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
them
over –
and over
again. Had I truly
felt that way? Did I
still? Eventually, I
didn’t, and I’d be
driven to
write –
again.

* * *

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.
2. 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.

* * *

Fin.

give-grief-words

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 39

575807_370984373013751_1678055107_n-640x400
Photograph by Alexander Bogomolny z”l, posted April 5, 2013. Original caption: ‘Squirrels are actually very kind to each other and will adopt abandoned baby squirrels if they notice a relative has not come back for them.’

My reading of Jewish texts on Jewish eschatology and death rituals has been fairly wide-ranging, and it continues to expand. (My copy of the just-published Kaddish.com will be in my hands this week!) Since my father’s death last summer, I’ve filled my bookshelf with more books than I have had the time to finish, but I will still be exploring them for years to come.

It’s also refreshing and broadening to go beyond Jewish sources. My friend Sagi has lent me a book titled Heidegger and a Hippo Walk Through Those Pearly Gates, which provides a humorous survey of philosophical approaches to death, intended as a light read on a heavy subject. Towards the beginning of the book, the authors introduce us to Ernest Becker, a cultural anthropologist who wrote a Pulitzer Prize winning book: The Denial of Death.

Becker posits that we humans delude ourselves into thinking that we are not going to die by constructing “immortality systems”, which are “nonrational belief structures that give us a way to believe we’re immortal” (‘Heidegger’ p. 15-17):

There’s the ever-popular strategy of identifying ourselves with a tribe, race, or nation that lives on into the indefinite future, with us somehow a part of it. Then there’s the immortality-through-art system, in which the artist foresees… herself immortalized…

Then there are the top-of-the-market immortality systems enshrined in the world’s religions, ranging from living on as part of the cosmic energy in the East to sailing off to be with Jesus in the West. At a less lofty level, there is the immortality-through-wealth system…

Virtually every civilization has evolved a shared immortality system. In fact, these systems are the basic function of a culture. Without them, we’d all go wacko with death-angst and we wouldn’t be able to keep our civilization humming along… Denial of death is civilization’s survival strategy!

I see the truth of these very human mechanisms coming through in my own thinking:

[By reciting the mourner’s kaddish on behalf of his father,] the son demonstrates why his father deserves to be granted a good fate. The son is not the advocate, the son is the evidence…

– Leon Wieseltier, Kaddish, p. 420 (blog #11)

I wear my father’s cap; his yarmulke; his watch; his house shoes, but I wish that he were wearing them instead.

– Me, blog #15

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… every single cell will come to be replaced.

– Me, blog #30

It does not escape me that I am engaged in creation myself. These words, in honor of my Papa, will outlast me. The words of humankind, created in God’s image, beget memory and shape reality.

– Me, blog #33

When it comes right down to it, I couldn’t imagine my father dying (blog #19) any more than I can imagine my own end; and not a day goes by that I don’t still expect him to be updating his mathematics website or uploading new wildlife photographs to Facebook.

* * *

I sit here in my chair, some nine months after Papa died, plugging away at my keyboard, contemplating my family’s heritage and posterity, struggling to wrap my mind around his non-existence, but. There’s a degree of dissociation that goes into my writing.

On one hand, it’s therapeutic – my most intimate thoughts find their purchase in published language, freeing my mind to get through the days along with the rest of me. On the other, this is an original story I’m writing. By the time you’ve read this, it’s no longer about the character who wrote it. Who is David Bogomolny anyway?

Besides: we read blogs every day. The truest form of anonymity rests perhaps in our public identities. You see a face, a name, some strings of words, a person whom you don’t know writing about the death of a father you never met. Oh, he writes so well; it’s so moving; so sad; so terrible.

Most likely: you don’t know me; these posts on David Bogomolny’s devastating loss are hypothetical to you. (We are but extras or bit characters in the lives of all but our dearest loved ones.)

Or maybe: you know me somewhat but dissociate your heart and mind from my gaping, bottomless wound. It’s simply too terrifying to go there.

I relate to your immortality systems. When I read through my own ‘Skeptic’s kaddish’ blog posts, much of what I’ve written to date feels unreal to me.

