Here’s a story, a story about IBM and open-source. It is also a kaddish story.

Since early in 2003 I have been a member of the team responsible for the day-to-day management of IBM’s open-source activities. When an opening came up and my name was suggested I eagerly sought the job, both because I was looking for something new to do and also because I wanted to see how a major corporation engaged with open-source as a serious business activity. One of the first proposals I dealt with was brought forward in March of 2003.

The proposal was called “C Vacuum Cleaner” and came from a team in the Netherlands. It related to a project started in 1999 by an IBM employee, Jan Willem Wissema. It was described as an “Automated C/C++ Preprocessor Statement Cleaner” and had evolved to a point where it had become a “Tool used within IBM’s Internal Mission by IBM AMS Netherlands” and the “CFSW Project – IBM’s High-End Software Configurator for our Sales force.” The proposal went on in the next few sentences:

Jan Willem Wissema fell ill, 2001.

Last wishes on his last day — request to IBM to consider “open-sourcing” his Vacuum Cleaner work.

Open-sourcing the Vacuum Cleaner has business benefit to IBM.

Though one might assume that the nature of the proposal would make approval obvious, I was impressed by the thoroughness of the presentation. The proposing team met all the requirements and answered all the questions asked about proposals to start a new open-source project. The proposal was approved.

I’m proud to work at IBM, because I get to work with the kind of folks who didn’t ignore Jan Willem Wissema’s request, but worked to meet it, and in so doing made his work available after his death so others could see it and perhaps even make use of it. They honored his memory. That’s why my IBM badge is one of my proudest possessions.

As I have recently come to appreciate, this story is not just about IBM and open-source, but is also a kaddish story.

A few months ago I noticed a new book in our house: Living a Year of Kaddish: A Memoir, by Ari Goldman. Ari Goldman is, in his own words:

Ari L. Goldman, a nationally recognized expert in religion and journalism, is the author of three books, including the best-selling The Search for God at Harvard. He serves as a tenured professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he is the director of the Scripps Howard Program in Religion, Journalism and the Spiritual Life. Professor Goldman came to Columbia in 1993 after spending 20 years at The New York Times, most of it as a religion writer.

My wife said the book would be the first book to be discussed by a reading group at our Temple this fall. The book is about his experiences mourning his father’s death and the people who formed the community in which he mourned that death over the course of a year.

It is also a book filled with stories, stories about people gathered together in that community in a process of collective mourning, a process which collectively leverages the power of the community to assist each individual mourner.

Here a few of the quotes and writings that can be found in the early pages of the book:

After the grave is covered by earth, the son takes off his shoes, walks a few steps from the cemetery and says kaddish, for it is a prayer that renews the world.

Rabbi Joseph Caro, in his sixteenth-century code of Jewish law, the Shulchan Aruch

At the age of fifty, I was no longer the child of divorce. I was no longer the child of anyone. Losing my parents altered my view of myself — and of them — in ways I had not anticipated. My year of mourning, for all its hardships, became a time of insight and growth

Mourning also became a time for mentoring and modeling. I lost my father, I reasoned, but I myself am still a father. …
for me, kaddish was as much a chain as it was a prayer. It was a chain that in some way continued toconnect me to my parents, and will some day connect me to my children.

And, finallly, mourning became a time of community.

We came for prayer and we prayed, but we also talked, joked, laughed, and gossiped. We shared each other’s stories and helped dissolve each other’s pain. We became a community in the very best sense of the word; we knew that as individuals we were bound to the earth, but as a minyan we could reach the very gates of heaven. My kaddish connected me to my family, but it was empowered by my community. The story of my year of kaddish starts with me, but it derives meaning and context through the people I touched and the people who touched me every morning.

The book club met to discuss the book this past Sunday morning. By a stroke of great good fortune Mr. Goldman was at our Temple that same day, to discuss his book at a “Brotherhood breakfast.” We all got to hear him speak and the book club members were able to engage with the author of a book just after discussing it.

