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!

Oaxaca is a dreamy stop down Mexico way

If you’re heading down Mexico way, all the way down to Oaxaca, you should know about a bed and breakfast there called Casa Machaya. The name is a sly Jewish reference, a wink at potential clients for the B & B: That’s right, it’s not meant to be the Spanish “ch,” as in “change,” but a guttural “ch,” as in mechaya, Yiddish for “joy.”

“When I was a kid, we’d go out to a lake near Toronto,” said Alvin Starkman, Casa Machaya’s owner and proprietor, “and Grandma Minnie would say, ‘What a mechaya!’ In a rush to come up with a name for the B & B, I remembered Grandma Minnie’s comment, so we called it Casa Machaya.”

Besides running the B & B, Starkman also guides tourists to villages and archeological sites, an abiding interest of his. Fit and energetic-looking in his late 50s, Starkman leans over the balcony of his house, looking down at the B & B unit on a lower floor. He waves to the middle-aged Canadian couple staying there, then takes in the mountains all around and the city rising up dreamlike in the distance. Even though it’s the dry season and the hills are covered with brown grass and shrubs, the landscape still seems magical.

Oaxaca seemed magical to Alvin and Arlene Starkman when they started vacationing here in the early 1990s. They loved it so much that in subsequent years they didn’t vacation anywhere else. At the time they lived in Toronto, Canada, where Starkman practiced law. Little by little, with each subsequent visit, the idea of leaving his law practice and retiring to Oaxaca took root.

When they began to consider settling in Oaxaca, Arlene Starkman, originally from Chicago, contacted the Mexican Jewish Congress, based in Mexico City, to find out about Jewish life in the southern Mexican city. To their surprise, they were told there were no Jews in Oaxaca.

“No Jews in Oaxaca?” Alvin Starkman said. “How could that be? How could a city of 400,000 in the Western world have no Jews? We’d see people wearing a Magen David or we’d see businesses with the name Shalom or Adonai. We’d ask the owner if they were Jewish, but were always told no. Nothing but dead ends.”

However, as time has gone by, the Starkmans have discovered that there are, nowadays, scores of other Jews living in the area: mostly American and Canadian ex-pats, but also Mexico City Jews, often artists, who have settled in Oaxaca, a place teeming with art galleries and indigenous crafts.

But they’ve also discovered that — in spite of their initial inquiry about Jewish life in Oaxaca — they prefer not to go out of their way to befriend ex-pats, Jewish or not.

“Having Judaism in common, or being American or Canadian, is not enough to establish a friendship,” Starkman said. “I didn’t want to get sucked up in a relationship with people just because they happen to speak English or happen to be Jewish.”

During the years, their stays in Oaxaca grew longer and longer, until in early 2004 the Starkmans bid goodbye to Toronto — where their daughter was starting college — and settled for good in southern Mexico. By then they had many friends in Oaxaca, nearly all of them Mexican and Catholic. When they celebrate Jewish holidays at their house, they invite their local non-Jewish friends to join them.

How do the Starkmans’ Oaxacan friends feel about their being Jewish?

“The fact is,” Starkman said, “the local population simply has not had enough contact with Jews for there to be any significant amount of anti-Semitism.”

That changed, however, during the unrest in 2006; demonstrations turned violent and, more than two-dozen people were killed. That occurred at the same time as the war against Hezbollah, so the Middle East war was conflated with local problems.

“During that period in 2006,” Starkman said, “there were outside agitators here stirring the pot. These people were also responsible for some anti-Israel graffiti as a result of the Lebanese war. My daughter was visiting here, and one day I got a call from her. She was with local friends, in the center of town, and saw an anti-Semitic poster. She decided to tear the poster down and her friends helped her.”

Is Starkman happy with his decision to live out the rest of his life in Oaxaca?

“I don’t harbor any serious doubts,” Starkman said. “Maybe, sometimes, for a fleeting moment…. And then you think, ‘Look what I have here, retired and healthy in my 50s, doing what I want…. How can you compare slugging away doing family law to touring clients in the mountain regions of southern Mexico, taking in the sun, sampling mescal [local cactus liquor], and being welcomed into villagers’ homes?'”

For more information about Casa Machaya, contact Alvin and Arlene Starkman at oaxacadream@hotmail.com or visit