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November 2004
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January 2005

Anticipating year's-end

The last week in the calendar year always feels like vacation. Even if I'm working, my thoughts are always half-on the upcoming festivities. At New Year's we host dear friends -- usually around forty people, give or take a dozen -- for a three-day gathering of cooking, feasting, singing, building things (last year, this ger), dancing, gaming, and generally reconnecting. This year we're spreading the party around, each night at a different household, but I'm hoping the general feeling (a combination of family reunion, slumber party, Entmoot, and temporary commune) will persist.

The tradition started at the end of 1999. Everyone was talking that fall about their plans for the Big New Year's, but we didn't want to go somewhere expensive or luxurious. As a lark, we invited a few dozen friends out to our rural corner of Massachusetts. (We joked that they should bring bags of rice and a generator in case civilization as we knew it came to a screeching halt at Y2K.) We didn't think many people would come. We were wrong. We had such a good time that we did it again. And again. And again.

We're absurdly lucky to have friends who will gather from far and wide (many are in New England, but others come from New Mexico, Pennsylvania, California) for the mere pleasure of seeing one another. On New Year's Eve we'll have a potluck feast, and we'll roll back the rugs and dance. Otherwise we amuse ourselves in various low-key ways. At any given moment during New Year's somebody's probably going on a hike, somebody else is orchestrating a board game or a role-playing one-shot, and somebody's playing fiddle or accordion or the organ. Somebody is cooking, somebody is washing dishes (and putting them away in odd places), somebody is singing or organizing a Shakespeare reading. It's noisy, it's intense, it's chaotic, and I look forward to it all year. Though we're always exhausted when it's over, I can't imagine calling a halt to it; the tradition enriches me in ways I can barely articulate.

We also talk a lot. About our work, our play, our dreams, what we're reading, what we're working on, what movies we each think the others absolutely must see.... Predictably, there's usually at least one good conversation about new year's resolutions.  Last year and the year before, my resolution was to find some time each day to write, exercise, or sing. I'd come to the conclusion that I'm happier when I'm doing those three things, and though I don't have the discipline to make each a daily practice, I figured if I could manage one of the three each day I'd be in good shape. The resolution does me good even when I don't live up to it; I plan to renew it, adding davven/meditate to the list.

I have several goals for 2005, many of which revolve around writing and learning. Become competent in Biblical Hebrew, for instance. (Fourteen chapters down; sixteen to go!) Compile a second book-length poetry manuscript. (I intend to start sifting through a vast pile of poems, the last five years' worth, in January.) Read Torah more often. (I'm slated to read on the first Shabbat of 2005.) Visit a new country. (We're planning a February trip now.)

Goals are different from resolutions, in that goals are finite and can be crossed off of my to-do list. Resolutions are more like directions, aims, paths. I've got goals aplenty, but of resolutions I have only two: I want to try to live up to my fourfold path, and I want to enjoy the relationships in my life as much as I can. Sometimes that means grooving on blog conversations; other times, stepping away from the computer to hang out with my marvelous spouse or nearby friends. And once a year, at year's-end, it means logging off altogether for a few days to celebrate the end of one spiral and the start of another with people who are dear to me. Torah study, blogging, poetry, travel: all are important to me, but all can wait. People are most important of all.

An early happy New Year to my readers! Thanks for taking this blog journey with me. I hope 2005 brings joy to us all.

Tsunami relief

By now we all know about the Indian Ocean earthquake and the tsunamis that it created. More than fifty-two thousand people are dead across southeast Asia, and the damage is unthinkable. (If you'd like to know more, the folks at WorldChanging are maintaining a constantly-updated summary report; you can also read some local responses to the tragedy courtesy of Malaysian blogger Jeff Ooi and Dina Mehta in Bombay.) Anyway, I just got an email from Rabbi Arthur Waskow today telling me that the American Jewish World Service is sending humanitarian aid to the people affected by the tsunami.

AJWS has been partnering with 24 non-governmental, community-based organizations in the region on sustainable community development projects for some years now. As Arthur noted in his email, because AJWS is the only Jewish organization specifically set up to assist non-Jewish communities to develop themselves, it's the only Jewish NGO with grass-roots connections and experience in the region. They're working with local groups to assess needs and provide emergency relief -- food, water, shelter and medicine -- and long-term development support.

Donations can be made by mail or phone, or online: American Jewish World Service, Asia Tsunami Relief, 45 West 36th Street, 10th Floor, New York, NY 10018; 800-889-7146; or make a secure online donation now.

