Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Cooking the Kaddish

Cooking the Kaddish

Susan Gubar

This essay is dedicated to Sandra Mortola Gilbert.


I need to learn how to say the mourner’s Kaddish, just as in years past I needed to teach myself how to make matzo ball soup and challah, brisket and latkes.  The urgency is palpable.  When I stand before Sophia’s grave at Easter, I place a pebble on her headstone, though I don’t know why.  Then I want to say the Kaddish to myself, but only the opening words come:  “Yisgaddal v’yiskaddash sh’meh rabbah.”  Most of my closest friends are, somehow, Catholic or rather Catholic-born and in a rage at the last Pope and his bishops.  Or they are agnostics unschooled in their parents’ Protestantism.  They cannot help me.  But I did teach myself to make the soup and the bread, the meat and potatoes, and even to tell some jokes, so surely I can learn how to recite the prayer.  It is only twenty-five lines long when I print out a transliteration from the Web.  Certain phrases bring back a familiar and profoundly satisfying rhythm.  But when I try to read it aloud, I sound like a dyslexic second grader. And the first line of my printout looks a bit different, with the letter t appearing where the letter s should be:  “Yitgaddal v’yitkaddash sh’meh rabbah.”  Who do I need to mourn?

Some Googling suggests that the first line means “Glorified and sanctified be God’s great name.”  Wikipedia, however, provides another version:  “May His great name be exalted and sanctified is God’s great name.”  Another site cautions:  “Please consult your local orthodox Rabbi as to the proper time and place to say Kaddish, which requires a Minyan (a quorum of ten adult male Jews).”  Is it the smug conviction that every community has an orthodox Rabbi, or that only Jewish adult males—ten of them!—have the right or responsibility to recite the prayer, or is it the adoration of a masculine deity that prevented me in the past or prevents me now from learning what I want—no—what I need to learn?  Do the Hebrew and Aramaic words continue to enthrall me because I don’t understand them?   Do Jewish foods captivate me because I was never fed them?  Oddly, my mother did encourage me to learn Hebrew and to participate in the recitation of the Kaddish at the end of Saturday services, though she never taught me how to make matzo ball soup, challah, brisket, or latkes.  So why must I and how will I set out to memorize the Kaddish at this late stage of my secular life?



The second line of the Kaddish reads “B’almah dee-v’ra chiru-teh.”  It means “in the world which He created according to His will.”  In no way do I fault my mother for providing me with a Jewish “education”—the word has to be put in quotes—that left me ignorant about Judaism or for not teaching me how to cook Jewish foods. She inhabited a world that had shockingly abrogated her will and wishes, when the Nuremberg laws barred her from attending school and later when Adolf Hitler’s visionary aspirations necessitated her, my father, and my brother’s flight from Hamburg to New York.  We kids were enrolled in a Reformed temple in Brooklyn where no real learning took place.        

Somehow I am finding it easy to remember “Yitgaddal v’yitkaddash sh’meh rabbah.”  It is “Yit” (not “Yis”), a former student explains on email, because younger congregants follow modern Israeli pronunciation, which is Sephardic, not Ashkenazi.  But it seems harder to get “B’almah dee-v’ra chiru-teh” into my head, so I encourage myself by remembering how many decades ago I learned to make my very first Jewish food, perhaps the paradigmatic Jewish food.  My mother did not make chicken soup from scratch, though one of the keenest memories of my father’s funeral—beyond the closed coffin and my Aunt Rosie exclaiming that I shouldn’t have been allowed to wear white shoes—was the bowl of Campbell’s chicken soup (add one can of water and heat) that I was given upon returning home from the cemetery. With regard to the prayer, I anticipate other rhythms pulsing ahead, phrases I do know, but now “B’almah dee-v’ra chiru-teh” must be learned.  It takes time to make soup and apparently it will take time to get “B’almah dee-v’ra chiru-teh” into my thick head. 

So here is how I make chicken stock.  Since it’s a no-brainer, while making it I can repeat “B’almah dee-v’ra chiru-teh” as often as necessary. 

Put a whole chicken or a bunch of wings and whatever other parts of the chicken you have on hand into a big pot and cover with water.  As you bring to a boil, skim off the foamy crud that rises to the top.  Then add a carrot, a stalk or two of celery, an onion, maybe a cut-up parsnip and some parsley, and lower the heat to a simmer, cooking (partly covered) for two or three hours.  When you pierce the chicken with a fork and it falls apart, it is done.  Strain through a sieve or colander, pushing the soft veggies down to extract their juices.  Take the chicken off the bone, throw out the skin, and put some of the meat in the soup, but save some for a chicken salad or pot pie. 

