Book review: What the dead bring to life

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The Independent Culture
KADDISH IS the unedited journal of a mourning son. For a year after his father's death, Leon Wieseltier went to synagogue, each morning, afternoon and evening, and recited the mourner's kaddish in accordance with Jewish tradition. It is a prayer (mostly in Aramaic) which begins with the words "Magnified and sanctified may His great name be", and goes on to praise God and his creation - never mentioning death. It does, however, talk about life: "may a great peace from heaven - and life! - be upon us".

At his father's funeral, Wieseltier - not a religious Jew at this stage - found himself repeating the words he was told to say, and not understanding what he was saying. "The words were nothing but sounds. The words spilled into the pit and smashed upon my father's coffin... Finally they vanished into the earth. They were buried with him." As he is about to discover, he's in for a surprise.

Far from vanishing, the words of the kaddish occupy most of Wieseltier's time that year. He studies as many Jewish sources as he can in an attempt to grasp the nature of Jewish mourning, and to come to grips with his own. The mourner's kaddish, he learns, evolved from a prayer that marked the end of a period of Torah study. Wieseltier becomes engaged in a passionate reading of rabbinical opinions, reflections and legal decisions. The book is a chronicle of his readings, accompanied by his own comments on the wisdom of the rabbis.

As an anthologist of Jewish rabbinic literature on the subject of the kaddish, Wieseltier is knowledgeable and discerning. As a commentator on the sources he finds, he is irreverent and often profound. There is no real system behind his quest; he moves from one thinker to another, looking for threads of knowledge.

Some of the ideas he comes across are fairly abstract; for example, from Nahmanides, a great Jewish scholar from 13th-century Spain, Wieseltier learns that we may be mourning mortality rather than death - a striking thought. But he seems to be more interested in those writings that help him understand the relationship between father and son.

For there is a small, personal book hidden among the 600 pages of Wieseltier's journal. Every once in a while - not often enough - there is a brief mention of his father. It is difficult to criticise this author for not saying more about the man for whom he is saying kaddish three times a day. After all, this is a personal notebook, and perhaps Wieseltier has no need to recreate his father in its pages. Perhaps, too, his father would have been more than happy with the devotion that his son is showing to his Jewish heritage.

But for an outside reader, the absence of a portrait of the father, painted rather than merely sketched, is an unfortunate shortcoming. The complex relationships between Jewish fathers and their sons have been the subject of superbly honest books in American literature: Patrimony, Philip Roth's memoir about his father's illness and dying, and Art Spiegelman's cartoon novel Maus (subtitled "My Father Bleeds History"). Wieseltier has missed a valuable opportunity to add to these accounts of difficult, loveable Jewish fathers. When he writes, "All those years there were so many things about myself that I did not want my father to see", one wishes he had said much more.

In rabbinical discourse, stories about real people serve merely as material for abstract law-making and philosophical reflection. It could be claimed that in Kaddish, Wieseltier has done much the same with his own situation, were it not for frequent references to his personal moods. Without these, the book would have been dry but more focused; with them, it seems to exist in a genre of its own, part light scholarship, part emotional giddiness. It could have been a delightful combination, had it been edited. As it is, Kaddish is a little too full of irrelevant comments and compulsive bons mots. I liked this one: "Moses did not die like everybody else, but like everybody else, he died."

Wieseltier's achievement lies in the manner in which he ultimately manages to merge his personal grief with the results of his diligent study. Both lead him to a perception of the kaddish as an expression of continuity - in private life, and in Jewish life. One of his sources comforts him by clarifying the point that the kaddish is not exactly a prayer: "It is not a petition, it is a demonstration of cause and effect... For months and months, the child goes to shul to say - no, to show - who his or her parent was. The kaddish is not a prayer for the dead. It is an achievement of the dead."

The book ends with the unveiling of Wieseltier's father's grave in Brooklyn. In addition to his name, it bears the names of his siblings, who were murdered in the Holocaust and have no graves. This, too, is continuity.

Elena Lappin

The reviewer is the author of `Foreign Brides' (Picador) and a former editor of the `Jewish Quarterly'