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February 2007
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Two tidbits

The Jew and the Carrot

A new J-blog has entered the scene: The Jew and the Carrot. Brought to us by the fine folks at Hazon, The Jew and the Carrot "features the intersection between Jews, food and contemporary life." Their aims include raising the quality of discussion about food issues in the Jewish community, conveying a sense of importance and joy around food, and challenging and inspiring readers to think deeply and broadly about our food choices.

One of the highlights so far is The View from Your Fork, an interview with Michael Pollan conducted by Leah Koenig who is one of my colleagues at Zeek. (I just read and enjoyed Pollan's The Botany of Desire last week, so this interview felt serendipitous.) Also don't miss Season Extension, the Festival of Spring, and Leviticus by Naf Hanau, the greenhouse manager for the Adamah program at Isabella Freedman -- good stuff about planting, and Torah, and spring.

Jews + food = lots to blog about. I look forward to reading more from these folks.

 

Counting the Omer with JRF

For the last few years I've searched for a good Omer study group, something to a) remind me to count and b) help me invest the counting with meaning. Last year I found the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation's Omer Count project after the counting had already begun. This year I'm psyched to be there from the start.

(Counting the Omer is the practice of counting the days between Pesach and Shavuot, an ancient way of linking both spring planting with spring harvest, and liberation with revelation. I blogged about it a few years back; here's the explanation on Wikipedia.)

The JRF kicks off the official program of study this year with an introductory video featuring Rabbi Shawn Zevit. (Reb Shawn is one of the teachers of the DLTI program I am loving so much, so seeing him on my screen makes me smile.) The theme for this year's learning initiative is environmental, social, political, and spiritual sustainability. Anyway, if this is your cup of tea, join the email list or subscribe to the RSS feed -- should be a terrific way to observe the practice of marking the days between one festival and the next.


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Almost here

By the time I was in high school, having seder with the whole family at my parents' house was tricky. We had long since outgrown their dining room, or even their living room. One year we rented a fancy white canvas tent, along with banquet tables and white folding chairs, and had seder in the courtyard  beside the pool. And one year we rented a house, and held seder there.

Maybe it was 1990, which would have made me just barely fifteen. That was the year of Flood, the year of my first kiss and my summer in Lannion, though as seder approached both of those were still unimaginable. I remember walking down the street our rented house was on, in the hot sunshine of Texas spring, feeling in my body a sudden awareness of that very  living moment, what it felt like that Passover was almost here.

In those days my springs sparkled with the dual festivals of Passover and Fiesta. Spring meant Texas mountain laurel and and cascarones along with matzah and maror. Shop windows bloomed with Easter hats and dresses. I'd come home from school to find the boxes of Passover dishes down from their storage-place, matzah balls by the dozens cooling in huge foil pans. By Pesach-time my friends and I might already be "laying out" after school, beginning the summer's tan.

Pesach in the north has a different feel. We're just shaking off the snowy robe of winter. The chickadees and juncos are joined by robins, bluebirds. Our forsythia bush, planted one year during Passover, is silently preparing to burst. (I took this photo precisely a year ago -- though I could have taken an identical one when I walked the perimeter of our yard just now.) Snow might still come, but it's lost its bite. Something new is almost here.

My seder now is different from the seders I knew then. This year my table will be filled with friends, not cousins. In lieu of the old unchanging Silverman, the haggadah I use now aims to marry the traditional liturgy with contemporary readings and interpretations -- one part classical text, one part poetry, one part Jewish liberation theology.

Still, when I shop today for eggs and matzah and kosher-for-Pesach macaroons, I'll inhabit again the excitement that has always marked this season for me. We ourselves are always being brought-forth from the narrow places into the wild open spaces of our freedom. We're going to walk in a mixed multitude across the ocean floor and into new life. Let all who are hungry come and eat! It's almost time to begin anew.


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Message in a bottle

I have many metaphors for the months since my December stroke. At times I've felt like a sailor in a tiny craft, skating across the surface of the unfathomed deep. I'm content, even singing a sea chanty or two -- until I realize how vast the waters below me are, and how a storm would swamp me. At times I've felt I'm on a rollercoaster, wheels ticking slowly as the cart ascends so gradually I forget I'm even moving -- until with a whoosh and a plummet I'm in freefall.

Here we are on the cusp of Pesach, and the cause of the strokes is still unknown. "Emboli of unknown origin," the specialist says. We're still investigating. This could take a while.

Yesterday my spiritual director and I talked about the challenges of hishtavut/equanimity (which I blogged about earlier this year.) About the Baal Shem Tov's teachings on yirah/fear, and how fear can be a path to God as surely as ahavah/love can be. About oscillating between feeling good and feeling afraid, and how to find God in that oscillation. (Apparently even the Baal Shem Tov knew that oscillation well. It's nice to be in such august company.)

