January 31, 2020 admin

On listening to the Kaddish

Today’s the day to say Kaddish for Britain’s membership of the EU. For all its faults, the European Union and its precedents have helped maintain a relative peace across a bloody continent. I hope the seventy years which follow are as free of war and as committed to cooperation.

Kaddish is always a letting go, an acknowledgement that life and love, even the strongest bonds of parenthood and partnership, do not remain forever. Born to European family on both sides, attached in ways I cannot rationally fathom to the frequently tragic history and culture of continental Jewry, at home in cities, old synagogues and graveyards I have never visited before, I experience this day as a severance, a cutting-off of roots. But, as ever with an ancient faith and peoplehood which has always transcended the boundaries of geography and time, other roots will go down deeper into the sustaining soil of faith where life is always interconnected.

Like most other Jews, I have listened to countless people saying Kaddish and recited the ancient, resonant words many times myself. I’ve heard them spoken loudly and fast, whispered and slowly, stumblingly, fluently, in – and out of – time with others. I try not to judge. Perhaps the person rushing the words is fleeing as much pain as the mourner formulating the letters of each word, as if every slow syllable were a single stair in the long climb of a hundred thousand steps out of sorrow.

I’ve listened, too, to how the community reacts. For Kaddish is a communal affirmation; it requires a minyan, a quorum of ten, and is, if nothing else, a reinstatement, a reaffirmation of the bonds of solidarity: ‘I am with you, next to you, saying alongside you “Yehei Shemei Rabba, God’s great name”.’ The Shulchan Aruch, the sixteenth century code of Jewish law, teaches us to respond neither faster nor louder than the mourner. Our pace and volume should be in harmony with him or her.

This week I’ve listened to the Kaddish of a woman who, although she began with confident self-possession, suddenly wept although it was years since her mother died. I heard the first Kaddish of a family who lost a beloved daughter and sister. I tried too, to hear the unsayable Kaddish of a man in his nineties, bed-bound, who told me on Holocaust Memorial Day, ‘I never thought anything could bring it all back like that, Auschwitz, Birkenau,’ and who, when I asked if it was at those terrible places that he was ‘liberated’, replied, ‘No, at Dachau.’ One knows what that signifies, those hundreds of frozen miles, on foot…

I’m still thinking the Kaddish about all this; I shall be for the rest of my life. Yitgaddal, just that first, opening word, what does it mean? It’s a reflexive verb; how should it be translated: ‘May God show God’s self as great’? ‘May God, whose name is great, reveal that greatness?’

As I was wondering what such greatness might look like, a stupid, ridiculous thought entered my head: a snowdrop. A snowdrop? I picture them in my mind, singly in their delicate beauty, not just white but with fine green lines around the tiny bells, then in drifts of thousands in woodlands, by the path-sides. Snowdrops, the grace of bleak midwinter.

When we listen to someone saying Kaddish it is as if we are holding their hand, even if it trembles with sobbing, and, without denying their pain, helping them point it towards the world, perhaps to say, ‘There is beauty although I struggle to see it; there’s life although it hurts to try to embrace it. But help me, stand by me, and one day, despite everything, I shall; or at least, I shall try.’

It is with this solidarity, this loving courage, that we guide each other to behold the present and look towards the future.


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