The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 44


Days before my father’s unveiling, my wife and I were taking our 4-year-old to see her first fireworks display on Yom HaAtzmaut at the Haas Promenade (Tayelet) in Jerusalem; she was skipping with excitement. Thankfully, she had napped that afternoon and could enjoy the late night entertainment. I was also impressed; the fireworks were bursting just overhead, impossibly close to us.

As we walked along the Promenade, we recalled how much my Papa had enjoyed strolling there with his camera equipment, capturing the renowned, panoramic view with his steady hands and patient eyes. Despite the festivities, I was somber, remembering him and contemplating my upcoming trip to New Jersey. It struck me that I should bring a chunk of Jerusalem stone from his beloved Tayelet to lay on Papa’s tombstone.

Pleased with myself, I sent a picture of the stone to my mother, who responded: “Beautiful! Wonderful idea! Bring one for each of you.” The next day, at my wife’s suggestion, we found four additional pieces of Jerusalem stone: a total of three for myself, my wife, and our daughter in Jerusalem, and two more for my mother and brother in America.


Afterwards, my curiosity led me to Rabbi David Golinkin’s (b. 1955) research [link] into the origins of this particular custom, and I learned that its earliest mention in our sources can be found in a halakhic work by Rabbi Shalom Ben Yiẓḥak Of Neustadt (1350-1413):

… they pluck grass from a grave or they take a pebble and put it on the grave, it is because of kevod hamet [respect for the deceased] to show him that he had visited his grave.

The fundamentality of stone challenges my romanticization. It is permanent; solid; simple. Rabbi David Wolpe (b. 1958) writes poignantly [link]:

While flowers may be a good metaphor for the brevity of existence, stones are better suited to the durability of memory. In moments when we are reminded of the fragility of life, Judaism reminds us that there is permanence amid the pain. While other things fade, stones and souls endure.

Now our five Jerusalem stones rest atop the uneven surface of Papa’s tombstone; in my mind’s eye I can see them being blown off in a storm gust, landing at its base along with other memory stones. Mama has told me that the many pebbles she’d laid over the course of this year before the setting of the headstone were left undisturbed by the workmen, out of respect.


* * *

In modern Hebrew, the word for gravestone is matzeivah (מצבה), which harkens back to the Bible. Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein explains [link]:

The common word for a tombstone in spoken Hebrew is a matzeivah (literally, ‘monument’), and, indeed, when Yaakov buried his wife Rachel, the Torah reports that he erected a matzeivah at her grave (Gen. 35:20). Elsewhere (Yechezkel 39:15 and II Kings 23:17), the Bible refers to graves that are marked with a tziyun (‘marker’).

However, these ‘monuments’ and ‘markers’ of the biblical era were not what we think of today as tombstones. Joseph Jacobs (1854-1916) and Isaac Broydé (1867-1922) unpack this in the Jewish Encyclopedia [link]:

The custom of marking a grave by a stone which bore an inscription describing the qualities of the deceased and giving his age and the date of his death was foreign to the ancient Hebrews. Stones were indeed used to mark the sites of graves… but they were not intended as monuments and bore no inscriptions. Even in the geonic period the custom seems to have been unknown to the Jews of the East, and it can not, therefore, have been current in Talmudic times.

So how, then, does rabbinic literature refer to tombstones? I wonder. The answer can be found in the Mishnah. In Tractate Shekalim the rabbis discuss the ancient tax, which went towards the maintenance of the Temple in Jerusalem.

There arises a question: what should be done with funds that one set aside for the Temple, which exceed a half-shekel of silver? On this, Rabbi Nathan the Babylonian gets the final word (Shekalim 2:5):

רבי נתן אומר, בונין לו נפש על גבי קברו Rabbi Nathan says: They [use the extra funds to] place a nefesh over his grave.


It’s true; Maimonides (1135-1204) uses the same terminology in his seminal halakhic opus – the Mishneh Torah (Book of Judges 4:4):

ומציינין את כל בית הקברות ובונין נפש על הקבר והצדיקים אין בונים להם נפש על קברותיהם שדבריהם הם זכרונם ולא יפנה אדם לבקר הקברות … and markings are made on the graves; and a nefesh is placed on the grave; and for the righteous, by contrast, a nefesh is not placed, for their words will cause them to be remembered; a person will not [need to] turn to visit [their] graves.

