Reconsidering Kaddish: Four new approaches to an old ritual

“Yitgadal v’yitkadash…” the words of the Kaddish have echoed through synagogues for centuries, traditionally intoned by a Jewish man in mourning during a prayer service, with nine other men — at various points — interjecting an “amen.” But in this century, in various communities, Kaddish is getting a modern overhaul. Four emerging Kaddish innovations — two in Los Angeles, one in New York City and one in the United Kingdom — preserve the words of the prayer, while attempting to expand access to this ritual and to add layers of modern resonance our shtetl-dwelling forebears never would have imagined.

‘Hello From the Other Side’ (Los Angeles)

While saying daily Kaddish for her father this year, Pico-Robertson resident and educator Nili Isenberg found that Adele’s ubiquitous song “Hello” had stuck in her mind. In addition to the music, she said in an interview, “the actual words of the song resonated, about saying the words every day and trying to reach out to someone through these words.” So the mother of three took a literal note from pop culture, transforming the song into a ” target=”_blank”> Instead of tasking one synagogue with running a daily minyan, six Reform synagogues — Congregation Kol Ami, Temple Israel of Hollywood, Temple Isaiah, Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, Leo Baeck Temple and Wilshire Boulevard Temple — have banded together, each taking responsibility for one day of the week. Each host synagogue may shape the service and schedule in its own way to suit its membership. The only requirement is that Kaddish must be recited. 

While many Reform Jews might not list a daily Kaddish minyan as a priority, Missaghieh believes that’s because they didn’t know it could be an option. “It was always seen as ‘only the traditional Jews do this.’ But with education and exposure and gentle invitations for people to do this in environments that are comfortable for them, it will become a need,” she said.

“It’s one of those ideas that was just waiting to be discovered,” Marcus said. “It takes a bit of commitment, but people realize the seriousness with which Kaddish is treated in the Jewish community. It’s fundamental to our longevity.“

Marcus realized that the six congregations launching the L.A. Reform Minyan Project evokes the six points of the Magen David (the six-pointed Jewish star). “To me, it’s a Venn diagram of intersecting triangles and finding that place in the middle. If there’s ever a time for a metaphor,” he said, “it’s totally the overlap, the rich center of the star that we’re making here. And it’s only possible if we do it together.”

‘Women Mourners: A Guide to Kaddish and Mourning’ (London, United Kingdom)

In the United Kingdom, the Orthodox movement is now encouraging women to engage in the Kaddish ritual if they want to, with a new guide published by United Synagogue (the U.K.’s council of Orthodox rabbis) titled, “Women Mourners: A Guide to Kaddish and Mourning.” The six-page booklet outlines the options for Orthodox Jewish women mourners regarding Kaddish and suggests other recommended acts of memory, effectively forming a Frequently Asked Questions-style guide. “Do I have to be observant in order to recite Kaddish?” is answered with the movingly inclusive, “Kaddish is something that every Jewish person can say in U.S. [United Synagogue] communities, if, sadly. they need to.” 

Other questions highlight imbalances that remain in Orthodox Judaism, and the potential roadblocks for women saying Kaddish. “What if there is no mechitzah [divider between men’s and women’s sections] when I get to shul?” reflects the reality: Most daily minyanim are attended solely by men, so women may need to call in advance to ask that the mechitzah be set up for services at which they are planning to say Kaddish. And “Should both men and women respond to me when I am saying Kaddish?” acknowledges that many men believe it is forbidden to answer a woman’s Kaddish. 

While the guide still expects women to join a minyan of 10 men (a female-inclusive minyan is not an option according to Orthodox Judaism), it does indicate a shift toward expanding access to the ritual of saying Kaddish.

Virtual Kaddish (New York and the world)

For those of any gender, especially those not connected to Orthodoxy or the culture of daily (or any) prayer, the New York-based Lab/Shul founded by Amichai Lau-Lavie has launched a virtual space for Kaddish recitation. This “experiment in virtual ritual reality,” as the Lab/Shul website terms it, is a free conference call. Callers “share their names and reasons for saying Kaddish, read a poem and learn a brief sacred teaching together, and then recite the Kaddish together.” The call often takes about 30 minutes. 

The concept evolved from Lau-Lavie’s Kaddish experience, he said in a phone interview. The rabbinical student, writer, educator and Storahtelling founder has a sizable following of friends and colleagues from his years in the Jewish innovation and education space, many of whom had expressed a wish to support Lau-Lavie as he mourned his father. Lau-Lavie explained that many of these people weren’t comfortable in a synagogue, or were “women where there wasn’t a friendly minyan available.” Their phone conference experiment — to stand with Lau-Lavie virtually as he said Kaddish — drew about 30 people from all over the world.  

Lau-Lavie’s year of mourning is over, but the call is still held on Thursdays at noon, Eastern time. Recent calls have drawn participants from Alaska, Arizona, Florida, New York and Massachusetts, as well as international calls from France and Israel. 

Because Lab/Shul is an experimental space — as the website calls it, an “artist-driven, everybody-friendly experimental community for sacred Jewish gatherings” — this service may evolve again to include video, but the Lab/Shul founder has his reservations. “There’s something comforting in just a voice,” he said, calling it “personal and anonymous.”

Letters to the editor: Teshuva, Seoul food and a minyan a day

Tradition, Teshuvah and Trojans

I am a sometime Christian (more “some” than “time”) who relates perfectly to those Rob Eshman describes in this most excellent column (“What For?” Sept. 26). I totally agree that teshuvah “is not a Jewish thing; it’s a human thing [and that] Judaism (like Christianity) offers a way.” Needless to say I often struggle to find that “way.” I am married to a wonderful, spiritual Jewish lady, totally committed in heart and soul to her faith. She has taught me what it means to love and be loved. 

Ken Artingstall, Glendale  

Loved it, so spot on. I am one of those “holiday Jews” who goes for two reasons, maybe more that I’m not aware of, but I go because it feels good and sets a good example for my grandchildren. This year, my 8-year-old granddaughter was in the pop-up choir for Temple Isaiah and she asked me if I was going to come see her. I asked her if I have ever let her down. When she saw me in the audience and gave me that smile that only a papa and his granddaughter could feel, it said to me, as I wiped the tears away, that is God looking down on both of us.

What she didn’t know was as the services were held at Royce Hall at UCLA and I am such a big USC fan, that it was the first time I was on the UCLA campus … what a grandfather won’t do.

My wife makes me read Rob Eshman’s column each week, and I must say, he really has his hand squarely on the pulse of what’s going on in the world as well as the people he speaks for.

Allan Kretchman via email

Seoul Food

How clever to teach both about Judaism and multiethnicity via food (“What Roy Choi Can Teach the Jews, Oct. 3). Rob Eshman has given me a lot to think about as our organization continues to develop our interfaith work in L.A.

I’ll be referring to Reb Green’s list repeatedly as a personal guidepost. Tasty!

Shepha Schneirsohn Vainstein, president, reGeneration

A Minyan a Day …

Much gratitude to the Jewish Journal and Danielle Berrin for the wonderful Oct. 3 cover story, “Prayer: A Story for Yom Kippur. Berrin took us on her one-year odyssey as she said Kaddish for her mother at a daily minyan, in her case at Temple Beth Am. 

Her personal journey unfolded before us: from her being alone and afraid to understanding the power of saying Kaddish to finding the great gift of community made up of angels who attend daily minyans. Her writing was beautiful, insightful and moving, and Berrin managed to bring her insightful writing to the story as well as pour her heart and soul into her very personal story. Many thanks.

Susan Mishler, Beverly Hills

Exodus Complex

Severyn Ashkenazy did a magnificent job trying to sell present-day Poland to those seeking a “safe” country in Europe (“Safest Place in Europe, Sept. 26). However, the memories of the horrors committed in that country are still etched deeply in people’s psyches … and as my cousin Louis Begley (“Wartime Lies”) wrote in one of his best selling books, what was most shocking and hurtful was that his Polish neighbors, best friends, turned into bitter enemies of the Jews. Of course, there were many Poles who heroically saved Jews at great risk to their own lives, and are justly honored. 

