Custom and LawPrint
After the death of his father, a not-notably observant Jew turns to the mourning rituals of his faith
By Melvin Jules Bukiet
PART ONE: COVERING MIRRORS
The first two questions that everyone asks are “Was it expected?” and “Did he suffer?” The answer to both is “Yes.” Of course, I could say as much for my own eventual death or yours. I expect that all of us will die and that somewhere along the road to the grave all of us will suffer. Sorry to disturb the children, but I’m not in a cheerful mood. The only good thing about this situation is that although others may see my wretchedness, I can’t see myself. Mirrors are covered in a Jewish house of mourning. Vanity is eschewed; that’s the reason usually given for hiding mirrors, but the custom must have greater significance. Sure, it’s proper to avoid dwelling on appearance at such a time, yet vanity is one of the oldest and most authentic of human emotions, perhaps more ancient than grief, if self-regard is a precondition for empathy.
Humility is enforced by multiple funerary customs. Besides covering mirrors, one doesn’t shave during the first seven days of mourning, and one continuously wears a rent garment. One literally “sits” shivah on a stool or box or special chair with shortened legs in order to be lower than those who have come to offer comfort. All of these customs aim to disembody the mourner, just as the lifeless body of the deceased has been deprived of its soul. They obviate not merely self-appreciation but self-consciousness at a time when any consciousness one may have is as raw as meat. I don’t want to see my face this week. I don’t want to know if my eyes are red or—worse—clear. I don’t wish to discern the extent of my sorrow. Mirrors begone!
Thus, though I’m not notably observant of Jewish ritual, I do what generations have done before me. As mandated by the customs that have become laws, I cover the antique gilt-framed mirror in the foyer of my house and the standing mirror in the bedroom and several mirrors in bathrooms. There are many possible ways to cover a mirror—with masking tape and newspaper, with a black crepe shroud—but I use pillow cases. They are light enough so that tubes of shampoo atop the cabinets hold them in place. Still, I can’t help but feel that this concealment also has a mystical basis. That’s because mirrors are weird. To begin with, they’re two-dimensional (or at least very thin) objects that provide an illusion of three-dimensionality. And then, we tend to think that they replicate the world, whereas they actually reverse reality. Wink your right eye and the left eye of the image will shutter. I think of the word printed across the front of emergency medical vehicles. It’s an encoded message only for the rearview mirrors of the other vehicles on the road to the grave. The eerie quality of mirrors has earned them a place in fairy tales, Gothic novels, and Marx Brothers movies (which enact a brilliant reversal by turning strangeness into slapstick). Perhaps a rabbi I spoke to put this best when we had a conversation about the customs that I’m so blindly adhering to. After giving me the initial reasons for covering mirrors, he shrugged and said, “Let’s face it. They’re ghosty.” This accords with my naïve intuition that mirrors retain secret traces of the world they once reflected. Thus, my father may still exist inside the frame of the mirrors in the houses where his loss is mourned. A mourner is the opposite of a ghost. The latter may exist in mirrors, but no longer in life. The former still resides in life, but for a week not in mirrors. Yet, we have photographs of the dead. Maybe there would have been an injunction against them, too, if cameras had been invented in the days when these customs were devised. Friends are passing the albums across my living room couch. There my father is, eating caviar at my wedding. There he is, standing in his back yard on a newly built wooden deck.
I’m 50 years old and have never really encountered death. This is the most notable difference between my youth and my father’s. He was born in a shtetl outside Kraków in August 1923 and saw more death before his 20th birthday than nearly anyone in history. His mother and younger siblings were sent away to hide with relatives, with whom they were taken to Belzec and gassed. My father and his father were in the Kraków ghetto when it was liquidated on March 13, 1943, and 3,000 Jews were slaughtered. A day later they arrived at Auschwitz where they slaved until the Russians approached from the east. They were marched to Buchenwald where they remained until the Allies approached from the west and they were marched to The resenstadt where they were liberated. My grandfather died the day World War II ended in Europe, presumably of typhus. My father didn’t have any mirrors to cover, and he didn’t sit shivah. He knew so many things that I have been lucky not to know, but he never knew the luxury of mourning. I remember when he called me late at night, in the middle of February 1986, to tell me that my mother’s mother had died. There were no euphemisms in his vocabulary, no “Bubbi’s gone” like she magically disappeared or “Bubbi passed” as if she were a car on a highway. “Dead” was the word he used, and by the time I arrived at my parent’s house, the mirrors were covered.