“B’almah dee-v’ra chiru-teh” begins to sink in.  My dad used to say, when a poor man eats a chicken, either the man is sick or the chicken is sick. “Vas steht am tisch?”  An old Yiddish joke comes to mind, from Elliot Gilbert, alev hascholem.  What stands on a table, makes flapping like this with its wings, and sings coo-co-reek-oo?  A meshugina.

            What kind of person boils chicken reciting two lines of the Kaddish?  Historically, Rochelle Millen has shown, the Kaddish was supposed to be recited by sons for their fathers and in a community, not by a daughter and not privately to herself in fragments.[1]  Yet the allure of the words draws me…I want to recite them next month for my father whose suicide shattered my life when I was fifteen years old.  A righteous man, he provided for his wife and children before he took away their ballast, but how can I possibly comprehend what else he could have done?  The medieval rabbis probably have rules regulating precisely what sort of mourning he warranted.  “B’almah dee-v’ra chiru’teh” is what I need to mull:  my father created his end according to his will, not intending to decreate mine.  On the few occasions I attended temple after his death, I stood up for him when the orphans were asked to rise.  But then I mumbled and now I want to speak each word distinctly.  Daddy, I have missed you for half a century, and you would have called the Kaddish “Qvatch”:  nonsense.  I may eventually agree, or we can agree to disagree.  Perhaps we all mark our children by wounding them. 

“B’almah dee-vr’a chiru’teh.”  Could God have willed my poor father’s loss of his mother and father in Hamburg or of my mother’s relatives in Bavaria?  The mourner’s Kaddish is spoken by an inconsolable offspring grieving the death of a parent.  But the Kaddish could not care less.  It has nothing to do with death, nothing at all.  “May His great name be exalted and sanctified in the world He created according to His will.”  Absurdly irrelevant to sorrow, so why do the words taste right, nourish me in incomprehensible ways?  No need to chew, they warm the mouth, though the soup needs to be refrigerated or frozen now, or else it will be full of fat, of schmaltz.

            “Kaddish?” my older daughter Molly asks on the phone.  “You’re writing about Kaddish?  Isn’t that a drink?”

She had been bat-mitvahed more than two decades ago in the only synagogue in our college town.

            “Oh,” she then remembered, as I laughed.  “Yitgaddal, yitga-something.”

            Like mother, like daughter.  But I think I’ve got “B’almah dee-vr’a chiru’teh” down, so onward to line three, which in my (abundantly ignorant) judgment concludes the opening of the prayer:  “v’yamlich malchuteh,” meaning “May He establish His Kingdom.”  I hear the three lines forming a unity because of the rhyming of the last syllable teh in chiru’teh and malchuteh.  I feel buoyant because malchuteh sounds like Malka, which is another of Molly’s nicknames, a Hebrew word meaning “queen” and thus clearly related to Kingdom and malchuteh.   In his erudite book Kaddish, Leon Wieseltier castigates American Jews like me for their “sentimentality” about the mourner’s prayer.[2]  Instead of rending my clothes, as the Orthodox mourner does, I am rendering schmaltz. But schmaltz too has its purposes, in small doses.

            After schmaltz collects on the top of the frozen or refrigerated stock, it can easily be removed and tossed, for no substance better clogs the arteries, but set aside two tablespoons since a little cannot do much harm, and it provides the glue for the matzo balls, which I never tasted as a child.  On Friday nights, Grandma Alice came to prepare German food:  stuffed cabbage (savory, not sweet), weisswurst, braised flanken and halibut, boiled potatoes, vinegary cucumber salad, Apfelpfannkuchen.  On Sunday evenings, one Mr. Levy arrived with a battered attaché case redolent with the most marvelous smells from a sausage named Cervelat and a thinly sliced cured beef that I once later found in Italy, where it was called Bresaola.  Weekdays, canned vegetables and pan-fried chops were devoured so quickly by my parents that my stomach cramped with resistance to and fright at their frantic need to eat. “May He establish His Kingdom” so that there will never again be so many dead and unburied relatives, such fear-filled refugees:  “v’yamlich malchuteh.”  Jewish food was a novelty sampled at friends’ houses or on a rare evening out.  

