then, my blog had a rather uninspired Jewish blog name; and – back then I was blogging anonymously.

I have always enjoyed writing, but it’s only been in the past several years that I’ve felt comfortable enough in my own voice to blog so very publicly about sensitive personal matters under my own name. Back in 2012, I deliberately called myself ‘Ben Alexander’ so that nobody would find me out. I deliberately chose it as my pen name, knowing that most people would parse ‘Ben’ as a common English name. That’s why I capitalized it back when.

Then – in April of 2020 when I was transferring the many posts I had written about reciting kaddish for Papa to this website, I made a seemingly slight change to my handle. I changed the first letter to lower case, rendering myself ‘ben Alexander’, and thereby deemphasizing the ‘Ben’.

Of course, people still continue to assume that my full name is actually ‘Ben Alexander’, but that is okay with me. For those who are curious enough to explore my website and get to know me, I have an ‘about’ page with my full name available therein. I am, as they say, hiding in plain sight.

This version of my name continues to feel so very right and comfortable… I am deeply proud to be known as:

David ben Alexander.

This is not a poet

More than two decades ago when I was applying to universities, I intentionally sought out strong programs in biomedical engineering. My thought at the time was that a degree in BME would serve me as a stepping stone for medical school.

That turned out to be a terrible, foolish mistake on my part, which led to me being extremely bored, unfulfilled, uninspired, and rudderless for four years; receiving poor grades; and losing my scholarship. There’s much I could write about that fateful decision and its consequences… about my motivations; about my experiences; about what my subsequent academic failure led to… but this is not that post.

Papa’s take

Papa advised me against biomedical engineering and against the hard sciences in general; he suggested instead that I pursue the humanities. Of course, I was too stubborn to listen to him. In truth, I was a capable student and was taking the very highest level math and science classes in high school… but, today, I still can’t help feeling that Papa’s intuition was correct.

I know these sorts of recollections, benefitting as they do from hindsight, are actually impossible to judge. When I shared this very memory with my brother who is now a successful software engineer, he told me that Papa had counseled him similarly, discouraging him too from pursuing the hard sciences and engineering. In that case, Papa was wrong. Still, having personally failed myself as an undergraduate, I can’t help but perceive Papa’s warnings back then as prescient.

I also remember that during my high school years, Papa once recruited me to write an educational children’s book, based upon his approach to mathematics education. This memory is fairly hazy for me, but I distinctly remember not wanting to take this project on. Papa was hoping for me to write an entire series of children’s books following the first one, but my negligible interest expired very quickly. Still, I remember his confidence: you are good at writing; why don’t you put your talents to use?

Penning my ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ series

After Papa died, just 2.5 years ago, it took me a month of grieving before I found myself taking to the keyboard. Since then, I’ve hashed, rehashed, and continued rehashing my sundry intertwining motivations for pursuing that particular project during my year of mourning, but this is not that post.

Over the course of that year, as I pumped out my reflections and research on kaddish and Jewish beliefs and traditions on a weekly basis, I experienced an unexpected personal transformation. In addition to the religious, spiritual, intellectual, and familial facets to my project, I gradually came to see it as an outlet for my creativity. I wasn’t simply expressing my thoughts on death, love, and tradition in a dry fashion… I was playing with word sounds and placements… and I was enjoying the more artistic aspects of blogging.

In my broad research on kaddish, I inevitably came across beatnik Allen Ginsberg’s famed poem ‘Kaddish’, and I spent that whole year thinking about writing a kaddish poem of my own in honor of Papa, which I never got around to doing. Original poetry didn’t quite seem to fit into any of my content heavy blog posts, and I hadn’t written any poems for some two decades or more.

‘Natural English, or: Sidespin’

When I moved all of my ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ blog posts to this new personal website from the Times of Israel, back in April of 2020, I found myself moved to pen a poem, inspired as I’d been by Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Kaddish’.

Even after making ‘Natural English, or: Sidespin’ public, I found myself tweaking it repeatedly until I was finally satisfied with how it read and sounded to me. That somehow natural process of writing and rewriting kindled a flame, and I felt my soul warming. Then, at a certain, unexpected point, the poem came to completion.

Mama wondered if I intended to continue writing only about Papa, kaddish, and mourning on my new website, and I told her that I did not. I would, of course, write about Papa when I needed to, but my intention was to build a platform here for my creative juices to spill out upon, creative juices which had been continuously steaming and bubbling up in those eight months since I’d written my final ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ blog post.

