The day after he celebrated his 50th birthday, Ari Goldman got a call from Israel announcing his father’s death. Goldman could not attend the funeral but he tore his shirt and began the Jewish bereavement process. He sat shiva for his father for only one day, since Sukkot started the following day but decided to undertake the mourning ritual of saying kaddish for his father (as required by Jewish law). He also proceeded to write the story of his year of kaddish in Living a Year of Kaddish: A Memoir.
In traditional Judaism, as part of the Jewish mourning ritual, the sons (and some argue the children) of the deceased are expected to say kaddish (a prayer praising God) every day during the morning, afternoon, and evening prayer services for 11 months, with a minyan (a group of 10 men in Orthodox Judaism).
Ari L. Goldman is a professor of journalism at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, a former New York Times journalist and the author of three books, including The Search for God at Harvard.
The book is broken into sections for each season of Goldman’s kaddish. He writes about his family, his beliefs and his thoughts about death and about being survived by his own children.
‘For me, kaddish, was as much of a chain as it was a prayer. It was a chain that in some way continued to connect me to my parents, and will some day connect me to my children.’
His relationship with his father was complex. As his parents had divorced when Goldman was a young child, they had never been very close. In addition Ari’s father had moved to Israel when he was 70 years old but because his father had been a devout jew, Goldman is aware of how much he owes him.
The divorce had had a strong impact on Goldman and he was still trying to come to terms with it even as an adult.
‘I was, for the first time in forty-years, no longer the child of divorce. Being the child of divorce had significantly shaped the person I had become (…). I clung tenaciously to Orthodox Judaism, the faith of both my parents, as one would cling to an ancestral home, because, with divorce, there is no ancestral home.’
Goldman had lost his mother four years before, and during his year of saying kaddish for his father, he compares and contrasts the grieving process for each of them; he also looks at how his mourning affects his role as a father, a brother and a husband.
Living a Year of Kaddish: A Memoir is not just about mourning a deceased father, it is about being the member of a religious community, about your responsibility in being part of a minyan so that your fellow Jews can fulfill this mitzvah too, about the other people you meet because they are also saying kaddish for a parent – including a Conservative woman.
‘Every one of the people I got to know in my year of kaddish has stayed with me. Each experience shaped me…each person and each experience helped mold my consciousness about life and death and prayer.’
Living a Year of Kaddish: A Memoir is a profound and touching personal narrative about mourning a parent. It is also book that strongly emphasises the relevance of this traditional Jewish ritual for today’s Jews.
‘To me, kaddish is more for the living than the dead.’