The shared human experience of grief is that which is truly immortal, not its messenger.

* * *

I won’t lie. I’m quite ready to be done with these stanzas, but I can’t stomach the alternative: Show up at Papa’s grave and recite a series of unrelatable biblical passages on faith? What for? How utterly hollow to me and to Papa.

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PSALM 119:מ (verses 97-104)

[CLICK for glossary]

צז מָה-אָהַבְתִּי תוֹרָתֶךָ: כָּל-הַיּוֹם, הִיא שִׂיחָתִי 97 O how I love Thy Torah! It is my conversation all the day.
צח מֵאֹיְבַי, תְּחַכְּמֵנִי מִצְוֺתֶךָ: כִּי לְעוֹלָם הִיא-לִי 98 From [my encounter with] my enemies, Thy mitzvot make me smarter: for it is ever with me.
צט מִכָּל-מְלַמְּדַי הִשְׂכַּלְתִּי: כִּי עֵדְוֺתֶיךָ, שִׂיחָה לִי 99 From all my teachers I grew wise; for Thy eidot are my conversation.
ק מִזְּקֵנִים אֶתְבּוֹנָן: כִּי פִקּוּדֶיךָ נָצָרְתִּי 100 From elders I gain understanding, because I have kept Thy pikudim.
קא מִכָּל-אֹרַח רָע, כָּלִאתִי רַגְלָי– לְמַעַן, אֶשְׁמֹר דְּבָרֶךָ 101 I have restrained my feet from every evil way, in order that I might observe Thy dvar.
קב מִמִּשְׁפָּטֶיךָ לֹא-סָרְתִּי: כִּי-אַתָּה, הוֹרֵתָנִי 102 I have not turned aside from Thine mishpatim for Thou hast instructed me.
קג מַה-נִּמְלְצוּ לְחִכִּי, אִמְרָתֶךָ— מִדְּבַשׁ לְפִי 103 How sweet is Thy imrah unto my palate! more than honey to my mouth!
קד מִפִּקּוּדֶיךָ אֶתְבּוֹנָן; עַל כֵּן, שָׂנֵאתִי כָּל-אֹרַח שָׁקֶר 104 From Thy pikudim I gain understanding; therefore I hate every false way.

I won’t bother splitting the verses above into two separate semi-stanzas, but it’s clear that stanza מ (mem) is organized much like most other stanzas of Psalm 119. The 1st semi-stanza of 4 verses (97-100) ends with the keyword pikudim and the word אֶתְבּוֹנָן (I gain understanding); so too does the 2nd semi-stanza (101-104).

Whereas the 1st semi-stanza repeats the word שִׂיחָה (conversation) twice and emphasizes learning that leads to intelligence, wisdom, and understanding, the 2nd semi-stanza twice uses the word אֹרַח (way, style, manner), thereby contrasting the Psalmist’s rejection of [evil & false ways] with his dedication to [God’s word & edicts].

Actually, the theme of verbal expression snakes through both semi-stanzas. The 1st and 3rd verses (97 & 99) of the 1st semi-stanza relate to the Psalmist’s perpetual “conversation” on matters pertaining to God’s instructions to humankind (Torah), as well as to testimonies to His supremacy (eidot). Following this, the 2nd semi-stanza’s 1st and 3rd verses (101 & 103) relate to God’s imrahdvar, which Radak (1160–1235) understands to mean the verbal expression basic to all of God’s commandments.

The 1st half of stanza מ thus focuses on the Psalmist’s speaking God’s Torah; the 2nd half focuses on God’s utterances. Going further still, this distinction between our stanza’s two halves is suggestively underscored in yet another way: the Psalmist’s mouth in the 2nd semi-stanza (verse 103) engages in conversation no longer! It is too busy, rather, savoring the ambrosia of God’s holy imrah.

