Kaddish: Jamie Bernstein Narration  back to Texts & Notes


My father, who addressed his Creator
When I was only small:
My lonely, nocturnal rambler of a father,
Shaking his fist at the mute heavens --
How he prayed.
He wanted to say Kaddish.
His own Kaddish... just in case no one
Was left to say it after him.

He feared his time, and all human time,
Was running out. Maybe he was right:
Right to pray for the dead-to-be.

Maybe we are but an eyelash away
From erasing all our footsteps,
Silencing all our songs.
So while he had breath, however brief,
My father sang this Kaddish
In his sacred house of music,
A last attempt to drag God back into the equation.

My father prayed, with all his might:
Yit' gaddal v'yit kadash sh'me raba...
Magnified and sanctified...
Be the great name ... Amen.

(Kaddish 1: chorus)

Amen! Amen! He couldn't say it enough.
"Sh'lama raba!" May abundant peace
Descend on us: Amen.

This God,
Who allegedly makes peace on high,
Who can juggle suns, spin moons
And boss the stars around:

Surely, my father reasoned,
Such a God could bring a touch of order here below,
On this one, dazed speck.
And he said it again: Amen.


With Amen on his lips, my father approaches
His Creator, not with fear,
But with a certain respectful fury,
Demanding recognition:
After all, my father tells him, you gave me the power of song
To mirror your immortality.
I'm the voice
That insists on your presence up there:
So pay attention to me!
I've sung to you since you started the clock.
You used to answer back
With a rainbow, a raven, a plague, something.
But you've been awfully quiet lately.
Awfully quiet.

Is my father listening now?
Can he hear his hard fists of notes
Battering the portals?
Oh, he would shake his God by the shoulders,
Force him to look down,
Down at our acres of smoldering wreckage.

"I call you to account!" my father cries;
"You let this happen, Lord God of Hosts!"

On and on my father raves,
As only those do who expected
Unconditional love.
He feels most betrayed
By that rainbow business:

"For lo, I do set my bow upon the cloud...
And I will look upon it, that I
May remember my everlasting covenant..."
Those words make my father slam doors, hiss obscenities;
The spittle forms at the corners of his mouth.
Maybe it's too much for me,
This mighty wrath. Maybe I can't bear it.

(Chorus: Amen, Amen, Amen.)

Now my father begs forgiveness,
Like a child crawling
Into the lap of an angry parent.
He longs to console his God
For that dawn-of-time mistake:
Creating humans in his own flawed image.
Listen to my father
Contemplating his God's chagrin.
He aches to hold his Creator in his arms,
Child enfolding father
In a warm, bone-melting embrace.

(Kaddish 2: sop and chorus)

And so my father wrote himself and his God
A lullabye.
He invited God to dream with him.
Maybe in their dream, he hoped,
They could learn to be kind to each other again.


In the dream my father takes his Creator on a field trip.
First they visit a star
Where everything is perfect.

Lambs frisk; wheat ripples; sunbeams dance.
No sentiment, no messy tears
No mawkish triumphal cadences.
But, says my father, something is wrong.
Can we all guess what that something is?

Of course: that clockwork world
Contains no fog, no grime,
No seductive human ambiguity.

Surely my father's omniscient travelling companion
Could detect the trap
My father was leading him into.

And what do we suppose
Will turn out to be the antidote
To this tuneless world,
Devoid of shadows or curiosity?
This dream is nothing but a setup,
A holy sting;
My father gives his God no real choice at all.

Next stop on the dream tour is our fallible planet.
Didn't we all see it coming?
See the earth! Feel the pain!
Aren't we all so much more interesting, Loveable, meaningful?

I would tell my father this:
I grow impatient with your nattering and preening,
Your mystic melodrama.
Do you think this God of yours
Will be impressed with your earthly marvels?
Are you so special, so chosen
That he's even thinking about you at all?

Listen to my own father,
Hustling his God like a carnival barker, saying:
"Look at my rainbow, which I have created for you!
My promise, my covenant!
Look at it," he cries,
"Believe! Believe!"
My father commands: "Look at my rainbow and say after me:
Magnified... and sanctified...
Be the great name of MAN!"

Why must my father seek out difficulty?
What gray force compels him
To create these barbed-wire dissonances?

Isn't he, aren't we all better off
When he believes in the power
Of his own simple song?



But wait, wait:
He's not quite ready to jettison
All that hard-won complexity.

Here is what my father wished for:
Respect for the rigor of his thoughts,
Love for the outpourings of his heart.
Somewhere in the clasp of love to rigor
Lies the art and the faith of it.

His melody scampers
Bright as birds
Darting among the sun-washed stones;

They tumble upward
To the vanishing point of earth and sky.

He says we must wake up now;
And the dawn is chillier than ever.


The gray air brightens, and look:
We're all still here.
And I did not flee; though I admit,
Sometimes I wanted to.

It looks like we won't solve
The ancient riddle this time either.
We rage at our fathers,
Who rage at their fathers,
And back and back all the way to the Creator
Who invented our grievances
But will not tell us why.

Maybe the most we can hope for
Is to locate our own heart's voice
And fling its tiny song skyward,
As clear and weightless
As a bird at sunrise.
It's not a grand ambition:
No purple robes, no shiny medals.
But it is the essential thing
That every single one of us can do.

My father dreamed us a Kaddish,
Here in this sacred house of music.
He wrestled with his own voice
To show us our harmony, our dissonance.

Here is what my father would say:
"My God is complicated, for so I make him.
Yet he knows how I long to simplify,
Celebrate and simplify...
And my song shall simplify...
But I refuse, refuse to make it easy!"

Leonard BernsteinNewsCalendarShopNewsletterPressResearchb100
The personThe EducatorThe ComposerThe Conductor