No matter how sick the patient, death is always sudden; and no matter the worldliness of the mourner, it is always at some level unexpected. What people mean when they ask if my father’s death was expected is: Was there a disease, a diagnosis, decay? A doctor looking at the three-inch binder that chronicled the last 12 days of my father’s life in Passaic General Hospital would have anticipated his demise. He had had heart problems that required surgery about five or six years before, and he had been on dialysis— several hours per session, three sessions a week—since his kidneys had given out three years before. Then, on Memorial Day 2004, he started bleeding. Despite endoscopes examining his stomach from above and laparoscopes exploring his colon from below and two state-of-the-art nuclear scans, the doctors never figured out where the blood was coming from. Perhaps the leak or perforation or “blush” that required massive transfusions was a single flaw in the GI mechanism or, as I suspect, a systemic failure. But if the doctors believed that my father was doomed, no one else expected death for a second. Aside from the myriad tubes snaking in and out of his body, he didn’t look sick. More significantly, he didn’t act sick, though his fingers ached, so I massaged them, and his toes were cold—a scary omen— so I swaddled them in layers of hospital blankets. Otherwise, he laughed and commented on basketball games and the Reagan burial coverage broadcast on the television over his bed. He told the nurses what sort of steaks to get and how to cook them—Delmonico, Pittsburgh Blue, seared on the outside, cool in the center. He gossiped and conducted business and simply refused to acknowledge the advance of death while he had any life at all. At approximately 10 minutes after eight on the morning of Saturday, June 12, my mother and sister and I were standing outside his room in the Passaic ICU talking to one of his doctors about transferring him to Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City when something went wrong. A doctor in his room called sharply to the one speaking with us in the hall, “Ed. Ed. Ed.” Ed dashed into the room and so did a dozen nurses wheeling elaborate machines. My sister curled into my mother’s chest and I sat on the floor beside the nurse’s station, head pressed against the wall. The professionals worked for an hour, but I’m sure that he was dead in minutes. He didn’t suffer at the end. For the rest of us, the suffering began. So did a kind of growth. Bar and bat mitzvahs are supposed to acknowledge Jewish coming-of-age, although 13-year-olds are not really men or women in our society. Marriage presumably grants newlyweds entry to sexual maturity, but that’s a polite fiction, given modern conduct. Even having children doesn’t really make the members of my generation adults, because we’ve been blessed with the gift of extended adolescence. At five, I climbed on monkey bars while my father was at work. At 35, I climbed on monkey bars with my children while my father was at work. At 50, I’m more immature than my father was at my children’s current ages. But orphanhood changes everything. It’s a secret club that only the truly unfortunate ever join.
It’s not stomach-clenching grief that I feel—that would be histrionic and self-indulgent after the death of an 80-year-old man who lived joyously and died in full capacity—but despairing lassitude. It’s as if the world has been sapped of its capacity to engage me. I move through aspic or pitcha, the loathsome dish made from jellied calves’ feet that he relished. Experiencing the death of a loved one is like going through a door and entering a room that you always knew was there but could never imagine. It seems impossible that one was ever anywhere else. It is impossible to leave. The next day, eating my regular breakfast in Tom’s Restaurant on the corner of 112th Street and Broadway before setting out to my mother’s—no longer my parents’—house, I am shocked to discover that one continues to be hungry after the death of a parent and one continues to distinguish between savory and insipid food. I am seated next to a mirror. I don’t realize this through juice and scrambled eggs and toast, but as I start to sip my coffee, a sliver of a side view informs me of the mirror’s proximity, and I am as tempted to turn toward my own forbidden countenance as Lot’s wife must have been tempted to witness the destruction of Sodom—so I flee before I can finish my meal. In the car, I leave the rearview mirror uncovered for safety reasons, though seeing myself in its frame is difficult to avoid. Arriving in New Jersey, I notice that my mother, too, has used pillow cases to cover the mirrors in her house. Surely this is neither mandated by scripture nor encouraged by rabbinical exegesis, and it’s not the most remarkable coincidence, but my mother and I have intuitively drawn upon the same resources as we each attempt to deal with the intolerable.
