Some non-Jewish people know what Kaddish is. Some Jewish people also know what Kaddish is. I would guess that more Jewish people don’t than do, because of the secularization of the Jewish people due to the Holocaust and subsequent rush to blend in with whatever dominant culture we found ourselves washed ashore in, those who escaped the ovens.
Kaddish, for those who don’t know, is a Jewish prayer that is an integral part of observant Jewish life. It is best known as the “prayer for the dead,” although death is never mentioned in the prayer itself. It is, in fact, a joyous song of praise, enumerating the awesome powers and grace of the Almighty. It is indeed said at Jewish funerals and at each of the three daily communal prayers, on behalf of the departed, for eleven months. But it is also said many times during each prayer service, as a marker that divides the different segments of the service. There are wonderful mystical reasons for this, having to do with elevating the congregation up through the layers of world upon world that lead to complete unification with God. Most religious Jews don’t know these things, but say the prayers by rote. Much knowledge has been lost in the years of our physical and spiritual exile.
My parents are among the first-generation children of immigrant parents from Russia and Poland who escaped the Holocaust as children, and had no religious background whatsoever. Correction: my father’s father was the child of a Hassidic rabbi from Prussia, and his mother was the daughter of a rabbi in the Ukraine. Both were sent out of their respective countries as children, experiencing exploitation and multitudinous horrors on their way to New York City, where they met and became members of the Communist Party, rejecting their religion out of bitterness; so my father was brought up without religion, to endure antisemitism on a strictly genetic/racial basis.
My mother was raised in a mildly religious environment, but it never really rubbed off on her. She came away with a few legends and fears, but quickly learned how to cook pork ounce she was out of her culturally kosher home, throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
My mother likes to throw things out. She threw out her rudimentary Judaism once she was free of the parental home. She likes to keep a tidy house, so she throws out anything that seems out of place. She has thrown me out many times. I have kept coming back, out of a childish wish that she would all of a sudden become the Good Fairy Mother, but that has not happened yet and as she is 86 and I am nearing 60, I don’t think it is likely to happen.
My mother has two sides: childlike, and childish. Her childlike side is quite charming. She is filled with wonder at a pair of redbirds on a bush, deer in the yard, a squirrel sitting on a railing eating corn she has put out for it. She adores her cat with something approaching sexual love.
On the other hand, when tired or vexed she will burst into childish tantrums, cursing and belittling, mocking, slamming doors and kicking the dog. And throwing things out.
The other day she was in a childish mood, a mild one, and concentrating on throwing things out. She can’t throw me out at the moment, because she needs my help with my invalid father, but she can throw his things out, and that’s what she was up to. I happened along just as Allen Ginsberg’s volume of poetry Kaddish was hitting the dust bin.
“Why are you throwing that out?” I asked. I noted that their once voluminous library seemed to have shrunken, and wondered how many old friends of my youth had gone the way that Kaddish seemed destined.
“Kaddish,” she shuddered, twisting her face in horror. I got it. Kaddish, the “prayer for the dead.” Death is lingering around our house now. In a way it is a marvel: every new day a gift, if my father is still living. Nevertheless it is a spectre hovering, palpable to all. I understand: Kaddish is an unwelcome resident here. I fished it out of the waste basket and dusted it off.
“I’ve never read this,” I remarked.
“Take it,” she said. “Get it out of this house.”
I did. I took it to The Studio, my father’s old studio where I now reside. And began to read. On the first page, Ginsberg is mourning his mother’s death, pacing his living room and saying Kaddish aloud, alone, which is something one is never supposed to do because the prayer is so powerful it could be damaging without the power of ten people to say it. But there he is, the power of his grief holding him safe in his living room, crying out loud the poem of God’s greatness to the Universe.
His mother died of insanity. It struck her like a brick to the head when Ginsberg was a young child, and he spent his childhood accompanying her on trains and buses from one institution to another, until she finally ended up in Bellevue, the end of the line, and when countless shock treatments failed, the lobotomy. She quickly grew old, and died at the age of 60. My age.
He never gave up on his mother, and he never stopped loving her. His family spiralled into collective dysfunction around her. But it seemed to me that somehow he was able to extract, and treasure, the remnants of the delightful, dignified woman his mother once was, and carry that in his heart always. It made me smile and cry.
I have never been able to feel that way about my mother. Perhaps it has something to do with the stories she likes to tell about how I was such an idiot as a baby to climb out of my crib and fall onto a radiator, necessitating a trip to the emergency room; or another time, when, at seven months of age I disrupted dinner by climbing into a cupboard and getting hold of a bottle of Tabasco Sauce, which I somehow got all over me, burning my skin and prompting another visit to the emergency room.
These things, and more, might explain why I recoil at her touch, and why I break into a cold sweat at the sound of her voice.
Reading Ginsberg caused me to go inside and feel what I would feel when at last my mother dies (which is not likely to be for a very long time, given the longevity of her branch of the family, who often live to be 100 or more).
What did I feel then, when I went inside?
Relief, yes. And grief: for the mother I never had.