Monday, July 23, 2012

Reading Kaddish

Tonight I finally finished Leon Wieseltier's book, Kaddish.  A long time fan of his from my days as a subscriber to the New Republic, I bought it shortly after it was published (1998).  I got through about half of it then and put it aside.  In the back of my mind, I knew I'd pick it up again when kaddish became a reality.

I began rereading it shortly after Shiva ended, starting at the beginning.  (I'm a slow reader.  Also, it's 583 pages.)  For the past few months, I've been reading it only on Shabbat.  As I went along, I tagged the page with a post-it when he said something I liked.  The book sits on my desk with yellow, orange and green post-its sticking out like weird decorations.  If I refer to one of his comments in this blog, I remove the post-it.  Many remain.

It's definitely the best book I've read about mourning both from intellectual and emotional standpoints.  In reality, it's not really a book, but more of an intellectual travelogue of his year mourning his father's death.  We find out little about his actual life, nothing about wife and kids, some about his father, a Holocaust survivor.  The majority of pages are devoted to translations of rabbinic sources on mourning, the study of which he devoted himself during his kaddish year.  These in themselves are quite interesting, but it's his reflections on these sources and thoughts on kaddish and mourning that make the book so moving.

Lately I've sought out other books about kaddish and mourning.  Why?  I want to better understanding the process of mourning and am curious what others have to say about it.  (Also my taste in reading tends to be on the heavy side.) I've read Ari Goldman's Living a Year of Kaddish (a fast read, too warm and fuzzy for my taste). I skimmed through Anita Diamant's Saying Kaddish (a nice general primer on Jewish traditions associated with death).  I just purchased an out-of-print book edited by Jack Riemer called Jewish Insights on Death and Mourning, published in 1995.  I've gone through Maurice Lamm's classic, The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning, a compendium of Jewish law related to burial and mourning.  And I recently purchased A Daughter's Recitation of Mourner's Kaddish by Rahel Berkovits (2011), a compendium of laws related to women saying kaddish.

Am I being morose by reading these works.  A bit, but that's what's interesting me these days.  In a way, kaddish is not just a prayer, it's a mindset.  Here's a bit of Wieseltier (p. 455) that speaks to this:

"For as long as I have been organizing my life around the kaddish, I have been organizing my life around my father. When kaddish is over, he will be gone. My strict observance of the year of mourning has had the consequence of delaying the return to normal life. I have lived in a state of suspension, shielded from a fatherless world by a fatherful practice. The Jewish way of mourning has turned an absence into a presence."

He's right. Reading these books is a way of acknowledging my mother. I'll do anything to stay as close to her as possible.

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