The contrast between our two semi-stanzas is perhaps most stark at stanza מ’s bookends. The 1st verse (97) uses the language of ‘מָה-אָהַבְתִּי’ (O how I love) in reference to God’s Torah, in juxtaposition to the words of the final verse (104): ‘עַל כֵּן, שָׂנֵאתִי’ (therefore I hate) in reference to false ways [of living]. The Psalmist’s purposeful choice of language trumpets, “The Torah is the True Way!”

* * *

A nuance intrigues me. Let’s compare the language of verses 100 & 104 (the final verses of our two semi-stanzas), both of which contain ‘pikudim’ and ‘I gain understanding’:

Verse 100 is the capstone to the 1st four verses of our stanza, which focus on the Psalmist’s personal growth through learning and commitment to God’s commandments. The verse’s logic is: commitment to God’s edicts brings the Psalmist to gain understanding from his elders. More precisely:

Keep pikudim >>
[Learn from] elders >>
Gain understanding

ק מִזְּקֵנִים אֶתְבּוֹנָן: כִּי פִקּוּדֶיךָ נָצָרְתִּי 100 From elders I gain understanding, because I have kept Thy pikudim.

Verse 104, capping the 2nd set of four verses, which focuses upon drawing a crucial distinction between the sweetness of God’s word and other errant, evil ways, follows a different logic:

[Keep] pikudim >>
Gain understanding >>
Hate false ways [of living]

קד מִפִּקּוּדֶיךָ אֶתְבּוֹנָן; עַל כֵּן, שָׂנֵאתִי כָּל-אֹרַח שָׁקֶר 104 From Thy pikudim I gain understanding; therefore I hate every false way.

What might the Psalmist be suggesting?

My initial interpretation goes as follows: According to the Psalmist, keeping God’s commandments opens up two avenues towards the achievement of greater understanding.

  1. The individual dedicated to a Godly life is thereby connected to others who share his commitment. His dedication births within him an openness towards and respect for the elders of his community, who nurture his ‘love’ for Torah (verse 97) and broaden his horizons with their accumulated wisdom. Gaining understanding along this path is a rewarding end in itself, along with greater wisdom and intelligence. It grows out of one’s learning.
  2. Committed observance of the Divine precepts itself shapes one’s character, granting him the natural intuition necessary to discern between God’s true word and false, evil alternatives. In this model, understanding comes straight from ‘the Source’, as it were. The dedicated individual develops understanding enough to make the crucial distinctions between True & False, Good & Evil, Sacred & Profane. This grows out of deep commitment.

* * *

Learning for its own sake was my father’s lifelong passion. His was a curious mind, always seeking to master new concepts, ever engaged in the pursuit of further knowledge. He relished fresh insights, delighted in challenging exchanges, and savored understanding for its own sake.

Papa also had a profound, innate sense of Good & Evil and was one to rely confidently upon his intuition. In politics, he remained ever clear-eyed and principled, harboring no illusions about the flaws of his preferred candidates, nor about the existential threats that he saw represented by others.

I write this post, just as the elections for the 21st Knesset come upon us. Tomorrow we go to the polls, and I still find myself pulled in several directions. My principles have always been more squishy than Papa’s before me; concerned as I am with the all too real, existential threats that worried my father, I… I remain undecided on the eve of elections.

The political landscape is bleak to me.

 

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 27

I am better rested.

In my wife’s and daughter’s absence this week, I’ve permitted myself to sleep in. Instead of my regular 6:30 shacharit minyan, I’ve taken to attending the 8:30 minyan at a different shul. Two additional hours of daily sleep have been delicious.

I’ve also had more time to simply sit, think, and feel.

* * *

THE JOKE THAT MADE ME CRY

Several evenings ago, I was watching a performance (1.25 hrs) by comedian Sebastian Maniscalco, whom I’d just discovered; and I was laughing boisterously. (Maniscalco occasionally punctuates his jokes with crass language, but his humor is safe for work.)

Half an hour into the set, Maniscalco made a joke about tattoos. He portrays an imaginary man’s emotional attachment to the tattoo of a snake head on his bicep. It represents the death of his father. The punchline went: “What the hell are you doing to yourself? What, did you forget he died?” And then I was sobbing.

Because sometimes I forget that my father died.

* * *

All is darker than before.