Only in graduate school, after finding Jennie Grossinger’s cookbook, did I learn to produce matzo balls that were better than the dense billiard balls I had tasted in delis. That book is long gone, but I credit it for the lightness of these matzo balls.

Bring the stock to a boil, add slices of celery and carrots, and simmer for half an hour. In a Cuisinart, whiz four egg yolks, a slice of onion, a teaspoon of salt, a dash of cayenne pepper, and two tablespoons of schmaltz.  In a large bowl, use an electric mixer to whip four egg whites until quite stiff.  Gently fold the yolk mixture into the whites and then gently fold in three-quarters of a cup (or a cup) of matzo-meal.  Cover tightly and refrigerate for half an hour while adding salt and pepper and (if needed) a bouillon cube (or boxed stock) to the broth.  After running your hands under cold water, shape each one-and-a-half inch ball gently between your palms and gently slip it into the simmering stock.  Cover and cook (the twenty or so matzo balls) for three quarters of an hour.      

The operative word is “gently,” a word related to the reiteration of the Kaddish, which some people recite for eleven months and others on every jahrzeit.  Sometimes one can make up for lack of tradition or ignorance of tradition through reading and experimenting until Jewish penicillin or ambrosia exalts and sanctifies all who gather together. 

I can recite the first three lines of the Kaddish from memory now and will do so repeatedly when I rise up and when I lay down, or else they will disappear like too many pieces of the past.  “Open your mouth wide and I will fill it,” God tells the people he has brought out of Egypt (Psalm 81:10).  I open my mouth and recite by heart:

                Yitgaddal v’yitkaddash sh’meh rabbah

                 B’almah dee-v’ra chiru-teh

                 V’yamlich malchuteh

I recite after dinner to my dear husband and then ask him if I can recite again.  Yes, Don encourages me, so I do so again.  “Same to you,” my soulmate says.


            Three down, twenty-two to go, but who am I kidding?  As I face what (in my grotesque ignorance) I determine is the next unit of four lines, I realize that Leon Wieseltier is quite right to upbraid me and, indeed, most American Jews not only for “sentimentality” about the Kaddish but also for “linguistic treason” and “Jewish illiteracy” (K, pp. 386, 352, 419). Three of the next four lines look impossible to sound out as I study not the Hebrew characters on the page of a prayer book but a printout of a web transliteration for illiterate Jews tried and found guilty of linguistic treason:

                 B’chay-yechon uv’yo-meychon

                 Uv’chay-yey de-chol beit yisra-el

                 Ba-agalah uvizman kareev;

                 V’imru Amen.

“V’imru Amen” is a familiar phrase I admire and welcome because “And say, Amen” tells me to do what it has me doing.  But the rest looks like gibberish.  

In matters of religion and language, it is not possible to compensate for a lack of tradition, so exactly why am I making the effort?  Regardless of the factor that inhibits one generation from initiating the next into preserving rituals and customs —historic catastrophe, geographical dislocation, economic exigency, spiritual doubt, political principle—what is not handed down cannot be retrieved.  A morsel or sound bite may be sampled perhaps, but not retrieved.  Like cooking the books, cooking the Kaddish deceives through fabrication.  Should I be saying words that I don’t understand literally, figuratively, or historically?   How can I recite what I don’t mean?  Why do I suppose that my having taught myself to cook Jewish foods would enable me to teach myself a Jewish prayer for the dead, when feasting and mourning feel to me like discordant activities?  “It is better to go to the house of mourning,” Ecclesiastes admonishes, “than to go to the house of feasting; for this is the end of everyone and the living will lay it to heart” (Eccles. 7:2). When “My heart is stricken and withered like the grass; I am too wasted to eat my bread” (Ps. 102:4).   

Stiff-necked, stubborn, I summon up people who chant, hum, or whisper mantras of incomprehensible sounds as a way of slowing down time and consciousness, and I determine to learn “B’chay-yechon uv’yo-meychon” while kneading bread, which also slows down time and consciousness.  My younger daughter Simone used to call our dinners at home “slow food.” While kneading, I will need to mourn my mother’s disappearance in old age, her loss of a coherent consciousness, so I Google challah and the Kaddish.  On YouTube a mild-mannered man in a sweatervest lets me hear the rhythm of the line and the last syllable of “B’cháy-yechon” echoed by the ending of “uv’yo-méychon”:  “during your lifetime and during your days” refers back to malchuteh.  May God establish His kingdom, the prayer asks, soon so we can see it in our own being, with our own eyes.  But a website on challah starts with five pounds of flour, which sounds extravagant, even nonsensical, to me.