Ashkenazy’s seemingly innocent reference to the “embattled,” “unsafe” and “overcrowded” Israel was meant to psychologically impact and dissuade Jews from going there, particularly should another en-masse exodus from Europe be necessary. And to toss out history so cavalierly is both hurtful and unwise.

He and the Jewish community at large can hold their heads up because there is an extraordinary Israel.

Cesia Bojarsky, Beverly Hills

Summer of War, Fall of Reflection 

I could only agree with everything this article had said (“5775: Old Conflicts, New Hopes,” Oct. 3). Arthur Cohn’s opinions on the war that took place this summer gave me another insight to understand what really happens in Israel as well as Gaza. The tragic kidnapping and murder of the three boys — as well as the death of many more — ended up saving the lives of many, a positive way to look at what happened to Israel. The sacrifices that were made prevented thousands of deaths. All across America, news reports continued to show heart-wrenching photos of dead children in Gaza without any implication as to what really happened, leading many to believe that the conflict was all Israel’s fault. This, many argue, led to a rise in anti-Semitism all over the world. Israel has seen Hamas’ endless building of tunnels, showing Israel what Hamas will continue to do in order to keep power. This summer’s conflict brought the civilians of Israel together in unison, relying on one another for strength, support and the will to keep living life as only the Israelis know how.

Melissa Lustman, via email

How Jewish ritual helped me find my way through loss

I had to press my lips closed, the day after it ended.

The ritual was no longer mine. My duty was complete. But the words, with their cadences and rhythms, their alliterative twists — yitgadal v’yitgadash — had become my anthem. For 11 months, I had owned these words, claimed them like land, their cries and God-calls had become, for me, a visitable place. 

How could I now forsake them? 

The last day I said it, my hands trembled. Deep, heavy breaths rose and fell in my chest. The room felt hot. I’m not ready, I thought to myself. I’m not ready to leave this place — hamakom — the place of consolation. When my heart first tore, like the dress I wore to her funeral, the words of Kaddish were what daily sustained me. 

Magnified and sanctified … Magnified and sanctified …

These words were my poetry, the only sustenance for a soul in retreat, for a child who felt like an orphan. I needed these words, in their mystical, mysterious Aramaic, like food.  

May his great name be … in the world that he created … as he wills …

How could I stop mourning my mother? I still needed her. I still needed this.

Y’hei sh’mei rabba m’varach l’alam ul-al’mei al’maya …

In the Talmud, Kaddish is likened to Yom Kippur, described as a prayer of atonement on behalf of the dead. One source even tells us that when a child says Kaddish for a parent, “Any decree against them will be torn up and the Gates of the Garden of Eden opened.” 

Is it possible that my mother needed these words, too?

It has been more than a year since I buried her. She was 61 when she died. “Young,” everyone said. She would have loved that. She also would have loved that the coroner’s report began, “The body is that of a 5-foot-5-inch, 127-pound white female appearing younger than the given age of 61 years.” It is true that she was very devoted to proper skin care.

Her official cause of death was blunt head trauma — from a series of falls — leaving her with more than one “dark red subgaleal hematoma.” But that only tells you how she died; it doesn’t begin to suggest the preceding years of decline, the crusade her body launched against itself, or the wrenching struggle of her soul to find some kind of peace. I want to believe she found that peace in death, and that her pain ceased. But the end of her pain meant the end of her life, and, therefore, the beginning of my pain — a pain my family, as her survivors, has to live with every day.

At a shivah minyan for Sheryl Berrin-Klein, from left: husband Donald Klein, son Frank, daughters Jessica and Danielle, and their father, Larry Berrin.

The last time I saw my mother, she lay on a hospital bed at South Miami Hospital, pink-lipped and auburn-haired, her alabaster skin flushed with the final trickle of blood ever to flow through her veins. On life support, she looked just like John Everett Millais’ Ophelia — painterly, peaceful, floating gently down some endless stream. The air in the hospital room was so thick you could choke; a disconsolate quiet punctuated by enormous eruptions of grief. I can still hear my sister screaming.

The next week was a dark fairy tale. A funeral. Bereaved children. Devastated spouse. Eulogies. The pounding dirt on her grave. Shivah. Platters of food. A greenhouse of flowers. So many people. Noise. Rupture. Alienation. Angst. The phone didn’t stop ringing.

When I arrived back in L.A., just before Shabbat, it was as if her death had not happened. No one I’d met in the seven years I’d lived in California was among the nearly 500 people who attended her funeral. Miami was too far, and it had happened too quickly, and I hadn’t had the courage or the time to invite anyone. I flew to Miami, put her in the ground, and then returned to everything as it had been, while my world had unalterably changed.

That first afternoon, I sat on my couch, blank and full of dread. What should I do with myself? Shabbos was coming, and I was alone. Everything was disorienting. The air was hot, humid. I felt dizzy. Services seemed like the safest, most tranquil place to go. So I stumbled, as if drunk, to Temple Beth Am’s Kabbalat Shabbat, the service that welcomes the Sabbath. I had never been there before, but it is just around the corner from where I live, and, at the time, there was nowhere else for me to go. Saying Kaddish would ground me, I told myself. It would force me to stand still in a spinning world. 

At this time, we invite all who are mourning to please rise …

At the end of the service, Rabbi Ari Lucas looked around and kindly asked new people to introduce themselves. He looked directly at me. He knew he had never seen me before and invited me to declare myself. But I lowered my head, wishing to remain silent. Death had rendered me closed. I wanted to be alone, anonymous and far away. Loss had diminished me, my spirit shrunk from grief and pain. 

But I had a duty. For much of Jewish history I probably wouldn’t have been allowed to fulfill this mitzvah, but fortunately I am a Jewish woman living in the 21st century in Los Angeles. Kaddish was mine to claim. As Rabbi Daniel Landes, director of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, reassuringly writes in “The Puzzling Power of Kaddish”: “No one is beyond sanctifying God’s name.”   

Kaddish wasn’t a choice. It was my reveille call back to the world of the living. I’d learned of the ritual not in religious school, but from Leon Wieseltier. I devoured his book, “Kaddish,” on the plane ride home from my mother’s funeral. “Help me, Nachmanides. Help me,” Wieseltier wrote. I wasn’t entirely sure who Nachmanides was, but that became my prayer, too. 

When I walked into Beth Am’s daily morning minyan 36 hours later, I wanted to do what was required of me, then disappear. I didn’t want pity; I didn’t want friends; I didn’t want food. I wanted to be an island. 

But community, just like family, it turns out, is not about what you want but what you need. 

Kaddish knows this. It’s why a minyan is required to say it; it demands a communal response. And that response, Landes teaches, “interrupts every other prayer, for Kaddish is beyond all prayers.”  

And so began my ritual of rising to say Kaddish. Each day, I would wake at an ungodly hour to go and do the godly thing, and each day, it hurt like a hangover. At 6:30 a.m., I’d shove my cats from on top of me, roll out of bed, throw on whatever clothes I had worn the night before, grab my tallit and walk out the door. And almost every morning on the way to shul, my sister would phone, and I’d say, “I’m late for minyan!” 

“You say that every day,” she’d tease. 

I still don’t know how to daven the early morning prayers. “If you don’t know Kaddish D’Rabbanan,” one of my teachers recently chided about the rabbi’s Kaddish, said after completing a passage of study, “that means you get to shul more than seven minutes late. That’s the early-bird prayer.” As he well knows, I am no early bird, but it is my firm belief that one should always have something to aspire to. Most days, anyway, the whole service felt to me like a prolonged prelude to the Kaddish, as if all the other liturgy existed as an elaborate exposition in service of this sacred supplication. In the Talmud, Wieseltier reminds us, it is said that the whole world is sustained in existence by the utterance of “Y’hei sh’mei rabba m’varach l’alam ul-al’mei al’maya (May his great name be blessed …).” Long before Kaddish became a full prayer, that line appeared in early Jewish literature — not quite verbatim, but close — in Daniel, which was written around 500-160 B.C.E.

One of the Kaddish platitudes people often refer to is that there’s nothing about death in the prayer. It is, instead, explicitly praiseful, a proclamation of God’s greatness. This is a favorite conundrum of the rabbis who love to answer complicated questions: In the face of loss, when you might be doubting the existence of God, how can you praise God? How can there be eternity when death brings finitude? Why believe in something when death brings nothingness? And who decided it would be a good idea to commemorate the end of life with an affirmation that life goes on? For a while, my thoughts were more in line with Nietzsche than Nachmanides.

