About Me

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Kaddish

"There are circumstances that must shatter you; and if you are not shattered, then you have not understood your circumstances. In such circumstances, it is failure for your heart not to break. And it is pointless to put up a fight, for a fight will blind you to the opportunity that has been presented by your misfortune. Do you wish to persevere pridefully in the old life? Of course you do; the old life was a good life. But it is no longer available to you. It has been carried away, irreversibly. So there is only one thing to be done. Transformation must be met with transformation. Where there was the old life, let there be the new life. Do not persevere. Dignify the shock. Sink, so as to rise. " - Leon Wieseltier, Kaddish

I didn't say Kaddish – the traditional Jewish mourning prayer recited in the presence of a congregation – following my father's death, as our tradition requires. At the time, I wasn't that kind of Jew. His death was an earthquake in my life yet, lacking even the most basic understanding of the traditional Jewish grieving process, I was forced to mourn not as a Jew, but as an amateur.

Some of what I can still vividly recall about those first few days:

I remember the viewing that was held for the immediate family, prior to the memorial service, and being disturbed by the sight of his lifeless body elegantly, and tastefully, on display in that box, and the funeral director informing us that seeing him (the embalming ''service'') would bring – yes, he actually said it – ''closure''.

I also recall being distracted at the service by the presence of an older couple sitting a few rows back from me – I had no idea who they were, or how they knew dad – wearing matching shiny white sweat suits. As trivial as it my sound even to my own ears today, there was something about those white sweat suits...at my father’s funeral...that I found so disconcerting.

And I fondly recall the tender words of my girlfriend shortly after the funeral– who gently, yet with authority, said into my ear, practically at a whisper – "Don't worry. He's still with you, he’s inside of you".

In the weeks, months, and even years, following my father's death, I continued to want to talk about him, his life, and the grief I still felt. Though, many around me expressed their sympathy, I saw the pain as only affirming the depth of our relationship, and his continued presence in my life.

During that first year I also decided to learn about the Jewish mourning traditions - reading books such as Maurice Lamb's The Jewish way in death and mourning, Leon Wieseltier's Kaddish, and others.

Perhaps the most profound principle I came across during this time of study, and one which still I still find relevant and inspiring, was "The merit of the children", in which, according to Jewish tradition, the living child, by living a moral, just, and purposeful life, can, in the eyes of G-d, redeem the imperfect life of his deceased parent.

At first, the ethical connection between my current life and his previous life (a quite counterintuitive moral calculus) eluded me. How could, I wondered, what I do now in any way effect how the life he once lived is judged? After some time, however, the inspired moral logic became apparent. The way I live my life is necessarily connected to the way he lived his life – serving as a living testament to who he was, as a father, and as a man. For, I am, as his son, the living embodiment of the sum of his moral life. My virtue inherently emanates from his virtue. I am, after all, my father's son.

Many years later, my job at the Anti-Defamation League led me to participate at an ADL run workshop for Catholic educators called BearingWitness. Bearing Witness is an interfaith program which trains Catholic school educators to effectively share the lessons of anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, and modern-day Catholic-Jewish relations with their students. Part of the program consisted of allowing the Catholic participants to experience aspects of a traditional Jewish Synagogue experience – with several participants and workshop educators chosen to present selected parts of the prayer service.

Randi, my boss at the time, and the coordinator of the Bearing Witness program, had asked me prior to the workshop if I’d wanted to recite the Mourner's Kaddish during this service to help demonstrate this aspect of the traditional Jewish service to our new friends. And, though I didn’t realize it at the time, Randi wasn’t just asking me to participate in the program, she – fully aware of my grief and increasing identification with, and desire to honor, my Jewish tradition – was, giving me an opportunity I thought I was never going to have.

I wasn’t more than a few words into the prayer (Yit-gadal v'yit-kadash sh'may raba…) – recited in the sanctuary of the Catholic retreat center where the conference was held, in front of colleagues, presenters, and our new Catholic friends – when the emotion of it all caught up to me, and I realized what was happening.

I wasn’t just demonstrating the traditional Jewish mourning prayer. I was, finally, more than eight years after his death, saying the traditional Hebrew words sanctifying G-d's name, and testifying, by this expression of devotion, to my father's character - to his merit.

I was finally reciting Kaddish for my dad.

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