Alive, or: Dead

‘We are teachers to our grandchildren’, a d’Verse free verse poem

He was supposed to teach
  her math and now 
he fucking won't because he's ~

We? What 'We'? Is this the 
collective
  'We who take being alive 
for granted' or 
  'We who are not to live again 
salute you - No - just 
kidding! We're ~

He was supposed to teach her math!
  He was supposed to 
be here. Today.
  He was supposed to 
wish me a happy birthday.
  He was not 
supposed 
to be ~

I grew a longer beard after Papa 
died
  Not shaving 
is a Jewish 
mourning tradition, you know 
(did you?)
And it makes me look
  older. 
  (Good - because I am!) 
I have some white 
hairs in it; some day 
  they will all be white 
and I hope 
to be 
  buried that way 
  
    when I am ~

Don't tell me that Papa
is teaching her
  through me. He's not.
He's not teaching 
her math;
  he's not teaching 
her 
  anything - because he's fucking ~

It's my birthday and -
  I'll ~
  I'll ~

The above poem is my take on d’Verse’s ‘travels in the wild’ prompt.

d’Verse gave us a selection of potential titles for our poems, and let us do the rest.

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 25

Beyond purportedly elevating the soul of one’s departed parent to higher metaphysical planes or possibly demonstrating why one’s parent deserves to be granted a good fate (blog #11), the kaddish, according to the Talmud, also affects God Himself. In Tractate Brachot 3a, we read the following:

בשעה שישראל נכנסין לבתי כנסיות ולבתי מדרשות ועונין יהא שמיה הגדול מבורך הקב”ה מנענע ראשו ואומר 1) אשרי המלך שמקלסין אותו בביתו 2) כך מה לו לאב שהגלה את בניו ואוי להם לבנים שגלו מעל שולחן אביהם Whenever the Israelites go into the synagogues and schoolhouses and respond: ‘May His great name be blessed!’ the Holy One, blessed be He, shakes His head and says: 1) ‘Happy is the king who is thus praised in His house!’ 2) ‘Woe to the father who had to banish his children, and woe to the children who had to be banished from the table of their father!’

 

Apparently, God reacts to the kaddish. He is both 1) pleased that we honor Him and 2) remorseful at the destruction of our great Temple and our exile. There’s much to be explored in that juxtaposition, but my thoughts are wandering elsewhere.

The Talmud also suggests that those who respond passionately to the recitation of kaddish nullify the Divine decrees against them for the sins they’ve committed (Tractate Shabbat 119b):

אריב”ל כל העונה אמן יהא שמיה רבא מברך בכל כחו קורעין לו גזר דינו שנאמר (שופטים ה) בפרוע פרעות בישראל בהתנדב עם ברכו ה R. Joshua b. Levi said: He who responds, ‘Amen, May His great Name be blessed,’ with all his might, his decreed sentence is torn up, as it is said, “When retribution was annulled in Israel, For that the people offered themselves willingly, ‘Bless ye the Lord'” (Judges 5:2).

 

The players in the orphan’s kaddish drama are four: 1) the deceased, 2) God, 3) the congregation, and 4) the mourner. So what does kaddish do to the mourner?

On this matter, the texts of Jewish tradition say nothing.

In his chapter of the book Kaddish, Rabbi Avi S. Olitzky reflects (p. 137):

Perhaps distressingly, the Kaddish reciter – the mourner – is the only one for whom the act of reciting Kaddish does not have any intrinsic benefit.

* * *

Rabbi Olitzky offers a response to the challenge he poses, but I am left dissatisfied (ibid.):

The simple, sublime act of getting lost in a sea of ‘responders’ as one of the few ‘reciters’ yields comfort.

Yes… But.

Rabbi, yours is the view of a Jewish leader invested in and committed to encouraging the perpetuation of the religious heritage that he serves. This may be what I should be experiencing in the ideal when reciting kaddish, but it’s contingent upon too many factors to be universally true: personalities-community-inclination-towards-prayer-comfort-with-tradition-state-of-mind-level-of-exhaustion-penchant-for-the-spiritual-degree-of-Jewish-self-identification-preferred-mode-of-self-expression-etc.-etc., etc.

Personally, I do find comfort in my community but mostly beyond the choreography of our rituals. Mine is in the conversations with friends new and old, in gestures of kindness, in proud, shared heritage, and in the candid embrace of our limitations.

Also, mine is in my ‘Skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist’ series. Truth, creativity and introspection are my comforts.

* * *

Ask not what your country tradition can do for you, but what you can do for your country tradition?