Remember what I was saying yesterday about tzedakah being an obligation that holds regardless of how fat one's wallet is at any given moment? Many of us may be wincing at post-holiday credit card bills, or we may have already given what we'd allotted for charitable causes this year...but the need is so much greater than you or I can imagine, and our tradition makes it incumbent upon us to respond if we possibly can. If you want to donate via a Jewish organization, to send the message that Jews care about what's happened here, AJWS is a good way to go.  (The American Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders are also always good options; and you can also learn about more opportunities to help at the Tsunami help blog.)

Me, I'm praying for my good friend elck, vacationing in India over the holidays. I don't know where his itinerary took him, and don't know if he's okay. It's easier to worry about the one person I know than to grasp the magnitude of so many anonymous dead or grieving. Of course, they're only anonymous to me because my connections with Asia are few; but each of those deaths is its own tragedy. Saying kaddish is all we can do for the dead; making donations is what we can do for the living.


Edited to add: the Union for Reform Judaism has also established a Disaster Fund to send aid to the victims of the tsunami; visit the URJ's emergency relief web page at And the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee is collecting funds for tsunami victims, too: here.

Edited again to add: elck is okay, thank God. And I've just adjusted the death toll from 37,000 (the known number of deaths when I first posted this) to 52,000. I probably won't keep updating this post just to upgrade the number dead; you can track it yourself at Google news. It's hard to feel anything but numb in the face of a tragedy of this magnitude.

The Path of Blessing

"Jewish tradition teaches that the simple action of a brakha has a cosmic effect, for a brakha causes shefa, the 'abundant flow' of God's love and goodness, to pour into the world. Like a hand on the faucet, each brakha turns on the tap." So writes Rabbi Marcia Prager in an early chapter of The Path of Blessing. In the book that follows, she delves deeply into each word in the standard blessing formulation, exploring what we can learn from the words' context, etymological resonance, and even spelling.

Like most Jews, I learned the traditional blessing form (Baruch atah, Adonai, eloheynu melech ha-olam... -- usually translated as "Blessed are You, Adonai our God, king of the universe," or something along those lines) early, and I'm guilty of dashing through it in a kind of sing-song way so I can get to the meat of the blessing. The first half of a brakha is formulaic, and I usually want to get to the good stuff, the point of the blessing: am I saying a blessing over bread? Over wine? Over lighting candles? Over seeing a rainbow? Blessings exist for every occasion and I think they're a fabulous practice. I just haven't always paid sufficient attention to the traditional blessing-opener, except to to fiddle with it (experimenting with feminized or gender-neutral God-language, with metaphors like Wellspring and Source instead of the dominating Ruler or King). Prager's book makes me realize how much I've been missing when I give those opening words short shrift.

Like leaves and branches growing from a tree trunk, most Hebrew words derive from what is called a root. Just as each leaf must be understood as a part, fed by the roots of the whole tree, individual Hebrew words cannot be fully understood without reference to their whole tree. The root stores all the meanings flowing into each one of the leaves.

That's how Prager introduces her intent to help us study the Hebrew words one at a time, examining what each one is related to and looking to see how those relationships influence what the words say to us. For instance, baruch, "blessed," is related to breikha, "fountain", and berekh, "knee:" what might that tell us about the act of blessing, the flow inherent in the practice, or the emotional/spiritual stance it might require?

The Path of Blessing is peppered with good lines about the nature of learning ("Poor teaching in childhood not only robs us of the desire to explore further, but can leave us unaware that there is a 'further' to explore") and the nature of God ("At best, 'God’…is a job description, far better used as a verb than as a noun.") Reading this book, I reached for a pen after the first couple of pages, wanting to start underlining and making little exclamation points in the margins. Prager packs a lot of great ideas into a seemingly simple text.

Like this one: in the chapter on the word ha-olam, she notes that olam is usually translated as world or universe (space), though when it holds the prepositional letter lamed and becomes the word l'olam we translate it as forever (time). In this way, she notes, the word can mean something like space/time. God isn't merely the ruler of the world, or even all worlds; God is, and operates through, the entirety of the space/time continuum. That shift in translation is a paradigm shift.

Prager devotes a chapter to each of the words in the standard blessing formula, giving each word reverent attention. I plan to reread this a few more times, in hopes that even half of what she teaches here can become part of my consciousness in my own blessing practice.

