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Me'or Eynayim on hospitality and going forth

The book Me'or Eynayim (by the Chernobyler Rebbe, who is often known as The Me'or Eynayim himself -- y'all remember the Chernobyler, right?) takes the form of a commentary on the Torah, portion by portion. This week in class we've been working on excerpts from his writings on parashat Lech lecha (Genesis 12:1-17:7) and parashat Vayera (18:1-22:24), which were read in shul about a month ago. Anyway, two of the ideas we've been studying are really striking to me. You may be familiar with the notion that when God tells Abraham lech-lecha, "go you forth" or "go forth from yourself," God is speaking on several levels at once. The command can be read on a literal or practical level (go out of the land you're in now, into someplace new), and it can also be read as an injunction to extend oneself in reaching out to others.

In the Hasidic understanding, Abraham is the patriarch associated with the quality of chesed, lovingkindness, and the Chernobyler has some beautiful things to say about how lovingkindness manifests in Abraham's famed hospitality. In parashat Vayera we read the story where Abraham is talking with God and three strangers appear, and Abraham rushes to offer them food and drink. Wouldn't you think that conversing with God trumps the need to greet strangers? Well, if you did, you'd be wrong, says the rebbe; in fact, it's written in the Talmud that hospitality to travelers is considered a greater mitzvah even than welcoming the presence of the Shekhinah, the divine presence manifest in the world. That's because when we welcome the stranger, we in fact are welcoming the presence of God, because there's a spark of God present in each of us, no matter who we are.

The Me'or Eynayim ties this all together by noting that God told Abraham to go down into Mitzrayim, Egypt / the Narrow Place, in order to uplift the divine sparks that had fallen there. And we know also that Abraham reached out to strangers in order to connect with the sparks of divinity that were in them. Abraham didn't hold himself back, keep himself on a pedestal, or refrain from engaging with the complicated, damaged, or profane world. On the contrary, he understood himself to be called by God to go forth, to meet people where they were -- even in narrow or unholy places -- and to recognize the holiness in the people he encountered.

We who understand ourselves to be children of Abraham are likewise called to go into places of constriction, into the tight places of sorrow and suffering and hurt, in order to find the holiness in them and lift that up. (As a once-and-future hospital chaplain, and for that matter presumably also a once-and-future hospital patient, I know both what it feels like to be in a tight place, and also what beauty can arise when I'm able to unlock some of the holiness hidden there.) And we're called to reach out to strangers, no matter who they may be, in a way that reflects the holiness inherent in them and in our encounter with them. We need to reach out to people in a way that's not condescending or distancing but connective, a way that honors the most sacred part of who they are.

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readwritepoem: Enchilada Special


It's a hole-in-the-wall 
even on the best of days
when construction hasn't ripped Blanco Road
half a dozen new ones.

It could be a pawn shop or tattoo parlor
behind the iron bars and the bumper stickers
promoting local heavy metal bands
and Kinky Friedman's run for governor.

Deer heads festooned with Christmas lights
overlook the open grill.
In your eyes I see the old-timers
who used to play dominoes here all day.

The waitress brings red corn tortillas
sheathing orange cheese, swimming in chili.
This is a meal to make Mom wince,
the sheer grease of it sheening our fingers.

We eat conspiratorially, grinning
across the table. You used to lunch here
with your father. That I will come

someday without you chills me
more than the air-conditioning,
makes my heart burn.

Eat, drink, write a poem -- that's the urging at readwritepoem this week. (They're collecting responses here.) I've written a lot of poems that center around food -- including my Chanukah food poem, Sufganiyot, which is about to be very seasonally-appropriate indeed! But I like to use these poem prompt communities to encourage me to generate new work, so here's a fruit of this week's poetry labors.  Maybe some of you Texans will recognize the place I'm writing about. It was a hell of a lunch, I'll tell you what.

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Hopes for peace

My teacher Reb Zalman has offered words about what he hopes to see coming out of the Annapolis conference beginning today: Envisioning Success in Annapolis.

What I find most compelling is his insistence that the narrative has to be changed radically on both sides. That as long as Israel and the Palestinians each hold fast to their understandings of hurt and history, the situation can't change in the ways it needs to. (As my friend Naomi Shihab Nye has written in her poem "Jerusalem," "I'm not interested in / who suffered the most./ I'm interested in / people getting over it.")

I've heard arguments from both sides that these talks are too little/too late, and that the bargaining partner across the table isn't trustworthy, but I don't see how that line of thinking helps anything. Giving up can't be an option. The only way out is through. (This BBC piece articulates concerns with the process, but ends by offering small causes for hope; this NPR story suggests that cautious optimism may be warranted by the conference's achievements thus far.)

