Books on Mourning

By Ellen Jaffe Gill


Reviews of Kaddish by Leon Wieseltier (Alfred A. Knopf, 608 pp., $27.50) and Saying Kaddish: How to Comfort the Dying, Bury the Dead, and Mourn as a Jew by Anita Diamant (Schocken Books, 288 pp., $23.00).

The mourner’s Kaddish (prayer) is one of the few threads connecting all Jews. Where they live, what tradition they come from, or the extent of their religious practice is irrelevant when it comes to saying Kaddish. The prayer is featured at the end of almost every Jewish worship service; even a completely nonobservant Jew will come across it at a Bar Mitzvah or, of course, a funeral. But to many, if not most, Jews, the Kaddish is a collection of syllables, familiar and even comforting in its cadences and repetitions, but not something the average Jew thinks about in terms of meaning–until, perhaps, it becomes personal.

Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic, and Anita Diamant, author of a number of books on Jewish lifecycle milestones and a columnist for, have written very different books centered on the Kaddish and on examining the process of Jewish mourning. While Wieseltier’s is a dense work of scholarship (in its depth, if not its presentation) and Diamant’s is a practical handbook for Jews experiencing the loss of people they love, each book is compelling enough to be appreciated by readers who are not engaged in mourning.

When Mr. Wieseltier’s father died in 1996, he took upon himself the obligation of an observant Jew to say Kaddish for a parent three times a day in a minyan (prayer quorum of ten adult Jews) during the year after the parent’s death. Although Mr. Wieseltier had walked away from the Orthodoxy of his youth–and any other kind of worship–he was ambivalent at best about God’s existence. He spent much of the year following his father’s death in Orthodox shuls (synagogues), often leading the service. To try to make sense of his father’s death and his own compulsion to carry out the mandate of a tradition he had rejected more than twenty years earlier, Mr. Wieseltier read everything he could about the Kaddish and Jewish mourning practices. “I don’t know what to do,” he writes of his thoughts just after his father’s funeral. “No, I know what to do. I will open a book.”

The reader reaps the fruit of Mr. Wieseltier’s year-long study: an exhaustive (and often exhausting) examination of the texts produced by rabbis on Jewish mourning practices since the Talmudic period. (You will never again wonder how funeral customs among Jews in medieval Worms differed from those in medieval Mainz.) But for anyone who has ever thought, even in passing, while reciting the Kaddish, “What is this I’m saying, and why?” Mr. Wieseltier’s detailed ruminations can be seductive. It wasn’t enough for him to find out when the mourner’s Kaddish came into use or to discover the story of Rabbi Akiva that provided the basis for the Jewish idea of the redemption of the dead through prayer by the living. He wanted to know it all, and he makes the reader a willing study partner.

As he peruses text after text, Mr. Wieseltier covers most of the important questions about Jewish mourning, questions as profound as “What happens to a dead person’s soul?” and as mundane as “What do mourners eat?” Why is community necessary for the recitation of Kaddish? Who is old enough to say Kaddish? May a convert say Kaddish for a non-Jewish parent? May a Jew say Kaddish for an apostate parent? Can a parent command a child not to say Kaddish for him or her? Can you say Kaddish if you don’t believe in God? How much mourning is too much? And–a question Mr. Wieseltier tackles in many ways and from all sides–who benefits more from the saying of Kaddish, the living or the dead?

Ms. Diamant covers most of the same questions in her book. She writes from the perspective of liberal Judaism and consistently presents the traditional customs as well as liberal interpretations of halacha (Jewish law) that contemporary Jews observe as they deal with impending death, plan or attend funerals, sit shiva (ritual mourning period) or participate in shiva minyanim (quorum for mourning prayers). Replete with traditional and alternative readings, helpful references, and advice that covers all the bases of contemporary Jewish life, Saying Kaddish does a wonderful job of showing how Jewish ritual can help mourners heal and how friends and community members can be an important part of that healing.

Ms. Diamant employs the same warm, “touch-of-a-friend’s-hand” style she used in The New Jewish Wedding and Choosing a Jewish Life, her 1996 book about conversion to Judaism, and her warmth serves the subject matter well. She also tackles the language of the Kaddish thoroughly and accessibly, taking the reader through different interpretations and anticipating the problems Jews have with praising God at a time they are struggling with the anger and pain of loss.

Mr. Wieseltier is more about discovery than explication. He provides his own translation of the mourner’s Kaddish and uses its first words, “Magnified and sanctified,” as a sort of mantra (repeated theme) throughout the book, but he seems to be more interested in the sociology of the Kaddish than its wording. Mr. Wieseltier’s writing, which includes a certain amount of stylistic self-consciousness, keeps the reader at arm’s length emotionally; he wants you to learn with him, not to give him a hug. But that standoffishness makes Mr. Wieseltier’s insights stand out like jewels, his emotional statements, and he does make them, all the more poignant, and his episodes of connection with living people often delicious. Mr. Wieseltier’s parents survived the Holocaust, and when his sister puts his little nephew on the phone so the child can recite his first Hebrew words, then takes back the phone and asks, “What do you think?” Mr. Wieseltier replies, “I think that Hitler lost.”

Leon Wieseltier presents us with a sea of Kaddish, and Anita Diamant gives us a sturdy skiff with stout oars in which to navigate the waters, which ebb and flow with the rhythms of the Aramaic syllables. One thing is for sure–if you read either of these books, you will never again experience the Kaddish as a meaningless rote recitation.


About Ellen Jaffe Gill

Ellen Jaffe Gill is author of Embracing the Stranger: Intermarriage and the Future of the American Jewish Community (BasicBooks) and editor of The Jewish Woman's Book of Wisdom (Citadel Press)