Prayer that makes past present

By Rebecca Abrams, February 17, 2013
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Last year, I took part in a remarkable ceremony at the Rose Garden in Oxford, beneath which lies the medieval Jewish cemetery, abandoned in 1290 when the entire Jewish community of England was abruptly expelled by Edward I. We had gathered to unveil a plaque to commemorate the site and recite Kaddish for those buried there.

Despite the buses thundering by a few feet away and the inevitable rain, the sense of connection to these long-dead, long-forgotten Jews was palpable and deeply moving. This was the first time anyone had said Kaddish at their grave-side in over 800 years.

A few months earlier, I was in Kiev. We stood on the edge of the ravine where, in 1941, over the course of two days, 34,000 Jewish civilians were brutally murdered by the Nazis, and (again in pouring rain) we recited Kaddish. Surreally, as the words of the prayer drifted away through the trees, the sound of gunshots rang out. It was just teenagers letting off cap guns but the effect was chilling. A too-sharp reminder of what had happened here. Not that we needed reminding. We were there, after all, to remember.

But why do this remembering? What purpose does it serve? What good does it do?

Nobody had said Kaddish for them in 800 years

My childhood was determinedly secular and the first time I heard Kaddish was at my grandfather’s funeral when I was 12. I understood precisely nothing of the Orthodox service. I was sad my grandfather had died, but more upset by the sight of my weeping mother and grandmother. Death was just what happened to old people, wasn’t it?

The years pass. You find you can no longer thread a needle, or read the small-print. You begin to understand how short life’s lease really is. And quite suddenly you start to appreciate the significance of remembering those who’ve died — not just your own personal losses, but the dead in general. It starts to make sense why we say this particular prayer so often, why we say the names of the dead aloud, not simply the names of our own dead, and not simply to ourselves.

Opera, too, used to wash over me. I listened largely untouched. But when I hit 40 and something weird happened. Madame Butterfly, La Traviata, it didn’t matter — by the end of Act I there were tears streaming down my cheeks. And a quick glance to right and left reassured me I was not alone.

Perhaps, like opera, the full power of Kaddish seldom touches us when we’re young. Only in mid-life do we begin to understand the value of memorials, whatever form they take. One of Ukraine’s greatest Jewish writers, Vasily Grossman, lost his mother in the Berdichev massacre. He memorialised her not through prayer, but in his magisterial novel, Life and Fate, and in a series of heartbreaking letters to her on the ninth and 20th anniversaries of her murder.

Of all forms of remembering, though, Kaddish has a distinct power and beauty. You don’t need to know what the words mean to be affected by the incantatory rhythms and repetitions, to sense that something ancient and awesome is being invoked. It’s called the prayer for the dead, but it doesn’t even mention death, for death is not really the point.

In Kiev and in Oxford I properly heard its simple, universal message for the first time. What these occasions brought home was the prayer’s unique two-way flow between past and present, its extraordinary ability to connect the living and the dead across time and space. We stand in the great flow of life, linked for all our differences by a common end, and the task is not that we die but how we live. It’s never too late to remember and reflect on that, even after 800 years.

Rebecca Abrams is an author and journalist

Last updated: 9:45am, February 17 2013