For some, heartbreak means plugging in headphones and blasting Alanis Morrissette. For others, the lyrics of Taylor Swift are perfect background noise for wallowing in self-pity for hours on end. For Jewish-Canadian artist Ben Sterlin, in the months after the end a serious romantic relationship, the “Mourner’s Kaddish” became his breakup anthem of choice.
Sterlin launched his second album, “Mourner’s Prose” in late March 2022. The 35-minute work uses a combination of lyrical poetry, sparse instrumentals, and, yes, the Kaddish to tackle the artist’s innermost feelings in the aftermath of a breakup with another man. The album not only provides a Jewish spin on an underrated genre – it is not every day you hear someone chanting in Aramaic in your spoken word poetry – but Sterlin’s vulnerable lyrics address topics of longing, addiction, and loss he believes are essential for Jewish communities to hear.
“At the end of high school, I discovered spoken word poetry,” Sterlin said, explaining the origins of his penchant for the medium. “One of the first people I discovered was Sarah Kay, and I really loved the way she played with words and flow and cadence. When I went to Queen’s [University], there was a monthly poetry slam. I made sure to prepare a piece to perform at slams every month, but I would never win. So I got bitter and stopped going.”
While Sterlin stopped writing after graduation, a FaceTime breakup during the beginning of COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020 inspired him to pick the medium back up again. Then, another breakup in 2021 inspired his latest work, “Mourner’s Prose,” in which the Sephardic-Jewish artist has further fine-tuned his unique voice. “I put pencil to paper, and since then it has really opened the floodgates,” said Sterlin. “I now create work that is entirely about my own experience and the people around me.”
In the album’s track “Mourner’s Kaddish,” Sterlin reinvents the traditional Jewish prayer of mourning to grieve his relationship with his ex-boyfriend. “We are nothing but a tombstone now / Nothing but a fleeting memory,” purrs Sterlin as an older woman chants the Kaddish in the background. Minor-key piano sets a somber, introspective tone.
From “Angels in America” to “An American Pickle,” the Kaddish has long symbolized the continuity of Jewish tradition within North American films. For Sterlin, using the Kaddish to grieve a romantic relationship also shows how traditional tools can help Jewish young adults today tackle problems in their lives.
“We say the Mourner’s Kaddish to memorialize someone’s memory and to bring it to the space of immortality in our heads,” the artist said, adding that this is just one way Judaism imbues so many aspects of life with meaning and significance. “Even in five years when I forget making that piece, I will be able to feel the sacredness of that period of my life all over again, like I made a time capsule for it.”
Other poems on the album address similar growing pains. “No Vacancy” is a surrealist story about a night at a hotel with spooky creatures lurking in the hallways. The poem features elements of the supernatural, but it captures real feelings of disorientation many young people feel in their twenties.
Another highlight, “The Day I Quit Smoking” is a rare work of Jewish art that honestly depicts the pain of being an addict. The poem is an extended narrative about the speaker imagining the day he finally kicks his nicotine addiction. The speaker talks of a blissful, carefree day spent with friends and family, only to return to a more realistic, lonely present at the end of the poem.
“The thing is, in the relationship I was addicted,” Sterlin said. “I would take whatever affection I could get, and it would leave me wanting more so much. I know that I am harming myself. I know that I am doing stuff that is taking days and weeks and months off my life.”
Sterlin hopes that by discussing the theme of addiction openly, he can break taboos within more traditional sects of the Jewish community, including the prevalence of smoking in the Orthodox world.
“Everyone has a story and a reason why they do the things they do,” Sterlin said. “Sometimes, all it takes is to ask a question, provide a judgment-free space for them to share, and really listen to what they have to say for people to feel truly heard and seen.”
Sterlin is the son of a Moroccan-Jewish immigrant who immigrated to Canada in the 1960s, and his Sephardic heritage is an enormous aspect of his identity, and a source of pride. His great-uncle founded the first Sephardic congregation in Ontario. Still, he believes the Sephardic community also has work to do when it comes to embracing aspects of modern life.
“Women are not valued in the same way men are, and my rabbi would never marry me, no matter how important it would be to me,” he said, reflecting on the norms of the Orthodox Sephardic community in which he was raised, and the way that Sephardic communities don’t have the variety of progressive denominations that mark Ashkenazi Jewish communities. “Historically, the Enlightenment that spread across Europe in the late 17th century gave European Jews of the time the space, liberty and knowledge to question what they knew about their Judaism and Jewish worship and rework it in ways they felt better suited their lives. Jews that fled to North Africa, Central Africa, and the Middle East in the wake of the Spanish Inquisition at the end of the 15th century did not receive the Enlightenment of the times, and the freedoms that came along with it.”
Despite being critical of some elements of his community, Sterlin nevertheless emphasized deep love for his Sephardic congregation and background. “In the same way that my Judaism is inextricable from me as an artist, so too is my Sephardi culture and heritage inextricable from me as a Jew. It is in trying to find peace and balance within these tensions that a lot of my work is predicated upon.”
Ben Sterlin’s latest album “Mourner’s Prose” is available on all music streaming services. He also plans on publishing his first print collection, “Man Is/ Just Names” in the near future. You can find the multitalented Jewish artist on Instagram @bennystarling or on his website, here.