The rabbinic school plan for this spring had been to take four courses. Instead I have taken three, and joked that my fourth class was Embodiment 101. I've learned more about the inner workings of brain and heart and arteries than I ever expected to know. And, beyond the intellectual learning, I've been reminded of how having a body is itself a spiritual practice. There's always something complicated or delicious or uncomfortable about embodiment.

My challenge, I think, is awakening to the presence of God even in this experience -- even in the times when I feel disconnected and overwhelmed. Not despite the discomfort, not despite my fear, but in them. Through them. There's a lot about the human body we don't understand, and that too is an opportunity for practice. For being the person I want to be.

I haven't written about this much here. It's not my usual subject matter; I'm no expert; I don't want to alienate or bore you. Blogging about my studies, about Torah, about the books I read -- these things are good places to focus my energy! But when I look back over the words I've generated during these months, it feels dishonest somehow not to acknowledge this part of my narrative too.

Besides, I think it's important for rabbis (and rabbinic students) to be transparent about who and where we are. And right now, for me, that means admitting that it's hard to live with uncertainty. In my best moments, I can see all of this as part of the blessing of my life as it continues to unfold. In my tough moments, I recede into fear and overwhelm. The two are as close together as the sides of a single coin.

I'm not sure how to end this post. There's no moral to this story. Consider this, instead, a letter from me to you. A message in a bottle.


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JTS news

The news that JTS is going to begin ordaining gay and lesbian rabbis is washing across the Jewish blogosphere. Chancellor-elect Arnie Eisen writes,

This matter has aroused thoughtful introspection about the nature and future of both JTS and the Conservative Movement to a degree not seen in our community since the decision to admit women to The Rabbinical School nearly twenty-five years ago. Convictions and feelings are strong on both sides. Some will cheer this decision as justice long overdue. Others will condemn it as a departure from Jewish law and age-old Jewish custom...

The immediate issue was the ordination of gay and lesbian students as rabbis and cantors for the Conservative Movement. But the larger issue has been how we can remain true to our tradition in general and to halakhah in particular while staying fully responsive to and immersed in our society and culture. How shall we learn Torah, live Torah, teach Torah in this time and place? Without these imperatives, the decision before us would have been far easier for many of those involved. That is certainly true for me.

Read the full text of his statement here on Jspot.

For many of my friends and colleagues, this shift has the capacity to be lifechanging. Please know that I am celebrating with you, and I raise my teacup in a hearty toast of mazal tov! What wonderful news, especially on the cusp of Pesach when we celebrate so many forms of liberation unfolding in our lives.


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A day in Pittsfield

How do Ethan and I spend a rare weekend afternoon together at home? Exploring the town immediately south of ours, and finding many instances of the kind of beautiful decrepitude we both love to photograph.

Ethan made a lovely photo-illustrated post about the experience, and each of us generated a photoset (his; mine.)

In a way, this reminds me of the cross-county drive we did in 2001 -- though that day we sought to visit each town in Berkshire county and snap one memorable image; this time, we visited one town alone, and got a closer look at what makes it poignant and strange.

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Field trip to another life

Yesterday morning I woke before sunrise, showered, and stumbled blearily out to the car which idled in our driveway, for a field trip to New York City with my rabbi and the co-president of our little shul. We went to audition student cantors at the HUC-JIR School of Sacred Music.

For me, the most interesting part of the day was walking around HUC with my rabbi, who was a student there and received smicha (ordination) there. It's a fairly small building, actually, adorned with contemporary Jewish art. The library was closed, it being a Sunday, but we took the elevator up to the administrative offices and then walked around the classroom-lined corridors, pausing to look at the rows of black-and-white photographs of teachers and luminaries. ("You have to be off-the-wall to teach here," he quipped. "If you're on the wall, you're dead.")

I interviewed at HUC twelve years ago, so it's fascinating to walk around the building and to recognize that in some alternate reality, this might be my alma mater. It's hard now to imagine what life would have looked like if I'd taken that route. Bennington, The Women's Times, and the six years I invested in Inkberry have shaped me so profoundly that I have trouble picturing who I would be without them, and I'm so rooted in the Berkshires now that I can't really conceive of five years of city life.

And, of course, there's the whole matter of denominational affiliation. I belong happily to a Reform shul, but I don't know that I'm "a Reform Jew," exactly. Postdenominationalism is one of the reasons the Aleph program fits me so well. (I wrote about that in the post Why Aleph, which was meant to kick off an occasional multi-part series; one of these days maybe I'll return to that...)

In a way, strolling HUC as an Aleph student is a little bit like roaming the corridors of a residential MFA program as a Bennington grad. The Bennington Writing Seminars are low-residency; students and faculty live all over the world, and come together twice a year for intensive "residencies" during which we eat, sleep, and breathe creative writing. It was an amazing experience which shaped me profoundly. The community created during those years of study continues to play an important role in my writing life. I wouldn't trade it for the world.