I am stunned. The word nefesh has come up before in my research (blog #28), but I never expected this. In modern Hebrew, the word nefesh has come to mean soul, and in biblical Hebrew it was “understood in a unitive way as the totality of being – ‘man does not have nefesh, he is nefesh, he lives as nefesh’” (Jewish Views of the Afterlife, p. 54).

… oh.
Perhaps I understand this.

The standard turn of phrase used in shul (shul’ish) when partaking of a kiddush sponsored in memory of somebody’s loved one is (blog #24): ‘L’ilui neshama’ (לעילוי נשמה – for the lifting up of [their] soul). The operative word for ‘soul’ here is neshama, rather than nefesh.

Certainly I’m disinclined towards mysticism, but I recall learning that the Kabbalah distinguishes between five levels of the soul, the most basic and earthly of which is the nefesh. It would seem that tradition is suggesting that this aspect of Papa rests forever in the earthly realm, represented by his tombstone. The mourner’s kaddish, it would seem, is not traditionally recited for the redemption of a parent’s nefesh.

* * *

Following three days of rain, the weather at the unveiling is lovely. The sun is shining; ghost white clouds billow softly on azure. Some twenty of us are gathered below the heavens at Papa’s grave; family and friends have arrived here out of love.

My mother addresses the gathered; she passes out packets containing seven of my father’s photographs (one for each letter of his name), the stanzas of Psalm 119 corresponding to ‘Alexander son of Mosheh – Neshama’ (אלכסנדר בן משה – נשמה), which I’ve studied in memory of Papa (blogs #31 thru #41), and the El Malei Rachamim prayer (blog #43) for my father’s soul.

Self-consciously, I read the 128 verses (16 stanzas) of Psalm 119 from the packet slowly, stumblingly. It takes forever. Hauntingly, my father’s friend Yossi chants El Malei Rachamim. Mama speaks. She reads letters from her sister Dina (in Hebrew) and Papa’s childhood friend Sasha (in Russian). She explains the inscription at the top of the Nefesh:

והנצח זו ירושלים
And the Eternity is Jerusalem

I am moved to provide further context for these words and read aloud the letter that I wrote to my father for his birthday – blog #23 – in which I explored the original source text and parsed the language. Then I share aloud a letter written by my wife for Papa; with a twinge, I feel that the heartfelt words of others are less onerous than my Psalm 119 recitation and blog post(s). Am I making mourning too complicated?

My brother then shares another of his clear-eyed reflections, and I recite the mourner’s kaddish along with Yossi who lost his wife quite recently. We pass little pebbles collected by Mama to each attendee, inviting everyone to place these atop the nefesh. I take to resting our five Jerusalem stones among the pebbles, shifting them around, so as to minimize their wobbling on the rugged surface.

All are invited back to our home for a beautiful meal lovingly prepared by my mother. She really poured her heart into it. She says that my father would have been pleased with the array of dishes set out for our guests, and I agree. On top of my father’s favorite Olivier Salad and countless other dishes, our cousin Lyonya has brought an enormous Napoleon Torte all the way from Boston, loving prepared by his wife Tanya. My father, my brother and I always, always relished Tanya’s Napoleons.

Eventually, the guests begin to say their goodbyes, and everybody disperses. I am left with warm feelings and memories. The event for me was perfect.

* * *

The following day is Thursday, and I join my third Virtual Mourner’s Kaddish (blog #42) conference call, this time led by Naomi from lab/shul. She shares with us a poem written by Jack Gilbert, in which he likens his grief over the death of his wife to the physically trying experience of carrying a heavy box:

Michiko Dead

He manages like somebody carrying a box
that is too heavy, first with his arms
underneath. When their strength gives out,
he moves the hands forward, hooking them
on the corners, pulling the weight against
his chest. He moves his thumbs slightly
when the fingers begin to tire, and it makes
different muscles take over. Afterward,
he carries it on his shoulder, until the blood
drains out of the arm that is stretched up
to steady the box and the arm goes numb. But now
the man can hold underneath again, so that
he can go on without ever putting the box down.

What do you think of his words? She asks. Do you find Gilbert’s simile relatable? Would anybody like to share a reflection?

