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Kaddish for my father

Last year Tu B’Shvat fell on a Tuesday evening. We’d arrived that morning in Johannesburg, and just a few days before I’d Googled and found a Tu B’Shvat seder. It was in a place called Huddle Park.

We didn’t know anyone there, but it was my 33rd consecutive Tu B’Shvat seder, and it was absolutely one of the most beautiful. This very lush park, an urban wetland, full of long grasses and exotic trees. There was a long long silent meditation walk that went on for almost an hour. I walked in the gathering darkness, and the huge full moon of Shvat came up and brought moonlight to this unfamiliar landscape.

I was thinking about my Dad as I was walking. I’d been in Manchester the week before, and he was weakening very significantly. It was a strange and intense and beautiful experience, essentially alone in Africa, in this unfamiliar place, celebrating a holiday that I love, walking, thinking about my dad.

And we got back to the hotel, tired and jetlagged, sorting stuff to go on safari the next morning, and the phone rang. It was my mother, to tell us that my Dad had died. He’d died about an hour earlier, near the end of that long silent meditation.

Thus began a year of mourning that ends this Sunday night, on Tu B’Shvat, with his first yahrtzeit.

It has been a strange year, a fuzzy year, a year in which I have followed pretty much the halachot (the traditional rules) of mourning without necessarily understanding why I was doing it. I share with you some reflections – and some statistics.

First of all: this year gave me a deeper and fresh sense of awe for the psychological acuity of Jewish tradition. In general I love Jewish tradition to start with. Not uncritically, and not without struggle, but I do assume fundamentally the wisdom of the tradition, and this year bore this out for me in very strong ways. Jewish tradition delineates time in concentric circles, radiating out from the bomb-blast of death itself, and for me those concentric circles of time mapped to the evolution of grief and sadness, loss, acceptance, and the different moods of memory.

First the period from death to the funeral. No rules, no structure, a blur of travel and details and getting there. Arriving at Heathlands, sitting with my dad’s coffin half an hour before the funeral. My friend Phil walked in and I burst into tears. The funeral itself, the hesped (eulogy), a shovel and Manchester soil, the first kaddish, and back to my Mum’s place.

And then shiva, which lifted me very considerably, this very beautiful time. Apart from walking to and from our childhood shul, with my sister, on Shabbat morning, we didn’t set foot outside the entire week. It was very strong and all those things that so many of you know and have experienced kicked in – food and family and old friends and stories and laughter and reconnecting.

And then the period after the end of shiva up to the end of shloshim, the first thirty days. This for me was characterized by the start of the process of saying kaddish. Suddenly finding a minyan for kaddish became very important to me.

Then from the end of shloshim, up through the end of the 11 months of kaddish.

And then this last month, in which one is still within the year of mourning, but ceases to say kaddish – leading up to the kaddish of yahrtzeit this coming Sunday night and Monday. That itself has been fascinating and strange – not saying kaddish, which had become a part of the structure of my day.

My dad was an accountant and he liked numbers. For many decades he played poker on Tuesday nights with “the boys” (they played into their seventies; he’d known the core members of the group since they were in primary school) – and my dad kept a written record of exactly how much he won or how much he lost.

So maybe it was obvious that I’d write down the statistics of kaddish. I was aiming to say kaddish at least once a day, knowing that I probably wouldn’t quite succeed in that. Here are some of the stats:

Turns out: I said kaddish on 408 occasions, on the 326 days I was obligated to say kaddish. (If I went to mincha and then ma’ariv I counted that as two occasions, because these were two different days, but if I was at shacharit and musaf I counted that as only one.)

The kind of minyanim at which I said kaddish was a remarkable snapshot of the world I live in – a very different one from the one in which my father said kaddish for each of his parents. Here’s how I characterized them. (This is the list of the number of distinct places I went to of each sort; obviously some of these I went to many many times. But I was interested in how many different places I said kaddish):

Virtual: 1
Reform: 2
Meditation: 2
Conservative: 4
Learning: 13 (ie learning some text, with a minyan, and then saying kaddish d’rabanan)
Experimental: 14
Orthodox: 32
Egal: 33
Private minyan: 36 (I count as a private minyan, eg, saying kaddish at the Israel Ride or at a Hazon board meeting or a Romemu board meeting. And this category includes many of the ones counted also as “learning” or “meditation” if those latter two were in the context of a private minyan.)

