It’s easier for me to write about the past than the present, but I won’t attempt to evade this.

This story begins as follows:

Nearly 1½ years ago our family moved into our current apartment, and there were several issues to be dealt with, one of which was particularly unexpected.

For the first several weeks, I often felt a slight electric shock whenever I came near our kitchen appliances when in operation. At first, I thought that some of them were faulty, but the effect was always exactly the same whether it was the stove, the kettle, the toaster, etc… Something was clearly amiss, and it wasn’t one particular appliance. Eventually, an electrician arrived and swiftly identified the problem – the apartment’s wiring had been ungrounded.

Sadly, on an otherwise innocuous day, some weeks prior to the electrician’s visit, my wrist watch had brushed against the electric kettle while it was running, and the ensuing charge had warped the glass. That was the same watch I had found in Papa’s top desk drawer after his death and worn every day since his funeral a year earlier.

No less regrettably, my then 4½-year-old daughter, who was teaching herself to unclasp and reclasp my watch accidentally dropped the unfortunate memento onto the floor while she was fiddling with the band, and -of course- the warped glass cracked slightly.

Upset. I was really upset.

But, honestly, I had already been going back and forth over what to do with my watch back when it had been struck by electricity. On the one hand, it was Papa’s watch:

I wear my father’s cap; my father’s yarmulke; my father’s watch; his house shoes.

-Me, ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ #15, Nov. 11, 2018

On the other hand, the watch face was damaged… and blemishes irritate me. Despite the cost, I decided to purchase a new watch produced by the same watchmaker that Papa had selected. I picked one with a brown face that I liked in particular, from the same series.

The new watch arrived, and it was lovely. I admired it appreciatively and then put it back into its box… I didn’t like the idea of it getting scratched, which I well knew would happen once I started wearing it. Papa’s watch still remained on my wrist, but I somehow felt comforted knowing that my new undamaged timepiece was resting nearby on the bookshelf.

Over the weeks that followed, I found myself wearing Papa’s watch less often. Sometimes I would leave it on the table or on a bookshelf and forget about it… sometimes I’d remember removing it, but I wouldn’t be able to find it. Right now, his watch happens to be lying before me on the table as I sit here typing, but I haven’t been been wearing it today.

The thing about Papa’s watch is that it’s not just a random memento. Papa was very attached to wearing watches. Throughout my childhood, at all different ages, he would express bewilderment at my lack of desire to wear one, whenever I happened to not have a timepiece on my wrist. By the time cell phones became popular, I really didn’t see any reason to wear a watch, and even the watch my wife once bought for me as a birthday present eventually ended up in one of our bedroom drawers.

That’s why my wrist was bare when I found Papa’s watch in his desk drawer before his funeral – I hadn’t been wearing a watch for years… but Papa had never, ever been without his.

I wore Papa’s watch for more than a year before its glass was damaged, and I continued to wear it daily for nearly a year following its disfigurement… but I seem not to want to wear it as much anymore.

I also have the beautiful new watch that Papa would have liked, but I don’t really want to wear it either… I don’t want it to get damaged, and -more importantly- it isn’t Papa’s watch… so what would be the point exactly? Also, wearing a new watch would require me deciding what to do with Papa’s watch, and I don’t really want to think about that.

The truth is that it’s not only Papa’s watch. One of his hats that I took back with me to Israel was his summer cap, made of polyester. During the hot months, which are the majority of the year here, I always wear that cap outdoors; and during the colder months I always wear his winter cap. Some time ago, I noticed that Papa’s summer cap had become slightly discolored and was staining the wall that it was hanging upon. When I put the cap down atop a piece of paper, it would also get stained brown…

I know that Papa’s summer cap has had its day. Once winter really sets in, I’ll switch back to Papa’s winter cap, and I doubt that I’ll return to wearing his discolored polyester cap again. But- what should I do with it? I don’t want to think about that either.

There are other such examples, but I’m not into belaboring the point, and I know that these reflections are rather prosaic. How much can one write about mundane effects? Also, I know that I don’t need to wear Papa’s clothes in order to remember him. Certainly my mother and my brother remember Papa in other ways.

