Development and History of Kaddish

The Kaddish originated as an expression of praise to God following a learned discourse.

Print this page Print this page

In 20th-century America, the word Kaddish--like shiva [the week of intensive mourning following a death] and shalom [peace]--has found its way into the popular lexicon. Allen Ginsberg's 1959 poem "Kaddish" introduced it to a largely non-Jewish literary audience. While it [the poem] shocked some Jews with its juxtaposition of profanity and the range of emotions associated with the loss of a parent, it was also a stunning affirmation of Jewishness during an era when most Jews wanted nothing more than to blend into the secular landscape.

Thirty-five years later, audiences heard the entire Kaddish during performances of Tony Kushner's Pulitzer Prize-wining play Angels in America. Once again, there was an element: shock as an openly gay man said the traditional words over the body of a closeted gay man. But by that point in history, this artifact of Jewishness was considered so commonplace that the playwright even made a joke confusing Kaddish with Kiddush (the prayer recited over wine). The assumption that the audience was Jewishly sophisticated enough to "get it" was not at all unreasonable, given that television had already acquainted a mass audience with the prayer.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Anita Diamant

Anita Diamant is a writer. Her books include Choosing a Jewish Life, The New Jewish Wedding, Saying Kaddish, and The Red Tent, a novel. She lives in Newton, Massachusetts.