Then I realized that Kaddish depends on that convergence. “It is about the meeting place of two worlds, human finitude and God’s eternity,” Rabbis Lawrence Kushner and Nehemia Polen point out in Volume 6 of “My People’s Prayer Book.” “It brings us out of our sadness and anger by having us utter appreciation and praise just when we are tempted to deny the importance of both,” Rabbi Elliot Dorff writes in the same book.

Something extraordinary happens when you force yourself to perform a ritual. In high school, when I was competing in the speech and debate club, my mother noticed that the more my partner and I performed — up to six times each day at some tournaments — a mastery began to develop, a perfection of the text, which then enabled this transcendent, creative magic to happen. And so it was with Kaddish: I doubted it would transform me at first, but I did it anyway. And at the moment I least believed, God showed up. 

God first came in the form of Mike Harris. A white-haired, quietly devout Jew with a gentle soul, Mike knew me no more than a few days before showing up at my doorstep — with his wife, Bev, and two grandkids in tow — offering food and care and a year of free synagogue membership. (I would later joke that the worst part about finishing Kaddish was that now I’d have to pay to join the congregation.) Over 11 months, Mike invited me to Shabbos dinners, taught me how to garden and bought me my first siddur, from Jerusalem, with my Hebrew name inscribed on it in gold. When I first saw my name combined with my mother’s — Leah bat Zalman Leibel v’Sara — I realized she wasn’t lost; she was my link to the world.

Morning after mourning, I felt God’s presence through the people praying around me. Through Teri Cohan-Link, who unfailingly greeted any new person who walked through the door, who saw other people’s pain and was kind; who blessed me with holiday meals, gave me greens from her garden and hugged me when I cried. And Roberta Goodman-Rosenberg, who for months mourned her own mother by my side, and even included my siblings at her holiday table, throughout the year offering tips on the business of mourning, the ordering of footstones and planning for the final Kaddish Kiddush. 

And the rabbis, Adam Kligfeld and Ari Lucas, were often present at daily minyan, quietly davening alongside us, elegant in their warmth, gentle in dispensing wisdom.

At minyan, there were all these Jewish angels everywhere, and Kaddish made me see them. I saw how the minyan gabbai, David Kaplan, diligently performed a million tasks, visible and invisible, every single day, to make it possible for Jews like me to do my duty — to mourn, and magnify and sanctify. 

And then there was Sam Tuchband, who noticed I walked to Starbucks every morning after prayers and brought me his empty coffee bags to exchange for free drinks at the store. And the adorable Nate Milmeister, the nonagenarian neighbor I never knew I had, whose effervescent Yiddishkayt brought levity and light to the austerity of the prayer service. On my birthday, Nate bought me cake; he kept my kitchen stocked with lemons from his yard and never missed an opportunity to practice his old-fashioned coquetry: “You’re a sweet bunch of onions!” he’d flirt. Admittedly, I haven’t received many compliments like that one.

The truth is, I could write at length about each person in the minyan — because it was with these souls, in that space, through the words of our tradition and in the presence of our Torah, that I found my ethereal mother.

Every morning I could see her out the window, in the skies, in the trees, even in the traffic. And through the words of Kaddish, I could speak to her. Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach taught that Kaddish is what the dead would say to us, could we hear them. It’s a gorgeous thought, and I often prayed, “Let it be: Let it be that my mother exists in a place so wondrous only praise would spill from her lips could she speak.” But what if that isn’t so? What if she exists in a perfect, wondrous place but still cries out because she misses her children?

I’ve come to think of the prayer more as literary manna, a fungible fugue that supplies the seeds for a sublime conversation. Kaddish contains the question and the answer. And, like Shabbat, it is a profound gift to the Jewish people. When we are left to wallow in death’s silence, Kaddish may be the only conversation left. 

A few weeks before my 11 months of recitation would end, I became very nervous and couldn’t sleep. What would I do when it was over? When there would be no more mornings of promptness, of purpose, of complaining to my sister, “I’m late for minyan!” Who else in my life but my fellow “minyanaires” had I let see me so raw? Fresh out of bed, hair unwashed, not a stitch of makeup, dutifully wearing the same things day after day feeling not fashionable, but threadbare. How true are the words of the customary phrase, offered by the congregation to a Jew in mourning — “Hamakom yenachem etchem …” May the place comfort you. My hamakom was the Temple Beth Am minyan, where the only expectation was my presence, not my performance; where I was allowed to simply be, just me. 

Hard though it was, the last day of Kaddish turned out to be the best day. It was filled with family and friends — my father, sister and brother, who were here from Miami; my “fellow fellows” from American Jewish World Service, who had made a minyan for me so I could say Kaddish during the 10 days we traveled through Mexico; and my best rabbi friend from another shul, who even led davening. 

Before davening started, one of the daily minyanaires offered me a blessing. “I hope you found some comfort here,” he said. But that last day, I couldn’t stop trembling. 

My teacher recently taught that Kaddish is like a punctuation mark. Its various iterations — half Kaddish, rabbi’s Kaddish, Mourner’s Kaddish etc. — bookend each part of the prayer service: After Birkat Hashachar, Kaddish; after the Amidah, Kaddish; after Torah service, Kaddish; after Aleinu, Kaddish; and so on. It’s a sign of completion. And it is yet more evidence of the brilliance of Jewish tradition: At the moment of loss, our tradition offers us a prayer symbolic of wholeness.

The loss of my mother has circumcised my heart with an irreparable wound. It is still impossible to fathom that for a time she was here, and now she is not. It is harder still to contemplate all the things she’ll miss, all the years I’ll feel deprived of her presence, her wisdom, her counsel, her love. Should I be blessed to marry and have children, they’ll never know her. For every simcha and every sadness, she’ll remain a ghost.

But from all of those losses, Kaddish brought gain. 

“You’ve added many dimensions to this minyan in ways you don’t even know,” one of the minyanaires said to me on my last day of mourning. “One is, we all know we can get written about at any moment, so we’re on our best behavior!”

If best behavior means being committed Jews who are kind to the core and religiously competent, then he was right. (I, on the other hand, still can’t make it through the whole Amidah with this group of NASCAR daveners.) As I told them on the last day, the Temple Beth Am minyan taught me not just what community is — but the highest levels of what it is meant to be.

Several weeks ago, when my childhood friend Steven Sotloff was killed by ISIS militants, I returned to minyan to say Kaddish for him, as well as for my stepfather, simultaneously. That day, my recitation reeked of rage. As our Miami rabbi, Terry Bookman, asked at Steven’s funeral, “Is there any sorrow greater than this?” 

And yet, even when confronted with profound anguish and despair, Kaddish remained the manna: Kaddish doesn’t tell us God is good or fair; Kaddish tells us God is great — big, mighty, inscrutable. Jewish tradition, thank God, knows better than to promise a life devoid of pain. Instead, it offers us the tools — God, community, ritual — to help bear it. 

Yit’barakh v’yish’tabach v’yit’pa’ar v’yit’romam v’yit’nasei …

Rav Kook, the first chief rabbi in Palestine, was once asked how he, a devout Jew, could associate with secular Israelis. And he answered: First comes yitgadal — magnification. You have to expand your prayer, your soul, your circle. Then comes yitgadash — sanctification. Only once you have broadened yourself, and left that narrow place, can holiness emerge.

The Temple Beth Am daily minyan made it possible for me to yitgadal and yitgadash — magnify and sanctify — to emerge from a cocoon of grief and enlarge myself through the presence of community, the presence of my mother and the presence of God.


Kaddish in Mexico

Light and wind poured in through the cracks in the plastic casing the first time we said it. 

We were in Oaxaca, on the rooftop of a charming but spare hacienda, shielded from the elements by a tent of opaque plastic walls, and the mood was a little bit somber. 

Three stories below was the ordinary street chaos of a small town, whose medium scale and communal vibrancy made it seem almost quaint, until the surrounding mountains of the Sierra Madre enter the frame, dwarfing even the city’s smallness. There was an unpleasant irony in the air that morning. It was the first of our 10 days “in the field” with American Jewish World Service, surrounded as we were by the beauty of the natural world just as we were to hear of its horrors. 

