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Kaddish for a Squirrel
This story describes an afternoon in July 2016. I published an earlier version of this on Medium that same month, and later, in the Times of Israel. After reading Tuesday’s newsletter, an old friend suggested I share this here on Substack.
"Ooh! Gross! It’s a dead squirrel!”
“Where?” demands David, a second before he sees the red, brown, and black remains of the fluffy-tailed rodent. One car killed the little guy, and judging by the state of things, dozens more have successively flattened him (her?) over what’s probably been at least three or four hours.
I have picked the kids up from their summer day camp at the Kabbalah Centre. We are on our way to an early and much-anticipated pizza dinner. We have only one more block to walk, but we have found a tragedy at the intersection of Wooster and Whitworth.
Heloise implores her brother to turn away. “We’re not supposed to look at dead things,” she reminds him.
It’s true that, in the Kabbalah Centre community to which we belong, there is a widespread superstition that to gaze upon dead things, even roadkill, is to expose oneself to the energy of death. It is better, some say, to avert one’s eyes. My kids have picked up that belief.
My son throws a small tantrum. “I want to see,” he cries. “Please let me see.” His sister is equally emotional. “You can’t, you can’t, it’s so bad, oh my God, it’s so bad.”
They start shaking each other on the sidewalk. They are hot and tired, and they want pizza and they’ve each had quite the day, so melodrama is up first on the menu.
“Actually,” I say, “I think we should look. It’s just death, and death is part of life. If you want to, we can look together.”
The kids stare at each other, then each give tentative nods. We step out into the street, watching for cars. We edge closer to the corpse.
David is solemn, full of wonder. “He’s really dead. He’s in pieces.”
“I guess it’s not so bad,” Heloise admits. “But we shouldn’t touch, right?”
“No, just look,” I advise.
Cars come and we go back to the sidewalk, and then, when there’s a lull in traffic, we step back into the street.
“Is it a boy or a girl?” David is curious.
“I think it was a girl. I hope it wasn’t a mommy.” I hear the beginnings of a catch in my daughter’s throat.
“I think it was a boy. Maybe he was trying to get home to his mommy.” Having shared that awful thought, David begins to weep. Cars come again. Back to the sidewalk.
My kids hold each other, mourning the squirrel. Heloise comforts her brother with a task.
“David, what do you think his name was?”
My son hesitates only a second. “His name was Yosef. He had many brothers.”
(Someone paid attention to something in Hebrew school.)
Heloise asks what will happen to Yosef’s body.
“I’m sorry, my love. I think a lot more cars are going to run over him, and then the city will come and scrape him up. But you know, he’s dead. He’s not in any pain.”
A car runs over Yosef for emphasis. David gives a small yelp of empathy, and offers encouragement to the corpse: “It’s okay, it doesn’t hurt!”
“Can we have a funeral for him?” Heloise feels something is owed.
“We can’t touch it. I’m sorry.”
“Can we say a blessing then?” The kids have grown up keeping Shabbat, hearing the Torah, and celebrating the holidays. There’s a blessing for everything. They assume I have one handy. I don’t.
“Should I say kaddish?”
“Yes! Kaddish for Yosef!” My children hop in excitement.
(Kaddish is the Jewish mourner’s prayer. Some believe it may elevate the souls of the departed ones in whose name it is recited.)
I don’t think you’re supposed to say this prayer for squirrels. Then again, I haven’t read the tractate that says you can’t say kaddish for a squashed rodent. There are, I assume, multiple opinions. I imagine a host of wise men, tzaddikim and posekim, sitting around a table, debating the matter. I think of my great-great-great-grandfather Shimon, head of the beit din (a rabbinical court) in a little Central European village. I suspect Shimon might disapprove. My kids matter more.
Yitgadal v’yitkadash shmei raba…
I continue, probably making a hash of it. The kids stand solemn, looking from my face to the squirrel and back again. Three more cars pass, making Yosef still less like anything that once had a face.
Heloise isn’t quite done. “I want to say my own prayer for Yosef. David, want to say it with me?”
They wait for a break in the traffic, and we walk back to the body.
“Now, David,” instructs the big sister.
They begin the blessing they know by heart.
Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech haolam…
Heloise asks, “Abba, how do you say squirrel in Hebrew?”
“I’m sorry, mousie, no idea.”
“Okay, what is it in Spanish?”
We are Angelenos, after all. Every foreign tongue is holy. “Ardilla, I think.”
Heloise: Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech haolam, ardilla Yosef ben Avraham baruch Hashem.
“Amen!” My son and I chant in unison.
(A rough translation: “Blessed are you, Lord, king of creation, Squirrel Joseph son of Abraham, thanks be to God.”)
Back to the curb again.
“Can we go to pizza now?” I ask. Shalom Pizza – the neighborhood’s most trusted kosher pizzeria – is within smelling distance. I’m worried that the site of all of Yosef’s viscera will have ruined appetites, but I’m soon set to rights. The kids are hungry and demand to go.
Or not just yet.
Heloise looks back at the street. “We should give him something first. David, help me pick flowers.”
The area is well-stocked; we quickly rustle up a blue hydrangea, a yellow rose, and several dandelions.
One last pilgrimage to the middle of the street. The offerings are scattered onto most of Yosef, who is slowly being spread ever wider over the intersection, pieces of himself pushing on like intrepid satellites, voyaging away from home.
A final benediction from the girl child: “Yosef, you were a good squirrel, and even if you didn’t listen to mommy, she loved you very much and she still loves you. When she dies, she will come see you, so you don’t have to be afraid. Goodbye, Yosef.”
“Goodbye, Yosef,” says my son.
“Goodbye, little squirrel,” I say, as the tears start down my cheeks. So help me Hashem, I am standing in the middle of Wooster Avenue on a hot July afternoon, holding my children’s hands, crying over roadkill.
Heloise beams at her tearful father and brother.
“We’re finished here.”