Episode 0: The Words We Say and the Words We Mean

Each episode will be transcribed, published in the week following the audio being published, in hopes of increasing accessibility to the program.Deep gratitude to Kaddish transcriber, Jei-Jei Tan. Audio of the podcast available here.

I’m Ariana Katz and this is Kaddish.

Kaddish is a podcast about death, mourning, and who we are while we do it. In this episode we’ll be exploring the prayer, the Mourner’s Kaddish, what it says and what it really means.

I’m studying to be a rabbi at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia. I care a lot about how we talk about death and dying; I care about our stories. I think good ritual is transformative and we all have the capacity to create and enact ritual ourselves. I’m excited to create this thing and get to know you over the next year. It’s really humbling to talk into a microphone and hope that people are going to be listening to it on the other end. I’m so deeply grateful for all of you all who are tuning in for this first show. I was recently taking with a friend and they asked what kinds of podcasts I like to listen to because my brain has been so in this so intensely for the first couple weeks, and I found my answers being happy podcasts, funny ones, stand-up comedy, light storytelling, conversational, and I realized I’m not making a happy podcast. I find myself being drawn to the two ends of the spectrum. There’s a lot of ways we experience life and they’re not all happy there’s a lot of ways we experience death and they’re not all sad. The bouncing between the two is actually what makes life meaningful and that at the core of it is why Jewish perspectives on death and dying are so important to me.

This podcast came out of a need to increase the volume around death and dying, and in the past two weeks the United States has once again started paying attention to the systematic murder and violence against black people in this country. The names of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile are added to the growing list even of murders of the past two weeks, and the Black Lives Matter movement compels us to say her name and say their name. This is a show about death and mourning and the way it changes us, the living. We must say that black lives matter today and every day. We can’t start a season of this show without it.

There is no clear a kaddish that marching in the streets and seeing public mourning. Within the Kaddish, there are lines of response from the community. Public mourning demands response. This Kaddish is a call to action. There’s not much more I can say that hasn’t already been beautifully beautifully said, so today as we’re listening to the music of the Kaddish and thinking about the melody and how the melody communicates much more than the words can ever say, we’ll listen to some recordings from chants and other kinds of liturgy from a rally in Boston last week.


shut it down

black lives matter

[end chanting]

So for those of you all listening that don’t have a background praying in Jewish spaces or thinking about liturgy, I hope that there’ll be something in this for you to think about – the difference between the words we say and the words we mean, especially around grief.

Every episode following this will involve a lot more personal storytelling, so this one’s heavy on the Jewish text and I hope you’ll enjoy it, take something from it, and chime in.

The Mourner’s Kaddish is a prayer written in Arabic. It is recited by those in a period of mourning or observing the anniversary of someone’s death. In some communities, everyone in the congregation will rise to say it and in others just those observing a period of morning will rise. Kaddish requires 10 Jewish adults to be present for its recitation, which means you need community for this. It is sometimes confused with Kiddush, the blessing over the wine for Shabbat. Most famously for this is Jenny Schecter in season 2 of The L Word, when she’s dealing with her family history and trauma from the Holocaust and piecing together her identity now. She’s looking over pictures of her deceased relatives and meaningfully, slowly, whispers the blessing over the wine. Whoops.

Anyway, it’s said that Kaddish actually raises the soul of the departed just a little bit in heaven every time it is recited. I chose Kaddish as the title of this show because of how evocative it is of Jewish mourning.  In Yiddish, the first-born son sometimes has been called the kaddishal, that is, the one who can be responsible for saying Kaddish for their parents. It is a word that is ubiquitous with mourning and in this season I want to explore all the other words that can be a kind of a Kaddish.

In a little bit we’ll hear from poet Eliott batTzedek in the second part of the show, and she talks about the contemporary English Kaddish she wrote that follows the music of the recitation of the sounds that communicates something completely different in its meaning.

If a Kaddish is a communal recitation of a litany of our dead, Kaddish the show is a communal naming of that which makes up our lives. There are many ways to speak a mourner’s prayer.