A typhoon had just hit the Philippines. Tens of thousands had died or lost their homes, their livelihood and, some, their will to live. Suddenly there was an urgency to saying Kaddish that had not existed moments before. There had been only my duty to say it, and Joshua’s; we had both suffered recent losses and, because we were a kehillah kedoshah, a holy community on a holy mission, the group had agreed to form a daily minyan so that we could recite those ancient, praiseful words with continuing fidelity.

But from that first morning, we couldn’t say Kaddish only for my mother. Or for Joshua’s father. We had to honor all the others — those we had never met who were now also gone, and on behalf of so many new companionate mourners who had been left behind. We had to say it as if our grief was fresh. 

The peculiarity of the Kaddish prayer is that it speaks nothing of grief. It is a prayer of exaltation, of reverence and belief, and how could we praise God just then? How could we magnify and sanctify, glorify and exalt in the aftermath of unsparing destruction? “People swept away in a torrent of seawater … vast stretches of land swept clean of homes … at least 10,000 may have died,” we read in The New York Times. 

May His Great Name be blessed.

So that day we said it as an entreaty, as a plea for more of God’s presence in the face of disaster. We said it to remind ourselves that we live in a tragically broken world, and it is especially during times of devastation that we must seek God’s majesty

May His Kingdom come, in your lives and in your days …  

Each day we said it, Kaddish was different. Each day we would bring new kavanot (intentions) to the prayer that fit the various schema of our social justice study tour. On the way back from El Zarzal, where we met with the indigenous women’s group Naaxwin, we stood atop Mitla’s ancient Zapotec ruins — their alternate name Mictlan, meaning “the place of the dead or underworld” — and contemplated the stories of anger, abuse and aspiration the indigenous women had shared with us. One woman said she had nearly lost her life after the man she had been married to since age 12 stabbed her five times. That day, we said Kaddish as witnesses. 

The prophet Isaiah is told, “atem eidai va’ … ani El — You are my witnesses and I am God” (43:12). Jewish tradition teaches that the act of bearing witness actually wills God into the world. All that we had beheld that day — the stories of struggle, isolation and transformation — became an invitation, even an insistence, for God’s hand. From our glamorous lives in Los Angeles to one community’s meager subsistence in a Mexican jungle, we witnessed the raging vicissitudes of God’s world, demanding the divine actualize — and answer. 

May His Great Name be. In the world that He created. As He wills …

And when what we saw was too much to bear, we said Kaddish as protest. We protested the vanishing of our loved ones, the lost opportunities, the unrealized dreams. We protested the economic rape of agrarian communities, the poisoned fields, the sickened animals, the toxic water. We protested injustice and poverty and indifference; we protested “against everything wrong,” as Elie Wiesel wrote, “to show that we care, that we listen, that we feel.”

May a great peace from heaven — and life! — be upon us and upon all Israel …

Kaddish became our anthem. Our daily affirmation of all that this world is and all that it can yet be. We said it on rooftops and in ruins, in fields and on farms, when our souls and spirits yearned for it, and when there was nothing else to say. 

“The symbols were seeping into everything,” Leon Wieseltier observed in his brilliant book, “Kaddish.” From the mourner’s prayer to the people’s prayer, it suddenly seemed there was no occasion on earth in which we couldn’t — in which we shouldn’t — magnify and sanctify, praise and glorify, raise and exalt, honor and uplift God’s great name …

Above all blessings! And hymns and praises and consolations — that are uttered in the world.

On our final day, when we had said Kaddish in Mexico for the last time, several people were crying. One woman shared that her father abhorred religion and so she had not mourned him with the prayer, but now she understood it differently; another had lost close friends and felt that saying it had helped heal lingering wounds; another, like me, had lost her mother far too soon, and Kaddish had awakened long latent grief. 

Through pain, Kaddish had brought what we’d lost close again.

Each time I utter it, I find my mother in it. Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach teaches: Kaddish is what the dead would say to us, if we could hear them. But for us on earth, it is a commemoration; memory is what we do with what we’ve witnessed once the seeing is over.

May His Great Name be blessed, always and forever. Amen!

Magical music of the Middle East

Almost two years ago, while watching a YouTube video of Mohammed Fairouz’s “Tahrir for Clarinet and Orchestra,” Neal Brostoff, a visiting lecturer in Jewish music history at UCLA, had an idea. The concerto sounded “surprisingly Jewish,” he thought, and not just because the soloist was the eminent klezmer clarinetist David Krakauer. 

At 28, the New York-born Fairouz is among the most accomplished composers of his generation. Many of his scores blend Aramaic, Hebrew and Arabic texts, an aspect of his art that further intrigued Brostoff. So he called Fairouz, who turned out to be as eloquent a speaker as he is a musician. 

“Mohammed is fascinated with Hebrew texts,” Brostoff said, “and that engaged my interest in Israeli composers Betty Olivero and Tsippi Fleischer, who are equally beguiled by Arabic poetry.”

Along with Neal Stulberg, music director of the UCLA Philharmonia, Brostoff developed “Listening to the Other: Mideast Musical Dialogues,” a week of public performances, master classes and panel discussions that will take place at multiple UCLA campus venues Dec. 2-8. Fairouz will be part of a symposium on the politics of Middle Eastern musical collaborations, “Remapping the Middle East Playlist,” on Dec. 4 at the Hammer Museum.

On Dec. 5 at UCLA’s Schoenberg Hall, vocalist Odeya Nini will lead two vocal chamber works —Olivero’s “Makamat” and Fleischer’s “Moderna” for female voice, cello and oud (an ancestor of the lute). The same program will feature a new work by David Lefkowitz, “On the Pain of Separation,” for ney (an Arabic flute), oud and chamber ensemble. 

“Listening to the Other” culminates on Dec. 8 at Royce Hall with two West Coast premieres: Fairouz’s  “Tahrir,” with Krakauer as soloist, and, in the program’s second half, his hour-long Symphony No. 3, “Poems and Prayers,” for mezzo-soprano, baritone, chorus and orchestra.  

The American premiere of Alexander Krein’s “Kaddish,” symphonic cantata for tenor solo, mixed chorus and large orchestra, fills out the first half of the program.

“Poems and Prayers” features the UCLA Philharmonia, Chorale and University Chorus, with mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, baritone David Kravitz and tenor Ashley Faatoalia. 

“It was a wonderful vote of confidence that Mohammed not only entrusted us with the West Coast premiere, but with the work’s first commercial recording,” Stulberg said of Fairouz’s large-scale symphony. 

Indeed, the UCLA musicians will be recording both “Tahrir” and “Poems and Prayers” in Royce Hall for the Sono Luminus label.

Stulberg said the texts in the symphony “range from the ritual words of the Kaddish to the deeply personal reflections” of poets Yehuda Amichai, Mahmoud Darwish and Fadwa Tuqan.

“Our choral singers have spent all semester learning to pronounce and deliver Hebrew text,” Stulberg added. “The work features the orchestra as an equal and often independent element in the drama.”

Fairouz regards the Royce Hall recording sessions and concert as no less than a professional engagement. “I’m treating these students as the professionals they are,” Fairouz said. “This is an opportunity for them to interact with poetry in a musical setting that they ordinarily would not have. For me, it’s about that.”

Fairouz met Krakauer through mutual friends. “He wrote the concerto for me in an Arabic style, and I play it in a Jewish way,” Krakauer said. “So, symbolically that’s a very cool thing. His concerto gets this beautiful Jewish-Arabic musical dialogue going.”

Krakauer also performs on “Tahwidah” (Lullaby), a duo for clarinet and soprano, which opens “Native Informant,” Fairouz’s latest CD on Naxos. A version of “Tahwidah” appears in the symphony “Poems and Prayers.” 

In “Tahrir” — the title refers to the 2011 Tahrir Square uprising in Egypt, and is Arabic for “liberation” — Krakauer said Fairouz left him plenty of room to improvise. “There’s a lot of stuff I do with ornamentation, so he wrote a simple melody, and there are these quarter-tones he wanted,” Krakauer recalled. 

