My Mother and Allen Ginsberg’s Kaddish

Some non-Jewish people know what Kaddish is.  Some Jewish people also know what Kaddish is.  I would guess that more Jewish people don’t than do, because of the secularization of the Jewish people due to the Holocaust and subsequent rush to blend in with whatever dominant culture we found ourselves washed ashore in, those who escaped the ovens.

Kaddish, for those who don’t know, is a Jewish prayer that is an integral part of observant Jewish life.  It is best known as the “prayer for the dead,” although death is never mentioned in the prayer itself.  It is, in fact, a joyous song of praise, enumerating the awesome powers and grace of the Almighty.  It is indeed said at Jewish funerals and at each of the three daily communal prayers, on behalf of the departed, for eleven months.  But it is also said many times during each prayer service, as a marker that divides the different segments of the service.  There are wonderful mystical reasons for this, having to do with elevating the congregation up through the layers of world upon world that lead to complete unification with God.  Most religious Jews don’t know these things, but say the prayers by rote.   Much knowledge has been lost in the years of our physical and spiritual exile.

My parents are among the first-generation children of immigrant parents from Russia and Poland who escaped the Holocaust as children, and had no religious background whatsoever.  Correction: my father’s father was the child of a Hassidic rabbi from Prussia, and his mother was the daughter of a rabbi in the Ukraine.  Both were sent out of their respective countries as children, experiencing exploitation and multitudinous horrors on their way to New York City, where they met and became members of the Communist Party, rejecting their religion out of bitterness; so my father was brought up without religion, to endure antisemitism on a strictly genetic/racial basis.

My mother was raised in a mildly religious environment, but it never really rubbed off on her.  She came away with a few legends and fears, but quickly learned how to cook pork ounce she was out of her culturally kosher home, throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

My mother likes to throw things out.  She threw out her rudimentary Judaism once she was free of the parental home.  She likes to keep a tidy house, so she throws out anything that seems out of place.  She has thrown me out many times.  I have kept coming back, out of a childish wish that she would all of a sudden become the Good Fairy Mother, but that has not happened yet and as she is 86 and I am nearing 60, I don’t think it is likely to happen.

My mother has two sides: childlike, and childish.  Her childlike side is quite charming.  She is filled with wonder at a pair of redbirds on a bush, deer in the yard, a squirrel sitting on a railing eating corn she has put out for it.  She adores her cat with something approaching sexual love.

On the other hand, when tired or vexed she will burst into childish tantrums, cursing and belittling, mocking, slamming doors and kicking the dog.  And throwing things out.

The other day she was in a childish mood, a mild one, and concentrating on throwing things out.  She can’t throw me out at the moment, because she needs my help with my invalid father, but she can throw his things out, and that’s what she was up to.  I happened along just as Allen Ginsberg’s volume of poetry Kaddish was hitting the dust bin.

“Why are you throwing that out?” I asked.  I noted that their once voluminous library seemed to have shrunken, and wondered how many old friends of my youth had gone the way that Kaddish seemed destined.

Kaddish,” she shuddered, twisting her face in horror.  I got it.  Kaddish, the “prayer for the dead.”  Death is lingering around our house now.  In a way it is a marvel: every new day a gift, if my father is still living.  Nevertheless it is a spectre hovering, palpable to all.  I understand: Kaddish is an unwelcome resident here.  I fished it out of the waste basket and dusted it off.

“I’ve never read this,” I remarked.

“Take it,” she said. “Get it out of this house.”

I did.  I took it to The Studio, my father’s old studio where I now reside.  And began to read.  On the first page, Ginsberg is mourning his mother’s death, pacing his living room and saying Kaddish aloud, alone, which is something one is never supposed to do because the prayer is so powerful it could be damaging without the power of ten people to say it.  But there he is, the power of his grief holding him safe in his living room, crying out loud the poem of God’s greatness to the Universe.

His mother died of insanity.  It struck her like a brick to the head when Ginsberg was a young child, and he spent his childhood accompanying her on trains and buses from one institution to another, until she finally ended up in Bellevue, the end of the line, and when countless shock treatments failed, the lobotomy.  She quickly grew old, and died at the age of 60.  My age.

