nyt remembrances—a kaddish for departed strangers

Today’s online New York Times, front page and center has a spot reserved for readers to place a picture and their remembrances of those who died during the year. It’s an overwhelmingly simple tribute, moving to the core. Each photo is accompanied by a short paragraph. The pictures are from all stages of life, from childhood to the deathbed. And the paragraphs are candid and filled with love and idiosyncrasy. Check it out here.

The thing about newspapers, though, even online ‘papers,’ is that tomorrow—like those commemorated in the piece—it is all likely to be gone.  Still. Maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

What struck me, looking at all those faces, lives, and tales, is how comforting it is—yes, comforting— to glimpse all those departed lives. Comforting in that each one is being remembered. Memorialized. In the New York Times, no less. For the whole world to remember them, and know them, if only for an instant.

A kaddish for all those departed strangers throughout this, our kaddish in two-part harmony year.

Posted in essays, kaddish in two-part harmony | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

guest kaddish from David Mohr—for Kimba

David and Kimba

This is for Kimba.

It might seem strange to have a kaddish for a dog, but she really was a part of the family. For more than 15 years, she was my companion. I lived with her longer than anyone except my mother and Kimba saw me through the heartache of three relationships as well as the death of both my parents and my former partner. For a dog that didn’t like to cuddle, she always knew when someone was down and would come to them for “pets” as if she knew that doing so would cheer them up. And it usually helped.

Kimba was a dignified “lady” – we would call her the Queen of the Backyard but woe to any rodent that crossed her path! I rescued her off the streets when she was just over six months old and it was clear that she’d survived on her own for some time as on our first walk, she brought down a duck! She’d been physically abused by her former owner, including two bullets in the chest, but after a short time together her fear of humans evaporated, replaced by separation anxiety when I’d leave the house! Meanwhile, as a puppy, she learned from the cat in the house and grew up with many cat-like tendencies, including the cold-shoulder when she was mad.

When she was about a year and a half, we moved to a new house which I encircled with a four foot fence to keep her in. The next week she showed me otherwise. I’d been entertaining and she scratched to get out. I did so and went back to my friends. Then over the din of the gathering, I could hear animals fighting on the side yard… I was concerned, as we had planted a vegetable garden and we were getting regular raids from the local raccoons; I was afraid my “creampuff” of a dog would be torn to shreds and I half-expected to find her with an eyeball hanging out. But she was nowhere in the yard! I got concerned and called and called to her, a little panicky — I know dogs hide when they are ready to die. Then I saw a large, white blur in the alleyway beyond the fence. I started and got ready to face some wild animal. Like a shot, Kimba (all 65 lbs) bounded to the TOP of the four foot fence and landed briefly on TOP of it with all four paws (like a cat) before bounding gracefully back down to the ground inside the yard. She had a content look on her face that said, “I’ve taken care of those silly raccoons, Dad. Oh, and that’s a nice fence; what’s it for?” She never hopped it again (that I knew of) though it was always clear that she could. Heck, she completely knew the property lines of that house and would walk JUST to the edge before turning back. Except for our friends across the way, if any of the neighbors (or their kids) would call her, she would walk to the boundary, look at them, and then look back at me as if to say “do they know the rules?”

Kimba responded to voice commands and I would often walk her off-leash where I could. Or we would race along with me on my bike and her running (and pulling me!), a throwback to her sledge-dog ancestry. She almost never barked and actually the first time I ever heard her it was when we had a burglar several years later. She was fierce but not combative; she’d play with dogs of any size, including a friend’s 100 lbs Rottweiler, but she’d never let herself lose. The closest she would come would be to just sit down and ignore the other dog. Invading rodents, however, were another matter and like a cat she’d leave “offerings” at the back door for me. A possum once surprised and scared my friend when in emerged from the wood pile. His scream brought Kimba the defender leaping to his rescue and with a single chomp she killed the beastie. She used to try to chase the cows on a friend’s property as well, although when we ran into the mountain lion, she was quiet.

