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Monday, February 17, 2020

Reflections on Jewish Mourning

I have now twice travelled down the path of Jewish mourning. The first time was nearly eight years ago after my mother, Hilda Yael Kessler, z'l, died. Recently I concluded the year of mourning for my father, Seymour Sholom Kessler, z'l. May their memories be for blessing.

Both times I immersed myself in the world of Jewish mourning. I sat shiva. I observed the strictures that Jewish law places on mourners during the year following their parent's death. I did not go concerts. I did not wear new clothes. I went to shul (synagogue) every day. I recited kaddish. As a person with an obligation (חיוב) to daven (pray), I often led the service.

These journeys are now complete. I've mourned my parents and, God willing, I will never (officially) mourn again. At a remove, I can step back and reflect. To what extent did halakha (Jewish law) help me come to terms with my losses? To what extent did it help me mourn? More broadly, how and to what extent does Jewish law assist, or, just as importantly, hinder, the grieving process?

Much has been written about the wisdom of the Jewish way of mourning. Judaism, it is said, offers a psychologically astute path for dealing with death. Jewish law provides a framework for dealing with grief, from aninut (the period between death and burial) to shiva, the seven days after burial, to shloshim, the 30 days following burial, to the year of mourning itself. "The Jewish religion provides an exquisitely structured approach to mourning" writes Maurice Lamm, author of the classic The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning (p. 74). First published in 1969, Lamm's book, which can be found in many a house of mourning, provides a compendium of Jewish practices surrounding death and mourning. Judaism, he writes, "leads us through moments of joy, so does it guide us through the terrible moments of grief, helping us through the complex emotions of mourning and bidding us to turn our gaze from the night of darkness to the daylight of life" (p. 2). "The accumulated wisdom of the ages," he continues, "is a source of great consolation" (p. 3).

Echoing this sentiment, the Chabad web site states: "Yet the wisdom of adhering to the observances and timetables established by the Torah has been attested to time and again by anyone who, G-d forbid, undergoes this process. The Torah's mourning laws provide the outlet and validation for our grief so crucial to the healing process, as well as the framework to graduate from one level of mourning to another, until our loss is integrated as a constructive, and not, G-d forbid, destructive, force in our lives."

In an blog I kept while going to shul daily to say kaddish after my mother died, I wrote about how the ritual of kaddish helped me deal with her loss. I found kaddish to have many positive functions, including providing "a meaningful, repetitive and concrete activity that focuses the mourner on his or her loss, providing an anchor that grounds the mourning process."

Jewish law undoubtedly sets forth a highly structured response to the unfathomable the idea that your loved one--and in the case of your parent, the one who gave you life--has departed this world. However, the very intricacy of that structure may present an obstacle to mourning. The effusive praise attributed to the Jewish way of mourning, I contend, obscures a more complex reality.

When I speak of mourning, I refer to the emotional journey that follows the loss of a loved one and the myriad experiences one encounters along the way. Some of the signposts of this journey have been identified as five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, or, more recently, four tasks of mourning: accepting the reality of the loss, working through the pain of grief, adjusting to the environment in which the deceased is missing and finding an enduring connection with the deceased while embarking on a new life. While not everyone may experience all these stages, the general point remains: mourning is a process, one that will of necessity differ from person to person. It involves processing the loss into one's psyche. The hope is that one's emotional state evolves as the proximity to the death recedes, and eventually the loss is integrated, constructively, into one's life.

My point is: adhering to the laws of mourning is not the same as mourning itself. The laws provide a pathway, a guide--but not a guarantee--for going through the stages, or tasks, of mourning and emerging emotionally intact.

The Rav, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, in Out of the Whirlwind: Essays on Mourning, Suffering and the Human Condition, explains that mourning in the Jewish tradition is a two-fold process that contains both an outer as well as an inner expression. The outer expression refers to adhering to the laws of mourning, such as sitting shiva and restricting one's participation in joyous occasions. Yet the real "kiyyum (fulfillment of the obligation) of mourning is grounded in the heart and finds its expression there . . . " (p. 71). The laws of mourning are different than those that can be fulfilled merely by a physical act, such as eating matzah on Passover. No particular inner thoughts are needed to fulfill this mitzvah (commandment). Mourning, like repentance, requires not only an act, but also an accompanying inner experience. This accounts for the different halakhic outcomes when shiva is interrupted by the Sabbath as opposed to the festival days (Passover, Shavuot and Succot); the Sabbath counts as a day of shiva because it cancels only the outer expression of mourning whereas festival days override the shiva entirely because the observance of these days requires both an outer and an inner expression of joy. (pp. 72-73.) This distinction helps explain the Bible's description of Abraham's reaction to the death of his wife Sarah: "he came to mourn for Sarah and weep over her (ויבא אברהם לספד לשרה ולבכתה)" (Genesis 23:2.) He "mourned" the loss of Sarah as a link in the chain of tradition (the outer expression), while he "weeped" over the personal loss of his beloved wife (the inner expression) (p. 34).

The inner expression of mourning is personal. It assumes different shapes depending on a many factors: among them, the nature of the loss, one's own emotional state as well as one's relationship to the deceased. Rabbi Marc Angel explores these issues in his work, The Orphaned Adult. He discusses Freud's "insight that grief entails a struggle between a deep attachment to the deceased loved one and the acceptance that the death has occurred and is final." Moving from shock to acceptance to integrating the loss is not easy. It requires, in his words, "work." Angel's own "work" included interviewing from his congregants to learn how they reacted to the death of their parent. He describes how losing his mother required a shift in consciousness from viewing parents as a "symbol of eternity," as well as comforters or guides, to integrating their legacy into one's identity (pp. 95-96). In this sense, mourning ideally leads to personal growth as, "[t]he adult orphan, meditating on his [or her] loss--mediating on the passing of the generations--grows older and wiser" (id, p. 100).

Whatever form the inner work of mourning assumes, it is just as, if not more, difficult to accomplish than the outer observance of the laws of mourning. The emotions surrounding the death of a loved one, which may include not only grief but guilt, anxiety and depression, are powerful. Yet the overwhelming nature of observing all the halakhic requirements of mourning may obscure the necessity of that inner work.

The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning has proven so popular because it sets forth not only the basic customs related to mourning, but also explains their rationales and how they relate to the mourning process. It is also written in a non-authoritative way, as a guide book rather than as a code of law. For precisely this reason, I have noticed a movement in the Orthodox world away from relying on Lamm's book. Rather, the book has been supplanted by a work entitled P'nei Baruch by Rabbi Chaim Binyamin Goldberg, translated from Hebrew into English by the Mesorah Foundation (the publishers of Artscroll) and published as Mourning in HalachahThis 400 plus page work is an extremely detailed legal treatise, covering almost every conceivable halakhic situation that may arise related to death and mourning. The need for the book, the introduction states, is that "[a]lthough the basic laws are codified, there are many, many customs and interpretations that vary from community to community. Add to this the unavoidable situation that, when tragedy strikes, there are any number of halakhic problems, many unexpected, that demand immediate answers" (p. 17).

