I would like to add a small footnote to John Podhoretz’s moving tribute to Arnold Beichman, who died yesterday at age 96.
John noted that Beichman never wrote a memoir “even though he had a great one in him.” One can sense the truth of that observation from the letter Beichman wrote in 1994 to COMMENTARY, at age 80, in response to Jacob Sloan’s article “Saying Kaddish.”
The article had reminded Beichman of “an episode in my early childhood when I became a steady attendant Friday nights and Saturdays at a Lower East Side shul on Rivington Street.”
As I grew older, I began to note something I couldn’t understand. Usually, over the months, the faces of Kaddish-sayers changed with the expiry of the required year of mourning. One face, I began to notice, never seemed to change—Reb Moishe Bear’s. A big, broad-shouldered man (a carpenter, I recall), he was always saying Kaddish. Week after week, High Holy Days, Sabbath, and weekdays, Reb Moishe Bear, eyes shut tight, face rapt, head swaying from side to side, was always saying Kaddish, and loudly. At first, I assumed that he had a lot of relatives who were dying all the time, and I felt sorry for him because he was a nice man. But as I approached my bar-mitzvah year, I began to wonder: how could this be?
One Friday night, I decided to satisfy my curiosity. I asked my father about Reb Moishe Bear and what seemed like his terribly sad fate. “For whom is Reb Moishe Bear saying Kaddish?”
My father replied in Yiddish with a gentle smile: “Er zogt Kaddish oyf der velt”—he is saying Kaddish for the world.
I didn’t know what my father meant. Didn’t you have to have a death in the family? Not necessarily, said my father. Anybody over the age of thirteen could say Kaddish, and if Reb Moishe Bear wanted to say it “oyf der velt,” he could do it and maybe even earn the merit of performing a mitzvah. I persisted: so why didn’t my father do the same?
My father smiled; his sense of tzneeyus (modesty), he said, prevented him from mourning for the world.
Not until years later did I grasp the gentle irony in my father’s answer about people who undertake to say Kaddish “oyf der velt.”
Now the COMMENTARY community will say Kaddish for him, and the gracious intellect that is reflected in that story.