L'chaim -- To Life
Shelly Levinthal's Adult Bat Mitzvah Talk • June 25, 2017
I’ve always wanted to learn more about Judaism, and since recently retiring it felt like the perfect time to do so.
Discovering and learning the Torah and prayers has been a joyous adventure. Much appreciation to Rabbi Bridget Wynne and my Bar and Bat Mitzvah comrades Alison, David, Linda, Morgan, Rebecca, and Steven.
Thank you to my partner Barry, my close friends Arlene, Doni, Joe, and Janet, and Rabbi Bridget and my Bar and Bat Mitzvah comrades for all their support.
I'm going to talk today about the Kaddish, the prayer we say in memory of those who have died. First I want to tell you a bit about how I got here. I grew up in Mineola, Long Island, New York. My parents were smart, but didn't have much money. My dad was a meat salesman for American Kosher Meats, which meant he not only sold the meat but also delivered it ... yep, a hardworking, blue-collar man. My mom stayed home with my older sister and me.
My parents were both first generation Americans, whose parents had immigrated from Lithuania and Russia. They knew the importance of education, and they bought a small home in one of the best school districts, which was about 50% Jewish.
Our family was close knit. One of my fondest memories is of my Aunt Bob, who was Catholic. She was going to become a nun, but at age 17 she met my uncle and they married. Because of her, we celebrated non-Jewish holidays as well; at times my dad dressed up as Santa Claus. I feel blessed that I grew up appreciating all religions.
We were High Holiday Jews, going to temple for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. In high school I was involved with the B'nai B'rith Girls, which was more social than religious. Then I went to college in the Midwest, where for some people I met I was their first Jewish friend. They would tell me the image they'd had of Jews ... wealthy, greedy, standoffish. I'd never experienced prejudice before. I realized that I was representing Jewish people to them.
After completing graduate school I moved to Oakland. It's great here, though at times I miss the Borscht Belt of New York.
For years I continued as a High Holiday Jew, but I always wanted to learn more about my religion, and when I retired that's what I decided to do. I heard at Jewish Gateways High Holiday services that they were offering a Bar and Bat Mitzvah class. It was perfect timing, and here I am.
One reason I chose to talk about the Kaddish today is in honor of my 98-year-old Aunt Bob, who passed away on May 2nd. Until the last month of her life she was vibrant and energetic, with an amazing memory and a personality that filled the room with laughter and happiness. For the past year we talked daily and those conversations filled my heart with joy.
For me, that joy fits with the Kaddish, even though it is a prayer in memory of those who have died.
The word "Kaddish" means "holy." This prayer focuses on God and what I see as a recipe for life. It does not mention death, but talks of peace, good life, redemption, relief, and salvation. For me, all of these qualities connect to appreciation.
The words of the Kaddish insist that the mourner turn from death and choose life. So begins the second reason why I chose to talk about the Kaddish today.
When I was 11, my grandfather, who lived in California, was dying. My father and his two brothers, who lived in New York, flew to see him. They never made it. Soon after the plane took off it crashed, killing all aboard. The next day my grandfather died.
For the following 11 months my Mom took my sister and me to services every Friday night. I showed up because I had to, and when the time came for the Kaddish I read the English version to myself, always remembering my dad.
The theme of the Kaddish is the magnification and sanctification of God's name. It is almost 2,000 years old and was not originally a prayer said after the death of a loved one. Jews may have chosen to use it this way because, when a loved one dies, one may question the existence of God and the purpose of life. When someone older dies, one may think, “Ah, they led such a good life.” However, what about a newborn, or your 9-year-old son or daughter?
The Kaddish affirms life and one's commitment to God. It is said at the end of our prayers on the Sabbath and High Holidays.
After the death of a loved one, more observant Jews may go to the synagogue to say Kaddish three times a day for 11 months. Others may go once a week on the Sabbath, others may never say it. I do not judge how one reacts to a death. This part of our journey is personal, and I honor those who do whatever they need as long as they do not hurt themselves or others.
Through the years I have found the Kaddish meaningful. I went from reciting it because I had to for my dad and uncles, to today, when I feel that, though the Kaddish is said for someone who has died, it is a prayer of affirmation of life and peace. Perhaps this reflects the fortitude of the Jewish people … our spiritual self mirrors how we have survived difficult, life-threatening times.
The last sentence of the Kaddish focuses on us all as it says, “May there be abundant peace from Heaven, and life, upon us and upon all of the people Israel and all who dwell on earth, and say, Amen.”
The Kaddish and the Jewish tradition is not to mourn death, but to celebrate life. So to each of you I say l’chaim … to life.