I return to an older recipe to produce not the sweet, soft bread that has gained popularity in midwestern bakeries, but a braided loaf that has the shellacked look of a traditional challah.  During my mother’s lifetime, she grieved over many losses, but during her days now she forgets them.  Sad as the foggy confusion seems, there is a mitvah to losing loss, or so I hope as I make the dough.


In a very large bowl, dissolve a package of yeast with one tablespoon of sugar in one-and-a quarter cups of warm water.   Then add three tablespoons of oil.  Whisk in two eggs, one tablespoon of salt.  Begin adding the four-and-a-half cups of flour by mixing with a wooden spoon.  When it gets too heavy, place it on a floured board and knead (with more flour if necessary to avoid sticking) until it comes together in a smooth ball.  Return it to the now oiled bowl.  Cover tightly and place in a warm part of the kitchen for the first rise of an hour.  Punch down and let it rise again (covered) for another hour.  Divide the dough into three parts:  each piece should be rolled firmly between floured palms until it forms a twelve-inch-long strip.  Pinch them together and braid, tucking the ends under the loaf. Place on an oiled baking sheet and let rise (covered by a cloth) another hour.  Brush with egg yolk and sprinkle with poppy seeds before putting into a 375-degree oven for about forty-five minutes.


“Uv’chay-yey de-chol beit yisra-el / Ba-agalah uvizman kareev”:  May God establish His kingdom soon so we can see it in our own being “and during the lifetimes of all the House of Israel, speedily and very soon.”  My mother will not live to see that apocalyptic time, but she did manage to find the leaven to rise three times, like the punched-down challah:  after the suicide of her mother, of her father, and of her husband.  Their memory was not a blessing.  She kept getting dragged to the house of mourning, where she lost her appetite for ceremonial feasting but felt the urgent need to eat so as to survive.  “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19).  Like my father, my mother slaved at manual labor from dawn to dusk so that during her lifetime, speedily and very soon, her children needed not.  Her heart was stricken, as she bought the day-old bread at Ebinger’s Bakery and smiled at my father’s joke about the newly married man who never found his wife’s cooking as good as his mother’s until one day she accidently burnt his toast and eggs, and “Ahha,” he exulted, “tastes just like mama’s.” 

Parents and children trade places when aging weakens the elderly.  Just as orthodox sons establish their fathers’ righteousness by reciting the Kaddish, observant and secular daughters often become the designated caretakers of infirm parents.  It is, as Wisdom says, a time to “lay aside immaturity” (Prov. 9: 6).  Don and his children had to become the mature parents of his ailing first wife whose grave in Rose Hill Cemetery is steps away from Sophia’s.  On the gravestone, the hyphen between Mary-Alice’s birth and death dates attests to a life cut off too early:

                Mary-Alice Olentine Gray


Fearful as such a reversal may be—the husband fathering his ailing wife, the daughters mothering their confused mother—its palpable consolations underscore the tragedy of parents mourning infants. 

Standing with our dear friends Mary and Andrew, Don reads the passage from Wisdom annually—in front of a heartbreaking headstone:  


                          Sophia Patrick Miller

               Precious Daughter of Mary Favret and Andrew Miller

                                Apr. 9, 1996


In my husband’s voice, I hear Wisdom enjoining the simple to enter her house:  “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed” (9:5).  It is the absence of a hyphen, of a second date that clutches the heart, despite the intervening years.  After Don’s reading, I say to myself, “V’imru Amen.”  I know that this last word is pronounced “Ah-méhn.”



How astonishing after such heavy slogging, word by word, that the next seven lines arrive like a piece of cake.  Did I, after all, take something away from the Saturday services and Sunday classes at Beth Emeth?  Or it is the measured music in my mouth?

            Y’hey sh’mey rabbah m’varach

            L’olam ul’olmey almah-yah.

            Yitbarach, v’yishtabach

            V’yitpa-ar v’yitromam

            V’yitnasseh v’yit-haddar

            V’yit-alleh v’yit-hallal

            Sh’mey de kudshah b’reech hu.