When I decided to recite kaddish for my father, I reasoned that this would be my return to shul. I would continue to attend daily services even after my yudaleph chodesh (י״א חודש: blog #24); for the sake of my people, my heritage, my family, my…
Not good enough.

It is this, my blogging project, which truly makes daily shul attendance tolerable. It is the reading, the feeling, the thinking, the learning, the weaving…

Suddenly, I’ve realized: my study and reflection sustain my practice. What shall I do with myself when kaddish has ended? What shall I do with my Judaism?

The question hangs over me:
How shall I continue?

* * *

Suddenly, I’ve realized: I am not okay.

Last week, I almost dropped my Spoken Arabic class at the Polis Institute (my fifth semester). Winter break had ended, and class resumed on Tuesday. That morning, I simply felt that I couldn’t take it. I didn’t want to study Arabic – I wanted to read about kaddish. I wanted to remember my father. I e-mailed my teacher, informing her that I was dropping the course. I did not return to class that Tuesday.

By Thursday, I had received messages of concern from my classmates, and I was moved to return. After all, I reasoned, the semester ends in another two weeks. I can do this.
I can do this.
Withdrawing in unto myself betrays the spirit of kaddish, which must be recited in community.
I can do this.

* * *

Suddenly, I’ve realized: I must only go through this process at my own pace. (Vigilance required!)

I awoke at 6:36 on Friday, after the start of my regular 6:30 minyan at Kehillat Yedidya.
Well, I sighed, at least I can make it to shul for the final kaddishes.
And then the lightning bolt struck: Wait, I don’t have to take anyone to preschool this morning (my wife and daughter just left to visit family in Russia)… I could simply go to a different minyan.
Luxuriously, I got myself dressed, grabbed my tallit and tefilin and walked up the hill to the Shai Agnon synagogue for a 7:00 shacharit. I arrived at shul at 6:58, as the previous minyan was ending.
Does anyone have a ḥiyuv (an obligation to lead the prayer service, often in memory of one’s parents)? asked the gabbai.
Looking around, I noticed only a single hand in the air – my own – and the gabbai gestured to me. Shit, what have I done? I thought to myself,
Shacharit is the longest service.
The gabbai approached me and whispered, This is a slow minyan – please don’t daven quickly.
I laughed.
Oh, don’t worry, I responded, that won’t be a problem.
Reassured, I led the davening at a comfortable pace, and I got through it. I can do this.
I can do this.

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 5

My 3-and-a-half year-old daughter has been attending services with me for nearly two months now. She insists upon coming with me to shul every week on Friday and Saturday evenings (on Saturday mornings, I go to shul too early for her to join me).

Last week I and a few others noticed that my child was reciting the mourner’s kaddish along with me, as I stood beside her.

She has quickly learned the names of all of the prayer services, and she even understands that the evening prayer service can be called מעריב (Maariv) or ערבית (Aravit), both of which share the Hebrew root ע-ר-ב, which means evening. She’s also picking up on other details that I haven’t even explained to her.

One evening at shul, we were nearing the end of the service, and I was preparing her for what would follow. “Next, we’ll say this prayer, then we’ll say kaddish, then we’ll say another prayer, then we’ll say one more kaddish, and then we’ll go home,” I explained.

“Why aren’t you saying it?” she asked; I thought she was referring to the kaddish.

“Because the kaddish is only after this prayer,” I answered.

Her beautiful, slightly mismatched eyes looked at me thoughtfully, and she reformulated the question. “No,” she clarified, “why aren’t you saying this prayer that everybody else is saying?”

At that moment, I understood what she was asking, but luckily I didn’t have a chance to answer because I had to stand and recite the final mourner’s kaddish. “Yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’mei raba b’alma di-v’ra chirutei…” Glorified and sanctified be God’s great name throughout the world, which He has created according to His will…

* * *

I struggle with this exercise of reciting the mourner’s kaddish for my father, for two reasons above all others:

  1. I don’t feel that my father would have wanted me to do this, and I’m not sure that he would have approved of my approach to it. I touched upon this in my previous post.
  2. One doesn’t simply show up to a synagogue, recite the kaddish with a minyan, and leave. From a ritual perspective, my commitment is to attend and participate in religious prayer services.

Irony lies here because my aim is to honor and remember my father in a Jewish way, thereby doing honor to the Jewish tradition itself by accepting the roles that it has assigned me: Jew, son, mourner, [father]. My greatest struggles are with those whom I hope to honor.

* * *

Further irony lies here because honoring my father may at times come at odds with honoring Jewish tradition.

An example. The rabbi at my father’s funeral offered to arrange a minyan for me at my parents’ home during the shiva so that I could recite the mourner’s kaddish. Instinctively, I said, “No, thank you.” My father would not have wanted a group of strangers to show up at twice a day to worship together at his home; he was a very private man and disinclined towards communal activities and religious ritual.

