The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 22

If I’m being honest, it’s easier to read and write about kaddish than it is to bethink myself of memories, even privately.

– Me (Blog #13)

At first, I thought I would study the kaddish in my father’s memory to suffuse the rote with meaning, perhaps to even make it interesting.

Quickly, I came to realize that my approach would not be that of Leon Wieseltier in his dense Kaddish volume, wherein he published the notes from his yearlong deep dive into the halakhic and aggadic texts on kaddish, death and mourning. His was truly a feat for the generations, unearthing countless layers of seemingly impenetrable bedrock, but for me these same traditional texts beckon foremost as springboards, anchoring me in the Jewish fundament, yes, but also inviting my meandering responses.

I find that the texts are endless, but my ends somehow defy them. At times I am utterly unmoored and teetering, with no text but that of my stifled, pounding heartbeats, as I flail wildly for ancient wisdom.

That’s how it is now.

* * *

My feelings are my primary sources, perhaps to the detriment of my intellectual development. What did I learn today… What did I learn today… What…

What did I feel today?

– Me (Blog #4)

This is what I wrote back in early September, but I’ve continued to lean heavily on Jewish texts to buttress me. Can I write without citation?

* * *

I’ve been reflecting upon the kinship I feel with many of the women who contributed personal essays to the book Kaddish: Women’s Voices. Three facets of their shared experiences speak to me in particular, the third of which I will explore below:

  1. Most obviously, the contributors to this volume are sharing the intimate details of their kaddish odysseys, as I am attempting to do. This I expected.
  2. For most of the authors, the decision to recite kaddish was not a foregone conclusion. Few women in traditional Jewish circles attend shul on a daily basis, and not all communities are supportive of or friendly towards women who want to take this religious obligation upon themselves. Whether to recite kaddish at all, how often to recite kaddish, whom to recite kaddish with, and many other related deliberations speak to my experience – even though I am a man. Such reflections have been weaving their ways through my own writings.
  3. Many of the women (I counted 14) related their kaddish journeys in some way to their children. This theme was absent from Wieseltier’s Kaddish, for he didn’t have any children of his own during his year of mourning.

* * *

My 3-and-a-half year-old daughter… insists upon coming with me to shul every week…

Last week I and a few others noticed that my child was reciting the mourner’s kaddish along with me, as I stood beside her.

– Me (Blog #5)

My daughter is no longer 3-and-a-half years old. In early February, she’ll be turning four, and she’s been growing up so, so quickly. (Those of you who are parents can appreciate this.)

Unfortunately, due to daylight savings time, my child hasn’t come to shul with me since late October – she wakes up groggily from her afternoon naps just as I am running out the door for mincha on Fridays and Saturdays and cannot get ready in time to join me. Still, she often reminds me that she’ll be returning as soon as the spring rolls around. I’ve been missing our shul time together, but I must also admit that it has been liberating to have these prayer times entirely to myself.

Perhaps because I’ve recently been feeling alone on my kaddish journey and aware that my daughter is no longer an active participant, I’ve taken to deliberately mentioning my father to her in conversation. For Chanukah, I bought her a nice children’s camera, reminding her that Dedushka Shurik was an avid photographer, and I have also introduced her to peanut butter spread on apple slices, which my father would often snack on enthusiastically (he always ate the entire apple).

* * *

Alexander Bogomolny, the man who knew to cherish and praise the beauty (of math, of nature, of people of different ages, of family ties and relationships) and made us all appreciate it more. You are deeply deeply missed…

While there are many, many words and long texts that have already been written; and many more could be and should be written in your memory, I miss one very significant aspect of yours: what a great, special, kind, and devoted GRANDFATHER you were and you will always be in my mind. The special connection, love, appreciation, and joy that you brought to each other from the very first months of our daughter’s life and since then are not forgotten and will never be… We love you, we miss you, and we always will.

– My wife, two days following the funeral (lightly edited)

A couple of days after the funeral, my wife wrote this from our home in Israel. I read it before going to bed that night in America, and I read it again after awaking. It was then, sitting alone in the stillness of my parents’ kitchen that I sobbed for the first time. I arrived at shul with my eyes tearing, avoiding the other petitioners’ gazes as I recited kaddish.

My father cherished his granddaughter. He nannied her for two months full-time by himself when she was only several months old, and he returned for each of the following two summers to care for her during the Augusts when her daycare was closed. This year, he had deliberately been planning to visit us during Sukkot to spend time with her while she was on holiday.

I have no memories of my years as a baby or toddler, and I don’t recall what my father was like with my younger brother, but he seemed to me a transformed person when he was with my daughter. He adored her utterly, and gave of himself completely and unconditionally. I have never known and cannot imagine a gentler, more caring grandfather. My baby’s loss of such a precious dedushka remains the hardest loss for me to accept.

When he died, we told her that he had been sick and then moved to a faraway place where he would no longer be ill, but he could no longer come to visit us. Upon leaving Israel for the funeral and shiva, I told her that I was going to America to help Dedushka Shurik move. Even today, I continue to struggle with how to talk about this with my not-yet-four-year-old daughter and attempt to nurture her memories of him. 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?

Before I returned to Israel, my mother took the last bills from my father’s wallet and purchased four sets of Play-Doh for my daughter as a final gift from Dedushka Shurik. We’ve given her two of them thus far and will give her the other two on coming special occasions.

Can one send presents to his loved ones from “a faraway place,” I wonder?

About the Author
David Bogomolny was born in Jerusalem to parents who made Aliyah from the USSR in the mid-70's. He grew up in America, and returned to Israel as an adult. David has worked as a Russian-speaking Jewish educator for the JAFI, the JDC the Brandeis-Genesis Institute for Russian Jewry, Moishe House, and Olameinu. He now works for Hiddush - Freedom of Religion in Israel. He and his wife and daughter live in Jerusalem.
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