Kaddish for Cousin Arnie

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30 Aug 2007

Ever since I can remember I knew that I had a cousin in Hawaii. I didn’t think much of it. It was just another bit of trivia, to be filed away in the hard drive of my mind. Then one day about three years ago, I was at my mother’s home in New York, thumbing through her back issues of magazines; Hadassah, Emunah and The New York Times. There hidden among the magazines I found a pamphlet. A dozen or so pages, computer printed on extra heavy cream colored paper with photographs attached, like a very fancy version of a child’s school report. Title ‘My trip to my father’s home in Hungary,’ by Arnie Gabel.

“Ma, wasn’t he the one from Honolulu?”

“Yes,” she said. Even at seventy eight, my mother still remembered all the relatives. I flipped through the usual travelers’ banalities and landscape photographs. And then something made me pause. It was a photo of Arnie, tall and lanky even in his sixties wearing chinos and a polo shirt, standing next to a memorial stone. On the stone twenty names were engraved. All of them Gabel.

“When I saw that I realized that it could have been me,” Arnie wrote. “So I recited the Kaddish.” What made the story even more remarkable was Arnie’s reputation. He was a highly intelligent man, a Yale educated doctor and known in the family as an unbeliever, a vociferous agnostic.

On the final page of the report Arnie added a brief family history, how his widowed grandmother moved her brood to America and how just before leaving she sold off a plot of land to settle debts and to enable a poor cousin to get married. I sensed that Arnie, was puzzled by his grandmother’s actions.

I wrote back to him telling him a little bit of my own life story; how I’d become religious, moved to Jerusalem and attempted to explain why his grandmother had done what she had done. In her vitrine my mother had a photograph of Arnie’s grandmother Bubeh Gabel. In it Bubeh is surrounded by her daughters and daughters-in-law. They are wearing slinky evening gowns and gardenias in their hair, smiling broadly. Bubeh’s facial expression is stern. She is wearing a long sleeved black dress with a lace collar, orthopedic shoe boots and a sheitel.

In my note I told Arnie that I suspected the debts may have been a legacy of Bubeh’s late husband and that knowing that debts in this world can impede one’s entry into the next Bubeh sold the land to pay them off. As to the bride, Bubeh was most likely performing the great mitzvah of hachnassat kalla, enabling a young couple to set up house. I mailed the note to Arnie in Honolulu, half certain that I’d never hear from him again.

Two months later an ecru bond envelope appeared in my mailbox, postmarked Honolulu. It was Arnie.

“Thank you so much for sharing your insights. I’m sure that you are correct… My wife and I have plans to visit Israel and we’d love to meet you then. Love to you and your family.”

I’d never actually met Arnie but I felt a warmth and kinship behind his words. I wrote back right away, this time asking questions about the family, about Bubeh and my own grandfather, who had been Bubeh’s nephew.

A few weeks later another letter appeared in the mailbox. It was Arnie, reminiscing about my grandfather whom he claimed had immigrated to the US illegally getting off the boat and swimming into New York harbor to evade immigration authorities. I’d never heard that story before. I wrote back with more questions. Every day I checked the mailbox for a response but there was none.

Then my mother told me sad news. “Arnie has lymphoma,” she said.

I added his name to my prayers and thought about sending him a get well card but one day I noticed a small blue paperback volume of Tehillim with English translation in the bookstore. That was perfect. I scribbled a note explaining that Tehillim is the book Jews turn to in times of trouble, it was a book that his Bubeh probably knew well and I mailed it off.

Several months later a letter arrived from Honolulu. . This time Arnie wrote on a prescription pad. His handwriting was shaky but still legible, “Thank you so much for that book of Psalms. I read it every day and I think it actually helps me to feel better. All my love.”

That was the last time I heard from Arnie.

On Chol Hamoed Succot my mother told me that Arnie died and that he was cremated. In Jewish law cremation is considered sinful, destructive of both body and soul. Jews are buried so that the body can return to the earth. I felt sad thinking that Arnie who seemed be such a fine person may have messed himself up with regards to the next world. Then another thought occurred to me. “What about Kaddish? Was Kaddish being said for Arnie? Maybe that could be my final gift to him. I called a rabbi. He asked another rabbi who said that Arnie could have a Kaddish and we arranged it, three times a day for the next eleven months.

Looking back on this story I cannot help but think that this was a case of mitzvah goreret mitzvah, one mitzvah giving birth to the next mitzvah. We are told that a hole the size of a pin prick can lead into a huge corridor in the spiritual world. Although we aren’t privy to the mysteries of Hashem’s ways, I can’t help but guess that that is what happened here. Arnie’s spontaneous Kaddish in Hungary for his unknown relatives, sparked perhaps by his memories of his pious Bubeh, gave birth to a Kaddish for himself said in Jerusalem, an elevation for his dear soul. May his neshama be bound up in the thread of life.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.