The oldest version of the Kaddish is found in the Siddur of Rav Amran Gaon around 900 CE. Shira Schoenberg wrote that the first mention of the mourners saying the Kaddish at the end of a service is cited around the 13th century. This is around the time that the myth that we’ll hear today of an origin of this Kaddish prayer was written, around the 12th century. This story is about the great Rabbi Akiva. It appears in texts like machsurvitri, sephahedaro,midrash en ruth ha ne elam, but you can really just place it in medieval Europe. Rabbi Akiva was rabbi between the 1st and 2nd centuries but this is a story written much later and gives us potential insight into the power of the Kaddish prayer.

Rabbi Akiva is told to have not come to Torah study until he was the age of 40, and the story goes like this. Once Rabbi Akiva was walking past the cemetery – normal, you know, just cemetery things – when he saw a figure from afar that looked like a horse. When he got closer to it what he saw was a man, naked, wearing a crown of thorns, and was as black as coal. Rabbi Akiva asked another man standing there who was chopping wood, “Why are you doing all this difficult work?” And that man corrected Rabbi Akiva’s thinking, and he said, “That man, that running man, is dead, and every day I am sent out to chop trees.”

So let’s stop this story for a second. This is absurd. We have a running animated dead person running around a cemetery who looks charred, wearing a crown of thorns. We have the great Rabbi Akiva traipsing through cemeteries and we have this worker who is chopping trees that apparently has something to do with why our naked running dead person is looking charred.

So the story continues and Rabbi Akiva approaches the dead man and says, “What was your job in the world that you lived in?” – which is clearly a normal question – and the man said, “I was a tax collector and in my work I would favour the rich and I would kill the poor.” So already we’re predisposed to not like this guy so much. So Rabbi Akiva says, “Haven’t you heard anything from those appointed to punish you about how you might be relieved from your punishment?” Our worker the tree chopper says, “There’s no relief for that man, but I did hear from those appointed over me, one impossible thing: if only this poor man has a son who could stand in front of a congregation and could speak and have them answer yehe sheme rabah mevorakh – may his great name be blessed – and that man would be immediately released from his punishments.” That magic formula we find in the text of the Mourner’s Kaddish, so perhaps this text is the mythical origins of the part of the Mourner’s Kaddish around which the rest of the prayer is built, or perhaps it’s telling us these are the magic words that can release our character.

So we know our tortured dead man can only be released from his punishments if he were to have someone say the text that is now our Mourner’s Kaddish for him, but we know he’s not such a savoury dude, so Rabbi Akiva is on the case, and he sees that this man is worthy of redemption too, even in his mistreatment of the poor and his favouring of the rich. So we find in some manuscripts, Rabbi Akiva goes to the town where this man is from and he asks after him and he says, “Do you know of this man? Does he have a family?” And the people in the town, they spit on the floor, and he finds this man’s wife and she spits on the floor. But in all manuscripts of this story, Rabbi Akiva, in his desperation to help this man whom many of us would see as arguably worthy of punishment, he finds this man’s son. And this son was not taught Torah and the text itself says he wasn’t even circumcised, which means that the father, this dead man, did not do the work for this son to bring him into community, to teach him Torah. The obligations of the father to the son weren’t met, so this son has no capacity to read these words, let alone know what they mean, let alone see worth in saying it, so Rabbi Akiva sits the son down and says, “These words, they will redeem your father.” And Rabbi Akiva fasts and prays and fasts and prays, and then comes a bath kol, a heavenly voice, an emissary from heaven, and she says, “For this you are fasting?”

Our story ends there. We don’t know what the son ends up doing, but we do know it is for this reason tat we say the Kaddish. So what is it that Rabbi Akiva was doing in the 40 days between asking the son to say Kaddish to redeem his father and the moment the bath kol comes down with her incredulous question? Maybe they are doing some deep psychological work, healing hurts from the son’s relationship with his father and processing what it might mean to say Kaddish for his father. This story without a doubt shows the power that we put into the Kaddish prayer. That the words yehe sheme rabah mevorakh are truly an incantation that can redeem the unredeemable. It also positions Rabbi Akiva as a visionary who sees even those who behaved poorly in life worthy of forgiveness.

