The Illuminated Kaddish: Artist finds beauty in prayer after death of a friend

It’s one of the most oft-repeated phrases in Jewish life: “Yitgadal v’yitkadash,” the opening words of the Mourner’s Kaddish. Yet how many know the full meaning of the Jewish prayer for the dead?

Hyla Shifra Bolsta does. She wanted to know, word for word.

After the death of a lifelong friend seven years ago, the artist in Mendocino County’s Fort Bragg delved deeply into the hidden recesses of the Kaddish. At the same time, Bolsta embarked on a series of paintings and drawings to express her grief and wonder.

The result of that dual enterprise is “The Illuminated Kaddish,” Bolsta’s artistic interpretations of the ancient Aramaic prayer, as well as her well-researched take on its significance.

The book’s Hebrew calligraphy, pen-and-ink drawings, dreamy Chagall-esque paintings and multiple quotes from the sages capture her spirit-quest. The 108-page hardcover is filled with images of the Lion of Judah, the Tree of Life, hands in prayer, floating feminine figures and a ubiquitous figure eight signifying infinity.

Before she started on the book, “I had been saying Kaddish like someone who doesn’t know it,” recalled Bolsta. “I had not been particularly religious. I didn’t practice the full-blown mourner’s traditional rules when my father died.”

Much of that turned around as she became more involved with her congregation — Mendocino Coast Jewish Community, located in the tiny town of Caspar — especially after the loss of her friend.

Bolsta, 65, first met Laura Mitzner when they were teenagers in Yonkers, N.Y. An orphan, Mitzner suffered from schizophrenia and had a difficult life. But the two remained close friends, even after Bolsta moved to California in 1976 with her husband, to further her career as a professional artist.

“I was connected with her in a way different from most people I know,” she remembers. “The quality she had was such sweetness, despite everything she went through.”

As Mitzner became sick, suffering from brain cancer, Bolsta re-examined her own mortality, finding release in painting.

Then one day, she recalls, “I went into my studio to work on a series of images. I couldn’t get to work. Pacing back and forth, I picked up a book on [16th-century Flemish painter Pieter] Bruegel, and I see the image of death playing a mandolin. That’s when I sat down and created the image that is the beginning [of her book].”

Simultaneously, seemingly out of nowhere, a phrase came to her, the meaning of which she did not understand: “As death lifted the trumpet, they embraced for the last time.” That’s when the phone rang. Mitzner had died. She was 59.

In the Jewish way of mourning, the Kaddish looms large as a source of comfort and as a reflection on the divinity of the universe. Bolsta consulted with her rabbi, Margaret Holub, and Rabbi Avram Davis (formerly of Berkeley’s Chochmat HaLev) and sought out texts to learn more about the prayer.

“We went over the words,” Bolsta recalls of an early session with Holub. “We spent three hours on the first two lines. I was stunned. I thought only rabbis write books. It never occurred to me that a lay person could do this. [Holub] said, ‘You don’t have to be a rabbi.’ ”

In her lushly illustrated book, Bolsta methodically works her way through the Kaddish. Among her observations: The opening line “Yitgadal

v’yitkadash” is composed of two reflexive verbs. Thus one translation would be “Magnify yourself and sanctify yourself.”

Now that the project is done, Bolsta says when she recites the Kaddish, the experience is nothing like her rote recitations of the past.

“Sometimes a word [from Kaddish] comes to me,” she says, “and I’m with the word for a while. When I read anything from Torah, I see it differently. I have become a differently layered person.”

“The Illuminated Kaddish: Interpretations of the Mourner’s Prayer”
by Hyla Shifra Bolsta ( Ktav Publishing, 108 pages, $27.50)

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.