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.

Mourners relate to mourners

On a bright Thursday in August of 2014, my wife and I attended a beautiful Israeli wedding. It was a lovely outdoor wedding at ‘the Moshav’. We still remember the year of the event because it so happened that my wife was pregnant with our daughter at the time.

The chuppah (wedding canopy)

The bride was an olah (immigrant to Israel) from England, and the groom- an oleh from the USA. The sweet couple’s faces radiated sheer, loving contentment. Both of their families had flown in for the occasion, and they too exuded a glowing, collective warmth and welcoming joy towards all of us in attendance.

As per Jewish tradition, friends and community members hosted meals to honor the young couple for seven days following the wedding. These were the traditional ‘sheva brachot’ (seven blessings) meals prescribed by Jewish tradition, which holds that for seven days following the wedding, the bride and groom are to be treated like a queen and king and are to be invited to the home of a different friend or relative every evening for a large, celebratory meal.

That week sped by, and the following weekend arrived. The young couple and their parents went off, as planned, to spend Shabbat together in the Golan, near Lake Kinneret for some peaceful away time. The Golan offers countless fantastic hiking trails, and the newlyweds were so looking forward to exploring the luscious green mountains.

Early the following week, we learned that the groom’s father had died in a hiking accident.


I had met the groom in 2010, and we had studied Torah in the same beit midrash (house of [Torah] study) for two years. Afterwards, we had him over for Shabbat when he was off duty from the IDF, which he joined after completing his Torah studies and repatriating to Israel; and we shared Shabbat meals with him and his wife on several occasions.

He was among the gentlest and most earnest people I have ever had the pleasure of meeting, and I always enjoyed our interactions; but, having said that, we had never been especially close… although part of me hoped that we might become better friends once it became apparent that we had both decided to make our ways in Israel, away from our families in the USA.

His father’s unexpected death, following upon the heels of his beautiful, joyful wedding, rocked me. I couldn’t fathom his pain, nor the inky clinging shadow that would hang forever over his wedding memories.

Back then, before my father died (July 2018), I had almost no understanding of Jewish mourning traditions, which I would only become familiar with a few years later during my own kaddish journey. I understood the basics only vaguely.

Having been raised in a secular family, I hadn’t yet grasped how expected and normal it is in traditional Jewish culture to visit mourners during the week following the funeral (this is called ‘shiva’) to lend support. I didn’t appreciate how helpful it is to assist mourners in forming daily prayer quorums so that they can recite the mourner’s kaddish, the recitation of which requires that ten adult Jews be present. I felt incredibly awkward… who was I to intrude upon his grief? What consolation could I possibly provide?

I recall that week being very busy for me at work, and I suppose that I could make excuses as to why I didn’t pay my friend a shiva call, but ultimately – I simply didn’t know how to act appropriately. And… perhaps I was afraid of facing him in his grief.

Regardless, I didn’t pay a visit.


I could give other examples of my inability to relate to the grief of others, for I had encountered many who had lost parents, siblings, and even children… but suffice it to say that those memories of my obtuseness have taken on a particularly sharp, stinging aftertaste in the 2+ years since Papa’s death.

Towards the end of my first year of mourning, I confronted this change in myself:

Disconcertingly out of sync, perceptions jumbled, receptors misfiring, I remain immediately near but never fully within the self I’d always known, receiving on an unfamiliar, piercing wavelength.

Slowly, slowly, I have come to understand
this: My pulse has been attuned to loss.

-Me, ‘The Skeptic’s Kaddish’ #47, June 23, 2019

I’m being somewhat hard on myself, as is my tendency, but I am aware that what I’ve described is not entirely unlike any other major life-changing experience. Let’s take parenthood, for example.

While I’ve always enjoyed playing with children, babysitting, and working at various children’s summer programs, I never much cared to hear parents chattering excitedly about their offspring’s developments. Little Mary started walking? Great! Little Ahmed drew a car? That’s… wonderful… Little Hannah won the state spelling bee? … Hooray! … that’s…

I never much cared to hear parents chattering excitedly about their children’s developments – until I had a daughter; and suddenly, everything about child development was interesting. I could compare notes with other parents for hours. I could relate to their prides, their anxieties, their excitements…

That’s also how it is when you lose a loved one. It’s the club that nobody wants to join and nobody can quit. After Papa died:

… friends and family reached out to me in love. I was struck at how many of those conversations shifted away from my own father’s death, towards the piercing memories, the simmering hurts, and the irrecoverable losses of my comforters.

