There’s this scene in Angels in America where Roy Cohn is lying dead in a hospital bed.
Roy Cohn is the villain of Angels, insofar as the play can be said to have a villain. He’s a top dog for the Reagan administration, and an ex-McCarthyite who speaks with pride of having made sure that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg went to the electric chair; he represents everything in the play that is selfish, mean, and low, that deals in lies and hypocrisy, that is ugly and cruel and revels in its own ugliness and cruelty.
The real Roy Cohn was himself quite a character. Like the Roy Cohn of the play, he actively and gleefully contributed to the witch-hunt that was McCarthyism; like the Roy Cohn of the play, he was a horrifically immoral lawyer, whose exploits include entering the hospital room of a dying and comatose millionaire, putting a pen in his hand, and lifting it to sign a will that made Cohn one of the beneficiaries; like the Roy Cohn of the play, he was disbarred shortly before he died on charges of incredible corruption and bribery; and like the Roy Cohn of the play, he was a closeted homosexual, who died of AIDS in 1986. He has a square on the AIDS-memorial quilt, anonymously added, that reads, “Roy Cohn: Bully, Coward, Victim.”
The characters in Angels in America have no reason to love Roy Cohn, and every reason to hate him. Several of them are gay men, who have suffered enormously under the institutionalized homophobia of the Reagan administration; one of them is Roy’s hospice nurse, a black man who Roy has bullied, threatened, and called a variety of racial slurs even as the nurse cares for him; yet another is the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, for whose death Roy bears responsibility.
And yet after Roy dies, three of these characters – a left-wing Jewish gay man named Louis; Roy’s nurse, Belize; and Ethel Rosenberg’s ghost – gather in his hospital room. They are there so that Louis and Ethel can say Kaddish over Roy’s body.
We’re barely a week into 2015, and there’s already been a tragedy that I’ve found out about via a friend’s Facebook post:
I am completely in shock and have trouble reaching people. Please if you see this confirm you are okay… All I can hear on the phone is people screaming and crying. Difficulty reaching others.
Yesterday morning in Paris, three men with Kalashnikovs attacked the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, killing twelve people. The friend who wrote the above Facebook post has friends who work at Charlie Hebdo. Shortly afterwards, she found out that one of those friends had indeed been killed.
I can’t pretend to share the whole of her grief; I didn’t know her friends personally, and the shock and pain I feel are, while powerful, secondhand. I do think it mattered, though, that I didn’t find out about the attack at Charlie Hebdo from a news site or from Twitter. The first thing I saw about it was someone desperately trying to find out if her friends were alive or dead.
As is probably evident at this point, I tend to run with a lot of crowds that are very left-wing. Many of their views I agree with; some I don’t. We are, however, in total agreement over the incredible danger that the increasing xenophobia and Islamophobia in western Europe poses. In France, mosques have been attacked; as a Jew, I understand that a society that hates and fears a religious minority is a society that is inherently dangerous. (Synagogues are also being attacked in France at a rapidly increasing rate. I do not think these and the attacks on mosques are unrelated issues. Any bigot capable of violence against one “dangerous” minority is certainly capable of violence against another – which is not to say that Islamophobic violence is only horrific because it poses a danger to Jews like me, only to say that I instinctively recognize my community’s fear in the fear that Muslims feel, and stand in solidarity with them.)
So I shouldn’t have been surprised at some of the conversations I saw about Charlie Hebdo yesterday from these activist communities I belong to. Many of them made very important points: that while Charlie Hebdo was a satirical magazine, it certainly tended to “punch down”, using the weapon of humor against those below it on the social scale. For example: it often mocked Islam. Its propensity for drawing Muhammad in unflattering poses is well-known, but Charlie Hebdo also mocked actual Muslims, women who wear the veil, imams. It drew a cartoon of a black French politician as a monkey. It drew cartoons of Jews that resembled Nazi propaganda: hook-nosed, curly-haired, sharp-toothed. It also mocked the Pope and the Front National, a far-right French political party prone to xenophobia, which is closer to “punching up”, but this does not change the previous point: Charlie Hebdo played into social prejudices that were dangerous, that hurt people. They drew cartoons that I am not only offended by but that I am scared by. They drew cartoons that speak in the language of racism, of Islamophobia, of xenophobia, of anti-Semitism.
