David Bogomolny
Just a Jew in the world.

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 29

No small number of the memories evoked for me by my father’s death are those of his most oft used expressions, but his voice is fading from my recollections. I am struggling to hear the sound of him; but his turns of phrase, textured with his rhythm and inflections, are looped and shuffled.

Nearly all of his go-to expressions were in Russian, with the exception of “אני כבן שבעים שנה” (blog #6). Translation reduces his idioms to their bare meanings, pulsing nothing like my heart’s memories. Still:

“Час смеха вырабатывает стакан морковного сока.”
An hour of laughter produces [the equivalent of] a glass of carrot juice.
i.e. laughter is healthy.
“Ну вот и все. Я разлагаюсь.”
Well, that’s it then. I am decomposing.
i.e. [said in jest:] this symptom is a sign of my old age.
“Если нельзя, но очень хочется, то можно.”
If one should not but very much wants to, one can (/it’s possible).
i.e. if you’re not supposed to, but you want to, go for it.
“Ну, мужик, ты влип.”
Well, Buddy (/Man), you’ve gotten stuck [in it].
i.e. I can’t save you from yourself.
“Это не стоит выеденного яйца.”
This isn’t worth an empty egg shell with the egg sucked out.
i.e. this is not worth a damn.
“Я простой человек (/еврей).”
I am a simple person (/Jew).
i.e. let’s not complicate things.

 

There are, of course, many others, but these are among those that spring out. In recent weeks, I’ve caught myself unintentionally channeling him, responding to my wife, saying, “I am a simple Jew.” Upon realizing that I’ve begun using this phrase on a regular basis it struck me:

This is something that Papa used to say.

* * *

I chanced upon a short, truly delightful book by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972): The Earth is the Lord’s. Actually, the book chanced upon me. It so happened that I was a bit late to my 6:45 AM Shabbat shacharit minyan several weeks ago, and my friend Dov noticed. He knows me well.

He knows that I like to sit at a table behind the prayer quorum on Saturday mornings with a book; he knows that I prefer not to disturb the women’s section during davening to peruse the bookshelves; he knows that I like Heschel. That week, my friend arrived to shul before me, and left several books waiting for me at “my” table. The Earth is the Lord’s was among them.

In his book, Heschel portrays the spirit and character of the Jews of Eastern Europe throughout the centuries. This passage got me thinking (pp. 37-38):

The earthiness of the villagers, the warmth of plain people, and the spiritual simplicity of the maggidim or lay preachers penetrated into the beth ha-midrashall were partners in the Torah. The maggidim… did not apply for diplomas to anyone. They felt authorized by God to be preachers of morals…

Ideals became folkways… the people itself became a source of Judaism, a source of spirit… Spontaneously, without external cause, the people improvised customs of celestial solemnity. The dictates of their own insight were heeded as commandments of highest authority.

This depiction of Jewish yore rendered me nostalgic and something else. It twinged of loss. Given the circumstances of my odyssey, I may have developed a heightened sensitivity to lack and absence this year, but Heschel’s portrayal did sting. Today’s traditionalist Judaism, for which tradition’s outward trappings are a primary goal (blog #10) unto themselves, is a top-down enterprise. The people no longer trusts its own insight.

Kaddish is, perhaps, the ultimate folk ritual. Rabbi Martin Lockshin highlighted this point in his chapter of Kaddish (p. 343):

The status that the Mourner’s Kaddish has attained in the last few centuries is strong proof of the enduring power of Jewish folk religion… It begins to be mentioned in codes of law only in the last five hundred years, although presumably it existed at the folk level for a number of centuries before that.

This is our ritual; we should own it. Make it meaningful; make it personal; make it matter. Where are today’s kaddish maggidim? Where is our creativity, our self-seeking? Where do we find ourselves in this process?

* * *

I have been searching for kindred kaddish spirits. Surely others must have written about their experiences, as they were living them, I thought, but the findings have been sparse:

In 2012, a gentleman named Chanan Kessler blogged about his kaddish odyssey for the duration of the entire year; and he blogged far more often than anybody else I’ve discovered. Other personal kaddish chronicles include: Tamar Fox (2008-09), Howard Labow (2012-13), Meirav Ong (2015), Amy Fechter (2017-18), Naomi L. Baum (2018 – Posts: 1, 2, 3), and Paula Stern (2019 – Posts: 1, 2, 3). (do you know of others?)

(I’ve also found a number of individual essays and poems, which I list below. They are quite moving, both individually and collectively; but such articles written in retrospect are themselves shaped by kaddish experiences, rather than vice-versa.)

None of these kaddish bloggers and few of the essayists are rabbis. Rather, we are the maggidim’s inheritors of spiritual simplicity. We are a source of Judaism, a source of spirit. We are simple and simply Jews.

