Saying Kaddish

The Kaddish—that is, the so-called “Mourner’s Kaddish” that is recited for the dead in Jewish prayer services—was originally prayed by rabbis after their sermons as a sort of doxology. The prayer is in Aramaic, an offshoot of Hebrew that developed during the Diaspora and continued to be used for a dozen centuries.

My translation:

Yitgadal v’yitkadash shemai raba . . .

Great and holy is your great Name
in this world you created by your will!
May your true reign begin
in our lifetime,
in our days,
in the lives of all who Struggle—

Let your great Name be blessed
for all ages to come—
blessed, praised, glorified, exalted,
extolled, honored, lifted up, lauded
be the Name of the Holy One,
blessed be you,
far beyond all blessings
and hymns and praises and consolations
that are spoken in the world.

Let great peace descend on us from the heavens!
Let life be renewed for us and for all who Struggle!
You who make peace in the heavens,
make peace for us.

Make peace for all who Struggle.

As you can see, it’s not a prayer of mourning at all. It’s a mountain of praise. It’s thanksgiving and acceptance in the face of pain and death. It’s the rebellious act of clinging to life and shouting to the heavens in the face of despair and loss.

“All who Struggle” is my translation for Yisra’el. The name probably means “God has striven,” or “God has saved.” But the book of Genesis gives a different folk etymology: “the one who wrestled with God” (yet lived to tell the tale).

Jacob’s wrestling with the angel was a symbol of each person’s lifelong struggle with God, with self, with death, with life; the angel struck Jacob in the thigh socket so he limped ever afterwards—you may survive the encounter, but you’ll never be the same.

In Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No. 3, “The Kaddish,” the narrator confronts God, and in “a certain respectful fury,” accuses God of breaking faith with humankind, and by the end of the piece calls for both sides to “suffer and recreate each other.”

Allen Ginsberg’s “Kaddish for Naomi Ginsberg (1894-1956)” is an elegy for his mother Naomi. Invoking both “prophesy as in the Hebrew Anthem” and “the Buddhist Book of Answers,” he wrestles with her descent into mental illness, and seeks to transform her illness into sacred poetry through the recitation of the Kaddish prayer.

The Kaddish was not said at Naomi’s grave because a rabbi would not allow it to be read with Ginsberg’s Christian and atheist friends. So he wrote a Kaddish of his own.

Adam’s Uncle Al died last night. He was 93. “It is this gentleman,” he writes, “who was my example of what it means to be a mensch—an example I know I will always fall short of.” He’s wrong on that last bit, but I know what he means.

Adam said Kaddish for Uncle Al last night at home. I too am saying Kaddish.

Yitgadal v’yitkadash shemai raba . . .

Categories: Death, Judaism, Spirituality | 8 Comments

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8 thoughts on “Saying Kaddish

  1. I am sorry for your loss.

    Your interpretation is brilliant. I comment on it here.

    Omayn! Y’hay sh’may rabo m’vorach l’olam ul’ol’may ol’ma-yo. Yisboraych!

  2. indigobunting

    Beautiful. Thank you.

    Adam: I will think of you. Now go out and be a mensch. And may we all aspire to that…

  3. Craig, you are amazing.

    I thank you.

    My uncle thanks you.

  4. Merrill Tritt

    Many thanks for this. Adam hit the nail on the head. He was a true mensch.

    Uncle Al was a wonderful man and I will miss him dearly.

  5. jennifer Richards

    Very amazing! Now I understand why Adam is always speaking so highly of you….

  6. I appreciate the subtle changes you have made in your translation. With your permission, I’ve borrowed your version and posted it on my blog in memoriam for a very close friend who died this morning.

    I’ve also linked to you so I can come back and get to know you better.


  7. I’m sorry for your loss, Houston. You are most welcome to use my translation.

  8. Pingback: Yahrzeit | Adam Byrn Tritt

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