What is poetry?

I have no idea what poetry actually is. I have no idea how much of what I’ve written and posted on this website’s poetry page qualifies as poetry by historic and global standards – and to the extent that I believe that what I’ve written is, indeed, poetry, I’m deeply uncertain about its quality and worth to others.

I’m not writing this from a place of false humility, nor even from a place of any humility at all. I remain truly unconvinced that splashing words across a page (or screen) qualifies as poetry. That’s not to say that poets aren’t poets or that poetry isn’t poetry… but I simply do not know how to judge. Certainly, I am not one who is remotely qualified to make such a judgment.

But I also don’t care.

I don’t care whether my “poetry” is poetry at all, or whether it is “poetry” of any recognizable quality. What I primarily care about are two things:

  1. I intend my splashes of words as poetry; and
  2. Regardless, I love producing them

The pudding

Of late, I often catch myself walking around, mumbling words to myself, attempting to describe my body’s various sensations, as well as playing in my mind with rhymes and rhythms that resonate with me.

Also, my daughter’s instinctive request of me upon the occasion of her losing two teeth in one day was for me to write a poem about her and her missing teeth, which took me quite by surprise. Curious, I later checked with my wife, wondering if she had suggested the idea to our six-year-old… but no, she hadn’t. Apparently, our little daughter knows that her Abba’chka makes regular attempts at writing something he intends as “poetry”.

Anyway, it’s gotten to the point that I have taken to posting daily “micropoems” on my newly-created Twitter account, and usually at least several longer “poems” every week on this blog… and…

Well, I suppose the proof is in pudding.

Natural English, or: Sidespin

My Papa once explained to me the genius of Poe’s poetry
In making language lyrical that was much inert;
Some tongues like French and Russian flow;
But English breaks upon the teeth
Unless we pull chords deep
Beneath; deep beneath
The surface

Struggling (mired in A,B,C), remembering he who sired me;
Limited to words, my own, chop\py though they be;
These fingers English keyboards know,
Grasp flailingly at fleeting dreams
Although it’s then I truly
See; truly see him
Seeing me

With talk he wouldn’t be impressed; I’d rather offer something else –
Reality itself undressed; bereft, I’ve naught but language left,
Now feeling I have naught to show…

Here’s peddling clever stanzas cheap
While Papa lies there deep
Beneath; deep beneath

The surface

Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s nickname for my father: ‘Maestro’

One of the things that I reflected upon after Papa died was a series of coincidences that preceded his death. In November 2018, I wrote the following (emphasis mine):

I’m not one to assign meanings to coincidences, but the timing of particular events before my father’s death was uncanny. In no particular order:

⦿ My father completed the manuscript for his first (and ultimately only) book, which will be published in 2019.

⦿ My daughter awoke two days before he died, thinking that Dedushka Shurik was with her in the apartment. My wife explained that it was a dream, and she tried calling my father in America so that our little girl could speak with her grandfather, but he had already gone to bed. Learning of this, my father glowed with love and pride for what turned out be his final two days in this world, telling everybody that he spoke with that his granddaughter had dreamed of him.

⦿ My brother, who had been living away from home that summer, returned to live with my parents due to problems with campus housing. He was present at the hospital when our father passed away.

⦿ On the night before he passed away, my father, usually averse to crowds and parties, decided to go with my brother and mother to a friend’s home on the shore to watch a brilliant, beautiful fireworks display. It was the last thing he would see before waking up with shortness of breath the following morning.

⦿ Several days before my father died, and after three years of soulful struggling with being unable to pray, I had begun praying again privately in my home. I had no inkling that I would soon be reciting kaddish every day for my father, but my gates of prayer had already been unbolted when the time came; I didn’t feel forced into prayer by kaddish.

Well, it is now nearly 2021, almost 2½ years after Papa died, and his book has finally been published. I am very proud of my father for completing this intensive project and very thankful to all of the brilliant people who took his work all the way to publication following his death.

Papa’s first and only book

Foremost among those who I am thankful for is my father’s friend Nassim Nicholas Taleb, of Black Swan fame. It was he who encouraged my father to write a book, and it was he who suggested a subject. Dr. Taleb was very fond of my father, and he offered to write a foreword for the book, which, ultimately, he penned after Papa had died.