While sitting shiva for my father in New Jersey, I drove to the synagogue every morning and evening to recite the mourner’s kaddish.

* * *

At a traditional Jewish prayer service, there is a shaliach tzibbur (a prayer leader). Mourners are expected (and considered privileged) to lead communal Jewish worship, but this is something that I hope to avoid for the entirety of this year.

The heaviness of serving as shaliach tzibbur is not a struggle that Leon Wieseltier explores in his book Kaddish. He writes (p. 5):

A red velvet cloth is thrown over the rostrum at the front of the room… Here stands the… mourner; and as I place my hands on this cloth… I see the traces of hands that preceded mine… This is an exquisite erosion… The more threadbare, the better. The thinner, the thicker.

Wieseltier is driven to understand the nuances of the mourner’s kaddish during his year of mourning. He strives to understands its history, its implications, its relevance.

I am driven to find sense and purpose in ritual Jewish life and prayer. The kaddish does not stand alone – it is surrounded on all sides by the words of the Torah, the Prophets, the Writings, the Rabbis…

Kaddish is the Jew’s spiritual intermezzo, cleansing our souls’ palates between courses of prayer. One doesn’t simply show up to shul, recite the kaddish, and leave.

* * *

For years, I prayed thrice daily; ever so slowly, deliberately, searing the words of the siddur into my mind… vowing to become proficient enough to pray fluidly in a meaningful way. I studied the words of the prayers, attempted various practices, and bowed before the ages’ wisdom. The quest for proficiency was endless and stifling.

Commitment.

Traditional Jewish prayer is part of the package. My commitment to my heritage was spiritually compelling – not the prayers themselves (usually), but the regularity and consistency of my Jewish efforts, doing as our Sages claim that God demanded. I prayed out of spiritual momentum.

Truth.

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

Acceptance.

Personally, I’ve ceased believing that everybody can “get that way.”

* * *

Recently, I rented a car and took my family on several day trips in northern Israel. One might compare the shaliach tzibbur to the driver of the prayer service for his fellow congregants, but this is analogy is flawed. A driver has the agency to pick his destination, and he may stop for extended coffee and bathroom breaks. He may take a detour. He may alter his course or change his plans entirely.

The shaliach tzibbur is the railroad engineer.

Wieseltier (p. 21):

There are days when there are just too many words in the liturgy… But I can’t go slowly because I’m the leader. I must get the entire company through this, to the kaddish and away. I must be spiritually efficient.

There are no days when there aren’t too many words in the Jewish liturgy. I am dreading the High Holy Days, which are upon me. Some people are proficient enough or [at least] spiritually inclined enough to regularly find traditional Jewish prayer meaningful. Far too many others cannot “get that way.”

Spiritual efficiency deserves its own kaddish.

* * *

One doesn’t simply show up to shul, recite the kaddish, and leave. So what do I do?

Leon Wieseltier writes (p. 68):

Many customs have come down to you, denoting many concepts. You cannot practice all the customs and defend all the concepts. You must take your pick.

(I’m taking the author out of context here, but it works. It’s much like midrash – the great sages of the Talmud and their spiritual heirs were masters of textual reinterpretation and recontextualisation. I too know how to play such games.)

So I have been taking my pick of the siddur, sticking primarily to the most fundamental prayers – the Shema (2x daily) and the Amidah (3x on weekdays, 4x on Shabbat). And, of course, the mourner’s kaddish. Always the kaddish.

I will partner with my tradition in honoring my father’s memory, but I will not be enslaved by it. My father would have respected this; I am certain of it.

* * *

Balance.

My balance is in seeking balance. Some days I pray more, some days I pray less. Once, not long after I returned from sitting shiva for my father in New Jersey, I told God during maariv that this whole process is bullshit and that I don’t believe in it; I refused to pray the Amidah.

It strikes me that I am hypocritical.

I am bothered by the Jews who make donations to religious institutions in lieu of practicing Judaism. “Those religious Jews will preserve our tradition for us. We can never live as they do, but thank goodness for us that they exist.” Still, today, I am knowingly and deliberately drawing my own lines, and I am taking advantage of those religious Jews who perform the rituals with absolute consistency. They are committed; wherefore this mourner has a minyan.

It strikes me that I am human.

* * *

A curious thought

Last week, I prayed and recited kaddish for my father with the community of Nahariya in Northern Israel for several days, noting that there seemed to be a disproportionate number of mourners there. Reflecting upon this afterwards, it struck me… was that little shul simply full of parentless beachgoers?