Nor would I trade my Aleph student experience now. But it's intriguing sometimes to inhabit the space of a different kind of community of study. "Two roads diverged in a yellow wood," and all that.


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This week's portion: the heart of things

The book of Vayikra -- Leviticus -- begins straight away with instructions for offering korbanot: "sacrifices," in English, though a more appropriate translation might be "drawings-near," e.g. offerings which draw us near to God.

In the traditional understanding, Leviticus is the jewel at the center of the Torah. It's the middle book, and the symmetry of the five-book text suggests it's therefore the most important. Needless to say, that can be a tough viewpoint for the contemporary liberal Jew to swallow. Blood and guts, oil and incense and spices -- this could hardly be further from the familiar paradigm of worship we understand.

That's what sparked this week's d'var at Radical Torah:

Torah doesn't say, "this is how you shall draw near to Me now, for the time being; later on, when humanity is maybe a little bit more evolved, you'll find other ways of approaching My presence, offering thanks, and seeking to atone for your misdeeds." It might make our lives easier now if those words were in there -- if God had given us an advance alert that someday our paradigm for relationship with God would change. That we would grow to be capable of finding connection through words, instead of bodily fluids and ashes.

Read the whole thing here: The heart of things.


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Birthday Torah

There's a Hasidic custom of spending one's birthday studying the chapter of psalms for one's new year. (Since I am turning 32, thus entering the 33rd year of life, I begin studying Psalm 33 today.) I believe this custom was given over by the most recent Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who also suggested birthday traditions of giving tzedakah, making an internal accounting and choosing places to focus one's self-improvement in the coming year, and eating a new fruit so one can say the shehecheyanu.

There's a lot that's cool about this date. For one thing, it's tefukat Nissan, the vernal equinox, the day when everywhere in the world ostensibly experiences the same 12 hours of light. (What a metaphor for the equanimity I so prize!) Wikipedia tells me, first, that the balance of light isn't precise (because the sun radiates light even before it has risen over the horizon) and secondly that the equinox technically falls "sometime around March 20" of every year, but I persist in thinking of the 21st of September and March as the perfect balance-points. (This year, the official equinox really does fall today.) Today is also Norouz, so happy new year to my Persian, Parsi, Isma'ili, Sufi, and Ba'ha'i friends!

On a more serious note, today is also, as this Jewschool post reminds us, the anniversary of the Sharpeville Massacre in South Africa, and hence now International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. (Having just seen the 1995 remake of Cry, the Beloved Country, I raise my glass with renewed vigor to the dream of ending racial discrimination speedily and in our days.)

The same Rebbe who suggested giving tzedakah, introspection, and eating new fruits on one's birthday also had this to say about the importance of birthdays:

Because time itself is like a spiral, something special happens on your birthday each year: The same energy that G-d invested in you at birth is present once again. It is our duty to be receptive to that force...

A birthday can also teach us the concept of rebirth. To recall our birth is to recall a new beginning. No matter how things went yesterday, or last year, we always have the capacity to try again. Your birthday is a refresher, a chance for regeneration--not just materially, but spiritually.

Following his advice, I began today by giving a small donation -- I chose to donate to the Women's Torah Project, the first-ever sefer Torah to be scribed by female sofrot. I spent an hour studing the psalm of my new year with my Wednesday morning hevruta partner. And as for introspection -- well, I'd be doing that anyway!

The number 32 is designated in Hebrew by the letters lamed-bet, which spell lev, "heart." May this year be a year filled with emotion, a year when I'm truly able to open my heart to all the realities of my world, and a year of heart health (on every level!) Thanks for celebrating with me, gang.


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Haggadah for Pesach!

With the new moon of Nisan comes the realization that it's time to spread the word about the Velveteen Rabbi's Haggadah for Pesach again!

2015 Edited to add: you can always find the most up-to-date version of the VR Haggadah by going to velveteenrabbi.com and clicking through to the haggadah page.

I'm not releasing a new version of the haggadah this year. There are still things I'd like to fix and update for version 6 (notably, now that I own Mellel, I'd like to recreate the file in Mellel so that I can actually type and edit the Hebrew from right-to-left, instead of copying it laboriously backwards! -- and I'm always finding music, poetry, and interesting interpretations to add) but even so I'm deeply happy with this haggadah, and am excited to use it again in my own two seders this year.

Even more exciting, of course, is the knowledge that it will be used in so many other homes -- hopefully allowing some of what I adore in this holiday to shine in other lives.

2015 Edited to add: you can always find the most up-to-date version of the VR Haggadah by going to velveteenrabbi.com and clicking through to the haggadah page.