Kaddish is both a prayer and a ritual process. The Kaddish Prayer is, as Professor Goldman said in his talk, the most well-known prayer after the Sh’ma. Almost everyone knows of it or has heard it at some time, most likely at a funeral. For example, back in the 60’s, decades before I became a Jew, I recall seeing an episode of the TV series Combat! with a scene in which a soldier has just died. There’s a short part, just a few seconds long, in which a friend learns of the death, and then says the first words of the prayer, “Yitgaddal v’yitqaddash sh’meh rabba,” before moving on. [1] Just by that I knew that both the dead soldier and his comrade were Jewish.

The prayer is also central to the Jewish process of mourning, of bereavement; see Bereavement in Judaism.

He gave a very moving presentation. At one point he said he had spoken many times about the book and that he could usually see the effect on the audience. I can personally attest to that in that, while I never quite cried, I came close to doing so, because of the power of the memories his words brought to mind.

One of the stories Ari related was one that struck me when I first read the book, because it turns out some people say kaddish for others, even though they have no obligation to do so. As he relates on page 54:

Allan had a kaddish story of his own, too. He had been attending our morning minyan for a year when a neighbor and friend, Deborah Norden, died in an airplane crash near Pittsburgh. At the memorial service he learned that no one would be saying kaddish for her because her parents were not observant and her husband considered himself a Buddhist. Allan felt that someone should remember Deborah with a year-long kaddish, and so he assumed the obligation himself. Most of all, he was moved by the death of this young woman who had been his friend. But, as he also told me, “In the back of my mind was that I could in some way perhaps make up for not saying kaddish for my father.”

Where did he get the idea? He said that he was following the example of a friend of his father’s named Archie Green. When Archie realized that Allan and his brother would not be saying the year-long kaddish for their father, he decided to take on the obligation himself in memory of his friend. “I did for Deborah what Archie did for my father,” Allan said. And several years later, when Archie died and left no one to say kaddish, Allan Koznin spent another year saying kaddish, at Ramath Orah, this time for Archie Green.

During the discussion after his talk, I posed the following question to Professor Goldman:

I started blogging quite intensively back in mid-September. Though I have thought of myself as a solitary person one of the things that has struck me is how much of my blogging has been about specific people and stories about them.

But the one thing that has surprised me the most, something I would have never have thought of when I started blogging, is how many of my posts have been about me as a Jew.

Aside from the book itself, has the experience of writing it changed how you write or what you write about?

He responded, as best I can recall, that it had indeed changed him. He has kept a diary since the age of 19, and writes to clarify his thinking, to learn more about himself. He said he had learned much from the writing of the book, and that he had been especially moved during many of the talks he has given about the book since its publication.

He asked for the name of my blog. Realizing he might actually read it, I copied back some of the posts I had spun off the the “Tracking Tom Friedman” blog, as one of them is the first in which I mentioned my being a Jew.

Here is a list of the posts on this topic, in the order in which they were posted, earliest first:

In closing, I have often said that open-source is not just about the code, but about the people who write it. And it’s not just about the individual developers but the communities they build. And it’s not just the communities but the relationships you can build with those communities.

Both Kaddish and open-source are about communities. For the last few months in my volunteer activities trying to find ways to encourage folks with open-source skills to use their skills to make the world a better place — what we Jews call Tzedakah, or Charity — I have come to appreciate that open-source is very important in that it offers new ways to make our world a better place; for example, the Sahana project I have mentioned in early posts and also in the area of education, an area which I intend to make my focus going forward. So those of us who engage in this effort should understand that what we do is not only important, but in some way is sacred, and hence we have an obligation to preserve and strengthen open-source as much as we can, so it can be used by communities yet to be formed.

Jan Willem Wissema – may his memory be a blessing.


1. The Kaddish prayer is in Aramaic, not Hebrew. The two are closely related. One of our Temple members, a native of Israel, saw Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ soon after its release. The soundtrack includes Hebrew and Aramaic; see The Passion Of The Christ – Aramaic an ancient language comes alive. She said that because of her native fluency in Hebrew she was able to understand much of the Aramaic portions of the soundtrack and that she found it virulently anti-Semitic.

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  1. By Google Optimization « The Wayward Word Press on March 16, 2009 at 10:53

    […] Kaddish. The Kaddish prayer is in Aramaic, not Hebrew. The two are closely related. One of our Temple members, a native of Israel, saw Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion … […]

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