I said kaddish at Stenecourt in Manchester and Dunstan Road in London. I said kaddish at both New London and Great Portland Street. I said kaddish at Young Israel of Brookline and at Dovid Ben Nuchim in Michigan. I said kaddish at the kotel, and at 770 Eastern Parkway. I said kaddish at Avigail & Sarah’s wedding and at the shiva for Bernie Glassman, z”l. I said kaddish at Gate 65, Terminal B, EWR. I said kaddish at the Carlebach shul and at Vorhand’s, and at the Friday night minyan that has bubbled up in the basement of my building. I said kaddish at Larchmont Reform Temple and at Zion, in Jerusalem. I said kaddish in the beautiful and ancient shul in Venice’s ghetto. I said kaddish at Sukkahfest and, separately, with the Adamahniks.

I very rarely found the experience to be “meaningful” and I struggle consistently with the notion of “spirituality” and the notion of what it is that we are meant to “get” from davening. Rightly or wrongly I have internalized from somewhere [ok; from my Dad, z”l] some notion of ol malchut shamayim, essentially of doing it because that’s what you do.  In my lifetime it’s a position that has been put most strongly by the late Yeshayahu Leibowitz z”l, you do it because that is commanded to us as a Jew.

Now I’m aware how ridiculously and bizarrely inconsistent this is on my part. Leibowitz, at least (as far as I know) was scrupulously observant (orthoprax, if not indeed orthodox), and I am not.

But the paradox of postmodernity is the over-entitled self. And on the one hand, this very litany of do-it-your-own-way kaddish is testament to my own over-entitled self; someone who really did accept ol malchut shamayim in a traditional lineage wouldn’t have counted umpteen of the places or ways that I davened. And yet – and despite this – in quite a strong sense I’m aware that I really was doing this, including in liberal or egal or unorthodox fashions, nevertheless in a strongly traditional way. I wasn’t trying to “get” something from it. Not in a religious sense, or a spiritual sense. I didn’t think that I was somehow doing something for my father in some theological sphere – I don’t have any of that theology at all. My father is buried in Agecroft cemetery in Manchester, and his body, this Tu B’Shvat as every day, is becoming compost for the worms. I don’t believe in immortal souls or olam haba (“the world to come”) or any other such thing; nor do I have really any sense of “G!d,” other than [a huge other than!] the theological construct about whose axis the entirety of Jewish tradition spins, and many of the world’s other religions also.

Why then was I striving so diligently to find a minyan to say kaddish??

Ah, yes, a good question.

And part of the weirdness of my answer is that I still don’t really know. I don’t quite get it. I think part of the point of this email, what I most want to share in my father’s name, is that it really is ok to trust the tradition, to do things because our parents and grandparents and ancient ancestors did them, and not necessarily fully to have to know why. This sense of commandedness, of internal obligation, is good for us, in ritual spheres as well as in ethical or behavioral ones.

I do also want to express gratitude to the people and institutions that enabled me to say kaddish – to everyone everywhere who makes a minyan, attends a minyan, leads a minyan, organizes a minyan, pays for a minyan. Special thanks to the staff and board members of Hazon and Romemu and others, who willingly formed short impromptu minyanim to let me say kaddish at times when it might have been hard otherwise for me to do so.

I feel especially grateful to the rabbi and community of OZ – Ohab Zedek, at 95th and Amsterdam. OZ is round the corner from our apartment. Of the 408 occasions I said kaddish, exactly 175 were at OZ.