I’m struggling with the realization that I’ve been letting go of my need for mementos…

I still have an unopened half liter bottle of AKASHI White Oak Blended Japanese Whiskey, which I purchased on the way to Papa’s funeral. That summer night, at Ben Gurion International Airport, I spontaneously bought myself three bottles- The first we drank after the funeral; the second I brought to the synagogue to mark the anniversary of Papa’s death; the third one has been sitting untouched since July 9th, 2018.

Honestly, I have no idea what to do with it.

Now, I don’t drink much, but I greatly enjoy a good whiskey, and I almost always have some at home. Two or three weeks ago, I suddenly had a strong hankering for a drink, and the only bottle available was that half liter bottle of AKASHI.

I resisted opening the AKASHI that day, and just today I finally stopped by the liqueur store (at my wife’s behest) to stock us up for the coming winter months. Even as I’ve been writing this post, I’ve been sipping on some Glenfarclas, enjoying the heat running down into my belly…

Why haven’t I opened that bottle of Japanese whiskey yet?

What is it that I am waiting for?

or: Tired

A cheap whiskey for mixing
Rinses the mind out after
Rubbing all ten digits raw
Ev'ry finger tip pulsing
Against an inclined keyboard
Keys shadow'd by a darkness

But new channels have been hew'd
Flowing liquid won't settle
Above the eyes as it should
Won't submerge all kindly in
The night's consuming shadows 
Rounded keys too visible

Pours forth an endless flow forth
Pulse perhaps quickening now 
So ribs say but they're erring
In judgment for too distanced 
From the heart of the matter
A wetted throat knows better

Flow, flow, slow punching fingers
Rise rather than pouring forth 
Settling gently behind eyes
Pressing pressing down into 
Shadows floating around dark
Through a mind re-resisting 

Closing off channels although 
Seems that joints sinews fingers
Stiff slow and the words won't come
Swiftly as a pouring hand 
Topping off an empty glass
Beckoning so beckoning 

Tasteless like water cheap
As lapping from tap fingers
Slowly unclench 
Falling bottle cap or upward 
Clink shoulders weary 
is it... stopping?

Too long now to 
Think of words

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.

Absence makes

My friend Zvi’s recent, unexpected death shocked me, perhaps all the more so because of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. Counterintuitive, right? After all, death is all the rage in the news these days.

(Death, death, death… I’m actually sick of writing about it but can’t seem to get it out of my system.)

I derive a patently unfounded sense of security from seeing people on a regular basis. It’s as though my expectation that a friend will be at shul again next Saturday morning will somehow guarantee that incident.

These last two months, during the COVID-19 crisis, have left me waiting to return to my regular Shabbat morning minyan; waiting to see my friends there; waiting to socialize around the kiddush after services. My days and weeks have been blurring together, and I’ve been waiting for and holding on to my hope for a return to normalcy. It’s thus I maintain my sanity.

Whereas my irrational expectations once spanned only single weeks, they’ve now come to span an unknowable number of months. I can’t know when things will return to what they once were, but subconsciously I have been assuring myself that friends and family will be back where they once were when this blows over.

* * *

My father’s second yahrzeit (the 24th of Tammuz) will arrive in another two months, on Thursday, July 16. I am planning to lead services in shul that day so that I can lead the recitation of the orphan’s kaddish. Should a 2nd wave of Coronavirus crash over us, I may not have this opportunity.

Some months ago I signed up to sponsor the kiddush after my 6:45 AM Shabbat minyan in honor of Papa. That Sabbath falls on July 11th.

However, due to the ongoing crisis, our weekly kiddush has been cancelled for the past two months, even as prayer services resumed last weekend. At the onset of the crisis, I didn’t much mind attending services with no kiddush; partially because I hadn’t been expecting such a protracted lockdown, partially because I don’t attend minyan only for the kiddush, and partially because I wasn’t forgoing my personal kiddush.

O Self-absorption Self-absorption, wherefore art thou Self-absorption?

 * * *

Kiddush or no kiddush, I choose to not avoid thinking of Papa. Every memento pains me to look at, but I keep them. The only remaining bottle of whiskey I purchased before flying off for Papa’s funeral remains unopened. I wear his yarmulke every Shabbat and every other holiday. His this is here; his that is there; Papa’s effects are everywhere.

But I still want my kiddush.

Yes, my.

Let’s remain honest. I want my kiddush.