The clarinetist, who called Fairouz “a huge talent,” added that a slightly revised version of “Tahrir” will be performed at Royce Hall. “I haven’t seen it yet,” Krakauer said, “but he’s written something to give the piece a bit more structure and more of his imprint.”

For Krakauer, the importance of composers like Fairouz and events like “Listening to the Other” cannot be underestimated. “Being involved in the arts, playing music, is a great gift,” Krakauer said. “Without raising a flag or holding a gun, we can be strongly political by putting good things out in the world as a counterforce to all the unreasonable forces. A society without the arts is barbaric.”

Fairouz agrees. Besides giving great pleasure, he hopes his work acts as such a counterbalance. Indeed, having a choir and soloists singing great words by poets often thought of as being on different sides of the fence is a key element in his Symphony No. 3, “Poems and Prayers.” 

“That’s part of a larger return to language endeavor,” Fairouz said. “All of our problems are caused by a deterioration in the way we talk to each other, in the way that we use language. We are sharing something very vital when we empower people to see what sort of difference they can make by listening to one another.”

Fairouz said the cultural richness of the Arabic and Jewish communities is often taken for granted, and that only a shared cultural dialogue can bring lasting peace, rather than “a cold peace — a peace of nations and economics.” 

“Audience members and musicians may not know Amichai’s or Darwish’s poetry,” Fairouz said, “but as a Middle Eastern composer, when you sit down at your writing desk, the power of thousands of years of history is rushing through your veins. You are setting some of the most powerful words to music.”

Fairouz was the last student accepted by the late György Ligeti, and he recalls the innovative Hungarian composer telling him, “Your burden will be to make your music timely; your challenge, to make it timeless.”

Fairouz has just completed a violin concerto for Rachel Barton Pine, premiering in March, and is currently working on a cello concerto for Israeli cellist Maya Beiser and the Detroit Symphony, led by Leonard Slatkin. Fairouz is also writing a Kol Nidre for Beiser.

Engaging Jewish culture through poetry, prayers and other rituals does not feel alien to Fairouz. “It’s our shared heritage,” he said. “It’s not complicated. We are a family, one culture. We have differences, but Israel is not going into the sea, and the Arabs are not going to disappear.”

For a performance schedule or other information, visit

Hollande visits graves of victims of Toulouse Jewish school attack

French President Francois Hollande visited the Jerusalem graves of the victims of the attack on a Toulouse Jewish school.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accompanied Hollande to the cemetery on Tuesday.  They were joined by members of the Sandler and Monsonego families, who recited Kaddish.

Rabbi Jonathan Sandler, 30; his children Gabriel, 6, and Aryeh,3; and Miriam Monsonego, 8, were killed in March 2012 when a radical Islamist, Mohammed Merah, entered the Ozar Hatorah school in the city in southwest France and shot at students and teachers.

The school slayings came a few days after Merah gunned down three French soldiers in two drive-by shootings from a scooter near Toulouse.

Merah was shot dead three days after the school shooting during a standoff with police. He admitted to the shootings, saying they were in retribution for Israeli treatment of Palestinians.

In November 2012, Prime Minister Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, joined Hollande and French Jewish community leaders at a memorial ceremony for the Toulouse school victims.

Reflections on the first mourner’s daddish in honor of Memorial Day

Kaddish – The origins of this most famous Jewish prayer are shrouded in history.  Most agree that it began with the central words, “Y’hei Sh’mei Rabbah Mevorach L’Olam u’l’Almei Almaya,” or “May God’s Name be praised now and forever.” One source suggests that the Kaddish was originally recited at the conclusion of a learning session in the study halls of ancient Israel.  After engaging in the sacred task of study, these words were recited to show honor and reverence for the learning and to pay respect to the teacher. 

One legend originates the Kaddish as a memorial prayer when the great teacher of his generation died and his students carried him from the Beit Midrash to the grave. There they recited the words, “Y’hei Sh’mei Rabbah Mevorach L’Olam u’l’Almei Almaya,” to express their profound sadness and gratitude.  It is to say that the greatness of God’s Name is borne out of a teacher’s influence.  Anytime we recite the Mourner’s Kaddish; the words are manifest not only in sadness, but in appreciation for a shared wisdom.     

In honor of Memorial Day, I’d like to introduce you to my newest teacher, US Army Veteran SSGT Stephen E. Sherman.  At 92 years old, Stephen is one of the few living African American serviceman.  He now dedicates his time helping homeless veterans.  We met waiting in a line one morning, and in the midst of light conversation, he drew closer, looked me deeply in the eyes and shared, “I have seen what your people went through when I was in the war.  I was there when they liberated a camp in western Germany.  I will never forget the look on those people’s faces when we told them they were free.”  It was a powerful and brief moment that honestly took me aback.  We shared an understanding from an intensely significant time in his life of the burden and responsibility of memory.  Searching for a response, I returned with words of gratitude for him and his service to our country.  Our chance encounter changed the outlook of my day, and now, even several weeks later, my appreciation for the power memory holds in binding the living together.  

This man, who so proudly served his country in World War II, is spending the twilight years of his life serving those who survive. For that he is an inspiration.  But he became my teacher when he reminded me that when we are carriers of memory and respect between us; we too lived out these words, “Y’hei Sh’mei Rabbah Mevorach L’Olam u’l’Almei Almaya,” God’s great Name is praised when we recognized the collective responsibility to remember.

On Memorial Day we will take moments to activate the memory for those who fought to preserve and protect our ideals.   On Memorial Day, we are reminded just how important it is to remember the bravery and heroism of those who gave their lives to defend our freedom as Americans and as Jews.  And more than words of honor and reverence, on Memorial Day the Mourner’s Kaddish should be recited for them too.  Kaddish breathes meaning into the words we wish to express in gratitude for a lesson learned.

For me, SSGT Sherman gave life and being to the countless men and women who died in service this country.  Our shared moment opened up worlds of meaning to connect the Memorial Day of this country with the memorial days of the Jewish lifecycle and calendar.  It is precisely those worlds of meaning that make God’s Name great now and forever.

Obituaries: Oct. 26 – Nov. 1, 2012

Mina Bear died Sept. 18 at 88. Survived by daughter Moraye (John Hall); brothers Nate, Leo Rosen. Hillside

Edythe Berman died Sept. 18 at 91. Survived by husband Isaac; son Paul (Becky) Gerwin; daughter Jeane (Zane Marhea) Freer; stepsons Ed (Robin) Ron, Gil (Nancy); 5 grandchildren; 4 great-grandchildren. Hillside 

Betty Brown died Sept. 16 at 83. Survived by daughters Janet (Howard) Lutwak, Debra (John) Edelston; son David; 2 grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Rachel Cohen died Sept. 15 at 78. Survived by son Solomon. Mount Sinai

Pauline Cordova died Sept. 14 at 94. Survived by husband Tom; daughter Bette (Dan) Marinoff; son Mark (Claudia); sister Betty Angel; brother David Franco; 6 grandchildren; 2 great-grandchildren. Malinow and Silverman

Robert R. Dubrow died Sept. 21 at 88. Survived by wife Marie; daughter Judy Horton (Brian); son Michael (Shauna). Hillside

Jerry “Hannah” Efros died Sept. 14 at 94. Survived by daughters Susan, Lynda; 1 grandchild. Hillside

Mildred Giesberg died Sept. 16 at 87. Survived by husband Richard; daughter Susan (David Lappen); son Daniel (Carol Lifland); 6 grandchildren; 1 great-grandchild. Hillside

Neil Gold died Sept. 21 at 70. Survived by wife Maureen; sons Daniel, Michael (Danny); sister Mona Goldpanitz; 2 grandchildren. Malinow and Silverman

Aviva Hoyer died Sept. 17 at 95.  Survived by daughters Jennifer (Mark) Holtzman, Stephanie Pinkus; sons Daniel (Megan), Paul (Helen); 10 grandchildren; 4 great-grandchildren. Hillside

Samuel Jacobson died Sept. 18 at 93. Survived by daughter Sharie (Hal Tipton) Woodward; 2 grandchildren. Malinow and Silverman

Evelyn Kanter died Sept. 13 at 92.  Survived by daughter Terry (Marcia) Rosenthal; son Randy (Pauline); brother Alvin (Elaine) Lewis; 4 grandchildren; 3 great-grandchildren. Hillside