This book, and the outlook represented by it, is, in my opinion, highly problematic. First, it completely ignores the inner work of mourning and suggests that simply following the laws of mourning constitutes, in and of itself, mourning. Moreover, it seems to imply that emotions are irrelevant to how one deals with death. An example from the book: a person died on the Sabbath. The custom is to move the body onto the floor. But the body is muktza, and muktza items cannot be moved on the Sabbath. So the book suggests putting a piece of bread on the body; as the bread is a non-muktza item which can be moved, one could move the body to the floor since the bread is being moved simultaneously (pp. 53-54). Another example: a woman should not be in the room at the time of death, especially if she is in her menstrual period (niddah). The idea that I would put food on my just departed father so I could comply with a custom of moving his body to the floor or that a daughter or wife, or God forbid, mother, would be excluded from being with her loved one at the moment of death completely ignores the emotions that should be primary during these moments.

Second, there should be great flexibility in how the laws of mourning are interpreted and applied. Very few of the mourning rituals, perhaps only the requirements of burial and kriah, tearing one's garment at the moment of death, are biblical in nature. Most of the other rituals occupy a space between rabbinic decrees and established customs, over which there is more latitude for divergence in practice. Moreover, these laws do not exist in a vacuum--they exist for the very purpose of helping the mourner deal with his or her loss. Considering that purpose should be vital in deciding the extent of their applicability. Whether and how they should be applied depends upon individual and communal factors. As the saying goes, consult your local rabbi, someone who understands the particulars of your situation. As Rabbi Jeff Fox has recently noted, "Many are comforted by the dictates of Halakha when they face loss. Others feel as though God is intruding into their inner emotional state in a way that can feel uncomfortable. The efficacy of these Halakhot (laws of mourning) will be different for everyone. Finding the right balance between guidance and strict rulings is a key role of the rabbinic figure for individuals and families experiencing loss and mourning." The laws of mourning should not be, in my opinion, one size fits all.

The most visible act associated with mourning is reciting kaddish daily. Most people say kaddish simply because that's what the Jewish tradition says should be done. To be sure, attending synagogue regularly to say kaddish carries many benefits to the process of healing. You are altering your usual routine because you are not the same person you were before your loved one died. Kaddish connects you to the community generally and to other mourners specifically. The bonds created between kaddish-sayers are deep and meaningful. Saying kaddish regularly is a meaningful way to honor the memory of your loved one. The words of the kaddish offer the hope of peace and consolation.

And yet, the place that kaddish has assumed is out of all proportion to its status under Jewish law. Kaddish is a custom. It is not mentioned in the Talmud. One kaddish a day is sufficient to fulfill one's kaddish obligation. Yet I've noted a tendency, particularly among men, to strive never to miss a single kaddish, as if an award is given to those who achieve a "perfect score." Moreover, as with any oft-repeated ritual, kaddish can become a mindless act. There is nothing magical about the kaddish's ability to help you mourn. Indeed, its incessant repetition, about eight times a day over the course of eleven months for those who attend morning, afternoon and evening services, can lead to fetishizing the prayer so that its repetition becomes an end in itself, divorced from any other sense of purpose.

In addition, the drive to say as many kaddishes as possible borders on obsessiveness. Many people, myself included, develop a love-hate relationship with kaddish and find that getting to shul daily for each prayer service becomes a grind. In his book Kaddish, Leon Wieseltier, who'd been attending services daily, writes that he came to feel that "there was not a single word of the prayers that held my attention. Not a single word" (p. 255). David Bogomolny, who blogged weekly about his year of saying kaddish for his father reflected that, eight months into his mourning, the "process has felt rather like a slog of late. I've been plodding to weekday services, plodding through prayers . . . . Sometimes I can't tell if my plodding is mental or physical; I'm spent regardless." During my own year of saying kaddish for my mother, I emoted: "I'm getting to shul on time, I'm saying my prayers, I'm saying my kaddishes. I'm trying to keep my mother's memory in mind, but it all feels a bit tiring. I'm worn out." When one gets to the point of exhaustion, I would question whether the ritual of kaddish, insofar as it requires shul attendance at every prayer service, is playing any positive role in aiding the mourner in coming to terms with his or her loss.

The notion of chiuv (the obligation of mourners to lead prayers) can also be taken too far. Admittedly, there is something profound in the idea the broken hearted serving as the congregation's representative before God. The responsibility bestowed on the mourner is another way of honoring the deceased. Yet in some synagogues, chiuv has become a competition, leading to conflict among mourners over who should lead prayers, with some mourners insisting they have priority over others. To avoid such disputes, at least one shul I visited resorted to posting a detailed list of the hierarchy among mourners depending on yahrzeit, shloshim, year of mourning, and whether the mourner is a visitor or member of the synagogue. Mourning in Halachah presents a rather absurd example and solution to such a conflict in synagogues where only one mourner recites kaddish: "Three mourners are present. One is a resident who is a mourner in shloshim. The second is also a resident, and is observing a yahrzeit. The third is a visitor who is observing a yahrzeit. In this case, the visitor has the right to recite one Kaddish. The resident who is observing a yahrzeit cannot tell the visitor, 'I take precedence over you,' because the visitor can answer 'I'm not taking the Kaddish from you, but from the mourner in shloshim. Therefore, the resident who is observing a yahrzeit should recite the first Kaddish; the visitor should recite the second one; and the mourner in shloshim, the third one" (p. 371, n. 83).

The centrality of kaddish stems, in no small part, from the metaphysical notion that saying it, and having the community respond “יהא שמה רבא מברך לעלם  ולעלמי עלמיה”, serves to elevate the soul of the departed. The idea is that, for the first year following death, the soul resides in a kind of purgatory and the saying of kaddish, as well as serving as prayer leader, rescues the soul from the lower depths (Gehinnom). Of course, this supposed effect of kaddish is unprovable. I do believe that kaddish serves as a bridge between the living and the departed. The parent-child relationship continues in some way after the death of a parent. Yet the exact nature of that connection is unknowable and inexpressible. It becomes problematic when the metaphysical results of kaddish are treated as a matter of certainty. Moreover, the supposed metaphysical effect of kaddish creates an unhealthy sense of guilt in the mourner that, if you miss a kaddish, you are damaging your parent's soul.

The idea that saying kaddish affects the soul of the departed has become so ingrained that it seems to go unquestioned, even among people who would otherwise reject the supernatural effects of observing halakha. Mourning in Halachah asserts, as if it were fact: "It is a mitzvah for the congregation to allow the mourner to serve as [prayer] leader, for this gives spiritual satisfaction to the deceased and rescues him from the punishment of Gehinnom" (pp. 373-374). The book also reports that "[i]f one knows for certain that one's parent is among those who are punished for Twelve Months in Gehinnom--for example, if they did not observe the Sabbath--one is obligated to recite Kaddish for the full Twelve Months" (pp. 352-353).

As the child of parents who were traditional but not sabbath observant, I can't begin to describe how offensive this statement is. My parents made an incredible impact on the lives of many people, through their work as therapists, teachers, Israel activists, community organizers, and so much more. I cannot accept the idea that the main criteria for whose soul gets to enjoy the afterworld is halakhic observance, as if all the other good works a parent did is meaningless. It is also difficult to fathom that otherwise rational people have come to believe that whether or not they miss a kaddish or how often they say kaddish will have a decisive effect on the quality of their parent's afterlife. Why have people come to believe that their behavior during the year after their parent died is more significant to the fate of their parent's soul than how many good deeds the parent accomplished during his or her own lifetime?

