This title is actually a short story by one of my good friends, Michael A. Burstein. There is a link at the bottom. Even though he’s a published author, who makes part of his living with his writing, this is one he has up for free. Michael and I were in the Harvard University Band together. This is not a story about HUB hijinks, I’ll tell those some other time. Maybe. I also used some of his stories to teach a Science Fiction class when I still taught high school English. Someday I’ll definitely get around to that. They’re good stories.
For those unfamiliar with the Jewish faith, (as I was before Harvard), Kaddish has been practiced by Jews for a very long time. (For some reason, I always want to capitalize phrases like that: Very Long Time.) My understanding is that it is a prayer said every day, several times a day for 11 months after the death of a loved one. A ritual praising God that never actually mentions the dead person but is done in their honor.
The research I’ve done about Kaddish has shown me a ritual not only that is deeply faith oriented but which brings people together in understanding and community as well. It is not said alone from what I’ve read, but in a group with others who are also saying the prayer. And so Kaddish resonates for me as a ritual. Thus, every time someone in my family dies I think of this story. It touches me deep inside. It isn’t my faith. But there is something about the whole concept that just reaches me.
In Michael’s story, a young woman is struggling with the knowledge that her grandfather is the last survivor of the Nazi death camps from World War II – and that there are many, many people out there who have forgotten all of the sacrifices and horror that occurred. He is about to die and he asks her to “bear witness – for all of us, the six million who died and those who survived to tell the world.”
I am currently of mixed faiths.
My parents both grew up as Christians with fiercely religious mothers – in very different, yet remarkably similar ways – one Southern Methodist, the other strict New England Lutheran. We didn’t go to church as a family very often. I believe there were many reasons for that. I don’t know exactly how my dad felt about the concept of God or religion because he never talked about it. And he was gone a lot with the Coast Guard. But I talked about it with my mom a few times. She felt that God was all around her when she was out hiking, boating, camping, golfing and all of the other outdoor activities she and Dad enjoyed so very much. I suspect Dad felt much the same. Being out in nature fulfilled him spiritually. When I want to talk with either of them, I go to the beach and chat with the Pacific Ocean. So there was Pseudo-Christianity in my home life.
I tried out a number of things to help me figure out religion though. In upper elementary school, a best friend’s father was a pastor so I went to church with her, joined the choir and youth group. What I recall best is making taffy. I was around 10 or 11 though so that makes a weird sort of sense. In sixth grade, we moved in with my Dad’s mother, the Southern gramma, while he was finishing up at a duty station and then doing Officer’s Candidate School.
We attended every single week. Including Sunday School. And pancake breakfasts. And that Wednesday night bible study occasionally. I really got into it. It happened at a time in my life when I needed structure and guidance. My moment of passion happened not too much later while in Junior High in Florida. I had agreed to join a Baptist orchestra because they desperately needed instrumentalists. That passion lasted a couple of years. I even spent a summer with Gramma, studying confirmation to join her church.
The second half of High School was when I started questioning things. I still went to services occasionally the first few years. Usually by myself, but Mom made everyone else join me for Easter and Christmas. But it wasn’t until I started reading science fiction seriously during my Junior year that I realized that there were other ways of looking at the world. I knew, in a vague sort of way, that other religions existed. And even understood better than the average person that Freedom of Religion was in our Constitution. But I didn’t start to actually GET IT until that point.
Science fiction writers have many different ways of looking at the world. Most of the people I read in high school were the “classics” – thanks to my Physics teacher and the school librarian. So, I dug through Clarke, Asimov, and Heinlein, among others, and had my worldview blown. I didn’t know there were so many possibilities out there. Stories such as The Nine Billion Names of God suddenly had my brain expanding in all sorts of directions. And I had no one to really ask because I wasn’t really sure what my questions were. I just knew that this concept of God was more complicated than I had believed.