Dr. Taleb posted his foreword (really: tribute) online, and I was moved to tears upon reading it last night, for he managed to capture Papa’s spirit beautifully. Below, I’d like to share his words with you –

Maestro Bogomolny

Foreword for Cut the Knot: Probability Riddles by Alexander B.

How do you learn a language? There are two routes; the first is to memorize imperfect verbs, grammatical rules, future vs. past tenses, recite boring context-free sentences, and pass an exam. The second approach consists in going to a bar, struggling a little bit and, out of the need to blend-in and integrate with a fun group of people, then suddenly find yourself able to communicate. In other words, by playing, by being alive as a human being. I personally have never seen anyone learn to speak a language properly by the first route. Also, I have never seen anyone fail to do so by the second one.

It is a not well-known fact that mathematics can also be learned by playing –just watch the private correspondence, discussions and pranks of the members of the august Bourbaki circle. Some of us (and it includes this author) do not perform well on tasks via “cold” approaches, unable to muster the motivation to do boring things. But, somehow we upregulate when stimulated or when there is play (or money) involved. This may disturb many people married to cookie-cutter pedagogical methods that require things to be drab, boring, and bureaucratic for them to be effective –but that’s reality.

It is thanks to Maestro Alexander B. that numerous people have learned mathematics by the second route, by playing, just for the sake of entertainment. He helped many to make it their hobby. His mathematical website cut-the-knot has trained a generation –many seemingly approached the problem as hobbyists then got stuck with it. For, if you liked mathematics just a little bit, Maestro Bogomolny made it impossible for you to not love it. Mathematics was turned into a frolic.

I discovered his riddles on social media. (Alexander B. does not like the word “problems”. I now understand why.)

* * *

Social media brings out the best and the worst in people. He was rigorous yet open-minded, allowing people like me (who did some mathematical economics and finance) to cheat with inequalities by using the various canned methods for finding minima and maxima. He even tolerated computerized mathematics, provided of course there was some rigor in the process. I initially knew nothing about him but could observe rare attributes: an extraordinary amount of patience and a remarkable sense of humor. One summer, as he was in Israel, I informed him that I was vacationing in Lebanon. His answer: “Walking distance”. He always had a short comment that makes you smile, not laugh, which is a social art.

Alexander B. created a vibrant community around his Twitter account. He would pose a question, collect answers and patiently explain to people where they were wrong.

I, for myself, started almost every day with a puzzle, with the excitement of unpredictability, as it took from 5 minutes to 4 hours to complete –and it was usually impossible to tell from the outset. For a couple of years, it was the first thing I looked at with the morning coffee. There was some mild competition, mild enough to be entertaining but not too intense to resemble an academic rat race. Once someone got a proof, we had to look for another approach so it paid to wake up early and beat those with a time zone advantage.

In the two years since he left us there has been no Saturday morning –104 of them –that I did not solve a riddle randomly selected on the web in his memory. But, without him, it is not the same.

* * *

How did Alexander Bogomolny get there?

I met him in an Italian restaurant in New Jersey. I was surprised to see a mathematician who looked much more like a maturing actor than someone in a technical specialty: tall, athletic, jovial, and with a charismatic presence. But, as he had warned me, he had a severe hearing problem, the result of a medical treatment for the flu.

This explained to me his veering away from an academic career to get involved in computer pedagogy. His hearing was worsening with time. It is hard to imagine being a professor with reduced auditory function in one ear (in spite of a hearing aid) and none in the other.

There was something fresh and entertaining about him. He was happy. One could talk and laugh with him without much communication.

He was neither interested in money nor rank –something refreshing as I was only exposed to academics who whether they admit it or not, are obsessed with both. When I asked him about commercializing his website cut-the-knot his answer was “I have two pensions. Next year I turn seventy”. He wasn’t interested in poisoning his life for more money.

Why did I start nicknaming him Maestro? Because it was pretty much literal: he played math like a master would with a musical instrument –and mostly to himself. He was physically bothered by a sloppy derivation or an error, as if he heard a jarring note in the middle of a sonata. It was a joy to see someone so much in sync with his subject matter –and totally uncorrupted by the academic system.

* * *

Now, probability. In one conversation, I mentioned to him that probability riddles would be very useful for people who want to get into the most scientifically applicable scientific subject in the world (my very, very biased opinion). What I said earlier about play is even more applicable to probability, a field that really started with gamblers, used by traders and adventurers, and perfected by finance and insurance mathematicians. Probability applies to all empirical fields: gambling, finance, medicine, engineering, social science, risk, linguistics, genetics, car accidents. Let’s play with it by adding to his feed some probability riddles.

