When his father, Leslie, died last year at the age of 80, David Kotok made the commitment to say Kaddish, a mourning prayer, every day for a year. The catch was finding a synagogue and 10 Jewish men every day to do it.
When his father, Leslie, died last year at the age of 80, David Kotok made the commitment to say Kaddish, a mourning prayer, every day for a year. The catch was finding a synagogue and 10 Jewish men every day to do it. As an entrepreneur, David travels the world. In his quest, he discovered old synagogues and new traditions that enriched his commitment.
The following is as it was told in conversation to WHYY producer Elisabeth Perez-Luna.
Teach a man to fish
My father taught me fishing. I can remember the feeling of catching my first fish. I can remember the fish, the boat, the lake and the smile on his face. I must have been maybe 5 years old.
Even later in life, when I was growing up, we would always go fishing together several times a year. He would always carry fishing rods and fishing equipment in the trunk of his car, so if he had to go somewhere on business he would say, “Come on, take a ride with me. Keep me company.”
The family business was a grocery store in Vineland, N.J. He worked in it when he was a young boy. We all did. I worked there until I was about 10 years old. It was founded by my grandfather, David Kotok, from whom I’m named.
On my mother’s side, the business was a working farm. I had chores. I milked a cow when I was six years old!
With my father that was a very big part. I would go with him and work for a couple of hours in the store. I used to sort produce and help out. I learned how to operate the cash register and make change. I went with my father when he had to be a buyer at food and produce auctions. He would always buy me an ice cream cone at the end of the day, because that was the bait that got me to keep him company.
All generations on both sides of the family were Jewish, and my mother maintained a Kosher home. But when we were not at home, my father and I would enjoy breaking the rules. So my father taught me to appreciate shellfish and clams in the half-shell and lobster and some ham. My mother, as long as it wasn’t in the house, looked the other way. That was the family-negotiated treaty.
And now that they’re both gone, I think any guidance they would give me would be “Tell the truth.”
A yearlong journey begins
He had his first heart attack and a bypass operation when he was 59, and a second round in his 70s. Then he had kidney problems, cancer treatments. He spent his last year at home and was 80 when he died. Prior to that it was a celebration of being alive every day, so that’s the way I think of him.
Part of the Jewish tradition is to respect the deceased. For me it was a natural part of life. I wanted to respect his memory, and I wanted to mourn. I found a book called “Kaddish,” by Leon Wieseltier, and in it he writes about attempting to say Kaddish three times a day by orthodox tradition. For me that was impossible. So I decided I would say the prayer once a day.
Kaddish has to be told in a synagogue and in public. But as long as I could say Kaddish, I didn’t care if they were orthodox, reformed, men or women.
It was not as easy as I thought it would be.
Of course it’s not only a question of finding a synagogue, but one that’s open and has regular services. Then you have to gather a minyan, the traditional quorum of 10 Jewish men needed for a prayer.
I had a meeting in New York, where there were a few Jewish men and women, and I said, “I’m going to say Kaddish for my father. Will you join me for 10 minutes?” And I was very disappointed when some declined, saying they were too busy. We finally ended up having had a very small service.
You see, the Kaddish has to be recited with others present. It’s not a private moment. In some cases the synagogue has a small congregation. Sometimes a member of the synagogue opens the ark, which holds the Torah, and they pretend that the scroll is the 10th person. So we do it with nine people. Sometimes I couldn’t find a minyan, but I tried every day.
I was in Prague for four days. There was a very large, old Jewish community, a ghetto. One of the synagogues was 700 years old, well preserved because, as I was told, Hitler wanted it to become a museum dedicated to the people he had annihilated.
So I found out where it was, and every day I would attend services and at the end say Kaddish. And there would usually be a couple of others who where there for the same reason.
One day there were only seven people, so we couldn’t say the prayer. This man from Israel was very upset, and I reminded him that that we were also respecting the fathers just by trying.
In Paris, I was trying to find a synagogue. There is a large Jewish population in Paris, but it’s mostly reformed. I found an orthodox synagogue on Rue Tavi, in the Marais district, which was the old Jewish quarter. I walked in, they looked at me, I saw a lot of strangers. I asked, “At what time is the minyon?” One responded in English, and I told them, “I need to say Kaddish.” And they said, “Oui, d’accord.”
Then I was looking in San Francisco and found a synagogue that was a bit out of the mainstream with services that fit my schedule. It was a reconstructionist service, which means that anybody who wanted to come, could. The Kaddish they used was an abbreviated version, but it was OK with me. The service is the same everywhere in the world.
A worldwide community
Before this journey, I already had a sense of community, because I’ve been in a lot of places. So this kind of affirmed it, because mostly anywhere I could find a place as a piece of the Jewish world, and I was welcomed. And for a brief moment, for this moment of ritual and recognition, we bonded.
I found, in the year I was saying Kaddish for my father, others viewed the obligation the same way I did, and that’s a remarkable thing. An obligation to respect someone who is no longer here is a fulfillment of an unrequited love. The departed cannot do anything more for you. There’s nothing in return. The only thing you gain is your own inner sense of trying to respect someone who is no longer here. That’s all it is.
David R. Kotok co-founder and chief investment officer of Cumberland Advisors, headquartered in Vineland, N.J., where he and his family grew up.