No, not like a piece of cake, since the lines are hefty, weighty—more like the meat of the prayer, its main course, its muscle, its nourishing protein.  Often typographically set off on its own, the first couplet in particular sounds oracular:  “May His great name be blessed / forever and to all eternity.”  Then returning to the first syllable of the Kaddish, “Yit” in “Yitbarach” (“Blessed”) inaugurates four lines of resplendent parallelism hinged on the consonant “v”:  “praised, / glorified and exalted, / extolled and honored, / adored and lauded.”  According to a book titled Mysteries of the Alphabet, by Marc-Alain Ouaknin, the hieroglyph of “vav, which means ‘nail’ in Hebrew,” is first “an oar that makes it possible to drive the ship or boat and thus link the opposite banks of the river or two continents.”[3]  In modern Hebrew, vav is a hook. Therefore derivative meanings include coordination, junction, fastener.  Vav, then, is “the equivalent of the English and.”  In a breathtaking move because self-reflexive, the final phrase after the succession of vavs concludes the catalog of praise by enjoining that such a catalog of praise should be avowed:  “be the name of the Holy One, blessed be He.” 

Here is a prayer I can relish, for it simply prays that we pray; it urges no more than that we should extol the creation and its creator.  To memorize its injunction, I take out the brisket that I make at Passover, when God told the liberated to open their mouths to be filled.  “Y’hey sh’mey rabbah m’varach / L’olam ul’olmey almah-yah”:  these core lines feel familiar on my lips maybe because they are generally recited by the entire congregation.  I pay dues at the local synagogue so as to support the Jewish community, but the only communal event I regularly share—with my Jewish and non-Jewish mishpacha—is the seder.

Dredge a four-pound brisket in a mixture of half a cup of flour, a tablespoon of salt, and half a teaspoon of pepper.  In a large pot (that can later be placed covered in an oven), heat two tablespoons of oil.  Sear the brisket for ten minutes on each side and then remove to a plate.  Reduce the heat and brown two sliced onions and ten cloves of garlic for ten minutes.  Add two cups of red wine, three tablespoons of tomato paste, a good pinch of thyme, some bay leaves, and bring to a rapid boil until more than half of the wine has evaporated.  Add the brisket and enough chicken stock to just cover the meat.  Bring to a simmer, cover, and put into an oven (preheated to 325 degrees) for approximately three hours.   When a fork pierces the meat easily, remove the pot from the oven, and then remove the brisket from the pot.  If necessary, boil down the liquid.  When the brisket is cool, slice it against the grain and then return it to the liquid which can be reheated before serving.

 At Passover in our dining room, many people use the ritual horseradish as a stinging condiment, its nose- and eye-watering bitterness an accent to the sweetness of the brisket.

The meaty couplet “May His great name be blessed / forever and to all eternity” moves directly after “Yitbarach” (Blessed) to alliterative iambics so strong that an accent mark is insufficient, so I imagine the alliterative beats through capitalization: “v’YISH taBACH, / v’YITpa-AR v’YITroMAM, / v’YITnaSEH v’YIT-haDAR, / v-YIT-aLEH v’YIT-halLAL.”  As if fashioned by some ancient shaman or Hebraic precursor to Walt Whitman, the rhythmic propulsion casts a prodigious spell that, unlike the Seder prayers, needs no melodic accompaniment.  The music, percussive, resonates from the parallelisms and stresses and alliterations of the words for “praised, / glorified and exalted, / extolled and honored, / adored and lauded.”  These evocative words unscroll in Hebrew, unlike most of the rest of the Kaddish.

Folklore has it that most of the Kaddish came down to the Jews in Aramaic, so the angels, who understand only Hebrew, would not be jealous.  Would they be jealous of humanity’s loving intimacy or desire for intimacy with divinity?  The historian David Shyovitz explains to me one reason it was believed that the angels might become jealous:  because God entrusted such a lofty and sacred prayer not to them but to frail and faulty human beings.  The garrulous permutations on “v’YIT”—“and may it [His name] be blessed”—do not propel the translation, but they saturate the recitation of the original text in yearning—a may-it-come-to-be-in-the-future.  That yearning for a better future might reflect the horrors of the present, for the recitation of the mourner’s Kaddish originated in the twelfth century after the Crusades and during a period of plagues, ghettoizations, pogroms, and blood libels, or so scholars have determined.