Selma Esther Koletsky died Sept. 18 at 80. Survived by daughter Susan (Stuart) Davis; son Roy Aaron (Barbara); 2 grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Evelyn Kravetz died Sept. 17 at 90. Survived by husband Nathan; daughter Deborah; son Daniel. Mount Sinai

Renee Kupferstein died Sept. 17 at 91. Survived by daughter Phyllis (Don); sons John (Drina) Gruber, Ron (Merri); 6 grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Elaine Lenhoff died Sept. 19 at 85.  Survived by daughter Carol (Nathan) Nayman; son Alan Lefko; sister Beverly (Bob) Canvasser; 1 grandchild. Hillside

Melvin H. Levine died Sept. 17 at 96. Survived by son Harmon (Tema); daughter Barbara; 2 grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Irwin H. Linden died Sept. 17 at 86. Survived by wife Barbara; daughters Margo (Alexander) Linden Katz, Amy; sons Gregory M. (Pamela), Kenneth L. (Kathe), Charles E.; 8 grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Victor Lishman died Sept. 15 at 89. Survived by daughters Jo (Ira) Karnofsky, Robin (David) Berger; 3 grandchildren. Hillside

Louis Severin Lockspeiser died Sept. 12 at 91. Survived by wife Toni; daughter Irit; son Gideon. Hollywood Forever

Randall Charles Newman died Sept. 18 at 59.  Survived by wife Janet; daughters Sarah, Erin; brothers Robert (Debbie), Eric (Ronnie) Feldman; father Sidney (Adeline). Hillside

Doris Melnick died Sept. 15 at 97. Survived by sister Edith Sara Zinman. Hillside

David Moss died Sept. 12 at 76. Survived by wife Priscilla; daughter Elisa; son Jeffrey (Wendy); brother Irving; 1 grandchild. Hillside

Ida Pierson died Sept. 20 at 103. Survived by sons Sanford (Mila) Carson, Charles; 3 grandchildren. Malinow and Silverman

Harold Rosenbaum died Sept. 15 at 91. Survived by daughter Jan (Mark) Sass; sons Alan, Eric (Pierre Valet); 2 grandchildren. Malinow and Silverman

Gertrude Roth died Sept. 18 at 95. Survived by daughters Marsha Ann (Philipp) Wilson, Naomi (Michael) Elbert; 4 grandchildren. Hillside

Rita Rubin died Sept. 15 at 69. Survived by husband Robert; sons David (Ming) Berger, Richard Berger; daughter Kimberlee; 3 grandchildren; brother Stuart (Susan) Nacher. Mount Sinai

Beatrice Saphra died Sept. 21 at 88. Survived by daughter Zane Buzby. Malinow and Silverman 

Anne Margaret Schwartz died Sept. 16 at 93. Survived by daughters Teri, Susan (Robert) Rosser; 2 grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Neil Shanman died Sept. 19 at 76. Survived by wife Merle; daughters Allyson (Craig) Barton, Lisa Bacerra; sons Sandy, Kevin (Randy); 8 grandchildren; brother Jay. Mount Sinai

Grace Silverman died Sept. 14 at 91. Survived by son Larry (Gail); daughter Merle Yeager; sister Beatrice Dubman; 4 grandchildren; 1 great-grandchild. Hillside

Wilbert Stein died Sept. 19 at 93. Survived by son James (Diane); stepson Howard (Valerie) Price; stepdaughter Elisa (Steve) Rubin; 4 grandchildren. Hillside

Cecile Weiss died Sept. 15 at 92. Survived by daughters Yvonne (Stuart) Lasher, Monique (Marty) Hoch; brother Rudolph Loebel; 4 grandchildren; 15 great-grandchildren. Hillside

Rose Woronow died Sept. 15 at 91. Survived by daughter Judy (Don) Weber; 1 grandson; 1 great-grandson. Mount Sinai

Davood Yebri died Sept. 12 at 81.  Survived by wife Talat; sons Fereydoun (Roya), Farshid (Roya); 5 grandchildren.  Eden

Chief rabbi will recite Kaddish for Pollard’s father

Israeli Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger said he’ll say Kaddish for jailed spy Jonathan Pollard’s father, who was buried Monday.

Pollard cannot say Kaddish for his father, Morris, with a minyan because there is none in the federal prison in North Carolina in which Pollard is serving a life sentence for spying for Israel. Pollard was not granted release to attend his father’s funeral.

“When I visited Pollard in prison, he asked me to say Kaddish on the anniversary of his mother’s death, as he has no minyan,” Metzger told Israeli media. “Unfortunately, the situation hasn’t changed, and so I have taken upon myself to do this minor thing, for our brother Jonathan and for his father’s soul.”

Metzger has called on President Obama to grant Pollard clemency.

Kaddish for Carlin

Everybody keeps asking me whether George Carlin was Jewish.

“I heard he was related to the Karlin-Stoliner rebbe,” a colleague said about the comedian who died this week at the age of 71.

No, not unless the Karlin-Stoliner rebbe’s family was really Irish and Catholic.

“Are you going to do a story on him?” the editor of an East Coast Jewish newspaper e-mailed me.

No, I said, Carlin was not a Jew. When Ben Karlin dies — he’s the guy who created “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” — that’s a story we’ll do. But that’s several decades away.

We assume Carlin was Jewish not just because his surname name is Jew-ish but because his comedy confronted the status quo, the government, the elite, the insiders. He was right up there in the tradition of Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl and Howard Stern — the tummler who doesn’t just want the world to laugh, he wants the world to change.

That’s what Carlin’s classic 1971 routine, “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” did. Carlin came along and dismantled the idea that a government responsible for Vietnam and Watergate had a right to tell us what was obscene. It was such an obvious and threatening concept, he was arrested at least once after performing it and charged with violating — what else? — obscenity laws.

I was 11 when I first heard that routine, listening to my brother’s copy of Carlin’s “Class Clown” LP in our bedroom. I played it over and over, like a lot of people in my generation. It was liberation comedy, pointing out hypocrisy and greed in our society in a way that even an 11-year-old could understand.

I have been trying to compile a list of performers who’ve been dragged offstage by authorities, persecuted by the government or banned by media conglomerates not because of what they did — drugs, underage girls, etc. — but because of what they had said. By my count, most of these renegades have been Jewish.

It’s not a long list, but there was Bruce, of course, hounded for his content (and, I believe, hounded for his drugs, because of his content). Stern and his fights with the Federal Communications Commission and the Christian right, which in his case may well be one and the same. There’s Joan Rivers, who’s been banned and re-banned by several shows. And then there’s Carlin, part of the same elite club.

(In his book on the comedians of the ’50s and ’60s, “Seriously Funny,” Gerald Nachman tells how the Los Angeles Police Department even found a Yiddish-speaking detective to monitor Bruce’s act. The detective dutifully filed his report: “Suspect also used the word ‘shtup.'”)

Carlin didn’t stop with government. He went after religion; he went after God. What’s more Jewish than that? The ability to take a fresh look — and by fresh, I also mean crude and challenging — at beliefs we have grown comfortable with is another Jewish comic tradition: Ask Woody Allen; ask Bill Maher.

Here’s a favorite, for old times’ sake, from 1997:

Think about it. Religion has actually convinced people that there’s an invisible man — living in the sky — who watches everything you do, every minute of every day. And the invisible man has a special list of 10 things he does not want you to do. And if you do any of these 10 things, he has a special place, full of fire and smoke and burning and torture and anguish, where he will send you to live and suffer and burn and choke and scream and cry forever and ever ’til the end of time!

But He loves you.

He loves you, and He needs money! He always needs money! He’s all-powerful, all-perfect, all-knowing and all-wise; somehow just can’t handle money!

Carlin wasn’t Jewish, but as he looked to Bruce, so generations of Jewish comic soothsayers looked to him. He begat — or at least cleared the way — for Richard Belzer, Roseanne Barr, Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler, Stewart and, of course, Ben Karlin.

“Nobody was funnier than George Carlin,” Judd Apatow, director of “Knocked Up” and “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” told the Los Angeles Times. “I spent half my childhood in my room listening to his records, experiencing pure joy. And he was as kind as he was funny.”