He never gave up on his mother, and he never stopped loving her.  His family spiralled into collective dysfunction around her.  But it seemed to me that somehow he was able to extract, and treasure, the remnants of the delightful, dignified woman his mother once was, and carry that in his heart always.  It made me smile and cry.

I have never been able to feel that way about my mother.  Perhaps it has something to do with the stories she likes to tell about how I was such an idiot as a baby to climb out of my crib and fall onto a radiator, necessitating a trip to the emergency room; or another time, when, at seven months of age I disrupted dinner by climbing into a cupboard and getting hold of a bottle of Tabasco Sauce, which I somehow got all over me, burning my skin and prompting another visit to the emergency room.

These things, and more, might explain why I recoil at her touch, and why I break into a cold sweat at the sound of her voice.

Reading Ginsberg caused me to go inside and feel what I would feel when at last my mother dies (which is not likely to be for a very long time, given the longevity of her branch of the family, who often live to be 100 or more).

What did I feel then, when I went inside?

Relief, yes.  And grief: for the mother I never had.

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11 Comments

  1. Your words are so clear, and so true. I am not in contact with my mother, but when or if I hear of her passing, that is exactly what I will feel as well.

    Reply
    • It is a tragedy, isn’t it? Such a lost opportunity. I grieve for that. I’m sorry that we have to share this loss….but it’s good to know we’re not alone….

      Reply
  2. Most excellent!!

    I understand about mothers — different story, same feelings. She died almost six years ago. I took care of her for the last 2 1/2 years of her life. She transformed back into the awful person who abused me in many ways when I was a child. I was with her when she died — in fact she hung on until I could get to the ER and wouldn’t let go until I told her it was all right. She messed me up something fierce and then punched all those buttons she’d installed when I was little again when I was older, re-inforcing all those horrible things. My sisters miss her — but they had a different mother than I did. To this day I have feelings of resentment toward her, which I keep praying will be taken away from me or transformed into something good.

    She made me always wonder what was so bad about me that she couldn’t love me the way a mother’s supposed to love. She loved my other sisters that way — one sister not until she was a teenager, but still . . .

    Once again i reiterate my position: people should have to take a multitude of tests and get licensed before they can become parents!!

    Reply
    • Oh, I am so sorry. Why in the world do they have to do that? They pick the one person they know they can’t drive away, because you keep on hoping and hoping that if you do everything perfectly they will love you….but instead they just find more places to stick the knives in.

      Do you know the book, “Toxic Parents”? It says that a toxic parent can continue to hurt you even from the grave. I believe that.

      My question for you is, why did you take care of her yourself, put yourself on the firing line? If she was horrible to you when you were her only caregiver, why didn’t you put her in a nice nursing home and visit once a week, or once a month? Looking back now, are you glad that you did it?

      When my father passes, my plan is to return to Israel, and give my mother the choice of coming there and living in one of the excellent English-speaking retirement communities (she is healthier than I am, physically, and likely to outlive me), or staying where she is, where she has a large support system and will not suffer for lack of help, should she need it. I beg G-d in His mercy to give me strength to carry out my plan. My therapist feels I shouldn’t have come back in the first place, but I love my dad and want to spend these last days/weeks/months/years with him.

      Reply
      • I took care of her till I collapsed. Then I found, with help, an assisted living center. I told her I couldn’t take care of her and my illness at the same time — she didn’t understand these mental/emotional illnesses before I collapsed. I was going on an hour’s sleep a night, if I was lucky, before I collapsed. It was six solid months of taking her w/me everywhere I went so she wouldn’t be alone, making certain she ate three meals a day, even though I didn’t, etc., etc.

        There was no one else to take care of her except me. I did it out of love and a promise made when I was a teenager and she turned her back on me. I did love her and I kept looking for that love I KNEW she could give because I’d seen her give it to others and I’d experienced it from her for me whenever I was sick as a child. I have three older sisters, and only one helped me — long distance, but she helped and I couldn’t have done it without her.

