Wednesday, August 15, 2012


Yisgadal V’yiskadash Shemeh Rabbah, may His great name grow exalted, were the first words I heard when entering the synagogue chapel, not the accepted Sephardic enunciation of Yitgadal V’yitkadash, but the Ashkenazi corrupted pronunciation, which not only assaulted my ear but also seemed sacrilegious. I hadn’t prayed in this shul for forty years and the synagogue while older appeared neglected, in tandem with the neighborhood. Back then, in its beginning the shul and the neighborhood was crisp, youthful, populated by conservative and modern orthodox Jews. That changed years ago. At first It was the Indians who discovered this neighborhood, moved in and created a little Mumbai with ethnic food shops, clothing stores selling sarongs and saris; jewelry stores dotting Devon Ave. displaying in their windows rings, bangles and anything else that could be fashioned into 22/22 carat yellow gold. 

For some odd reason they were followed by a huge immigration of Pakistanis which, I found odd, since the Pakistanis and Indians could hardly stand each other in their respective homelands. Pakistanis I mused, chose to live next door to Indians since they were genuinely homesick, wanting to recreate a familiar cultural / religious atmosphere. To make matters even more puzzling the Pakistanis who are Muslim, hate Jews like Stalin hated doctors, especially these Jews, who were a super orthodox enclave, very ethnic and very Zionist, so why move into their neighborhood? Now the neighborhood was a hodgepodge, a microcosm of this troubled world with rows of taxis parked on side streets markers where the drivers lived. Indeed, times had changed and the synagogue was in sync with the neighborhood like a couple growing fat together never really noticing their changing contours. 

The worshippers too, those that were leaving as the service concluded and those waiting to enter for the beginning of the service to begin anew all looked soft, faded and humble. It was as though I had entered a time warp, a 5th dimension, perhaps the parallel world I had heard about in midrashic texts. I was familiar with all the accoutrements that accompanied the worshippers like the tallit and tefillin, but nevertheless something appeared off center. The attendees, ranging in age from 30 to 70 all seemed to be timeless, with no defining characteristics that would label them American Jews of the 21st century. They were Jews defying the march of time, the pull of western civilization. They were committed to maintaining the nexus to their eastern European heritage by investing their money not in spas, health clubs and designer clothing but in expensive religious paraphernalia, the best of the best that purportedly enhanced their beseeching prayers, giving them credibility before god. That, in stark contrast to their worn shiny seated black pants, shabby jackets and beat up lint speckled black fedoras, the kind with a three inch wide brim, giving the appearance that they would be taking off together with the flying nun at any moment. 

Finding a seat in the chapel was also no easy task. When I first entered I was drawn to the first available table that happened to have three chairs; two of which were unoccupied. Receiving a puzzling stare from the occupant of the first chair I felt as though I was a home invader, worse, I had irreverently entered the holy of holies where only the high priest had entry. Before I had a chance to don my tefillin another time traveler approached cautiously occupying the second chair, immediately readying himself for his one on one with god. The table was fully occupied so when another parishioner approached he hovered over me reminding me of the custom that daily worshippers had their own sense of entitlement - reserved seats. Understanding the unspoken taboo of violating his space I slithered away finding myself in the very back of this sanctum where I should have gone initially which proved strategic: I’d be able to observe the goings on without inhibition and concern that I was being monitored, the stranger that I was.

Astonishing how things have changed over last forty or so years. When I was growing up, religiously attending services thrice daily, I distinctly recall the casualness of the encounter between the I and Thou. Having donned the tefillin we soon forgot that they graced our arms and crowned our foreheads being in deep concentration, involved in the meditative practice of the service. In this parallel world I took note of the rigid mechanical devotion of these bots to the service. Slowly but methodically the men periodically withdrew pocket mirrors from their tallit bags with the purpose of eying the correct position of the tefillin on their head, every so often making a slight correction, moving the little shiny black box to the left or a little to the right, pushing it up or pulling it down. 

Towards the conclusion of the service in unison heads drop on folded arms as a submissive supplication to god, the existential question popped up again “what am I doing here? It’s amazing how technology has managed to shackle us instead of liberating us. Sitting as a passenger in a car waiting languorously in a parking lot for the driver to return, my mother in law, who wasn’t a religious woman reached me by cell phone entreating me to chant the mourners kaddish for her recently deceased husband. The irony is that my father in law detested ritual, the ultra-orthodox spin, rarely if ever entered a synagogue, observed none of the mizvot, fasting only on Yom Kippur. And here I was, attending a haredi synagogue service in order that I say the kaddish in his memory! How could I ever refuse my mother in law!