When I watched Larry David in “Curb Your Enthusiasm” try to steal a nail used in “The Passion of the Christ” to put up his mezuzah, I couldn’t help thinking of Carlin’s incendiary statements hadn’t just cleared the way, but bulldozed the boulevard.

Before stand-up, Jews put their observations in print. The Austrian comic essayist Karl Kraus — a big deal in the fin de siècle — nurtured his rage by reading the morning paper then turning loose his pen. Then came the microphone and a way to share the anger, through humor, with the masses.

Carlin had that Jewish talent — standing at a remove from the larger culture and commenting astutely on it. What he was doing on stage, Mel Brooks was doing on film, Norman Lear on television and Stern on radio.

As Carlin became famous and rich and lionized, he didn’t lose his ability to get angry and funny, to rail against the hypocrites of the left and right, the politicians and clergy and businessmen, the environmentalists and the polluters. “I think it’s the duty of the comedian to find out where the line is drawn,” he said, “and cross it deliberately.”

That’s why it’s not out of line to say a little Kaddish for Carlin.

George Carlin: ‘Religion is bullshit’

Michael Richards — still not Jewish

One of Us


Long before he was Pope John Paul II, Karol Wojtyla was a parish priest with a serious dilemma. In the dark days of the Holocaust, when the Germans were closing in on the Jews of Poland, a young Jewish couple named Hiller took their 2-year-old son Shachne to the home of some family friends, a childless Catholic couple named Jachowicz.

The boy’s parents died in Auschwitz, just 40 minutes away. The Polish couple raised the boy as their own, he attended Catholic school and learned the prayers by heart. When he turned 4, his parents turned to their local priest and asked whether, considering the circumstances, they could baptize their son into the Catholic faith.

Father Wojtyla asked the parents a simple question: What were the instructions left by the boy’s mother and father? When he heard that the mother had instructed the Jachowiczs to return the boy to his people and his faith, the priest said no, the boy must remain a Jew.

The priest’s guidance flew in the face of hundreds of years of Church history. This was the church that sanctioned the abduction, forced baptism and adoption of Jewish children right up to modern times. This was the church whose pope, even in 1942, reacted with a closed heart to the murder of millions of Jews.

The writer David Klinghoffer has said that if Bill Clinton was the first “black” president, then John Paul II was the first Jewish pope. His well-documented actions and pronouncements over the years displayed empathy for Jewish suffering and an understanding of Jewish teaching that has changed the course of Christian-Jewish relations.

That’s not to say his every act met with widespread Jewish approval. He welcomed Kurt Waldheim, embraced Yasser Arafat, and elevated Pope Pius IX — the man who in 1858 actually adopted a Jewish boy whom the church abducted — to sainthood. But if his agenda did not always make sense, his larger vision did.

I thought about that vision during an interfaith memorial service for the pope held Tuesday at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels downtown. I came a bit late and found a seat on the side of the altar, facing the audience of 500 or so. And it was quite a parade: Jews of all denominations, men and women in white turbans, Muslims in scarves and hijabs, Buddhists in saffron robes, the rich and the poor, the faithful and the secular, the mayor of Los Angeles, James K. Hahn, looking somber and moved.

Rows of white lilies lined the aisles, and more lilies framed a giant photo of the pope on the altar.

In a nearby alcove a picture of the pope was poised above rows of votive candles. I put my two dollars in the donation box and lit one.

Do you remember the fuss made over the last two popes who died? Me neither. What was it about this man, I wondered.

“He was our pope,” said the Rt. Rev. Alexei Smith, the Archdiocese’s ecumenical and interreligious affairs officer, who organized the service. That is, the pope’s spiritual leadership, his moral example, transcended Catholicism, to take in believers and nonbelievers of all types.

“He served a God who was not geographically or spiritually bound,” Rabbi Harold Schulweis told the audience at the cathedral. “His God was melech ha’olam, ‘God of the Universe.'”

At a time when faith is a substitute for knowledge, when the faithful assert their ignorance with pride and even try to foist it on the public schools, the pope was a model of spirituality melded to a fierce, probing intellect. He spoke several languages, read deeply in philosophy and religion, and understood that secular knowledge informs, rather than undermines, belief.

At a time when religious leaders and the politicians who curry their favor focus solely on strengthening their base, this pope demonstrated his concern for all of humanity. He restored the sense that religion could be big, that Catholicism could be catholic in its embrace of all people and all faiths.

In a world afflicted by loneliness, he made his presence felt physically, literally, around the world. In the Philippines, in Texas, in Jerusalem — it was a kind of bikur holim, visiting of the sick, and you could sense the healing effect he had on masses of people as he traveled.

It was always very easy for me, watching the pope in his travels, to imagine John Paul II as a Jew. I’d see him on television in his glorious vestments, the white robe, the scepter and the mitre, and suddenly I’d picture him instead wearing a plain black suit, white shirt and dark tie — John Paul I. B. Singer. Suddenly, he looked like so many other old Jewish men I’ve met from that time and place, stooped men with bright, intelligent faces, harboring memories whose pain I couldn’t begin to grasp.

So I wasn’t surprised when, toward the end of the service at the cathedral, an elderly man wearing a yarmulke stood up and quietly, softly said Kaddish.


Eleven Things to Know Before You Go

Congratulations! You have been invited to the bar/bat mitzvah of a friend or family member. Now what? What are you supposed to do there? How do you act? Whether you are Jewish or not, the following is a brief guide to help you feel more comfortable at the worship service and enjoy the events as they unfold. It includes appropriate synagogue behavior, major sections of the service, the synagogue environment and service participants. Because customs vary from community to community, please contact the host family for further clarification.

General expectations for synagogue behavior include:

1. Dress

Guests at a bar/bat mitzvah celebration generally wear dressy clothes — for men, either a suit or slacks, tie and jacket; for women, a dress or formal pantsuit (depending on the congregation where the ceremony takes place). In more traditional communities, clothing tends to be dressier.

2. Arrival Time

The time listed on the invitation is usually the official starting time for the weekly Shabbat service. Family and invited guests try to arrive at the beginning, even though the bar/bat mitzvah activities occur somewhat later in the service. However, both guests and regular congregants often arrive late, well after services have begun.

3. Wearing a Prayer Shawl

The tallit (prayer shawl) is traditionally worn by Jewish males and, in liberal congregations, by Jewish females. Because the braided fringes at the four corners of the tallit remind its wearer to observe the commandments of Judaism, wearing a tallit is reserved for Jews. Although an usher may offer you a tallit at the door, you may decline it if you are not Jewish or are simply uncomfortable wearing such a garment.

4. Wearing a Head Covering

A kippah (head covering) is traditionally worn by males during the service and also by females in more liberal synagogues. Wearing a kippah is not a symbol of religious identification like the tallit, but is rather an act of respect to God and the sacredness of the worship space. Just as men and women may be asked to remove their hats in the church, or remove their shoes before entering a mosque, wearing a head covering is a nondenominational act of showing respect. In some synagogues, women might wear hats or a lace head covering.

5. Maintaining Sanctity

All guests and participants are expected to respect the sanctity of the prayer service and Shabbat by setting your cell phone or beeper to vibrate or turning it off, not taking pictures, not smoking in the synagogue or on the grounds and not writing or recording.

6. Sitting and Standing

Jewish services can be very athletic, filled with frequent directions to stand for particular prayers and sit for others. Take your cue from the other worshipers or the rabbi’s instructions. Unlike kneeling in a Catholic worship service — which is a unique prayer posture filled with religious significance — standing and sitting in a Jewish service does not constitute any affirmation of religious belief; it is merely a sign of respect. There may also be instructions to bow at certain parts of the service, and because a bow or prostration is a religiously significant act, feel free to remain standing or sitting as you wish at that point.

7. The Service: Try to follow the service in the siddur (prayerbook) and the Chumash (Five Books of Moses), both of which are usually printed in Hebrew and English. Guests and congregants are encouraged to hum along during congregational melodies and to participate in the service to the extent that they feel comfortable. During the Torah service (described below), the entire congregation is encouraged to follow the reading of the weekly Torah portion in English or Hebrew.

Major sections of the Shabbat morning service include:

8. The “Shema”

“Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” This passage from the Book of Deuteronomy and the three passages that follow constitute a central part of each morning and evening Jewish prayer service. Probably the most important single sentence in the liturgy, the “Shema” is not a prayer but rather an affirmation of the unity of God.

