8: Text and translation, Jewish prayers, the Kaddish and El Maleh Rachamim.

8: Text and translation, Jewish prayers, the Kaddish and El Maleh Rachamim.

Angels in America includes two prayers that are important features of Jewish ritual for mourning the dead.

The Mourner’s Kaddish is an Aramaic prayer that is traditionally recited publicly after the death of a child, parent, spouse, sibling, or close relative. The Kaddish does not overtly mention death; instead, the language of the prayer praises God and magnifies his name. The Kaddish is also recited in other contexts, but is referred to as the Mourner’s Kaddish when it is recited in mourning. One of Angels in America’s most famous scenes is when the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg helps Louis (who does not know the words) say the Mourner’s Kaddish for Roy Cohn after his death – even though Cohn was largely responsible for her death.

El Maleh Rachamim (“God Full of Compassion”) is a prayer recited at the end of a funeral service, upon visiting the graves of relatives, and when a person is called up to the Torah on the anniversary of a close relative’s death. In some communities, it is also recited during the Yizkor service for memorializing the dead on Yom Kippur. El Maleh Rachamim asks God to grant peace to the soul of the deceased. The worshipper also pledges to contribute to charity in remembrance of the departed person. In Act 3 of Millennium Approaches, Prior thinks he hears Nurse Emily reciting this prayer for him in Hebrew, interrupting her delivery of an optimistic prognosis that he may live for years in spite of his AIDS.

Suggested Activity: Read the translations of the Kaddish and El Maleh Rachamim as a class and discuss the meaning of the prayers. Discuss in small groups: how do these prayers function in Angels in America? How would the play be different if they weren't included? 

Ask students what makes the Kaddish scene in particular powerful. Why is it significant that the Kaddish is recited in this scene? What does it tell us about Louis’s character? About Ethel Rosenberg’s?

Sources: Ha-Siddur Ha-Shalem (Daily Prayer Book), trans. Philip Birnbaum (New York: Hebrew Publishing Company, 1949), 137-38.

Yizkor 12, trans. Francis Nataf, Sefaria, accessed February 2020.