Praise for this version of the haggadah:

  • I have to tell you this was the most meaningful, thoughtful seder in memory. We went on until 2:30am, talking, sharing, thinking about liberation for the world and sharing what liberation we hope for our individual lives in the coming year... The haggadah provided a wonderful occasion for this communal introspection. Beautiful. Really. -- Lois C., France.

  • We had a wonderful time! And we learned so much! ... [We were] nine people and one British pointer, one of whom -- the half-Chinese, half-Lithuanian whole Hawaiian Buddhist Jew -- called her father in Greece while driving here to prepare herself -- she's 30 years old and this was her FIRST seder, ever! -- Tandy S., NC.

  • As soon as I read through it, I was impressed with your ability to meld traditional text ("with a mighty hand and outstretched arm") with more contemporary, gender-appropriate, and open-minded translation and commentary...A friend even asked to take a copy home because she so enjoyed the various psalms and other selections you included. -- Lena S., IL.

As always, my endless thanks go to everyone who has helped with this project -- especially the six illustrators who donated original artwork last year. Download, read, share, enjoy --  and if you use it, or if it inspires you to create your own, let me know!

 

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Teshuvah at moon-dark

The Zodaicial sign for Nissan is Aries, the lamb -- traditionally a symbol of innocence. The activity most emblematic of Nissan is siah, conversation -- that activity which is characteristic of the Seder night which, unlike, say, the synagogue service, is not at root a liturgy, a text to be recited, but a time of discourse, of talking of many things, of questions and answers, both ritualized and spontaneous.

And, if we say that Pesah is the time of formation, of the creation and birth of our people, then one might add: a people is ultimately constituted from families and clans and other units of people who stand in relationship to one another; and that the beginning of such relationship is through speech. Ergo, simple conversation, a family sitting down around the dinner table and talking, is the start of nationhood.

-- Nissan (Months), a post at Hitzei Yehonatan

It's moon-dark: the moment of pause when the night sky is fully dark. Soon the tiniest sliver of light will return -- the new moon of the month of Nisan.

I blogged late last summer about the practice of observing Yom Kippur katan -- taking some time for contemplation, spiritual work, and teshuvah at the end of the month, in order to begin the new month with one's spiritual life inventoried and aligned. The coming lunar month holds a lot that's important to me. The vernal equinox, Pesach, the anniversary of my birth: all good reasons to pause and consider where I'm at, at the cusp of this new moon.

Most of this inner work is pretty personal -- not the kind of thing I blog. In general I'd say things are good, though I'm aware of some of the places where I have work to do. And maybe best of all, I have friends with whom I can talk about these things, who together help keep me honest in the continuing work of becoming the person I want to be.

I began this post with a quote from one of my favorite J-blogs. Nisan, Rabbi Chipman points out, is the time of visible rebirth. (At least in the northern hemisphere.) It's also the time of the birth of the Jewish people, and appropriately enough, the story of the Exodus is rife with birth imagery. (Passing through mitzrayim, the narrow straits, to emerge wet and new on the other side of the sea? Yeah.) He cites David Moss' dazzling haggadah as the source for the notion that the seder is a celebration of the idea of seed: the compressed potential hiding within the kernel of who we are, ready to germinate and spring forth.

What's germinating in me this spring? All I can do is clean out my spiritual inbox, take a deep breath, and be ready to find out.


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Snow like wool

"How great is Your work, O God / How very deep are Your thoughts!" (-- Psalm 92:6)

"God gives snow like wool / and scatters hoar-frost like ashes." ( -- Psalm 147:16)

We went cross-country skiing today at the very start of the Money Brook trail. It was stunningly beautiful -- bicolored leafless trees stark against fresh snow, and everywhere blackberry and grape brambles beginning to redden and preparing to bud when spring arrives. The tops of the mountains are frosted, and Money Brook rushes past icy rocks and trees.

I said a shehecheyanu when we first set out, because though I've been snowshoeing a few times this winter, this was my first time out on skis. (It may also be my last for the year; tomorrow may bring rain...) During most of the hour we were out, I found myself humming one of Reb Shefa's melodies for the line from Psalm 92 I cited above. It's a beautiful chant to ski to, and I couldn't help echoing the sentiment in my own heart. It's glorious out there.

At the end of the ski, I stopped to snap a photo of the road that leads to the trailhead:

It's a shot I've taken before, more or less. I'm always amazed by the beauty of where we live -- and how that beauty varies with the seasons.

How glorious is Your handiwork, indeed.

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Velveteen Rabbi in the Austin-American Statesman

One of the highlights of last weekend was spending a quiet hour with Joey Seiler, who writes for the Austin-American Statesman. He'd attended the "Ghost in the Machine: Spirituality Online" panel; our chat on Sunday was a rare oasis of quiet and substantive conversation in an otherwise pretty chaotic day.

Parts of that conversation are now in print, in today's Austin-American Statesman; for those of us who live a ways from Austin, fear not, the interview is also online.