            For some reason, I know the line “Sh’mey de kudshah b’reech hu” (“be the name of the Holy One, blessed be He”), so I concentrate on the fortifying “v’YIT” passage.  In the graphic form of vav, the “vertical line is the sign of the descent of divine energy downward, a meeting point between humans and the immanence of God.”  Once again, then, the vav serves as a connection, a conjunction.  Mysteries of the Alphabet goes on to claim that in Hebrew, the vav “indicates the male gender in the third person singular…This grammatically masculine letter may be the linguistic translation of a male sex symbol, the phallic symbol used for the purposes of grammar” (M, p. 173).  What recourse do I have against Judaism’s patriarchal inflections?


           When confronting the question of the masculine basis and bias of Judaism, I am not alone, for many feminist thinkers and activists—Cynthia Ozick, E. M. Broner, Susannah Heschel, Judith Plaskow, and numerous female rabbis and cantors—have not only criticized the patriarchal foundations of Jewish traditions but also devised a host of alternative customs, wordings, and practices for worship.  With respect to the Kaddish, however, there is no getting around the male pronoun for divinity.  In this regard, the Kaddish may not be kosher from my point of view, but then I am not kosher from its point of view:  not only because a BLT and a shrimp po boy are, to my mind, fine sandwiches; not only because I do not go to the temple on days of feasting and mourning; but, even worse, because I do not go to the Kaddish to find faith or confirm belief.  I do not believe in a personal God who looks out for certain chosen people (and not others), nor do I believe in the spiritual afterlife of my individual psyche or soul.  In this regard, ironically, I resemble many contemporary Jews and, for that matter, many contemporary Catholics and Protestants. That I do not comprehend the meaning of each phrase while I am reciting seems a blessing, for the foreign language asks only that I learn to utter its multiplying affirmations.  The less I comprehend the meaning of the words in my brain, the more I can feel them trembling on my tongue.

I had taken as my stopping point of the alliterative iambics in the “v-YIT” passage the line “Sh’mey de kudsha b’reech hu” (“be the name of the Holy One, Blessed be He”), but there is no stop here not only because the prayer has no punctuation in the original but also because the catalogue of praise continues: 

                       L’eylah min kol birchatah v’shiratah

                       Tus-b’chatah v’nechematah

                       Daa-amiran b’almah

                       V’imru Amen.

Stumbling, I ponder again my motives. Yet once again I hear not only the ending rhymes of “tah” but also the internal rhythms of “kol birchátah v’shirátah / Tús-b’chátah v’néchemátah” (“blessings and hymns / praises and consolation”).  Once again, I am struck with the humility of the voice of the speaker, for “L’eylah min kol birchatah v’shiratah” suggests that the divinity being addressed remains “above and beyond all the blessings, hymns.”  How indifferent the creation and the creator are to the human supplicant!  “B’almah” recalls the “b’almah” of the second line of the Kaddish:  “in the world” must be repeated here and now to stress again the here-and-now, which is what I cherish about Judaism, its commitment to social justice and daily integrity and ethical attentiveness here-and-now, especially in a country where one in five children is at risk of suffering hunger—that is, here-and-now in America.  “Blessed be He above and beyond all the blessings, / hymns, praises and consolations / that are uttered in the world. / And say Amen.”

In our contemporary world, vegetarians, like feminists, have made their mark on evolving traditions.  According to the gender-neutral Passover Hagadah that we have produced for my household, the lamb shank bone—symbolizing the mighty hand and outstretched arm with which the Eternal delivered us from bondage—can be replaced by a beet in vegetarian households.  A quick Google search indicates that the beet can be used because its red color symbolizes the blood of sacrifice and because the Talmud mentions beets as one of the vegetables dipped during the Seder—though there are conflicting opinions, as one would expect, on this last claim.  In any case, to repeat the beat of the lines extending the vatic “v’YIT” passage, I decide to make a beet salad.

After disposing of the green stalks (or if tender cooking them like kale), tightly wrap each of three or four beets in aluminum foil and bake for an hour and a half in a 350-degree oven (until a fork easily pierces one of them).  Open the foil and let cool in the sink.   Take off both ends of each beet, peel, and slice.  Swish together some apple cider vinegar, a bit of oil, a pinch of sugar, a dash of salt, and lots of dill. Pour it on the beets, chill, and then place on a bed of lettuce greens.  Garnish with chopped scallion and feta crumble.

Dirty and hard as nails, the earthy beet morphs into purple royalty after its roasting.  Gazing on my bloody hands, I wonder:  if belief has nothing to do with it, why am I so obsessed with the Kaddish?