My mind is still at the unveiling, struggling through the biblical Hebrew of Psalm 119 at Papa’s graveside. I had worked so hard to prepare for that reading, delving week after week into the verses and commentaries, searching for myself and my Papa in its words, pushing to find personal relevance and meaning in a tradition that I would otherwise have found meaningless. I remember my relief upon completing my analysis (blog #41); I’m done with 119, I’d thought.

I’d tired of carrying 119 all those weeks, and so I’d shifted, “pulling the weight against my chest” in that sunlight; but this too proved to be both relief and burden.

I realize that I will carry this forever.

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 42

Eleven months of kaddish recitations end for me on May 28 (Iyyar 23); I have been at the grind for ten months (10 ÷ 11 ≈ 91%). The grief is unabating. I remain shattered and scattered.

Last summer, I couldn’t bring myself to pour my endless despair out upon anyone. Having returned home to Jerusalem in July from sitting shiva in America, I instinctively reached out to my rabbi, but…

“May I see you? I am back,” in mid-July I e-mailed Rabbi Landes.
“Sure, when?” he responded two minutes later.
Suddenly, the simplest of questions had no answer.
All the time.
The following morning I wrote again:

I actually don’t quite know – I really want to see you, but I think I need a few more days to get back into my routine and begin to deal with work and parenthood again.
I’ve been going to minyan to say kaddish – that’s a big change for me. I’ll be in touch with you again – thank you for everything.

Three weeks went by.

I published my first blog post thirty days after burying Papa.

Unexpectedly, I felt something click other than my mouse button. Ten days later I published #2, drawn to the modest refuge I’d found before in the craggy crannies between words and letters.

* * *

This Pesach I had too much time with my thoughts, and darkness wormed in through the defenses of my flimsy redoubt. Actually, the walls had already started to crack at least one week earlier, during a Virtual Mourner’s Kaddish (VMK) call, a project initiated by Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie.

During our family’s holiday break last week, I was talking to my wife about the perpetual sense of isolation I experience among non-mourners and the unanticipated, visceral relief of that one VMK call. Our four-year-old daughter was trying to follow our conversation and inquired as to what we were talking about.

“Abba’chka is saying that he misses Dedushka Shurik very much.”
(she asks this about everything)
“Because he is my father and your grandfather; and I love him; but we’ll never see him again.”
“I know that;” she responded knowingly, “but he’ll always be in your heart.” (she’d absorbed this insight from her Mama’s font of wisdom)

* * *

VMK – context, concept

Renowned Israeli diplomat and holocaust survivor Naphtali Lau-Lavie (1926-2014) left behind two sons, both rabbis. Rabbi Benny Lau (b. 1961), the older son, is an Orthodox rabbi and community leader in Jerusalem. Upon completing his kaddish odyssey in honor of their father, Rav Lau wrote and recited an original prayer to mark the end of his journey (blog #20). A newly fashioned prayer in the religiously circumspect world of Orthodoxy is no small thing, yet his words continue to flow from mourners’ lips.

Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie (b. 1969), the younger brother, inhabits a Jewish society in the USA much different than that of his Israeli Orthodox family. Ordained as a Conservative rabbi, he had been a creative, non-Orthodox spiritual leader long before then; and he continues to operate beyond the bounds of denominationalism. Upon the death of their father, Rav Lau-Lavie initiated the weekly VMK conference call, and to this day, he or a staff person is on the phone every single week to support an intentional, international community of Jewish mourners.

My own kaddish journey led me first to Rav Benny’s original mourning prayer and eventually, perhaps inevitably, to Rav Amichai’s boundaryless VMK.

* * *

VMK – experience, expression

It wasn’t until February that I discovered the VMK by way of my endless kaddish excavations, and it wasn’t until mid-April that I was able to join the weekly conference call (every Thursday at 12:00 PM EST).

I dialed the phone number a couple of minutes before schedule and waited. Silence. Then the beeps began. A woman’s voice came on. “Hello, this is Shira from Lab/Shul. Welcome to the VMK call. Could each of you introduce yourself and say where you’re calling from?”

The names are rather a blur, but callers seemed to be phoning in from Canada and throughout the USA. “I’m from Jerusalem,” I said. “Wow,” she responded, “what’s the weather like?” Upon hearing my response, a gentleman in Toronto shared, “It’s snowing here;” and I laughed aloud at the contrast.