The idea of kaddish's spiritual effects has led to the practice of paying someone to say kaddish for their parent, as if the kaddishes of a person who never met one's parent can make or break the fate of their parent's soul. Two and businesses exclusively devoted to saying kaddish for others. (As my grandparents might say, "from this one makes a living"?) The former offers four plans "customized to fit the needs of all Jews." Many other Jewish organizations offer this "service." Chabad charges $180 a year. Any number of other organizations will do it for a donation of any amountOne website encourages anyone to use its service, even if there is a child (read: son) reciting kaddish, on the grounds that it "brings extra merit to the deceased and works as a backup in case the sons miss one of the prayer services due to some emergency." The priciest option seems to be Hadassah’s Enhanced Perpetual Yahrzeit service, which, for $5,000, payable in installments over two years, "Kaddish will be recited for your loved one every day for 11 months after burial" and then annually on the yahrzeit thereafter.

Mourning in Halachah actually encourages this practice, suggesting that if you have someone other than a relative say kaddish, "it brings more merit to the deceased if the person takes payment than if he does not" (p. 362). Not only is it better to pay for kaddish, but a hired kaddish-sayer is permitted to get paid "to say Kaddish for a number of people" (ibid). Am I being too cynical to suggest some self-interest involved in justifying the monetization of kaddish?

Rabbi Lamm, I should note, condemns this practice, considering it "reprehensible to the religious spirit" (p. 165). Paying for kaddish, he writes, leads to the notion that kaddish is "a sort of credit system that can be manipulated financially." People come to view "paying [as] more important than praying" and "the synagogue as a celestial supermarket" (Ibid).

Yizkor, the memorial prayer, has also been monetized as a source of funds for synagogues, though without the suggestion that contributing will affect your loved one's soul. Though I respect the financial needs of our houses of worship, the request for funds at this time takes advantage of people in their time of sorrow and vulnerability. (I love the scene from The Big Lebowski when the funeral home demands $180 for a "receptacle" in which to place Donnie's ashes, which Walter and the Dude intend to scatter. Walter finds a nearby Ralphs Supermarket and has Donnie's ashes placed in an empty Folgers Coffee can.) Why do I need to be hit up for funds every time I'm about to engage in one of the most meaningful acts imaginable: recalling, reconnecting and rekindling the eternal connection between parent and child?

One last thought on kaddish: I have much respect for a friend of mine who purposefully did not say kaddish for his father until several months after his father died. He had a very difficult relationship with his father and simply could not, at first, bring himself to say kaddish. The contours of one's mourning cannot be divorced from one's lived relationship with the departed. The year of mourning is a time to take stock of one's relationship, in all its complexities, with the deceased. The year of mourning is a coda to and not a substitute for the parent-child relationship.

But the issues here go beyond kaddish. They lie in the very structure of Jewish mourning itself. An entire system of halakha has developed around the laws of mourning, and mourners spend the year after their parent died enmeshed in its details. The complexity of the laws are well suited to the obsessive personality, for there is no other time in your life when dos and don'ts are so meticulously spelled out. Jewish mourning creates a world unto itself, with its own vocabulary and set of norms. The mourner perforce enters into that alternate reality. Conversations with and among mourners tend to center on the rigors of daily synagogue attendance rather than on how that attendance is helping you deal with your loss. The mourner is much more likely to address questions such as "when are you getting your hair cut?," "what job do I need to do in order to attend this simcha?," "which mourner will be davening from the amud (leading services) today?," "how much longer are you saying kaddish?," and "when is your parent's yahrzeit?", than with "how are you coping with your loss?" The inner work of mourning tends to get swallowed up by the outer requirements of mourning, thus creating an illusion that the outer requirements, in and of themselves, constitute the inner work.

It is helpful to have a structure, as the halakha provides, in dealing with the psychological issues that inevitably arise in confronting the final departure, the absence, of a loved one. However, to truly mourn, one has to go beyond the halakha. The outer observance of mourning is no substitute for inner work of mourning. Unless the rituals are internalized, unless one is working to make meaning out of the rituals, one is not fully mourning.

Personally, observing the laws of mourning and going to shul to say kaddish were important, indeed indispensable, parts of mourning my parents. I do not regret devoting myself to saying kaddish, though the second time around, I put less pressure on myself and felt more at ease with the synagogue obligations. While I felt the strictures of pleasure an appropriate response to my emotional state, I did attend kiddushes, went to family weddings, and saw a couple of movies and a play with somber themes. Neither of my parents ever told me what they expected me to do after they died, but I'm sure they didn't expect or even want me to give up all pleasures during the year of mourning.

Saying kaddish was central to my mourning, but my mourning was not defined by kaddish. The years of mourning included many other aspects just as, if not more, important than kaddish. Talking to and reading the writings of other mourners. Going to other shiva homes. Helping my father after my mother's death. Reading the writings of my parents. Putting together a book of my mother's writings. Listening to my father's music. Going through their possessions and following their instructions on how to dispose of their assets. Reflecting on what it means to live without parents. Connecting with people who knew my parents. Getting therapy. Blogging. Crying. Carrying on.

I am not saying how a person should mourn. As with any deep emotion, it is a highly personal experience, one that depends on so many factors. Each person's experience will be different. The outer aspect of mourning may look the same from person to person, but the inner work will differ. The Jewish tradition offers a wise path to guide us in difficult times. But it is up for us to walk that path in our own particular way, to do the "work" of mourning so that, as Rabbi Lamm puts it, we emerge from night of darkness recommitted to the daylight of life.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

The nusach challenge

Going to synagogue daily and repeating basically the same prayers day after day is one of the major challenges of the kaddish year. Boredom or disengagement can set in.

True, the prayers are not exactly the same every day, but the variations are minor. The length of the tachanun (supplication) is longer on Mondays and Thursdays than other weekdays, and sometimes it is omitted altogether. Sabbath and Yom Tov (holiday) prayers are different than weekday ones. Certain phrases to and emendations of the Amidah (standing prayer) appear between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  However, in a general sense, the form and substance of the liturgy is a constant. Moreover, since saying kaddish compels the mourner to attend synagogue daily, you end up spending a lot of time--over an hour a day--engaging with these prayers. Saying kaddish makes up only a small portion of your time in shul (synagogue).

How then to keep the experience of prayer fresh, to make saying them meaningful? As the Mishna in Perkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), in the name of Rabbi Shimon, states, "don't make your prayer a fixed activity, but rather an appeal for mercy and beseeching God (אל תעש תפילתך קבע, אלה רחמים ותחנונים לפני המקום (2:18, see also Talmud Brachot 28b-29b).

A female friend of mine who recently finished saying kaddish for her father devised a solution that worked for her. She was more focused on saying kaddish than on engaging with the prayers. Since she wasn't being called upon to lead prayers, she could create her own environment in which to say kaddish. She did this by putting on headphones, listening to inspirational music and doing breathing exercises while waiting for the kaddishes.

I couldn't do this since, as a male, I was frequently called upon to lead services, and my general stance was to accept the responsibility to do so when asked. What I decided to do was to channel my energies toward greater engagement with the prayers, to deepen my connection with them while using the opportunity to learn new synagogue skills. The goal was to sharpen my consciousness and attentiveness in shul, thereby reducing, to the extent possible, the feeling of being on auto-pilot.

I attempted to achieve this goal in two ways: 1) to relearn how I pronounce the prayers and, 2) to learn to pray comfortably in different nusachim (forms of prayer). I termed these experiences learning to "switch hit" (a baseball metaphor that refers to a batter being capable of batting either right-handed or left-handed). Let me explain.

