November 24, 2005
The Lost Words
"Yitgadal v'yitkadash shmei." Three words into Kaddish, the mourner's prayer, Yoni stumbled on an unfamiliar vowel. Then, again and again, as he continued reciting the traditional prayer at his mother's funeral in Jerusalem, he twisted and mangled the words. He frowned in concentration and tried very hard, but the words would not take their proper shape. The life of a secular young man, even in Israel, contains little preparation for the rituals of a Jewish funeral.
I had come to the funeral for Yoni's sake. He and my son had been best friends when they were in grade school. For me, Yoni was still that tousled-haired kid in the photo squinting into the sun as he stands next to his bike.
It was Yoni who had come to visit his mother one weekend but instead had found only her body. I wanted somehow to comfort this boy turned young man, whose mother had died so young. Instead, I found myself cringing at his tortured recitation.
Why did it matter? After all, religion was not important in Yoni's home. His mother, an immigrant from the United States, never mastered Hebrew. She certainly didn't know Aramaic, the main component of Kaddish and Yoni's stumbling block.
Yoni's father, a secular sabra, had no use for ritual. Yoni never had a bar mitzvah; possibly never set foot in a synagogue. There was no way he could have been prepared for this moment. And, perhaps, for his family that did not matter.
So why did it matter to me? This prayer that combines Hebrew and Aramaic speaks not of the dead but rather about the God who has created the world "according to his will." It continues as a thesaurus of hosannas: "Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored, adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One."
The language is light years from anything a secular young man in Israel might say or think. For a moment I thought that it might be time for a pop version, one that would roll easily off any Israeli tongue.
One thing I knew for certain: I want my own children to be able to recite the Kaddish without stumbling. That Friday at dinner I told them the story of the garbled prayer, hoping they would get the message without my having to come out and say, "Get it right!"
And it's impossible to get it right without some practice.
They responded blithely, as if it was no concern of theirs.
"The dead person doesn't care, anyway," my youngest son scoffed.
Nevertheless, I sensed they'd gotten the message. But why was that so important? I have so little interest in praising, exalting and lauding any supreme being. And I know that the only afterlife is the memory we keep of the person who is gone. The body at the funeral is but an empty shell.
Perhaps what's at issue is my own life: I'm a word person. For more than 20 years I've made my living by writing and editing. Getting the words right is what I labor to achieve, all day every day. It's a struggle that often leaves me in despair.
But there's more to it than that. In the face of the greatest anguish, words fail. Don't get me wrong. I'm a compulsive sender of messages of sympathy to those far away who have lost someone dear, and I sense that those words give some comfort, if only the reminder that someone on the other side of the planet acknowledges the loss.
But what can one say to the mother of a toddler who has died of cancer; to the father of a youngster who has committed suicide; to the teenager whose father has been killed in a car accident? Words seem an intrusion, a violation of the mourner's right to grieve undisturbed. Nor can even the most eloquent eulogy offer more than a moment's balm.
It is here that the ancient formula stands in for mere words, since these can never encompass the loss. The repetition of the set phrases, whose literal meaning escapes most people, is a remedy where words fail. It is a recognition that no words, not even the most beautiful or the most caring, can undo what is done. It is a recognition that at times like these one should not have to seek the words. The mourner has a set role, and the participants have a supporting one, reciting one of the lines with the mourner and completing the prayer with a chorus of amen.
This is how it has been from generation to generation, through the chain of Jewish history. The Kaddish is a way of touching all the mourners who have been and all those who will be. It offers both a sense of community and a sense of continuity.
That's why we have to get it right.
Esther Hecht is a freelance writer based in Jerusalem.