When we light candles at this darkest time of the year, may we nurture hope for a lasting peace settlement after too many years of violence and despair. If we learn anything from the story of Chanukah, it is that even when circumstances appear grim -- perhaps especially then -- hope and courage are vital.

That's from the rabbinic call issued by Brit Tzedek v'Shalom (The Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace), which calls us to rekindle our dedication to the peace process as Chanukah approaches. It's worth reading, and so is the gratifyingly substantial list of Jewish clergy and student clergy who signed the call. (I mistyped my own last name, can you believe it? Whoops. Well, at least I'm on the list.)

In any event, those meeting in Annapolis are in my prayers today. May they be graced with wisdom, compassion, and the ability to move their communities forward toward justice and toward peace.  Amen.

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The challenges of telepresence

I'm starting to get accustomed to beginning my Tuesdays with our phone-based morning minyan, though I still can't help smiling involuntarily as I hear each friend's voice come across the line for the first time.

This morning we made it without incident through the first part of the service, the opening blessings, a taste of Torah, a heartfelt prayer that those who are meeting in Annapolis this week might be able to take steps toward peace. We entered into psukei d'zimrah, the collection of poems and psalms of praise that precedes the shift into the part of the service containing the shema and her blessings.

And then my friend who was leading prayer began to give over a teaching from Reb Temimah as a preface to chanting Psalm 150 (the final psalm in psukei d'zimrah) together...and shazzam! There was a cacophony of noises, beeps and whirrs and whistles, and all of our lines went mute.

A few of us managed to un-mute ourselves, including the shaliach tzibbur ("representative of the community" -- e.g. the prayer leader), so his sweet baritone led us through the rest of the davenen. But the rest of us davened cocooned in our own household silences, unable to make ourselves heard by the group.

It was surreal, and funny. We decided over email afterwards that clearly this is a teaching that's meant to be offered in person; it can't be transmitted over the phone, it blows out all the circuits. Some experiences have to be embodied ones, I guess. They demand not telepresence but the real thing. Good thing it's not that long now until Ohalah...

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This week's portion: the meaning of the kiss

In this week's Torah portion, Vayishlach, Jacob wrestles with the angel and then encounters his brother Esau for the first time since the Incident of the Stolen Blessing. Tomorrow morning I'll be chanting the verses where the brothers meet again -- and as soon as I opened my text to start studying them, I noticed something calligraphically fascinating here: the word denoting the kiss Esau gives to Jacob has six dots over the top.

These are a scribal signpost, meant to let us know that there's something unusual going on here. One traditional interpretation holds that the dots are there to remind us of a classical argument about whether or not Esau's kiss was genuine. (See When dots make all the difference.) In the classical rabbinic imagination, Esau and his descendants are seen in a negative light. Esau represents uncontrollable impulse -- remember, Esau sold his birthright for a bowl of lentil stew. Plus Esau is understood as the progenitor of Amalek, the ancient nation that is read as a stand-in for all enemies of the Jewish community throughout history.

Maybe not surprisingly, I lean toward a more psychological reading of the text. As twins, Esau and Jacob are a literary externalization of the paired impulses inside each of us. Esau represents ego and appetite, while Jacob represents control and restraint. Esau represents foraging for sustenance; Jacob represents farming. Esau represents the wild and the woods; Jacob represents the orderly camp. Esau represents the needs of the body, and Jacob the needs of the mind. For a variety of reasons, we've historically identified with Jacob... but what would happen if we tried to integrate these two sides of ourselves, instead of inevitably privileging one over the other?

When Jacob and Esau meet again, they fall upon each other and embrace. Jacob offers Esau a generous gift of livestock, and at first Esau demurs, saying that he has been fortunate and doesn't need anything. But Jacob says, "No, please -- do me a favor, take this gift, because seeing your face is like seeing the face of God." That's a pretty remarkable statement, especially given that this might be the first time in their lives that the two men have really faced one another. They fought in the womb; they had nothing in common during their childhood and adolescence; and then there was that whole makhloket (dispute) about the birthright, which ended in Jacob sneaking away before Esau could kick his ass.

But I see in this text reason to hope that people are capable of change. This is an I-Thou moment! Jacob's experiences with Laban, his marriages, and his experience of fatherhood have shaped him into someone who's capable of seeing his brother in a new light.

Granted, the change doesn't seem to come naturally to him. Earlier in the portion we read about the extensive preparations he took because he feared that Esau would attack him. Clearly their old baggage has a powerful pull, even on this new mature adult Jacob. But evidently Esau has had some maturing adventures of his own, because when they finally cross paths he pulls Jacob into a tight hug and doesn't want to let go. One way or another, these twins are able -- finally -- to recognize that they can interact in a new way. They don't have to play out the old family dynamics of favoritism and bitterness and angst.