The latter section of the book focuses on the different ways to end a blessing, offering insights and drashes into how we can see these words and the ideas behind them anew. Since most standard brakhot thank God for sanctifying us (or enabling us to sanctify ourselves) with mitzvot, Prager spends a while exploring the nature of mitzvot. She acknowledges that many non-Orthodox Jews chafe at the notion of "commandments" since we no longer feel connected with God-as-Commander. But after exploring the insights encoded in the central letters of the word, she writes, "The call to take on mitzvot is a call to make a renewed commitment through our own actions to practices revealing the divinity in all Creation." Hm. She's got me, there. "Commandments" don't excite me much, but I can get behind committing myself to right actions which make manifest the holiness of my world.

One of the interesting things about mitzvot, she notes, is that they can't just happen when we're in the mood; they need to be part of an ongoing practice. (Tzedakah/righteous giving, for instance, needs to happen consistently, not just when one's feeling particularly flush.) A regular practice of brakhot exists most fully as part of a larger regular practice of mitzvot.

Peak experiences give us glimpses of clarity and insight, but sustained practice brings them into every facet of our daily lives. Says Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev: "There is no greater path than this. For wherever you go and whatever you do -- even mundane activities -- you serve God."

I find that idea tremendously compelling. It reads to me as a variation on the Shaker motto "hands to work, hearts to God." No matter what I'm doing, no matter how boring or profane the task might be, everything can be a sacred endeavor. Reb Zalman, Prager tells us, calls this "domesticating the peak experience," and notes that "domesticate" literally means "to bring into one's home." A regular practice of blessing can help me domesticate the spiritual highs I've experienced on retreat. Given that a frequent criticism leveled against Jewish Renewal is that we're good at retreat-fostered peak experiences but not so good with the followthrough, this part of Prager's book makes me very happy indeed.

I'm amazingly happy to have discovered this book -- indeed, to have found the whole way of thinking about and experiencing Judaism that Prager both reflects and helps to create -- and I have high hopes of taking a class with her next summer if she teaches at Elat Chayyim. I've always loved the fact that blessings aren't something we "say" or "do," but something we "make" -- and Prager's just given me a wealth of new ways to think about brakhot and how they can reshape my relationship with my world. If you're looking for a good Judaic read, or if you want to revitalize your own practice of making blessings, pick this one up.

Ahh, Christmas!

Tonight at sundown Christmas begins. Whether you see it as a Christian religious holiday, or a secularized American holiday, or a thinly-veiled recasting of older festivals like Yule, there's no denying that it plays a major role in American life.

Like a lot of Jews who may not want to admit it, I'm looking really forward to Christmas. I've always liked Christmas. When I was a kid, my best friends across the street were Catholic, and I used to go to their house on Christmas day for cocoa and gingerbread and a present under their tree. Once I went with them to midnight Mass so I could see what that "altar boy" thing was all about! In return, they came to our house on Chanukah for latkes and candle-lighting and a present beside the chanukiyyah, and they joined us for Passover seders, too. I loved being able to move back and forth between tour guide ("okay, this is how you spin a dreidel, watch...") and tourist (kneelers and incense were pretty exotic).

Clearly Christmas isn't comfortable for all Jews. I have friends who find its ubiquity overwhelming. I empathize with their concerns, but I have limited patience with folks who grouse about Christmas as though its omnipresence were meant as a direct insult to them. Jews who find in Christmas an opportunity to feel like victims are ensuring themselves a whole bunch of cranky Decembers.

Me, I'm a holiday geek. I would love to interact with Muslim and Hindu and Buddhist festivals regularly; I don't, but at least I can rub shoulders with Christian holidays. I like seeing how other people do religion. Like Reb Zalman says, "I'm a spiritual peeping Tom." I like rituals, allsorts, and Christmas has plenty for me to enjoy.

Continue reading "Ahh, Christmas!" »

Darkness, darkness

"It gets dark so early now," one of my friends sighed recently. "Isn't it terrible?" Indeed, when my alarm goes off most mornings "sunrise" manifests only as a lightening of the sky and a thin smear of red along the horizon. And by the time I leave work at five in the afternoon, it is night. When I moved from Texas to New England twelve years ago, I didn't understand entirely what I was getting myself into; my first winter I quailed at the shortness of the days, the bareness of the trees, the way winter here stretches on.

