The Mourning Son
10/02/1998
Jewish Week Book Critic
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"For many years I had lived without religion. But I could not have lived without the possibility of religion,” Leon Wieseltier writes in “Kaddish.”

It had been more than 20 years since Leon Wieseltier had left a life of Jewish observance, when, in March 1996, his father died. For the next 11 months, the literary editor of The New Republic attended synagogue to say Kaddish three times a day, whether he was traveling or at home in Washington, D.C. Puzzled by the origins and meaning of the prayer as well as his own connection to it, he turned to books and engaged in his own course of study, keeping a journal.

“Kaddish,” published by Knopf and Wieseltier’s first major book, is the result of those efforts, and it is a book truly like no other. It is a work of Jewish learning, memory, holiness; reading between and behind the lines of the centuries-old prayer. Wieseltier is a splendid writer, describing the themes he wrestles with in prose that is luminous and lyrical, permeated with intelligence.

The book’s format is as unusual as its style. In 16 chapters, he explains the teachings of ancient, medieval and modern commentators, having studied their texts in Hebrew and Aramaic. He cites figures known and obscure, including Nahmanides of 13th century Spain, Rabbi Judah Loew of 16th century Prague, and Rabbi Ephraim Oshry of Beis Hamedrash Hagadol on the Lower East Side, who served as spiritual leader in the Kovno Ghetto. Interspersed with his translations and interpretations are descriptions of his shul experiences and his new band of friends along with visions outside of shul, such as the golden, early morning light in Georgetown. And, in short paragraphs of a sentence or two, he includes related musings, which read like finely crafted aphorisms.

Every morning after services, Wieseltier would adjourn to a nearby teahouse to study. Although his work is solitary, it is easy to picture the author seated at a long table in a book-lined room with the rabbis and thinkers whose work he is reading, engaged in a conversation across centuries. It is that dialogue that is the essence of Jewish learning, and Wieseltier is an informed and thoughtful participant. One morning he writes that “Washington is less real to me than Worms,” the home of Eleazar ben Judah, the late 12th century pietist and jurist whose writing he is pondering.

He finds the origins of the Kaddish in a legend about Rabbi Akiva — a story he finds variations of all over the world and over time, from 12th century France to 20th century Israel. It seems that Rabbi Akiva encountered a woodcutter, back from the dead, condemned to gathering wood for the fires of Hell. The man is being punished for being an unscrupulous tax collector in life. The only redemption would be if his son were to recite praises of God and have a congregation say Amen. Rabbi Akiva then finds the man’s son and teaches him Hebrew so that he is able to free his father’s soul.

Wieseltier comes to understand that the Kaddish is not said for the living, but for the dead, that a son’s Kaddish redeems the father. It is a sign of the father’s merit, that he fulfilled his duty in educating his son. “The son does not request that his father be granted a good fate. The son demonstrates why his father deserves to be granted a good fate. The son is not the advocate. The son is the evidence.” Although he speaks in terms of fathers and sons, as the texts do, he is clear that this is about parents and children, male and female.

Do most people saying the Kaddish understand what they are saying? Wieseltier thinks not, as he tells The Jewish Week in an interview. “I think that most of the time Kaddish is emotionally full and intellectually empty. As I discovered, the Kaddish radiates in so many philosophical and historical and spiritual directions; it’s like a small key that opens a big door.”

Writing the book, he says “was a way of maintaining my sanity and keeping the obligation interesting. Nothing I was given to read about Kaddish and the laws of mourning seemed sufficient to my purposes.” His audience? “Jews and mortals.” When asked if he thought the book would bring comfort to readers, the Brooklyn-born writer is uncertain. “There are many kinds of people, many kinds of comfort. If it brings comfort, I’ll be glad. If it brings only intellectual stimulation, that will be enough. It’s hard to think clearly when one is grieving, but grief is an excellent occasion for thought.”

Wieseltier, born in 1952, writes of going back to his father’s shul in Brooklyn the first Rosh HaShanah after his death and being given his father’s seat and his honor of opening the ark before the awesome Unetanah Tokef prayer. “I lean into the ark, into the white light that is pouring from it. A single tear hangs in my eye and it will not fall. I see everything through this tear. The tear is trapping the light, it is becoming a medium of radiance. I am bereft inside a diamond, a grief-gem. From the corner of my penetrated eye I can see my mother’s face buried in the prayer book. She is weeping. I am trembling.” He then cries uncontrollably for his father and for the finality of being, closing the ark when the prayer is finished. “The light passes. His honor is now my honor. My deepest wound has been opened.”

The book begins at his father’s burial and ends the following year, again at the cemetery, for the unveiling of his tombstone, which, at his father’s request, also includes the names of family members killed in the Holocaust, for whom there are no graves. For Wieseltier, the final week of his mourning period is bittersweet; he looks back and says, “This was the year of my life, the only year of my life, about which I can say with certainty that there was never a day without an untrivial moment.”

Educated at Columbia, Oxford and Harvard, Wieseltier, who has been at The New Republic since 1982, occupies an unusual place in American-Jewish letters. He moves in many worlds and is perhaps the only Yeshivah of Flatbush graduate to be profiled in Vanity Fair, a long-hair who could keep up with the davening in any shul or the intellectual discourse at any university, an essayist who might write about contemporary philosophy or nuclear arms policy or music or medieval texts.

Readers looking for clues to Wieseltier’s mysteries will find little about his life, or his relationship to his father, or his father’s life, save for a few references to his parents’ immigration from Europe as refugees. “Not a memoir. I have no interest in writing memoiristically,” Wieseltier says. “I wanted to write a book about my mourning that respected my own privacy.”

“Kaddish” is a long book — 588 pages — and the reading is challenging. The author praises the work of the designer; the book jacket, simple and understated, is white with gray lettering. “The idea was to design a book as austere as its subject.”

Wieseltier still attends the morning minyan in Georgetown and occasionally goes in the evening. And he still goes to the teahouse afterward, now working on different projects but with no program of study as before. In a conversation a few days before Yom Kippur, he says that he expects to spent the day “in the usual mix of repentance and distraction.” He adds: “I can say this for sure: My mourning is over. My father lives in my memory, exactly as the rabbis wanted it to be.”

Wieseltier will speak at the 92nd Street Y about “Kaddish” in conversation with Cynthia Ozick on Jan. 27.

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