When we grieve, we face realities: Life is fragile, fate is unpredictable; horrors are everywhere. God will neither reward nor punish in this world. One must acknowledge this reality in order to become an adult who can pray as an adult.

– Rabbi Barbara Thiede, Kaddish, p. 168

Perhaps for the first time, I am praying as an adult. I harbor no illusions about the efficacy of prayer or the purposelessness of suffering. The supernatural remains impenetrable to us; but today’s rabbis somehow or other continue treating congregants with capsules of comfort coated in cloying compounds of credence and custom (complete crap).

The rabbis famously say that those who cannot pray for the sake of praying should pray anyway, because it will bring them to pray for praying’s sake. I never liked this statement… since it finds a religious utility for faithlessness, and thereby steals the thunder from belief and unbelief.

– Leon Wieseltier, Kaddish, p. 322

My unbelief is thunderous, drowning out the faithful; but I have adopted their restrained form, alive in the resulting tension. It’s the discomfort that sparks my thinking, you see, and lends meaning to my process. Tradition may compel for nontraditional reasons, but the rabbis are more invested in its inertia.

Present-day rabbis must be honest, though it may hurt. They cannot afford to alienate future generations by channeling Tevye the Dairyman: it will not do to insist on what is ritually expected simply because it is known.

– Rabbi Barbara Thiede, Kaddish, p. 167

True, I launched my kaddish odyssey because I’d long heard tales of this ancient route; but it would seem that my ship’s sails only billow with the winds of self-discovery. Certainly, I am taking the risk of being blown off of the time-tested course; but I have not yet missed a single day of kaddish. Most importantly, every day is an adventure.

* * *

If you know me only through my blog posts, you might conclude that I think about my father all the time; but I am writing, in part, to remind myself of him. After all, the recitation of kaddish does not, in and of itself, bring Papa to my mind. It is a practice, like so many others, with which he had no connection.

I catch myself thinking that kaddish may be more meaningful for my daughter and future children. It will retain its traditional force of inertia, but it may also remind them of me. It is something that I have chosen, something that I am investing with meaning.

Several people have recently suggested to me that I am leaving behind something special for future generations in this kaddish series. Somehow, I had not initially considered that. From the very beginning, this has been a very self-centered project; I am writing as a form of therapy. I am writing because I am good at it, because it clarifies my thoughts and shapes my experience of reality. Sometimes, the meaning behind my words is aspirational; my public process keeps me honest.

Still, I do like the idea of this as a family memoir. I would like my daughter to know that my father’s father (Moisey) was from Yanov, where his father served as the ‘crown rabbi.’ My father’s mother (Ida) was from Shpola; her parents and younger brother were murdered by the Nazis along with the rest of the town’s Jewish population while she was away, serving as a doctor in the Soviet army.

Some day, I would like my daughter to wonder and imagine, as I do, what it was that happened to my father in his mid-20’s in Soviet Moscow. He was a brilliant mind, a handsome and fit young man, a successful student, and a contented Soviet cosmopolitan with very close non-Jewish friends. Then, unexpectedly, in his mid-20’s, he ventured forth on a path of self-discovery and started studying Hebrew with local Soviet dissidents, leading him to reevaluate all that he’d once held as true about the Soviet Union. Ultimately, this led to his Aliyah and my birth in the State of Israel. Though he lived in America for more than half of his life (37 years), not a day went by that he didn’t ache for his Jewish homeland.

He was profoundly principled and kind, always driven by the purest of intentions. While very sophisticated, he also had a very crass sense of humor and many of his most common expressions were quite inappropriate. In fact, I recall him saying (on more than one occasion) that I should know how to curse in Russian. Papa was also an intellectual and read endless books on sundry subjects; and he published a massive educational mathematics website, which he developed and maintained for more than twenty years. When he passed away, countless students of mathematics from the world over expressed their devastation and condolences.

Papa used to say that he couldn’t cry anymore; that he hadn’t cried for more years than he could remember; that tears simply wouldn’t come. Me? I cry for my father – but only in the absence of my nearly four-year-old daughter.

