Getting feminine voices into the discussion on mourning.
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In many a shiva house, books of consolation and Jewish ritual are as ubiquitous as archival photos and cellophane-wrapped platters of food. You’re likely to find Leon Wieseltier’s “Kaddish,” Rabbi Maurice Lamm’s “The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning” and perhaps Rabbi Richard Hirsh’s “The Journey of Mourning.” A new book by Michal Smart and Barbara Ashkenas, “Kaddish, Women’s Voices” (Urim) belongs on the table.
Of all Jewish prayers, perhaps the best known is the Kaddish, the memorial prayer for the dead. But for the celebrated Hungarian Jewish author, Imre Kertész, who survived Auschwitz and Buchenwald, Kaddish became a way of mourning the child he never had, the child whom he refused to bring into a post-Holocaust world. Now Kertész’s celebrated stream-of-consciousness novel, “Kaddish for an Unborn Child,” has been turned into a one-man play, “Kaddish.” Starring Jake Goodman, it runs this month at the 14th Street Y.
Why do we recite the mourner’s Kaddish? In his lyrical, insightful “Kaddish,” Leon Wieseltier speaks of the child reciting Kaddish as “evidence” — he is the proof that his parent lived such that he raised a son competent enough and concerned enough to recite the prayer.
But why this prayer? The Kaddish glorifies God but makes no mention of death. For many interpreters, it is an affirmation of life — in community we express our gratitude for the years we have left in the shadow of the death we memorialize.
Like most people, I would imagine, my first thoughts upon learning that the Memorial Day weekend here in America would coincide with the festival of Shavuot this year were not happy ones. Three-day weekends are a precious commodity, even for rabbis. Giving one up for three days of Shabbat and Yom Tov was simply not a fair exchange. I’m sure that I like being in synagogue a little more than the average bear, but really… on Memorial Day weekend?
Many Jews today claim that they are “spiritual not religious,” that organized religion is not relevant, or that they would rather spend their free time alone than with others. Those who attend synagogue weekly often reserve the service, especially the sermon, for a special naptime. Others prefer a 20–person basement setting for a quick prayer service rather than a formal, large gathering at shul. Around two-thirds of Americans claim to be members of a house of worship, which is more than 25 percent higher than Jewish synagogue membership.
Eclectic jazz guitarist Bill Frisell tackles an iconic poem.
Special to the Jewish Week
It is purely coincidence, no doubt, that Allen Ginsberg wrote his epic poem “Kaddish” three years after the death of his mother Naomi, and eclectic jazz guitarist Bill Frisell began work on his musical accompaniment to that poem three years after the death of his mother Jane.
No matter how familiar you are with death, it’s impossible to be prepared for the loss of your mother.
Death is the subject I deal with daily as the executive director of the Hebrew Free Burial Association, in New York. HFBA arranges approximately 350 burials a year, and at least twice a month I am in one cemetery or another as part of my job. But my work didn’t inure me against the profound sadness I felt when my mother, Dorothy Koplow, Chaya Doboh bat Meir v’Breindl, died in the summer of 2010, at the age of 90.
An ethereal chasidic melody is sung in a small room by a minyan waiting for evening prayer. Yakov B., having led the afternoon prayer as mourners will, and having said the final Kaddish of his mournful year, now sits in a pew, closing his eyes. On waves of the wordless tune, his soul slips from earthly mooring; he has an inner vision: He is at a family simcha, the end of something. His father, for whom Yakov was saying Kaddish, looked young, beatific, in the middle of a circle dance.