on February 7, 2002
This "Gentile reader" (as compared to the 19th century "gentle reader") loved this oh-so-Jewish work. Mr. Wieseltier's book is meditative and beautiful, more like bedside reading (dip in a bit at a time) than a strict narrative. I have read with some bemusement the reviewers here who didn't like it. They seem threatened by an intellectual man who uses his full intellect to consider his faith, or lack of it. Personally, I found this book elegant, engaging, and full of warmth and even occasional humor. My own father is dying, and it helped me ponder his circumstances while thinking about my eventual response to his impending death. Magnificent work.
on December 16, 1998
It's impossible to categorize this book, because it simply doesn't fit into any conventional category. I'll have to explain exactly what it is: a journal kept by the author in the year after his father's death, in which he researches, ruminates, and comments on Judaism. The book is so intense that I got the impression that he spent the entire year (a) saying kaddish and (b) sitting in a tea room poring over ancient manuscripts. It's a privelege to get a chance to peek into the results of an entire year of study -- not to mention the mind of the author, who at times is brilliant. He is not trying to apologize for anything or to prove anything: he is simply, and honestly, thinking. This is not a book to be read in one sitting; I found myself reading a few pages at a time and then thinking about them. But the book is so well-written that I was in no rush to finish.
on May 1, 2000
I could not wait to read this book. And I could not put it down. I was filled with awe at the scholarship of Jewish people when the rest of Europe was illiterate and uncivilized. I was amazed by the compassionate (and occasionally not so compassionate) views the rabbis had towards mourners and mourning. I learned more than I had thought I could about this odd practice, which Wieseltier made odder still. I agree with all the comments about narcissism, pomposity and the like becuase the author epitomizes those traits and others like them but in my opinion the book transcends its author's limitations and was utterly fascinating in its breadth and depth. As it maddened me at times and lost me in its obscurity at others I was among those who couldn't put it down. By having slogged through this mighty tome, I felt that my kaddish for my own father was enriched.
And in the end, with all the pedantry and scholasticism and weight, the author ends in a spiritual and emotional way.
I imagined him having a relationship with his father in death, through the creation of this book, that he could not have during his father's life. And to that, amen.
on March 30, 2000
Leon Wieseltier has created a singular work, exploring 2,000 years of Jewihs tradition and thought about death and mourning in the aftermath of his own father's death. The breadth of his knowlegde is amazing, and all the more so given that he is something of a non-believer. As a religious Jew, I found his discoveries and his re-examination of his own faith to be moving.
The work has two flaws. The first is its length. And while you can excuse its length as being a product of the vast amount of lore and law he sifted through, he occasionally rambles and jumps off the topic.
The other flaw is that I just can't iamgine too many people wanting to read this. If you're more devout than I, you might find his agnosticism offputing. If you're of a secular bent or not Jewish, why would you want to read this at all? That such a work got published is a sign that Jewish philosophy is part of the mainstream. But I wonder how many people are like myself and have the patience and curiosity to dive into this book. Maybe it should have been more accessible. Or maybe it's best that some books make the readers work to learn something, the way the author did in writing this.
If you are of the right patience and of the right religous bent, however, tead this and cherish its beauty.
on December 8, 1998
Kaddish is a controlled and passionately intellectual research in the origins of the mourner's Kaddish. The author uses the death of his father, and therefor the necessity of saying Kaddish, 3 times a day, for a year to inquire into Jewish practice, history, theology and philosophy. This book is neither a memoir nor a textbook for scholars. It is instead a tribute to the Jewish wisdom of the mourning process. Having heard the author speak, I understand why he did not want autobiographic material, why he chose boundaries around his privacy. He wanted intellectual pursuit, not voyeurism. Don't try to read it all at once. Pick it up at random and savor it.
