Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Multicultural Jew: Kaddish for the Living

The Multicultural Jew: Kaddish for the Living: I never understood the significance of saying Kaddish for a loved one until I was forced to say it myself ...

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Kaddish for the Living

I never understood the significance of saying Kaddish for a loved one until I was forced to say it myself.

Yom Hazikaron, Ramle - US Embassy, Tel Aviv
I suspect this is true for many Jewish individuals: Although we may think we understand the importance of a religious tradition, we often don’t appreciate its purpose until one day, overcome by the moment, we’re forced take it on as our own. Consumed by grief we repeat the words that we have heard week after week, year after year. We say them at first because we are supposed to. Later we come to realize that we say them because we want to – we need to. Something in the cadence, the somber march of the words gives us purpose and makes us feel that for the first time that week, we have a way of expressing our loss and pain and ultimately regaining who we are.

The first time I said Kaddish for my father three years ago, it seemed like an insurmountable challenge. His death had been expected, yet acknowledging it in public required an acceptance that seemed beyond comprehension. Saying those words publicly, before a minyan*, seemed impossible. But by the fifth or sixth day a sense of acceptance had swept over me. My father was gone and I was honoring his life and his significance with these words.

Man Wrapped in Prayer Shawl (1909) - Leopold Pilichowski
Still, I seemed unable to internalize the importance of saying Kaddish any farther than my obligation to do so. Over time, it became an obligation I took on, a mitzvah I claimed personally. In an odd way it gave meaning to my father’s difficult death, all the months he had suffered from Parkinson’s Disease, and the gallant and determined fight he waged to the end. It reassured me that even in the cruelest of circumstances, there is continuity, and that it is through our part in that continuum that their lives continue to be acknowledged.

As I found out during those first few weeks however, finding closure is an individual process. A half hour after watching my father die, I found myself sitting in a mortuary with a family member while he efficiently arranged for my father’s cremation.

In the eyes of some of my family members, cremation was my father’s last wish. It was a final if not efficient form of closure. After all, from their perspective, what more could be wished by a scientist who had devoted his entire career to the clinical explanation of life?

They didn’t know of the discussions my dad and I had about Judaism. They didn’t know that a year before he had died he had asked to borrow the book, To Be A Jew by Hayim Halevy Donin, and had on several occasions engaged me in discussions about Jewish life cycle events. My father, who had been raised secular but had taught me everything I knew about the true meaning of being Jewish had never lost his desire to know and connect with his heritage.

But he still believed that identity was a personal decision, and that it was up to each of his kids to define that question individually. And I suspect that is why to this day, we each claim to understand a distinctive piece of who he was, and what he truly believed. Saying Kaddish for him may not have been what he expected of me, but I think he would have been happy to know I did. Kaddish didn’t just fulfill a religious obligation; in this instance, it gave acknowledgment to the fact that in his own way, he lived his life as a Jew.

My brother’s death last March however, carried a different understanding of the importance of saying Kaddish. An unexpected death catapults one into the present. It is a brutal reminder of the disconnect we have with life, and the fact that even what we believe to be the most consistent can suddenly inexplicably be stripped away from us.

Man visiting a grave site, Mount St. Olives - Ian W. Scott

I am convinced that the ancient rabbis understood this.  Tradition both binds a community together and mollifies in moments of pain, and there is nothing that quells grief better than consistency of action and the sense that even in the midst of turmoil our ancient traditions still go on.

It was my father’s passing that gave me an understanding of the importance of saying Kaddish, but it was my brother’s death that taught me that Kaddish is truly meant for the living, not for the dead. It honors the dead, but it upholds the living by reaffirming that it is our most personal and sacred traditions that affirm who we are.

Mourner's Kaddish  - prov. by Erika Herzog
In the intense few moments after I stood up the first time to say Kaddish for my brother, I realized that it was the Mourner’s Kaddish that was giving me strength to honor his memory, not the other way around. The cadence of the Aramaic words had a purpose beyond their spirituality, and that was to provide direction and focus for the mourner. The words may express our innermost prayers, but it is its rhythm and its essence that allow us to grapple with the most basic and human of instincts: the need to know that we go on in spite of the loss around us.

My brother’s death, which occurred three years to the day after my dad’s, will always have an inextricable link to my father’s yahrtzeit. Even though his heart stopped beating only moments before midnight, David wasn’t pronounced dead until the following day. The EMTs spent two hours – well into the early morning of the following day - trying to revive him, to no avail.

And yet, it seems fitting that my brother’s yahrtzeit should fall on a different date than my father’s. Their deaths will remain entwined in memory, but the distinctiveness of who they were will reaffirmed by the simple, though painful act of saying Kaddish two days in a row.

The Mourner’s Prayer, eloquent, stately, but understated, is Judaism’s greatest acknowledgement of the sanctity of life. It gives closure to the irreconcilable and reminds us that memory has a purpose that is best reflected in the accomplishments of the living.

