The surreal state of Anthony Fienberg’s mourning, which has taken him across the world and into synagogues of differing denominations where he has often, but not always, said the Mourner’s Kaddish, began nine months ago on Oct. 27 when his mother, Joyce Fienberg, was killed during the Tree of Life attack.
In the period since her loss, Anthony Fienberg, a Parisian resident who left Pittsburgh three decades ago, has observed and experienced multiple customs. In Zurich, Fienberg attended services but was silent since the practice in the Swiss space is for a single supplicant to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish. Although the individual’s proclamation effectively quieted all other mourners, Fienberg was not offended.
“I’d seen it two years ago for my father,” he said.
Less than a year after Fienberg finished mourning his father, Stephen Fienberg, the son began mourning his mother. During each stint, Fienberg studied, performed mitzvot and recited the Kaddish on each parent’s behalf, and although those tasks have enabled him to uphold particular values, the experience of saying Kaddish has afforded a unique view of global Jewish life.
Fienberg’s desire to recite the familiar text has taken him into religious venues where he has been both probed as to why he is saying Kaddish and sites where he has been largely ignored.
“I said Kaddish for about a week in Denver and not once did they ask,” he said.
The absence of inquiry didn’t bother him. “That’s not why I go,” said Fienberg. “I don’t feel the need anymore to explain why or ‘I got to tell somebody so they feel pity, sorrow, compassion.’ No, I’m there to say Kaddish … I’m there to do what the Kaddish is supposed to do, which is to sanctify the name of God and to elevate the soul.”
Recitation independent of others’ awareness is a welcome state and one in which Fienberg is happy to operate free of judgement. During morning minyan recently, Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers reiterated to him that there is only one judge.
“I don’t need to tell anybody — I know why” I’m saying Kaddish, said Fienberg. “I’m not there for that … so I don’t need to be judged.”
Reciting the Kaddish is a deeply personal endeavor that is fundamental to Jewish practice. Yet the prayer’s origins are obscure. Scholars cite the Machzor Vitry, an 11th-century French work, and its recounting of an anecdote involving Rabbi Akiva, the classic Jewish sage from the late first and early second centuries, as a possible initial source. The practice developed in both Sephardi and Ashkenazi communities around the world. These days it has become so intrinsic to the Jewish mourning experience that Brandeis University professor Jonathan Sarna once quipped, “The prayer for the dead gives life to the American synagogue.”
As for Fienberg, saying the Kaddish has been an illuminating undertaking. Both for his father, and again for his mother, Fienberg has vigilantly pursued countless opportunities for its recitation. In Marseille, he walked 20 minutes from his hotel to attend a 6:15 morning minyan, and in Metz, Frankfurt, London and throughout Israel, he stopped regularly at synagogues for daily prayer.
Visits to these places have granted “some different perspective,” he said. “It’s amazing, the world is so small and we’re all still Jews.” Customs and pronunciations can differ, but “we all say the same prayers essentially the same way.”
Finding such commonalities is important to Fienberg as an American in Paris. In the Jewish French community, Fienberg’s Ashkenazi heritage places him in the minority, and he already feels a bit like an “oddball,” he said, in the larger Parisian population because of certain linguistic limitations.
Fienberg moved to France in 1995 after spending his junior year of college there. He is basically fluent in French, but some of his terminology can be baffling to native speakers.
“I can pass but not for very long. It will last for five or 10 minutes before somebody starts looking at me funny and people start thinking that my parents dropped me on my head when I was a kid,” he said. “Sometimes it’s not the right words in the right place or you pronounce a word a little bit funny, but I can go for a while. I can pass, but I’m not in the Second World War trying to get by. I’m just trying to live.”
Survival has been on Fienberg’s mind. As an executive and senior risk insurance professional, he travels a lot, but finds great stability in his family. Fienberg and his wife have five children — ages 9 to 16, including two sets of twin girls — whose resiliency has proven educational, he explained.
They’ve made clear “it’s not like nothing happened,” he said, “but it’s a fact. OK, it sucks, but we don’t forget, you know, we have to move on.”
For Fienberg, the way he moves on is guided by what his mother would have wanted, which is to recognize the “importance of family and making people feel part of a family,” demonstrating a “love for others” and exhibiting “respect,” he said.
“As a son, irrespective of the circumstances, that’s what you’re supposed to do and that’s what I want to do,” said Fienberg. “I believe that’s the best way to negate, to deny, the objectives of that event.”
Moving forward also changes depending on where Fienberg is. “When I’m in Paris, I have my Paris thing going on, and when I’m here, I got my Pittsburgh thing going on,” he said.
Between the two synagogues he attends in France, a few people and the rabbi know of his situation, but “most people don’t know in general” what happened on Oct. 27, he said. “Most of the Jews have a vague idea. Something happened in the United States. They couldn’t tell you the name of the city. They couldn’t tell you where it was on the map: east, west, north, south. They have no idea.”
It’s what Fienberg calls a “fait diver” in French and “a miscellaneous fact” in English.
“It’s one of a list of things, generic news, that happen. And that’s not because it’s not honoring. It’s just, it’s so far away, and they’ve got enough issues in France as it is,” he said.
Coming back to Pittsburgh isn’t always easy for Fienberg, who now prays in the same Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha minyan his mother did. Drives around the neighborhood take him past “Stronger Than Hate” signs in windows or by buildings he recalls from his childhood — including the one on the corner of Wilkins and Shady avenues, where the shooting took place.
“I went to Hebrew school in that building. I had my bar mitzvah in that building. My brother had his bar mitzvah. He went to Hebrew school. I remember fasts of the firstborn, etc. So I’m intimately tied to the building.”
He has plenty of other Pittsburgh memories as well, including being a student at Sterrett Classical Academy and Taylor Allderdice High School. He played for the “first city school to ever win a high school hockey championship,” he said.
Old friends and family, such as his Washington, D.C.-based brother, Howard, who he messages daily, have offered comfort, as has the larger community. But straddling two continents is not easy.
And of course, visits to Pittsburgh have different connotations now.
“I remember being on the plane between Stockholm and Chicago trying to get back here and pay less than $10,000 for a ticket,” he said of the aftermath of the shooting. “It’s just an absolutely surreal situation. Nine months and a bit in … I’m OK. Whereas I think it’s very difficult to be OK, it’s very difficult to get over very specific events like this, but what I explained to a lot of people is that the hardest part is just that I lost my mother, and relatively quickly after my father. It’s less than two years Hebrew-wise, but also on the civil calendar, so losing my mother is tough. I was very close to her.”
Fienberg plans to remain in Pittsburgh for a few more weeks, then return in October to mark the one-year anniversary. Between now and then there will be several hundred opportunities to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish, and Fienberg plans to make the most of them.
“Nine months on, I think we’re doing OK. We got a long way to go,” he said. “I think we’re trying to make positive out of negative. That’s what we’re trying to do as much as possible.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.