Was it only a year ago when theaters around the country went dark, save for a lingering ghost light onstage? It feels more like 525,600 minutes, give or take a few—a period of ever-accumulating loss, with the odd glimmer of daylights and sunsets. I’ve been thinking about how we measure these elegiac anniversaries, in part because they line up with memories of loss in my own family. One of my beloved grandmothers, Yvie, died around this time two years ago; another, Linda, died this time last year—fortunately, in a way, after a full life, just before New York shut down.
In Jewish tradition, we observe the anniversary of a loved one’s death by saying the prayer of mourning, the Kaddish. The catch in socially distant COVID-19 times is that you’re not supposed to say the Kaddish alone. It’s a call-and-response prayer that requires a community to support you. In fact, it’s addressed to the community, rather than God, even as it extols the divine power to bring peace. A Jewish community—a minyan—requires at least 10 people to be present. How can we perform the rituals of mourning as a family, a congregation, a nation, when we still can’t gather safely in person?
Though rabbinic authorities have allowed remote workarounds for the Kaddish, I’ve taken heart from an extraordinary performance that reimagines the ritual, improbably titled A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff. It’s the story of its creator, Alicia Jo Rabins, a poet and musician who secured an artist’s residency on an empty floor of a Wall Street office building after the 2008 financial crash. She’d planned to work on a song cycle about biblical women called Girls in Trouble, but when she saw a picture of Madoff in the paper, she was transfixed: He looked like her dad. She became obsessed with the fraudulent investor and started to wonder what it meant that Madoff, so many of his victims, and she herself were all descendants of Eastern European Jews—how the sins of one member of a minority group seem to reflect on the whole. (“He’s pretty much the definition of ‘bad for the Jews,’” she says in the piece.) She heard rumors of a Florida congregation that said Kaddish for Madoff, as though he were dead to them.