Pent up energy brought me to my feet, and I paced the hallway as I listened. Somebody else introduced himself and explained, “I’m not in mourning right now, but I’m calling to help make minyan for kaddish.” A lump rose to my throat and I noticed my mouth twisting in the nearby mirror. “Thank you,” said Shira, “I’m keeping count, and I’m sure more people will be joining us during the call.”

Shira softly shared some thoughts on the theme of Pesach and the symbolism of water in the festival. “With Passover so soon upon us, as our preparations for the holiday get underway, we often feel the absences of our loved ones all the more poignantly,” she observed. “Would anybody like to share something that is coming up for them this season? A memory or reflection?”

There were no interruptions during the call. Heartbeats elapsed as participants made time for one another to speak, punctuated only by occasional beeps as additional mourners joined our circle. Only four (or five) of us shared stories; the rest seemed content to listen quietly.

Finally the time came to end our call. “Thank you all so much,” said Shira. “We will now recite the kaddish together. Please feel free to share the names of your loved ones with us before the recitation.” Then, some of us more hesitantly than others, we spoke the names of those we’d lost. “Alexander ben Mosheh;” I felt my tongue render, “my Papa.”

Even at the end, during the recitation of mourner’s kaddish, only several of our voices were audible. Most had joined the call only to listen.

Only to listen

My energized pacing had continued ceaselessly throughout the call, driven by the springing of a densely coiled tension. I could feel my heart unclench, as the clasps of my reservations undid themselves.

In that impermanent VMK circle, the full weight of one’s mourning was expected and accepted; and grief found itself a more expansive canvas. Jointly, intentionally, we provided and received together – mutual human deliverance.

For all of my praying, my reading, my writing, I still have need of others to relate to me.

* * *

On the eve of Yom HaShoah, it is not for me to recount the heroism and accomplishments of Naphtali Lau-Lavie, for I have nothing to share but my naked amazement at this Israeli statesman who arose from the ashes of the Buchenwald concentration camp and succeeded at saving himself and his then eight-year-old brother who later became the Chief Rabbi of Israel. (see: Rav Benny’s beautiful tribute, which scrapes the surface of his father’s story.)

What I would, ever so humbly, like to share is that Naphtali Lau-Lavie left behind him a legacy in both of his sons that has touched my Jewish soul, and I am so so thankful for their combined inspiration and soulful creativity. Following is a snippet of Rav Benny’s tribute to his father, which moved me in particular:

The liberation from Buchenwald caught him at a crossroads. A young man, 19 years old, without parents, and tied to an 8 year-old boy…

For two weeks, my father… chose to suspend his relationship with the Master of the Universe. One morning, he received a note in Hebrew that said:

‘You must say Kaddish because your mother is no longer alive. She died in Ravensbrück.’

That is the moment when my father made the decision. No matter what may be going through your head, you do not abandon the tradition of your mother and father’s home.

That is how this great man found the strength of spirit to… reach a Jewish life in the Land of Israel.

* * *

In my mid-twenties I taught seventh grade Holocaust studies at the Hebrew school of my childhood while attending graduate school, and I absorbed and learned more about the Shoah in preparing for those classes than I’d ever assimilated as a teen. I also became more vulnerable in those years to the effects of my imagination upon my learning, not unlike the impact of my kaddish odyssey this year.

Sometimes I rise alone to recite kaddish, and sometimes I stand with many others, but always the voices of generations join with mine. On Yom HaShoah, during this, my year of mourning for my father, my mourner’s kaddish will be both personal and in honor of all the Jewish martyrs. I will recite in memory of and love for Papa, and I will recite for all who were lost to us at the hands of the Nazi genocide machine.

My ruminations recall a beautiful encapsulation of this kaddish dichotomy by Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Chelst from his book Kaddish: The Unanswered Cry (p. 7), and with this I leave you:

The Kaddish is a prayer whose utterance reflects the saga of the Jewish nation as a whole as well as the depths of emotion of the lonely Jew of faith. How powerful is the image of the Jews of the Kovno Ghetto reciting in one voice the Kaddish for their beloved, the 10,000 innocent martyrs killed by the Nazis only days before. No less moving is the image of the young orphan arising in the midst of a crowded synagogue, striving to maintain a link with his parents and the past through the Kaddish.