But these days I actually like the foreshortened light and the snow. Somehow I've come to relish winter. I like the balance between the seasons, the sense that as one thing contracts another expands. In summer, the long high light of evening expands the sunlit day; in winter, dark expands and we meet it with fires and feasting. One would be incomplete without the other.

And this landscape needs winter; the trees and plants want their long snow-covered nap. That whole lilies of the field thing isn't from my Scripture, but I can see the wisdom in it. If the blackberry canes and the forsythia and the lilacs want winter, why shouldn't I? In their inchoate way they know spring will come in its time. And the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice, is a necessary precursor to the coming of spring.

If you want to get technical about it, charting the actual solstice can take some work, and involves concepts like the obliquity of the ecliptic. (I recommend last year's Washington Post article on the subject). For my part, I like the convention of considering the solstices and equinoxes to fall on the 21st days of December, March, June and September. That I was born on one of these might have something to do with my preferred mode of reckoning; I like to think that my equanimity relates to my equinoctial birth.

I like the way people come together in the cold and the dark. No one can survive a northern winter alone. Once that was true in a purely practical way; these days the survival tends to be more emotional than physical, but it still depends on connections with community. And in response to that need, community arises. At this time of year I feel an affinity with people in places even further north than we are: Finland, Chena Hot Springs, Nunavut. I imagine people all over the northern edge of the world rejoicing. The coldest days are yet to come, but we're headed towards summer's long light again.

I celebrated the solstice two nights ago at a congenial gathering hosted by  friends C and A. They set a beautiful table, adorned with evergreen boughs and candles; we drank hot mulled wine, and ate a cake shaped like a Yule Log (a reference to an old solstice bonfire custom, now a traditional French dessert). I brought homemade eggnog (a quintessential taste of the season, for me, though my recipe is pretty high-test, so we drink it in very small glasses) and a tin of rosemary cookies, made with some of the summer's harvest.

Dumplings are a traditional solstice food in China; in Japan some eat pumpkin while others favor soba noodles. Mulled wine and buche du Noel aside, I'm not sure I know anyone who takes solstice food traditions seriously; maybe we've replaced them with New Year's Day foods. (Among my people, black-eyed peas are de rigeur on the first of the year, and I'd feel weird starting a year without them.)

If you're interested in the symbols and stories of winter solstice and yule, Candlegrove's Yule page is terrifically informative. (I'm especially amused by the part about the yule cat.) For my part, I find satisfying balance in the fact that so many cultures hold festivals of light around now, ensuring that these days which are our darkest in literal terms are also, metaphorically, our brightest. (In my hemisphere, anyway. I suspect the December summer solstice is an entirely different thing than the December winter solstice. If anyone out there is blogging about midsummer this week, send me links...)

I'll close this post with a couple of my favorite solstice-related links. Here are photos of the earth seen from space which show gradations of light and dark around the globe. Here's a bunch of Jewish Winter Solstice tales, thanks to the fine folks at Tel Shemesh. And SB at Oratory posted a beautiful small solstice poem last year. Regardless of whether you celebrate solstice, I hope you can join me in a moment of thankfulness for having made it through the darkening days of another year.

More on Global Voices

I blogged last week about attending Global Voices, a daylong international bloggers' workshop.

If that interests you, you might enjoy this audio piece about the conference, created by Ben Walker and Rebecca MacKinnon. They edited hours of audio (the whole day was recorded) into a really tight little twelve-minute piece featuring several of the fine folks who participated in the initial Global Voices conversation. Give it a listen; this is good stuff.

Sorry this is such a short little mini-post. I'm working on a proper blogpost which will hopefully go live tomorrow; see you then!


Aid for Sudan

Things look bleak in Sudan these days. Maybe that's why I'm so eager to focus for a moment on this tiny shred of good news: Teaming up with Jewish groups, Israel to aid distressed Sudanese. It's a first: Israel has never before given aid to an Arab nation with which it has no ties.

Ruth Messinger is quoted, in that article, as saying "We're the community that knows better than anybody else the dangers of silence from the international community and we ought to lead the way[.]" She also wrote a pretty compelling opinion piece about why the rallying cry of "never again" must impel Jews to act.

Rebecca at Mystical Politics recently posted that "never again" is semantically meaningless for most of her students; they learned it in Hebrew school, but don't seem to get that the phrase implies intent to act to stop other genocides. That depresses me, but I'm heartened by the fact of professors both willing and able to take on the project of waking up Jewish adolescents and instilling in them a sense of social responsibility.

