When the rabbi’s wife died

Jewish wedding: No rabbi? No problem!

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

Okay, so what are the essentials?

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

That’s it.

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

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

Okay… so what?

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

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

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

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

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

Oh… I see where this is going

Years passed.

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

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

Nobody expected her death.

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

Visiting the rabbi

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

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

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

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


Split screen in my mind

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

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

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

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

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

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

… wishing that we were not so far apart.

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.

Resting on Religious Laurels

Given that I was raised in a secular Jewish family, I give myself credit for observing the religious laws of Shabbat and kashrut. Also, given that I was raised in the United States of America, I give myself credit for bringing my daughter up in the State of Israel. Bully for me.

I am, somewhat inexplicably, a tremendously proud Jew.

This is not to say that we Jews shouldn’t be proud of our ancient tradition, storied history, and civilization-shaping impact. We absolutely, very much should be. Nevertheless, given the West’s ethos of universalism today, particularly in the USA where I was raised, many Jewish moderns are not much interested in their roots. In this context, I would describe the extent of my Jewish pride as ‘inexplicable’ to me.

Once, more than a decade ago, I was told that living as a religious Jew in modern society is a countercultural choice. This came as a surprise to me – what was countercultural about actively seeking a meaningful connection with one’s heritage? I had never considered that my fascination with Judaism might be inconsonant with the 21st century West. Over the years, however, that innocently seeded idea wormed its way through my mind’s soil, gradually extending and deepening its roots.

* * *

God knows I’ve had my religious ups and downs.

Before Papa died in the summer of 2018, I had been going through a three year period of religious crisis, and I was suffering for lack of connection to my Jewish community. My soul’s pain was endless, but I couldn’t bring myself to pray. That’s hard for me to share, but it’s true.

Nevertheless, after learning of Papa’s death, I realized that I had to take the recitation of the orphan’s kaddish upon myself, as expected by Jewish tradition of a son. I couldn’t fathom the guilt I would certainly feel if I chose to pass on the once-in-a-lifetime year of mourning for my father. What would all of my Jewish studies and explorations have amounted to if I had opted out of this custom?

Kaddish recitation for a deceased parent involves eleven months of thrice daily prayers with a quorum of ten Jewish adults, usually at a synagogue. Listing all of the many reasons why this was challenging for me would require an entire blog post, but one stood out. I felt like an utter fake, praying daily at synagogues with various groups of seriously committed Jews. What the hell was I doing?

My rationality demanded that I mark the experience with my own words, which were, and remain, less than faithful. Once I began writing that year, 30 days after burying my father, I found that I couldn’t help but continue to pour myself entirely into my ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’. The project indeed sustained me – I made it through the entirety of that kaddish year. Those many personal reflections and deep doubts, bared so publicly, preserved my sanity.

But later there would come consequences.

* * *

Firstly, looking back at it, I was successfully constructing a powerful, personalized religious experience, the most powerful one of my four decades. Even today, more than a year after completing my year of mourning for Papa, I’m still living off of my kaddish’s fumes.

Secondly, unlike the experience of my three-year spiritual drought, which ended with Papa’s death, I no longer seriously aspire towards a connection with any concept I have remaining of the Divine. Given the perhaps inevitable route and landing-place of my kaddish odyssey, which saw me chasing after my inner demons and angels alike that year, I have ceased believing that such a thing is even plausible. It is my responsibility to myself to create meaning, but that’s easier said than done.

* * *

I suppose that, like any other not-so-devout Jew, I was heading for disappointment after the daily intensity of my kaddish journey, but I couldn’t see it looming.

At first I continued attending services every day, deliberately focusing on the kaddishes recited by those who were in mourning. I would respond to them forcefully, as the Talmud suggests but hardly anybody does:

אריב”ל כל העונה אמן יהא שמיה רבא מברך בכל כחו קורעין לו גזר דינו 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
Tractate Shabbat 119b

Somehow, by centering myself and responding loudly, I felt that I was still a participant in the prescribed mourning process, despite having concluded my designated year of kaddish.

