Growing up, all I knew about the Kaddish was that it was recited by children whose parents were dead, thus I was absolutely forbidden from saying it. An important tenet of folk religion –otherwise known as superstition– is that a child who recites Kaddish tempts the Angel of Death to take his or her parents from this earth. Traveling the country and teaching, I have found this tradition to be universally known and observed by Jews.
During my second year in rabbinical school I studied the history of the Kaddish and its role in Jewish liturgy. I was already aware that the words of the prayer had nothing to do with death, and that the person leading the recitation was in fact heaping praise upon God. But I was surprised to learn that the origin of the Kaddish was not as a mourner’s prayer at all. In its ancient formulation, as the Rabbi’s Kaddish or Kaddish d’Rabbanan, it was recited upon the conclusion of Torah study. The custom of mourners saying Kaddish arose centuries later.
It was in Rabbi Joel Roth’s classroom that I abandoned my attachment to superstitions about not saying the Kaddish and allowed the prayer to assert its primacy in my daily life. Like his colleagues in the Talmud & Rabbinics department, Rabbi Roth followed a pedagogic approach to the text that included calling upon the students to read, translate and explain passages without warning. This somewhat intimidating practice ensured that no student would attend class unprepared. Every class period was effectively a pop quiz, at least for the students called upon to read that day. It was also an opportunity for individual students to demonstrate their progress, which Rabbi Roth both encouraged and rewarded.
Toward the end of every 90-minute class, before we closed our volumes of Talmud, Rabbi Roth would take a laminated sheet from his desk and hand it to the student who “stood out” that day from among the group. Then we all stood together to recite the Rabbi’s Kaddish. When this privilege, an invitation to lead the prayer, was bestowed upon me for the first time that semester, my heart rejoiced. I felt my praises of God’s name rise up to join the chorus of angels in heaven. I still remember how I felt that morning, nearly half a lifetime ago.
These days, I attend a weekly Torah study at my doctor’s office. It is comprised of adult learners who are professionals in other fields. As a rabbi and the assigned facilitator, I am often the only one present who has prepared the text prior to class. Usually other members of the group volunteer to read aloud from the text, ask questions about the translations and commentaries, and readily offer their own interpretations of the material. At a well-attended session, six to eight friends sit around a conference table, enjoying coffee and snacks with Torah study and conversation. This past Wednesday, however, our host spent half the class moving chairs from every exam room into the break room. At the end of the hour I realized that we had a minyan – the quorum needed to say the Rabbi’s Kaddish. We quickly ascertained which direction was east, and I scrolled through the prayer book on my iPhone to find the words, fondly recalling Rabbi Roth’s laminated sheet. My heart sang as the chorus of students stood with me to praise God’s name.
A multi-generational audience gathered in Jacksonville Jewish Center‘s Social Hall on Sunday morning to attend a session titled Bubbemeises: True stories or Stories about Truth? We began by sharing various traditions that we learned from our parents and grandparents, listing the customs that comprise Jewish folk religion, also known as superstitions.
One grandmother courageously demonstrated how a person is to spit in the evil eye, affording me an opportunity to explain that in Yiddish we say “pooh, pooh, pooh,” while in Hebrew it is “tooh, tooh, tooh.” Always three times, in keeping with the ancients’ tendency toward odd numbers. Her son began to recall folk traditions that she claimed to have forgotten along the way. It was a rare half-hour of sharing and finding commonalities across generational, cultural and even religious boundaries. As a teacher, I was delighted to be engaged in this richly textured conversation. As an author, I was enthralled to continue making connections with my readers, signing copies of my book and chatting informally with the workshop participants after the formal presentation concluded.
In the years since I took my sabbatical and left the classroom, I have learned that I am fully capable of pursuing a career as a writer. But writing is a solitary pursuit, and presents a real challenge to the social being. I made a marvelous discovery this weekend in Florida: The Book Tour provides me a perfect means of balancing my time between living in the real world and living in my own mind.
If you would like to travel with me on a Virtual Book Tour, please visit the Facebook page of Found in Translation: Common Words of Uncommon Wisdom and press the “like” button at the top of the profile page. I will post travel logs, photos and other information there in the coming weeks. You will also find a link to amazon.com, where you can be among the first to review the book and purchase the book as a gift –taking advantage of their free shipping. Join me in my journey as we “spread the words” worldwide!
I have been writing all my life. First as a student, and then later as a rabbi and teacher. But now that I am a writer, I am beginning to appreciate the discipline that true writing requires.
This is my writer’s notebook:
I never go anywhere without it. If you see me around town, there’s a good chance that I will be leaning over it and scribbling away. While I am not particular about notebooks — any “cow book” or lined journal will suffice– I have found a favorite pen, which is usually hooked over the page as a bookmark. Sometimes I sketch or highlight certain ideas, while I am mulling over whether I want to turn my jotted notes and musings into a full essay. I NEVER take my notebook out at a red light, but I have pulled over to capture a fleeting thought. I like to browse through my notebook when I arrive early to pick up the kids and turn off my engine to wait in the carpool line.
Monday mornings, I invest a chunk of time in the revision and publishing part of the writing process. I employ every ounce of my self-discipline to post an essay on my blog every Monday by late afternoon, even when my kids are home with me for a snow day or national holiday. I truly believe that the way to become a good writer is the same way you get to Carnegie Hall. So I have been practicing a lot, and I am grateful when I hear from readers– not only from my mom– that they are enjoying the essays. Of course, it’s great to hear from Mom, too.
This morning I was rifling through an old notebook and finally wrote a 1,125 word essay that I have been meaning to write for more than a year. Instead of posting it, though, I decided to give you a glimpse into the writer’s mind and a brief insight about how a person might progress from an incidental writer to a practicing writer.
I have sent the lengthier piece to a colleague who I hope will publish it in a journal. Perhaps, some Monday morning in the future, I will post a link to share those words, as well.