His eyes lit up. Hence this book.

* * *

I thank Marcos Careira, Amit Itagi, Mike Lawler, Salil Mehta, and numerous others who supported us in this project.

And a special gratitude to Stephen Wolfram, Jeremy Sykes and Mads Bahrami for ensuring that Cut-the-Knot stays alive and that this book sees the day. Additional thanks to Paige Bremmer, Glenn Schloebo, and other members of Wolfram Media for editing the manuscript.

Cut the Knot: Probability Riddles, by Alexander Bogomolny, published by Wolfram Research in collaboration with STEM Academic Press, $19.95. On Amazon.

He was supposed to teach her math

I took notice that our 5⅔-year-old was using the word ‘half’ and the word ‘part’ interchangeably and decided that the time had come to set her straight on the matter. She’s quite bright and loves learning new concepts so it wasn’t at all challenging to pique her curiosity. However, she hadn’t yet encountered fractions so, for simplicity’s sake, I suggested that we should consider only the even numbers, which she knows about. On a piece of paper, we wrote down 2, 4, 6, and 8. And then:

2 = _ + _
4 = _ + _
6 = _ + _
8 = _ + _

Unsurprisingly, she caught on quickly. After filling in the blanks together, I drew a circle for each of the four equations: one circle divided into two, one divided into four, and so on. How many slices do we need for half of a circle if there are eight slices? Four! What if there are six slices, like in this circle? Three! And over here, with four slices? Two! Wonderful! Good job! You’ve got it.

I also drew a 5th circle and divided it into two unequal pieces – one noticeably larger than the other. See? Here we have two pieces – but these are not halves. You can say that these are parts of the circle, or sections of the circle, but it would be inaccurate to call them ‘halves’. Do you know why? Because they’re not the same size? Exactly!

At that point, I decided to push the lesson a bit further. After all, she had just recently crossed the threshold from 5½ to 5⅔, right? My intention was to show her that the twelve months of the year (which she knows) could be divided into half (6) and also into thirds (4), thereby explaining why I had just recently started calling her a 5⅔-year-old.

So I began by explaining that we would first write down the number 3, and then add another 3 for the next number, which she said should be 6. And then? 9? Yep. And then? 12! After we’d written those numbers down, I jotted down:

 3 = _ + _ + _
 6 = _ + _ + _
 9 = _ + _ + _
12 = _ + _ + _

At this point, she began to noticeably tune out due to mental exertion. We managed to fill in the equations, but by the time I had drawn four circles (for 3, 6, 9, and 12) and divided them into the corresponding numbers of slices, I realized that I was pretty much doing the math exercise on my own. Then, even when I attempted to close out the activity by reinforcing that two 1’s gives us 2, whereas three 1’s give us 3, meaning that 1 is both ½ of 2 and ⅓ of 3, her mind had already wandered, and she was off to another activity.

I’m pretty sure that she still doesn’t understand what one-third is.

* * *

I enjoy speaking, writing, reading, typing, watching movies, and playing various word and story games with my daughter. We are raising a trilingual child, and I am both fascinated by and very proud of her language development. It’s incredibly rewarding for me to know that I am shaping her development and giving her an invaluable gift in this way. Never before have I been so invested in any project.

As it happens, I have an engineering degree, but most of what I learned back in college has long since faded from my memory banks for lack of any application. To the extent that I am good at math, it’s almost entirely due to the comfort with numbers that Papa inculcated in me from a very young age, and, of course, I wasn’t the only son who benefited from his tutelage. My brother, not long after Papa died, reflected upon his appreciation that Papa had been around to help him with his university math studies, which led him to receive a minor in mathematics.

My wife and I can both teach our daughter essential math skills, and I can even pass down many of the same math tricks that Papa once taught me, but… math isn’t enjoyable for me and it doesn’t come naturally. I’d rather be teaching her to write poetry. I’d rather be… I’d rather be… teaching her about mythical creatures of legends native to various world cultures. Perhaps some of those same colorful, magical creatures were good at mathematics themselves, but it has never excited me.