-Me, ‘The Skeptic’s Kaddish’ #9, Oct. 5, 2018

Parents relate to parents; mourners relate to mourners.

Short story: Serious (II)

The old men in their prayer shawls looked exactly as they did in that photograph that Eema had taken from the women’s section of the synagogue when she’d come to services for Abba’s first yahrzeit. Looking at the picture, one could almost hear the petitioners chanting softly to themselves as they swayed back and forth to their internal rhythms.

He had never been interested in photography himself, but he’d seen enough of Abba’s photography to know a good shot when he saw it. The lighting in the sanctuary was a soft gold, and the stern-looking bearded Jews, viewed through the lattice work of the mechitzah, had a distant, yet reassuring air of wisdom about them. “Why do so many people prefer to admire ‘wisdom’ from a comfortable distance?” Ephraim mused.

“Kaddish!”

The young man snapped out of his reverie and closed his eyes tightly, readying himself. The prayer leader, who had lost his mother just two weeks ago, and another elderly gentleman who had shuffled over to the lectern solemnly began reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish together. From the very back of the room, he could hear them chanting.

* * *

Almost four years. Almost four years. Almost four years. It never got easier. “I miss you so much, Abba… and I’m still coming to shul for Kaddish. I think you would have been proud of me.” Ephraim wiped his eyes. This was something he hoped that Abba would have appreciated. He was bearing Yosef’s vow.

Abba had always been a believer but never a synagogue-goer until Saba had died. Then, at the shiva, Yosef had gingerly taken his father’s worn, leather-bound prayerbook off of the oaken bookshelf in the small, stuffy study where Saba had kept his Judaica library. He flipped reverently through the old siddur, turning to Ephraim with glistening eyes. “It’s time for Kaddish. Please gather the guests for minyan, Ephie.”

Dutifully, Abba led services and recited Kaddish thrice daily at Saba’s home for the seven days of shiva. Then he started praying every day at Saba’s synagogue: morning, afternoon, and evening. Kaddish for Saba became his project, and he took it seriously, scribbling notes in the margins and underlining the words of the old prayerbook in pencil, as he researched the history and meanings that underpinned the ancient doxology. The old men at shul had been very impressed with Abba’s seriousness. “Yosef is a good son,” they nodded approvingly. “Yaakov would have been proud.”

When Abba’s year of mourning had ended, he’d vowed to continue attending services to ensure that other mourners would have a minyan to recite Kaddish. He’d felt it was the least he could do for Saba’s community. “Also,” thought Ephie, “Abba hadn’t been ready to stop. One year of kaddish hadn’t felt enough.”

Whenever a mourner recited Kaddish, Yosef would close his eyes tightly, readying himself for the response. In keeping with a Talmudic text that he’d learned during his year of mourning, Yosef would shout his response to the mourners from his seat at the back of the sanctuary: “Yehe shmeh rabba mevarakh leʻalam ulʻalme ʻalmaya.” He’d actually written out the rabbinic text on the inside cover of the siddur:

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

* * *

It was only several years later that Abba unexpectedly died after a bout of severe pneumonia. He’d been so looking forward to marking his father’s fourth yahrzeit at shul, but he’d never made it out of Sha’are Zedek Medical Center, and just like that, Ephie found himself leafing through his father’s scribbles in the margins of Saba’s beloved prayerbook. Yaakov and Yosef would both have wanted him to take Kaddish seriously.

Despite his profound skepticism, Ephie went through the motions. He attended daily services at Saba’s synagogue, leading the prayers and reciting Kaddish for his father. The old men, he knew, believed that he was elevating Yosef’s soul, or redeeming it somehow, but he rejected such archaic superstitions. Kaddish only mattered because Abba believed in it… and also… The old men at shul were so damned endearing and supportive. They’d been truly devastated when Yosef died, just as they’d been upon Ya’akov’s death four years prior.

When his year of mourning ended, and despite his deep inner resistance, Ephie realized that his task wasn’t over. From the first, his Kaddish had never been intended only for Abba; it had been for everyone. His Eema had committed to learning how to use Abba’s photography equipment, and Ephie had somehow naturally taken over Yosef’s Kaddish.