I want my one day of the year when it’s socially appropriate to talk publicly about my pain. I want at least a small group of people that I am fond of to note and appreciate that I am honoring my Papa. I want my day of socially acceptable mourning. I want the appropriate setting to mourn in.

Papa is dead, and he’s not coming back. I don’t feel his presence, and I don’t believe that he’s watching me from the sky. He’s gone. He won’t reappear when I host a kiddush, and he won’t be present when I recite the kaddish. He wouldn’t have been there in life, and he won’t be there in death, but I will be there.

I have been looking forward to seeing David the mourner at shul again since Papa’s first yahrzeit (blog #50). How will he look that day? What will he be able to share with me? For nearly a year, I’ve been living with the patently unfounded sense of security that I will see him again, but what if my plans get derailed? What if this hateful, pointless crisis denies me? What if David doesn’t make it?

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.

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 45

My grief is terribly indescribable and indescribably terrible. Writing about it twists my stomach into knots, clauses searing through my abdomen, as I tear into it with jagged words, gashing at sticky, fleshy gobs of disbelief that spill out in thick rivulets of revulsion.

That’s as far as I got with blog post #45 before Tuesday, May 28. I couldn’t force out any further words before the final kaddish.

I knew it was coming, but I couldn’t accept it.

It’s ridiculous, really.

* * *

In December, when I’d first learned (blog #20) of Rabbi Benny Lau’s (b. 1961) ‘prayer for the last Kaddish’, I’d been judgmental of the two women I’d heard reciting it. Wouldn’t it have been more meaningful for them to write ‘final prayers’ of their own? I thought. I will write my own prayer; I will use my own words.

Judgmentalism has always come easily to me.

Months later, as May 28 made its steady approach, I couldn’t find any inspiration. Worse, I was rebelling against the very premise of this prayer. I don’t care that eleven months of kaddish recitations have gone by. My ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ blog is my true kaddish for Papa;  I’ll continue with it until his yahrzeit. I don’t care about shul; I’m only going through the motions anyway.

I lie to myself sometimes. The truth is- I do care.

On May 26, two days before the final kaddish, I stopped by the bakery where Papa used to purchase bourekas on his visits to us during the summer months. How early do you open? I wanted to know. Fresh bourekas are available by 6:00, I was told. Good, that’s before the first kaddish of shacharit.

On May 27, one day before the final kaddish, I took a deep breath. I can’t write a personal prayer -I can’t even admit how much I care about this- but tomorrow is the final day of kaddish. This is the end. Will I really let it pass without notice? Damn, damn, damn it. Ugh! Truth is: I’m no different than any other mourner, overwhelmed and wordless. Maybe I should use Rav Benny’s prayer as those two women did… I suppose his words would feel no less foreign to me than the kaddish once did… 

Traditional Jewish prayer is formulaic. It serves when we don’t know what to say, when articulation is too overwhelming, when we feel empty of self-expression, when we simply need a dependable tool for connection…

– Me, blog #9

And so.
I pulled up Rav Benny’s prayer in my browser.
Despite and because of myself.

* * *

But… Rav Benny is an Orthodox rabbi. His prayer, creatively innovative though it is, is a believer’s prayer. Its words not only flow along with the rhythms of Jewish tradition; they flow forth from it.

Skeptic that I am, I don’t accept some of Rav Benny’s premises:

אָבִינוּ שֶׁבַּשָּׁמַיִם… הִשְׁתַּדַּלְתִּי לְכַבֵּד אֶת אָבִי בַּשָּׁנָה הַזֹּאת… עָשִׂיתִי כְּכָל אֲשֶׁר צִוִּיתָנוּ… לָעֵת הַזֹּאת… אֶשָּׂא תְּחִנָּה לִפְנֵי כִסֵּא כְבוֹדֶךָ שֶׁיַּעֲלוּ כָּל תְּפִלּוֹתַי לְפָנֶיךָ לְרָצוֹן וְתֵיטִיב לְאָבִי, הֲרֵינִי כַּפָּרַת מִשְׁכָּבוֹ Our Father in Heaven… I strove to honor my father this year… I have done as you commanded us… At this time… I shall raise a plea before Your throne of glory, that all my prayers shall go up before You and be acceptable to You, and You shall do good for my father, for I am the atonement for his resting-place…

Where to begin?

