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Sunday, September 21, 2014
My Main High Holiday Event is the Opportunity to Say a Special Kaddish...
by Robert Taxman
My main High Holiday event is the opportunity to say a special Kaddish for my father. Kaddish, the prayer declaring faith in the holiness of God, is traditionally to be recited daily for eleven months after burial, on Yahrzeit (the anniversary of that loss), on the three pilgrimage festivals (Passover, Sukkot, Shavuot), and especially on Yom Kippur. That my feelings are hardly unique is reflected by the impressive turnout at the Yiskor service (Yiskor meaning remembrance).
We are often reminded that Kaddish isn’t literally a prayer for the dead. It is, rather, an affirmation of faith and the existence of Sanctity, culminating in an appeal for peace, which I take to mean acceptance of life and death (i.e. the order of the Universe). On the other hand, there’s a rather alarming yarn about this in an eleventh century French collection of Jewish rumors called Machzor Vitry, concerning the estimable Rabbi Akiba, who encounters a Jewish Sisyphus, a deceased sinner condemned to hard labor for eternity in retribution for oppressing the poor. Rabbi Akiba redeems him by locating the sinner’s child, raised as a heathen, and teaching him to say Kaddish for his father! But that’s not why I look forward to Yiskor, because my father was decidedly no sinner, and requires no prayers for redemption.
That my father’s Yahrzeit falls just a week or so before Elul, the month we are admonished to make the memory of our dear ones a template for improving our own lives, makes this recollections especially meaningful to me:
Dad never missed The Eternal Light, a weekly program about things Jewish, a very big deal in the years before television when families would gather around the radio to listen. We could just pick this up on KMOX, sixty miles from Centralia. Tuning in one Sunday morning, Dad happened upon a sermon from Reverend Bean, the local Baptist pastor. We were the villains of the reverend’s piece, which informed us that we—and all Jews, for all time—were doomed to Hellfire for the death of Jesus. That evening Dad called Reverend Bean and invited him to breakfast at Lee’s Drug Store downtown (actually Cohn’s Drug Store, but the owner probably felt that business would be better with Lee on the sign. Jews generally kept their heads down in Southern Illinois in the 1940s. Maybe they still do.) Dad said this: “Reverend, I have no problem with your telling folks that I’m going to Hell, because I’m a sinner, and you’re probably right. But when you declare that my children, who are angels, and Amelia, who you know yourself is the soul of virtue, are headed the same way, well, I’ve got a problem with that.” And it worked. Next Sunday, Reverend Bean led off his program as follows: “Well folks, I was talking to my friend Milo Taxman, the most Christian Jew in Centralia, a couple of days ago, and he made me think over what I told you last week about the death of our Lord. It seems to me that folks like Milo who are good people shouldn’t be punished for something they didn’t do themselves. That just wouldn’t be fair, and God is never unfair.”
Dad didn’t keep his head down. I never knew anyone happier to be Jewish, or who was more accepting of the way the world works, including the cycle of life and death. I believe he did achieve the peace that the Kaddish expresses so eloquently. That’s what I’ll think about when I say Kaddish for him in a few weeks. Because he was proud to be Jewish, so am I.
Dr. Robert Taxman provides primary care services at Grace Hill Clinic and has taught Jewish history in the Melton program and internal medicine at Washington University School of Medicine.