The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 6

This morning, in the sleepy predawn, I walked to the synagogue carrying two blueberry pies in a plastic bag… instead of the bag containing my tallit (prayer shawl) and tefilin (phylacteries).

Damn. Damn. Damn.

* * *

Most of the time, my father’s sense of humor would annoy me, and I would let him know it. “That’s not funny,” I would say, and he would laugh, “Why not?” and continue laughing. It became a something of a joke between us (except it wasn’t a joke to me) – I would tell him that he wasn’t funny, and he would invariably laugh at my lack of appreciation for his tremendous wit.

My daughter tells me to “Stop joking!” several times a day. She’s only three-and-a-half years old, and I already annoy her.

“Why?” I ask, “You make jokes… Mama’chka makes jokes… why can’t I?”

“I only tell you to stop joking sometimes,” she answers. (Only when it gets to be too much for her to bear?)

* * *

For more years than I can recall, my father would chortle over Rabbi Eleazar ben Aazariah’s statement (from the Mishna, Brachot), which was later included in the Passover Haggadah:

I am now as one who is seventy years old…

…אני כבן שבעים שנה

My father would humorously frame his bewilderment at new or uncomfortable ideas with this Mishnaic phrase, implying that in all his years he had never known of such a thing as – X.

Last summer was the last time I saw my father in person (he had a plane ticket booked to visit us for Sukkot this year… less than two weeks away), and I recall him sitting at our table, reflecting upon his age. “I’m 69,” he remarked, “‘I am now as one who is seventy years old…'”

…אני כבן שבעים שנה

He was seventy when he passed away.

* * *

Both of my father’s parents were in their nineties or late eighties when they died. I’d always expected my father to live as long as they had.

Amazingly, my younger brother sensed that our father was not long for this world. He noted my father’s health problems (although none of them were considered to be immediately life threatening) and the sadness in my father’s eyes. He noted my father’s fatalistic daily behaviors and approach to life. In retrospect, these have taken on a different light for me. True, I had noted my father’s deterioration, but never had I thought he would die so young.

…אני כבן שבעים שנה

* * *

My father and I were at the hospice in Maryland together when my grandfather passed away. We knew he was expiring. That’s why we were there.

To be honest, I didn’t feel much of anything at my grandfather’s passing. He’d come into my life from the former Soviet Union when I was a preteen, and I could hardly imagine a more withdrawn character. From my perspective, our connection was only by blood. I knew that he liked to play chess and took pride at adding vast numbers together in his mind. I also knew that he had been (justifiably) terrified of the consequences when my father applied for an exit visa to emigrate to Israel in the mid-70’s. My father and grandfather hadn’t been in contact for some fifteen years after my father’s departure from the USSR.

On the car ride back to New Jersey, my father mused, “Now I am the oldest generation of Bogomolny.” Yes, I thought, that’s the way it works. My father didn’t say anything else to me then or afterwards about his father’s death. I’m not sure how much it affected him, partly because he wasn’t one to wax introspective about such things.

Those were kaddish’less generations.

* * *

I often find myself coming back to Leon Wieseltier’s words in his book Kaddish. He saved my sanity this week in shul during Rosh HaShanah (the Jewish New Year), and I hope he will serve me during the long morning prayers on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). Unlike me, Wieseltier did not read books during High Holy Day services, but I must. “Kaddish is not for the faint of heart” (p. 154). I’m trying.

After relating a Talmudic text about a rabbinic father-son pair (Rabbis Dostai and Aftoriki) who opine on the matter of whether the tormented souls of the deceased are given rest on Shabbat, Wieseltier writes (p. 113):

Was it the fate of Dostai’s soul that moved Aftoriki to speak? Perhaps the father’s death freed the son’s tongue, the son’s mind.

Your father dies and you are free. And what do you do with your freedom? You think, and write, and pray, about your father. Congratulations!

Even as a son, you must speak in your own name.

Your analysis of your tutelage loosens it. Understand authority and you have crippled it. This is how authority changes hands…

I may have stopped breathing when I read this the first time. When I read it for the second time, I’m certain I wasn’t breathing. Am I free? Am I speaking in my own name? Is my analysis sufficient? Do I have authority?

Kaddish, page 247:

… I never rose at the crack of dawn to see my father, but now I rise at the crack of dawn to say kaddish for him… Our fathers did not have the authority to ask this of us, but our religion does.

But it is I who am granting our religion authority.

This generation recites the kaddish.

* * *

A tangential reflection.

I am challenged and thankful that the recitation of the mourner’s kaddish for a parent lasts for eleven months. This aspect, the duration of mourner’s kaddish period, has provided me a framework for my mourning, and I am finding it easier to explore, articulate, and share these reflections today than I did a month ago. I am relieved and grateful to find the kaddish healing.

* * *

An unrelated reflection.

The Jewish fast day of Tisha b’Av fell about a week after my return from sitting shiva in New Jersey, when I was still wandering around in a haze, feeling like I wanted to cry on the shoulder of everybody I spoke with. It was in that context that I greeted a friend on my way to shul on Tisha b’Av, ready to tell her: My father died.

I had forgotten (although of course she hadn’t) that there is a religious prohibition against greeting others on Tisha b’Av (for it is considered the ultimate day of Jewish mourning)… so I wasn’t able to share my grief with her, although I was truly hurting.

Sometimes, words and traditions fail me.

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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