On playing Kaddish

Mira Amiras’ blog “and this part is true” had a recent post entitled “war stories” about translating the Kaddish, the traditional Jewish mourner’s prayer.

She asks, “What does this really mean?”

It’s a good question, because the Aramaic text doesn’t say a thing about mourning. It’s a pretty generic prayer, in fact. Here’s the basic mourner’s Kaddish text in English:

May the great Name of God be exalted and sanctified, throughout the world, which he has created according to his will.
May his Kingship be established in your lifetime and in your days, and in the lifetime of the entire household of Israel, swiftly and in the near future; and say, Amen.
May his great name be blessed, forever and ever.
Blessed, praised, glorified, exalted, extolled, honored elevated and lauded be the Name of the holy one,
Blessed is he, above and beyond any blessings and hymns, praises and consolations which are uttered in the world; and say Amen.
May there be abundant peace from Heaven, and life, upon us and upon all Israel; and say, Amen.
He who makes peace in his high holy places, may he bring peace upon us, and upon all Israel; and say Amen.

For those wanting to be thorough about it, Wikipedia offers a summary in its usual exhaustive, unsatisfying style and includes the full text in all its variations in parallel columns of English, Aramaic/Hebrew, and transliteration of same.

But I say, don’t bother. Just go off and read Mira’s post, “war stories,” because it’s far more interesting, and then come back here to read the rest of my post, which is a response to hers.


For my senior recital as a horn performance major at St Olaf College, I decided to open my program with a hauntingly beautiful piece for solo horn by Lev Kogan, “Kaddish.”

I’ve always been annoyed by people borrowing religious practices and/or beliefs without understanding them, and this irritation was particularly relevant for me while I was in college. College is a time that many people go through a phase of what I call “religious tourism,” suddenly embracing new religions—the more exotic the better—without having a clue about their cultural contexts and philosophical underpinnings. They just read a few pages or go on a study abroad program, they shave their heads, and poof!, they are suddenly Buddhists.

I didn’t want to do that.

I also think it’s annoying when musicians study and perform music without learning anything about the music. I was also a music history major, so some of my attitude comes from that training. Music has a context. It was written in a time, in a place, by a person, for a reason. Performers need to know these things about the music. I’m not saying performers have to be slaves to composers’ intentions—far from it—but we at least have to struggle with those intentions. We need to know them, to the extent possible, and we have to try to understand them. And then we can—must—make our own decisions about what we ourselves will express in the music. The degree to which we are deferential to what we know of the composer’s expectations is an artistic decision we must make responsibly and consciously.

So, I took responsibility. I researched the Kaddish.

I was particularly concerned about making sure it was appropriate—or at least not inappropriate—to say, and by extension, perform—a Kaddish during Pesach, because my recital was scheduled during Passover.

This point checked out fairly easily. Traditionally mourners should say Kaddish for a year, at least weekly at synagogue, or daily at a minyan—details vary among communities—and especially several times on the Yahrtzeit or anniversary of death. While I never found anything specifically addressing the question of saying Kaddish during holidays, I reasoned that since death doesn’t respect holidays, nor do Yahrtzeits, so it is inevitable that observant mourning Jews will end up saying Kaddish during Pesach.

I also wanted to learn the text of Kaddish and its significance. I was playing horn and a priori not singing any text, but Lev Kogan made clear by his title that the piece was a Kaddish. That text was implicit. How could I play a melody with implicit text without knowing that text?

(Some perspective: when instrumentalists accompany singers, they have a responsibility to know the text and play accordingly, for technical reasons at the very least. For example, when words continue over notes, those notes should be slurred, not articulated. The number of syllables per beat might change from one verse to the next; if a beat has one syllable in the first verse but two syllables in the second verse, then in the second verse, the instrumentalist should be playing two notes on that beat, e.g. two eighth-notes rather than one quarter note. The phrases should line up with the text, which means breathing only between sentences or at appropriate punctuation points. Et cetera. The point is, text matters, whether you’re singing it or not.)