Firstly, I couldn’t bring myself to write a personal prayer for my final kaddish precisely because I am still in my year of mourning for Papa. Rav Benny’s prayer refers to ‘this year’ in the past tense, as if his year of mourning ended upon his recitation of this personal plea, which took place after only 11 months (following his final kaddish for his own father).

Further: as far as I am concerned, my Jewish mourning experience lasts for the duration of 13 months from the date of my father’s death until his yahrzeit (this anomaly is the result of the Hebrew leap year, which has pushed the anniversary of Papa’s death back by a full month on the Hebrew calendar – blog #32).

Secondly, I don’t believe that God ‘commanded us’ to recite Kaddish for our loved ones. As of today, I remain entirely unconvinced of God’s involvement in our lives, let alone what He may or may not have commanded us to do.

Further: as we’ve learned on this kaddish journey, the recitation of the mourner’s kaddish is a tradition (not included on any list of 613 mitzvot), which was developed by human beings and incorporated into communal Jewish prayer during the medieval era.

Lastly, while I have been at prayer and praying every single day since my father was buried on July 9th, I reject the notion that I need ‘plea’ for my prayers to ‘be acceptable’ for Papa’s redemption. The God I may just be capable of believing in is just and merciful – He knows full well whether my prayers have been sincere and deserving or not.

Further: my father does not need anybody else to be an ‘atonement’ for him. He was among the most decent, most kindhearted, and most modest human beings that I ever met.
(This is not to say that he was perfect)
Further: I am certain that everyone who knew him well would agree with this.
Further: this is true regardless of religious doctrine, regardless of my father’s religiosity, and regardless of my religious proclivity.


* * *

With humility and deep appreciation, I rewrote Rav Benny Lau’s prayer to reflect my beliefs and sentiments (the skeptic’s version of the believer’s prayer):

אבינו שבשמים Our Heavenly Father,
על פי דרישות המסורת according to the expectations of the Tradition,
זכיתי להשלים אמירת קדיש לעילוי נשמת אבי מורי I have merited to complete the recitation of kaddish for the rising up of the soul of my father and teacher,
מאז עלייתו לגִּנְזֵי מרומים ועד עתה from the time of his rising to the troves of the highest heavens until now.
השתדלתי לכבד את אבי במשך תקופה זו בכל נפשי ובכל מאודי I have striven to honor my father during this period with all my soul and all my might,
אך מבחינתי although from my perspective,
התהליך הזה לא יושלם עד היארצייט שלו this process will not be completed until his yahrzeit,
אשר יהיה בעוד חודשיים which will be in another two months.
ועתה עומד אני לפניך קצת נִרְגָּשׁ And now I stand before You, slightly anxious,
אבל גם בביטחון ואומר but also with confidence, and say:
עשיתי מה שנדרש על פי המסורת I have done that which is expected according to the Tradition.
כעת הזאת, בעומדי לפניך בזמן שחרית At this time, as I stand before You during the morning prayer,
אני מאמין שכל כוונותי ממשיכות לעלות לפניך לרצון I believe that all of my intentions continue to rise up before You and are acceptable to You,
ואני מאמין שתיטיב לאבי and I believe that You will do Good by my father,
שהרי היה הוא אדם טוב לב, הָגוּן וצנוע for he was a kindhearted, decent, and modest man,
ותעניק לו את מקומו בעולם שכולו טוב and You will grant him his place in the world that is all good,
בקרב כל הברואים שהאירו את פניך בעולמך among all the creatures who illuminated Your face in Your world
לָכֵן בַּעַל הָרַחֲמִים Therefore, may the All-Merciful One
יַסְתִּירֵהוּ בְּסֵתֶר כְּנָפָיו לְעוֹלָמִים Shelter him with the cover of His wings forever,
וְיִצְרֹר בִּצְרוֹר הַחַיִּים אֶת נִשְׁמָת אלכסנדר בן משה And bind the soul of Alexander ben Mosheh in the bond of life.
ה’ הוּא נַחֲלָתוֹ God is his heritage;
וְיָנוּחַ בְּשָׁלוֹם עַל מִשְׁכָּבוֹ, וְנֹאמַר אָמֵן May he rest in his resting-place in peace; and let us say: Amen.