I heed my insight. I am a simple Jew.

 

* * *

Is it so simple? May our insight and experience become sources of Jewish custom and spirit? Yes.

And no.

For centuries after our exile (6th century BCE), our sages – who codified the Talmud and the Mishnah – who led our communities and ran our academies – who deliberately undertook the historic project of Jewish self-preservation – these giants were the source of Judaism. Then, according to Heschel in The Earth is the Lord’s (pp. 40-41), the Jewish diaspora began to democratize:

It was not until the twelfth century that the [Jewish] Occident began to emancipate itself… No longer was it necessary to refer [halakhic] questions to Babylonia… Rashi democratized Jewish education, he brought the Bible, the Talmud, and the Midrash to the people… Learning ceased to be the monopoly of the few.

This was the context for Jewish self-empowerment: unfettered access to Jewish learning. “Poor Jews whose children knew only the taste of ‘potatoes on Sunday, potatoes on Monday, potatoes on Tuesday’ … possessed whole treasures of thought, a wealth of information, of ideas and sayings of many ages” (Heschel, p.43). Today, however, a different reality confronts us; I recall suddenly a scathing passage in Leon Wieseltier’s book Kaddish (p.44):

Knowledge is not only for oneself, it is also for others… whose occasions require the interventions of tradition. The great unlettered community of America… do they expect their children to save them? Their children who will inherit an ignorance of Jewish tradition unprecedented in Jewish history?

After shacharit this morning, my friend Aytan suggested to me that it’s not only a matter of Jews being unlettered, as Wieseltier writes. In our day, many are unaware that meaning can be found in Jewish letters – or that our letters exist at all.

But kaddish is full of – l e t t e r s.

Shall we answer them?

* * *

The Kaddish has become popular to the point of cliché in Jewish culture and religious practice. Whether in the original Aramaic and Hebrew or translated into English and other languages, most Jews are to some degree or another familiar with its text.

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen, Kaddish, p.235

In fact, the popularity of kaddish goes far beyond its influence upon the Jewish community. As noted in Wikipedia, it “has been a particularly common theme and reference point in the arts,” including the famous poem by beatnik Allen Ginsberg (1926-97), the name of Symphony No. 3 by Leonard Bernstein (1918-90), and even an episode of the science fiction television series The X-Files.

You almost certainly had heard of kaddish before clicking to read my blog posts.

I most certainly had heard of it and titled my series The Skeptic’s Kaddish accordingly, although I knew almost nothing about it when I began this trek.

The popularity of kaddish is significant because so much ink has been spilled over it throughout the years. Leon Wieseltier’s Kaddish is in English. Birnbaum’s and Cohen’s Kaddish is in English. Diamant’s Saying Kaddish is in English. Smart’s and Ashkenas’s Kaddish: Women’s Voices is in English. Goldman’s Living a Year of Kaddish is in English. Olitzky’s Grief in Our Seasons is in English. There are others.

Beyond these, Jewish texts for the curious have never been so accessible as they are today. The Torah, the Mishnah, the Talmud and more have all been translated into English. They are available online in English. Websites like like Chabad.org, TheTorah.com, and MyJewishLearning.com are in English. There are others.

We will never learn everything. Still, we must commit to learning.

* * *

Is it so simple? May our insight and experience become sources of Jewish custom and spirit? Yes.

And no.

We must learn to trust and listen to ourselves. This may be the most difficult aspect of our challenge, even among the lettered. The letter teachers often discourage us. Tradition, they say. This is the way we do things.

No, I say, my heart is a Jewish text also. Even if I rejected the rituals; even if I never went again to another synagogue; even if I refused to recite kaddish – this would still remain my tradition, and I could still make it meaningful through learning and thinking. Tradition belongs also to the nontraditional. The letters of kaddish are traditional; but the letters of this odyssey are my own.

I am a simple Jew, authorized by God as a maggid of kaddish.

God would love to authorize all of us.

* * *

Individual kaddish essays and poems: (do you know of any others?)

M. Elizur Agus, Rabbi Marjorie Berman, Gabrielle Birkner, Jane Eisner, Mati Engel, Judy Bolton-Fasman, Elissa Felder, Leonard Felson, Alter Yisrael Shimon Feuerman, David Groen, Laura Hodes, Rabbi Henry Jay Karp, Ilene Kupferman, Esther Kustanowitz, Rob Kutner, Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie, Rabbi Benjamin Lau, Jan Lee, Jay P. Lefkowitz, Jay Michaelson, Aurora Levin Morales, Rabbi Mark Novak, Avrum Rosensweig, Nigel Savage, Barbara Sofer, Rabbi Marc Soloway, Rivka Tibber, Rabbi Yehuda Weinberg, Edie Weinstein, Dr. Harlan Weisman.

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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