Jewish groups have raised a fair amount of money to aid Sudanese refugees. The Jewish Coalition for Sudan Relief was created in June and has raised over $250,000 (you can donate by clicking here). The American Jewish World Service has raised $500,000, and the Union of Reform Judaism has raised $172,000.

Apparently the Israeli aid has been met with shocked delight: "Muhammad Yahya, a native of Darfur and founder of a group called Representatives of the Massaleit Community in Exile, said his countrymen are grateful for the assistance and astonished by its source."

Way to go, Israel. Thanks for doing something I can be proud of.

Toward Another Diaspora Manifesto

In the current issue of Sh'ma, which subtitles itself "an online journal of Jewish responsibility," there is an essay by Dr. Aryeh Cohen called "Seek the Welfare of the City to Which I Have Exiled You...": Toward Another Diaspora Manifesto. I found it via JewSchool. Here's the pullquote they chose:

And so here we are: probably the most learned, most affluent, most politically powerful Jewish community in the history of the world, and we are tied up in knots about who we are. The borders of accepted speech are assiduously patrolled by self-appointed guardians of the walls. (I have a file of hate mail, letter after letter of people comparing me to a kapo, and I am far from alone in this.) The public domain of our institutions and the popular Jewish press has been colonized by the most right wing element in our community. Israel is not a problem for me because my allies on the progressive left think it's a problem. Israel is a problem because it claims to speak for the Jewish community, and the Jews who speak for it confound and subvert the Judaism that I love and teach -- the Judaism that can contribute to creating a better and more just world.

(Read the whole essay here.) The Diaspora, Cohen seems to be saying, is not merely the ugly stepsister of "Real Judaism" as it exists in Israel; Diaspora Judaism is a legitimate, flourishing, many-voiced real Judaism in and of itself. (Hm. That argument sounds oddly familiar...)

One might expect that someone putting forth that assertion would be a fringe-y leftist like me. Well, he might be; but he's also  Chair of the Rabbinics Department at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of the University of Judaism, which ordains Conservative rabbis. He's also President of the Progressive Jewish Alliance, which has the fantastic motto "To kvetch is act, divine." (I wonder whether they sell bumper stickers? I would totally put that on my car.)

I'm  heartened by Cohen's essay, and even more heartened to hear this viewpoint coming from the chair of a department at a Conservative seminary. His essay appears as part of a quartet  entitled New Diaspora Identity; all are worth reading, but it's Cohen's "Toward Another Diaspora Manifesto" that resonates with me most.

On desecration and rededication

Aziz at City of Brass wrote an interesting post recently, reflecting on Jeanne's reaction  to a photo of American soldiers hanging out in a mosque after taking possession of it. When Jeanne looks at that picture, she sees desecration. Aziz argues -- I think quite compellingly -- that the real desecration was the militia of Muqtada al-Sadr using the mosque for violent means, and says it was desecrated long before the American soldiers moved in. All of this is much on my mind as we approach the end of Chanukah, which commemorates the purification of the Temple from its desecration at the hands of the Syrian empire in days of old.

Mobius suggested recently that the Iraqi insurgents are today's Maccabees. Many commentors disagreed. His critics have a point that the analogy has flaws; the Syrians, tradition teaches us, outlawed Judaism and used the Temple for pagan sacrifices. American forces in Iraq aren't forbidding the practice of Islam, nor are they converting mosques into temples of consumerism (or whatever our modern-day analogue to pagan sacrifices would be).

Then again, the comparison has some metaphorical power. A lot of people regard the American troops in Iraq as occupiers and/or as representatives of an immoral Western empire. And while it's more comfortable for me to think of the Maccabbees as freedom fighters who led a revolution to preserve religious freedom, it's also possible to read them as fanatics who preferred warfare (and the possibility of martyrdom) to assimilation.

Regardless of where one comes down on these particular comparisons, the process of examining them can be fruitful. I think it's important to ask hard questions about our stories, and to seek resonance between those stories and contemporary life. I'm not saying we need to saddle children with tough questions about the nature of desecration; for kids, Chanukah revolves around candles, latkes, presents, and songs, and that's as it should be. But as one matures and develops a sense of oneself as part of a larger whole, holidays can become terrific opportunities for this kind of exploration.

In this case, I think we can learn something from considering how the presence of American soldiers with machine guns in a mosque might feel to Iraqis, and also from considering Aziz's notion that the real desecration happened when al-Sadr used a house of prayer for his own purposes. And this contemplation, in turn, can enrich our understanding of what our holiday means.