I learned to read and pronounce Hebrew at Ramaz, a modern Orthodox and Zionist-oriented day school in New York, which I attended through fourth grade. After we moved to California, I went to a Hebrew School affiliated with the Conservative Movement. In both settings, I was taught to pronounce Hebrew as it spoken in Israel, the so-called Sephardi pronunciation. Sephardi pronunciation differs from the Ashkenazi pronunciation, which is why one can hear Hebrew pronounced differently depending on the shul one attends and who is davening (leading prayers). The Sephardi method originated with the Jewish communities of the Middle East who trace their origins to the Spanish exile; Ashkenazi refers to those descended from Central and Eastern European Jewry.

There are three main differences between Sephardi and Ashkenazi pronunciation. One is that Ashkenazi Jews pronounce the vowel "Qametz gadol," when stressed, as "oh" or "uh," resulting in, for example, the name David being pronounced either as Dovid or Duvid. Another difference lies in which syllable gets stressed; in Ashkenazi pronunciation, the penultimate syllable is generally stressed whereas in Sephardi Hebrew it is the ultimate syllable (compare kíddish vs. kiddúsh). A further difference is how the letter ת is pronounced. In Ashkenazi, the letter has an "s" sound, and is referred to as a sof, unless the letter has a dagesh (dot), in which case the letter is a tof and is pronounced as a "t." In Sephardi Hebrew, the ת is always pronounced as "t" regardless of whether or not the letter takes a dagesh. (Compare Shabbos vs. Shabbat or the word את being pronounced "es" vs. "et".)

Not only was I brought up to read Hebrew in the Sephardi manner, but also to believe that this method of pronunciation was superior to Ashkenazi Hebrew. Even more, I was inculcated to believe that Ashkenazi pronunciation had a negative association, as a relic of exile, redolent of Yiddish and the Eastern European Jewish culture that was essentially destroyed during the Holocaust. I inherited the belief that Sephardi pronunciation represented the new and more relevant Hebrew, since it is used in Israel, which symbolizes the Zionist ideas of self-reliance, statehood and return from exile. The early Zionists, who were by and large Ashkenazi Jews, most likely adopted the Sephardi pronunciation precisely to create a sense of rupture between themselves and their own Eastern European heritage. Their disassociation from the European diaspora became embedded in their very manner of speech.

Many religious non-Zionists, including Chassidic sects and Charedim (so-called Ultra Orthodox Jews), use Ashkenazi Hebrew, even in Israel. They do so because it is part of their heritage, but also, perhaps, to define themselves as indifferent to Jewish nationalism.

There are, however, many Jews, especially in the New York area, that identify themselves as Zionists but pray using Ashkenazi pronunciation. I used to attend a synagogue in Manhattan that celebrated, as the rabbi would say it, Yom Ha'atzmaus, that is, Israel independence day as pronounced in Ashkenazi. In addition, using Ashkenazi pronunciation does not necessarily imply a negative attitude toward the Jewish State; there are many Zionists whose Hebrew simply reflects how their parents pronounced the language and how they learned Hebrew in Jewish day school.

There are different theories about how the two pronunciation methods developed, but the argument that Sephardi is truer to how Hebrew is "supposed" to be spoken is not well-founded. If anything, Ashkenazi pronunciation, at least insofar as it preserves distinctions between different vowel sounds and the presence or absence of a dagesh in the Tof, is more complex than the Sephardi system. (Some argue that Yemenite pronunciation is the most accurate since it is the only Hebrew that distinguishes all ten consonants.)

I happen to pray in synagogues where one commonly hears both types of pronunciation. My father, z'l, was raised in a traditional Yiddish speaking family, and so originally learned to pray in Ashkenazi. In his teens, he joined B'nei Akiva, the Orthodox Zionist youth organization, that emphasized using the Sephardi pronunciation of Hebrew as spoken in Israel. I noticed that when he would recite kiddush or other prayers, he would switch, I believe unconsciously, between Ashkenazi and Sephardi pronunciation, as if he had never quite worked out the inconsistencies between the two. (Since I've begun paying attention to this, I've noticed others who pronunciation is similarly inconsistent.)

To honor my father as well as my Eastern European heritage, and to strengthen my focus on the prayers, I decided to learn how to pray in the Ashkenazi style, insofar as it distinguishes between the letterת   with and without a dagesh. This forced me to return to the siddur (prayer book) to read anew the prayers that I otherwise knew by heart in order to make the necessary adjustments in pronunciation. Fifteen of the 19 blessings that make up the Amidah--all but blessings numbers 3, 6, 7 and 11--have at least one instance of a Sof, i.e., a ת without a dagesh.

At first, I made the adjustments only in my private prayer. Sometimes I would say the entire prayer to myself using Ashkenazi pronunciation; other times I would switch off between Ashkenazi and Sephardi pronunciation each paragraph or every two, three or four paragraphs. In the process, I learned the some general grammatical rules about when the Tof/Sof takes a dagesh and when it doesn't. I also had to accept that some words that I was very familiar with, such as the word Torah (תורה), usually does not take a dagesh; for example, in blessing number five, neither ת in the word לתורתך has a dagesh and so is pronounced "l'sorasecha." I had to be especially careful about the word את, which appears eight times in the Amidah, and is always pronounced "es."

Once I felt comfortable enough with my Ashkenazi Hebrew, I tried out leading the evening Ma'ariv service using this pronunciation; it's the easiest service to lead, as it does not include a repetition of the Amidah. After I felt comfortable with Ma'ariv, I tried my hand at the afternoon Mincha service. After a few more weeks, I felt comfortable enough with my Ashkenazi pronunciation to lead the entire morning Shacharit service. Sometimes I would accidentally slip up and pronounce a sof in my accustomed Sephardi Hebrew. Even if I "erred," I would just continue with the Ashkenazi pronunciation. I would decide just before approaching the bima (prayer stand) if I would go with Sephardi or Ashkenazi pronunciation. If I felt tired, I would use my default Sephardi method. No one ever mentioned to me about why I davened sometimes in Ashkenazi and sometimes in Sephardi, which probably says as much about my ability to daven fluently in each system as it does peoples' limited attention to such details while in shul.

As to kaddish, I found it easy to learn to say it using Ashkenazi pronunciation since I have heard it recited that way so many times. It is noteworthy that, at least in the beginning of the kaddish, many of the words have a ת as their second letter (or third if the word is preceded by a ו (vov)), and so the prayer sounds much different depending on how the words are pronounced:

                                                                       . . .יתגדל, ויתקדש
 . . .יתברך, וישתבח ויתפאר ויתרומם ויתנשא ויתהדר ויתעלה ויתהלל

Yisgadal, v'iskadash . . . vs. Yitgadal, v'itkadash . . .

I would choose to pronounce the kaddish depending on how other kaddish-sayers were pronouncing the words. If I knew all or most were using the Ashkenazi pronunciation, I would use that as well, and visa versa.

My second liturgical challenge during this kaddish year was to learn to daven comfortably in Nusach Sephard.

The idea of nusach refers generally to the liturgical traditions of specific communities. More specifically, it refers to the structure of the prayer service as well as the content of the prayers. While the general structure is the same regardless of nusach (e.g., for shacharit: P'sukei D'zimrah, Kriyat Shma, Amidah, Tachanun, Aleynu), there are distinct differences between various nusachim, including the addition of certain phrases, the point at which the Torah is returned to the ark, when the Cohanim (priests) bless the congregation (duchaning), as well as the wording of the Amidah.