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, 49

She was not yet three-and-a-half years-old when her grandfather died, but death was still beyond her imagination. On the other hand, she understood quite starkly, with dismayed frustration, that her father was abruptly leaving home again… “I have to go help Dedushka Shurik move far, far away,” he explained too gently. “I’ll come back in just one week; and I’ll call you every day from America.”

Abba’chka and Mama’chka were both restrained, but the little girl sensed that something was amiss. The atmosphere in their apartment was thick with something heavy and foreign to her, and her parent’s tones sounded oddly muffled by the laden air around them. A disagreeable, viscous surreality was filling up the room, and it was somehow related to her Dedushka in America. She could grasp this much.

Moved to express herself, even as Abba’chka stood waiting to leave with his large, red and black suitcase, the little girl declared that she would draw some pictures for her Dedushka. Scribbling furiously with her blue marker on sheet after sheet of paper, with a fierce intensity that was rather unlike her, the girl produced a veritable stack of doodles “to give to Dedushka Shurik.” (She knew that blue was his favorite color.)

It all happened much too quickly for me.

* * *

In those few hours before I left for the airport, in those disintegrating moments, the euphemism of “moving to a faraway place” came to us fairly quickly. We were dazed, stunned, unsteady; our overriding instinct was to protect our [not a] baby.

She’s a sensitive child and has always suffered through our absences whenever one of us has traveled abroad without her; hence we’ve taken to preparing her for our departures well ahead of time. My Papa’s death came without warning, however.

Worse, I had been home for merely ten days after a week-long absence (blog #40), and my daughter had just come to rely upon the dependability of my presence again… days before I abruptly had to fly off again.

At three-and-a-half-years-old, she was already trilingual (she speaks English with me, Russian with her mother, and Hebrew outside the home), but for all of her natural eloquence she was barely out of toddlerhood and only beginning to engage our Shabbat guests with her earnest, all too serious-sounding queries at the table. Most of what she could express with accuracy was a repetition of conversations she had overheard.

Even after my return from the shiva, I found it difficult to determine the extent to which our child was capable of comprehending and processing the horror of what had transpired, due to her perfectly age-appropriate limitations. Certainly, I knew she hadn’t fully recovered from my extended, unexpected absence, for she continued to cry every evening when I would leave to recite kaddish for Papa (blog #3).

My wife and I were particularly wary due, in part, to my wife’s own childhood. At three-years-old, she had also lost her loving grandfather and, in the aftermath, developed deep anxiety about the possibility of herself or her loved ones likewise “disappearing” forever. The matter-of-fact explanation she’d received as a child had terrified her.

* * *

In the course of my research on Jewish mourning and kaddish, I happened upon this article by Rabbi Avram Mlotek on his five-year-old daughter’s confrontation with death: ‘My 5-Year-Old Confronts Death’.

Rabbi Mlotek ends the piece like so:

Ecclesiastes offers, ‘There is a time for everything.’

But for children, time bears no hold on reality.

It’s Sukkot eve and we put Ravi to bed, telling her if she goes to sleep nicely I’ll bring her to the sukkah later, to sleep on a blow-up mattress.

‘How long will you be?’ she asks. ‘An hour? A minute? A second?’

I smile because she doesn’t grasp the difference between these markers and that, for now, is truly wonderful.

This scene with little Revaya and her father is so true to life; and I find myself smiling at Mlotek’s depiction because my own daughter, now four-and-a-half-years-old, confuses days with weeks and seconds with minutes (although she knows the twelve months and four seasons in three languages) (yes, I’m boasting).

I read the article again, imagining my daughter asking all of the same questions that Ravi did: Is Dedushka Shurik really in the box? How did he get there? Are his white clothes comfortable? When do the kids get to shovel dirt upon the grave?

This whole scenario is so very plausible to me, so very, very plausible, but then it hits me: she’s not three-and-a-half any more.

My [not a] baby has always been articulate for her age, but our conversations today, one year after Papa died, are incomparably more substantive than they once were. My year of mourning coincided almost exactly with her first year of preschool, and her ability to express herself has exploded since last September. It was only two months ago that she squeezed my hand on our way to shul one Shabbat and contemplatively tested her developing understanding with me: “Is it right that my grandfather died?”