on October 13, 1998
This is one of those books that you put down at times in bafflement and irritation and pick up again twenty minutes later because, dammit, it's under your skin and you can't leave it alone. Not quite like anything else I've come across but that's part of its charm. A lot of erudition, a little navel-gazing, some painfully personal revelations, some zippy one-liners. As a non-Jew, I found some of the author's assumptions about my baseline knowledge of Judaism a little over-optimistic but what else was he to do ? This is a personal book, written, I suspect, because it had to be written exactly as it is and not tailored to appeal to some hypothetical market target. And the reward for struggling through some of the more obscure passages where there are few familiar landmarks for the goyim to recognize is the humanity and wry humor of the author's examination of himself, trying to work out why he's embarked on this self-imposed devotional task and how to make sense of an world cluttered with medieval scholars and rabbis, and twentieth century atrocities, but also CD-Roms and contemporary DC, a thousand and one contradictions and very little certainty. So in the end he can't make sense of it all ? Who could ? Who can? It's still worth reading.
on March 25, 2003
A friend of mine told me about this book, using wonderful words and thoughts which I will share with you. He said about "Kaddish by Leon Wieseltier":
"In these times of war and cruelty, deep sentiment and spiritual introspection are indeed a balm to one's feeling on life, especially when you mediate about death and the immortality of love. This journal of the soul is a moving and beautiful work, generated by mourning a loss: the diligent and doubting son investigating the memory of death. I feel a better father and a better son now, and on closing this book I wish to thank Wieseltier for bringing me to discover my spiritual side in a more profound and fulfilling way. Like him and with him, I join his thought and quote: "I am in a mind to bless. Blessed be the book, the page, the verse, the word, the letter". And blessed be the author for sharing with us his path to illumination."
I wish I could say it as he did, believe how he do. May the reading of "Kaddish" will teach my heart and sole. Amen.
on June 4, 2000
The author brings about a union of Western philosophy and Jewish Talmudic work in what can only be described as a masterpiece. In Jewish popular culture, the emotional is emphasized, but the author shows his readers that the Jewish intellectual tradition has a lot of strength and power to comfort the afflicted while uplifting the mind. I love Kaddish, and I hope to see many more books like it from Jewish authors in the future.
on June 24, 2015
This book received a lot of publicity when it came out about 18 years ago. Now, I'm saying kaddish for my father, so I thought it would be a good time to read this book. I haven't finished reading it yet. He's saying kaddish for his father. OK. However, we never hear why their relationship was so fraught. We don't learn if his father faded away in old age or if he was suffering through a long illness. Parts of it are excellent summaries of rabbinic literature discussions about the mourner's kaddish and mourning customs in general. This is what I was looking for; however, it is not as well organized as a textbook, which would have enhanced it. In between these meaty sections are short sentences written to show off his facility with the English language, with solipsisms or tautologies. I will write again when I finish. (And I will look up those words to make sure that's what I mean.) I have the feeling an editor, after a certain point, decided to let the author just go on and on.
on February 22, 2013
I read this book about 6 years ago, before my own father died, and it has stuck with me. "Kaddish" contains two streams: one describes the author's faithful saying of kaddish (the Jewish prayer said in a quorum of 10 adults - a minyan - for ones parents for 11 months after the parent's death), and the other describes his study into the origin and history of the customs surrounding this prayer. Each stream is a profound rendition of two pillars of Jewish practice: prayer and study. The first describes how an agnostic (at best) gains a measure of enlightenment from performing the mitzvah of saying kaddish; at the end of the book, after the final kaddish is said, Wieseltier walks from the minyan into the sunlit day. It is faithful practice rather than faith itself that brings the author home (a bit, anyway). We learn nothing about Wieseltier's Dad or their relationship, but that isn't the point because one says kaddish for a parent whether he is a pimp or a tzaddik. The book is about the mitzvah.
The second stream draws us into the year of study that the author essentially dedicated to his father. Wieseltier modestly wades through texts written in terse rabbinic Hebrew and Aramaic (he is a yeshiva graduate: it would be difficult for one without such a background to reach this level of authentic study) to spoon-feed us the new knowledge he has gained. We are brought to the table to sit with the "sages of the ages" to learn, in the most genuinely Jewish way.
I have a few nitpicks: in his study I would have liked to have seen some mention of modern practices, such as that of women saying kaddish in liberal streams of Judaism (the traditional obligation falls on sons, particularly first-born sons). Even in Orthodox communities, women are seen saying kaddish: does that fulfill the mitzvah if there are no sons, or are other relatives or even hired strangers required? I just wondered.
I am writing this review now to highly recommend the book, whether you are saying kaddish or not, whether you are Jewish or not.