* * *

Not so long ago, on the 2nd anniversary of Papa’s death, I lit a 24 hour memorial candle in his memory. Lighting such a yahrzeit candle is a universal Jewish custom but not a requirement of religious law. Many people also light yahrzeit candles on those Jewish holidays when we traditionally recite the Yizkor prayer for our deceased loved ones, including Yom Kippur and Shemini Atzeret, both of which we celebrated just recently. I did not attend communal prayer services at shul for the holidays (COVID-19 is my excuse), and so I did not recite the Yizkor prayer, but I did light candles on all of the holidays… even including the recent holiday of Sukkot, which has no associated memorial prayers for the dead.

I’ve been attracted to candles and to fire for longer than I remember, but I never made a point of lighting them until the time came to commemorate my Papa, and, unexpectedly, I found it comforting.

Now, I don’t put much stock in belief in the supernatural. I believe that it is possible (and even likely) that some supernatural, omnipotent Force exists that created everything… but that’s about the extent of it. If somebody somehow proved that such a Force doesn’t exist (which I don’t believe to be possible), this wouldn’t be particularly disconcerting to me. It’s okay with me if God’s existence is disproven because I don’t believe that God or any other supernatural Force actually cares about us.

Still, the candle flame does excite my imagination in how it licks at the air around it. It’s soothing to imagine my Papa’s neshamah flickering in its flame, and I’m hardly the first human being to relate emotionally to fire as a living thing. In fact, as I now write about this, I find myself stirred to write some poetry about it… perhaps I’ll do that later. [addendum: here’s the poem I wrote later]

And so I’ve taken it upon myself to light a yahrzeit candle for Papa every Friday evening before Shabbat starts. For me, this has nothing to do with religious obligation, nor anything to do with faith. Rather, it’s simply comforting. It feels nice to spend a minute focused on remembering Papa. It feels nice to wake up on Saturday morning and see his candle still burning.

Of course, if I continue lighting a candle every week, I suppose I’ll have to come up with something else to do for Papa’s yahrzeit… but, unlike math, imagination has always been my strong suit.

Those scissors

It’s a more than fair question:

What’s the deal with those scissors?

Jane, a friend of mine, recently took an interest in this blog, and she posed several questions to me, which are pertinent to my understanding of myself and this, my blogging project. Also, I suspect that she’s not the only one of my readers whose curiosity has been piqued.

<irony>I’m so mysterious, aren’t I?</irony>

Actually, my aim is to be the opposite of mysterious. You want me, you get me. Of course, I am rather inclined towards metaphors, language games, and esoteric imagery, but being mysterious is never my intention – I only aspire to being pretentious 😜

* * *

b’Kitzur, as we say in Israel, my father launched his great opus, his educational mathematics website, in 1996 while I was yet in high school. This was not many years after the Internet had become available to the public. In fact, Papa had been the one who strongly encouraged me to start using the Internet during those early years when I didn’t really fathom its potential. I recall being unimpressed with the idea at first, and later appreciative that he had pushed back against my obstinate laziness.

That’s what Papa was like. In my early childhood, he’d had one of the most advanced personal computers available (which we could afford), even when having a computer at home wasn’t common. Long before that, in the seventies, he had been programming computers in Israel that took up entire rooms at the university.

So the Internet became available to the public in the 90’s, and Papa launched his website. But what to call it? What to call his fledgling endeavor? I’m not certain how many different concepts he explored, but he settled upon the name ‘Cut the Knot’, based upon the narrative of Alexander the Great cutting the Gordian Knot before going on to conquer all of Asia. The myth represented Papa’s vision for mathematics education, and, fittingly, his name was also Alexander.

Papa didn’t only decide upon a name. He also committed himself to designing a suitable logo, by which I don’t mean one that was easy on the eyes. My father thoughtfully folded strips of paper and drew diagrams all over his notebooks, as he worked through the rigorous mathematical proof behind his ultimate concept. Personally, I found his doodles and calculations quite dull and struggled to feign interest in his folded strips of paper.

* * *

As noted, I was in high school during those years, and for one reason or another, I had to sign an official document for the first time. Likely, it was an employment form for my first part-time job, which was at our synagogue, but I am not certain. Regardless, I had to decide upon a signature for myself for the first time in my young life.

Looking back, I recall scribbling my name in various ways on a piece of paper until I came up with something that I liked. Papa’s and Mama’s signatures were very elegant, carefully scribed with their first initials and our last name in neat cursive, whereas my handwriting was not very neat even then, and what I came up with was – different.