When Jacob learns to see Esau not as his rival but simply as kin, he becomes aware that he's encountering the face of God. How many of the struggles we face could be transformed if we were able to take a step back and become aware of the presence of holiness even in those we've always believed would be out to get us if we let down our guard? If we take both of these twins as our role models for a change, can we turn these six dots into a reminder of how enriched our world can be when we let go of our fears and truly meet?

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Totally optional poem: gratitude

This week's Totally Optional Prompt is, appropriately enough, Thanksgiving. The poem I wrote in response to the prompt riffs off of this one-line blessing for gratitude, which observant Jews say daily. That every day is a day for giving thanks is one of the things I appreciate most about my religious tradition. Gratitude isn't just a feeling; it's a practice.

One of my teachers, Rabbi Jeff Roth, teaches that on days when we're able to access feelings of gratitude, we should hold those in our hearts and minds as we pray the modah ani. And on days when we can't access those feelings, for whatever reason, then we should pray for those feelings to return, so that we can once again say this prayer with mindful intent.

While I'm at it: happy Thanksgiving to all! I have so much to be thankful for today, including all of you.



Is meant to arise automatically
as the clock-radio severs
whatever held me to dreaming.

It's mandatory even on tough days,
regardless of what I know
(or imagine I know) is coming.

The rabbis teach that
each night we lend You our souls
for purposes I can't begin to imagine.

Do You harness them in tandem?
Do they cluster in Your kitchen
trading recipes with the angels?

Your enduring trust in us
isn't patched and worn at the seams
like the faithfulness we know

but abundant and whole
every single time we wake
and wipe slumber from our eyelids.

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Blessing for Thanksgiving

One of the blogs I've recently begun reading is the Reb Zalman Legacy Project Blog, where webmaster/gabbai Seth Fishman posts regular teachings from the (vast and multifaceted) teachings of Reb Zalman Shachter-Shalomi, who I am blessed to consider my teacher.

This year Reb Zalman released a special blessing for Thanksgiving, intended to be inserted into the birkat ha-mazon (Grace After Meals) in the same place where one would insert a special blessing on other festivals such as Chanukah or Purim. Although it's not Thanksgiving quite yet, I figured I'd post this now, to give anyone who's interested the chance to print this out before the holiday. Even if you don't say a formal birkat at the end of your Thanksgiving feast, this lovely short poem of remembrance and gratitude stands on its own.

The original post is here; if this speaks to you, feel free to leave a comment there and join the conversation.

Edited  to reflect a slightly updated version of the bracha. Yom Hodu sameach to all!

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Interfaith Thanksgiving in Austin

Austin Area Interreligious Ministries, the city's largest interfaith organization, announced Thursday that its annual Thanksgiving celebration Sunday had to be moved because Hyde Park Baptist Church objected to non-Christians worshipping on its property.

(-- Church rejects interfaith service on its property, Austin-American Statesman)

Boy: that's the kind of lede that makes me cringe. And in my former home state, no less.

Austin Area Interreligious Ministries sounds like exactly the kind of organization I'd be involved with if I lived in that neck of the woods. "AAIM envisions a respectful, caring and inclusive community where people of diverse cultures and religions are actively involved in enhancing the quality of life in the Austin area," their website explains, and "AAIM unites faith and cultural communities to foster respect, partnership and transformation in service of the common good."

For the last 22 years, AAIM has held an annual Thanksgiving service attended by over 1000 people. The sacred obligation of hosting the event rotates each year, and this year the Central Texas Muslimaat was slated to host. Since none of the local Muslim community spaces are large enough to hold 1000+ people, they arranged to rent space from Hyde Park Baptist Church...until the folks at Hyde Park realized that this Thanksgiving service would involve ecumenical worship, and yanked the proverbial rug out from under the AAIM three days before the event.

It's not my place to criticize members of other religious traditions for living out their faith as they understand themselves to be called to do, but this story saddens me profoundly, as stories of religious insularity always do.

There's a happy ending to this particular tale, though. Congregation Beth Israel, "the oldest and largest Jewish congregation in Austin," rise to the occasion and offered their building as a home for the Muslim-hosted AAIR Thanksgiving supper and service this year. Evidently CBI's immediate response was "It's an honor to be able to provide the space, especially knowing our co-hosts are Muslims," and they immediately offered to arrange space for Muslim evening prayer. (In Jewish tradition we pray thrice daily, rather than five times, but the practice of offering regular evening prayer is a place of common ground.)

The service was held yesterday, and it sounds like it was wonderful. (The Statesman has an article about that, too: Interfaith Thanksgiving service hosted by Muslims at Beth Israel.)

I am grateful to CBI for stepping up and doing the right thing, and glad to know that despite this hurdle it was possible for hundreds of south Texans to gather in a spirit of reverence, community, and gratitude to celebrate Thanksgiving together. Guess it's just one more thing to be grateful for this week.

