Kaddish is an evening-length work for chorus, soloists, and chamber ensemble; a cycle of fifteen original songs. My intention in writing it is to make common cause with those who survived the Holocaust. I want the audience to feel some shadow of what the survivors felt and feel. I want us to carry in our hearts, and, metaphorically, on our backs, those who perished.

The libretto for Kaddish is fashioned largely from testimonies of survivors; primarily first-hand interviews which I conducted over several years. Because of the verbatim use of testimony, the messages are an authentic and accurate reading of the feelings and thoughts of some of the survivors of the Holocaust.

The fifteen movements of Kaddish are grouped into three sections, with an entr’acte between them drawing out some of the themes of the overall work. The piece begins with reflections of life in central Europe before the Holocaust. These suggest a diverse range of social experiences: urban and rural, rich and poor, secular and religious, while at the same time reflecting a common cultural identity in the Jewish fabric of their everyday lives. The survivors I spoke with had in common the insular experience of living among neighbors – Polish and Ukrainian, mostly – who interacted with them in many ways easily on a daily basis but at the same time hated them from their earliest years, were violent against them, fundamentally excluded them from their lives. Also noteworthy was a love of education, which has been a constant in Jewish life since its biblical beginnings.

The second part of Kaddish tells personal stories of actual events which took place during the Holocaust: only a few of the vast number of unimaginably horrible stories from the ghettos, the trains, the camps. There is a reflection on the unique, hardened-in-the-fire quality of the survivors who emerged from the Holocaust. The entr’acte following this section of the work concludes with a link to the ongoing theme of Jewish otherness, including texts taken from the Jewish Bible.

The third and closing section of Kaddish begins with “Litany:” a kind of roll call of a very small number of the dead: a list which nonetheless goes on for some time. There follows a setting of the words of the Mourners’ Kaddish itself, sung for these and all victims of genocide. The piece concludes with some reflections on what it has all come to, for survivors. One of the most powerful themes which has emerged is how so much of their subsequent lives were based on their feelings about those who had died: their parents, brothers and sisters. They have felt an imperative to survive and to start new families that is stunning in its fierceness. When Naomi sings: “I am here. I survived, and look who is with me!” she is telling us that it is because she has children who have grown up healthy, well-supported and happy, that she, and we, the Jewish people, have- for the moment- triumphed. These children were born to save us from the destruction of the Holocaust. They were born to carry on the lives of those who died, in some way.

These final words of Kaddish serve as an emblem of the resilience and determination of the survivors to carry on their lives and in some way the lives of those who perished, by living fully, in families, by raising children. To this day, for a Jew, these simple things can never be taken for granted. Thus daily-ness, ordinariness, the simple ability to have a normal life, to raise children, is, finally, the great blessing of the survivors.

And when the chorus, at the end, joins Naomi, and sings: “I am here!” they are meant to be heard as the great company of souls, singing back to us. It is small consolation, perhaps, to imagine this great company joining us in harmony as we cherish them and remember them. But it is something that perhaps helps us carry their lives on our backs as we try, in our various ways, to repair the world.

By singing the actual words of Holocaust survivors telling their stories, Kaddish creates empathy in its audience. With its passionate story of the redemptive power of the simple virtues of daily living, the empathy Kaddish inspires motivates its audience to stand up against genocide.


I. The World Before

1. Where We Came From – introduction of some of the “characters.” The movement opens with a setting of a Yiddish folk song, Oifn Pripichik: “In the hearth a fire is burning…” It touches on the Mourner’s Kaddish, in a kind of prefiguring, and continues by actually introducing some of the survivors I interviewed. For each one, their home town -shtetl- is followed by the chorus whispering other names: some of the perished who came from the same places, and who are here represented by those who survived.

2. Like Cherries in the Winter – a mosaic of vignettes of experiences of several survivors, focused on the still-familiar intersection between fine food and religious practice.

3. My Father Bought Me A Horse – The Jews of Eastern Europe were both poor and rich, urban and rural. They all prioritized education: the People of the Book.

4. Hate Me Till Tuesday- a reminder that anti-semitism in Europe did not begin with the Nazis.

Entr’Acte 1

5. Mutter Erd – a poem by Anna Margolin, written in the first decade of the twentieth century, in New York, in Yiddish. An evocation of the long history of suffering, and the eternal optimism that can often be found in oppressed people.

II: The Holocaust

6. My Daughter’s Name – In Jewish tradition, a child may only be named after someone if they are dead. If you had a sister named Raisha, and your daughter’s name is Raisha, there is a hard story waiting to be told.

7. Himmler’s Aria: Decent Fellows – a chilling testament to man’s capacity for self-delusion, from the words of a pep talk Himmler gave his troops in Posen, in which he congratulates them for remaining decent fellows while performing their “difficult” work.

8. Arrival at Auschwitz – tries to capture the frantic, chaotic, horrific energy of the moments of initial arrival at the death camps, and of separation of families which often took place right at that moment.

9. What a Beautiful Place You Have Here – an ironic juxtaposition of two survivor testimonies about the Holocaust, with the vague contemplations of a present-day survivor in a California garden, and with the eerily unaware “topics for discussion” which appear at the back of a textbook of Jewish History published in the United States in 1935.

10. A Burden You Cannot Share – This song voices the sense that was once the most prevalent among survivors that the experience of the Holocaust was fundamentally unknowable and immutable. As the older survivors have almost completely passed on, those who were children and teenagers and survived have shown a willingness to teach, to engage with those who wish to understand, that gives some reason for hope.

Entr’Acte 2

11. Is My Voice Too Loud? – a juxtaposition of fragments from the Bible, survivor comments and other writing, struggling with the age-old question of otherness.

III. Tikkun Olam

12. Litany – a spoken word, conductor’s improvisation, whose text consists entirely of the name, date and place of birth, date and place of death, of over 2000 of the perished, taken from the Yad Vashem database. This is the moment in Kaddish when we take these few – and regret we cannot take more – on our backs, through this work.

13. Kaddish Prayer – sung for these and all victims of genocide.

14. Nothing is as Whole as a Heart which has been Broken – a hymn in testament to the healing power of the simple virtues of daily life and of family, framed with a chorus adapted from the sayings of the mystical Rabbi Nachman of Breslov.

15. So Here I Am – The personal expression of triumph over the evil of the Holocaust through surviving and raising a family. To many hearing Kaddish, this may seem to be no big deal. But for those under the threat of genocide, it can never be taken for granted. It is the most precious gift life offers: the chance to pass on life.