I spent some time editing the text; once I felt satisfied with it, my friend Sagi (a native Israeli) was kind enough to review my Skeptic’s Prayer and ravel out my Hebrew. I read through it yet again at my desk, closed my eyes, and shuddered.

* * *

On May 28, the day of the final kaddish, my alarm rang at 5:30 in the morning. I got myself out of bed, mechanically went through my morning routine, and put one bottle of orange juice and one bottle of Monkey Shoulder Scotch whiskey into a sturdy, reusable shopping bag, along with my ‘Skeptic’s Prayer for the Last Kaddish’ in a firm, plastic sleeve.

I walked to shul and left the bag near the entrance; then crossed the street over to the bakery. At the back, I ordered two large, heaping boxes of sundry bourekas, and made my way over to the cashier, who happened to be the owner. So you came for the bourekas. He smiled. Today is my final kaddish for my father. I nodded. Of course I came. The man’s eyes lowered and rose to meet mine again. May his memory be for a blessing. Here, have a discount.

I recited each kaddish that morning as if I were parting with every syllable forever, but my voice held steady. At the end of services, the gabbai announced: David Bogomolny would like to invite all of us to partake of refreshments in honor of his father, and he will now recite a prayer to mark the end of his eleven months of kaddish.

After a brief introduction and sincere note of appreciation for my fellow petitioners, I read my Skeptic’s Prayer aloud so that all could hear me. My voice shook, but I managed to read it in its entirety. ‘May he rest in his resting-place in peace; and let us say: Amen.’


Afterwards, standing at the refreshments table and surrounded by kind, familiar faces, I heard everybody making blessings in honor of my father. My legs felt unsteady, my breath uneven; my heart pounding as I let my breath out. Man… I could sure use some whiskey.

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 37

Traditional Jewish prayer is fast-paced, and there’s too much of it. Not only do I fail to derive meaning from reeling off prayer after prayer after prayer as quickly as possible in an effort to keep up, but doing so in fact detracts from my ability to find meaning in those prayers I do recite.

If I’m not the one leading services, I don’t attempt to run through all the prayers along with the congregation. I do the basics: the Shema, the Amidah, and (obviously) the Kaddish. Beyond these, I recite whatever moves me, or else I stay silent.

There are some prayers I can’t bring myself to utter at all, including joyful ones like the celebratory Hallel at the start of every new Hebrew month and the upbeat Kabbalat Shabbat service at the cusp of the Sabbath. Their familiar tunes continue to draw me. I fondly remember myself singing and swaying to these prayers in years gone by; but festiveness seems not to become me.

Two weeks ago, I was surprised to find myself singing the Kabbalat Shabbat tunes for the first time in many months. Maybe it was the whiskey, I thought – I’d been sipping Jameson in the kitchen that Friday afternoon while cooking for Shabbat.

Then, the following week, it so happened that the holiday of Purim fell on Friday in Jerusalem (Shushan Purim); and tradition encourages us to drink alcohol on this day. Why not? I thought. It worked last week.

I came to shul on Friday afternoon, led mincha before Shabbat, and returned to my seat for the Kabbalat Shabbat service. Unexpectedly, I spent the entire service crying, wiping my eyes with the back of my sleeve to avoid attention. So much for alcohol.

* * *

Consolation is elusive.

My writing makes the strictures of Jewish religious tradition more palatable to me, but only just. Producing more; investing more; pushing the limits of my creativity, intellect, and soul – is numbing the pain, but my experience increasingly reflects the ‘Law of Diminishing Returns’. Wikipedia:

The law of diminishing returns states that in all productive processes, adding more of one factor of production, while holding all others constant… will at some point yield lower incremental per-unit returns.

I pour more of myself into my writing, but the process has been yielding lower incremental relief per-post. In my darker moments, the hours I’ve spent on this project feel like a ‘Sunk Cost’, but I recognize the voices of my grief and self-doubt in such ruminations.

In truth, my writing continues giving me strength enough to sustain my traditional mourning practices:

1) I feel myself more than a mere cog in the apparatus of Jewish tradition by providing this public platform for my grappling and incredulity. 2) Rote prayers and rituals are imbued with some greater degree of meaning through my personal reflections. 3) It comforts me to feel that I am honoring my father to the best of my ability. 4) Papa deserved (deserves?) no less than this from me. 5) My daughter deserves no less than this from me. 6) Our tradition owes no less than this to us.