So I researched the text, in translation of course, and I reached the same frustrated puzzlement as Mira: “What does this really mean?”

Why is this a prayer of mourning? Why would mourners say these words—these words?

Answers vary. I like the explanations Mira cites and offers. If you didn’t follow my instructions to read her post, here’s a key point:

Turns out that the Kaddish began to be used for mourning in the 13th century during Crusades and pogroms, as a public affirmation of faith in the face of pogromic annihilation. That is, instead of using the Shma for that purpose. Thus, the Mourner’s Kaddish was a public display of adherence to one’s faith, and that’s why it doesn’t say one damned thing that might comfort someone’s terrible loss.

This makes sense, and I wish I’d known it back then. At the time I just concluded that it was a generic prayer, with the usual blessings and hopes uttered by the religious at any occasion. So, I decided that my affect in playing the Kaddish would be mournful but restrained, not sentimental or overwrought—sad, yes, but a prayer for the still living.


I knew that “Kaddish” would be particularly dramatic as the opening of my recital. I decided that my stage craft should cue the audience that this piece was different, so that they would greet it appropriately and expect contemplative music—not some flashy barnstormer. I also wanted to prevent an unseemly kind of applause; we don’t usually clap during religious services, and we especially don’t clap joyously after prayers of mourning.

Therefore, I opened the recital with the house lights fully down and with a single bank of stage lights brought up just enough so that I could be seen. I walked out not quite as briskly as I normally would, smiled and bowed my thanks for the applause, and then drew my body to attention, lowered my head, and waited for the audience to settle into complete silence. (That takes a long time, and the pause  is uncomfortable for audience and performer alike. I was counting on that discomfort.)

Then I lifted my horn, took a slow breath, and then played. I played from memory, so that there would be no music stand between me and the audience. I didn’t make eye contact while I was playing; I defocused my sight and looked vaguely into the house, so that the audience could make eye contact with me.

I took a lot of time with my phrasing, inserting pauses far longer than a normal luftpause, and I let the music breathe as slowly and methodically as I could. At the end, I deliberately took one final breath before the last note, so that I could hold it for a long, long diminuendo a niente—to nothing. (A long diminuendo to nothing is difficult; when you’re tired and especially when you’re nervous on stage, your lips quiver, which can cause an unintended vibrato, and you risk losing the note altogether. It’s also hard to pace the diminuendo so that it sounds like an even decay from loudest to softest.)

After the note finished, I closed my eyes and held still. I waited for the reverberation in the hall to decay to nothing. Then I waited longer, until I could hear the audience members letting out their breath. Then I slowly lowered my head and horn, to allow a moment of reflection for the listeners and me both. Finally I let out what little was left of my own breath, relaxed, opened my eyes, inhaled, and lifted my head to the audience.

The applause, so long delayed, was a relief for us all. After a suitable interval, I smiled, bowed, and exited, again walking not quite as briskly as I normally would.


“Kaddish” by Kogan has always been exceptionally meaningful for me, and its meaningfulness has deepened and accreted layers over the decades.

At first I just loved the music. Its modal phrases meander freely, out of time. The intensity ebbs and flows, reaching several intermediate high points and an ultimate climax right in the last phrase, which drives to the highest note in the piece, holds, and then steps down a half step, then a whole step, and repeats that pitch four times, slowing down, diminuending in the last bar’s fermata to nothing.

“Kaddish” had personal meaning for me all along, also, and as I mentioned, its meaningfulness grew during the period of my preparation.

Initially, I was drawn to “Kaddish” because I was in love with a woman who I knew—although she didn’t yet—would become a rabbi. Debora was the first great love of my life, and part of our falling in love was sharing our fascinations with each other. For her, that was Judaica and all things Hebrew. As someone who was raised Lutheran but had always been agnostic, who was frustrated by the heavy Christian emphasis in St Olaf’s religion curriculum, who had a particular distaste for Christian dogma about faith and salvation, I was fascinated by what I learned from her. I found much to love in her perspective on Jewish practice, and on Judaism’s emphasis on ritual and practice over theology, faith, belief in the resurrection, salvation, and all those other problematic greatest hits of Christianity.