There's a detail or two I might have corrected, given the chance (the Aleph rabbinic program isn't based in North Adams, e.g.) but that's a minor quibble. Otherwise it's a lovely piece. Here's a taste:

It seems like your blog works with that sort of desire, a form of outreach.

I aim at a wide range of conversations going about things I care about, the festival cycle and how we can invest them with meaning, discussions of the texts, that sort of thing. And the blog is a way for me to talk about those when, in my wonderful little small town, there may not be people interested in it.

So it's not simply outreach, but a wider reach?

I love my town, but it's a small town. On Shabbat services, there might be only 15 people, which is nice, but it's nice to reach outside the sphere. I also regard the blog as an educational tool. I often get more comments from non-Jewish readers than Jewish readers. I try to make it accessible and find parallels to what I know in other traditions.

It seems like the trend in faith-based blogs is that the audience is external instead of internal.

I suspect that the Internet makes it easier for people to look around spiritually. You might not be comfortable walking into five different churches to see what it's like, but you can easily visit five blogs to get a window into their worlds.

Read it here: Religion blogs get into spirit of Internet. Thanks for the good press, Joey!


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More on kippot (and also kufis)

There was a high hipster quotient at South by Southwest, and at first I felt drab by comparison. Where were my reclaimed thrift store garments, my multicolored hair, and my stompy boots? (Answer: I haven't thrifted in years, my hair is pretty mousy although at least the cut is cute at the moment, and I didn't pack my stompy boots because I was so excited by the novelty of going outside without heavy socks on.) But I managed to stand out in the crowd, at least a little, because I was wearing my rainbow kippah.

I started seriously thinking about being kavod kippah during my chaplaincy year, and I wrote a long post exploring various understandings of the kippah (called Being visible.) As that post indicates, at this point I wear a kippah when I'm actively "doing Jewish" (teaching, leading services, studying Torah in hevruta, representing my community, officiating at a lifecycle event...)

Anyway, at South By I donned my kippah on erev Shabbat, Friday night. It was a useful way of reminding myself to be in Shabbat headspace, to encounter the world through Shabbat's especially sweet lenses. Plus, it turned out, the kippah was a great way to make me visible at the conference (the only other person I saw in a kippah all weekend was Kevin Smokler's brother, who's an Orthodox rabbi) so it was a great conversation-starter.

The experience of wearing the kippah in such a public forum got me thinking again about why I do it, and how its meaning shifts over time, and how the practice subtly changes me. All of which made me delighted to see this post from my friend Andrew, who has recently returned to blogging (hooray): Wearing a Yarmulkah. He cites an essay by a rabbi who began wearing the kippah during his chaplaincy year, to decidedly mixed reactions -- which makes Andrew all the more grateful for how his family and community have responded to the practice. Andrew writes,

[W]hen I started wearing it, I still wasn't much of a practicing Jew. Why was I wearing it? I felt a strong impulse, which I couldn't explain very well.

I wanted to be a good Jewish role model for my kids. Maybe I wanted to show that an anti-Zionist could also be a proud Jew; or maybe to make explicit what had been understood but never spoken throughout my childhood and adult life in rural Massachusetts: that I was a Jew "from somewhere else" in a community of Christians with generations on the land.

I also had this idea that I would, as the song says, "make my life a blessing" -- that I would honor God by living a moral life and by displaying honesty and compassion in my daily acts.

It's worth reading, regardless of your own hair-covering practices (or lack thereof.) One of these days I'd like to write a follow up to my initial kippah post, exploring how this issue plays out specifically for women (perhaps related to the whole question of how women rabbis are expected to dress, and how beauty and body and sexuality fit in with religious visibility) but that day is not today; for now I'll just point you to Andrew's post. (And if you too want a rainbow kippah: there's a range of rainbow kippot by the same artist who created mine here.)

Intriguingly, on a semi-related note, the New York department of justice just sued the state over a decision to ban wearing of the kufi, a skullcap with religious significance to some Muslims, in prison contexts. (Story here and here; hat tip islamicate.) I wonder to what extent the kufi and the kippah are related -- both the words, and the customs they represent?

Shabbat shalom, all!


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This week's portion: a home for God

In this week's portion, parashat Vayekhel-Pekudei, we reach the end of the book of Exodus -- and, at long last, the construction of the mishkan, the portable home for God's presence which the Israelites will carry in their wanderings.

Here the details of ornament and construction reach a crescendo. What strikes me most this year, reading these verses, is that "everyone whose spirit moved him" participated in the construction. Women and men alike donated their gold and precious jewels; women and men alike labored on crafting the place where God's presence was understood to dwell.