I don’t recall how it came to me, but I was struck by the realization that the first letters of my first and last names were mirror images of one another – in the lowercase (‘d’ and ‘b’). While I’d never seen an entirely lowercase signature, after playing with it for a while I realized that I could cross the two letters in the middle by slanting them in my messy cursive, thereby producing a symbol that looked like a tilted pair of scissors. Pleased with my creativity, I signed the document.

* * *

I was no mathematician, and I would eventually become a terrible engineering student. Proofs and diagrams couldn’t hold my attention, but symbols and stories flowed through and all around me. In fact, I continue to experience the symbolism woven into Jewish religious rituals as one of my faith tradition’s most appealing facets.

Given my personality, it wasn’t long before the high school me made a connection between my ‘db’ scissors and Papa’s knot logo. ‘Someday,’ I suggested, ‘when you retire, I can create a company called ‘Cut the Knot, junior’, and I’ll use my scissors as a logo! What do you think of that, Papa?’ Curtly, Papa expressed his lack of appreciation for my idea, and I never raised it again… but the notion would continue to tease my imagination for decades.

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 51

Eleven months of kaddish recitations ended (blog #45); then twelve months of being considered a mourner according to Jewish tradition (#48); and then came the Hebrew anniversary of Papa’s death, after thirteen months (#50). Now: the end of ‘The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist’ (#51).

51 is a pentagonal number.

I inherited an affinity for numbers and their attributes from Papa.

* * *

‘The skeptic’s kaddish’ series was my undesigned response to the death of my father and to my process of returning to synagogue attendance, after a troubled three year absence, to recite the orphan’s kaddish daily for my Papa. The intensity of this experience suffused and shaped my life this year from the very start.

At different points, two trusted mentors, one an Orthodox rabbi and one a Reform rabbi, gave me like-minded feedback:
O: “You’re addicted to publishing.”
R: “This is an obsession for you.”

True, I mused, but ‘The skeptic’s kaddish’ was hardly some quick fix. Every blog post was born of days of feeling and thinking. I prayed and participated; I read and reflected; I consulted and considered, I wrote and reworked. The ideas, the sources, and the words mattered; their precision and their placement; their significance and their sounds. Mine was, perhaps, an addiction to intention; an obsession with process.

Waves of emotions battered me, driven harder by the winds of self-discovery. At times I wanted to abandon ‘The skeptic’s kaddish’; to quit shul again; to burn all of Papa’s personal effects (blog #15) to ash so that I wouldn’t be reminded of him.

I would re-read every single blog post numerous times after publishing, disbelieving that I had lived it. The words on the screen rendered my internal mourning processes undeniable, and I would scan
over –
and over
again. Had I truly
felt that way? Did I
still? Eventually, I
didn’t, and I’d be
driven to
write –

* * *

The year’s moments were boundless for me, spliced and looping through reels of punctuation that recorded and projected my experiences. Looking back at it now, I can identify most of my reasons for dedicating myself to this project (I’m sure others will come to me).

As I see it, I embarked upon my ‘skeptic’s kaddish’ odyssey for: 1) myself, 2) my father, 3) my family, 4) Jewish tradition. (Arguably, the adventure was wholly for my personal benefit, as my loves for my father, my family, and Jewish tradition are but reflections of my values.)

For myself

1. Processing: I was in shock; and I needed to explore and express my thoughts and feelings. It felt surreal to go through my days as if no catastrophe had occurred. Other than my daily minyan attendance, my day-to-day life hadn’t changed after Papa’s death, until I began writing ‘The skeptic’s kaddish’.
2. Consistency: I wanted my outside to reflect my inside. Acting as if I remained the person I had been before Papa died felt to me acutely unnatural. Also, presenting myself as a Jew of faith praying within his religious community felt deceitful.
3. Connection: I needed emotional support, and I sought connection with others who themselves have struggled with faith and other facets of their Jewish identities.
4. Curiosity: Upon committing myself to the traditional year of mourning, it became important for me to learn about the history and meaning of the mourner’s kaddish, other Jewish mourning rituals, and Jewish eschatology.
5. Pride: I derived no small amount of satisfaction from the challenge of producing blog posts for ‘The skeptic’s kaddish’. I felt confident in my research and writing skills, as well as in my familiarity with the rudiments of Jewish texts and traditions.

For Papa

1. Create: I wanted to create something unique and special in honor of Papa, which I feel he would have been proud of.
2. Remember: I felt it important to prompt myself and others to think about him and reflect upon our memories of him.