Then winter rolled around and the rains came. During my year of kaddish, I would walk with my trench coat and umbrella through the rain to shul, splashing determinedly through the puddles, but I was no longer expected to… and, besides… we had switched apartments and the walk was slightly longer now…

I didn’t want to admit it, but my will to attend daily prayers was fading. Then, out of the blue, a pandemic broke out: COVID-19, they called it.

Everything changed. At first prayer services were cancelled indefinitely. Eventually, they were held again in smaller numbers and only outdoors. All attendees had to wear face masks and sit two meters apart from one another. I attended morning services on Shabbat thrice this summer – twice to honor two friends’ deceased parents and once to honor my own Papa on the 2nd anniversary of his death… but it seemed that the flitting flies enjoyed the sun’s warm morning rays more than I did.

* * *

The line between truth and excuse can be a fine one, and perhaps I have crossed it.

Pandemic, relative inconvenience and discomfort, the near sublimation of my beloved prayer community… Beyond my kaddish recitations, I used to find the motivation to attend services in the company of my friends and acquaintances.

And, of course, how can I doubt the earnestness of my commitment to Judaism? Haven’t I chosen to make my life in Israel? Haven’t I adopted religious Sabbath observance? Haven’t I… Haven’t I… Haven’t I…?

Ethical will

I finally began writing my ethical will last week.

Oof. This is hard for so many reasons, the first of which is that I have hardly lived up to my personal ideals by any stretch of the imagination. Secondly, most people who seriously engage in writing ethical wills for their descendants have children with children of their own, whereas I am only a father with one young child – clearly, no sagacious elder. In addition to flipping my humility switch, this endeavor leaves something of a morbid taste in my mouth. I’m not expecting to die any time soon, but life has schooled me: you never know.

* * *

During my year of reciting kaddish for Papa, I was introduced to the concept of an ethical will, and it spoke to me because much of what I continue to recall and appreciate about Papa was his character.

[Papa] was among the most decent, most kindhearted, and most modest human beings that I ever met.

– Me, ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ #45, May 30, 2019

He was brilliant, of course, and I remember that too, but I cannot capture his genius, nor convey it to those who never knew him. His website, I suppose, is the best remaining evidence of his mind, and his book of probability riddles will be coming out in the not too distant future – with a foreword written by his friend Nassim Nicholas Taleb, of Black Swan fame.

* * *

Before I launched this website, I had been in the process of thinking through the idea of writing of a ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ book, and my vision for such included an ethical will, which would be informed by my memories of Papa.

More than that, I was hoping to derive my list of ‘ethics’ from the ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ itself. In other words, I wanted my ethical will to parallel my year-long kaddish journey, thereby rendering the two a single, seamless product. Every post of my original ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ included some recollections of Papa, as well as my personal reflections upon tradition, theology, family, parenting, childhood, or memorialization, etc.

However, I hit two primary stumbling blocks. First, while every blog post did contain ethical content, there was a great deal of thematic overlap between my posts. Secondly, my process of writing the ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ on a near-weekly basis had been organic in that I had blogged all year about whatever I was experiencing, thinking, reading, and remembering. However, forcing those existing blog posts in their chronological order upon my list of personal ethics left me very little room for creativity or spontaneity. In attempting to write my ethical will that way, I couldn’t find my voice.

* * *

Last year, I was taking a Talmud class, which focused upon the religious laws governing the Jewish Sabbath. In the tractate on Shabbat, the rabbis of the Talmud struggled to come up with a comprehensive list of 39 categories of work that are prohibited on the Sabbath.

Why 39, you ask?

Because that’s the number of categorical Sabbath prohibitions listed in the Mishnah, which is the first major written collection of the Jewish oral traditions known as the Oral Torah. It was redacted at the beginning of the 3rd century CE in Israel, whereas the Babylonian Talmud was completed later, by the end of the 5th century CE in exile.

The rabbis of the Mishnah lived earlier than the rabbis of the Talmud, thus being in closer proximity to the Divine revelation at Mount Sinai, so their teachings were held as authoritative by the rabbis of the Talmud. Hence, if the Mishnah asserted that there were exactly ‘forty minus one’ categories of work prohibited on the Sabbath, the Talmud could do nothing but accept that count.