Reb Zalman z”l once memorably compared the orthodox to the heartwood of the tree. The outer rings of the tree are growing and changing, each year. But holding up the tree, the literal core without which the tree would fall, is its heartwood. Reb Zalman said (to a group of the Renewal rabbis and rabbinical students)that we all depend, some or much or most of the time, upon the orthodox for mikvehs, kashrut certification, sefarim (religious books), sofrim (scribes) and so on. People who have striven to say kaddish on their travels are often indebted to the orthodox shuls and minyanim, gabbais, attendees, who make the minyan day in and day out.

OZ is and was remarkable. I have loved the divrei Torah of Rabbi Schwartz, simply learning mishnayot, sequentially, between mincha and ma’ariv. I felt a certain amount of my own anti-orthodox prejudice come into view, during the year, and long before my year of kaddish was over it had softened and changed very considerably. I grew up orthodox, rejected it at 15, and from my early twenties I’ve counted myself as egalitarian, which I still am today. But this year I just soaked back into orthodox davening, and OZ in particular, with openness and gratitude. (And was struck that – remarkably, and not at all what I expected – every single time I davened there, morning or evening, summer or winter, without exception, there was at least one woman there, and quite frequently at least one woman saying kaddish.)

I also have great gratitude at another end of the spectrum. Rabbi David Ingber of Romemu led really beautiful free-form davenings at board meetings and on our Hazon Romemu Sustainable Israel Trip. Standing on a balcony in an orthodox community in Ma’alot, leading a musical egal mincha. Davening with the extraordinary Netanel Goldberg overlooking Machtesh Ramon, at the end of Shabbat. (Months later, again in Mitzpeh, I recall saying kaddish at the end of the rider briefing after we heard the news of the Pittsburgh murders. Very intense.)  

We were at a Jim Joseph retreat in the late summer, and Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie led a quite remarkable impromptu open davening, almost impossible to describe, riffing off the tradition, building from it, opening to it, exceptionally beautiful. And Lab/Shul created a Kaddish Club which was a really beautiful new form: a group of people coming together for a potluck dinner, sharing memories and experiences of loss, and ending with kaddish. It was an unexpected forum in which to see myself change through the year – at the start of the year a newbie, being welcomed into this new world by those who had been there a little before me. By the end of the year I was the person welcoming those newly experiencing loss.

I similarly loved davening with the Adamahniks, with Shamu or Rebecca (and once with Anna Hanau), outdoors at Isabella Freedman. And one of the most meaningful and memorable was a really incredibly beautiful shacharit with Rabbis Arthur Waskow & Phyllis Berman on the Friday morning of our JOFEE Network Gathering, at Tamarack Camps. Very very strong.

So it is strange. Individually, many of the (relatively few) “meaningful” experiences I had, saying kaddish, were in more creative or less traditional environments. Yet the core of my “practice” was davening at OZ – and behind that at Yael St. in Jerusalem, or Dunstan Road in London.

In the middle of the year Liz made the observation to me that I was davening in these places because these were the places my dad would have davened, the shuls and services he would have found comfortable and familiar;  and that whether I knew it or not, whether I intended it or not, I was in a sense connecting with my father, connecting with his memory, connecting with his values and his practice, simply by placing myself in his shoes, by redigging his wells. And I think that was a very astute observation, and maybe that’s the only reason I need.

So I sit here now, looking out at the bare trees of Central Park, the first snows due this weekend.

In the end, this year was a sort of gift from my father. The essential consistency and ubiquity of my saying kaddish – given my absence of belief, my confusions, my inconsistent observance – is entirely a gift from him. The places I went to, the people I met, the way that my sense of the Jewish world broadened was also (and quite ironically) from him – ironic, because he in fact was born and lived and died, very happily, within the few square miles of Jewish north Manchester in which he spent his whole life.

So. Tu B’Shvat. May we mark the new year with new beginnings, new resolutions. Honoring those who came before us. Supporting and encouraging our elders. Remembering the heartwoods of the trees that sustain us, and spreading new life and new light, new seeds and flowers and branches, into the world.

Shabbat shalom, and Tu B’Shvat sameach,

Nigel