Snoozing on the Shoulders of Giants

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This post on Jewschool got me thinking. It’s a pretty common story in our days: a Jewish teenager’s grandfather died, and:

he was rushed with his family to Florida for a quick funeral and subsequent shiva period. When it was time for mincha and maariv respectfully, no one volunteered to lead because no one knew how. There was not one skilled individual who was able to recite Kaddish Yatom (Mourner’s Kaddish).

The story has a happy ending–because of his attendance at this year’s summer camp, our teen hero, “with all his courage….stood up and for the first time in his life led both the mincha and maariv services for his grandfather’s shiva.”

It’s an inspiring rite, and one that it’s easy to imagine happening through the ages:

There’s one opinion that, the further we get from the generation that received the Torah, the less we know about it. There’s another opinion that says that we’re more connected than any generation before us–because, back in the amazing commentator Rashi’s time, only Rashi knew what he knew; today, everyone knows what he did. It’s standing on the shoulders of giants in the most dramatic way.

Except that most of us are really just passed out on their shoulders. We don’t see much. Jewish summer camp costs are rising across the board, and Jewish day schools are raising tuition even as we tumble into a recession, and even Orthodox families for whom day school is the only option are questioning it. More and more, we see parents electing not to give their kids even the rudimentary Jewish education that they received. Orthodox Jews have iconified the frightening image (we’re so good at doing that sort of thing) of a parent dying, and a child not knowing how to say kaddish for them; now it’s happening. And it doesn’t have to be an Orthodox thing, just a basic thing of teaching your kid your traditions.

On the other hand, also from JTA, some happy news that blows my mind: Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary dropped by a local Jewish summer camp in the Berkshires to lay down a few tunes.

Posted on August 15, 2008

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2 thoughts on “Snoozing on the Shoulders of Giants

  1. Timbrel

    I was recently in Poland leading a trip of high schoolers through what was once, essentially, hell on earth. We visited a number of sites before stopping in the crematorium at Maidanek. There, for all the verbosity of Jewish educators, we lost our words; the only thing left to say was Kaddish. Our rabbi led it and the staff and a few kids mumbled along. Of the forty or so students, maybe two could fumble through the whole prayer provided someone else was saying it with them. But looking at the faces of the other participants, it was clear that they wanted to know, they wanted to say those words. It just had never meant anything before. I had trouble with this…is this really what it takes to connect to tradition? At the same time, it’s real, undeniable. I don’t know…

    There’s a good story on this same topic in the “Lost Tribe: Jewish Fiction from the Edge” collection. It’s called “Who Knows Kaddish” by Binnie Kirshenbaum.

  2. matthue Post author

    Thanks, Timbrel, for your memories. I feel like this whole question of where words end, and the need for a greater mode of expression begins, is what leads most of us to pre-written prayer in the first place.

    You also inspired me to track down a poem I wrote years ago at Majdanek, when I was on March of the Living, and somebody came upon a human bone that had been unearthed. (The link is below; scroll down to the poem titled “bone,” if you’re interested.)

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