The prophetic tradition in Judaism has always taught that Judaism should be a force for positive social change. To me, that suggests that a Chanukah celebration which doesn't spur political consciousness lacks something. Studying the story of our people's liberation and our Temple's rededication should impel us to see who is oppressed and what holy places have been made impure in our own time.

VBT: Devil in the Details

Today, something slightly different from usual VR fare: a book review. As part of the Virtual Book Tour (organized by Kevin Smokler) I'm looking at Jennifer Traig's Devil in the Details, a memoir which chronicles Traig's teenage wrestle with scrupulosity ("scruples" for short), a religiously-inflected form of obsessive-compulsive disorder.

The book's opening scene is fantastic (I'll save it for you to discover when you pick up your own copy) and the memoir is peppered throughout with mordant soundbites like, "One day, I was riding bikes to McDonald's like a normal kid; the next, I was painting the lintels with marinade to ward off the Angel of Death." A little funny, a little snarky, and a little pitiful: that seems to have been Traig's adolescence in a nutshell.

Scruples, Traig tells us, felt like being strapped into a roller-coaster one doesn't enjoy but can't stop riding. Mostly she's funny about it. Especially amusing are the early interludes between chapters, written in her sick teenaged voice, which discourse on subjects like how to properly wash one's hands: "What kind of soap is for you? Bar soap is out; other people have probably used it (a possibility too horrible to contemplate) and even if it's unopened it's made from animal fats, which is revolting..." But even when she's mocking herself, cracking jokes about her temptation to "purify" the family cat by marking its forehead with ketchup, the grip of her disease is apparent -- and a little bit terrifying.

Continue reading "VBT: Devil in the Details" »

Bridge blogs and global voices

I'm at Global Voices today, in a room full of fantastic smart people from around the world, talking about blogs as bridges between cultures and the possibility that blogs might be, or become, something that could connect us worldwide.

I find myself thinking about how Velveteen Rabbi is a bridge blog: not between cultures, but between faiths. I can't say with certainty who all my readers are (stats and referrers only tell me so much!) but of those of you who participate in conversations here, I know many are Jewish (of varying flavors) and many are Christian (of varying flavors), and a few of you are Buddhist and Muslim. That makes me really happy.

As I said in the article I wrote for Bitch earlier this year, I live in a small town where I can't necessarily pull together a regular salon of people psyched about theology, liturgy, or holiday practices. Here at VR, though, I can talk about the things that excite me, knowing that people will listen and often respond. And best of all, the reading-and-commenting community that's growing here comes from a range of religious (and non-religious) perspectives.

The gulf between faiths can seem tremendous. Even the gulf between Jews of different denominations can (and clearly similar rifts manifest in other faith-traditions too). To be clear, I don't want to ignore or elide these differences. But just because we're different shouldn't mean we can't converse, right?

So, three things: first, thank you all for being a part of the conversation. Secondly, if any of my readers who don't usually comment would like to pipe up and introduce yourselves, or if any of my regular commenters want to say more about who you are, I would love that. And thirdly, I'd love to do some brainstorming about ways that godblogs can serve as bridges: not in a proselytizing way, but in a spirit of genuine dialogue between people on different paths.

The Iraqi bloggers at the front of the room right now are saying things like, "Before I started blogging if I had come to America I would have felt like a stranger, but now I feel like I am home because I am among so many friends," and "Through blogging, we can spread love." Incredibly inspiring stuff. How can we in the godblog world learn from this, and how can we do our part to make connections?


Last year around this time Ethan and I were shopping at Northshire when we ran across Abayudaya: Music from the Jewish People of Uganda. He nabbed it and gave it to me that night for Chanukah, and I've been grooving on it ever since. There's something really cool about hearing "Adon Olam" sung with African harmonies, you know?

The Abayudaya don't claim to be one of the Lost Tribes (unlike, say, the Kuki-Chin-Mizo of India, who think they're descended from Menashe, and who Hillel Halkin wrote about in Beyond the Sabbath River, a nifty book that my friend Hanne gave to me recently.) The Abayudaya converted en masse in 1919 when a tribal chief decided Christianity wasn't quite the right answer, but Judaism was.

The friendly folks at Smithsonian Folkways did their usual excellent job recording their music and making it available to a global audience (though I can't help wondering how they handled copyright issues...) Anyway, now Danya, posting over at JewSchool, tells me the album's been nominated for a grammy. How cool is that?

