anything, anything but a mystical experience

So. It’s the end of the semester. Students are giving presentations of the projects they’ve been working on all semester long. Or were supposed to be. I know that some of them had struggled mightily with this. Figuring out what to focus on. Figuring out sources, but not necessarily vigorously. Changing their minds. Procrastinating. I’ve reminded them on a number of occasions that this is a term project, not something that can be done at the last minute.  I’m really speaking to myself, of course. I’ve always pulled it all together at the very end. Been there. Done that.

So. The first talk is delightful and charming and heartfelt and filled with exuberance and insight. It’s taking the symbols inside the Tetragrammaton and looking at what happens to them when Catholicism inherits them. The paper revolves around the identity of the Shekhinah. And Mary Magdalene. He’s done his homework. And he’s having fun, too. My kind of presentation.

The name of the class is Jewish Mysticism, Magic, and Folklore. Did I mention that? You can check out the syllabus if you like, at my campus website.  So the whole Tetragrammaton thing went to the heart of what we covered over the last three months.

So. The second talk deals with the symbols inside (literally) the clothing worn by Chabad Lubovitcher men.  And he had problems getting sources, ’cause after all, San Jose State University is a little far from Crown Heights. Still, this too is a talk in which I get to learn something.

The third talk focuses on Tzfat, with slides of the mystical ancient city, and — well, you know the drill.

The fourth talk.

The student sits down at the front desk, and she bows her head.  What she’d wanted to do all along was to make up a little aleph-bet book to use with the elementary school kids so she could introduce them to new languages and scripts. Fine. She’s been working on it all semester. But it’s time to present and she seems empty-handed. Hmm.

The aleph-bet, or Hebrew alphabet is at the core of Jewish mysticism, magic, and not so much the folklore. We started with kabbalistic cosmology: the birth of the Hebrew letters of the aleph-bet from the explosion of sparks Divine light at the beginning of time.  We’ve worked on this. Every letter. The Mother Letters. The Fathers. The Double Letters. The Simple. Probably spent a month on this as well.

And at the core is also the PARDES / פרדס model, in which humans attempt to climb the Tree, starting at its base (פשט) which consists of concrete thinking, and working up to (סוד), the mystical domain beyond words and letters of the alphabet, and rational thinking.

She sits down and hangs her head before deciding how to proceed. She looks up and says, “my project went up in smoke. Literally. It’s all just ash.”

And she tells this amazing story, which involves a hairdryer and a kitty bowl of water, and hairspray. And the hairdryer fell in the water—

“And I got electrocuted,” she says.

“There were all these sparks. And my aleph-bet book went up and instantly turned to ash. Just like that. And I have no project to show. I’m thinking of doing it all over again. In the meantime—”

And she goes on.

And when she’s done, I just have to ask.

“Sparks?” Is all that needs saying. After all, how much time did we spend on those Divine sparks, the emergence of the aleph-bet, and the creation of the universe?

“I didn’t want to go there—” she responds. “I just wanted to stay pshat. Stay on the concrete level”

My student, let’s call her J, took a class in Jewish Mysticism, Magic, and Folklore and wanted to stay firmly rooted to the visible, physical world. And there she is, having to ponder her experience. And think about what it means. This unlikeliest of events. Sparks which ignite—and turn to ash—instantly the entire Hebrew aleph-bet. And there she was, witness to it, and hit by the sparks as well. And like Rabbi Akiva himself came back down from the PARDES and lived to tell the tale. She was unharmed.

“I’m going to have to deal with this, aren’t I?”

Yup. Or not at all.

Nobody needs to have a mystical experience. Or interpret a fluke or accident as such. And maybe I’m not telling it right—because what this tale really needs is the whole cosmology as background. The whole Big Bang of Hebrew letters, brought into the universe by that Divine spark. And then, like recombinant DNA, joining up and bringing us language.

Humans are meaning-junkies. We want to know why. Or, if something’s just a tad too weird, we shut down and say well just forget it. It’s too high on the Strangeness Curve. So, let’s close our eyes and pretend it didn’t happen.

I’m okay with Divine sparks. That’s not where my problem lies.