            Both cooking and the Kaddish provide the deep satisfaction of repetitive rhythms.  When years ago I served what Simone called “slow food” at six pm every night, I tried to tempt the girls with healthy versions of fast food or with a succession of spicy international kid-pleasers:  hamburgers or tacos, fish and chips, spaghetti and meatballs, chicken wings in oyster sauce, lentils and sausage.  The Gothic goop over which they hooted because it made them gag was “the daily stuff,” a brew concocted by a child at their preschool who mixed together everything on his tray, like pasta and Jell-O or chili and pudding.  Wary of the eating disorders of adolescents, I enlisted my growing daughters in the slicing and dicing, repetitive and rhythmic acts as habitual and addictive as memorizing and reciting.  Both cooking and reciting organize time in unexceptional but visceral increments.  Because the habitual and sometimes addictive patterns of cooking involve physical acts, while those of reciting require mental acts, cooking and reciting the Kaddish go together like fish and chips or meatballs and spaghetti or, for that matter, the girls’ favorite dish:  latkes and applesauce.

Skin and grate 6 potatoes and 3 small onions (either with a hand grater or a Cuisinart).  Put in a colander or sieve and squeeze out as much liquid as possible.  Mix in two eggs and four (or more) tablespoons of floor as well as lots of salt and pepper.  Squeeze out liquid again.  Heat one-eighth of an inch of oil in a skillet.  Fry until golden on both sides.  When almost done, place on two cookie sheets and pop into a 250-degree oven for twenty minutes.  Serve with applesauce or (for the older crowd) sour cream and caviar. 

Putting the latkes in the oven for twenty minutes gives the exhausted cook time to recover so she can enjoy them with her guests.  Also a recovery, the next-to-the-last section of the Kaddish takes full advantage of its penultimate position by relying heavily on earlier structures.  A variation on an established theme, “Y’hey sh’lamah rabbah min sh’maya” (“May there be abundant peace from heaven”) invokes the oracular line “Y’hey sh’mey rabbah m’varach” (“May His great name be blessed”).   “V’chay-yim alenu v’al kol yisrael” (“and life for us and for all of Israel”) returns with a difference to the earlier “Uv-chay-yey de-chol beit yisra-el” (“and during the lifetimes of all the house of Israel”).  And then we have a third “V’imru amen.”  Taken together, “May there be abundant peace from heaven / and life for us and for all of Israel / And say, Amen.”

While asking for peace, I may not be praying, but I am learning about the recursive nature of the prayer.  And how far apart are praying and studying?  Epigrammatic, a confident Wieseltier claims, “The difference between study and prayer is the difference between thinking and feeling, between knowing and wanting, between what is within our power and what is beyond our power, between toil and arousal, between the life that does not pass and the life that passes” (K, p. 466).  He does not consider learning by heart.  In my decades of studying, thinking has always intertwined with feeling, knowing with wanting, so that I become aroused by toiling at understanding words that do not pass away while my life does.  I have always prayed to learn; now I appear to be learning how to pray—for peace, but for whom?     

            It may be that no one will recite the graveside version of the Kaddish for me because I expect to be cremated so as to fit into the plot set aside for my husband, next to Mary-Alice and near Sophia Patrick in Rose Hill Cemetery.  Some time ago, my oncologist thought that event would occur this year.  The word Kaddish is related to Hebrew words meaning “holy” or “sanctified”; however, my ashes will be settled in unconsecrated ground.  As in life, in death I will be surrounded by Goyim.  Historically, the Kaddish is not recited for people who have alienated themselves from their community.  Do I need to memorize the Kaddish to say it for myself?  I find the thought repellant.  People carted to open pits into which they knew they would be buried or people herded into gas chambers that they knew would kill them did recite the Kaddish for themselves.  I have neither their right nor their desire to do so.  I am not trying to memorize the Kaddish so someone else will say it for me, obviously.  Nor do I wish to say it for myself.  