On the counter beneath the pillow-case-covered medicine cabinet is a hand-held mirror, face down. Fifty-plus years ago, when my father received a visa to enter America, he wanted to bring some coins with him. Under the impression that importation of foreign currency wasn’t allowed, he had a smith melt the coins and cast them into the backing for a mirror and a matching brush and a candelabra. The workmanship is crude, yet the objects always fascinated me, even before I realized that this illicit German silver is the perfect reverse of the gold bars made from fillings plundered from the teeth of murdered Jews. All of my life, the six million have been a presence. Now all I can sense is the absence of one dead Jew who happened to be the most vital person in the world for me.
This is it, the worst that I will ever know. Not the historical worst because that happened several blocks away from my two daughters’ school in Lower Manhattan and I am convinced that more terrible things are bound to come. Furthermore, like any parent, I can imagine events untimely and grotesque. But those horrors, real or imaginary, are awful partly because they could have been or might be avoidable. The death of my father was inevitable even if I was too stupid to understand that until this season. His death was not a tragedy; his life was a miracle; and his loss is fundamental. What a strange relief to uncover all the mirrors after seven days, and then what an anticlimax to gaze anxiously into them to find that nothing looks different than before.
PART TWO: SITTING SHIVAH
Before I uncover mirrors, however, there’s the week-long process of sitting shivah—pronounced with a soft “i” and not to be confused with the Hindu god of death and destruction. Jews bury the dead as soon as possible. Maybe this is a relic from our origins in a hot climate, but it’s a kindness to contemporary mourners who do not have to make decisions. No thinking about whether the neighbors would rather watch the Super Bowl. When death happens, you deal with it. Preferably the funeral should be the next day, but my father’s is delayed 24 hours because he had neglected to purchase a plot. Several people note how odd this lapse was for a developer who seemed to have trod every inch of land in the state of New Jersey, but I prefer to think that he simply cared too much about life to fear or anticipate death.
The day after we left the hospital my mother and uncle and I looked at several cemeteries. King Solomon, the more popular in my father’s circle, is the equivalent of the suburban houses these guys built. Ranks of similar tombstones sprawl along curving roadways in the ultimate gated community. It’s easy, and sweet, to imagine my father and Ike and Harry in the same convivial game of gin they played for so many years, usually in my father’s office on weekends. But there’s another cemetery a few blocks away. Menorah is older and smaller and quainter than the rival necropolis. There are mature trees and a fence overgrown with vegetation that gives it a secluded feel. Oddly, my father had planned to buy a parcel of land catty-corner to the cemetery and build a house on it when we were preparing to move to New Jersey in 1965, but my mother vetoed the decision because she was superstitious. Now it’s my mother who makes the choice to establish my father’s— and eventually her own—permanent residence on the ridge off Dwas Line Road with a panoramic view of the Manhattan skyline. If such a place can be said to be contemplative, this is it. Meanwhile, a round of calls goes out to those who knew and cared for my father, about the funeral. It takes place at the community-owned chapel that my father was especially proud of. A fervent adherent of the free-market economy that served him well over the decades, since he sold a small grocery store and became a developer, he believed that for-profit funeral homes take unfair advantage of people at a weak moment and that the new facility could help its bereaved best by fulfilling this final task as economically as possible.