The crown of thorns that our suffering character wears is grappling with a Christian narrative of suffering. Maybe it’s one of the Rabbi’s favourite moves to subtly take knocks at Christendom, or maybe it’s the cultural way to show what suffering looks like – to use a commonly known image of what suffering is to communication to communicated truly how this person felt. I find myself really struggling with the charred part of his description, that he is black like coal and the person in the cemetery is arguably here to torture him and his job is to cut the wood to do the burning. I see a lot of processing of the trauma of death by immolation and the guilt or the responsibility being worked at in this text. I also love that Rabbi Akiva isn’t frightened by seeing a burnt-to-a-crisp, animated dead body galloping through a cemetery and he treats that person with compassion. Kaddish is an act of kindness and an act of responsibility that you can’t be repaid for.

This son’s lack of knowledge of the prayer or of Jewish custom or of the potential meaning for it, what the text would like to position as an ignorance, highlights how alienating a desire to do mourning correctly, especially within highly structured mourning rituals and Judaism – how to do that mourning correctly when you don’t have all the tools you need, and now he didn’t even understand necessarily the importance of it, and how if we find ourselves at a moment where we don’t know how to do it right but desperately know the magic works could make it so – how alienating that is.

So it’s with this story of the unredeemable, always having a place of redemption, of suffering not being something that’s mandatory, of being able to learn and create new words, that we kick off this season of Kaddish.

If you like what you're hearing here, subscribe on iTunes and on SoundCloud. Coming up this season, we’ll be discussing advanced directive, reproductive loss, mourning our chosen family, and a lot more. Make sure to like Kaddish on Facebook and on Twitter at @kaddishpodcast. The next episode is coming out in August.

[Recitation of the Kaddish in Aramaic]

So what’s actually happening when we say the Kaddish? We know there’s a magic formula that can bring greater redemption but what are we saying?

If we don’t mean the words we say when we pray, why are we possibly doing it? Look up all times we do not mean the words we say.

That’s Eliott batTzedek. She’s a poet, liturgist, activist, and teacher in Philadelphia. I first met Eliott at Fringes.

We’ve been in this non-Zionist havurah that I co-led for nine years now.

She has an MFA in poetry from Drew.

Look, I don’t have to do the whole 7 years of rabbinical school thing. I could just go study with the Jewish feminist poets and so that’s what I did. And because I had co-founded Fringes, where we decided to use poetry in place of liturgy in the Shabbat morning service, it meant I was thinking hard all of the time about how does liturgy function and what makes something liturgy versus just words that we read, and thinking really hard about that and discussing that in community so that was growing alongside of my starting the MFA in poetry program, so they were very much intertwined for me.

So there’s a difference between liturgy and poetry right? The text of the Mourner’s Kaddish is far from poetic.

[English translation read]

Exalted and hallowed be God's great name
in the world which God created, according to plan.
May God's majesty be revealed in the days of our lifetime
and the life of all Israel – speedily, imminently, to which we say Amen.

[End of translation]

So what’s the difference? What moves something from a beautiful piece of writing into liturgy? And what is it about liturgy that makes it feel like something works?

One, it happens within a thing called liturgical field, which is all of the things that happen around the words. So it’s never just the words, it’s also the music and is your body sitting or standing or in motion? Are there intonations that you use? Does it happen in a certain sequence? Like all the things that happen around the words in part determine whether or not they feel like liturgy. They need to be performative language because you’re perfuming them, right, so it’s not just interior personal prayer. It’s actually something that ‘s being performed, it’s like all of the things that happen around the words in part determine whether or not they feel like liturgy.

Philosopher J L Austin describes liturgy as a performative utterance. The difference between saying “oh God you are so holy” and “holy holy holy” – declaring God’s holiness over and over, arching our feet and our backs to mimic angels declaring God’s holiness. Kaddish would be something that is clear and accessible but it also can’t – well it can be too obvious but then it’s not very good liturgy. So it needs to have enough mystery and depth that if leaves you kind of brining afterwards, like it’s raised questions and it’s raised emotional state, but it hasn’t had just thrown answers at you. Liturgy can throw answers at you but again that’s not very good liturgy. So it needs to happen in a setting of higher meaning, whether that’s a religious service or a public ritual like a public grieving, and it has to be words that you’ve chosen because when they’re spoken aloud you intend for something to happen.