I will remember this particular year of my daughter’s life forever.

* * *

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.

– Me, blog #27

In mid-January I wrote the above, as I continued to struggle with how to communicate our tremendous loss to our daughter. Several weeks prior, she had finally asked me what the “faraway place” that Dedushka Shurik had left us for is called (blog #23), and I had answered her that nobody really knows. Family, friends and acquaintances had all been asking me: why don’t you just explain it to her?

But I was scared; I didn’t know if she could handle it.

Then, in early March, my dear friend Yael who has supported many terminally ill patients and their families as a chaplain drew my attention to an NPR article: ‘The Dog Isn’t Sleeping: How To Talk With Children About Death’.

* * *

The article mentions a Mr. William Lee (1908-1982) who died of a heart attack at 74 years of age, but American children knew him by the name Mr. Hooper, and this is how he was referred to by the author.

Mr. Hooper had been a special friend to Big Bird, and the unexpected death of the actor who played him on Sesame Street inspired its producers to create an educational episode about death: Episode #1839. The executive producer would go on to explain that the Sesame Street team had followed their instincts to “deal with it head-on,” as reported in the New York Times on Aug. 31, 1983.

The clip above this post is powerfully poignant. The cast’s tears for their departed friend were all genuine. But… wait: what age is Big Bird meant to represent? 

From Wikipedia:

‘Although all the Sesame Street Muppet characters are technically ageless, Big Bird is psychologically written to represent a six-year-old.’

* * *

I was impressed by the substance and thrust of the NPR article, but its six takeaway principles weren’t all entirely appropriate for my daughter at a tender three-and-a-half, specifically:

  • The article first suggests that parents should “be honest and concrete” with their children. The author writes: “parents only complicate matters when, instead of being concrete, they resort to euphemisms.” While I would agree that this may be something to aspire towards, I have no regrets about telling my little daughter that her grandfather had “moved far, far away” when he died.
  • The fourth principle is: “Grown-ups, it’s OK to cry.” Sure, ideally our children would be capable of comprehending why their parents are crying, but what if they’re not? What if they’re just old enough to sense our hurt, absorb it and become overwhelmed with emotion that they have no capacity to describe? What if they’re not able to ask the questions necessary to better understand? What if they’re just too young?

For all of its truly helpful guidelines, the article’s one failure is its lack of context: What ages is this advice suitable for?

* * *

I am not the only one to have gone through a process this year, as my wife pointed out to me at Shabbat dinner last week. Our daughter had a deep attachment to her Dedushka, for he had spent an entire month or more nannying her every single year since her birth (blog #22).

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.

– Me, blog #15

Looking back, I feel that we did our best, gradually introducing concepts to our [not a] baby gradually, as she developed from a three-and-a-half-year-old into a four-and-a-half-year-old little girl.

We deliberately did not avoid speaking about Papa’s death to others in her presence, and I explained to her that I was reciting kaddish at shul for Papa as soon as she inquired about it (blog #22):

I’ve told her that I am reciting kaddish for my papa at the request of my mama (in part), but what can I relate to her about kaddish beyond this?

As she grew older and became more articulate, she gradually came to express more and more ideas surrounding the death of her Dedushka Shurik, and I answered her in ways that I sensed she could process. Even before she asked me about his being dead, I had intentionally been teaching her about living things (plants and animals), and I had shown her dead insects and dried leaves that had fallen from the trees. Without speaking directly about my father, I was attempting to explain his death.

None of us were prepared for Papa’s death, and all this year we’ve been keeping ourselves together as best we could.

God knows we really tried.

* * *

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 47

Two weeks ago a middle-aged woman approached me at the back of the sanctuary, as I was readying to head home for havdalah.
I’ve been thinking about you recently. You must be nearly done by now… I’m almost at the end of my eleven months.
I recognized her immediately – the rabbi’s daughter (blog #3). She had lost her father not long after Papa died, just after I returned from shiva in New Jersey. I had been in the shloshim stage of mourning then.
Oh, hello! Yes, I completed my eleven months of kaddish just over a week ago, but the yahrzeit won’t be for another two months.
She nodded in understanding.
Yes, because of the Hebrew leap year – I also have an extra month. It’s good to see you again.
Thank you; it’s very nice to see you too.
The memories flooded back. Seemingly a lifetime ago, I had attended shiva at this woman’s home for four consecutive evenings to make minyan so that she could recite kaddish for her father.