So if you're still looking for a holiday gift for the Africaphile in your life who digs Jewish music (or if you'd like to help your loved ones become Africaphiles -- a worthy aim in itself, if you ask me), get this album for them. (Or, hey, buy the accompanying coffeetable book, which looks gorgeous.)

For my part, I've long wanted to visit Uganda. I hear it's beautiful. We fantasize every now and then about spending a semester in Kampala. And if we ever do, I might have to find my way to Mbale and pay the Abayudaya a visit. Maybe I should learn their melody for "Adon Olam" first...


My poem "Sufganiyot" appears in the December 2004 online edition of Zeek magazine!

Sufganiyot is Hebrew for jelly donuts; they're a traditional Chanukah food in Israel. (Latkes, unsurprisingly, are an Ashkenazic tradition; they come from Eastern Europe where potatoes are plentiful and cheap.) Some claim that sufganiyot date back to the fifteenth century, and that they were the ancestors of beignets.

I'm a big fan of Zeek. Their articles are always cogent and thought-provoking, and they've published some excellent poetry. I'm thrilled that one of mine is now in that number.

In other poetry news, my poem "Remedy" appears in the latest issue (Volume 30, Number 3) of California Quarterly. It's not a Judaic poem, so it may not be of great interest to VR readers, but it's pleasing to me anyway.

500 words of memory

Yesterday was the anniversary, on the Gregorian calendar, of the passing of my maternal grandfather Eppie (may his memory be a blessing). Tonight, the second night of Chanukah, marks his yarzheit on the Hebrew calendar. I'm not sure the two anniversaries have come so close to coinciding since his death in 1996. It's hard to believe we've lived eight years without him.

Born in New York in 1908, my grandfather was reared in smalltown Russia near the Polish border (his parents returned there shortly after his birth). Tapped at an early age for the rabbinate, he chose instead to attend a Russian gymnasium and then medical school in Prague. (That's where he got the nickname Eppie, which stayed with him the rest of his life.) There he met, courted, and married my grandmother. When their first daughter was three, they fled Prague, barely making it out before Hitler's troops took the city. Only the fact of his American birth certificate got them aboard the President Harding and onto our shores.

Once in America, Eppie learned English and passed the requisite medical exams so he could work as a thoracic surgeon. He joined the Veteran's Administration, and took postings in a variety of towns around the South. By the time I entered the picture, my grandparents had more-or-less retired to San Antonio, home of my mother (that daughter who'd crossed with them from Prague). I saw them often. When my parents travelled, I spent weekends at my grandparents' place. For years we had regular dinner dates at Luby's. They came to my piano recitals and plays, and sent letters when I went to summer camp.

My grandfather was a grand storyteller, and loved to regale us with tales of his Russian childhood, remembered medical school pranks (the colleague who removed the penis from his cadaver and slipped it into someone else's pocket), the Latin proverbs he remembered from high school and the Hebrew songs he'd learned in cheder.  He spoke seven languages fluently. Throughout my childhood I was convinced that I would follow in his footsteps to honor him.

The threat of organic chemistry in college derailed my medical plan. (Well, that, and my discovery that religion and poetry classes were really fun.) I fall sadly short of his linguistic achievements, too. But I think of him often, and I like to think that my life honors him even though it doesn't match his. He could cobble together almost anything: doorknobs, meals, the handmade leather binders where he kept his stamps and his records. He read voraciously, and loved to travel. In the spring of 1995 when my grandmother died, he began to fade; by the time he died eighteen months later he was only a shadow of the man he had been. But I loved him fiercely, and still do; and as his Gregorian and Hebrew yarzheits collide this week, he is much on my mind. Thank you, Eppie, for shaping my world. 

Get lit!

Schmaltz Brewery recently premiered Miraculous Jew-Belation, "The most extreme Chanukah beer ever created!" Er, I suspect that translates to "the only Chanukah beer ever created," but it cracks me up anyway. Their slogan for this beer? "Get lit." (Found via JewSchool.)

Alas, I didn't hear about this early enough to urge my local liquor store to stock Chanukah beer, so we won't be blessing bottles of Miraculous Jew-Belation tonight. But I'll be frying a veritable mountain of latkes tonight with Seth and a couple of other friends. We may also be making Crab Rangoon, because it's one of Seth's favorite foods, and there's a recipe in the current issue of Saveur. Plus they're deep-fried, which makes them appropriate for Chanukah. Of course, they're also treif. Can't win 'em all, I guess.