Seven hundred people jam every available seat and aisle by the time my mother, my sister, my uncle, and I are ushered from a back room to the seats in front of a lectern and the casket. In tune with the same consideration that families ought not bankrupt themselves on useless display, Jewish coffins are unadorned pine boxes. Yet this box looks small. My father was not tall, but he was big-bellied and barrel-chested as long as I’d known him. Photographs taken shortly after the war show him as a a slim young man and always generate hilarity. The rabbi says a prayer and then speaks. His address is primarily boilerplate, partially touching anecdote and partially lies about my father’s faith in God—of which he had none. My uncle and cousin (who worked with my father) speak, as do a representative of the Kraków Society and a local congressman. My two daughters speak. Louisa describes shopping for lox with her grandfather at Russ and Daughters, a place he loved “because that’s where the Hispanics speak Yiddish,” and Maddy tells how her grandfather made everything from surviving the atrocities of his youth to the years on dialysis seem easy. She says, “He even made dealing with my father look easy” and gets a sympathetic chuckle.
I speak, too—conscious of avoiding a literary tone in my eulogy as I’m conscious of the opposite in these pages. Just the facts. He was a prosperous man, though people thought he was truly wealthy because he was so generous. He believed that his survival conferred a profound debt to help others, yet charity wasn’t merely an obligation for him. It was an opportunity. I’m not saying that he was selfless or modest. He enjoyed appreciation and received a great deal of it as the overflow crowd at the chapel attests. He had an extraordinary sense of humor and frequently told jokes that made a subtle moral point about whatever was going on around him. He was a world-class storyteller, because to him everything was an event. Every meal he ate was either “exquisite” or “atrocious.” He couldn’t prioritize anything. In his office, he’d devote as much attention to a banker talking about a large construction loan as to a tenant talking about pooper-scoopers. He was the most exciting person I’ve ever met. He loved Atlantic City and the casinos loved him, not because he was such a high roller, but because when he was at the table there was screaming and laughing and the joint was jumping. The stakes were an excuse; the game was the pleasure. He was the smartest person I’ve ever met, not book-learned and not selfreflective, but keenly sensitive of what mattered to other people. This meant that despite his ebullience, he was an intuitive compromiser who always found ways to work through the trickiest human problems. Innumerable people asked his advice—financial, professional, legal, emotional. Several times he took under his wing the children of friends who had problems, and more often than not the warmth of those wings healed them. His door was always open; his heart was always open.
He was the world’s softest touch, especially for things Jewish—hospitals, museums, schools, athletic facilities for crippled Israeli veterans—but also for a squeegee man at a red light. He’d always stoop to pick a penny off the sidewalk and never hesitated to give away a dollar. He was almost pathologically life-affirming. During his last two weeks, his doctors were astonished that he took more than 25 units of blood. That’s four times what the human body usually holds. For those who knew him that wasn’t surprising. He had four times as much life as anyone else. He knew that he wasn’t immortal. We just thought he was. The small box seems unable to contain his abundance. It is surprising how easy it is for the pallbearers, including my son Miles, to carry him out of the chapel. We go to the newly acquired gravesite; everyone agrees that the grave is the deepest they’ve ever seen. The bright yellow backhoe that ripped open the rock-filled clay stands nearby, but at Jewish burials it is the responsibility of the congregation to fill in the grave. Several well-used shovels have been provided by the cemetery. Friends of my father from Europe are the first to take the shovels because they know what needs to be done. The shovels slice into the mound of dirt, and a drift of earth and pebbles lands atop the coffin. The Europeans pass the shovels to others, including my children. Over the last 20 years, they gave my father extraordinary pleasure; this is the last thing they can do for him.
Only after the burial does the period of shivah officially begin. One does not invite people to shivah lest one imply an obligation. Instead, one announces shivah and leaves the doors open, literally if possible. I sit for the first few nights in New Jersey and thereafter in my own home in New York. The official mourners are a delineated category that includes the spouse and siblings and children of the deceased but not the grandchildren or in-laws or others who loved the deceased. We sit in the low chairs that someone from the shul has delivered to the house for the duration. My uncle and I already show a hint of stubble that will grow, unseen in mirrors, through the week. We are each wearing an item of clothing with a razor’s tear. The item can be anything—a jacket, a tie—but for me and my uncle it happens to be a shirt; for my mother and sister, a light silk scarf. Soon the house is full of people and food—one of the customs of shivah is that the community organizes itself to feed the mourners. It’s not exactly a party atmosphere for obvious reasons, and everyone’s first move is to hug my mother and nod somberly, but there’s nothing like the proximity of death to make you feel alive. Before long, the builders are talking business and the parents are gabbing about their kids’ schools.