A month later, in August, I wrote of that (blog #3):

The rabbi’s daughter was sitting shiva, and I was already past that stage, in the shloshim period of my mourning. According to Jewish tradition, her wound was fresher than mine, her mourning more acute, but this did not feel true to me. For four days I listened as strangers honored the memory of a rabbi that I’d never known, all the while grieving silently, alone by the wall, over the untimely death of my own father, but not saying a word because it wasn’t my shiva house.

* * *

Every ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ blog entry feels like it must be the very last. I post and think: That’s it. Done. I’ve wrung my heart out. The next post is always unfathomable to me until it is has become the last one.

In mid-December I found myself reflecting upon that shiva again in another blog post, shortly after I’d finished devouring a compilation of women’s kaddish stories. The months, it seemed, had done their work in grinding down the edges of my grief (blog #19):

Everything was about my pain then [i.e. in July, during the rabbi’s shiva], and I could hardly feel beyond myself. Since, the shock has faded; I am more conscious of death and less surprised by it. I have again become able to hear others’ stories.

* * *

Reading through my older blog posts, only snippets of observations and reflections feel authentically mine today, as if each of my entries had been authored by another member of a mourners’ support group, before passing my cracked, black laptop around the circle to the next.

My own words come back to me (blog #39):

By the time you’ve read this, it’s no longer about the character who wrote it. Who is David Bogomolny anyway?

* * *

One particular leg of my journey this year led me upon an intensive search for creative and modern expressions of kaddish. I found other kaddish bloggers (blog #29), as well as a musician who had put the mourner’s kaddish to song and an artist who had made paintings of every synagogue where he’d recited the kaddish in honor of his father (blog #31). At around that time I also came across another artist who had charted a unique, personalized kaddish journey, but this man’s story froze me. Steven Branfman had lost his son.

Here is the father’s kaddish story in his own words:

Some concepts are hard to wrap my mind around and harder still to put words to, but the story of Steven’s grief over Jared’s death brought up a dreadful question: what if it had been somebody other than Papa? Somebody other than a parent of mine?

For all the pain behind my writing this year, for all my shock and despair at losing my father, I had always “known” that he would die before me. Given, he should have lived another ten or twenty years, well into his eighties or his nineties. Given, I’d never imagined him leaving us so unexpectedly or so suddenly, in a matter of greedy, insatiable hours while I was putting his beloved granddaughter to bed far across the churning waters. Still, stories of grown adults mourning their departed parents do not usually shatter us.

I acknowledge to myself: My grief has been bearable enough for me to blog about.

* * *

I was surprised when I found out that the halachic, traditional Jewish period for mourning a child is only thirty days. But one of the mothers explained why: it’s because you grieve the rest of your life. You don’t need need the rituals to remind you to grieve. You will think of your child forever.

 Sherri Mandell, The Blessing of a Broken Heart (p. 82)

This folk wisdom from Sherri Mandell’s book of loss and mourning hasn’t come up in any Jewish sources that I’ve seen, but our ancient traditions are ever hungry for relevance, and these bereaved mothers’ words are of the sheerest sagacity. Thoughts such as these leave me flailing to keep my head above guilt, but I’ve already steeled myself once before to admit this:

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.

– Me, blog #27

* * *

There were too, too many minutes in the few hours before Papa’s death, my senses vibrating at a frequency that was out of step with the usual rhythm of things. Then my cellphone screen lit up with a time-bending message from my brother, just as my daughter was complaining that she wasn’t sleepy: “Dead”. Collected and reeling, I placed the phone face down by the bedside, coaxing and calming my little girl as she fell aslumber.

Disconcertingly out of sync, perceptions jumbled, receptors misfiring, I remain immediately near but never fully within the self I’d always known, receiving on an unfamiliar, piercing wavelength.

Slowly, slowly, I have come to understand
this: My pulse has been attuned to loss.

* * *

As I was perusing the bookshelves at my mother’s home in New Jersey last month, ‘The Blessing of a Broken Heart’ called to me. Mama, it turns out, had acquired the book some years ago because I’d shared the story of Koby Mandell with her – the boy who had once invited me to his bar mitzvah.