In addition to the traditional blessings said on the first night of Chanukah, we'll be setting a few intentions for ourselves, hopefully connecting with the words of a short-and-sweet ritual for the first night of Chanukah:

As the year reaches its darkest point, we gather to kindle light. As we commemorate the triumph of the few over the many, of miraculous faith in the face of mighty odds, let us reconsecrate ourselves to illuminating the dark places in the world and in our hearts....

It's available for download here. I welcome comments on the ritual, either via email or in comments here. And if you've tried that Chanukah beer, tell me how it is!

Chanukah approaches

So here's the thing: I'm still working on forging a mature, adult relationship with this holiday. In the family I come from, Chanukah is largely for kids. Adults don't make a big deal out of it (because it's a minor festival), but children do (because it involves presents). My memories of childhood Chanukahs center around candle-lighting, potato latkes, and blue-and-silver-wrapped gifts spilling out of the huge plexiglass dreidel on the dining room sideboard. I have no idea where that dreidel came from; Mom probably had it made. One year she let me paint Hebrew letters on the sides.

I became bat mitzvah over Shabbat Chanukah because that was a weekend when far-flung family could conveniently make it to San Antonio. That year my middle brother, the woodworker, made a giant chanukiyyah so we could light 12" tapers at the Saturday night bat mitzvah party. (Yes, my family has a fascination with extra-large ritual items. I have an enormous mahogany dreidel, made by the same brother, which adorns my coffee table at this time of year. Look, Texans like big stuff, I can't really explain it.)

The plexiglass dreidel has vanished into memory; the giant chanukiyyah lives at my parents' house still. After the custom of my family, I don't make a big deal out of Chanukah now, though I do give small gifts to my younger nieces and nephews. Relegating it to "minor kids' gift festival" seems a little shallow, though. I'd like to find something resonant in Chanukah. I look for religious significance in all of the Jewish festivals, so I've been thinking about what parts of this holiday have meaning for me.

Continue reading "Chanukah approaches" »

Eifo Am Ha-aretz?

Does anyone know what became of the blog Am Haaretz?

A terrific tool called L2H was attached to that blog. L2H enabled one to type on an English keyboard and, upon clicking a radio button, see one's words in Hebrew...and access the unicode necessary to duplicate those Hebrew words. Which made it easy to insert Hebrew into, say, an English-language blogpost. I went to use L2H this morning, and alas, it is gone!

If Am Haaretz and L2H are going to return at some other url, I'd love to know that. And if you know of another webpage where one can turn English into Hebrew unicode, please point me in that direction. Thank you kindly!

Excluding inclusion

I've wanted to blog about the brouhaha surrounding CBS and NBC's refusal to air the United Church of Christ's ad spot promoting the value of religious inclusion, but have had trouble marshalling my thoughts beyond a potent, but nonverbal, cocktail of anger and sorrow. Fortunately, other bloggers have spoken out against it, among them Father Jake and Rabbi Arthur Waskow. UCC minister Chuck Currie has some choice words on the subject, too.

To me, this ad exemplifies one of religion's highest qualities: inclusion of human beings who differ and who are all created, as my tradition teaches, b'tselem Elohim (in the image of God). I can't imagine what it must feel like to find this ad (or that notion) threatening to one's spirituality or one's sense of self. I feel I should try to have compassion for the network presidents who are so in thrall to our administration's notions of marriage that they find the ad too "controversial" to air...but the honest truth is, some part of me doesn't want to imagine how it must feel to make that decision.

I’m deeply troubled that religious inclusion is somehow controversial, and I don't agree with CBS and NBC’s implicit stance that commercials should steer clear of opinions which challenge those of the dominant political party. The UCC wants people to know that it makes  a point of including people. That some people (the heads of CBS and NBC among them) apparently find that position politically dangerous says something sad about the state of religious discourse in America today.

Yes, inclusion of all is a radical notion. Everyone who reads this manifests a face of God. Everyone you run into today manifests a face of God. Every single person in your building, in your town, in every neighborhood, in every nation, on this entire planet manifests a face of God. That's true whether they look like you or not, whether they think like you or not, whether they sound like you or not. That may qualify as a radical theological position. But it shouldn't be the kind of radical that scares two major television networks away from airing an advertisement for a church with an open-door stance. is running a petition to get the ad on the air, and you can send a letter  of protest to CBS and NBC here.