Author probes mysteries of the Mourners Kaddish

All his life, Leon Charney had uttered the Kaddish. By rote.

Then, when his mother died, Charney opted for the Mourner’s Kaddish, extreme edition, reciting it several times a day with a minyan for a year. The experience got him wondering why the prayer has proven so central to Jewish life.

Charney’s inquiry resulted in “The Mystery of the Kaddish,” a bestselling book he co-wrote with Israeli journalist Saul Mayzlish. On Nov. 29, Charney will speak about the book and the prayer at Berkeley’s Jewish Community Center of the East Bay.

For a man known for his work as a Middle East peace negotiator, talk show host and philanthropist, this intimate quest to understand the Kaddish might seem out of character. It wasn’t.

“What I learned,” he said from his New York office, “is that this integral prayer, brought about by rabbinical Judaism, has kept the Jewish people together for 2,000 years. The whole idea is minyan, and minyan is community.”

To research the book, Charney traveled the world, meeting with rabbis, scholars and mourners, learning the history of the Kaddish and why the prayer has meant so much to so many.

It started in the Middle Ages, which were bad times for European Jews. Between the Crusades, the blood libel and the Plague, Jewish populations plummeted.

“They needed a way to vent their grief,” Charney said. “Historically there was a Kaddish said only by the rabbis. It was an elitist prayer. The rabbis were compelled to allow the general public to participate in Kaddish. Otherwise they might look to Christian rituals. You could look at the Kaddish as a first act of Jewish democracy.”

Charney grew up in Bayonne, N.J., attending Jewish day schools and, later, Yeshiva University. He earned a law degree from Brooklyn Law School and a degree in Hebrew letters from Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

As a lawyer, Charney worked for Vance Hartke, the former Democratic senator from Indiana, helping to save Soviet Jews early in that struggle. He later enjoyed a long association with the Jimmy Carter administration, playing a back-channel role in the first Camp David accords.

What does he think of his old boss, Carter, and his provocative book “Peace Not Apartheid,” which harshly criticized Israel?

“What he’s trying to do is to convince the world that if Israel goes back to 1967 borders it can remain a Jewish state. However, his method of doing it is a bit self-righteous. The word apartheid is not the best word one could use to arouse concern about peace. On the other hand, he is not an anti-Semite. He says he’s 100 percent for Israel.”

Augmenting his résumé further, Charney became a successful New York real estate developer. He is also host of the long-running public affairs program “The Charney Report,” which has featured guests ranging from Yassir Arafat to Ehud Olmert to Bonnie Raitt.

A prominent New York philanthropist, he has given more than $10 million to New York University Medical Center and its cardiac and vascular medicine departments.

As for his inquiry into the Kaddish, Charney did not limit his research to rabbinic scholars. At one point, he found himself talking with a man in Florida, an avowed atheist, saying Kaddish for his father in a local synagogue.

“He told me he came to say the Kaddish three times a day because he felt it was respectful to his father,” Charney recalls. “I asked him, ‘What was the best thing you did with your father?’ He said he used to go Yankee Stadium with him. I said, ‘Why not say Kaddish for him in Yankee Stadium?'”

Leon Charney will speak 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 29, at the JCC of the East Bay, 1414 Walnut St., Berkeley. Admission is free. Information: (510) 848-0237, or online at www.jcceastbay.org.

Dan Pine

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