That's what sparked this week's meditation over at Radical Torah:

People bring every kind of beautiful thing they have. Cloth and leather, polished wood and precious stones. On a metaphorical level, I imagine, people bring every kind of temperament and creative skill to the process. Those who are even-keeled bring their serenity; those who are hot-headed bring their fire. Woodworkers and weavers, careful introverts and spontaneous extroverts, bring what they have, and who they are, to this work -- work which, the text notes, is fueled by the entire community, each person giving as she or he feels called.

Read the post here: A home for God among us.


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Worship through corporeality

"How do you find time to blog as a rabbinic student?" people ask. One answer, of course, is that when I read something interesting for school, I blog about what I'm learning. Today I'm struck by some of the reading for my Hasidism class, a section from Norman Lamm's The Religious Thought of Hasidism on avodah be-gashmiut, "worship through corporeality" -- on which I had the pleasure of offering a brief teaching in class last night.

Avodah be-gashmiut is the teaching that we can serve God in and through the physical world, which brings the entire range of human activity into the domain of religious significance. Everything that occupies one's ordinary day becomes a way to (potentially) serve God.

For example, take eating. According to a mainstream traditional understanding, we sanctify eating by making brachot and by guarding our consumption according to kashrut. But Hasidism goes further: sanctifying the very act of eating itself. (Think back to Jay Michaelson's book God In Your Body, which I reviewed recently -- specifically, return to the chapter on sanctifying eating, which is excerpted online here. "Precisely because [eating] is a mundane, necessary act, it awaits and invites elevation," Jay writes. Bingo.)

Hasidism challenges us to engage the possibility of uninterrupted devekut (union with God.) Who among us can honestly say she is actively and mindfully connected with God in intimate union at all times? That kind of rapture can't be constantly maintained. (As my teacher Reb Shaya Isenberg often quips, while devekut is all good and well, one wouldn't want to be driving down the highway behind someone so immersed in devekut he forgot to think about his car!)

But here mundanity itself becomes the vehicle for connecting with God. Devekut doesn't require abandoning the ordinary world. Instead we're meant to approach all things consciously, intending to release the sparks of divinity that vitalize all that exists, thereby revealing the immanence of God in creation.

Continue reading "Worship through corporeality" »


"South By" wrapup post

This was my first year at South by Southwest (or, as the old-timers call it, "South By.") It was big, overwhelming, and interesting.

Our "Ghost in the Machine: Spirituality Online" panel was great fun. I got to talk a little bit about how I started blogging; I told the story of the first Progressive Faith Blog Con (and mentioned that I think our next formal con will be in summer '08); and I said some of the things I'd really wanted to say about how godblogging offers the opportunity for people to peer in at other religious lives, and about how valuable I've found the experience of forming friendships both within and across religious traditions. (Here's Hussein's post about our panel, and Gordon's SXSW Where Am I? post.) I'll link to the podcast of our panel when it goes live.

I enjoyed a few of the other panels. Like "Blogging Where Speech Isn't Free" (featuring, among others, Ethan, and Shahed of Alt.Muslim -- read Ethan's summary of the panel here) and the lovely Danah Boyd's interview of media scholar Henry Jenkins. But for the most part, the panels at this conference weren't aimed toward me, and I mostly didn't attend them -- or, when I did, wasn't especially engaged by what was being said.

Instead I had fun prowling the conference center and people-watching, admiring the Utilikilts and occasional pink or purple hair. And I enjoyed a lot of hallway conversations and long gabfests over good food. I had some terrific conversations with strangers about my rainbow kippah, and with friends both new and old about life and work, blogs and travel, religion and faith. And I mustn't forget the food -- on my last day we lunched at Iron Works, where I ate huge beef ribs and drank Big Red and felt deliciously nostalgic for childhood, which seemed an appropriate way to wrap up my culinary experiences in Texas this time around.

I caught three independent films, one of which I reviewed here. And I experienced some of the famed SXSW party scene. Sunday evening we went to the Worldchanging gathering on the roofed patio at Opal Divine's, where there was much fine conversation. And on the last night we were in town, we even went to one of the big parties -- the Good Magazine / Creative Commons party at Uncle Flirty's -- and although the music was too loud for easy conversation, I had a few margaritas at a table with some delightfully smart people and enjoyed their company greatly.

I don't know whether I'll return to SXSW. But I had a good time, and if the right panel subject arises, I could imagine going back. For now, I've got my my South by Southwest photoset and a pile of film postcards, business cards, and memories to remind me of the long weekend that was. Thanks for the food and ideas and conversation, all! See you around.


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Truth, reconciliation, and tikkun

I watched three independent films at SXSW. The third of them was Greensboro: Closer to the Truth, a documentary about the 1979 shooting of communist labor activists by Nazis and members of the KKK at an anti-Klan rally in Greensboro, and the truth and reconciliation commission which was formed years later to address what happened and how the community can heal. I recognize that this isn't exactly the stuff of my usual blog posts, but this film has strong tikkun olam and social justice themes, and I thought some of y'all might be interested in reading more about it.