Over the years, I’ve paid a number of shivah calls, but I’ve always felt intrusive or voyeuristic. Condolences seemed inadequate and any conversation outside the mourners’ immediate concern trite. On the other side, however, everything feels different. Although no one offers revelation, I’m glad to hear memories of my father and reiterations of the absolutely true cliché that he would have enjoyed being here. It’s possible to smile. “Yes,” I respond over and over again, “he was just like that.” In a weird way, I’m consoling them for having only anecdotes of my father’s life when I was lucky enough to speak to him nearly every day. We had talked about ourselves and my kids and business and the news and sometimes we just said, “What’s going on? Nothing. Nu, speak to you tomorrow.” No more. Time is entirely warped. Events that occurred days ago feel ancient, and the present hardly exists. Sometimes I focus on the large thing I cannot begin to comprehend and sometimes I focus on minutia and sometimes I can’t focus at all. I forget my address. I look at people who have been earnestly holding my hand and expressing their profoundest regret for five minutes and reply, “What?” Occasionally friends say, “I know how close you were,” and I’m shaken because I didn’t know that I’d made it obvious. On departing, many people utter a particular phrase that’s initially mysterious until I understand that it, too, is a ritual. The system provides them with the line. It’s in Hebrew and it translates into “May you be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.”
In my house over the next few days, the situation is different because the visitors are my friends rather than my father’s. Instead of listening to his friends’ stories, I have to tell the stories, and I do. Less adept in the “mourners of Zion” formalities, the people who visit me tend to leave with “If I can do anything . . . ,” which, of course, they can’t. Still, the bountiful inadequacy of friends is a comfort. The whole damn procedure from covering mirrors and wearing torn clothing to sitting in the stupid little chairs is a comfort. Most especially, the presence of others—one is not supposed to leave mourners alone—is a comfort. By forcing us to welcome so many people at exactly the moment when we’d rather curl into a fetal ball, shivah assists us in the process of returning to life. There’s a serious human wisdom at work here and we are the beneficiaries.
The last night we’re sitting, my wife and I finally say goodbye to the people who have lingered around the dining room table, and we collapse into bed, too exhausted from the compulsory socializing to kick our shoes off. (Actually, I shouldn’t have been wearing shoes, but I wasn’t aware of yet another shivah custom in which the mourners wear socks or slippers to emphasize their separation from the normal world.) Anyway, Jill’s and my domestic talk, like all the talk this week, is strange. There’s a curiously postreception feel to the moment—who showed up, who spoke to whom— and a withering of the soul. I feel like I could lie there forever, but this first rest I’ve gotten in a week is interrupted by footsteps and a hesitant voice calling, “Hello?” We’ve forgotten that the front door is still propped open. Although the hour is late, another shivah caller has arrived. I respond the way I’ve been trained: “Come in.” Ken, a friend who hasn’t appeared until now, pokes his head awkwardly into our bedroom. He has come to pay respects after finishing work, but he’s embarrassed. “If it’s too late . . . ” “Please.” For a second, I’m about to pull myself up and go downstairs to sit in my little chair and offer him some leftover food, but I’m too weak. I can’t leave a guest standing, though, so I invite him into bed. Actually I command him. I’m allowed—supposed—to indulge myself during this week. Ken sits primly. “Lie down,” I insist. “Make yourself comfortable.” I slide a pillow out from under my head and set it between my wife and me and pat it. Ken still isn’t at ease, with his hands folded on his chest like a corpse, but that’s the best he can do as the three of us lie there and talk. For the hundredth time, I tell how expected and unexpected my father’s death was. We must have spoken for half an hour, but the only question I remember him asking is, “Did he leave any unfinished business?” For a second I think he’s referring to business business, which my father characteristically left in immaculate condition, but then I realize that because Ken’s a psychiatrist (presumably used to people talking while lying prone), he means human business, maybe father-son business, regrets. It’s the best question I’ve heard all week. “No,” I say with amazement and renewed gratitude for my father. “None at all.” Yet the question makes me think about my own unfinished business. Something has been bothering me in the two houses of shivah in which prayers are said every evening at dusk. Until that moment, people offer condolences; they chat; they nosh. Then, at an invisible signal, the room quiets and prayer books borrowed from the shul are distributed. Everyone stands and someone—the rabbi in New Jersey; my wife in New York—leads services. They’re the same services usually conducted in a shul, and they conclude with the Mourner’s Kaddish. Each night, everyone looks at me. I hold the prayer book open to the correct page, which includes the Aramaic text and a transliteration in case the mourner needs help. But I need more help than transliteration can offer. I stare down at the Kaddish. I can’t say it.