There are three main nusachim used in traditional synagogues: Nusach Ashkenaz, Nusach Sephard and Nusach Edot Ha'mizrach. The latter is used by Jews from the Middle East who trace their roots back to the Spanish expulsion. Nusach Ashkenaz is used by Jews of central and eastern European origin, and may date back to Palestinian Jewish communities in the pre-geonic period (before the year 609 A.D.). Nusach Sephard was adopted by Chassidic sects in Eastern Europe in the 1700s and incorporates elements of Nusach Edot Ha'mizrach. The Chassidim felt that the Sephardic liturgy, used by the Jews of Safed in the 1500s, when kabbala (Jewish mysticism) was being developed by Isaac Luria, was superior to Nusach Ashkenaz. (There are some differences between the version of Nusach Sephard used by different Chassidic groups; the Chabad version is referred to as Nusach Ha'ari, Ha'ari being another appellation of Isaac Luria.) This change in nusach was one of many complaints against the Chassidim of the mitnagdim (opponents of Chassidism).

The Amidah consists of 19 blessings; its general structure, as well as the theme of each blessing, is the same in all nusachim. Yet there are some distinct linguistic differences. For example, in blessing number four, we thank God, in Nusach Ashkenaz, for granting us דעה בינה והשכל (knowledge, insight and discernment) as opposed to חכמה בינה ודעת (wisdom, insight and knowledge) in Nusach Sephard. There is at least one word variation between Nusach Ashkenaz and Nusach Sephard in 13 of the 19 blessings (blessings 3, 4, 6, 7, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 16, 17, 18, 19). 

In the diaspora, some non-Chassidic Ashkenazi synagogues have adopted Nusach Sephard. In Israel, Nusach Sephard is the dominant form of prayer in Ashkenazi shuls. Just as the founders of the Jewish yeshuv in Palestine--the community that would develop into the Jewish state--instituted the Sephardic pronunciation of Hebrew, the yeshuv's religious leaders decided that the main nusach should be Nusach Sephard. One reason for the adoption of Nusach Sephard "was that Eretz Yisrael was regarded as part of the Sephardic world, so that it was felt that new immigrants should adapt to the local rite." It is equally as likely that the adoption of Nusach Sephard was another instance of the settlers' desire to distance themselves from traditions associated with their European heritage.

I spent ten days in Israel last summer while saying kaddish for my father. At one shul where I prayed, the Gabbai (prayer leader) noticed me saying kaddish and asked me whether I wanted to lead prayers. He told me I could choose to lead prayers in either Nusach Sephard or Nusach Ashkenaz; it is common in shuls in Israel that either nusach can be used by the prayer leader. However, the large print siddur on the bima was Nusach Sephard, indicating that this nusach was the preferred one. So I decided I would lead services in that nusach even though it was less familiar to me. I took it as a challenge and a learning opportunity, one that would allow me to grow spiritually by forcing me to slow down and focus on the words of the prayers instead of simply having them flow from my mouth as usual.

After I returned from Israel, I has occasion to daven Mincha at a Chabad in Manhattan. I raised my hand when the Gabbai asked if anyone had a chiuv (obligation) to lead prayers. Chabad, I knew, uses Nusach Ha'ari, which, as noted, is based on Nusach Sephard. Chabad also used the Ashkenazi Hebrew pronunciation. And so I davened in the less familiar nusach using my newly learned Ashkenazi Hebrew. (To extend the baseball metaphor, batting left handed against a left handed picher.) I prayed slowly, purposefully and accurately. When someone shook my hand afterwards, I felt not only a sense of pride, but that I had brought honor to my father's memory.

I now know how to pray four different ways: Nusach Ashkenaz using Sephardi pronunciation, Nusach Ashkenaz using Ashkenazi pronunciation, Nusach Sephard using Sephardi pronunciation and Nusach Sephard using Ashkenazi pronunciation.

While the general rule is that one should preferably pray in one's familiar nusach, dealing with unfamiliarity presents an opportunity to go beyond one's comfort zone. When you say kaddish for a year, you are bound to pray in synagogues that have customs different than the ones to which you are accustomed. I am still trying to make peace with being an orphan, with having lost both of my parents. But, in some small but significant way, having become more capable of praying in different types of synagogues has itself provided me with a lasting source of comfort.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Words of Comfort

Jewish religious life in general, and Jewish prayer in particular, puts a premium on literacy. There are three prayer services per day and many words recited during them. The longest service is shacharit, the morning service. Doing some rough calculations, I estimate that, all totaled, the daily word count of all the prayers combined is about 8,700. But, in how many of them do I find meaning?

The nature of Jewish prayer, at least as practiced in Orthodox synagogues, does not make it any easier to find meaning in particular words or phrases. The service goes fast. You are trying to fit in all the prayers into a short time span: 30-40 minutes during the morning prayer service, and about a half hour for a combined afternoon and evening services. You are saying so many words, words that you repeat every day, that it is easy to feel that they are drifting by unnoticed, like the scenery on a drive you've done hundreds of times before.

I wrote about this problem in my previous blog  when I was saying for my mother, z'l. That kaddish year, I latched on to a verse that I felt spoke to my condition. It is said during the morning service, during P'sukei D'zimra (פסוקי דזמרא, literally verses of song), which serves as a prelude to the recitation of the Shma and then the Amidah (silent standing prayer). It comes from Psalm 147, verse 3: "He (God) is the healer of the broken-hearted, and the One who binds up their sorrows (הרופא לשבורי לב, ומחבש לעצבותם)" I liked that these words have, at least in modern Hebrew, a medical imagery (the word "bind up" in contemporary Hebrew refers to a medic.) They spoke to my feeling of  being broken, to a need for comfort and healing.

During this kaddish year, a different verse captured my attention. It also comes from the series of five psalms (psalms 146-150, the last five psalms in the Book of Psalms) recited during P'sukei D'zimra, The verse is the penultimate verse of Psalm 146, and reads: "The Lord watches over strangers (or "sojourners" in other translation); he upholds (or "sustains") the widow and the orphan, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin (ה' שמר את גרים, יתום ואלמנה יעודד, ודרך רשעים יעות)."

I like that the psalmist focuses on God's special care for the vulnerable, specifically the widow and the orphan. For, after my father died, I truly felt orphaned. The second half of my connection to the ones who created me was severed. There is an idea that every person has three creators: mother, father and God. When one's parents are gone, only God remains. I also like the word "sustains (יעודד)," which in modern Hebrew means to encourage. When I davened from the Amud (acted as prayer leader), I made sure to say this verse out loud, and with kavannah (intention), even though most siddurim (prayer books) mark the spot where the prayer leader recites out loud at only the last verse of this psalm.

This verse offered me a feeling that God was encouraging me to stay strong, providing support to continue in the path, despite the sorrows, toward fulfilling my dreams.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Mourning within mourning

There is only one day in your life when you can experience mourning within mourning. That day is when you are saying kaddish for both of your parents, a kaddish during the year of mourning and a kaddish on the yahrzeit of the other parent.

For me, that day was last Friday. On that day, I observed the 8th yahrzeit of my mother, Hilda Kessler, Hinde bat Yosef v'Chaya, may her memory live on. I mourned her loss at the same time I continued to mourn the more recent loss of my father. Mourning within mourning.