Suffice it to say that the rabbis of the Talmud performed all sorts of mental gymnastics to apply the Mishnah’s list of 39 prohibitions to the realities of their own times, hundreds of years later and no longer residing in the Land of Israel. In fact, while the Talmud ultimately managed to hew to the all-important ‘forty minus one’, their final list was slightly different than the Mishnah’s had been.

If the rabbis of the Talmud hadn’t been fettered to the Mishnah’s ’39’, who knows what their final list of categories would have looked like?

* * *

And… so…

I gave up on my concept. Perhaps a more talented or cleverer writer could extrapolate and articulate a list of values from my series of 51 kaddish blog posts, but I am not that person.

After writing several months’ worth of reflections in my blog and returning to poetry after a decades-long hiatus, I finally wrote a first entry in my ethical will. It wasn’t at all easy for me to do, but it feels very important…

We’ll have to see where it goes.

Hosting kiddush for Papa’s 2nd yahrzeit

I can use big words and use them well, but I’m also a childish creature and feel that the quality of my writing often conceals my smallness.

* * *

Papa’s 2nd yahrzeit (anniversary of death) is just around the corner. The official Hebrew date falls out on July 16th – next Thursday. This coming Shabbat morning (July 11th), I plan to host a small kiddush after Saturday morning services in the park.

In Israel, we may now be at the cusp of a 2nd lockdown due to COVID-19. Certainly, we’re in the midst of a 2nd wave, and the government has already implemented new restrictions, including further limits upon indoor and outdoor gatherings. Therefore, the morning prayer service this weekend has been limited to twenty people.

Now, technically, one need not attend the shacharit service in order to attend the kiddush afterwards; and I would be more than happy if friends were to stop by for kiddush, even if they were unable to attend the prayer service beforehand.

However, our community has rightfully compensated for the newly reimposed restrictions by holding multiple prayer services, beginning at staggered times. Therefore, some of my friends will be in the midst of their morning prayers during my little kiddush. Further (let’s be real), not many are likely to attend a Saturday morning kiddush at 8:30 in the morning if they haven’t already gotten up for services beforehand.

Beyond this, my little kiddush will not be announced by the community because official community kiddushes have been verboten since the pandemic broke out, back in March. There will certainly be some attendees at the prayer services who feel uncomfortable gathering for kiddush afterwards – even outside in the park.

I am fully expecting low attendance.

* * *

Given the circumstances, I should be thankful that a 2nd lockdown hasn’t been declared yet. I should be, and I am, thankful that I have this opportunity to host a kiddush in memory of Papa this year.

Also, I am doing my utmost to host a safe kiddush, taking the following precautions:

  • Kiddush will be held outside
  • All servings of food will be individually prepackaged
  • I will bring hand sanitizer to the kiddush

But… all of this amounts to a much more limited kiddush experience than I had last year, and I find myself feeling fairly deflated. I am truly sick and tired of the Coronavirus.

This is all so petty, and I so know it. While I kvetch here about not being able to host and enjoy a full-size kiddush with my prayer community, countless other people are worried for their very lives. Clearly, eloquent writing doesn’t make one an adult.

* * *

Well, I shall make the most if it.

There shall be whiskey, herring, cheese, and crackers; and I’ve made a preemptive attempt to maximize attendance by sending personal invitations to my friends.

As I said – I am thankful to have such an opportunity at all, given the ongoing pandemic…

I just wish this were under happier and healthier circumstances.

Because God

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?

‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ (#25), Jan. 12, 2019

Not long after completing my year of mourning, I joined a Talmud class taught by a friend of mine, a young rabbi.

At first, I felt reignited. Years had passed since I’d last studied Talmud, and my year-long kaddish writing project, which had been firmly grounded in Jewish learning, had whetted my yen.

Soon after, I was struggling.

After my year of self-directed reading and reflection, the group learning felt inhibiting.

I tend to pick apart the letters and roots of words, to compare them to other languages and time periods; I also delight in grammar and sentence structure. The words and their personal relationships are beautiful to me. Which of them are intimate lovers? Which are parent and child?

Beyond this, I’m not one to inherently accept the ancient sages’ interpretations of the text, and they are often wont to make their cases precisely by playing with words and language. (I still recall my disagreement with the great Rashi over his language-based interpretation of Psalm 119:113.)

