Saying Kaddish by
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(86 Stories)

Prompted By Faith

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Photo credit: U.S. Navy photo Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class James E. Foehl. Public domain. Source: Wikipedia.

The rabbi asks mourners to rise for the Kaddish. Although not technically mourning anyone, I stand anyway. I attend synagogue so rarely these days—mostly for the bar and bat mitzvot of nephews and nieces—that I want to get my money’s worth. Yit’gadal v’yit’kadash sh’may rabaw. Magnified and sanctified is His great Name.

The words roll off my tongue despite years of disuse, their rhythm like music, like chant; like Ginsberg, like Dylan.

It was shortly after my own bar mitzvah that I learned the Kaddish. My ancient, frail Hebrew teacher, Mar Pierce, came to my house unexpectedly. Now that I had reached Jewish adulthood, he explained, I needed to be able to say Kaddish for my father, may he rest in peace. I opened the prayer book and struggled through the long, strange words, mostly Aramaic, written in Hebrew characters. But with a few weeks of practice, I could hold my own.

Yit’barach v’yish’tabach v’yit’po-ar v’yit’romam v’yit’nasay … The words roll off my tongue despite years of disuse. Their rhythm is mesmerizing, like music, like chant; like Ginsberg, like Dylan. They lull me, comfort me, despite not knowing exactly what they mean.

But I know the gist. The Jewish prayer for the dead, famously, does not mention death. It simply praises God, over and over. Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored, adored and lauded is His holy Name.

I am no longer a believer, not in the Jewish God or anyone’s, not for many years. When asked, I say I’m Jewish on my parents’ side. I don’t know why I recite Kaddish. I say it’s to honor my father, my sister, my grandparents, but if that’s true, why do the words comfort me? O’seh shalom bim’romav: I ask God to send peace from heaven. Hu ya’aseh shalom awlenu v’al kol Yisrael: peace to us and to all Israel.

I’m praying to a God I don’t believe in. So why do I, invariably, break down, sobbing, unable to finish, clutching my wife as close as I can?


John Unger Zussman is a creative and corporate storyteller and a co-founder of Retrospect. An edited version of this story was published in The Sun Magazine in April 2007.

Profile photo of John Zussman John Zussman
John Unger Zussman is a creative and corporate storyteller and a co-founder of Retrospect.


Tags: Prayer, Mourning, Kaddish
Characterizations: been there, moving, well written

Comments

  1. Suzy says:

    John, I feel exactly the same way! You describe so well the feelings I didn’t even realize I had. Thank you.

  2. Betsy Pfau says:

    I understand. After my father’s death, I finally looked at the translation of the Kaddish. I asked my brother, the scholar, why it isn’t a prayer about death. He said, “You’ll be disappointed”. “Try me.” “It’s a doxology, (a what? – he tried to explain) and we recite it to praise God, prove that we go on living, and as a superstition, that the first-born son recites it to honor and remember the lost loved one.” Alrighty…but tradition and rhythm are healing and nurturing, so we carry on.

  3. The ending was moving to me, as is those mysterious moments when something…some thing…tapped our heart. Thank you, John!

  4. Marian says:

    A very moving story, John. As a Reconstructionist Jew, at the end of the Kaddish, after v’al kol y’Israel, I add “v’al kol yoshvei teiveil,” meaning “and all who dwell on this earth.” It feels so inclusive, and leaves me with a prayer for peace. My father was not a religious man, but somehow saying Kaddish is one of the things I feel compelled to do and very much comforted by doing it.

  5. gzussman1 says:

    Saying the Kaddish brings comfort to me – mostly for its familiarity, not that I can translate the Hebrew words as I recite them by memory. I always add some of my own words/thoughts to the end of the prayer – in a way similar to Marian above

  6. Suzy says:

    Nice to read this again a year later. Still very moving. The first time I don’t think I caught your use of the lyrics from Falling to Pieces by The Script. Great song!

  7. Yeah. I pray all the time to a God I don’t believe in. If it feels right, then it is. Better than praying to a God you believe in and feeling nothing but ripped-off? Any day.

  8. gsbate says:

    This is moving, especially the the last sentence. I don’t break down and cry when I read the prayers in the Prayer Book, but sometimes miss being in a dimly lighted old church saying the prayers with others. I still love the language of the 1928 Prayer Book even though is isn’t gender inclusive among other changes. The Confession often comes to me when I know what I “have done,” and what “I have left undone.”
    I love your saying this: “Their rhythm is mesmerizing, like music, like chant; like Ginsberg, like Dylan. ” For me there are words from Joyce, Yeats, Bob Dylan, and Joan Baez.
    I am grateful for what you have shared in all of your writings in Retrospect. I wish I had known you better when we lived in California. I was too shy and careful when I was there, and I was insecure often with you and other members of your groups of singers. Fourteen years here brought back my self-assurance and openness. My problem, not yours. I loved California, and I had good friends there. Friends I miss. Experiences I would like to have again. Experiences I would do over and do better.
    Retrospect is good for me. Thank you for this place for introspect and sharing.

    • John Zussman says:

      Ginger, your sweet comment made my eyes mist up. It’s true that I didn’t know you as well as I knew Simon, with whom I both sang and worked. But we had enough shared experiences to be in each other’s stories, some of which—like singing at your wedding—I hope to share here. Patti and I are enjoying getting to know you again through the stories you post, and hope our physical paths will cross again as well.

  9. John, so glad this just came up in the Past Stories feature.
    Like you I’m a Jewish non-believer, yet Zooming our reform synagogue’s Yom Kippur Yizkor service yesterday my husband and I were in tears.
    Shana Tova!

    • John Zussman says:

      So glad you found it, Dana! A few years after I wrote this, I happened to be in my home town on Yom Kippur day, and accompanied my parents and several siblings to my childhood temple for Yizkor. Like you, I was awash in tears, mourning my father, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and a sister, now gone, who had attended my bar mitzvah at that very temple. Shana tovah to you as well. Gotta be better, right?

  10. Yep, gotta be better in this new year or we’re doomed.

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