* Conservative and Reform Movements define a minyan (quorum) as a group of at least ten Jewish men or women (e.g., who have reached the age of bar/bat mitzvah). Orthodox Movement define a minyan as at least ten men.

Six candles for the six million (Pearl Harbor) - US Navy

Friday, May 25, 2012

Toward A Contemporary Definition of Shavuot

Shavuot, Gan Shmuel 1936 - PikiWiki
Ask a Talmud Torah student what the meaning of Shavuot is, and you’ll probably get a textbook answer encompassing any or all of the following: It’s the Festival of Weeks, the date Jews commemorate the giving of the Torah by G-d and it commemorates the ending of the Counting of the Omer, that intense period of loss, mourning and self reflection that begins with the last days of Passover and concludes with the welcoming of Shavuot.

True, Shavuot is all of these things. It’s history, it’s religious symbolism and it’s our link with our past when Jews relied upon the manual counting of handfuls of wheat at harvest time.
Wheat Field, Israel - Victor Beruzcov

But these days we don’t count handfuls of wheat for sale on the global market. In fact, time moves by even smaller increments that reflect the ever changing weight we put on the commerce of our ancestors. The omer has been replaced by the byte, the bushel by the meg. Volume moves in gigabytes and terabytes; relevance is nuanced by what we can exchange in information, not what we can eat in a season.

The proliferation of information is no longer dependent upon runners who can dash across hillsides, and isn’t restricted to the distance of human endurance. Our world is shared in milliseconds, not hours or days.

Child Refugee - Steve Evans
An excerpt of the Torah can be read in Vancouver British Columbia Canada and shared in a millisecond’s difference in Sydney Australia; a child’s life can be transformed in a day by a magnanimous donor in another country fulfilling Gimilut Chasidim.

So what should be our means today for acknowledging Shavuot? Do changes in our society warrant changes in how we celebrate significant religious events? Are there ways that we can, and do reflect their importance that will help us pass on the meaning of a significant Jewish event?

During the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, the celebration of Shavuot was lost, or at least diminished in many American Jewish homes. In his May 12, 2010 commentary, Forward Magazine's Editor-at-Large, JJ Goldberg offers an explanation for this phenomenon that however, humorous and almost tongue-in-cheek, hits to the heart of Jewish identity. 

“The pomp deficit is only a symptom … of Shavuot’s larger problem: its dour message,” says Goldberg.
A message that was, and often still is, perceived as “the handing out of the rulebook, with its bounty of Thou Shalts and Thou Shalt Nots,” not necessarily the uplifting story of a people released from captivity or triumphant in battle (as are Passover and Hanukkah) or the engaging family tradition of experiencing a brightly decorated sukkah in the back yard. For many, Shavuot’s importance lost its relevance as secular Judaism came to the fore in American society in the early ‘60s. Coincidentally, with that loss went the relevance of maintaining Jewish religious traditions that impart who we are.

Today there are many ways to look at the significance of a holiday that gave us the ability to appreciate identity. Yes, there are the classic stories about the Jewish people’s elevated status when it was chosen to carry the Torah, but there are a myriad of contemporary ways to express the gift our ancestors did not have the privilege or human experience to express.
  • Since the time of Mount Sinai, we have begun to appreciate the value of a balanced ecology. We have learned that with foresight, we can turn desert landscape into a habitable universe. Over the years we have found ways to teach our children that our heritage and Israel’s ecology are inextricably linked.
  • We have converted ancient lessons into medical accomplishments. Israel stands as a technological leader in medicine in areas such as exoskeletal prosthesis for victims of war and terror attacks, cancer research and rehabilitative medicine, all of which underscore mitzvot that preserve and sanctify human life. The Israel Defense Force's Save and Rescue Unit uses what it has learned about saving lives in terrorist attacks to train and aid communities in other parts of the world.
  • We have learned that a community isn’t restricted by civic or national borders, and that Jewish history transcends its own lineage in surprising ways that sometimes take hundreds or thousands of years to discover. Communities like the Bnei Menashe in India; Chueta Jews in Mallorca (page 32), Spain; and Iquito Jews in the Amazon reaffirm that the Jewish People aren’t homogeneous in heritage and can be found in every corner of the Earth. 

  • We have also found ways to connect with and nurture the Jewish spirit in places that were decimated during the Shoah. Places like Poland, Germany, Spain and Russia have reclaimed their Jewish heritage much as did those same countries after pogroms hundreds of years earlier. History may repeat its mistakes, but it has also taught us that the Jewish spirit is strong when supported by others who care.
  • We have learned that women have a powerful voice that carries its own measure and its own value, and that Jewish identity matures, strengthens and evolves with each generation that strives to teach the story of Shavuot to the next.   
And we have learned that the Jewish People is nothing without the Torah it was entrusted at Mount Sinai. Shavuot serves as our eidetic reminder of the importance of that gift, and that it is our ability to translate its message into a contemporary context and to share that significance with others that continues the Torah’s legacy. 

Child at Shavuot - Mykaul