But what I really don’t understand is what on earth was her term project aleph-bet book—with its carefully hand-made paper, and painstakingly hand painted caligraphic letters—what was it doing in the bathroom adjacent  to that plugged in hairdryer and a kitty bowl full of water?



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daily kaddish: our project’s yahrtzeit


Erin:  This is the final daily podcast recording of “Kaddish” for the yearlong “kaddish in two-part harmony” project that Mira and I began a full lunar year ago, on 7 November 2010.

The “kaddish in two-part harmony” project is not entirely over, and it will probably never be completely finished—not as long as people we love keep dying—but the daily ritual of our yearlong collaboration is now over. We have reached our Yahrtzeit, and now it is time to return to the life of the living, to new beginnings—as Mira says in today’s text.

What a long, difficult, transformative, rewarding year it has been, for both of us. We both have a lot more to say about the year that we have shared together, but now it is late, and I am exhausted after a long Thanksgiving weekend including my parents’ visit and tonight’s catching up on almost a month’s backlog of daily Kaddishim, so for now I will keep it brief.

We agreed that I would play first, and then Mira would record her track over mine. We should have expected Kjersti to play her part, as she so often has in these daily recordings, contributing the percussion of her collar and a favorite squeaky fox toy, but somehow it came as an amusing surprise to both of us. She accompanied Mira live. Kjersten was quiet during my part, but I could have used her help. I was choking up during my part. By the time I finished, the lump in my throat had made it nearly impossible to play, and after I stopped the recording and did a Save, I turned to Mira with tears rolling down my cheeks. My tears continued to roll as Mira read, even as Kjersti was cracking me up by her timely, perfect addition of life-goes-on goofiness.

And then we did what clearly we had to do—we went out to dinner to celebrate, and we remembered our dead as we celebrated the transformation that this project has worked on both of us.

Thank you, Mira. It’s been a privilege and an honor to collaborate with you.

Mira:  Thank you, readers and listeners. As we said in our paper at the anthropology conference—which we will include here soon—we joined together in a ritual experiment out of nothing more and nothing less than the particular grief of our own losses, but you joined us here; you welcomed us into your own experiences of loss; you grieved with us and allowed us to join with you in your grieving. And by your presence and time here with us in Beit Malkhut, in the “kaddish in two-part harmony,” you have made this its own kind of sacred space.

And now, a new chapter begins—

שֶׁהֶחֱיָנוּ וְקִיְּמָנוּ וְהִגִּיעָנוּ לַזְּמַן הַזֶּה׃

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daily kaddish: on the eve of K2PH’s Yahrtzeit


Tomorrow will be the Yahrtzeit of Mira’s and my “kaddish in two-part harmony” collaboration—or at least the daily podcast recording part of it. This project is not quite done yet, but the daily commitment will come to an end.

Thoughts of our project’s beginnings  brought my beloved Nanc to mind, and Mira’s Galina, and so I found some audio from way back in the spring when Nanc’s and Galina’s Yahrtzeits were approaching. I had asked Mira to read a poem Nanc had written for me, and she also recorded a “Dodi li” for Galina, along with the usual text of the Kaddish (and her “bismilleh” invocation of course).

When I played the “erev Yahrtzeit, K2PH” recording for Mira, she was appalled to hear her mistakes, but she agreed to let me post this recording as is, anyway, as the snapshot it is of her text, then, only if I identified it as such.

Of course, I’ve been posting my mistakes every single day! And it hasn’t gotten any easier after a year.

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daily kaddish: thanksgiving


My parents and I attended two Thanksgiving feasts this year. The first, on Thursday, at an old friend’s, and another on Friday at Mira’s house, with Mira and her family and friends, and me and my parents and new family and friends. With only a few more daily Kaddishim to go in our project, Mira and I appreciated the chance to make a Kaddish recording together with our gathered beloved.

I was huffing and puffing by the end—it’s surprisingly hard to play horn when stuffed to the gills with turkey and the works.

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daily kaddish: missing (yet again!)

Here’s another missing Kaddish recording. I made this recording—I swear I did, mumbling into my iPhone, exhausted, late at night after a Thanksgiving feast at a friend’s and afterward sleeping through a movie. However, the next day, my new iPhone arrived, and I forgot to get the recording off my old iPhone before wiping it and turning it over to Dad.