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 20

I heard something beautiful this week.

Two of the regulars at my morning minyan completed their eleven months of kaddish, just days apart, each reciting a prayer written by Jerusalem’s esteemed Rabbi Benny Lau (b. 1961) in memory of his own father. The first petitioner read softly through barely stifled sobs, but I managed to catch the words two days later during the second mourner’s recitation and then found the text online:

אבינו שבשמים
זכיתי להשלים אמירת קדיש לעילוי נשמת אבי מורי, מאז עלייתו לגנזי מרומים ועד עתה
השתדלתי לכבד את אבי בשנה זו בכל כוחי ובכל מאודי
ועתה אני עומד לפניך נרגש ואומר: עשיתי ככל אשר ציוותנו
כעת הזאת, בעומדי לפניך בזמן מנחה
אשא תחינה לפני כסא כבודך שיעלו כל תפילותיי לפניך לרצון
ותיטיב לאבי, הריני כפרת משכבו, את מקומו בעולם שכולו טוב
בקרב כל הברואים שהאירו את פניך בעולמך

לָכֵן בַּעַל הָרַחֲמִים
יַסְתִּירֵהוּ בְּסֵתֶר כְּנָפָיו לְעוֹלָמִים
וְיִצְרֹר בִּצְרוֹר הַחַיִּים אֶת נִשְׁמָתוֹ
ה’ הוּא נַחֲלָתוֹ
וְיָנוּחַ בְּשָׁלוֹם עַל מִשְׁכָּבוֹ, וְנֹאמַר אָמֵן

I also took the liberty of translating it:

Our Heavenly Father,
I was privileged to complete the recitation of Kaddish for the raising up of the soul of my father, my teacher, from his rising to the troves of the highest heavens until this moment.
I strove to honor my father this year with all my strength and all my might.
Now I stand before You emotionally and say: I have done as You commanded us.
At this moment, standing before You at mincha time,
I shall raise a plea before Your throne of glory, that all my prayers shall be brought before You and are acceptable to You for the good of my father, for I am the atonement for his resting-place, his place in a world that is all good,
Among all the creatures who illuminated Your face in Your world.

Therefore, may the All-Merciful One
Shelter him with the cover of His wings forever,
And bind his soul in the bond of life.
God is his heritage;
May he rest in his resting-place in peace; and let us say: Amen.

One’s kaddish journey must necessarily end. Inspired by Rabbi Lau, a tentative, personal prayer has cautiously started taking shape in my mind… perhaps I would recite some of it in Russian or English.

* * *

The final essay in Kaddish: Women’s Voices is titled ‘Ten Plus One, Two, Three…’ by Chana Reifman Zweiter who describes reciting kaddish for her father only three months after her final kaddish for her mother. At shul, I’ve met others who have recited kaddish almost consecutively for two or even three years… an endless, aching blur of grief.

The traditional Jewish mourning process has a designated end, and mourning must be kept in proportion; on these matters, Maimonides’ (1135-1204) Mishneh Torah is clear (Book of Judges, The Laws of Mourning 13:10-11):

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

 

I fear the end of this year, but
I can’t keep this up forever.

* * *

Anyway, Zweiter alludes to a Mishnah in her essay, which now springs out in my mind (Brachot 4:4):

רבי אליעזר אומר, העושה תפילתו קבע, אין תפילתו תחנונים Rabbi Eliezer says: If a man makes his prayers keva, it is not a [genuine] supplication.

 

One of the classic dichotomies occupying Jewish educators the world over is the tension between keva-קבע (fixed religious requirements) and kavanah-כוונה (intention). I posit that if not for our People’s ages-old commitment to our Law (keva), no Jewish educators would be around for such a conversation. Yet it remains that I and countless others chafe at arbitrary and anachronistic restrictions and commandments, which are meaningless at their best and immoral at their worst. Ancient keva needs relevant, modern kavanah. The issue cannot be ignored, lest you lose us.

