Saying Kaddish For a Not-Known Man

Jews are obligated to recite the kaddish, a prayer for the deceased, on the anniversary of the death and upon visiting the grave. This prayer is reserved for only a certain family relationship: husband-wife, father-mother, brother-sister, son-daughter… eight souls whom we lovingly remember. For these people, kaddish is obligatory.

And though we are not required to recite it for others (aunts-uncles-cousins-grandparents-dear friends, etc.) I make it a personal obligation to recite it at the graves of a beloved grandfather who died when I was nine years old and for his wife, the grandmother who died thirteen years before my birth.

My wife’s family, parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, uncle and aunts are all buried in the Nachlat Yitzchak cemetery in Givatayim, the earliest grave-stone from the early 1920’s.

One day while visiting her father’s grave from 1936, I happened upon a crumbling grave stone bearing my original family name.

It was the grave of my grandfather’s brother, my great-uncle, who died in the 1920’s. I had heard his name mentioned several times in my childhood but no one in our family had seen nor heard from him since he arrived in Palestine in 1910.

Later I learned from his son that they had settled in Jaffa until 1916 when they were driven into exile in Alexandria, Egypt by the Ottoman Turks, rulers of Palestine, during the first World War.

In 1918, with the arrival of the British General Allenby in Palestine, now freed from Ottoman rule, the exiled Jews were permitted to return and my family rented a small apartment in Tel-Aviv, the new and first all- Jewish city in the world.

Addresses had been lost, forgotten, destroyed and no member of the family knew where the others lived or if indeed they lived at all.

Until 1958. One day I heard a broadcast on the radio reading aloud names of people who were searching for lost family members who might have survived the Holocaust.

I wrote a letter to the P.O. Box given on the radio, listed our family name, my grandfather’s brother Yirmiyahu, and the village in Russia from which he had come to Palestine in 1910.

Three days later a man and his son arrived at the address I had given in Rishon Lezion. I was not at home but they left a name…our family name… and an address in Tel-Aviv.

Without waiting to eat my supper I ran to the nearest bus heading into Tel-Aviv and with a great deal of difficulty I located their street and number. I climbed three flights of stairs and knocked at the door.

The man who opened the door did not even bother to ask my name. He merely looked at me, embraced me, fell upon my neck and wet it with tears which fell from his eyes, not stopping from the many kisses he gave me. The same kind of kisses my grandfather had given me when I was a little boy.

He took me by the hand and brought me into his apartment where I was greeted by his wife. We sat at the table, I ate small bites of food from the plate she put before me, and the man, now known as my cousin Mordechai, went into the bedroom and came out carrying a shoe box filled with old photos.

In it, I saw photos of my ten-year old father, his father, mother, brother and sisters, when they lived in the village of Dereczyn, province of Grodno in Russia (now in Belarus).

We talked endlessly, sometimes in Hebrew and sometimes switching to Yiddish. He remembered my father and how he had visited him as a young child before leaving Russia in 1910.

The photo he showed me of his father Yirmiyahu could have been that of my beloved grandfather, his brother Moshe Tzvi, so close was the resemblance.

From that happy visit, our family was re-united after almost fifty years.

So when I am in Nachlat Yitzchak cemetery, I make it a point to climb over thick weeds, broken tree limbs, fallen gravestones and rocks to reach the grave of my newly-discovered great-uncle Yirmiyahu.

And there I recite the mourner’s kaddish for a not-known man. Not for an unknown man but for a man I had never known.

And I think that his brother, my beloved grandfather, would look down upon me from the highest heavens and would say to me, as he said to me as a child, “a gezunt auf dein keppele mein zisser kind”…. Good health and blessings upon you my sweet child.

And tears fell from my eyes.

About the Author
Esor Ben-Sorek is a retired professor of Hebrew, Biblical literature & history of Israel. Conversant in 8 languages: Hebrew, Yiddish, English, French, German, Spanish, Polish & Dutch. Very proud of being an Israeli citizen. A follower of Trumpeldor & Jabotinsky & Begin.
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