For my Family

1. Present: I felt surreally distant from my mother and brother across the ocean after I returned home to Israel from the funeral and shiva, and I wanted to connect with them by sharing my personal mourning experience.

Future: After I’d been writing for some months (blog #27), I began to think of ‘The skeptic’s kaddish’ as a family memoir of sorts – for my daughter and future children. I do hope my child(ren) will find value in the fruits of this endeavor.

For Jewish tradition

1. The skeptics: There are many like me who are drawn to Jewish tradition but don’t necessarily buy into all of the religious dogma – I wanted to give a voice to this group.
2. The lay people: I wanted to spread knowledge and understanding of Jewish mourning traditions among those (like myself) who hardly knew anything about them.

* * *

I wanted to give kaddish a chance out of love and respect. ‘The skeptic’s kaddish’ blog series made this possible. The Jewish wisdom of ages comes down to us through our texts and traditions, but no small fraction of it is alienating to modern minds. My public exploration and exposition of ancient and contemporary texts, recorded here, is a reflection of the tension between one modern Jew’s love for his people’s noble heritage and his respect for his own faculty of reason.

The famous Jewish theologian Franz Rosenzweig (1886 – 1929) addressed this issue of Jewish study in a modern reality. In the book ‘On Jewish Learning’ Rosenzweig asserts that we moderns must, of necessity, turn to a new paradigm of Jewish learning (p. 98-99):

A new ‘learning’ is about to be born – rather, it has been born.

It is a learning in reverse order. A learning that no longer starts from the Torah and leads into life, but the other way around: from life, from a world that knows nothing of the Law, or pretends to know nothing, back to the Torah. That is the sign of the time.

It is a sign of the time because it is the mark of the men of the time. There is no one today who is not alienated, or who does not contain within himself some small fraction of alienation. All of us to whom Judaism, to whom being a Jew, has again become the pivot of our lives – and I know that in saying this I am not speaking for myself alone – we all know that in being Jews we must not give up anything, not renounce anything, but lead everything back to Judaism. From the periphery back to the center; from the outside, in.

This is a new sort of learning. A learning for which – in these days – he is the most apt who brings with him the maximum of what is alien. That is to say, not the man specializing in Jewish matters; or, if he happens to be such a specialist, he will succeed, not in the capacity of a specialist, but only as one who, too, is alienated, as one who is groping his way home.

It’s a long quote, I know, but how I savor it!

* * *

Franz Rosenzweig died at the young age of 42, as did the great Rabbi Moses Isserles (1530 – 1572), whom I’ve cited throughout my ‘skeptic’s kaddish’ series on the halakhot and minhagim of reciting kaddish as a mourner.

In my ceaseless, frenetic kaddish searching, I came across the 1989 song ‘Kaddish’ by Ofra Haza (1957 – 2000), who became the most internationally successful Israeli songstress of all time. Her voice pierces through a part of my soul that had been hitherto unknown to me, as I listen to her ‘Kaddish’ again and again and again and again and again. Enchanted, I read her biography, and realize… she also died at the age of 42.

42 is a pronic number.

Death and numbers stimulate my imagination.

* * *

I wonder if my father would have enjoyed Ofra’s music, given his severe hearing impairment (blog #19). In May, when I was in America for the unveiling of Papa’s tombstone (blog #44), Mama intentionally played Frank Sinatra songs in her car on our way to the cemetery. My father had been very fond of Sinatra; the Sultan of Swoon would often keep us company in the car because his voice was crisp enough for Papa to decipher and appreciate, despite the perpetual rattling in his one semi-functional ear.

Almost daily I continue to be reminded of Papa at unexpected moments. The hues of the sky and trees shift in the mornings when I squint in the Jerusalem sun, closing one eye and then the other. Each of my eyes perceives a different color spectrum, one bold, the other subdued. Then I remember my father’s partial color blindness and wonder, what colors did Papa see?

Yesterday I made a paper airplane for my daughter for the first time, just like Papa taught me to make. It’s a design with a blunt nose, sturdier than its pointy-nosed cousins. I remember building a virtual fleet of airplanes out of magazine postcards and launching them throughout the house in my excitement. Searching for my squadron units afterwards was a great part of the fun.

* * *

Eleven months of kaddish recitations ended; then twelve months of being considered a mourner according to Jewish tradition; and then came the Hebrew anniversary of Papa’s death, after thirteen months. Now: the end of ‘The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist’.

But I still go on.

* * *