Most people will, at some point in their lives, experience this day. Even if your parents, God forbid, die during the same year, so you are saying kaddish for both parents simultaneously, there will come a point when the yahrzeit for the first parent to die will take place while you are still mourning the other parent. The only way, I think, that this mourning within mourning experience cannot occur is if both parents, God forbid, died either on the same day or between one month of each other, so that the kaddish obligation for the second parent to die ended before the yahrzeit for the first parent.

On a halakhic level, my obligation to lead prayers was, on this day, as intense as it could be. I had a "regular" chiuv (obligation) to lead prayers as a person saying kaddish for his parent for 11 months. I also had the obligation to lead prayers as a person observing the yahrzeit for a parent. Some people were a little confused, thinking that perhaps my kaddish year had ended and I was observing the yahrzeit for my father. Such is the way it is for one who is an orphan.

I hadn't quite anticipated the emotions that would emerge on the day I mourned for both my parents. Both arise they did, as I contemplated that, for this one and only day of my life, I would be saying kaddish for both people who brought me into the world.

For most of this year, thoughts of my father have been in the forefront of my mind. On that yahrzeit day, however, it was thoughts of my mother. My mother, whose death introduced me to the world of mourning. Now that world is almost forever over, at least on a halakhic level. In just one week I complete saying kaddish for my father. I will never again be reciting kaddish on a regular basis, just on the yahrzeits of my parents.

As I stood in prayer, a powerful sensation overtook me. Since my mother died, I had thoughts of missing her, of wishing for her presence and advice. I've also had a lingering, though diminishing, sense of guilt vis-a-vis my father. (see

On that day, the script got flipped. I had the sense that she was reaching out to me, that she needed me. She needed to communicate with me, to thank me for my efforts in caring for her husband during the seven years that he lived without her. I don't know where these kind of thoughts come from, but they did. Do the dead need the living? Isn't that one of the ideas of kaddish: that the soul of the departed needs the prayers of the living?

And so I stood in deep communication with her, in a way that I hadn't experienced since she left this world. It was a day when I thought about my mother not only as being my mother, but also in context of her as my father's wife. The experienced awakened within me the notion that during this year, I am mourning not only my father as my father, but also my father as my mother's husband. The selfish aspect of mourning receded--my mother, my father--while the relational aspect of my parents lives emerged.

And so I experienced the loss of my parents in a new way, a way that brought a measure of comfort, that I, as their son, and as my mother's representative on earth for my father, had fulfilled his obligation. On this day of double mourning, I mourned my parents not only as individuals, but as a couple whose lives, and now deaths, were and are intertwined. A once in a lifetime experience on a once in a lifetime day.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

The Music Project

Listening to music is one of the restrictions of avelut (mourning). There are several different approaches toward this issue. There are those who go the entire year without intentionally listening to music, no matter the type and whether or not live or recorded. As one source explains, an avel (mourner) does not listen to music "because music brings about simcha (joy), which is one of the things an avel doesn't do during the aveilus (mourning) year."

A more lenient position holds that the issue is not music itself, but dancing. Thus, music is permitted so long as it is not associated with dancing, which is a "mark of gaiety." Based on this distinction, some authorities would permit listening to, or even attending a live performance of, an opera or classical music. The general custom, however, and the one I have chosen to follow, is not to attend any concert or performance of any type of music.

My connection to music is complex and integrally bound up with my relationship to my father, may his memory live on. He had a passionate, almost mystical, connection with classical music. He grew up listening to classical music on the radio. Even as a teen, he began attending concerts at Carnegie Hall. I know this because, while going through his things, I discovered a binder in which he kept programs of concerts he attended. He wouldn't just attend concerts; he had the chutzpa to go backstage and collect the autographs of the performers.

Program of 1945 concert signed by conductor Fritz Reiner.

My mother, z'l, the story goes, fell in love with him at a Brahms concert to which he took her. His passion for the music was so great that, to attend Carnegie Hall concerts after shabbat without violating the prohibition of carrying tickets on shabbat, he would buy and then hide them somewhere near the theatre--I'm sorry I never asked him exactly where--begin walking toward the concert hall from the Lower East Side on Shabbat afternoon, and then retrieve the tickets after shabbat had ended. Once, when he visited me at my college dorm, he noticed a poster of Carnegie Hall on the wall; he paid my roommate for it and had it framed. It hung over his desk for many years.

Carnegie Hall poster. The poster was included in the 1970 Live from Carnegie Hall album of the band Chicago
He even wrote letters and received responses from noted musicians, including the cellist Pablo Casals.
Letter written by Pablo Casals to my father which my father framed
Drafted into the army in 1951, my father was stationed in Germany for two years. He took advantage of his time abroad to see as many concerts as he could, including attending the Karlsruhe festival and the Salzburg festival in Vienna. There he saw the great European conductors of the era such as Bruno Walter, Herbert von Karajan, and Otto Klemperer.

Ticket and programs my father saved while attending concerts in Germany during his army days.
But his true love was Arturo Toscanini. He loved Toscanini's precise and driving tempos. He attended numerous concerts of the NBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Toscanini.
Programs collected by my father of concerts conducted by Toscanini from 1945 (above) and 1953 (below)

He appreciated Toscanini not only as a conductor, but as an anti-fascist and supporter of Zionism. In 1936, Toscanini traveled to Palestine to "train the orchestra, and conduct the first concerts of what later became known as the Israel Philharmonic, composed of refugee Jewish musicians who had escaped persecution. Toscanini refused to accept a fee or reimbursement for his travel expenses." I remember him telling me how he listened on the radio to Toscanini's performance of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony which he conducted to mark the day of the Nazi surrender. Toscanini returned to Italy shortly after the war's end and, before his first post-war concert, held at the famous La Scala Opera House, he insisted that Jewish musicians who had been dismissed from the orchestra (and survived the war), be reinstated. The last book my father read before he died was Harvey Sachs' most recent biography of Toscanini.

Toscanini died in January, 1957. A year later my brother was born. My parents gave him the middle name Arturo in his honor. (I can only imagine what my frum (religious) grandparents thought of this. They probably never found out.)

Most of my father's friends were fellow classical music lovers. He created his own "Berlioz Society," in appreciation of the 19th Century French composer Hector Berlioz. They would gather on Sunday evenings at our Lower East Side apartment to listen to their latest classical music finds, sitting together in silence to listen and critique. He amassed an immense collection of classical recordings, which I recall consisted mainly of multi-record albums encased in black covers.

Despite his best efforts, and to his great disappointment, my musical tastes were shaped by the music of the baby boom generation: the Beatles and their many imitators. When I was eight, he brought home a piano for me to learn to play classical music, but, after a couple of frustrating years, I quit. I routinely failed his quizzes to identify the composer of a piece of music; my standard response, "Brahms? Haydn?", must have been painful for him. An indelible memory of my childhood was when I accidentally broke his stylus while listening to Hard Day's Night, which I had received as a birthday present. In revenge for messing up his turntable, he smashed the record to pieces.

In the summer of 1965, he was offered a post-doc at Stanford University and we made the fateful move from the Lower East Side to Palo Alto, California. There I discovered KFRC and KYA, the two pop music stations which played the soundtrack of my youth.

One day in the summer of 1967, while I listened in the car, the Procol Harum song Whiter Shade of Pale came over the airways. Its melody, played on an organ, is based on, or at least alludes to, the chord progression in Bach's Orchestral Suite No. 3, BWV 1068. (The song is one of the most played songs in Rock history, and Rolling Stone named it the 57th best rock song ever.)