But I guess it’s understandable that I forgot, and it wasn’t really just a technical mishap. This has been an emotional holiday. The last time my parents were here was last Thanksgiving, and everything was different last year. We hosted the feast and had a huge crowd around the table. We were still a “we”—Victoria and I were still married. The changes around the house were palpable, and sad, of course.

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daily kaddish: for mourning itself


Mira said it really well—our yearlong project of mourning together in this “kaddish in two-part harmony” project has done the job. It has worked so well that we both feel good and done with mourning itself. Our grief is replaced with happiness, and there are moments when that feels—well, sad.

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a mourning mourning morning

At a certain point, I suppose, I just got sick of the whole damned enterprise. And that was the time to step back and write a paper about our process. Which we did. And presented at the Annual Meetings of the American Anthropological Association in Montréal. We just got back. The presentation went really well. Maybe a little too well. I’m still confused about some of the reactions to it. But it was good to step back and take stock and have something academic to say about the one year experiment in kaddish.

But this is what I’d say here:

Our Kaddish in Two-Part Harmony has not been just a success, it has been a grand failure as well.  We set up rules to mourn by—and broke all the rules that really counted.  And yah, there were some pretty stupid rules in there. Why didn’t anyone tell us that? But maybe if we’d stuck to our guns, we’d still be in mourning-mode today. I firmly believe that if we had not met each other face to face, that our project here would have been much more powerful, and still going strong today.

But no. Instead of immersing in our sorrows and staying there, our sorrows lifted. And after a while, impossible as it seems (at least to me), the sorrow’s just plain gone. I mean, is that fair?

Not that that means that we don’t miss our dearly departed. No, not that. But we’re no longer in mourning. And I think I didn’t want to let go of mourning at all.  It’s a bit addictive. It’s strong, it’s deep. It’s a good excuse for just about anything you need an excuse for.

And now it’s gone. No more excuses, I guess.

And I kinda feel guilty about that.  For a long time, I just couldn’t put stop to the mourning process. But now, finally, I’ve put those photos of my dad away. I’ve stopped lighting candles. I no longer say kaddish unless I’m coerced by my kaddish partner.  The loss is there, but it’s not the same black cloud looming overhead.

And worst of all: I’ve been just plain happy. We both are. Now what kind of mourning project is that?

So. What all this tells me is that ritual works.

It does the job if you stick to it on a daily basis. And just that doing of it, day after day, appears to be enough to do the trick. For us, it did the trick a month early. Now that’s not good, is it?  We were both ready to stop. For some reason, I expected that we’d feel ‘done’ exactly when the year was up. And that just wasn’t the case.  Or, I expected not to feel done at all, and that saying kaddish wouldn’t work its magic at all. But that wasn’t it either. Instead, we reached this place of done. Just like that. A month early. But my dear disciplined Kaddish partner is better at keeping us to task than I am. And because of her, we’ll finish the year’s experiment properly in formal mourning-mode on November 27th.

Will it feel any different then than it does now? Is it possible to feel more done than done?

The main problem, from my point of view (and a problem I never expected to have) is that I’ve been happy.  Now what kind of mourning is that? And as a result, I haven’t written a single word in a month. (Except for the paper we just presented at the AAA Conference).  But not a word on our blog. Almost as if writing and unhappiness and grief all go together, which can’t be right.

For one month, it’s been analysis rather than full immersion in death and dying. And in that analysis, we’ve learned some important things about our Kaddish project.

We’ll be posting the conference paper here in pdf format shortly for anyone interested in a bit of an excursion on the academic side of ritual.

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daily kaddish: for deer-hunting season


My dad plays horn on this Kaddish, nearly a year after doing his first stint as the guest hornist for a daily Kaddish, again while visiting for Thanksgiving. He was sad that once again their trip coincided with the end of deer-hunting season, which he’d be missing because I had the poor judgment to live a bunch of states away.

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daily kaddish: for Kimba


Today’s Kaddish is for David Mohr’s dog, Kimba.

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daily kaddish: for Phyllis Greenwood, on her Yahrtzeit


Today is Phyllis Greenwood‘s Yahrtzeit.

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