My grieving mother in law wanting to do the right thing for her husband whom she loved deeply was ripe for the likes of Shmuel, a recent reborn Jew. There is an aphorism “a little knowledge is dangerous” in his case it was practically lethal. I was reminded of a Rasputin-like type, advising my mother in law over the past year regarding the mourning ritual, unlike Rasputin though without personal gain.  He had insisted that she hold a memorial service for him on a specific date. It had to be on the date he noted otherwise the service would be fruitless. Similarly he instructed her that the appointed day for chanting the kaddish prayer had to be said not on the anniversary of his death but on the anniversary of his interment. Not following these precise instructions he warned, may render the prayers ineffective. In such an event his soul, Shmuel warned, would remain consigned to a state of suspended animation, hovering over this world not being able to cross over to the next. And so she was desperate to reach me with only a few days to go before the appointed time to recite the kaddish, in need of my assurance that come hell or high water, I would be at the synagogue on that appointed day to recite the Kaddish.

Interesting how events take on a life of their own sometimes becoming larger than life. The kaddish had been a prayer developed in Babylonia after the last exile –that’s why it is written in Aramaic, the lingua franca, then of that part of the world. But that prayer was said not after the dead, but at the conclusion of group Torah study. It was only after the Bubonic plague ravaged Europe was the custom adopted to recite the kaddish. It was a way of reaffirming life and faith. Nowhere is death mentioned nor is it the theme of the Kaddish. But as I said, things tend to take on their own life and so too the Kaddish became larger than life.  If there was an afterlife, which my father in law was skeptical about you couldn’t get there without having the kaddish recited for you. Kaddish is like an ATM bankcard all you have to know is the code and wallah, you’re in.

There is a story that if one says the kaddish for the dearly departed the transmigration from this world to the next by way of Jerusalem will be enhanced. Others believe that this is the case for reincarnation: that the soul doesn’t do a physical burrowing underground as though it were an uber groundhog but that a process of reincarnation takes place whereby there is tikkun. So I had two good reasons to say the kaddish for my father in law, a lifelong inhabitant of Haifa who deserved the best life had to offer. I was honored that I could provide for his transmigration, hopefully at warp speed.  I incidentally wondered what effect if any, reciting the kaddish for my father in law would have on me.  

Sitting patiently in the back of the room decked out in my tallit and tefillin, waiting expectantly to recite the kaddish at any moment I was having a hard time following the service. The reader was hardly audible above the din of noise created by little klatches of two and three people waiting for the reader to finish his chanting. Apparently they were bored. Really? I mused. How can that possibly be the case, after all they have been reciting the same prayers for decades day in and day out, six days a week, with little variation except for Shabbat when the routine was amended. Something else was amiss. The order of the service didn’t conform to the prayer book. They were including all the prayers but rearranged the order of things, which threw me off. It reminded me of the difference between philosophy and theology within the Jewish orthodox world where it was permitted to study theology but not philosophy. The difference between the two was significant: In Philosophy one was allowed to remove furnishings as well as move the walls and change the orientation of the room. In theology one was allowed only to rearrange the furnishings but never allowed to remove anything or change the interior walls. Realizing that they were permitted to shake it up I had been caught off guard confused and lost my place in the prayer book resulting in a missed Kaddish. 

Yikes, I missed a kaddish. I hoped my father in law wasn’t suffering or slowed down the pace of his reincarnation because of my incompetence I thought. I wondered how many times kaddish would have to be recited on his behalf if he opted to burrow through the earth on his way to heaven via Jerusalem? I assume the kaddish is like a cosmic renewable energy source propelling him forward. By missing a kaddish would his progress grind to a halt or just slow down? I was determined to be more attentive and not miss another kaddish. After all there were only three or four more opportunities. I wanted to get in as many as I could before rushing home. Also, I wasn’t sure if I could make up the missed one if I stayed for the next service, which would start in 30 minutes. I decided to defer that decision to the last possible minute, determined at least at this point to credit my father in law with the max allotted him from one service. 

Driving home I felt energized and invigorated, speeding as though I was in a cosmic race with my father in law. It was an unfair race with the advantage to him: undoubtedly he must have received added torque this morning as the kaddish was recited.