* * *

This week, I am exploring the stanza of Psalm 119 that represents the final Hebrew letter of Papa’s name: Alexander (אלכסנדר).

Originally, this was the extent of what I had intended to study; but I realize now that the tradition goes a bit further. Formally, he was Alexander son of Mosheh (אלכסנדר בן משה), amounting to four additional stanzas (ב, מ, ש, ה). It is also accepted practice to recite the stanzas corresponding to neshama (נשמה) – ‘soul’ at the gravesite, but thankfully these four letters are already included in ben Mosheh (בן משה).

















PSALM 119:ר (verses 153-160)

[CLICK for glossary]

Semi-stanza ר-A

קנג רְאֵה-עָנְיִי וְחַלְּצֵנִי: כִּי-תוֹרָתְךָ, לֹא שָׁכָחְתִּי 153 O see mine affliction, and rescue me; for I do not forget Thy Torah.
קנד רִיבָה רִיבִי, וּגְאָלֵנִי; לְאִמְרָתְךָ חַיֵּנִי 154 Argue my argument, and redeem me; vitalize me for the sake of Thy imrah.
קנה רָחוֹק מֵרְשָׁעִים יְשׁוּעָה: כִּי חֻקֶּיךָ, לֹא דָרָשׁוּ 155 Salvation is far from the wicked; for they seek not Thy hukim
קנו רַחֲמֶיךָ רַבִּים יְהוָה; כְּמִשְׁפָּטֶיךָ חַיֵּנִי 156 Great are Thy compassions, O Lord; vitalize me according to your mishpatim.

Semi-stanza ר-B

קנז רַבִּים, רֹדְפַי וְצָרָי; מֵעֵדְוֺתֶיךָ, לֹא נָטִיתִי 157 Many are my pursuers and my adversaries; yet have I not turned aside from Thy eidot.
קנח רָאִיתִי בֹגְדִים, וָאֶתְקוֹטָטָה— אֲשֶׁר אִמְרָתְךָ, לֹא שָׁמָרוּ 158 I saw them that were traitors, and quarreled with them; because they observed not Thy imrah.
קנט רְאֵה, כִּי-פִקּוּדֶיךָ אָהָבְתִּי; יְהוָה, כְּחַסְדְּךָ חַיֵּנִי 159 O see how I love Thy pikudim; vitalize me, O Lord, according to Thy kindness.
קס רֹאשׁ-דְּבָרְךָ אֱמֶת; וּלְעוֹלָם, כָּל-מִשְׁפַּט צִדְקֶךָ 160 Thy first utterance is truth; and all Thy righteous mishpat is for ever.

Several elements of this stanza pique my interest, but I’m unsure of how they connect to one another. If I grind them up together, will I get a sausage?

* * *

Much like the previous stanzas that I’ve read through, Radak’s (1160-1235) glossary of keywords for Psalm 119 is immediately helpful in identifying patterns among the verses in stanza ר. Every verse includes one of the keywords, but only two of the keywords are repeated: mishpat (מִשְׁפַּט) in verses 156 & 160 and imrah (אִמְרָה) in verses 154 & 158. This double repetition suggests two semi-stanzas of four verses, as in previous stanzas. The second verse of each semi-stanza contains mishpat and the fourth verse of each semi-stanza contains imrah.

Two other words are repeated more than once, both of which occur three times in this stanza. ‘See’ (רְאֵה) is found in verses 153, 158, & 159; and ‘vitalize me’ (חַיֵּנִי) is in verses 154, 156, & 159.

Twice (153 & 159), the Psalmist asks God to ‘see’ something (verses 153, 159), by which he expresses his hope that God shall take active note of the Psalmist’s affliction and devotion. This sheds light upon the language of ‘I saw them that were traitors’ in verse 158. In my reading, the Psalmist didn’t simply ‘see’ the traitors in passing – more likely, he was actively looking for them. Ibn Ezra (1089–1167) himself sees the parallel between verses 158 & 159:

ראה – כנגד ראיתי; וחיני – כנגד ואתקוטטה ‘See’ (159) – opposite ‘I saw’ (158); and ‘vitalize me’ (159) – opposite ‘I quarreled’ (158).