In the summer of 2000 I was in Jerusalem, studying at a yeshiva where Rabbi Seth Mandell was teaching. I was drawn to him because he dressed and spoke more like me than any of the other rabbis, and I always looked forward to seeing him on our weekly day trips.

It was on a walk along the ramparts of the Old City of Jerusalem that I met Koby, and we spent much of that tour chatting together. He was twelve years old and bursting with enthusiasm; and I felt drawn to that buoyant, American-mannered child who breathed in Israel so naturally. I still recall with amusement Rabbi Mandell’s teasing rebuke to his son: You can’t invite everyone you meet to your bar mitzvah, Koby. (I wouldn’t have been in Israel for the event anyway, and I’m pretty sure Koby knew that.)

At the end of the summer I returned to my university studies and the powder keg exploded. From the safety of America, I read about the devastating terrors of the Second Intifada.

I was shocked and shattered by Koby’s murder.

* * *

‘It’s hard for the one who dies, but it’s harder for those left behind,’ Koby said after two high school boys were killed by terrorists only two months before his own death.

 Sherri Mandell, The Blessing of a Broken Heart (p. 151)

Perhaps it’s trite to write, but there are different ways of knowing – different modes – different depths. This quote from Koby is intuitive, right? What could be more apparent?

Still, I somehow never used to think too much about “those left behind” before my Papa died. Sure, I felt bad for them; I knew that the living were left suffering, smoldering in pain; but my thoughts would inevitably alight upon those who had departed: so sad, so unfortunate, so terrible, so tragic; they had so much yet to live for… so… so… so…

Now that Koby’s insight has been absorbed into my depths
I’ll never again unknow it.

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 43

Given my dazedness and state of shock last July, I had no preconceived assumptions nor expectations of my sudden, unanticipated status as a mourner. Then, abruptly, in the middle of Papa’s funeral, I found myself stung sharply with tenderness towards the friends and family who had been closest to him.

Papa lived a rather solitary life due to his hearing impairment (blog #19), but he resided in proximity to several friends and would go out with each of them every month or so; he used to mention his lunch dates to me with fondness. While sitting shiva, I recall being particularly moved to learn that one friend had always brought a notebook and pen whenever getting together with Papa- that way they could be sure to understand one another over the restaurant din.

30 days after the burial, when I was back in Jerusalem, another of Papa’s friends was moved to read those stanzas of Psalm 119 corresponding to my father’s name (אלכסנדר) at his graveside. I hadn’t yet learned then of this tradition, but now, as ‘Daddy Pig’ would say, “I’m an expert at 119.”

With the unveiling soon upon us, that same friend was kind enough to check in with me regarding my thoughts on what prayers and Psalms I might like to recite at Papa’s grave. In addition to Psalm 119, we both naturally thought of El Malei Rachamim (EMR), the traditional Jewish prayer for the soul of the departed. It is among the many Jewish mourning traditions that I have discovered this year.

At some point after my return to Israel from the shiva, the gabbai of my regular minyan asked me if I would like to have EMR recited at the synagogue to mark the first 30 days of mourning. At that time, I was battling back feelings of frustration and resentment towards shul norms and shook my head ‘no’ immediately, even grimacing involuntarily, which I immediately regretted. I didn’t know what EMR entailed, other than standing in front of the congregation while holding a Torah scroll, but I knew that my comfort zone did not extend much beyond the back wall of the synagogue.

Since my reluctant return to shul this year for kaddish, I’ve taken in many EMR recitations, which take place during public Torah reading days: Mondays, Thursdays, Saturdays. In fact, my observations led me to make a false assumption (one in a line of many*): Since Torah readings are only held at shul in the presence of a minyan, I assumed that one could only recite EMR with a prayer quorum.

In any case, this isn’t true.

Unlike the recitation of kaddish, EMR does not require the presence of a minyan, and it is often intoned by solitary Jews at their loved ones’ gravesites. I won’t be on my own at Papa’s unveiling, but I could recite it even if I were.