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The Chernobyler: food for spiritual life

The question was, "How is studying the Chernobyler impacting your spiritual practice?" This is my answer.

Studying the Chernobyler plants seeds in my head and heart. They germinate quickly; I can already feel them sprouting. But these are the kinds of ideas that grow up to be trees. As their roots take hold, who knows how my internal landscape will be transformed? Any text that I live with for a while necessarily impacts my writing, my prayer life, and the internal monologue that runs perennially inside my brain. Here are four teachings from Meor Eynayim that are sinking roots in me:

Since the power of the creator remains in the creature, Torah is to be found in all things and throughout all worlds.

Both clauses in that sentence knock me flat. First, the reminder that  we partake in God's creative power! Every time I say baruch she'amar ("Blessed is the One who speaks worlds into being...") I'm reminded that I too speak worlds into being. The words I use have creative power. I am a reflection of the Holy Blessed One. That’s a powerful meditation all by itself.

But Reb Menahem Nahum doesn't stop there. Because everything that exists reflects a spark of God's holiness, the Chernobyler continues, there is Torah in all things. If I really integrate that awareness into my being, then everything I encounter is subtly changed. The hills where I live are suffused with holiness. The animals I greet at the CSA where we belong are themselves a kind of Torah. The holy Torah of our texts and the lived Torah of embodied experience are facets of the Torah of creation. There's poetry in the Chernobyler's assertion that all the worlds, all the levels, every realm of existence came into being in some mystical way through the 22 letters of Torah. And creation wasn't just a onetime thing; everything is perpetually sustained and enlivened by emanations from on high.

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A short poetry meme

Tiel Aisha Ansari tapped me to do a poetry meme that goes like this: list at least four things each you think a beginning poet should and shouldn't do: tag someone else. I fear my answers may be predictable -- and they apply as much to longtime poets as they do to beginners, come to think of it -- but as requested, here they are.

Four things to do:

  • Read. Voraciously. Read everything you can get your hands on. Specifically read poems, of course, but read prose too. Read poems by poets whose work you already know you enjoy, and read poems by poets whose work you think you don't enjoy. Consider choosing a poet whose work intrigues you, and then reading everything that poet has written. (I spent six months doing this with Elizabeth Bishop, and it changed my relationship both with her poems and with poetry in general.)

  • Write. Early and often. Try writing a poem a day for a while (a week? a month?) and see what happens. Poetry comes from some kind of ineffable wellspring which needs to be primed. Reading is one way to prime it. Writing is another. The best time to write a poem is when you've just written one.

  • Find a reader you trust. Maybe a friend or a teacher; maybe a fellow poet; maybe a fellow blogger. It's good to have someone reading your work regularly. I find that my relationship with my own words changes when I know someone is going to read them. (As a corollary, you might want to become adept at expressing to your reader what kind of feedback you're looking for.)

  • Memorize. A memorized poem becomes a companion, something one can recite to oneself on bus rides or in a grocery checkout line or at times when poetry is particularly needed. Right now I'm working on memorizing a rather long prayer from the Jewish weekday liturgy. My liturgy teacher told us we would be amazed by how the experience of davening the prayer would change if we were able to recite it from memory, and because prayers are a form of poetry I know he's right.

Four things not to do:

Don't get too attached to your mental image of what a poet or a poem looks like or sounds like. Don't delete drafts; when you revise, save the file under a new name, so you can track the poem through its evolution later. (If you compose on paper, don't throw away your notebooks.) Don't despair. Don't stop.

As for choosing someone else to answer this, I tap Ivy! (Ivy's first book of poetry, Mortal, is utterly gorgeous, by the way. If you don't own it, and you like poetry, consider adding it to your shelves.)

Ivy, if you're game, I'd love to see your reponse to these questions. (And hey, if not, no worries -- I never want people to feel obligated to participate in perpetuating blog memes.) Shabbat shalom, all.

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This week's portion: wellsprings and dreams

I've fallen out of the habit of writing weekly divrei Torah, for a variety of reasons (mostly having to do with limited time), but the beginning of this week's Torah portion, Vayetze, is so cool I can't resist saying something about it. It begins like this:

And Jacob departed from Beersheba and set out to Haran.

The Zohar makes much of this little verse. Beersheba has been a good place, a place of flowing waters. Remember, this is the sacred text of a desert people, so water is highly precious substance. The unobstructed flow of water represents the influx of divine blessing and insight into the world.

