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Friday, June 3, 2011

Allen Ginsberg's Kaddish: Minyan of One

Ginsberg in 1985 (Photo: MDCarchives)
Talmudic interpretations of particular passages in Leviticus (19:2 and 22:32), Numbers (14:27 and 16:21), and Genesis (42:5) conclude that certain Jewish “matters of sanctity” require a minyan (quorum) of ten Jewish adults (only males for Orthodox minyans, females included in some non-Orthodox ones).  

Allen Ginsberg was therefore challenged by centuries of tradition when he wished to say Kaddish for his deceased mother, Naomi.  At the time, he was accompanied by only two other companions (Peter Orlovsky and Jack Kerouac), neither of whom were Jewish.  Faced with the loss of his mother, he did not want to also lose this important tie with his religious roots.  The result was his famous poem Kaddish, which many have claimed is his best.

The word kaddish is Aramaic for “holy.”  According to Wikipedia, the central theme of this often-recited Jewish liturgical prayer is “the magnification and sanctification of God’s name.”  It is also specifically a part of Jewish mourning rituals.  Judaism 101 presents these first and final lines from the Mourner’s Kaddish (while also requesting “appropriate respect” for God’s holy name):  May His great Name grow exalted and sanctified in the world that He created as He willed…  He Who makes peace in His heights, may He make peace, upon us and upon all Israel.  Now say:  Amen.

Although this traditional Kaddish focuses upon God and not upon the departed, Ginsberg’s Kaddish focuses a great deal upon his mother’s biographical life.  While doing so, he also reflects deeply upon his own mortality and spirituality.  Ginsberg depicts one of Naomi’s descriptions of God in Kaddish Part 2:  Yesterday I saw God.  What did he look like?   …he has a cheap cabin in the country  … He was a lonely old man with a white beard    I told him, ‘Look at all those fightings and killings down there.  What’s the matter?  Why don’t you put a stop to it?’  ‘I try,’ he said – That’s all he could do, he looked tired.

Although this depiction of God is quite different from the “exalted and sanctified” one in the liturgical Kaddish, it nevertheless reflects a longing for sacred connections.


Copyright June 3, 2011 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

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