Kaddish.com: book review by Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen

November 8, 2019 by Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen
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The publisher introduces the novel by “Larry is the secular son in a family of Orthodox Brooklyn Jews. When his father dies, it’s his responsibility to recite the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, every day for eleven months.  To the horror and dismay of his sister, Larry refuses—imperilling the fate of his father’s soul.  To appease her, Larry hatches an ingenious if cynical plan, hiring a stranger through a website called kaddish.com to recite the prayer and shepherd his father’s soul safely to rest.”

The reality is that most of this novel occurs some twenty years later when Larry, or as he is known by then as Reb Shuli who has not only rediscovered his Judaism [what is today described as being a BT (Ba’al Teshuva)] but has become a teacher of religious studies in a Brooklyn yeshiva.

Within the first few pages, I was taken to another author, Tova Mervis. Both Englander and Mirvis write about the (Orthodox) Jewish community in Memphis- perhaps better known as the final abode of Elvis Presley. Since that orthodox community numbers less than one thousand, I asked what is so unique about this community that two authors have focused on it, and I still don’t know.

The second flashback is when Reb Shuli recognises within one of his student’s skills ignored by other teachers. I was taken back to Chaim Potok’s My Name is Asher Lev.

It is not unknown for people to pay for others to say kaddish when they cannot or will not. There re some institutions which so advertise in the (religious) Jewish press. Where this novel deviates is that Shuli seeks out the organisation, using his student’s computer skills, to whom he has paid a sum for them to say kaddish for his father when the father dies.

Englander does show an understanding of how the traditional world works. What is hard to concur with is Shuli’s logic about why he wants to find the organisation and what he seeks when he so finds it. Shuli’s thinking, dare I say theology, behind the search seems definitely not mainstream if not bizarre.

The 203 pages are an easy read. I enjoyed it but would not recommend it for those seeking to understand how Judaism responds to dying and memory. For that perhaps a better option would be Leon Wieseltheir’s book Kaddish- a reminiscence of the year following his father’s death.

Kaddish.com: a novel

Author: Nathan Englander

Published by Alfred Knoff

Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen is Associate Professor in the School of Medicine (Sydney Campus) at University of Notre Dame Australia and Research Chaplain at St Vincent’s Private Hospital Sydney.

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