The name Beersheba means something like "the well of seven." Seven is a highly symbolic number in kabbalah -- seven days of creation, seven lower sefirot chaining down into creation. The word be'er, well, is a symbol of the wellspring from which all sustenance flows -- in the Zoharic imagination, Shekhinah (a.k.a malkhut), the indwelling immanent presence of God in creation. Beersheva is a place of flow, both literally and metaphysically. And Jacob is leaving there. He's on a journey toward Haran.

Haran, too, is more than just a place name; my teacher Reb Yakov has taught that the name hints at haron, anger or wrath. So Jacob's leaving the presence of the Shekhinah and going down to a place that represents anger and distance from God.

He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of that place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. He had a dream; a stairway was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it.

It's intriguing to me that Jacob has this dream after leaving Beersheva. Maybe when he was in the place where spiritual sustenance flowed freely, he didn't need the dream? The connection with God that the dream represents becomes necessary once he's out in the world, headed for the town with the angry reputation. (His son Joseph will be a dreamer, too.)

Anyway, Jacob stops to sleep for the night and rests his head for the night on a stone. Not exactly comfy, but he's making do. I think it's significant that he's resting one one of the stones of that place; by sleeping on a local stone, he's planting himself right there. (To slightly mangle the immortal words of Buckaroo Banzai, wherever he goes, there he is.) I read the stones as a counterpart to all of the water imagery that Beersheva calls to mind. This unnamed location is a place of rock-solid certainty...and yet this is where his ethereal overnight vision will arise. Notice the repetition of the word "place," and remember that Ha-Makom, The Place, is a name for God.

The dream he has there is, quite literally, awesome. Ladder, angels, conversation with God! There's one thing I would render differently than does the JPS translation; I understand the ladder to be planted not on the ground, but in it. It's rooted firmly in creation, and it stretches into supernal realms.

The angels, we read, ascend and then descend. My dear teacher Reb Marcia has asked the question: don't we usually imagine angels starting out in heaven and coming down here to creation? What are these angels, which go up before coming down? And the answer she offers is, these are the angels of our prayers. When we bestir ourselves to pray, our prayers ascend. In return, holy abundance flows back down the ladder into creation and into our hearts. In that sense, we can make every place where we dwell -- every place where we pray -- a kind of Beersheva, where spiritual sustenance flows freely, watering the thirsty earth of our hearts.

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Totally Optional Poem: Standard Time

I recently discovered Totally Optional Prompts, "a community of people who gather to share poetry." Each Saturday night a new prompt is posted; on Thursday poets are invited to share the work the prompt occasioned.

When I started this blog, there was a firmer line in my mind between my poetry and my Judaic work than there is now. I knew both were important to me, but I thought people who were interested in one wouldn't be interested in the other. But a lot has changed for me in the four+ years (!) since VR was born. I've come to feel part of an online community of poets and writers who transcend both region and genre...and as I've delved into the work of writing poems which are also prayers and psalms, I've been integrating the poet side of me with the religious side of me in new ways.

This is just to say, I guess, that I'm increasingly attuned to how my religious practice feeds my poetry, and how my background in poetry shapes my religious practice. So it's possible I might post poems here a bit more frequently than I've done to date. I hope no one will be unduly troubled by that. (I wonder why, after all these years, I still feel compelled to apologize for bringing Judaism into my poetry world or poetry into my Jewish world.)

This week's Totally Optional Prompt, offered by Tiel Aisha Ansari of Knocking from Inside, is places. Boy do I consider myself a poet of place! I get deliciously obsessed with the details of places: places I've loved, places I've called home, places I've only imagined. One of my favorite names for God is ha-Makom, "The Place" -- Judaism understands God as the Place in which all creation unfolds, how cool is that? My response to the prompt is a poem called "Standard Time," which appears below the cut: enjoy.

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On blessing 12, re: minim

The central prayer of Jewish worship is the amidah, also known as ha-tefilah, also known as the shmoneh esrei. "Amidah" means "standing," because this is our chance to literally stand before God and offer the prayers of our hearts. "Tefilah" means "prayer," and this is The Prayer par excellence. And "shmoneh esrei" means "18," because -- in its standard weekday form -- this is a prayer which contains 19 benedictions.

Yes, "the Eighteen" has nineteen parts. (The chapter "How the Amidah Began: A Liturgical Detective Story," in the Amidah volume of Rabbi Hoffman's My People's Prayer Book series, sketches out a variety of theories about how exactly that came to be.) The weekday amidah is usually conceptualized as divided into three parts: three blessings of praise, thirteen blessings devoted to petitions of one kind or another, and then three blessings of gratitude.

In my liturgy class this week, we're focusing on those thirteen intermediate blessings, the bakashot (requests.) Last week Reb Sami asked each of us to prepare a short presentation on one of these. "Offer a summary of the development of the text and theme of the bracha," he said. "Interesting variants (ancient and contemporary) of the text. Important Biblical references.  Spiritual insight. All with great eloquence, occasional wit, masterful brevity, abiding reverence -- and in 3 minutes!" It's that last bit that's the truly tall order. Hence this blog post, where I can natter for a few more paragraphs.

