“Prayer requests that the soul fulfill its role.”

R. Avraham Yitshaq Hakohen Kook

Chapter Twelve: Exaltation

 

A mourner who attends services three times a day, will have, by the end of eleven months of saying kaddish, magnified and sanctified God’s name well over 10,000 times. Kaddish, the mostly-Aramaic prayer, has become, in the over thousand years since its liturgical birth, the essential mourner’s prayer. Scholarly tomes have been written about its history, its variations and permutations throughout Jewish liturgy. Beat poet Allen Ginsburg devoted a book to it. Theological battles (and worse) have been fought over who may say it and for whom. As a last affirmation of Jewish faith, a last statement of connection to Jewish life even at its end, a last scrap of Judaism for even those far removed from religion, there is no other prayer said as frequently and by as many diverse Jews as kaddish. (Even the apostate Jean-Marie Lusitger, who left the fold for the Catholic Church in his youth and climbed the ecclesiatical ladder to Cardinal by his death, insisted that it be recited at his Notre Dame funeral!) Like the unmistakable sound of plaintive tom-toms which always opened those movies about Indian tribal life, the yitgadal veyitkadash of kaddish is immediately recognizable. Like a scent which carries with it a flood of memories long pushed to the far corners of the mind, the Aramaic cadences of kaddish spin an intergenerational web of connections for Jews world over.

 

The first kaddish I said for my son was recited in Jerusalem’s heat with the rest of the fathers after the eulogies had come to an end. The next kaddish would be spoken back in Efrat as I stood beside his tallit-wrapped body outside the synagogue across from our home. The next, as we began to slowly walk after the ambulance which was driving him to the local cemetary. Another at graveside. Then at home for afternoon prayers. Then in synagogue on Friday night.

 

Some I thought I would not complete. As the measured words I have long known by heart tumbled forth, my voice would catch and I could feel my heart constrict as tears flowed down my cheeks. Then, part sob, part prayer, the words continued, as I tried to breath through the sobbing that wracked me with a weight of emotion I had no idea existed within me. And through the tears, the words still came—as if the rythmic Aramaic was making its own way out of my chest, through my lips and into the world.

 

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