PART THREE: SAYING KADDISH
“Minhag k’din,” my father said the few times we got into a theological discussion. The sentence is an aphorism, “Custom becomes law,” and it defined his religious life. He went to shul most Saturdays, claiming that he was there for gossip rather than worship, though I suspect that he said a few prayers. He certainly knew the words, despite a decades-long lapse in using them. Just as he never sat shivah, he never bothered to attend shul in postwar Europe or during his first years in the United States. The official explanation for this is that he was too busy creating a life, but in truth he wasn’t inclined. Genocide had obliterated any faith he ever had. One day in the hospital, the rabbi who regularly visited him promised that he would say a mi sheberakh (a prayer for the sick) the next Shabbos. After the rabbi left, my father leaned over and whispered to me, “A mi sheberakh helps the living like El Malei Rachamim (a prayer said for the first time at a funeral and repeated yearly on the yahrzeit, or anniversary of the death) helps the dead.” I told you he was hilarious. I told you he was utterly realistic. Only when my sister and cousins and I were born did my father and uncle feel the need to join a congregation. As Uncle Al told me this week, “If I lived in Israel they wouldn’t ever see me in shul, but in America this is the way to be a Jew.” This is not, however, the way to make a Jew. My suburban Hebrew school education was a pathetic mishmash of whitewashed Bible stories, unthinking Zionism (as opposed to the thoughtful Zionism I prefer), rote language study practically designed to kill any appreciation for the tongue, and, mostly, rules. And most of the rules were negative. We know who we are because we don’t eat pork. We know who we are because we don’t celebrate Christmas. Actually, I know who I am because the idea of God repels me. More than that, however, I know who I am because I’m my dead father’s son. I have inherited from him and my uncle their distaste for religion, and like them, I am profoundly Jewish. What sort of Jew I am, however, is hard to define. I suppose that my faith is what some people call “secular Judaism” —not merely a watered-down version of the real thing that eludes the rigors of traditional forms of belief, but an equally or, I’d argue, more rigorous adherence to Jewish ethics, culture, and history. Like my father, I didn’t belong to a shul throughout my 20s, though I’d sit beside him in his shul for Yom Kippur and visit my parents’ house for Passover Seders. Also like him, I joined a shul when it came time to inculcate my own children. Since then, Friday nights have became Shabbos in our house. Candles are lit on the candelabra made from the German silver my father brought from Europe. I also host a Passover Seder, though my father has always led the service.