When we were asked to each claim a bracha to speak about in class, I chose #12 -- the blessing for, or more accurately against, minim, which is usually translated as "heretics." In my own davenen I'm often inclined to rush past this one -- and I figured, if there's something in me that wants to breeze past it, I should probably stop and pay some attention to how this blessing challenges me.

Continue reading "On blessing 12, re: minim" »

An almanac I'm glad to read

If you're looking for thoughtful, articulate blogs to add to your aggregator, you're in luck -- I've just gotten permission to point y'all toward one of my favorite new entries on the blogging scene.

Close readers of Velveteen Rabbi may have noticed my running conversation with a commentor named Kate in my comments threads. Kate has just started a new blog at Wordpress, called Spring Farm Almanac. In her first post, she takes on Auden's challenge to describe one's ideal landscape:

A living one, a system of systems. People walk barefoot there, and plants grow — lady’s slipper, pipsissewa, chestnut trees a man can walk through upright when they fall and hollow. The Mohican language classifies words as animate or inanimate, having or not having a soul, as other languages call words male or female; in it, mountains are animate...

(Read the whole thing here: Lay of the land.)

Kate's writing isn't quite like that of anyone else I know, and that's a good thing -- it makes her work feel real, and sometimes startling. (She also co-edited the recent Making Sense issue at qarrtsiluni.) I've been reading Kate's words for a long time now -- since I was editor at The Women's Times back in '99, and she was part of my freelance stable -- so this new blog makes me a happy reader indeed.

Go and read, and join the conversation, and be glad.

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A respectful tourist

It's hard for a distance learning / low-residency rabbinic program to involve field trips, but the liturgy class I'm taking this fall has managed it. Reb Sami tasked us with visiting three shuls apiece, and paying attention to a whole range of issues when we do. Matters of liturgy are, of course, high on the list -- what prayerbook is used? how is it used? who leads prayer, and how? But so are other, more practical considerations: is parking easy to find? Am I welcomed as a newcomer? Are the chairs or pews bolted down, or can they be moved? How does the sanctuary feel? Do people sit near one another? Do they pray by rote, or with heart?

We brainstormed 25 questions together on the first day of class, a common metric for evaluating our synagogue visits (though he asked us not to write down our responses until after Shabbat has passed.) If we can't find three synagogues, we can visit churches; these same questions apply to Christian modes of prayer, too. In a pinch, we can visit the congregation(s) where we ourselves regularly worship, though it can be hard to experience one's own congregational home through new eyes.

This weekend I made my first field trip, to a small congregation about forty-five minutes away from where I live. Maybe because I went in with our survey in mind, several things really struck me. The welcome, first of all; I was welcomed graciously and enthusiastically. This is the congregation with whom my congregation has recently partnered for festivals (we celebrated Shavuot together, and Simchat Torah), so I know a few people there. But even people I didn't know came to greet me when I first arrived, and made me feel at home.

The space made an impact on me, too. I'd been inside the shul before, but hadn't davened there in years. It's a small wooden building (like a little New England church, only Jewish) with frosted stained-glass windows and a velvet interior, all in reds and purples and blues. My own synagogue sanctuary could hardly be more dissimilar -- we have great plain windows that look out over the mountains; the textures of floor and chair are different; the space has a different feel.  Despite these spatial and stylistic differences, I came away feeling a warm attachment to this congregation's sanctuary too, maybe because both places feel so clearly consecrated by the presence of loving community.

There were other things I really enjoyed: the chance to sing some of the melodies I know from other places which we don't use in my shul; the way a congregant led us through birchot ha-shachar; the Torah discussion which began by linking Gilgamesh and Enkidu with Jacob and Esau. (I meant to write something last week about how we're called, today, to integrate both the earthiness of Esau and the intellect of Jacob -- to own and cherish the yin and yang of those twins as they are manifest in each of us -- but at least I managed to say something about it at shul, even if I didn't blog substantively about it here.) Before Adon Olam, each of us introduced her/himself and spoke aloud one blessing from the previous week that we wanted to celebrate or remember; I like that.

And then, during the oneg Shabbat after services, I met another visitor to the congregation, a man from the Bay Area with whom I turn out to have mutual friends. He offered me a blessing for my vocation that left me sparkling. An unexpected extra taste of sweetness at the end of an already-excellent Shabbat morning.

I find that now I'm really looking forward to my two other field trips, too -- and to seeing how these dips into these other prayerful communities impact my involvement with my own. I'd love to see this meme spread across the religious blogosphere(s) -- be a respectful tourist in someone else's congregation for a morning, and then reflect on how the experience felt and how it might shape your sense of your usual practices and place as time goes by...