There has been much emphasis in my activist communities over the past day or so on understanding that Charlie Hebdo is not heroic as an organization. This is important.
It is also on some level inhuman.
Perhaps inhuman is the wrong word. Perhaps what I’m looking for is a word more like impersonal, or dispassionate, or uncaring. But inhuman feels right to me in a way that the other words don’t, because what politics does is leech the humanity out of issues, the way the sun leeches the color out of a piece of cloth. The personal is political, yes, but nothing political is truly personal. Politics replaces emotion with ethics. It replaces individual experiences with issues. It prioritizes struggles, martyrs, narrative arcs, righteous anger. It does not prioritize the simple and unheroic tangibility of human life: anxiety, surprise, joy, the extraordinary dusty-sunlight contentment of love, the dull hateful heavy stone of grief.
This is where Roy Cohn comes in.
The Mourner’s Kaddish is a unique prayer. When non-Jews ask what it is, I usually say “the Jewish prayer for the dead”, but this is inaccurate; the Kaddish is not a prayer for the dead. It is, after all, called the Mourner’s Kaddish. It is quite clear who the prayer belongs to.
Unlike most Jewish prayers, the Kaddish is almost entirely in Aramaic. For this reason, even Jews who actually speak Hebrew aren’t actually saying a prayer in a language they understand when they recite the Kaddish. Louis points this out, sharply, when Belize says the Kaddish asks for peace: “Oh it’s Hebrew who knows what it’s asking?” (A footnote added by the playwright says, “I know, I know, it’s not Hebrew, it’s Aramaic, but for the sake of the joke…”)
This is another way in which the Kaddish is unique as a prayer: what its words mean is not, I believe, important.
I like to compare the Kaddish to saying “Bless you!” when someone sneezes, or saying “Shit!” when you bump your shin. Most people who see someone sneeze don’t actually hope God will bless that particular person; most people who bump their shin aren’t actually thinking about fecal matter. The word isn’t meant to convey its actual, particular meaning; instead, it’s meant to convey the situation. You say “bless you” because it’s what you do when sneezing happens.
Similarly, though the words of the Mourner’s Kaddish translate to “May His great name grow exalted and sanctified in the world that He created, may He give reign to His kingship in your lifetime,” I am certainly not thinking of the exalted and sanctified name of God when I say the Mourner’s Kaddish. I don’t say Kaddish because I’m praying for God’s kingdom to come. I say Kaddish because it’s what you do when people die.
Louis is uncertain of his ability to say Kaddish: “I’m an intensely secular Jew, I didn’t even Bar Mitzvah.” But as he begins to recite what he remembers of the prayer, an extraordinary thing happens: the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, who neither Belize nor Louis can see, speaks through Louis and guides him in the prayer as a call-and-response. They speak the final words of the prayer together: Oseh shalom bimromav hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu v’akol yisrael, v’imru: amen.
“You sonofabitch,” Ethel Rosenberg adds, as an afterthought.
It’s important to me to say Kaddish when someone dies.
Before I talk about their lives, before I talk about their deaths. Before I argue whether they were a symbol of martyred freedom of speech, or “a bully who met a nastier bully”, as someone I follow on Twitter said yesterday. Before I navigate the complex line that run betweens glorifying harm on one end of the spectrum and glorifying it on the other, before I figure out what my part is in the struggle against Islamophobia and against those who go into press offices with guns, before all that: yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’mei rabah. Amen.
Even if I add you sonofabitch at the end.
It’s important to me that I recognize that the dead, before they are anything else, are sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, friends. It’s important to me that I give myself space to grieve the individuals before I allow myself to consider the issues. It’s important to me to know that someday – no matter who I become, and no matter where I end up – someone will say Kaddish for me, and say it with love. Hard, difficult, complex love; love that recognizes that I was not perfect, that I caused harm, that I was not good in every aspect, or necessarily good in any aspect; love that criticizes, love that sees clearly, love that is honest. But with love nonetheless. Love first. Love always.
A prayer for the dead. And a prayer for the living, who remain behind, shouldering the great and holy burden of human grief, a little heavier than it was the day before.