Mira’s dad’s Yahrtzeit is coming up in a few weeks, and I’m disappointed that I’ll be out of town when the day comes. Given his role in the “kaddish in two-part harmony” project—her grief over his death being a leading cause of Mira’s willingness to join me in this yearlong collaboration—I wish I could be with her on that day when she finally places a marker on his grave. Her dad is better known around here as “the tzaddik,” if anyone’s having a hard time keeping it all straight.
I’m glad I was at least able to be with her this evening to record a Kaddish together on the day that would have been her dad’s birthday. We’ve become close during this project, Mira and I, and being together on this occasion felt right. It was a powerful experience playing this one.
One of the questions I asked at the beginning of this project had to do with how it works to be both mourner and musician. Recall, if you will, that part of the inspiration of the project came when my own dad upped the ante on a request I’d heard before—that I play Kogan’s “Kaddish” at his funeral—by saying he also wanted me to give the eulogy. I felt horrified by either one of these prospects, but the combination was just too far over the top for me. How do I pull myself together to do either one of those tasks at my own dad’s funeral? I planned to be a wreck, after all. And having muddled through one of the tasks, I would surely be a fully collapsed wreck, incapable of handling the other task at all. Dad has countered that when the day comes, he will have a had a good, long, full life, and certainly he’s setting a good example of how to ensure that, but I have rejected the premise of his reassurances that knowing that will help me much. Anyway, my theory was that trying to play “Kaddish” while being a wreck could not possibly lead to good musical results.
I wrote that in the past tense, because it represented my position not quite a year ago. Now I’m not so sure.
Mira and I have both been wingeing lately about feeling “all kaddished out.” As the year of our project grinds on, we grow increasingly certain that the ritual has done its job, gotten us out of our mourning mode and ready to live again. We’re even—dare I say it?—feeling a bit bored by it all. Which is what we’re supposed to feel by now, we think.
But then something happens.
A fresh death, or a Yahrtzeit that forces one of us to pay attention and think hard about one of those we have lost, or a friend wants to do a little memorial service in Mira’s garden, or a student of Mira’s listens to our demonstration at the beginning of class and has to leave the room, only to return much later still a wreck, because she’s recently lost someone important.
These are just the recent somethings.
Anyway, something happens that makes it fresh again, and there we are, fully engaged again.
Playing “Kaddish” for Mira’s dad, and then standing next to her while she recorded the text of the prayer for him on another track, was deeply moving for both of us. It wasn’t easy for me to play, but now I’ve done it so many times in a daily row that I have the moves down, if you will, and I know how to make it happen pretty much no matter how I feel—bored or upset, healthy or with a sinus infection, standing or lying on my back. But here’s the thing—these days it’s only when I am a bit upset, or I’m at more attention for some reason, that the music sounds like anything to me. The rest of the time it’s just a page of notes. When I’m emotionally involved, though, it sounds like music.
(Yes, Reb Deb, you were right. I was wrong.)
After I finished playing, Mira thanked and embraced me, and that’s when I realized she was crying. This might not seem like a big deal, but Mira is not one to cry. I’ve never even seen tears in her eyes before—although she’s certainly seen plenty in mine, as anybody who’s been following the events of my life recently will understand. While Mira recorded the text, she had to fight back more tears. She had to struggle to get her breath back under control in the pauses between sections. And she added a personal remark at the end that she wanted me to edit out—but she didn’t insist, so I’m leaving it in.
The line between performance and ritual was gone tonight. Or perhaps I should say that the word “performance” has both of the dimensions it should have normally but often doesn’t: we as artists or rabbis or teachers or servants “perform” a service for our audience or congregation or students or masters, but we as ordinary people also “perform” rituals out of a sense of piety or as part of a practice, traditional or otherwise. Performance need not be only the crass conduct of stagecraft in pursuit of reward; it can also be the heartfelt conduct of an activity that has its own value; and dare I hope as an artist that the line between the two might more often be a blurry one?
Thank you, Mira, for tonight, and for joining me in this project. It’s an honor to be here with you. May the Tzaddik rest in peace.