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Contemplation on the cusp

The cycle of the moon is winding down. The new month of Kislev begins on Sunday. It's almost time for new moon again.

The days leading up to Rosh Chodesh (new moon / head of the month) are considered an appropriate time for looking inward and contemplating where one is and what needs re-aligning in one's life. The a name for that practice is cheshbon ha-nefesh, usually translated as "(taking an) accounting of the soul." (Reb Goldie Milgram has written beautifully about this practice. She's talking about doing the work before Yom Kippur, but what she says is applicable to other times of year too.)

I've blogged before about the practice of taking this kind of accounting at moon-dark. Pausing to take account of who we are and where we're at is both useful and necessary. It's something we can do, to a certain extent, every night before we sleep; we can do before each week rolls to its close; and we can do it at the end of every month, in order to start the new month with a clean emotional and spiritual slate.

In Jewish tradition, learning happens in pairs. We don't beat our heads against texts solo. The traditional paradigm calls for us to wrestle with Torah, in its many forms, together. Always two people sit together with the shared text, so we can help each other understand and interpret, so we can offer one another new ideas and balanced perspectives. This is true in cheshbon ha-nefesh, internal/spiritual accounting, too. The Torah of our lived human experience also merits being studied carefully, lovingly, and in conversation with trusted friends.

The lunar month is ending. Where have you been, this last month? What have you done, where have you gone, what's been on your mind? Do your relationships (with your body, your heart, people in your life, your Source) need fine-tuning? What can you add, or subtract, to keep everything running smoothly -- to keep channels of communication open -- to feel rooted and at-home and whole?

I have a longstanding love for music that moves in 6/8 time. That meter always feels to me like a perpetual-motion machine, like the ocean -- one wave drawing back as another one rushes forth. In every breath something ends and something begins. The calendar too works this way, at least for me. One month drawing to its close, the next month preparing to be born. This moment of moon-dark is the infinitesimal pause between the first half of the measure and the second. Take a breath and feel where we are. Feel the music pulling us forward into who we're about to become.

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Break out the champagne: Brilliant Coroners has been released!

Brilliant Coroners is an anthology of poems newly-published by the Montréal-based Phoenicia Publishing

Here's how Brilliant Coroners is described on the Phoenicia website:

Writers and artists have always formed groups for mutual support, commentary, and encouragement, sometimes collaborating on public projects from group shows to hand-printed literary magazines. But while one tends to think of local writers hanging out in Paris cafés in the 1930s, or on the lower East side of New York in the 1950s, how does that desire for communication and creative inspiration translate into today's online world?  The poets and visual artists of this anthology met online through their blogs, and have corresponded for a number of years, across continents and oceans. All are serious writers and artists, many with published poems or books.  Brilliant Coroners arose from their desire to create a collective work and share it with a wider public, and also their wish to draw attention to the high quality of literary writing on the web, and to the exciting possibilities for creative collaboration it affords. The title of this collection refers not to the poets, but to the poems themselves, which sharply dissect meaning from a post-modern world.

As that blurb (hopefully) makes plain, everyone whose work appears in Brilliant Coroners is a blogger. These are some of my favorite online writers, poets of place and chroniclers of human experience. Many have been contributors to qarrtsiluni, a literary e-zine which is a kind of cousin to both Laupe House and Phoenicia. Over the course of the years we've spent sharing our words and our work, we've become not only colleagues and trusted readers but also friends.

Everyone whose work appears in the anthology submitted multiple poems. The co-editors (two Rachels -- Rachel Rawlins and I) were tasked with choosing which of each poet's poems to print. It didn't take long for us to hone in on the tone we wanted for the anthology. Despite our divergent poetic tastes, we found ourselves almost always in agreement about which poems should be a part of the collection. Though the poets behind this work have a broad range of backgrounds and styles, the poems work beautifully together. I think there's real conversation between them. (If you click on the "look inside" link at Phoenicia's site, you'll get a .pdf that includes the table of contents, two of my poems, and two poems each by five of my fellow co-contributors. Hopefully those will whet your appetite for the whole collection.)

The book contains 68 poems by seventeen poets: Beth Adams of The Cassandra Pages, Ivy Alvarez (website here), yours truly, Maria Benet of Small Change Blog, Dave Bonta of Via Negativa, Teju Cole (who in the spirit of impermanence deletes his blogs every so often, though you can find his print work here); Natalie d'Arbeloff of Blaugustine, Dale Favier of Mole, Dick Jones of Patteran Pages, Alison Kent of Feathers of Hope, Leslee Masten, Tom Montag of The Middlewesterner, Jean Morris of Tasting Rhubarb, Rachel Rawlins of Frizzy Logic, Peter Stephens of Slow Reads, Anne-Mieke Swart of Eye in a bell, and the mysterious B.E. Wing.