Rachel Adler is a professor of modern Jewish thought and Judaism and gender at Hebrew Union College in LA. She was one of the first theologians to integrate feminist perspectives and concerns into Jewish text and the renewal of Jewish law and ethics. She is a big deal.

Engendering Judaism has a chapter on recreating liturgy. That’s who Eliott was quoting at the beginning of the show when she said, “If we don’t mean the words we say when we pray, why are we possibly doing it?”

I don’t even know how many times I’ve read it. It’s brilliant, and I really learned from her early on that the problem when people try to change liturgy is they pay no attention to the liturgical field. They just find something where the words seem right and they do it and everybody reads it together and it doesn’t feel like prayer because it isn’t in the rhythm or the style of what you’ve been used to doing. It usually isn’t chosen to be performative so when you read it it’s flat. When everyone reads it together, it becomes slower and lower until it feels like a death march, and then everyone says, “Well, that didn’t feel like prayer. We can’t ever use liturgy. It doesn’t work.”

Adler writes, "we are experienced at making words of analysis and words of persuasion but we are novices at shaping words filled with religious power. There are no recipes, no formals, no blueprints for such words. They cannot be manufactured. They can only be grown, and the soil in which they are grown is communal prayer." So what do you have to do to take new language and make it liturgical?

Treat it as liturgy, which means it’s got to have emotional resonance, it has to fit in the existing feel somehow, whether you use the same rhythm or the same words, so that the performative aspect of it.

So how does this apply to the Aramaic Kaddish? As Rachel Adler said, "if we don’t even mean the words we are saying, why do we even bother saying it?"

And the words about the Aramaic culture are all about the glorification of God. How does it communicate something completely different? You heard earlier the recording of the Aramaic Kaddish that I had folks call into this show and record and what was really chilling about it to me, but not at all surprising, is that there’s a cadence that we all fell into. There’s a music in these words and that really proves the story of Rabbi Akiva true that they truly are an incantation. To say the Kaddish prayer in most communities, those saying the prayer will stand, while everyone else around them sits. There’s a slowness to the recitation because not everyone is familiar with the words. There’s a music that evolves from them.

[Aramaic of the Kaddish read by multiple voices, layering over each other]

Within the liturgical field the actual words are the least important part of the prayer. It does one which all liturgy does, which is it connects you to generations past while at the same time putting you into the future somehow. One of the functions of liturgy is to create that timeline outside yourself. And the Mourner’s Kaddish, it really is about the connection to the past so it’s not only, are you saying the Mourner’s Kaddish if you’re saying it for someone you love whose died but you also have that sense going of your ancestors have said this when their ancestors died so that sense of the rhythm of those words carries such a deep connection of ‘life goes on even in the face of death’.

It’s also, I mean traditionally you have to have 10 people, people come to synagogues to say it so the community of it is incredibly important, the echoes of it where some people say the – I mean every community does it a little differently but if the people who are mourning say part of it and the whole community answers back or even if you have a little pause where the community can say back – the auditory sense of it, of how many voices and how loud, that’s all the meaning. So you’re alone alone but in community. You’re in mourning but you’re also thinking about all these generations back and how life continues. It’s an astounding prayer, it’s like [unclear] (25:10) – why do we do it? Because the community does it and when we do it all together it shakes up something deep in us and that’s why we do it. That’s why we do it. Even if you don’t know any of the words and you just follow along some of the sounds because you know them that sill has a deep profound meaning for you. It’s an amazing thing and one of the things we knew we would not change was the Mourner’s Kaddish.

Okay so Eliott is referring to Fringes, her havorah. They’ve been using the Kaddish she wrote in addition to the Aramaic Kaddish. What began as a translation project for Eliott during her MFA turned into a piece of new liturgy in which she uses the music of the Mourner’s Kaddish translated through English word sounds and tells something much different – a radical departure from the meaning of the words and rather a direct translation from a liturgical field of the original into English.