Now, if I were to write my own glossary for Psalm 119, the word ‘vitalize me’ (חַיֵּנִי) would be among the first entries. This term has been included in nearly every stanza I’ve explored, but never more than once, let alone three times, as in our current stanza. Also, unlike ‘see’ (ראה), which begins with a ‘ר’ and finds its natural habitat in stanza ר, ‘vitalize me’ begins with a ‘ח’, suggesting that the Psalmist emphasized it here deliberately. In their commentaries on verse 154, Radak and Rabbi Altschuler (1687-1769) write:

הרב אלטשולר: לאמרתך. חַיֵּנִי לקיים אמרתך, ולא בעבור הנאות עולם הזה Rabbi Altschuler: ‘For the sake of your imrah’. Vitalize me to fulfill your imrah, and not for the pleasures of this world.
רד״ק: ריבהלאמרתך חיני. בעבור אמרתך, כלומר לשמור אמרתך אבקש החיים, לא לתענוג העולם Radak: ‘Argue… for the sake of your imrah vitalize me’. For your imrah, that is to say – to guard your imrah I ask for life, not for the pleasure of the world.

The Psalmist, you see, is only in it for God’s imrah.

Recall that imrah is found twice in this stanza – in verses 154 & 158, and in each of these instances, there is reference to some form of argument. However, the Psalmist is being remarkably subtle here.

Of these two verses, the easier one to parse is 158. The Psalmist writes that he quarreled with those who were traitors to God’s imrah, using the verb לְהִתְקוֹטֵט, which can also mean ‘to tussle’ or ‘to come to blows’. This is straightforward.

Verse 154 requires a more careful read. My translation of ‘רִיבָה רִיבִי’ as ‘argue my argument’ is most precise, but this is not how mainstream translations elect to “tussle” with this phrase; they air, rather, on the side of the literary. ‘Champion my cause’ and ‘Plead my cause’ both capture the Psalmist’s intent, but distract from the definitions of ‘רִיב’: quarrel, feud, dispute, contention, etc…

It bears noting that the rabbis incorporated the language of verses 153-154 into the eighth benediction of the weekday Amidah prayer, which is recited three times daily:

רְאֵה בְעָנְיֵנוּ. וְרִיבָה רִיבֵנוּ. וּגְאָלֵנוּ מְהֵרָה לְמַעַן שְׁמֶךָ. כִּי גּואֵל חָזָק אָתָּה. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’, גּואֵל יִשרָאֵל See our affliction, “plead our cause”, and redeem us soon for your name’s sake, for You are a powerful Redeemer. Blessed are You, Lord, the Redeemer of Israel.

Essentially, the stanza is drawing a distinction between two forms of argument. In the first scenario, I ask that someone make the case for my cause. In the latter, I am nearly at fisticuffs in defense of my principles. Perhaps the Psalmist is suggesting that one must seek out another’s advocacy, lest the best of the second person’s intentions be misapprehended and lead to unwanted conflict.

A terribly unfortunate and mutually crushing quarrel with my father was among several factors that precipitated my religious crisis some three years before Papa’s death. In the following years, we both moved beyond that dispute, but the memory of it hurts me to this day. I’m sorry for hurting you, Papa.

* * *

One final thought:

Let’s take a look at the concluding verse of the stanza. Verse 160 is among several, which are recited before the shofar is blown on Rosh HaShanah; and its first three words were also included in the liturgical poem Anim Zemirot, sung on Shabbat.

It is not entirely clear from the text itself what exactly is meant by ‘רֹאשׁ-דְּבָרְךָ אֱמֶת’. Rashi’s (1040-1105) translation is ‘The beginning of Your word is true’, which I think is most accurate. Rashi’s analysis lends support to Radak and Ibn Ezra who conclude that this is a reference to the first of the Ten Commandments: that God is the Lord our God (note: the “Ten Commandments” in Hebrew are known as the “Ten Utterances”). Ibn Ezra puts it most simply:

ראש – תחלת דבור שצויתני הוא האמת. ורבי ישועה אמר: רמז לדבור אנכי בהר סיני First / beginning – The beginning of the Utterance that you commanded me is the Truth. And Rabbi Yeshua said: This hints at the Utterance ‘I am [the Lord thy God]’ at Mount Sinai.

In my mind, as a son in mourning and as the father of a little girl, I think: how far beyond powerful are the earliest words we speak to our children.