For all her ferocity, she was amazingly patient with children and those afraid of dogs. When my godkids stayed with us for a month, they would pull her tail and ears, but the most she would do is yelp and run to hide behind my legs, even though her wagging tail was enough to topple them. She would stay with and almost guard the baby, licking him when he fell or was done eating (he was a messy eater 8-). If someone was afraid of dogs, she was quietly sit and watch them; a friend’s husband had been bitten as a child, but he learned to trust and even be comfortable about my “white lioness.” My mother used to really enjoy it when I brought her to the nursing home for a visit and the other residents would come to pet Kimba.

I have a million more stories because my Puppy Princess had such a personality. Her black-ringed brown eyes and serene look exuded an air of nobility, like an Egyptian pharaoh. If she were a person, she would be a Victorian aristocrat…that knew how to hunt, fight, and handle “the boys” but preferred to be demure. She hated the water and the only time she wouldn’t come when called was if I was in the pool. Yet when I would take my nephews to the lake, she would whine and watch us, coming as far in as her belly “in case we needed her.”

Kimba I will miss you. You will always have a place no other dog can share in my heart.


Kimba – November 1985 to November 19, 2011

Posted in essays, guest essays, kaddish in two-part harmony | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

killing you loudly—a kaddish

This is the sound of me wailing. Again. Kaddish project’s over, but death does not just up and disappear. So. Here we are again. Only this time it’s a bit different.

They’re killing you as we speak.

They’re cutting you and hacking you. Albeit gently and with reverence. But still. Limb by limb. Loudly with power saws. Rosh and I sit here and watch. I photograph your demise.

Is it my fault you caught your dread and terminal disease? It’s gotta be, right? I mean, everything else is.

Someone somewhere said that it’s the arch epitome of narcissism to take responsibility for everything, good or bad. But, no matter that, I feel responsible.  I’ve nurtured you over the last 17 years. I knew one day that would come to an end, but I thought it would be my demise, not yours, that brought our relationship to an end.

My neighbor’s glad, you know. Glad you’re dying today.

She thinks you’re messy and overbearing. She’s wanted you dead for a long, long time. She’s wanted me to kill you. Grind you up and make you disappear. She was pretty clear about it over the years. You hang over her fence and there she is cleaning up your mess. Again. Well, after today, that’s all over.

Vlad, on the other hand, adores you. He loves climbing all over you, resting himself in your arms. Your arms—not many of them left at this point.

Listen to the power saws. It’s taking five big strong men to bring you to your knees.

The squirrels came a few months ago. Don’t know who told them that now’s the time to come. They too have been ecstatic in your arms. Eating your abundance. Zipping along your byways. Happy as puppies on a sunny day. I thought, well wow, we’ve got new neighbors. I’m gonna enjoy squirrels for the rest of my life. But , no—

What did the squirrels know that I didn’t know?

Did they know you were dying?

Did they come to worship while they could?

Or did they come to pick the goodies off before they all were dead? Just little scavengers, after all?

Seventeen years! Of tending you. Pruning you. Worrying about you. And sitting in your shade. Planting plants below you that could handle your voluminous and incessant needles. Could handle your acid.

You smell like Christmas as they take you down. I’ve never had that smell at home before. It’s what I recognize from Rockefeller Center on all those Winter visits. A festive smell. You smell so deliciously and seasonably treif. As you are dying.

But here’s the thing. And there’s no reason it should have taken me by surprise this way.

With you gone, I can see the sun again.

Posted in essays, kaddish in two-part harmony | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

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?



Posted in essays, kaddish in two-part harmony | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

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׃

Posted in kaddish in two-part harmony, podcasts, project news | Tagged | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in kaddish in two-part harmony, podcasts, project news | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in kaddish in two-part harmony, podcasts | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in kaddish in two-part harmony, podcasts | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in kaddish in two-part harmony, podcasts, project news | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in essays, kaddish in two-part harmony | Tagged , , | 1 Comment