Naturally one of my big fascinations was and is music, and learning a little psalmody from this woman of beautiful voice who had learned at a young age to be a cantor from her father and her grandfathers, who had long since memorized their melodies, was intoxicating. So “Kaddish” was and is always, for me, in part a love song.

It has also been, for me, a crying out for meaning that I had never quite found in my own religious tradition. I described myself in those days as “a lapsed Lutheran secular humanist agnostic Jew-wannabe.”

I couldn’t deny my Lutheranism any more than I could deny my tall, Norwegian-German, blue-eyed, blonde-haired appearance. I had always been a part of a Lutheran community, with its endless coffees, tuna noodle casseroles, Jell-O salads, sermons, and music—oh, the music! Jews may have great psalmody, modal goodness passed down through the millenia, but Lutherans have J.S. Bach, and Beethoven, and organists, and four-part hymn-singing. (I recently mentioned to a church-organist friend that I mostly don’t believe in the church, but I believe fervently in the church music. He said he felt much the same way.)

Yet for all I might be Lutheran, I never quite believed in G-d or the Jesus mythology. I was in high school when it occurred to me that it was perhaps unusual that I’d begun doubting G-d and Jesus years before I got around to doubting Santa Claus. With my own inability to believe going way back to toddlerhood, I’ve always thought that the essential Christian doctrine of salvation by faith—that we will either go to heaven or hell based solely upon our ability to believe something inherently unbelievable—made no sense. I’ve always thought that any god worth believing in would know better than that. The Christian G-d struck me as a petty god playing foolish games.

Raised Lutheran, I was taught that I was called to a life of purpose and meaning, so I sought purpose and meaning in what was left of Lutheran thinking after you take out the bits about G-d, faith, and mythology—basically secular humanism.

I was still Lutheran enough to be hung up on theology, because all the big names in Christian thought are theologians. It’s what Lutherans do. So even after dismissing the Christian G-d, I had to figure out some other G-d I could either believe in or at least disprove. It seemed to me it was a definitional problem. The Christian G-d I’d learned about in Sunday School wasn’t worth believing in. But what about the G-d of “Jewish theology”?

I put “Jewish theology” in quotation marks because it is practically a contradiction in terms. Judaism isn’t theological; it’s not about belief in god concepts. It’s an orthopraxis; it’s an historical set of practices, rituals, traditions; and it’s potentially a rigorously intellectual exercise in struggling with sources to determine proper behavior in everything from an overarching ethical framework of human morality to the prosaic habits of daily life.

So, as such, Judaism doesn’t waste a lot of time defining G-d. The purest expression of Jewish theology opens the Sh’ma: “G-d is one.”

One? One?!

I was also a math major, and in several mathematical logic classes, we’d spent a great many weeks trying to define one-ness. Let me just say that the more you contemplate one-ness, the more uneasy you will be about thinking you can do that; define “one.” One is at once the smallest number and a huge number. An infinitude of smaller numbers (points) fills one, fills the interval between zero and one. An infinitude of numbers from 1 to huge is a meta-infinitude of one-sized infinitudes. I love it that mathematicians refer to these two different infinitudes by a Hebrew letter—”aleph nought” or ℵ0 represents the infinity between 0 and 1, “aleph one” or ℵ1 represents the infinity from minus infinity to plus infinity.

So saying “G-d is one” is also saying G-d is infinite, G-d is everything. G-d is infinitely-dimensionally, infinitely-hugely, infinitely-everythingish.

I can’t deny everything, so if that’s what G-d is, then I guess that’s something I can believe in—something I have to believe in.

Meanwhile, the idea that we should live our lives dwelling on matters of impossible faith is unsatisfying compared to a life of thoughtful practice, and the reverence I had seen in Deb’s perspective on thoughtful practice was deeply appealing.

So there you go—I’d become a lapsed Lutheran secular humanist agnostic Jew-wannabe.