        I regret the pain, the renewed bad behavior on her part and the resentment I have. I don’t regret giving all I had to help a frail old woman who no one else wanted to help/could help except for me. BTW, my other sisters — except the one who helped me from across the country — are/were healthy. The one who helped me, and obviously myself, are not healthy.

        I sacrificed a lot for her and got very upset at her during the process — obviously. I had actually slept for a bit during the wee hours of the night, but was awakened by God one morning — this has never happened before or since — in what seemed like a screaming voice, but I think it was just Him speaking loudly to get His point across. You can believe me or not, but I guarantee I won’t forget it. Apparently I’d gone too far in complaining because He was quoting His own Scripture. His booming voice rattled my head, made my teeth vibrate and scared the crap out of me as He said, “I require mercy, not sacrifice!” My eyes popped open and I quoted the book, chapter and verse in my mind along with Him!! Yes, He did say it!! I realized I totally had the wrong attitude and was beginning to act like/feel like a martyr for “all I was sacrificing for her” because she didn’t understand “all I was doing for her.” Of course she didn’t understand it — she was going through her second childhood!!

        One time she insisted we fly out to my sister’s (the one who helped long distance) because her daughter had just had her second child — a boy, my mom’s great-grandson and the first boy born into the family in a long time. We stayed for two weeks with my sister and one day drove up to where my niece lived a few hours away and went to the mall. My great-nephew was in his stroller and I had to get a wheelchair for Mom. We were pushing them side by side and I got tickled as it dawned upon me how much they were alike. Baby and old woman: both had to be pushed around the mall; both had to be fed by another; both had special bathroom needs; both didn’t understand things adults understand; both couldn’t convey exactly what their needs were except through some form of loud attention-getting means; both would die without our assistance; both had to be bathed; etc.

        I still love my mom, I just have leftover resentment. I don’t think that resentment would exist if she hadn’t reverted to who she was. I did everything for her at the expense of my own health, yet she complained to my sister all the time on the phone about me. She expected me to stay with her 24/7, holding her hand and entertaining her. I expected her to be an independent adult who I’d enjoy being with until the end of her days on earth. Neither of us had our expectations realized except for the first few days she lived with me in an efficiency apt (bedroom/living room combined) as her new apartment was getting prepared. Those first seven days were wonderful. Then the walls began to close in on me the last four days. When her apt was ready, she didn’t want to go — she’d never spent a single night by herself in her entire life!! She was terrified — and her apartment was in my apartment complex. All I had to do was walk out my back door, do a zig-zag and I was at her apartment. I took her everywhere so she wouldn’t be alone except at night or when I was in my apt cooking our meal. Still, she complained. It wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t what she wanted. Yet if I’d left her alone with the sister my mom and her husband paid to come take care of them — who lived 1/2 mile down the road from them — she would’ve had her rights taken away, this sister would have grabbed all her money and stuck her in a home, never seeing her again. I couldn’t do that to my mom, no matter what. That’s just not right and that’s just not who I am.

        I took care of her finances; took her to doctors, hospitals, etc.; went through all her papers and organized them, setting up a filing system; made sure she ate, drank, had her meds and took them; made sure she got to go to a church again — the kind she’d grown up in that her husband wouldn’t let her go to when he was alive; did everything I could for her until I couldn’t do it by myself anymore. The assisted living place was wonderful — so nice, good people, good food, good care and we both made some good friends there. Her mind wasn’t good. She had macular degeneration in both eyes. She told complete strangers she loved them and told me she forgave me when it was time for me to go home. She frustrated me to no end. She hurt me deeply. She opened old wounds and poured salt in them. She said and did things that she’d said and done when I was little. Yet she was still my mom. If I had to do it over again, I would. I’m not a glutton for punishment. I’m not a masochist. I’m just a regular person trying to do the right thing in a helluva world where doing the right thing basically gets you kicked in the teeth. Yet that’s who I am. So I cling to the hope of a better world to come that is not of this world system, but of God’s. I cling to the hope that my mom is in Heaven, that I’ll be in Heaven one day and that God will set the balance scales right. He’ll separate the wheat from the chaff, as only He is capable of doing. The bad will go where it’s supposed to. The tears will be dried. The wounds healed. All will be peace and joy and love.