*A tangent:
One of the reasons that I feel myself a perennial outsider in the Orthodox community is that my discovery of Jewish religious rituals is simply endless (and I’ve been at this for upwards of two decades). Untold numbers of traditions remain unfamiliar to me, including some that I’ve seen practiced countless times and assume I know.
An example: based upon years of observing Orthodox social norms, I had once assumed that only men may recite kiddush on Shabbat for their families. Imagine my shock when I began to delve into the halakha and learned that women can recite kiddush for men as well! 
(Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 271:2)

* * *

It doesn’t take much to pique my curiosity these days. What can we find out about El Malei Rachamim (EMR)?

The Hebrew volume Sefer Kol Bo al Aveilus (‘The Book Containing Everything on Mourning’) was written by Rabbi Yekusiel Yehudah Greenwald (1889–1955). Regarding EMR Greenwald makes the following observation (p. 211):

תפלת אל מלא רחמים. תפלה זו שנשפשטה מאד בחוגי ישראל לכל המינים, לא נודע מתי נתחברה… ״אל מלא רחמים״ לא נזכרה בשום ספר בספרי ראשונים… הראשון שמזכירה בשם ״אל מלא רחמים״ הוא המחבר מעבר יבק The prayer of EMR. This prayer -which has become very normative in Jewish circles of all kinds- it is not known when it became part of [Jewish tradition]… “EMR” is not mentioned in any book of the books of the Rishonim (the rabbinic leadership of the ~11th to ~15th centuries)… The first to mention it by the name “EMR” is the author of ‘Ma’abar Yabboḳ’ (Rabbi Aaron Berechiah of Modena).

Rabbi Aaron Berechiah of Modena died in 1639; and his Ma’abar Yabboḳ was published in 1626. We may assume, then, that the recitation of EMR only became popularly accepted in the 16th century, which is later than the origins of our mourner’s kaddish tradition. As I recall, the earliest text to mention the mourner’s kaddish is the Maḥzor Vitry, which was published in the twelfth century (blog #24). That was some four centuries before EMR was even a twinkle in the rabbis’ eyes.

In Dr. Ronald Eisenberg’s ‘Jewish Traditions: JPS Guide’, he explains the timing of this development (p. 87):

The prayer originated in the Jewish communities of Western and Eastern Europe, where it was recited for the martyrs of the Crusades and of the Chmielnicki massacres.

Oof.

* * *

Historical developments in Jewish mourning practices such as El Malei Rachamim (EMR) were signs of the ongoing democratization of Judaism, which, according to Rabbi A. J. Heschel (1907-1972), began in the twelfth century, when the mourner’s kaddish tradition originated (see: blog #29).

It’s really quite fascinating. Consider that while we most often think of the mourner’s kaddish as the Jewish prayer for the dead, it actually makes no mention of death whatsoever. Clearly, the Jewish community needed something more explicit:

El Malei Rachamim

אֵל מָלֵא רַחֲמִים, שׁוֹכֵן בַּמְּרוֹמִים God, full of mercy, who dwells in the heights,
הַמְצֵא מְנוּחָה נְכוֹנָה, עַל כַּנְפֵי הַשְּׁכִינָה provide a true rest on the Divine Presence’s wings,
בְּמַעֲלוֹת קְדוֹשִׁים וּטְהוֹרִים, כְּזוֹהַר הָרָקִיעַ מַזְהִירִים in the holy and pure heights, like the brilliance of the sky do they radiate,
אֶת נִשְׁמַת אלכסנדר בן משה שֶׁהָלַךְ לְעוֹלָמוֹ, בַּעֲבוּר שֶׁנָּדְבוּ צְדָקָה בְּעַד הַזְכָּרַת נִשְׁמָתוֹ on behalf of the soul of Alexander son of Mosheh who left for His world, charity was given in memory of his soul.
בְּגַן עֵדֶן תְּהֵא מְנוּחָתו the Garden of Eden shall be his rest
לָכֵן בַּעַל הָרַחֲמִים יַסְתִּירֵהוּ בְּסֵתֶר כְּנָפָיו לְעוֹלָמִים Therefore, the Master of Mercy will hide him forever, in the hiding of his wings,
וְיִצְרֹר בִּצְרוֹר הַחַיִּים אֶת נִשְׁמָתוֹ and will bind his soul in the bond of life.
יְיָ הוּא נַחֲלָתוֹ God is his inheritance,
וְיָנוּחַ בְּשָׁלוֹם עַל מִשְׁכָּבוֹ, וְנֹאמַר אָמֵן and he shall rest peacefully upon his lying place, and let us say: Amen.