Only it turns out that the last hyphenated appendage, -wannabe, might not be necessary. It turns out that both my mom and I have long suspected that the same ancestor—her mom’s mom—was, in fact, Jewish. If we’re right, which we’ll never know, then we’d both technically be Jewish ourselves, which would make me just a lapsed Lutheran secular humanist agnostic Jew.

While I refused to play religious tourist and declare myself Jewish, “Kaddish” became for me an act of observance, a way of practicing something meaningful that wasn’t fraught with spiritual contradiction.

“Kaddish” also became for me, a few weeks before my recital, a connection with my beloved teacher, Boris Rybka. In my lesson that day, I rehearsed the piece with the stagecraft I’ve described above. After the long pause at the end, when I’d resumed breathing and was awaiting his comments, I saw that he was wiping away tears. When he finally began to speak, his voice caught, and slowly he told of how a rift had developed in the family of someone important to him.

She had married a professional singer, and because he wasn’t Jewish, her family refused to have anything to do with him. They stopped just short of declaring her dead. Years passed. A close relative—I think it must have been her brother—died. She and her unacknowledged husband attended the memorial service. When it was time to say Kaddish, her gentile husband walked up to the bima and sang Kaddish. Boris was also in the shul, and he said it was one of the most beautiful things he had ever heard. Tears overwhelmed the entire family. Her parents rose, walked to the bima, and finally accepted him into the family, embracing him, shaking with emotion, wailing their apologies—expressing their love, their new loss, their long loss—begging his forgiveness.

Boris explained to me that I had brought that moment of great emotion back to him, reconnected him with a part of his past that had mattered but faded with time. He thanked me. And as I tried to regain my own composure, he began to make some small suggestions about the music.

And “Kaddish” became a mourner’s prayer for me in the days before my recital.

Deb had lived in an off-campus house at Carleton College, across the river from St Olaf, and a close friend of hers and many of the people in Farm House had just committed suicide.

I didn’t know Judy well. I had met her, briefly, months earlier. But I remembered her, unlike many others I’d met that night, because there was something about her—something in her shy smile, her coiled energy, her shadow of sadness. I couldn’t have known how much sadness filled her life, but in the days that followed her death, I learned all about it from her many grief-stricken friends.

Judy was a phenomenal athlete. She had played professional soccer on a team in Germany, where soccer is a big deal. Judy was bipolar. The treatments available at the time were somewhat effective, in that they lifted her from the depths of despair, but they were unbearable to her, because they drained her of all her energy. This incredible athlete when deprived of her energy felt like an empty shell and when deprived of her medication felt she couldn’t go on. She finally took what she concluded was the only choice, to accept neither option. She killed herself, and none of her friends even at the worst of their grief could argue with her decision. Her great sadness filled the house, it filled her friends, and it filled me.

Three days later, I played “Kaddish” on my recital. Many of those friends were in attendance. As I played, I said Kaddish for Judy. I said Kaddish for her mourners. I said Kaddish for Boris. I sang a love song for Deb. And I sang a prayer of yearning for meaning.


A year later, I opened my master’s recital at Northwestern University with “Kaddish,” and I closed the recital with another prayer by Lev Kogan, “Tfila.” I wished I’d realized a year earlier that my program needed both bookends.

The recital was a Yahrtzeit of sorts. In the year that had passed, I had matured a great deal as a musician. I had also let go of my love affair with Deb. We were still close—and still in touch today—but I grieved for what she had been for me but was no longer. I was in the early throes of a new relationship I should never have begun. I had a difficult relationship with my new horn teacher, and I grieved for the closeness and trust I’d felt with Boris.

The “Kaddish” I played that spring, just after Pesach, was a different Kaddish. It was the final letting go after a year without. I had more emotional control, and I had more musical control. I was no longer telling the story of my grief but telling the story of that story—the rehearsed words, phrases, dramatic arc that you repeat when you no longer can or need to place yourself back in the reality of the pain with each telling. Kaddish had for me all the emotional content, but those emotions were at an arm’s length. My connection with the place, the makom, of the recital, was weaker. My ability to connect with my audience was weaker. My audience’s attention to the sanctity of the piece was scant.