Then I landed at Harvard. Somewhere else I describe the miasma of naivete, blind belief in my elders, and strange back history that made all of that possible. But trust me. It was nothing like what I was used to. For once, people enjoyed discussing the kinds of things I enjoyed. They didn’t look at me like I was a freak when I said I had spent six hours in the library trying to find something. I rarely ran into anyone other than the librarian when I was searching for books back home.
And I took courses that interested me rather than what the high school said was needed for graduation/ college track students. (The same 20ish students and I practically lived together in our classes in Kodiak. In fact, until I dropped out of Calculus senior year I had exactly the same schedule as my friend who played tuba. For four years. Every class. I digress…) First semester I got into this Moral Reasoning class called Justice taught by a guy named Michael Sandel.
Yes. That Sandel. Twenty-nine years later he is still teaching the course – online. My eldest daughter took a class at the University of Anchorage that utilized his materials. I had to fly to Boston and pay a lot of money to take that class. She now gets it online. Free. Cool world we live in, huh? (I looked it up and it was very déjà vu. In fact, I was entranced by the lecture all over again. It’s playing in the background as I write.) But back then, there were just the 300 or so of us packed into Sanders Theatre. If you’ve never seen it, it is an absolutely beautiful environment. A stage that will fit a concert band on it in front of rows of seats that rise up. Beautiful woodwork everywhere.
For weeks, he presented this scenario of three guys in a boat at sea, as well as other scenarios with refinements upon them. Do we kill one to save the others? What if one dies – should they eat him? (Aargh?!? – went my brain.) And every week it was from the viewpoint of a different philosopher. What was the right moral decision? He had us vote. He had us give opinions and ask questions. And every week I left thinking – “Holy crap, that way is right too!” To say I was utterly confused by the end of the semester doesn’t even begin to cut it.
Check it out. I’ve provided the link below. Just the fact that anyone in the world can now watch a Harvard professor interact with his class is incredible. All of these years later I can look back and see that this one class made me grow more than any other as a person. It gave me tools and forced me to ask questions. Never since have I believed with blind faith. I look at the merits of the situation and argument. Sandel’s class taught me to do that. To continue…
Plus, at Harvard, there were all these people around me with other religions, or no religions, or anti-religion. What a mess my poor head was. I look back on those years and see myself as both a tool being shaped to reason and think and a bag of holding that kept getting things thrown in it that I would have to figure out later. It was coming at me too thick and fast. By the time I took The Literature of Social Reflection with Robert Coles, my senior year, I had learned to skim and chunk. And then set things aside for later. But I still bought all 80+ books for that course and have gradually been working my way through them over the years.
I continue to do that. I buy books on the origins of Buddhism and Zen philosophy. I search out people with differing beliefs and ask them in-depth questions. I hear about a religious term and go look it up – no matter what religion it is from. I take silly inventories online that tell me what my spiritual basis is (the internet thinks I’m a humanist agnostic apparently). I search for stories that question our moral and spiritual selves and what responsibilities come with those.
And that is what Michael’s story does for me. It unsettles me. It reminds me of the importance of our cultural and religious beliefs, not only when grieving a deep, personal loss, but also in the face of a changing world. And even more so, of the importance of learning about the cultural and religious beliefs of others so that we can understand them, and more importantly, empathize with them.
The protagonist of the story has to search deeply within herself and make difficult decisions that will impact her entire life. While I am not Jewish – and really feel very strongly that it is not my place to define who or what God is or is not, especially for another – I have a great deal of respect for those who have questioned and worked and found faith within themselves. But I do hope, that as I make the decisions in my life, I do so in a manner which are at the very least, thoughtful of the many different ways in which people can view the world.
Michael’s story can be found here. Read it. Tell me what you think. https://www.apexbookcompany.com/blogs/frontpage/15412301-free-fiction-kaddish-for-the-last-survivor-by-michael-a-burstein
And here is Professor Sandel’s first lecture: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kBdfcR-8hEY