Not only did my father like it, but he realized that rock musicians were indeed serious musicians. And he found himself, living in Palo Alto, in the midst of one of the greatest explosions of musical talent in American history. Out of this modest beginning grew a full-fledged love affair with the San Francisco rock scene. He attended the many free rock concerts held in Palo Alto and environs. He and my mother went to the Avalon Ballroom and the Fillmore West to see the greats in their heyday: the Grateful Dead--his personal favorite--Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, with and without Big Brother and the Holding Company, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Santana, Cream, Joe Cocker, Van Morrison. His built a rock music album collection which, while never rivaling the classical music collection, was nevertheless quite impressive. I've inherited it, and it represents a near perfect representation of the most important rock albums released from 1967-1971.

My brother and I were the beneficiaries of his new musical awakening. Though I was but 12, and my brother two years younger, he bought tickets and then dropped us off to attend our first concert, at the Cow Palace in Daly City, just south of San Francisco. The show was advertised in a short notice in the San Francisco Chronicle:

We saw the Everly Brothers, Eric Burdon and the Animals, and, one of the greatest bands in rock history, The Who. Then still relatively unheralded, The Who were known mostly for their crazy stage antics which included smashing their instruments at the end of each show--which we witnessed in stunned fashion as the smoke and noise rose from the stage. They were not even the headliners; that honor went to The Association, a briefly popular soft rock band with a bunch of pop hits: Along Comes Mary, Windy, Cherish, and Never My Love.

That was only the beginning of my concert-going experiences, all of which my father enabled. The day after my Bar Mitzvah, he took my brother and I to a rock festival at the nearby Santa Clara County Fairgrounds.

Advertisement poster for my first rock festival concert
The full day of music featured The Youngbloods, Country Joe and the Fish, The Electric Flag (with Buddy Miles and Mike Bloomfield), Taj Mahal, and, in an unforgettable and electrifying closing act, The Doors, featuring the manic and pulsating presence of their legendary singer, Jim Morrison.
Poster featuring Jim Morrison that my father bought at the rock concert
More musical experiences followed. In August, 1969, we saw the short-lived band Blind Faith--the famous Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood and Ginger Baker collaboration--in one of its only performances. Two months later, my father took me to my first Grateful Dead show at the San Jose Civic Center. Being only 14, I was overwhelmed by the psychedelic sounds and swirling lights; while the band played its improvisational jams, a Japanese monster movie--Mothra versus Godzilla I believe--was projected in the background. I rooted for Mothra because I liked the twin fairies that accompanied him.

A month later, December 6, 1969, our family set out on a Saturday morning (we were no longer sabbath observant) to attend the infamous Altamont Festival, in what was supposed to be the West Coast's answer to Woodstock. It didn't turn out about peace and love--there were many overdoses and four deaths, including one killed right in front of the stage--but we were far away from the chaos, and the music itself, particularly Santana and the Rolling Stones, was tremendous. The next year he took us to see Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young at the Oakland Coliseum; Young had just composed his song Ohio in response to the killings at Kent State two months earlier, and the crowd roared its approval at its message.

My father saw his last Grateful Dead concert on July 17, 1976, at the Orpheum Theatre, and I remember  the glow on his face the following morning. The previous night I attended my first Grateful Dead concert as a young adult, the beginning of a lifelong journey as a Deadhead.

Not only did my father appreciate rock music, he also had an excellent eye for the art that grew out of the San Francisco music scene. He bought posters of concerts he attended, now valuable collectors items. When he moved to New York a few years ago, he had some of them framed and hung them around his office, reminders of good times gone by.

Rock posters that my father bought, framed, and hung on his office wall.  
During my father's "hippie phase," he remained attached to classical music. Undoubtedly, he was one of few attending a Grateful Dead concert one night and an opera the next. As the years passed, he and the music changed, and he again devoted most of his listening pleasure to classical music. I too became less connected to popular music (other than my ongoing love of the Grateful Dead) and began listening to more classical music. Gradually I could distinguish between Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Modern and Post-modern pieces. (He could, upon listening, tell whether an orchestra was European or American and could identify conductors and even soloists.) Eventually I could hold intelligent conversations with him about classical music and, after my mother died, he and I attended a number of concerts together.

All this is a way of saying that music means too much to me--and meant too much to him--to shun it completely during the year of mourning. But I wanted to listen to music in a manner that befit the memory of one for whom music was so deeply implanted. So, even before he died, I began conceiving of a project to connect with him and honor his memory: to listen to his music. He eventually gave away his classical music albums, but over the years, he had augmented it with several hundred CDs. (He always maintained he preferred the sound of vinyl to digital.) A friend of his burned them and sent me the files on a couple of flash drives. I resolved, in alphabetical order, to listen to them all.

A portion of my father's classical music CD collection
The original idea was to complete the music project before his first yahrzeit. That is not going to happen. Less than two months of mourning remain and I am only on the Es. There were, to be sure, a lot of As and Bs: Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms as well as performers (iTunes lists them by first name) whose names start with A, B or D: the pianists Alfred Brendel, Alicia de Larrocha, Alexandre Tharaud, Andras Schiff, Artur Schnabel, Arthur Benedetti Michelangeli, Daniel Barenboim, and Dinu Lipatti as well as the violinists Anne-Sophie Mutter and David Oistrakh. Then there are the Amadeus and Emerson String Quartets--he was very partial to chamber music. And, of course, many many recordings of Arturo Toscanini. At this rate it will take a couple of years to listen to everything, but, just as I have committed to saying kaddish for him every day, I will in time (bli neder) listen to every piece of music he purchased.

I'm not only listening, but also, as a later day Berlioz Society member, reacting to each piece. I've created a spreadsheet of everything I listen to and recording my reaction (one to five stars, as well as a few words of evaluation). Column 1 lists the composer, 2: Name of Piece, 3: Conductor/performer and 4: rating and reaction:

Here are two small samples:

Small selection of my spreadsheet recording each piece of music I've listened to
This is not the kind of music you can rush through. Certain pieces are complex, evanescent, and so more difficult to evaluate on a single listen: I'm thinking of the Shostakovich string quartets I recently listened to. And so I listen to these pieces more than once. Others are so good they stay on a permanent playlist to get repeat playing. And I don't have lots of time to listen; mostly when I'm doing errands, and particularly when I begin my walk to and from shul to say kaddish in his memory, as if my prayers begin and end from the time I leave home until the time I return.

I wish I could discuss my reactions with him. I have imaginary talks with him why I liked or didn't like a piece of music or what I thought of a particular performance. I'm familiar with some of the standard classical repertoire, but I've discovered many musical gems that I'd never heard before. Here, in alphabetical order, are some of them:
  • Bach Concerto for solo organ No. 5 in D minor
  • Bach Partita for solo violin no. 2 in D minor
  • Beethoven String Quartets Nos. 14 and 15 (Opus 131 and 132)
  • Beethoven Piano Sonata No. 29 in B flat major (Hammerklavier) and, his last piano sonata, No. 32 in C minor
  • Brahms Violin Concerto in D major
  • Elgar Enigma Variations
  • Hyden Trumpet Concerto in E Flat
  • Mahler Symphonies No. 2 and 4 and Anageitto (slow movement of Symphony No. 5 (I wasn't crazy about the other movements)
  • Mozart Piano Sonatas No. 4 in E Flat Major (K. 282) and No. 8 in A minor (K. 310)
  • Saint-Saens Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor
  • Schubert Piano Trio in E flat major
  • Shostakovich Chamber Symphony in A minor (Op. 110a)
  • Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in D major
(To listen to these pieces, go to the playlist)

Sometimes the music is so beautiful it brings tears to my eyes, and I remember how how looked when he was listening to music, as if carried away by some transcendental force. With each piece I listen to, I feel more a part of the world that gave him so much pleasure. Listening to his classical music collection has been one of the central features of my mourning, carrying as much meaning for me as attending synagogue and reciting kaddish.