Still, I avoid synagogue, attending only on holidays or to acknowledge the life-cycle occasions of friends and relatives. Faith is simply not in my blood. At least traditional faith, though I probably do believe in a cosmic if not anthropomorphic demiurge. Yet even then, I don’t understand why belief must entail the necessary corollary of worship. If I walk into Broadway and get hit by a taxi, I believe in the taxi, but I do not hobble to my knees and pray to it. Reciting prayers, however, is a law, and although certain religious laws may be stupid, obeying them is intellectually consistent. If you genuinely believe that God, for whatever ineffable reasons of His own, has forbidden you from wearing a mixture of wool and linen (Leviticus 19:19) you can’t very well second-guess the creator of the universe. But customs are different, I insisted when, as an adolescent I argued with my father about the irrationality of adhering to bizarre or empty rituals. Over the years, however, my attitude changed. The laws relying on rabbinical interpretation of divine mandate still had no authority for me, but some of the customs that emerged from real human beings’ need or whimsy created an authentic relationship to the past. Thus, I am entirely willing to eat unkosher cheeseburgers or lobsters while I find a sacramental savor in the customary folk foods of pastrami and smoked fish. Mulling this over, I recall a famous literary critic’s scoffing dismissal that “Judaism is nothing but ancestor worship.” Yes, I want to reply, you’ve got it just right. I prefer my ancestors to the deity. So I cover the mirrors and feel an odd satisfaction that is more than skin- or silver-deep. I wear torn clothing and don’t shave. But saying Kaddish, the single law (or custom that has become a law) that is most universal in Jewish culture, sticks in my throat. The problem started several hours after the funeral. There was a flow of visitors through the afternoon and a flood in the evening timed to coincide with prayers. Since Passaic is an Orthodox community, the crowd vaguely separated into men and women. The men shuckled back and forth in a blur of Hebrew that arrived swiftly at its climactic moment, the Mourner’s Kaddish. “Yitgadal v’yitkadash,” it begins. “Hallowed and enhanced.” I am not alone, because the leader of the service chants along with the mourners, including anyone else in the room who has lost a parent during the previous 11 months. I am not alone, but I am central. This is supposed to be the first Kaddish said by the firstborn. Most people think of the Kaddish as synonymous with the Mourner’s Kaddish, but there are multiple nearly identical Kaddishes interspersed throughout the daily and holiday services. The difference between Kaddishes is not what is said, but who says it. Aside from a few minor occasion-specific prayers, the Mourner’s Kaddish is the only major prayer restricted to certain members of the congregation. It is incumbent upon the mourner to say this in public every day for 11 months. Why mourning doesn’t last a clean year I don’t know, but I suppose that I should give small thanks as I prepare for the long haul. Eleven months is a lot of shul going for someone who detests prayer, and it’s a lot of early rising for a normally late sleeper. Who cares? I will wake each day, a relatively easy task now in the summer when it’s warm and light, but I will also wake when it’s cold and dark in the winter. I will walk 13 blocks down Broadway to the shul at 100th Street by 7:30 to join the morning minyan to bind myself in the weird leather straps called tefillen and say prayers that I don’t understand and don’t believe. Kaddish is a public display of filial responsibility—a statement that announces, “This man had a son who loved and respected him”—and so I will do it. I think he would have expected it. But on the very first night, I can’t. After the initial two words, I halt and look stupid, which is presumably better than collapsing in a wail. The third and fourth words of the prayer are “sh’mei raba.” They mean “may be His great name.” Generally speaking, I don’t mind saying, or at least I don’t refuse to say, prayers on the infrequent occasions when I’m inside a shul. As far as I’m concerned, they are forms of “ceremonial deism” as Sandra Day O’Connor deemed certain mentions of God in a Supreme Court case regarding the Pledge of Allegiance. They’re said by the entire congregation and my voice is merely one among the multitude. The Mourner’s Kaddish, however, is individual, mine to avow. Now I discover that it’s also mine to deny. This prayer, misconstrued by most people as a prayer for the dead, is actually a paean to the deity. What I can’t stop thinking while staring at the words is: Humble me by taking away my mirrors; humble me by making me wear torn clothing and sit below all others; but don’t ask me to say thank you. I draw the line at praising the designer of the universe for the demise of my father. A translation of the Mourner’s Kaddish is strangely hard to find in Siddur Sim Shalom, the prayer book used by my congregation. Instead of the English words that face nearly every other page in the volume, there is a transliteration. This