Kaddish-by-proxy at core of Torah-rich novel

“kaddish.com” by Nathan Englander; Knopf, $24.95, 203 pages 

By Dale Singer, Special to the Jewish Light

Let’s clear up the obvious question right away.

Yes, there really is a website with the name Kaddish.com. Fire up your browser, enter the address and you’ll find this message:

“Although many of us wish to say kaddish for our loved ones, we often find it too difficult, or not possible at all, to recite kaddish in accordance with Jewish tradition. But because the Jewish people are in essence one people, with one soul, tradition teaches us that when needed, one Jew may say kaddish on behalf of another.”

In other words, instead of you saying Kaddish when a family member passes away, you can hire someone to say it for you, like they used to let rich Americans hire replacements to serve in the Civil War. 

The Kaddish service may not yet be available in real life, but in this thought-provoking novel by Nathan Englander, it’s up and running. His protagonist, Larry, decides to join, with far-reaching, unforeseen consequences.

As the story begins, Larry has wandered far from his Orthodox upbringing and from his family’s home in Memphis, Tenn., relocating to New York City. When his father dies, he travels to Tennessee for the funeral and the shiva, but he feels increasingly uncomfortable in the presence of what he calls “southern, Memphis, Gracelandian Jews.”

As the shiva ends, his sister Dina tries to make Larry promise to say Kaddish for their father every day for the next 11 months, as tradition decrees. He balks, but he also wants to placate her, so he does what any modern man would do. He scours the internet and comes up with what he thinks will be the perfect solution: kaddish.com.

He studies the site and fills out the necessary forms, with data about the deceased and more personal information as well, including “anecdotes or representative memories that might better muster a portrait of the departed.”

Larry is satisfied, comparing the site to “a JDate for the dead.” And soon he gets a response from a student named Chemi, who promises to fulfill Larry’s responsibility of saying the prayer for his late father. Wracked with sudden grief, but also relieved to be rid of his duty, he enters his credit card information and clicks “purchase.” Done.

But of course, in the hands of a skilled writer like Englander, the story isn’t done at all. This is just the beginning. Skip ahead 20 years and carefree Larry has transformed into Reb Shuli, recapturing the Orthodoxy of his youth and teaching Talmud in Brooklyn, but tortured by the thought that he had treated his responsibility to his family so cavalierly.

What he once viewed as freedom from an outmoded obligation has become a far greater weight on his life, and his spiritual journey includes constant concern about whether kaddish.com has really fulfilled the demands of what Judaism requires.

His guilt takes him to Jerusalem on a quest to find the people behind the website and, in particular, to find Chemi, who had promised to say the prayer for his father for 11 months. His quest turns him into “the madman from Brooklyn who doesn’t give up.”

Englander is best known for his stories in “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank” and the novel “Dinner at the Center of the Earth,” as well as the translation of a “New American Haggadah” edited by Jonathan Safran Foer.  In “kaddish.com,” he has pulled off a masterful melding of the world of Torah and the world of today. It will be interesting to see whether the real-life kaddish.com becomes a financial success. The novel is already a literary one.