I knew nothing about the Greensboro massacre before seeing the film, though it turns out there's a solid Wikipedia entry about what happened and how it's understood. (If this is new to you, take a moment and read that entry; it offers useful context.)

That entry acknowledges that the police are generally regarded as having been complicit in the Greensboro massacre. (Depending on who you ask, that complicity was either with intent -- it is known that there was a paid police and FBI informant within the Klan at that time, and some see a racist and anti-communist conspiracy in the police's inaction -- or a case of simple ineptitude and apathy. Either way, their lack of response shaped how the day panned out.) That's one complicating factor in this story.

Another is that, as the movie makes clear, the wounds from this incident have in no way healed. Some of the Klansmen and Nazis involved remain proud of their actions and their beliefs. And the CWP (Communist Worker's Party) activists who survived remain angry and saddened by the loss of their loved ones' lives. Because the Tehran hostage crisis broke the very next day, this story barely merited a blip on the national news radar -- and today many civic leaders in Greensboro don't want to talk about it at all.

Most of the African-American labor leaders involved in the protest were local. That includes Reverend Nelson Johnson, then a young radical filled with angry fire and now an ordained minister who preaches forgiveness. (I found his to be one of the most compelling voices in the film. His prepared speech to the commission can be downloaded here.) Most of the white folks came from elsewhere, and left town after the killings, bewildered and grieving. (Not surprisingly, many are liberal Jews from the northeast.) It's good to be reminded how the drive for social justice brought people together across the boundaries of culture and race -- and to imagine how those connections might be re-forged today.

The film introduces us to many of the activists whose lives were changed by the shootings. We also meet some of the surviving perpetrators, whose responses range from defiant self-righteousness to a kind of baffled regret. The 2005 formation of the truth and reconciliation commission is at the heart of the story -- though the film acknowledges that the broader white community had a mixed response to the commission. Many people were unaware of the commission's formation, while others actively opposed the "dredging up" of this painful history.

Here's an interview with filmmaker Adam Zucker. The Greensboro Truth & Reconciliation Commission has a blog -- and a website where one can download their final report and read more about the process they went through in creating that report. Here's an op-ed that Reverend Nelson wrote for the News-Record about the truth and justice commission's report (hat tip Ed Cone.) And here's a historical piece written by doctors Marty Nathan and Paul Bermanzohn, which tells the story of November 3 and its implications from the point of view of two of the Northern survivors. 

I take away from this film a renewed realization that the work of tikkun olam (understood in its broad social justice sense -- though I suppose one could argue that there is some kabbalistic elevation of holy sparks in this process, as well) is often difficult and painful...but the film's closing images offer me some hope that transformation is possible even under these circumstances, if we will only open our hearts and our eyes.

I hope Greensboro: Closer to the Truth is picked-up by a television station so more people will get the chance to see it. It's not a perfect film, but it tells a complicated story more of us need to hear.


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Bloggers and conversations

This weekend has offered several chances to spend quality time with blog-friends. I had the pleasure of driving to Austin from San Antonio with my friend Gordon (Real Live Preacher), and we talked en route about all kinds of good stuff: his path, my path, formation, call to ministry -- Jewish interpretations of Scripture; how Jews see Christians and vice versa -- the parent/child relationship, seen from both sides...

Once we got to the conference, and registered (standing in a relatively short line, all things considered -- one perk of being a panelist, I guess) we found ourselves sitting in one of the cafe spaces provided by the conference, eating overpriced tacos and talking some more. About Paul and James, globalism and missionary work, Fiddler on the Roof: we went all over the map. And it was terrific. Really, get me started on how much I enjoy this guy's company and I could go on for paragraphs.


An hour or so later, I was picked up outside the Austin Convention Center by Lori of Chatoyance, one of my favorite words-and-pictures blogs. Lori's work has appeared on Qarrtsiluni from time to time -- in fact she's co-editing the new ekphrasis issue with my friend Pica. Anyway, we went to Madam Mam's for dinner, which was delightful.

Lori and I chatted about life, creativity, how each of us came to poetry and to creative work, the intersections of poetry and theology, our individual Jewish journeys, how she found her way to the southwest (and what I miss about this part of the country now that I've fallen in love with the northeast)... Meanwhile we savored green papaya salad and absurdly good spicy noodle soup (mine featured chilies, peanuts, fish balls, and lime) and Thai iced coffee. A perfect erev Shabbat, food and conversation both.


And on Saturday itself, I had two delightful meals with the "Ghost in the Machine: Spirituality Online" panelists. Gordon, Hussein, Kevin, James, and I -- and Gordon's lovely wife Jeneane, a hospital chaplain who also blogs -- spent the lunch hour talking about our forthcoming panel, about our various paths into religion and into blogging, about public and private faces of faith. About the obligations that clergy may have to our readers, and to our communities. About being gadflies and bridge-builders. (And, okay, about what we would do if nobody came to our panel because we were scheduled opposite a panel about porn.)