At first, I resolved not to listen to any other music other than his this year. My cousin in Israel bought tickets to a concert by Yehuda Poliker--my favorite Israeli musician--while I was in Israel, but I declined, so she sold them. A friend of mine tried to convince me to go to a Phil Lesh (the Grateful Dead bassist) concert under the guise of reporting on the effect of music on mourning. I thought about how the music might have a cathartic element, but again declined. But one opportunity to hear Grateful Dead music did present itself: the summer annual meet-up, a movie featuring a complete Grateful Dead concert. This year's movie featured the concert from June 17, 1991 at Giants Stadium, a show I attended.

Although not strictly in line with the laws of mourning, I went. I wanted to. The movie had both its joyous and bittersweet elements; it was the band's last truly great performance I ever saw. And it captured Jerry Garcia on the cusp of his health decline, which would diminish his talents and lead to his death just four years later. It was cathartic. I did shed a tear. I'm sure my father would have appreciated it.

Friday, November 1, 2019

Kaddish and the Simchat Torah conundrum

The holiday season begins with Rosh Hashanah and ends with Simchat Torah. This latter celebrates the annual cycle of completing the reading of the Torah. It is marked by dancing with the Torah. All the torah scrolls are removed from the ark. The assembled dance seven hakafot/hakofos in a circle with the torah scrolls.

For the mourner, Simchat Torah presents two problems. The first is that mourners are restricted in their participation in joyous occasions. Some authorities hold that mourners are not supposed to participate in any way in rejoicing with the Torah. Some allow mourners to participate in the hakafot in a limited fashion: "Although a mourner is allowed to participate in Hakafot, it would be inappropriate for him to play a leading role in the celebration" such as being "at the forefront of the festivities."

I was advised not to participate in the festivities, and so I stood around with other mourners, reduced to being a spectator, a graphic reminder of my status as a mourner. Not much fun.

The second problem is the requirement to say kaddish at the end of the evening service. Usually this service is short. On weekdays, it takes about 10 minutes. On holidays, about 15-20 minutes. Even on the Sabbath Eve, it is usually lasts no longer than an hour.

The Simchat Torah service is another matter altogether. With the celebrations, as well as reading form the Torah, the service can stretch to a couple of hours. And the Mourner's Kaddish is not recited until the very end of the service.

My tradition is to visit several synagogues during Simchat Torah evening. At the first one I visited, the initial hakafah was still going strong after about 15 minutes. I calculated that it was not worthwhile to wait it out there. So I moved on to the local Chabad shul, where I especially enjoy going during this holiday. On my way there, I ran into a friend who had finished saying kaddish for his father a couple of years ago. He told me that that year, he had assembled his own minyan (prayer quorum of 10) so he could say kaddish without waiting for the entire service to conclude. He suggested I do the same.

When I got to Chabad, they were taking a break from hakafot and eating a meal. Actually, not just eating. Vodka, Chabad's drink of choice, as well as some scotch, was flowing. I ate, imbibed, enjoyed. By the time I moved on, most of the local synagogues had already concluded their services. So I wound up at a local shtibel (small synagogue), but didn't feel like waiting around for them to finish. There were a bunch of chabadniks that had come in to add joy to the celebrations. These young men come from Israel and then walk all the way from Brooklyn--Crown Heights--in particular, to visit various shuls throughout the city. As they were about to leave to move on to another shul, I asked them to stay for a minute while I said kaddish. They agreed. I began to recite it.

I don't need a siddur (prayer book) to recite the Mourner's Kaddish. I've recited it thousands of time, eleven months, about 8 times a day, for my mother and now almost 10 months, about 8 times a day, for my father. To say I know it by heart is an understatement, and that includes the more complex Kaddish De'rabbanan.

But, on this occasion, as I stood near the doorway of the shteibl with a group of chabadniks from Israel, having just drank my share of scotch and vodka, at the end of a long day, it all turned to mush. I couldn't remember my yit'kadals from my yit'kadashes from my yish'tabachs. It all blended together. I stood there mumbling and stumbling through it, helped somewhat by their prompting. I felt embarrassed. Somehow I got through it. Another moment during this kaddish year, though not one of my more prouder ones.

Friday, October 18, 2019

Practice makes perfect: leading prayers during the 10 Days of Repentance

Leading prayers is one of the burdens/privileges of the year of avelut (mourning). Both the burden as well as the privilege is heightened during the days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, known as the "Ten Days of Repentance."

This phrase, like many other number references in Judaism, is somewhat of a misnomer. The ten days are really seven, because it includes the two days of Rosh Hashanah as well as Yom Kippur. The Shome Esray prayer, means "18," but actually consists of 19 blessings. The seven days of shiva (which means seven) are really five and a half since they include the day of the funeral and ends the morning of the seventh day. The rule that a person who misuses sanctified property is penalized by adding a fifth of the value actually results in a person paying a quarter of the value.

One of the defining features of the ten days is are the six changes to the prayer. Four of the changes involve insertions to the various the first, second, second to last and last blessings of the prayer. The other two changes involve the substitution of words in the "chatima" at the end of the third and eleventh blessings.

The former is the most significant change wherein the words "Hamelech Hakadosh" (the Holy King) is substituted for "Ha'el Hakadosh" (the Holy God). If you don't make this substitution, your prayer is considered invalid, you have not fulfilled your prayer obligation, and you must repeat it.

There is also two slight changes to the every kaddish. One extra word is added. Instead of saying "le'elah min kol berchata" (above all blessings), you say "l'elah u'lelah min kal berchata" (above and above all blessings). (Some versions leave out the vov and read it as "l'elah l'elah".) In addition, at the end of the kaddishes, you substitute "oseh hashalom bimromav" (the one who makes peace in heaven) for "oseh shalom bimromov" (the maker of peace in heaven).

Given how often you say the prayers (three times a day) and recite kaddish (at least eight times a day), it is not easy to remember to make all these changes.

But I've gotten better at training my mind to be attuned and attentive to the changes in the prayers. This is not my first time leading prayers as a mourner during the Ten Days. And so when I was called upon to lead prayers, I was ready. The changes were imprinted on my mind. On several occasions, I let either the morning, afternoon or evening services. Each time I made all the necessary changes. It's a good feeling. As I said to one of the synagogue leaders as I descended the bima after the morning service, practice makes perfect.

There is one additional element to leading prayers during this period, and that is leading the congregation in the call and response of "Shir Hama'alot" and "Avenu Malkenu." You are the one guiding the assembled through these moving prayers. This is your chance to emote, to add your own imprint to the prayer service, to express your own feelings as you plead with God to have mercy for us, to forgive us, to grant us a good and healthy year, to judge us kindly and with favor this year. It's your chance to elevate the service from the ordinary same old, same old to something that makes an impact on the assembled's emotional state. And you have this chance because of the fact that, last year, God did not enscribe your own parent into the book of life. All the more so to plead that this year, unlike last year, be full of goodness and life.