9. The “Amidah”

“Standing Prayer.” The “Amidah,” a series of prayers recited while standing in silent meditation, is the major liturgical piece of every synagogue service throughout the year. On a weekday, the “Amidah” contains prayers for the physical and spiritual well-being of the one praying as well as of the entire community of the people of Israel; on Shabbat we praise God for the joy of the Shabbat and the rest that we enjoy. It is perfectly acceptable and even desirable that people recite the “Amidah” in English, and worshipers are also encouraged to pray from their hearts if the printed words do not speak to them.

10. The Torah Service

Following the “Shema” and the “Amidah” is a transition from prayer to study. The primary study text is from the Pentateuch, or Five Books of Moses. This text has been written on the parchment of the Torah scrolls by a specially trained scribe.

The Torah is divided into — and read in — weekly portions, according to a prescribed calendar, so that the entire Torah is read in the span of one year. The cover and accouterments of the Torah scrolls recall the priestly garb of ancient Temple times.

Usually the rabbi, and sometimes the bar/bat mitzvah child or another congregant, delivers a d’var Torah, a word of Torah, that comments on the weekly Torah reading.

Once the Torah reading is over, another person — usually the bar/bat mitzvah child — chants a portion from the prophetic writings of the Torah. The haftarah (concluding teaching), is usually chosen to reflect a theme or literary allusion in the Torah portion. The purpose of the haftarah is not only to provide an opportunity to teach from a different section of the Bible, but also to assert that prophecy serves to reinforce the laws of the Torah.

11. Mourner’s “Kaddish”

Although there is no mention of death in this prayer, the “Kaddish” is recited at the end of all worship services by family members who have lost a loved one in the past year or who are observing the anniversary of a death in years past. Despite sorrow and pain, the mourner rises to declare continuing commitment in praising God’s name, to which we all respond, “Amen.”

Reprinted from

Widows, Widowers Seek Ways to Cope

When Esther Goshen-Gottstein’s husband of 39 years died, she felt like her world had crumbled.

“The bottom had fallen out my life, as in an earthquake, when the ground on which one has stood firmly for years suddenly collapses,” she writes in “Surviving Widowhood” (Gefen, 2002). “Would I have to wait for rescue workers to pull me out and put me back on my feet?”

Unfortunately, as Goshen-Gottstein made clear in her book, there is no road map for how to get back on your feet; no emotional recovery drug that can make it all OK. Most people must navigate on their own this desolate landscape of loss. Yet there are things that they can do that can make this experience at least bearable, if not easier: join a bereavement support group, turn to rabbis for religious guidance .

“Surviving Widowhood” is one of a number of Jewish books on dealing with loss. But what makes it unique is instead of citing hard-andfast-rules about how people should act when their spouses die, she walks them through her own experiences and, using her skills as a psychologist, is able to thoughtfully analyze her own and others’ reactions to the gamut of emotions bought about by the experience of death.

For the author, dealing with the death of her husband Moshe — a well-known academic in Israel and the winner of the Israel Prize — was an ongoing process that continued long after the shiva (seven days of mourning).

The book is unflinchingly personal and she does not shy away from talking about the little things that his death affected, such as changing habits that had become second nature, like transitioning in speech from “we” to “I.” The hardship in having no one to share the minutiae of life, she finds, is one of the most difficult things to deal with.

She also writes about the role that Judaism played in her emotional recovery. Goshen-Gottstein found the moratorium provided by the shiva “allowed me to express my grief uninhibitedly. What a relief it was not only to know what to do, but also how long you have to do it.”

Yet, there are other philosophical aspects of Judaism that can help one deal with loss, said Rabbi Levi Meier, chaplain at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

“The major way that Jewish people cope is through real belief and religious imagination that the future good can already be experienced now,” Meier said, referring to the feeling one has when one recovers emotionally from the loss. For those not spiritually evolved enough to see the silver lining in a horribly dismal rain cloud, Meier says that sitting shiva and reciting ‘Kaddish’ can ease the pain.

“The recitation of ‘Kaddish’ is like an incessant dialogue with the deceased, because when you say ‘Kaddish’ you are constantly thinking about the deceased, and they become more visible as a result,” Meier said. “Also, the laws of mourning don’t let you mourn by yourself. When you sit shiva, people come to visit, people come to the funeral and when you go to shul to say “Kaddish” you need a minyan. You need to mourn with a community, so you might feel existentially alone, but still connected to other people.”

While it might be important to feel connected to the outside community, many people who are grieving feel the need to talk to others who are sharing their experiences. Many synagogues, such as Wilshire Boulevard Temple and Temple Isaiah on Pico Boulevard offer bereavement support groups where people can meet others who are going through the same thing. Typically therapists or trained counselors run these groups, and people usually attend them for one to two years.

“I think every single emotion comes into grief,” said Fredda Wasserman the adult program director at Our House, a Woodland Hills organization that provides grief support services. “From sadness, guilt and anger, to joyful memories and sometimes relief. People usually don’t know to expect all of that, and don’t know that all of that is normal. Going to a bereavement support group provides people with a lot of long-term support. People often feel that they don’t want to be a burden to someone else by having to share their feelings, but in these groups, they are talking to other people who know what they are feeling and what they need.”

“Grief is not a psychiatric disorder,” she continued. “It’s a normal reaction to natural process, and people’s feelings, emotions and responses can be normalized when they are with other people who are going through the same thing.”

“All these things are cathartic.” Meier added, “Ultimately, after you lose someone and you go through the process and do as much as you can, you actually come out of it stronger, with a greater sense of faith, a greater understanding of God and a greater understanding of life and of death.”

For more information on bereavement support groups in Los Angeles County, visit the Jewish Bereavment Project’s Web site at

God Times

We buried her 13 months ago — this flower, this light, this precious partner of his for 60 years. Everything was done in our ancient way: the funeral with its torn, black ribbons and clods of earth thunking on plain pine; the shiva, with its prayers, grief and Bundt cakes; a year of “Kaddish” ending with an unveiled marker that captured his love for her in words as terse as Haiku.

It’s been more than a year, but Irv doesn’t want to move on. He’s too sad. Misses her every day. Tried dating, couldn’t stomach it. Tried the support group — full of women with more time and money than good sense. Parties? Too much happiness to stand. Sure, he loves the kids and the grandchildren , the Sunday dinners and tennis four days a week. But….

So this morning, Irv sits on the old, lumpy couch in my office, looking old and lumpy himself. He asks me why he can not shed his darkness. “My friends and my children say that I should move on,” he tells me, fighting back the tears. “But I don’t want to move on. Am I — normal?” he asks after a long pause.

So I talk to Irv about time. Not the time of clocks and calendars, but the realm of time, whether we try to smoke, drink, spend or work around it; the time that cannot be accelerated; the time it takes to heal, breathe, laugh again and move on; the pace of human existence governed by “God time.”

I tell Irv about my friend Barry, who discovered the pace of God time after burying his brother, who committed suicide. At first, Barry tried to rush his grief, but found he could only ache. He made peace with his sadness, took his time, learned to live in darkness. Soon, he will stand beneath the white chuppah with a woman who loves him as deeply as he once hurt. It just took time for the cloud to lift, just — time.

Our ancestors lived beneath a cloud too. Maybe it was a cloud of confusion, maybe sadness, maybe just an ordinary cloud. The Torah doesn’t say. What it does say in this week’s portion is “whether it was two days or a month or a year — however long the cloud lingered — the Israelites remained encamped…only when it lifted did they break camp.” There is no magical formula given for making the cloud disappear, no incantation, no prayer, no slap on the back, no blind date, no support group, no self-help hook. Just a settling in for the sadness, a sometimes slow but always sacred space for healing.

Through years of wandering, loss and faith, the ancients grasped what seems elusive to Irv and so many others. When we suffer loss — a lost wife, a marriage, a job, a breast, a dream — there must be a peacemaking, a reckoning with God time — the simple truth that sometimes we can only move on by staying put, however long the cloud may linger.

Rabbi Steven Z. Leder is a rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple and the author of “The Extraordinary Nature of Ordinary Things,” published by Behrman House.