The panel, of course, was a ton of fun. A surprising number of people came (I'm guessing at least sixty.) We had a lot to say, and people asked good questions and made substantive comments. I felt like we could easily have gone on for longer -- which is probably a sign that one hour was just about perfect. Dinner, too (at El Sol y La Luna, with most of my fellow panelists, and a long table of too many other lovely people to mention) was a lot of fun -- as was the trip to Amy's ice cream afterwards. (And though I didn't join the group doing the hokey-pokey in the middle of S. Congress street, I did witness it, and it was a thing of wonder.)


Three cheers for putting faces with names, and for making blogosphere friendships into face-to-face ones! It's so much fun to see who we are, behind and beyond the words and images we offer up.


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Meet VR

Some of y'all at South by Southwest may be new to Velveteen Rabbi, so I figured I'd offer a handy introduction here before the "Ghost in the Machine: Spirituality Online" panel this afternoon.

As my about page indicates, I'm a student in the Aleph rabbinic studies program. I'm also a poet (most recent collection, chaplainbook) and have worked as a nonprofit administrator and newspaper editor. I'm also, from time to time, a freelance writer; I wrote a piece about women in the godblogosphere ("Blog is my copilot") for Bitch a few years ago, and another piece about Jewish godbloggers for Lilith. I've been blogging since 2003.

I'm a contributing editor at Zeek: a Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture, and a co-founder of the Progressive Faith Blog Con. I write regular divrei Torah (commentaries) at Radical Torah, a group blog featuring progressive interpretations of Jewish scripture. I'm really interested in how godblogs make interfaith and ecumenical conversation, learning, and friendship possible.

You can find my favorite posts in the left-hand sidebar, under the heading "greatest hits." Here are three, randomly-chosen:

  • Facing Impermanence. "Though I'm comfortable with impermanence in theory, in practice it's difficult for me, and meeting death face-to-face seems like a way of accustoming myself to the koan that lives end. What does it mean to be embodied, yet more than our bodies?  What becomes of us when our bodies die? What does it mean to be holy in the face of finality and loss? These are some of the biggest questions I know, and serving on the chevra kadisha [volunteer burial society] seemed like an opportunity to learn."

  • Defining Renewal "'So what is Jewish Renewal, anyway?' You'd think I'd have a good response to that question, especially now that I'm a student in the Renewal rabbinic program. But I wrestle with the same 'elevator speech' problem that my friends over in Reconstructionist Judaism and Unitarian Universalism know so intimately; there's no good twelve-second definition of Jewish Renewal.

  • Being visible. "Tractate Kiddushin 31a of the Talmud says that the purpose of wearing a kippah is 'to remind us of God, who is the Higher Authority 'above us'.' Wearing a kippah makes me mindful, helps me bring blessing to what I'm doing, and reminds me to sanctify the work of my hands. Of course, an argument could be made that I'm always in God's presence, that I ought to bring blessing even to secular activities like folding laundry and buying groceries, and that every moment is worthy of sanctification. So why don't I wear a kippah all the time?"

Thanks for visiting VR! I hope you'll stick around.


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La Quinta conversation

"Did I talk to you on the phone today?"

"Maybe," I said, looking up from my laptop. The young man standing in front of me in the La Quinta uniform looked about 20, head shaved, with an earnest expression and a sweet smile.

"About the last names? And being Jewish...?"

"I'm sorry," I had to say. "That wasn't me." I gestured at my rainbow kippah. "I guess you don't see a lot of these around here, huh?"

"Oh, I'm Jewish too," he said. "You're not with the group? There's a whole bunch of Jewish folks here this weekend."

I told him I was here for South by Southwest, and he nodded sagely. Where was I from, he wanted to know? Western Massachusetts, I said, though I grew up in San Antonio.

"There a big Jewish community there?" he asked.

"A pretty good size," I said. I might have told him more, but he was called away to do some work.

He came back after a few minutes, though. "I'm from a little bitty town in Mississippi," he told me. "Growing up there was..."

"Interesting," I guessed. I live in a small town now, but it's a small Massachusetts town; a very different Jewish picture from small town Mississippi, I'll bet.

"I'm Reformed, real Reformed. I go to a nice temple here. I like it a lot. The cantor's a woman, and the assistant rabbi's gay." He smiled.

"That's great," I told him.

"Where are you going tonight?"

I was waiting for a taxi. "To the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema," I said. "To see the American premiere of the Trailer Park Boys movie. It's showing at midnight."

"Have a great time," he said, warmly. I told him I would, and went outside to meet my cab.

Wish I'd thought to wish him a Shabbat shalom.


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