is a kindness to those who may be able to read the original. Yet why not offer a translation, too? The omission is especially odd since the Mourner’s Kaddish is probably recited by more people than any other prayer in the liturgy. Followers of laws say it when a loved one dies because they’re always in shul; and followers of custom say it when a loved one dies because this is the only time they’re in shul. A pure speculation: maybe the editors of Siddur Sim Shalom knew that the Kaddish might not please everyone. It sure doesn’t please me. But I must continue because silence would be too egregious. Before I know what I’m doing, I insert my father’s name into the prayer and from there on I grasp hold of a few innocuous words from the actual prayer, yisrael or amen, in a feeble attempt to give the illusion of participation, but mostly I’m murmuring beneath my breath, There was a man. He was good. Now he’s gone. How I miss him. Over the next two days of Kaddish at my mother’s house, I don’t advance much beyond a continuously improvised whisper as it becomes obvious that whatever I’m doing is not what I should. One friend of my father’s takes me aside and tells me how important it is to say Kaddish, and I reply that I intend to. A neighbor of my father’s informs me that it is possible to pay someone else to say Kaddish in one’s stead, and that sounds shameful. By the time I am ready to commence shivah at my own house, I’ve looked at the prayer more intently and developed a plan. As if called forth for this purpose, my first visitors are two friends, both novelists of skeptical intelligence, who grew up in traditional households. Aryeh’s father was an Orthodox rabbi in Canada and Pearl comes from a Hasidic family in Brooklyn. Since I’m supposed to satisfy myself, I accept their condolences cursorily and immediately ask for help before anyone else arrives. My request is heresy. “I need to rewrite the Kaddish. How’s your Aramaic?” If they’re shocked, they maintain aplomb. Besides, they’re required to oblige me. I take out one of the prayer books and point to the first line. “How can we change ‘Hallowed and enhanced may be His great name’ to ‘Hallowed and enhanced may be the dead’?” I’ve already given this some thought and decided not to substitute either my father’s name or the phrase “my father” for the divine pronoun because I want the edited version to retain the feeling of generic recitation. I want to feel as if I am reading rather than writing. My friends come up with the word maysuh, though the next few clauses subsequently become problematic since “He” is hallowed and enhanced “throughout the world of His own creation.” Much as I feel that my father created my world, I can’t honestly claim that he created the world. Nor can I hope for the enactment of the next sentence, which begins, “May He cause His sovereignty soon to be accepted.” We eliminate those words entirely and jump straight from “Hallowed and enhanced may be the dead” to “during our life and the life of all Israel. And let us say: Amen.” The remaining paragraphs are easy. Twice more we substitute maysuh, once again for raba and once for d’kudsha, which means “the Holy One”—capitalized. Could I just uncap it in my mind? No, “the dead” should be repeated. Elsewhere we change a word or rework the grammar to shift the emphasis away from the celestial to the mundane. “Let there be abundant peace from heaven” becomes “Let there be abundant peace on earth” and “He who brings peace to His universe will bring peace to us” becomes “Those who bring peace to the universe will bring peace to us.” Throughout, we try to keep the syllable count of the edits as close to the original as possible, so I can say this in public without drawing attention (aware as I write this that I’m doing the opposite since vanity has apparently charged back into my life along with mirrors). With these final changes and a few additional linguistic clarifications given to me by a helpful rabbi a few months later, the Kaddish has become a prayer for the dead as well as a prayer for the living who act to hallow and enhance life. Yet I am not at peace. All tinges of deity expunged from my new version of the Kaddish, I sit back, suddenly drained. For a few minutes I was able to forget the reason I was doing this and be what I was before June 12, a writer turning words. But I am more than I was on June 11 because the world is less than it was then. I am not at peace, but I am getting adjusted to my new routine. Waking early hasn’t proved as difficult as I thought because sleeping is no longer as easy as it’s been. Every day I tuck my handwritten Mourner’s Kaddish into my pocket, and every day I unfold it at the end of the service, and every day I read it out loud. I hope that my father would approve. He understood that even if customs become laws, the customs themselves have to come from somewhere. There’s one more thing to say. Joe, his name was Joe.
Melvin Jules Bukiet is the author of seven books of fiction and the editor of three anthologies. He teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and lives in Manhattan, where bad things never happen.
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