        If I’m wrong, and there is no afterlife, at least I’ve done my best and I’ll finally, FINALLY be able to rest in peace. Right now, my dear friend, I really truly just want to rest in peace!!

        Reply
  3. You, my dear, are what we call in Hebrew a Tzaddikah: a true righteous woman. I know that when you leave this life, you will be gathered in to the bosom of your Savior, in endless love and peace, amen. And I hope that you will find your measure of peace on this planet too, while you are here. You are a warrior for righteousness and hope. I am honored and humbled to know you, here in blog-land.

    Reply
  4. You are my mothers age and you seem so much wiser then she ever has been. My mother is Bipolar and I am BPD. I studied about the Jewish people and the Holocaust in High School and met a survivor which was such an enlightening experience. I read so many things about people’s mothers and I thought I was the only one who went through this for such a long time. But I am not alone. And as much as I am relieved, I hate it because people out there understand. And I don’t like thinking other people understand because then it means they have had pretty traumatic upbringings and some are still having them now.

    I wish much love to you xx

    Reply
    • Thank you. I’m sure everyone who knows my mother thinks she’s a wise-woman too…it’s a matter of proximity, first of all. Secondly, a matter of personality, sensitivity, awareness, and most of all, hard work. Oh, and staying alive. Take good care of yourself!

      Reply
  5. Tina would laugh at this as it is a good description of ourselves…

    quoting you: “My mother has two sides: childlike, and childish. Her childlike side is quite charming. She is filled with wonder at a pair of redbirds on a bush, deer in the yard, a squirrel sitting on a railing eating corn she has put out for it. She adores her cat with something approaching sexual love.”

    We would say our cats enjoy us more.

    Reply
  6. …we are getting lost now, but we could remember this piece we read, Kaddish.

    This returns us to our motive, to inquire about your description here, or near to here, in which you mention layers and layers of worlds reaching up to… well, for ourselves it might be called ascension.

    But layers upon layers of worlds we have experienced directly for ourselves, a direct experience that becomes a matter of faith, as these are not demonstrable matters, just as we cannot demonstrate god-like powers even though we know every person on earth possesses them.

    Anyways, we were ruminating, as well, upon so many ways in which our lives seem to resonate with your own.

    This got us imagining we were telling you the story of how we lost the use of our hands for any hard work.

    It began with clay.

    oh yes and we wanted to tell you what we saw ahead for your dad, if we may be so presumptuous…

    but with the clay…
    we love the smell of good red clay from the earth but this was not that sort, this was the petroleum based plasticine sort of bone-white clay.

    We were uninspired, but our 3D class assignment required us to work with this clay, so we began by kneading it, hoping inspiration would come to us through our hands working with the clay, becoming familiar with it and what it might hope to become.

    This was January of 1981 we were some 23 years old then.

    Only a minute or two into kneading the tough plastic mass we broke out in a sweat and had to stop. We slowly realized our hands were in immense pain, the pain had caused us to break out in a sweat, it was so intense.

    We waited for our hands to cool off and tried again.

    Less than a minute and we could scarcely move our fingers, our hands were locked up with pain.

    A Longer cool-down, a shorter working life.

    We took a zero for that assignment and dropped our jewelry making class because our hands hurt too much to hold the tools.

    We were planning to major in woodworking, but our hands were never again able to do that sort of work except too briefly to carry any project through to completion without crippling ourselves with pain.

    The pain has stolen so many beloved things away from us.

    With regard to what may become of your father we encourage you to read Stephen Baxter’s ‘Evolution’ and related work. He paints an interesting picture very eloquently.

    What we believe we are experiencing is that we are moving out of our bodies, abandoning them for a life we are already familiar with that is of a different order of being, but still being.

    From our intimate personal experiences we know absolutely that we survive every death. We might presume this is true for everyone else as well, except that our childhood experiences, training with our teacher inform us this is true, and not merely our presumption.