The Talmud, of course, seeks to understand the Mishnah’s use of the term keva. The rabbis do tend to aim for precision (Brachot 29b):

מאי קבע? א”ר יעקב בר אידי אמר רבי אושעיא כל שתפלתו דומה עליו כמשוי ורבנן אמרי כל מי שאינו אומרה בלשון תחנונים רבה ורב יוסף דאמרי תרוייהו כל שאינו יכול לחדש בה דבר What is meant by keva? — R. Jacob b. Idi said in the name of R. Oshaiah: Anyone whose prayer is like a heavy burden on him. The Rabbis say: Whoever is not able to say it in the manner of supplication. Rabbah and R. Joseph both say: Whoever is not able to insert something fresh in it.

 

Indeed, what do we mean by keva? As we see above, the Talmud presents us with three possibilities, and Rashi’s (1040-1105) dependable commentary awaits us on inner edge of the Talmud:

כמשוי. והיינו לשון קבע חוק קבוע הוא עלי להתפלל וצריך אני לצאת ידי חובתי 1 Like a heavy burden. And this is the language of “fixedness.” There is a “fixed” law upon me to pray. And I must fulfill my obligation.
מי שאינו יכול. לכוין לבו לשאול צרכיו 2 Whoever is not able to. To direct his heart to ask for his needs.
לחדש בה דבר. בבקשתו והיינו לשון קבע כיום כן אתמול כן מחר 3 Insert something fresh in it – in his request. And this is the language of “fixedness” – as today is, so was yesterday, so will be tomorrow.

 

These reflect three successive spiritual challenges on my journey [this year]:

  1. If prayer is but a heavy, fixed burden, the weight of endless, repetitive meaninglessness will suffocate my will. My resentment and sense of estrangement from tradition will render the kaddish journey intolerable. The aspiration: measured doses of keva; a balance between regular daily recitations and room for breath and thought.
  2. If I am unable to find and express myself in [any of] the prayers, I am reduced to the function of a cog in the machinery of Jewish tradition. The aspiration: understand myself; relate to [some of] the prayers; weave self and prayer together in my heart.
  3. If my kaddish journey is not dynamically self-aware, if my daily words are never my own, then this is not truly my process. The well-intentioned life of pure keva ultimately remains one of alienation from the self. I am a Jew; it’s true, but I am also this Jew (just as my father was).

* * *

Often, my father and I did not communicate well. He would accuse me of nitpicking at his words and missing his broader points, and I would accuse him of the same. Once, in a pleasant mood, I told him that I was content with my life and received a lecture on lacking for ambition. “You’re content? That is worrying. You shouldn’t be content – you should always be striving for something.”

Is peace an appropriate ambition for the soul? Peace can be a means or an end, a condition of activity or a condition of stillness. If peace is a means, then it is desirable so that the soul can work freely, without interference, and expend its energies only on what is significant to itself; but then the soul is not peaceful, the soul bustles and strains. Such peace is an external peace. But dare one aspire also to an internal peace, to peace as an end, to a peaceful soul? Or is the end of activity also the end of meaning?

– Leon Wieseltier, Kaddish, p. 318

I’ve caught myself on the thought recently that kaddish is not a peaceful process. My soul is not content; my mind is perpetually occupied, straining for understanding. I cull stories of my father from relatives, sifting through my memories, putting them to word and context. An “advantage” of dying before your time: people yet live who remember you.

At the recommendation of a dear cousin, I have reached out to my father’s close friend from his youth who lives still in Moscow. His name is also Alexander, but he goes by Sasha, rather than Shurik (like my father). Hopefully, we will speak soon. Once again, I’m thankful to be fluent in Russian.

* * *

A Loose End
(a tangent)

I found a quote (while reading in shul this morning) from Rabbi Soloveitchik (1903-1993), which I would have liked to include in blog post #18:

[Halakhic man’s] approach begins with an ideal construction and finishes with a real one. To whom may he be compared? – To a mathematician who fashions an ideal world and then uses it in order to establish a relation between it and the real world… There is no phenomenon, being or creature to which the a priori Halakhah does not truly apply its ideal standard.

– “Ish HaHalakhah,” Talpiot 1, no. 3-4 (1944): 665.