It soon became apparent that our group’s goals conflicted with my learning style. The rabbi was aiming to cover particular Talmudic passages (known as sugyot) during class time, and my nitpicking was impeding us.

Now, there are those for whom the holiness they experience in the study of traditional texts is motivating. Given my close relationship with Rabbi Daniel Landes, for example, himself a teacher of Talmud for nearly half a century, I know that he experiences the (self-)revelation of and by God bursting forth from the Torah. This, he explains, is how he teaches his students.

If revelation is not bursting forth from the Torah, he asks, why bother?

Why indeed? I ask myself because the truth is that I do not experience God in Talmud study. Perhaps I do not experience God at all, and certainly not bursting forth from anywhere.

There were times in years past when I managed to convince myself that I was “experiencing” God, but those moments were very few and were primarily born of my desire to motivate myself to adhere to the strictures of a religious Jewish lifestyle. That’s really what it came down to.

Some people, at birth, are dealt external factors like religious upbringings and parental expectations, drawing them to religious observance. For others, like me, every step towards greater observance of halakha is inevitably another step away from even the most understanding of non-traditional families.

Nevertheless, I am motivated, to an extent, to observe Shabbat traditionally, to live in Israel, to engage with Jewish texts, etc. I regard world Jewry as my far-extended family; and preserving our heritage and sense of peoplehood is, therefore, of utmost importance. Given, there are many different strategies for instilling children with strong Jewish identities; but I am convinced that a family’s commitments to Shabbat observance and residing in Israel are the most effective.

The problem, of course, is that most strategies arising from such a motivation as mine are prone to falling apart because they don’t necessarily infuse religious practices with meaning. In other words, going through the motions only because they happen to belong to one’s own people rings hollow. Why, as Rabbi Landes would ask, bother?

Let’s consider Shabbat, for example. If I am only keeping the Sabbath to inculcate my daughter with the values of Jewish tradition, family time, and [invaluable] weekly respite from our daily commutes along the information superhighway, what’s to stop me from breaking the Sabbath when she isn’t looking? After all, my personal desecration of Shabbat could be subtle; it could go unnoticed, leaving my daughter’s experience of the ‘Day of Rest’ intact.

Text study is much worse.

Whereas most religious observances are performed in family or community, and a simple Jew may find or assign plausible personal meanings to such lifestyle choices in these contexts, traditional text study is only inherently appealing to the devout and the bookish.

Actually, this is untrue. Most students of Talmud sit in seas of other talmidim, awash in a self-reinforcing Torah culture, buttressed by the talmidim’s families and communities. They need not actually reflect upon what they believe in or be inclined towards study; it’s enough for most to “know” that they are playing out their heavenly assigned roles in perpetuating the culture of their ancestors.

So my quandary bears framing:

Given that neither my family, nor my community, encourage me to learn Torah, and given that I do not experience God bursting forth from the texts of my beloved heritage…

In fact, given that I don’t think God actually cares whether or not I am studying Torah, and given that I don’t think God is in any way invested in the banal details of the Jewish religious laws that I am studying under my friend’s kind and knowing guidance…

What
is
left
for
me?

I don’t wish that I believed in God’s investment in our lives for Truth’s sake (because this isn’t true), but it would certainly make my commitment to living a religious lifestyle so much easier for me. Alas.

“Because God” is the most unarguable, compelling rejoinder – it’s no wonder that religious Jewish communities and their leaderships are so invested in perpetuating this ancient axiom,
but my heart rejects it,
and it’s not for lack of trying.

I’m 40 now. There are people in our learning group who are younger than I am and seem enthusiastic towards and energized by Talmud study. They remind me of myself when I was in my mid- to late twenties and early thirties… back when I was occasionally able to convince myself that I was experiencing God for a moment.

For me, the dry, technical details in the text are just that – dry and technical. All too rapidly, they dissolve upon the roof of my mouth like communion wafers. Now, that’s not to say that they have a bit of the devil in them,
but they don’t contain God either.

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 50

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

* * *

Some things are inevitable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

And then I was off to prepare for kiddush.

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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