Thursday, December 27, 2012

Closure? No!

A few days ago in shul, I was speaking to a man who recently started saying kaddish for his father. In the course of the conversation, the word "closure" came up. This word often comes up when tragic or traumatic events are referred to. I was never too comfortable with it, I think because it implies that a chapter in one's life can be "closed," like when you finish reading a book. The book is closed and you never need to reopen it. The event is over and you "move on."

If closure means "erasing" or "forgetting," then I am completely at odds with it. It doesn't imply integrating the experience into one's life, which is how I feel about the experience of mourning. My official period of mourning is over, but unofficial mourning continues and always will. I miss my mother and think about her as much as I ever did since she died. When I made Latkes for Chanuka using her recipe, I thought about her. My niece is getting married next month, and I would have had endless conversations with her about arrangements and dress and the dynamics of the occasion. And how my children are doing. And my wife. And me. And so on and so on.

There is no closure, there is only living with loss and the memories and the lessons taught and the "what would my mother have said."

I agree again with Leon Wieseltier, whose words on "closure," more eloquent than mine, I'd like to quote:
What is happening to me now is nothing like what Americans call 'closure.' What a ludicrous notion of emotional efficiency. Americans really believe that the past is past. They do not care to know that the past soaks the present like the light of a distant star. Things that are over do not end. They come inside us, and seek sanctuary in subjectivity. And there they live on, in the consciousness of individuals and communities. . . . Closure is an ideal of forgetfulness. It is a denial of finality, insofar as finality is never final. Nothing happens once and for all. It all visits, it all returns" (Kaddish, p. 576).

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Turning on the music

Now that my kaddish year is over, I can go to hear music again. I've been to two concerts, which I'd bought tickets to a few months back, the Who at Madison Square Garden and Leonard Cohen at the Barclays Center.  Both concerts were fantastic.

New York Times music critic Jon Pareles's review of The Who concert is at
His spot-on review of the Leonard Cohen concert can be found at

In an earlier post, I wrote about how difficult it was to give up live music for a year. I wondered whether hearing music could have provided moments of joy from the sadness of mourning or maybe even provided a new perspective into my feelings.

It's not just that going to a concert would have looked like engaging in frivolity while my loss was still fresh. Rather, I don't think I was emotionally ready to appreciate a live music experience. It made sense to deny myself the pleasure of music so that I could more fully embrace it after the kaddish year ended. There is wisdom in setting aside these joyful experiences for a specific period of time. As Kohelet (Ecclesiastes 3:4) says, "A time to weep and a time to laugh, A time to mourn and a time to dance." A time to be with one's own thoughts and feelings. The Psalms speak about a transformation of mourning to joy: "In the evening one lies down weeping, but in the morning--glad song" (Psalms 30:6) The message is: live through the evening of sorrow before experiencing the morning of joy. Don't skip to joy before fully experiencing mourning. The setting aside of music for a year is another step in  the goal of ensuring that the acceptance of the death of your parent is complete.

Good live music has a way of transporting your soul to a higher place. You feel good. Fully alive. Affirmed. At one point during The Who concert, during the song "I've Had Enough," these words penetrated me: "I've had enough of living, I've had enough of dying, I've had enough of smiling, I've had enough of crying. . . ." Yes, I had enough. Of death. Of pain. Tears. I want to live again and my Kaddish Year prepared me for the re-entry into the world of the living. There's very little if any guilt associated with these thoughts. My mother, herself a serious music lover, would have been so happy to see me enjoying music again.

I end with these words from Leonard Cohen, from his incredible song "If It Be Your Will," performed at the concert I attended:
If it be your will
That a voice be true
From this broken hill
I will sing to you
From this broken hill
All your praises they shall ring
If it be your will
To let me sing
From this broken hill
All your praises they shall ring
If it be your will
To let me sing

Sunday, December 2, 2012

In praise of going to shul

Saying kaddish means going to shul a lot. Shul can be, and often is, boring. At least I find it such. The services are pretty much the same from day to day. Still I am, and remain, a shul goer, even after my kaddish year.

And why is that? Several reasons. First, I pray better at shul than I do at home. At home there are more distractions. I see my computer which reminds me of work I have to do. I see household objects from my day to day life. All this doesn't make for a spiritual atmosphere. (Praying at work, which I need to do every so often, is even more difficult.) Going to shul takes you out of your normal environment. You know you are going to shul to pray. Also, other people are there who are also praying, so your individual prayer is supported by others. I always find it moving when all the mumbling of prayer suddenly ceases and the room turns so quiet as the silent Amidah is recited. The powerful experiences I had while saying kaddish could never have happened had I prayed at home.

There are other reasons to go to shul: the Torah is read publicly and so you get more exposure to its words and messages. You get to see your friends and talk with them, see their kids and generally catch up with their lives. And you meet many different kinds of people that you wouldn't otherwise encounter. Your presence is also supporting mourners who are saying kaddish.

Finally, while shul is often quite routine, you never know what could happen. Every so often it's full of surprises. One time while I was in the middle of my kaddish year, none of the rabbis was at the Mincha/Ma'ariv service, so one of the regular congregants volunteered to give a D'var Torah between Mincha and Ma'ariv. This elderly gentleman ended up speaking about his father's experiences in World War I in Europe and the atrocities he witnessed during the German invasion of Belgium. Another time, again when no rabbinic staff was present, a retired rabbi spoke about his experiences studying under the great Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (otherwise known as "The Rav") and related stories about the incredible nervousness he and other rabbinic candidates experienced when they had to enter the room for their Smicha (ordination) exam before the Rav. He remembered one candidate who literally passed out from anxiety.

Yesterday during the Shabbat Mincha service another event occurred in shul that I will never forget. An elderly man whom I've known for a while was called up for an Aliyah to the Torah. His son wheeled him up in a wheelchair. Before he recited the blessings for the Torah, the rabbi explained that he was observing the Yahrzeit of his mother. The 89th Yahrzeit! That's right, 89 years of marking the day of his mother's death. This man is 93 years old. His mother died when he was 4. I'd like to ask him if he actually remembers her. Even if I live to be 120, I wouldn't observe that many Yahrzeits. How moving that after all these years, his mother's memory (if that is even the right word) lives on within him.

As Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach famously said, "you never know. You just never know."