[Eliot reads her liturgical translation]

So often am I lost,
yet through the pall, yet through the tarnish, show me the way back,
through my betrayals, my dismay, my heart’s leak, my mind’s sway,
eyes’ broken glow, groan of the soul—which convey all that isn’t real,
for every soul to These Hands careen. And let us say, Amen.

[End of reading]

I can say and yet and [unclear] words that are deeply meaningful to me, like what is it that I want to express for myself or for my community that I can put in here that will do what I think what liturgy should do, is that the new has to have the familiar in order to connect emotional. So what can I do to say something meaningful to us but keep it in the sound pattern and the rhythm of the original so this really is a partner to the original. I’m sure you could use it as a replacement for the original but I don’t because I see it as a partner statement, like somehow saying it in Aramaic –mainly because we don’t know it or most of us don’t know it – it’s almost got a magical feeling to it because we step outside of ourselves so then this is a response back to that.

[Eliot continues to read her translation]

Say you will show me the way back, my Rock, my Alarm. Lead the way,
Oh my Yah
And yet in shock and yet in shame and yet in awe and yet to roam 
and yet to stay and yet right here and yet away and yet – “Halleluyah!”
my heartbeat speaks, for You live in all this murk and too in the clear and
too in our wreckage. You are the mirror of our souls, let us say: Amen

[End of reading]

I myself have used Eliott’s Kaddish as the separation between personal and political mourning when that can be separated. So that when people in my community have a ritual obligation to say the Kaddish for someone they say the Aramaic. So often we complicate grief by saying we have to grieve multiple things at once in the same way. So we’ll do the Aramaic Kaddish for personal grief, or if you have the custom for always standing for it, then we’ll do Elliot's Kaddish for communal, national, global losses and we recite them together after naming what they are that week. I see it this says that both are holy and valid and grief-ridden and we don’t have to give up all of yourself for the other.

[Elliot continues reading]

Life may harm me, rob me, ream me raw, try me, even slay me
Over all You will prevail. And let us say: Amen

[Elliot finishes reading]

I did absolutely keep the form of the “and let us say amen” because again that’s part of the – that amen is part of the field and the meaning of it. I absolutely drew from the Philadelphia Reconstructionist tradition that I think Arthur Waskow started of saying all who are called Israel and all who are called Ishmael and everyone else so I used that because that’s the Kaddish that my commnunity says so that’s what I was working off of. 

[Elliot continues reading]
Say you shall loan me a tomorrow, Say You shall loan another day to all
who are called Yisrael and all called Yishmael
[Elliot finishes reading]

We have all of the words at our disposal and simultaneously never enough. Elliott’s Kaddish is able to put words to some of those feelings and in the 1-2 sucker punch that is the Aramaic Kaddish and in this new piece of liturgy we start to find some of these truths.


[Elliot continues reading]
and all called We and They, and let us say, Amen
[Elliot finishes reading]


This has been episode 0 of Kaddish. Thank you so much for listening. You can follow us on iTunes and on SoundCloud. Follow us on Facebook at @kaddishpodcast and on Twitter at kaddishpodcast. You can email me at kaddishpodcast@gmail.com and you can call in the voicemail of this show at 617-539-6879. I’d love to hear your reflections on this show, poetry that you’ve used as a Kaddish and hopes and dreams for upcoming episodes. And huge thank you's to everyone who helped in the study or creation of this episode. Thank you to torah.org for their translation of the story of Rabbi Akiva, to Deborah and Ben Barer and Ever Hanna for their Torah study in preparation for the episode, to Sarah Aroeste, Micah Weiss, Alex Katz, David Goodman, Mendel Katz, Jessica Rosenberg, Janine Jankovitz for being our minion of voices reading the Kaddish, for Shira Schoenberg for her history of the Kaddish, forSarah Barasch-Hagans for her Torah on chant as liturgy, for Cyd Weissman for her help in dreaming up the [unclear], to the Rope River Blues Band for their beautiful open source music, and to the Auerbach family. This project is funded by the Auerbach grant program through the RRC and the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Hartford.


I’m Ariana Katz and this is Kaddish.
Sometimes your shiva minayn is digital.

Ariana Katz