Some of these poems were originally published on our blogs; others have appeared in journals or chapbooks of various kinds; still others are finding their first audience in these pages. Copies of the collection cost just under $12 apiece, and I hope you'll consider buying a few. These are really good poems, worth reading and rereading. And the whole enterprise of the anthology -- our coming together in a spirit of play and collaboration, celebrating the work that connects us -- makes me happy. I hope it will do the same for you.

Buy Brilliant Coroners here.


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I've been tinkering lately with a couple of blog posts -- one about a poetry anthology that's about to hit the metaphorical streets, and another about my complicated childhood relationship with physicality -- but neither of them is quite ready for prime time yet. It feels odd to be spending so much time editing text at Typepad with nothing (yet) to show for it here, so I thought I'd offer a tiny taste of some of the Torah I've been learning.

My Wednesday morning hevruta group is slowly working our way through the book of Yeshayahu (English-speakers likely know him as Isaiah.) Today we studied chapter 11, which you can find here in a bilingual edition (though, as always, the 1917 translation you'll find there is a little dated; if you've got a Tanakh at home, chances are it will be more readable to the modern eye.)

The commentary in the Oxford Jewish Study Bible sees this chapter as a meditation on "the ideal king in the peaceful future," and divides the chapter into three sections: the ideal age as manifest in jurisprudence, the ideal age as manifest in nature, and the ideal age as manifest in Israel's relationship to other nations. It's that middle section that speaks most to me, the ideal age as manifest in nature. I think Isaiah 11:6-9 is one of the most beautiful passages in the Hebrew scriptures:

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
The leopard lie down with the kid;
The calf, the beast of prey, and the fatling together,
With a little boy to herd them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
Their young shall lie down together;
And the lion, like the ox, shall eat straw.

Continue reading "Orientation" »

Shacharit calling

I woke at seven-thirty, showered and dressed, came downstairs and sat at my desk and took my blood pressure meds, as I usually do. I folded myself in my blue silk tallit (noticing, as I did, the disjunction between my rough flannel shirt and the delicacy of the silk; it's getting to be cold outside, maybe time to transition to my wool one) and twined my arm and head in tefillin.

And then I plugged into my cellphone headset and dialed a conference call number, and found half a dozen of my chevre there. We called in from Pittsburgh and from Boston, from northern Vermont and from Florida, and here I am on my hillside in western Mass. After exchanging morning greetings, our voices warm with affection and with the delight of hearing each other speak, we dove into shacharit, and davened the morning service together, from afar.

There are challenges to conference-call davenen, of course. When we all sing at once, sometimes our voices block each other out. The shaliach tzibbur can't see when we've all finished our silent amidah. One of our friends, who wanted to join us, lives in Australia; but at this hour it is evening for her, and she'd be davening ma'ariv!

I grouse sometimes about ALEPH's fondness for the conference call. In many cases I wish we made better use of the internet. But for morning davening, if we can't all be in the same place, I think being together via conference call is the next-best thing, and it was really sweet to begin my day with these dear voices in my ear. I like to think the whole of is blessed, today, by the intention and the heart we poured into their service at eight a.m.

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History and haskalah

"History was like a mirror for humanity, reflecting its real image and enabling a new identity to take shape." That's a quote from Shmuel Feiner's Haskalah and History, and as the history class I'm taking unfolds, I find that I keep returning to it. I like the idea that we can treat our history like a mirror. When we face our history, what new sides of ourselves might we see?

We're studying the Haskalah: the Jewish Enlightenment, a movement among the Jews of Europe in the late 1700s and early 1800s which centered around adopting Enlightenment values and integrating with European society. (That link goes to its Wikipedia entry, which is worth reading if you're curious.) The shift was sparked by external phenomena (particularly Jewish emancipation, which made Jews citizens; France was the first to emancipate Jews, in 1791) but I suspect it was motivated by some internal yearnings, too, among them a nascent or latent desire to bring Judaism into engagement with the wider world.

In a certain way, the class itself is a product of its subject matter, since the Haskalah legitimized the Jewish study of history. Feiner writes that "[t]he maskilic legitimization of history, which turned Torat ha-adam (in its broad sense as a store of knowledge, a mode of thought, and a system of humanistic ethics) into the organizing principle of history, was perceived as a threat to the values of traditional culture." The views of the maskilim (Jewish enlightenment figures) didn't necessarily go over well in traditionalist communities where the study of secular history was viewed as either unimportant or threatening, and engagement with the wider world was perceived to have dubious value at best.

Unsurprisingly, it's that engagement with the wider world that attracts me most to the Haskalah.

Continue reading "History and haskalah" »