Such beautiful imagery; and I know just the right charity to donate to in memory of Papa’s soul.

* * *

Now that I’ve read through and translated the full prayer, I recall that Dr. Eisenberg highlights an evocative textual nuance (ibid.):

El Maleh Rahamim includes the phrase on the wings of the Divine Presence,’ rather than the more common under the wings of the Divine Presence.’

The latter phrase implies heavenly protection from danger by using the analogy of a bird spreading its protective wings over its young. The analogy is reversed when speaking of spiritual elevation–God’s presence is compared to a soaring eagle that puts its young on top of its wings and carries them aloft.

There’s much more to this. In the 17th volume of the Ḥakirah Journal, a journal of Jewish law and thoughtRabbi Yaakov Jaffe has an article titled “Upon the Wings of Eagles” and “Under the Wings of the Shekhinah”: Poetry, Conversion and the Memorial Prayer, in which he makes this point (pp. 195-6):

There are numerous scriptural passages that… convey the poetic image of being ‘under the wings’ of a stronger and more powerful Divine Being in the context of protection from danger. Psalm 17:8… ‘Hide me away in the shadow of Your wings’ … Psalm 61:4-5 conveys similar sentiments: ‘… I will be covered by being hidden by Your wings, selah.’ Other Psalms also speak about refuge, shelter, or concealment under God’s wings in difficult times… In contrast, there are no scriptural precedents for the image of being upon the wings of the Deity per se.

According to Rabbi Jaffe’s article, it’s not only that scripture doesn’t provide a basis for the imagery of “being on the wings (כנפיים – knafaim) of God”. In the 43rd chapter of his seminal Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides (1135-1204) comes down hard on the implication of God’s “wings” in Scripture (Jaffe, p. 200):

According to Maimonides, whenever the word ‘wing’ is used in reference to the Deity, it must be translated as ‘that which conceals’ or ‘that which covers.’ … Maimonides here indicates that the very translation of the word kanaf is ‘tool of covering or concealment.’ …

Despite all of this, Jaffe notes (p. 192-4) that:

Increasingly, [Modern Orthodox] congregations in the United States have begun turning to the text ‘al kanfei ha-Shekhinah’ … The dominance of this version in modern siddurim and modern communities is particularly striking in light of the practice of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik to use the ‘taḥat kanfei ha-Shekhinah’ formula. Soloveitchik, the leader of Modern Orthodox American Jewry for decades, preferred one version, although today, increasingly, congregations and prayer books that purport to represent the Modern Orthodox ideology prefer the other version.

Jaffe explains that the original shift from ‘under’ (תחת – taḥat) to ‘on’ (על – al) is attributed to the mystic Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz (1555-1630), and made its way into the Zohar, the foundational work of Jewish mystical thought: Kabbalah. This is intriguing on its own merits, but also: did Modern Orthodoxy start slipping towards mysticism in the mid-20th century, or do people simply find the imagery of “true rest on the Divine Presence’s wings” more compelling? I’d wager that it’s the latter.

* * *

The very notion of God hiding my father’s soul under his protective metaphorical wings leaves me cold. Firstly, I don’t believe in postmortem metaphysical punishment in the slightest (ask: what would God be protecting Papa’s soul from?). Secondly, as regards Papa in particular:

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

– me, blog #11

In fact, Papa, strong and courageous spirit that he was, was much more a protector than one who sought protection from others. When I was born during a wet Jerusalem winter and it came time to bring me home from Hadassah Hospital, my father, anxious at the fragility and vulnerability of the tiny bundle that had been entrusted to him, cradled his newborn son in his arms and ran to the dormitory, shielding me from the rain with his broad, muscular torso. This was quintessentially Papa.

When he did need saving, it was always Papa’s boldness and boundless curiosity that got him into trouble. Whether it was getting stung by a rockfish while diving off the coast of Sharm El Sheikh or one of his misadventures in alpinism in the USSR, his eagerness and sense of adventure were most to blame.

In my mind’s eye, I envisage my father soaring ever higher on his new adventure, one from which he needs no saving. If Papa could soar upon God’s wings and come back to tell us of it, the photographs he surely would have taken would be absolutely epic.

Photo by Alexander Bogomolny z”l, 2016: Agamon HaHula, Israel