          The Kaddish is not a kvetch.  It has nothing in common with the joke about the grandma who—shocked that a giant wave has taken away her adorable grandson—beseeches God for his return and then, after a giant wave deposits him back on her blanket (complete with his bathing suit, pail, and shovel), beseeches God again, “What about his little cap?”  No, the Kaddish does not bemoan the survivor’s grief, request a resurrection of the dead, beg for consolation, or inscribe the memory of a particular individual into the book of life.  Astringent, it is not a tepid thanksgiving either.  The Kaddish is an urgent directive to attain a posture of praise and wonder that concludes with an entreaty for universal peace:  “O-seh shalom / bimromav / Hu-ya-aseh shalom alenu / V’al kol yisra-el / V’imru Amen.”  Everyone knows the word shalom.  Many know the lyrics of “Hevenu Shalom Aleikhem.”  Shalom functions as a greeting in Israel where Jewish food consists of falafel, eggplant caviar, humus, pita, tabbouleh, and diced cucumbers and tomatoes.  If Jewish food is the food eaten by Jews, almost every cuisine pertains, including the German food my relatives craved, so it seems appropriate to learn the lines “May He who makes peace / in His high places / grant peace upon us / and upon all Israel / and say, Amen” while baking a linzertorte.  More dense than cake, a slice tastes like a cookie. 


Crumble one cup of butter into one cup of flour, to which you add one and a half cups of finely grated almonds.  Mix in half a cup of sugar, a pinch of ground clove, a pinch of cinnamon, and two egg yolks.  Then knead these two mixtures together and press two-thirds of the dough into a nine-inch pie pan.  Spread three-quarters of a cup of raspberry jam on top.  Using the remaining dough, roll out thin strips to form a lattice over the jam.  Brush the lattice with egg white and bake for an hour and fifteen minutes in a preheated 325-degree oven.  Sprinkle with confectioner’s sugar.

To be honest, my own density persists.  The writing of this essay has proceeded more quickly than full retention of the prayer—maybe because of the aftereffects of chemo.  I still need a cheat sheet, which I will now take along with me on my daily walks, for it turns out that walking, like cooking, can keep the words bubbling.  Boiling and braising the Kaddish, roasting and frying and baking the Kaddish, I have been struggling to translate the meaning of the phrases I am reciting so it cannot be altogether true that the incomprehensibility of its foreign lexicon is the blessing I seek.  I have discovered that the Kaddish does not differentiate between the chosen and the not chosen, nor does it affirm any faith in a spiritual afterlife for the individual psyche or soul.  As for male God language, it would be just as absurd if the divine were called She.  Why tamper with a language centuries old?  I make peace with Leon Wieseltier when he explains, “Tradition is not reproduced.  It is thrown and it is caught.  It lives a long time in the air” (K, p. 295).  The prayer I hope to catch is airy, unlike the linzertorte.

            These days, when neither mourning nor feasting, Don and I eat the smaller portions many older people prepare of broiled fish and broccoli or salad with half a sandwich.  While seasoning the salad and the Kaddish, I now know that I want to memorize the prayer to recite it during the time when I can no longer read or write, when I am bedridden.  The Kaddish is supposed to be recited when standing up, but I will need it while lying down.  I want to repeat the prayer not as a means of mourning but rather as a mode of meditation that will focus me and allow me to transcend pain, along with its attendant self-pity, so as to attain loving kindness and tranquility.  If the words can obtain space in the house of mourning for celebratory feasting, would this sort of Kaddish be related to the Kiddush, the sanctification of the wine that Molly had confused it with?  Might it make my memory a blessing?  When I cannot stand or sit, eat or drink, I will silently savor phrases that speak not about suffering or illness or death or damnation or resurrection, but instead praise the creator and the creation, asking for peace that preserves life on earth. 

Wikipedia informs me that after the fourth “V’imru Amen” the Orthodox take three steps back and then bow to the left, to the right, and finally forward as if leaving the presence of a king.  Given my likely immobility in the future, the image brings to mind a favorite poet’s acknowledgment that he always made an awkward bow.  Still, I sense an assent, a consent, and a descent—a recognition of one’s irrelevance in the grand scheme of things—after the fourth “And say, Amen,” not unlike that of a waiter who has set the table, served the food, and is simply no longer needed.  In Jewish recipes, the readiness is all.  At the end of cooking, the beginning of tasting, there is an awful lot of piercing when tender.  I want to be tender when pierced. 


[1]  Rochelle L. Millen, Women, Birth, and Death in Jewish Law and Practice (Hanover, N.H., 2004).

[2]  Leon Wieseltier, Kaddish (New York, 1998), p. 386; hereafter abbreviated K.

[3]  Marc-Alain Ouaknin, Mysteries of the Alphabet: The Origins of Writing, trans. Josephine Baron (New York, 1999), p. 172; hereafter abbreviated M.