In early June, Jerri and I were gifted and richly blessed by the opportunity to attend a performance of Leonard Bernstein’s Kaddish at the Kennedy Center.  This haunting symphony, first performed in December1963 within weeks of John Kennedy’s assassination, is based on the traditional Jewish prayer usually associated with mourning.  A Kaddish, however, is not primarily about death.  It is, rather, an affirmation of the holiness of God and God’s name.  At the same time, however, a Kaddish is often a reflection on the contradictions and conflicts of faith and life.  Bernstein’s Kaddish was written to express those polarities:  it asks how a truly holy God could allow tragedy and evil to inflict God’s own world.  Bernstein’s powerful music itself reflects the ambiguities and contrasts those questions bring, as well as the affirmations and doubts that are essential to real faith.  It is filled, in seemingly equal measure, with both anger and love.

Bernstein made two separate attempts to write a text to be read as a reflective prayer within his Kaddish.  He was never happy with either one.  In his later years, he turned to a friend, Samuel Pisar, for help.  As a boy, Pisar had spent four years as a prisoner at Auschwitz, together with his family and the members of his school community.  Of them all, he was the only one who escaped death and was liberated by American soldiers in 1945 at the age of 16.  He went on to become a brilliant international lawyer and advisor to US presidents and other world leaders.  The Auschwitz experience, however, and the memory of it, was seared in his very being.  Bernstein felt that Pisar could write a Kaddish text that would express what the music was intended to communicate.  Now in his 80s, Samuel Pisar, tall, strong, and ardent of both voice and character, read his own words as Bernstein’s symphony elucidated and amplified their meaning.

Pisar’s text is not just about the Jewish Holocaust.  It speaks of tragedies and catastrophes from the Book of Genesis down to today.  It points to ethnic and religious “cleansing” in places like Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Darfur.  He speaks to God of the ways in which God seemed to have failed him and the world, and of the inability to affirm the greatness of God from within the walls of that dreadful and dread-filled Nazi camp.  He speaks of sorrow for his family, his community, and the world.  He expresses his alarm to God at the present course of this world and reminds God that humanity, “Though created in Your image,/ And endowed with freedom to choose/ Between good and evil,/ Remains capable of the worst, as of the best,/ Of hatred as of love,/ Of madness as of genius.”

Pisar’s Kaddish, however, is a prayer, not a monologue, and as prayer, God’s presence becomes part of it, leading it in different paths and unexpected directions.  Through that prayer, he recognizes that, even in the midst of tragedy, God never ceases to redeem and bless.  He speaks of the miracles God has performed and the ways in which God has lead him to new hope, knowledge, and resurrection.  And he ends with a prayer to “Bond with us again, Lord,/ Guide us toward reconciliation and tolerance,/ Solidarity and peace,/ On this small, divided, fragile planet—Our common home.”

The plaintive cries, the transparent honesty, and the quest for hope that shaped that Kaddish in both its literary and musical forms were a reminder to me that God’s work is not finished in our world.  We still suffer the pains of birth, growth, change, and danger inherent in the transient and incomplete nature of our creation and our creatureliness.  We can find ourselves, sometimes fervently, at odds with our world and in conflict with our God.  Yet even—or perhaps especially—then, we can recognize those bonds of which Pisar wrote, the bonds based on the ultimate love, unbroken commitment, and eternal community through which God redeems our world and us.  The final word of the Kaddish is the final but endless word of life—Amen!

May our own prayers be filled with that kind of transparency and honesty.  May we not be afraid to express our doubts, our fears, and our questions.  Just as Jacob wrestled with God’s angel, may we be willing to engage with God in the deep concerns and issues of our lives, knowing that, as God’s love provides us with full and perfect freedom, God’s embrace is ever constant and extraordinarily wide.


John Lawrence+

(Images:  “Leonard Bernstein” by Jack Mitchell; “Jacob Wrestling with the Angel” by Rembrandt)

This entry was posted in The Rev. Canon John E. Lawrence and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Kaddish

  1. Rich Turner says:

    Choral Arts sang this Kaddish in 1981 with Bernstein conducting the NSO both at the Kennedy Center and in Alice Tully Hall at the Lincoln Center. St. Alban’s was well represented in the chorus at the time. For those of us singing, It was an amazing and moving experience to participate as Bernstein prepared and conducted this wrenching personal composition. I doubt any of us will forget it.

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