essays kaddish in two-part harmony

I’m all kaddished-out, she said… — the real secret of mourning rituals…

I know I brought this up on my last post — the one on suicides — about just feeling all kaddished-out.  And then, hearing of Randy’s suicide, feeling that there was more to say. Much more.  But then even that was not sustainable.

I mean, here am I — Dr. Doom, as my housemate calls me — all wrung dry of doom, gloom, loss, grief, dying, and yes, even pessimism.  What’s come over me?

What’s come over me is kaddish in two-part harmony.  What’s come over me is really paying attention to the death and the dying and the loss and the grief.  Giving over to it.  Actually saying kaddish. And feeling relieved by it.

In other words: ritual works.

The day that Galina died, I called and told my parents.  They were over within an hour, laden with yahrtzeit candles and a siddur.  My dad lit the candle and recited kaddish.  And it helped.  I never expected it to help.  We were just standing there, in the kitchen, nothing special, and still it helped.  I don’t understand it.

Galina specialized in ritual.  How many times did she invite me to participate in a volume or a conference session on ritual — and I refused.

“I don’t have anything on ritual,” I would say.  I mean, I’ve studied the theory, know it backwards and forwards, teach it. Or rather, teach about it.  But listening to Kogan’s kaddish every night, and reciting kaddish for our project is as close to doing-ritual as I’ve ever gotten.

None of the theory I’ve read says that doing a mourning ritual for a year and a day works out of the sheer boredom of it.  After months of crying your eyes out while reciting (or writing, in this case), mourning becomes routinized.   None of the theorists talk about how powerful the banality of recitation can be. How sick of it you get. And how, after a while, you’re just plain done mourning and ready to get the fuck on with life.

Either that, or I’ve missed the point. And maybe I’m supposed to still be crying my eyes out.  It’s very possible.

I’ve done year-and-a-day ‘rituals’ before.  Almost every year, for example, I pick an attribute to adhere to for the entire year.  The exercise is that everything you do for the duration, must be done through this one attribute.  So. If you pick, for example, ‘mystery’ (which was the first one that I selected, about 20 years ago), then every moment of day or night should be seen as mysterious. As discovering mystery, or uncovering mystery. You get the idea.  And it’s very very difficult.  You breathe it in. You breathe it out. You live a year of mystery.

That was all fine and good until I was stupid enough to pick the attribute of ‘tolerance.’

For the first six months I thought it meant I should be tolerant.  It became impossible to grade papers with an attitude like that.  Impossible to discipline children. I gave up my critical eye.  The second six months, I realized that the attribute of ‘tolerance’ was there to teach me not just what is tolerable, but the limits of toleration.  Now I know that all these attributes have edges, limits — and we learn exactly where that line lies.

Some of the attributes that I’ve spent a year and a day with include: mystery, patience, strength, vitality, acceptance, volition, tolerance, optimism (that one was brutal), simplicity, organization, vigilance, and now — mourning.  And a big part of this shared mourning ritual has been about listening — although I think it was supposed to be about hearing.  Oops.

Listening (or hearing) Kogan’s kaddish every night started out as just plain torture.  I had not been listening to music since Galina’s death. That would be a couple years, then.  And Kogan’s kaddish had no beat that I could discern.  I couldn’t hum it, follow it, tap my foot to it, remember it.  Torture.  But Kogan’s kaddish became my year and a day ritual for the year, and here I am still listening.

And I’ll finish the year, I swear I will.

But at about two-thirds into these year-long rituals, it’s easy to lose it.  It feels like just going through the motions.  Feels like I’m listening but not hearing.  Feels like I’ve nothing more to say. No visions from the music, no thoughts, no feelings —

I feel all emptied out. And I think that’s exactly what this kind of ritual is supposed to do.  By the time the year and a day is over, the lesson is learned, the deed is done. It’s finally time to move on.

Some attributes are just too tough to even think about trying. ‘Love’ for example.  I’ve never even attempted that one for my year-and-a-day ritual. It’s always sounded downright impossible.  Daunting. The idea of breathing love in, breathing it out.  Observing through loving eyes, seeing love — witnessing the edges, the places where it starts to disappear.

But being all kaddished-out leaves room for trying something completely out of character. Something as brave and tough as love — that’s ‘love’ as ritual, I mean.  This is quite different from simply loving — which is a whole lot easier.

Being all kaddished-out is not just about me and my own feelings.  I want to say something larger here. There are those I know who hold on to grief with all their heart and all their might and will not let it go. They hold on because they think if they let it go, nothing will be left but a giant empty hole — a void. An emptiness.

They’re not saying kaddish — because saying kaddish would limit their mourning time.

I think this is the place I was in before starting this project.  Mourning without end.

But the secret of mourning rituals is not that we do them, but that we stop. And if we’ve done it right, we come to that last day — and then we’re done.

Who knew?

Probably everybody.  But this was news to me.

I can’t wait to stop saying kaddish — another four months down the road.  Can’t wait to stop listening to Kogan’s kaddish every night. But mourning, like all the other year-and-a-day qualities that I have cultivated, will grow into an old friend that I think I’ll be at peace with.

Until the next time.  And then, given the intensity of this time, I can just wonder — will it be easier?  Can it be easier to just let go?  Do we learn the letting-go lesson from vigilantly doing our mourning rituals this once, or do we really have to do our year-and-a-day each and every time, and let it work its magic each time we lose someone?

My guess: it’s both.



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.

4 replies on “I’m all kaddished-out, she said… — the real secret of mourning rituals…”

[…] thing that I have to show for Summer 2011 — and that’s a renewed sense of being alive. Of being all-kaddished-out. Of finding a magnificent partner to collaborate with, who pushes me to — to — just be alive. […]

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