The Little Old Man, the Nobel Peace Prize, and the Power of Kaddish

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Yahrtzeit Candle
15 Nov 2010

“Kaddish” is a powerful little prayer. My totally assimilated, anti-religious grandfather had no male relatives, but his non-observant son-in-law (my dad), took the obligation on when the time came and it changed our lives forever. Because of “kaddish” my father started going to shul to say it. Because of shul, he started wearing t’fillin. Because of t’fillin, my family decided to keep kosher. Because of kashrut, we (the grandchildren) ended up in a Jewish Day School. So on and so forth it progressed like the domino effect.

Which reminds me…

My mother never had any real experiences with kaddish or Jewish cemeteries until she was 28 and her dad died. That’s when she discovered the-little-old-man who knew how to speak to souls on the other side. Have you ever met the-little-old-man? I’ve been in Jewish cemeteries all over the world, but I’ve never spotted him.

According to my mother, the-little-old-man is a graveyard shamash who appears out of nowhere whenever she goes to visit her father’s plot. She pays the-little-old-man a few dollars to recite kaddish and e-l malai rachamim, because she can’t read Hebrew all that well. Then the-little-old-man asks her for all the good family news. After she tells him everything, he turns towards the grave and repeats it all verbatim in the only language that a dead person’s neshama can understand which is in Yiddish, of course! This way the neshama gets to have an aliyah (zul zein gezhunt) in shamayim and will schepp nachas from der kinderlach.

Which further reminds me…

I have a friend who once confessed that he’s under pressure from his mother because she wants him to make more of an effort. Ha! Maybe one day I’ll introduce him to my mother. My mother has never forgiven me for the Nobel Peace Prize (the one I didn’t bring home). In her mind, that was not an unrealistic expectation. In her mind, I could have and should have cured cancer for the world, instead of just capitulating. If only I had been willing to make more of an effort.

When my oldest child was born and showed a tendency towards brightness, she still believed she’d be alive to mount the Nobel on some nursing home fireplace mantle. But when my son passed on physics in order to study Arabic and pursue a career in counterintelligence, I thought she’d finally give up.

“Darling”, she used to coo, “Don’t you want to make bubie proud and bring her a nice Nobel Peace Prize?” When he got older he liked to remind her that Alfred Nobel was the father of TNT. After 9/11 he began to add, “You know, Bubie, I want to work for Mossad. I want to be a government sponsored sharp shooter and go after radical terrorists. Now there’s something that could be a shot in the arm for world peace! Maybe you could write to the nominating committee in Stockholm, and ask them to open up a category for that.”

One day, I finally got fed up with my mother. “What about your son, the doctor?” I asked. “He’s got a couple of kids. Why don’t you rest your expectations on them for a change and give us all a break?”

“Are you kidding?” she laughed. “Those kids only know from soccer balls and hockey pucks. From them I’ll only see a Stanley Cup…maybe.”

It’s true about old dreams, you know. They really do die hard and no one wants to say kaddish for them. To this day I’ve never spotted the-little-old-man, but I recently copied my mother on a clever school essay written by my youngest son. As soon as she read it, she sent me the following email:

“I knew it, I knew it! My Noble Prize is coming. Be sure and find the-little-old-man who knows how to talk to the departed. Ask him to say kaddish and don’t forget to have him tell me in which discipline my grandson gets it.”

I shot her back a reply, asking if she’d be able to understand the-little-old-man who only speaks in Yiddish. My mother is a third generation American after all, and linguistically far removed from the mamaloshen. But my mother, may she be well for 120, is extremely confident about life on the other side. She sent me a very brief e-mail in response. Three little words, as a matter of fact: “Nu! Vu den?”

Ah yes…the power of kaddish! After 3 generations of complete assimilation, the descendants have been re-rooted. Perhaps they’ll make enough of an effort to win a Nobel Peace Prize, but there’s a more substantial effort they’re prepared to make. They already understand the power of kaddish… and they won’t need to ask the-little-old-man (if he really exists) to say it for them.

For related resources, the Orthodox Union invites you to discover a new and ongoing series of articles on “Why We Say Kaddish“. Additionally, the OU Press is pleased to offer its publication: The Mind of the Mourner: Individual and Community in Jewish Mourning, available in both softcover and hardcover.

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