    We wish to do things that are not allowed in this world, things we know we can do, but only if we forsake the realities described by the majority of persons we meet here, either by our interviews with them or by reading their records of their beliefs and experiences.

    For instance, we know we will fly again, rise up from the ground without the aid of machines or slaves and soar something like the ‘great American Hero’ at first, because we will still be a rusty flier, but we will eventually soar once more.

    ore importantly, we intend to return to our childhood, to help ourselves to heal, and intervene before Alina can kill herself again.

    We will not let her go into death, away from us once more.

    The real trick here will not be travelling in time, but in bringing our family with us, Tina, possibly Megan, cats, pooches, and all. Perhaps we can pick up Tina’s dead hubby and babe along the way.

    Resurrections are us. That is what our teacher taught us. We will one day share this miracle with everyone we know, but by that time everyone else will be able to work this miracle as well.

    Really, everyone can and does work this miracle in every moment of their lives, but that is a Hindu mysticism which we are uncertain of translating into Kabalistic beliefs.

    So, as we see it your dad will never die. Eventually the reality of this changes, either because your belief that he must die causes him to appear to die, or because your father reconnects with his source and returns with greater vigor, continuing to return to his source and return to his life until he is once more the young man he knows himself to be again.

    We believe there may be a foundation for this belief in Kabbalism, but our study of these matters has not been at all either extensive or orthodox by any measure.

    We do not study what we know.

    Alas what we know is beyond any sort of proof, you must experience it for yourself, and eventually will, if you have not already.

    We might bet that you have some such experiences though, experiences you need only trust yourself to remember.

    We once met a young man named Rabbi. This was in 1986. We were 28.

    We at once informed Rabbi that he had recently died to which he agreed without hesitation. He hoped we saw less of his ignoble death than we did, but we let him have his privacy by not bringing up the cause of his recent demise.

    Rabbi was a thief. He was killed by robbing a particularly vengeful person.

    Together with Rabbi we studied Kabbalah for several months (we were not using the plural forms for ourselves until 2006 or so).

    We both wanted to know more about these mysteries we each understood intuitively, but which were inexplicable by any conventional means then available.

    There are many explanations possible, as it turns out, but we did not make much headway with our various research materials or methods.

    Had we been able to study together considerably longer we might have had many good results. Only one particularly impressive result surfaced in the brief time we were friends.

    We tell this story elsewhere but it bears telling again, as it is a fun story.

    One day we were studying Kabbalah with Rabbi in the living room of house he shared with perhaps7 to 9 roommates or so, including Heather, a young woman we were quite taken with.

    Suddenly Rick rides in through the open front door on an old dirt bike which he throttles and revs up repeatedly, bragging about what a good price he had just paid for it.

    Rabbi and ourselves look at each other. We are both vexed by the loud engine and choking exhaust.

    As if possessed of a single mind we both reached up with our right hands and firmly grasped imaginary ignition keys, simultaneously switching the engine off with strong twists counter-clockwise.

    The bike engine died.

    Together we twisted our imaginary keys hard to the right and the engine suddenly roared to life again with Rick’s hands off the throttle.

    Off, and on again, three times off, that last time off for good.

    Rick freaked out. He saw Rabbi and ourselves turning our keys together, he knew as clearly as Rabbi or ourselves that we were responsible, telekinetically controlling the engine.

    Half the household had witnessed the miracle.

    A pity Rabbi would soon rob a mutual friend, and leave us holding the blame.

    C’este la vie.

    Tina is imploring us to come to bed, so we suppose we shall kick Megan out of bed very soon now.

    Enjoy!

    PS
    It is not so much that we are moving out of our bodies, so much as our life never began within our bodies in the first place, these bodies are like chaff, like fallen leaves from the greater limbs of our trees of life. They are useful, perhaps, but only until we understand ourselves in eternal terms and rise up to our immortal statures.

    …or so we believe based on direct experiences that now are poor memories at best, until only our faith in ourselves is left, a faith we seem to lose too frequently…

    Megan has emerged, so we should go.

    ciao fer now!

    love, Grig…

    Reply

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