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a kiddish for our kaddish — and then al-fatihah —

It’s time to raise our glass and say a Kiddish for our Kaddish in Two-Part Harmony.

I sit here in utter amazement that our whimsical little project is chugging along not just functioning but doing what it’s supposed to be doing.  When we started this project, I must admit I was a bit of a mess.  And like an idiot, I said yes instantly and came up with a perfect name for a project that I didn’t understand yet.  I’d had a year in which both my parents were on hospice and not knowing which of them might predecease the other.  This shifted to my dad’s death and my mom’s very slow climb out from under her massive brain injury from a fall in the yard.

We began our kaddish project just about on the first yahrtzeit of my father’s death.  I was still (and am still) dealing with his estate, finding which institutions might best be the recipients of his treasured books, manuscripts, textiles, amulets, shvitis, ketubot, paintings, exhibition catalogs, bits of the Berlin wall — you get the idea.  Were it not for a very good friend and organizational genius, I would still today be staring into my dad’s apartment, blinking back tears, and not knowing where to start.   Instead, almost all of the collections that packed his tiny apartment have found their next home and incarnation.

Yet emptying out an apartment does not in itself bring closure.  Maybe nothing does.

I’m less of a mess, as I said.  But I still cry.

Today was one of those days.

But something surprising happened.

Erin, as you likely know, has wrangled me into learning and reciting the kaddish — something in a million years I thought I’d never do.  But there it is, our shikse goddess is one powerful deity and one doesn’t cross her lightly.  She’s pushed me into ventures I have not thought myself ready for (or interested in!) — and in each case, I have been healed by saying yes instead of no.  Slowly, I have moved out of my comfort zone (more like moving out of my rock-hard turtle shell).

I started listening to music again.  And not just Kogan’s Kaddish every night, but that’s what started it.  Even on my long commute I sometimes actually turn away from NPR in favor of Bonnie Raitt and Rachid Taha on my dusty, neglected CD player in the car.  Shocking.

Another breakthrough for a devout sociophobe:  I managed to go to Erin’s to record a live kaddish with her — without running away in absolute terror of it all.

A mess.  You didn’t believe me, but it’s true.

Recording for the first time has made me want to … record more.  A miracle!  But strangely, what I want to record is an Islamic prayer for the dead, and so I’ve been researching that.  There are a number of ways to go with that, and a number of questions to pose before going there.

Is it okay for a Jewish woman to recite an Islamic prayer for the dead?

Today, I got the chance to ask.  A former TA of mine came by the office to show me a draft of his thesis for his Masters program at NYU.  A very devout Muslim from abroad, his thesis is on the resilience of Shariat Law in the formation of the modern State.  Very very very interesting.  Is it obvious what this means, or should I explain it?

So.  I asked him about the prayers that I’d looked up.  And why I’m only finding YouTube videos of men reciting them.

My first question was about whether Al-Fatihah was appropriate as a prayer for the dead.  Al-Fatihah is the very beautiful opening of the Qur’an.  If you’ve listened to my recent recitations of the kaddish with Erin’s horn, I recite the first line of Al-Fatihah to open and close the Kaddish.  B’ismilleh ar-rahman ar-rahim …

But I wanted to go further.  He said Al-Fatihah was exactly the right thing to recite, although there also were other prayers that were specific to the death of say, a child, a father, a mother.  But Al-Fatihah was perfect.

Next question.  Recited by women?  Yes, of course — though not prominently, as I had discovered in my online searches.

By a non-Muslim woman?  Well, yes, he said.  The desire to recite the Fatihah tends to come over non-Muslims and they then endeavor to learn it.  And then after reciting it for a month or two or six — they find themselves converting to Islam.

It’s for my father, I said quickly.  It would make him happy.  Make him proud.  He was terribly ecumenical.

But I looked down at myself.  Berber jewelry at my throat (from my father’s collection of course).  Scarf over that and wrapped around a number of times.  Long dress and pants.  Long sleeves.  Heavy on the kohl.

Suddenly I saw myself through his eyes.  He knows my politics, my theoretical models regarding the Middle East.  After all, he’d been my Teaching Assistant for a full semester.   I knew what he was thinking.

But I just want to recite Al-Fatihah for my father — along with the Kaddish.  I’d love to see them joined together, walking hand in hand. That’s all.

And I want to raise a glass and say a kiddish for our transformative and healing Kaddish in Two-Part Harmony project — and especially to Erin, who has worked so very hard on it.  Simple, right?  A toast!   But of course, like so many Muslims, I do not drink.

Instead.  I lift my voice in gratitude.  We’re not quite half way through our year, but already I feel the pain and grief and sadness beginning to dissipate.  Six months from now, who knows what changes there could be?  Beware that tentative sip of wine — it just might lead to dancing.

By mira

Mira Z. Amiras is Professor of Comparative Religious Studies and founder of the Middle East Studies Program at San Jose State University. She is past-president of the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness, and has served on the Executive Council of the American Anthropological Association. She is co-founder, with Ovid Jacob, of Beit Malkhut, a study group in Jewish sacred text. She's most attached to the creatures of her body and her household — first and foremost, her kids, of course: Michael and Rayna — and then the other folks large and small of various species, including Roshi and Vlad, a whole lot of hummingbirds, the old parrot who lives next door, and a beautiful garden that does what it will.

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