Musically it was a stronger performance.

“Kaddish” has stayed in my repertoire, and I suppose it has aged in me.

A few years ago, I had the privilege for the first time of playing “Kaddish” for a friend and her mourners at a memorial gathering. Anna Livia had died suddenly, mysteriously, young, healthy. An autopsy and long police investigation led eventually to an inconclusive finding of natural death. Her family and friends were in shock. Anna Livia wasn’t Jewish, but her ex, their children, and many of her mourners were. And many of the mourners were not, so before I began to play, I offered an explanation of Kaddish and its place in Jewish bereavement.

As I spoke, I saw tears forming in people’s eyes, I saw faces flattening, I saw postures drooping, and I became a bit undone myself as I struggled to state simply, calmly, my thoughts about Kaddish.

I told them that Kaddish is a generic prayer that doesn’t say one damned thing that might comfort someone’s terrible loss.

So why is it the mourner’s prayer?

I offered my observation that death never makes sense and is rarely bearable, yet we must go on. And so the rituals of bereavement prescribe a way of doing that, in practical terms. You go on living, so days go on ticking by, and you mark those days by doing regular things. You also do special things, to mark the loss, like saying Kaddish in minyan regularly. This means that you haul your weary self to a place where you can find a minyan; you get out of bed, you get out of the house, you move, you speak, you are with your people.

Together, regularly, you repeat a prayer that doesn’t say one damned thing that might comfort your loss, but you keep doing it. Doing it takes time. You keep doing it over time. You repeat rituals and time passes. As time passes, your pain begins to fade, and the repetition of words that don’t say one damned thing that might comfort your loss become a comfort. And as your pain begins to fade, you yet mark your loss by repeating these words, these particular words that you repeat among a minyan in a place outside the place where your pain lives most vividly, that don’t say one damned thing to comfort your loss.

And the words comfort your loss.

I also spoke about how these words that don’t say one damned thing to comfort your terrible loss change over time. At first the words are filled with your terrible loss, and the words express the grief that rends your heart even as you rend your garment. Gradually the grief drains out of these repeated words, and you just repeat the words because you do. You tell the story of the story of grief. When the Yahrtzeit arrives you have repeated the words through the entire range of emotions, you have infused them with hundreds of engaged and preoccupied thoughts and all kinds of thoughts in between. The words that once meant nothing now mean everything, because they are infused with the memories of your entire process of healing.

At first we wail the Kaddish in despair. Eventually we mumble it dutifully. And during that year, and over our years, we come to say Kaddish in all the different ways of our beings.

And so I played “Kaddish” once more, another new way. This time for the first time, seeing pain in the faces and feeling my own, I had to struggle to calm my breathing. I struggled to quiet the quivering in my lips. I struggled to keep my knees from crumbling under me. I struggled to read the music—no longer secure in memory, especially under stress—as my contact lenses blurred with tears. For the first time, my phrasing was uneven. Certain releases were jagged. I didn’t play with the same musical control.

Many of the people in that room had kept their composure all afternoon and finally released it during the Kaddish. I had to hold my pause after the last note much longer than I ever had before, so that they could compose themselves—so that I could compose myself.

Musically this Kaddish was not as strong as other performances, but playing it felt more important. Useful.


In June the second great love of my life fell to ovarian cancer. Nanc was Jewish, and our falling in love included epic discussions of thorny bits of Jewish thought. She left behind a husband and daughter.

In October, a high school buddy several years my junior, Richard, fell to intestinal cancer. He left behind a wife and twins.

In October, my wife’s therapist and as Victoria puts it, “the Jewish mother we all wish we had,” a lung cancer survivor, learned that she had multiple inoperable brain tumors. She went into hospice care the next day, and the end will be soon.

So far I can’t say Kaddish, because the words don’t say one damned thing to comfort my loss. I can’t play “Kaddish” because the notes don’t say one damned thing to comfort my loss.

Yet I must.