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Feeling proud

Who is following the news, our ulpan instructor asked? We were sitting around a long table in our new classroom, the "caravan," basically a trailer with a window-unit air-conditioner at one end and a whiteboard at the other.

My classmate Marisa (from whom Yafa and I are subletting our apartment this summer) raised her hand. I'm in the news, she said. I was interviewed by a reporter at the mitzad ha-ga'avah (pride march) on Thursday!

The pride march in Jerusalem is big news, confirmed Michal. What do y'all think about it?

There was silence.

What? No opinions? she asked, mock-horrified.

It's a...difficult issue, someone ventured.

Of course! This is Israel! Everything is a difficult issue. If it's not the gay pride march, it's Jews and Arabs, or Israelis and Palestinians, or the security fence, or the captured soldiers... Marisa, what did you say to the reporter?

I don't remember, Marisa admitted, and we all laughed. I think I said something about Jerusalem being a place for everyone.

So what do you think about that? Come on, Michal urged us.

I piped up, and in halting Hebrew said, well, if the beit hamikdash (Temple) was a house for all peoples -- it says that, right, in Yeshayahu (Isaiah), 'My house shall be a house of prayer for all peoples'? (There was general nodding of assent.) So Jerusalem too should be a house for all peoples.

Jews and Muslims and Christians, Michal offered, heterosexuals and homosexuals?

Right, I said. That's what I think.

And then I thought, I'm having a conversation about gay rights. In Hebrew. In Jerusalem. This is unbelievable. I don't ever want to forget this. I should write it down.

And so I did.

I finally managed to upload some photos to flickr. (Thank heavens for the wifi at the Conservative Yeshiva.) I've put up two photosets so far: Old City (34 photos in and around the Old City, from the jaunt I chronicled the other day) and Misc. Jerusalem (17 photos, mostly shots of my apartment so my family can see my monastic quarters, plus a few photos from the mitzad ha-ga'avah.) Enjoy!

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First theomorphism class

I'm taking a class this summer with Shaiya Rothberg on theomorphism. The class aims to explore the image of God in Jewish tradition. Does God have an image? Well, that's the open question. In general, if you ask Jews whether God has an image or a body, the answer is "of course not!" Sure, Torah frequently speaks in those terms, but those passages are meant to be read metaphorically. (If this subject interests you, read on; what follows is a recap of the remarks that opened class, before we got to the hevruta/paired text study.)

God doesn't have an image: that's the standard answer because we're products of the Maimonidean tradition. Rambam (a.k.a. Maimonides) was deeply influenced by Aristotelianism, and also by Islamic thought. His Guide to the Perplexed regards the anthropomorphism in Torah as completely metaphorical. There's a sense that matter, physicality, is "lower" or less valuable than mind/spirit. God is understood as pure form/intellect, transcending the material stuff that one can perceive using physical senses.

We've inherited that idea, and we've also inherited a lot of ideas from the Wissenschaft des Judentums, the beginning of the academic study of Judaism in the nineteenth century. (Think Biblical criticism, documentary hypothesis, all that jazz.) That generation of scholars got to determine the meaning of Jewish sources and how they would present those sources to the world, and they were deeply invested in this idea of a formless God. That was a period of time when "mythology" was a dirty word. Mythology, paganism, anthropomorphism: all of that stuff was seen as inferior.

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A morning at the Leader Minyan

I left my apartment at 8am and started off down Keren ha-Yesod toward the part of Baka called Mekor Hayim. I was pretty footsore by the time I reached the Sudbury Democratic School, the current home of Amika de-Bira, a.k.a. the Leader Minyan. I knew I was in the right place because of the song pouring from the windows -- men's and women's voices together.

I first heard about the Leader Minyan a few years ago, when I read Brian Blum's post Yom Kippur Groupies. What he described -- long hours of spirited davenen -- sounded right up my alley, though I had to admit that even my beloved Y"K services at Elat Chayyim don't run as long as the services he wrote about! Anyway,  I arrived here just in time for their monthly meeting, so I decided to spend my first Shabbat morning in-country with them.

Services begin at 8am and run until 1:30 or two; when I emailed to find out when and where they would be, Avraham told me I was welcome to drop in and out as I wished. When I arrived around nine the kahal (community) was still working their way through p'sukei d'zimrah, the string of poems and psalms that serves as prelude to the formal service. I tried davening along with my little pocket Koren siddur, but realized pretty quickly that they were doing psalms that I couldn't find in my book, so I picked up a siddur from the pile at the front of the room. It too is printed by Koren; the volume contained all of Torah plus the Shabbat liturgy (and plenty more psalms than I had in my edition!) All in Hebrew, naturally.

The minyan meets in a school room. Rows of chairs were set up facing the ark, a wooden closet-type box with a beautiful batik curtain hiding the Torah scrolls. In front of them was a table, dressed in a beautiful white cloth, with piles of siddurim on it. Women sat on the left-hand side of the room, men on the right; between us, as our mechitzah, was a kind of makeshift countertop which was also draped with batik and shawls of many kinds. It was high enough to be clearly present, but low enough that we could easily see one another across it. Women and men had equal space; women and men both sang aloud with fervor; women and men led different parts of the service; and both women and men read from Torah.

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Returning to the Old City

The shawarma I ate last night on Ben Yehuda street was unlike any shawarma I've ever eaten. I had it in a pita, and the meat was good: spicy, succulent, with a hint of curry. But what made it amazing were the piles of toppings the vendor put in there with the lamb. I just kept saying yes to everything he offered; I wanted to try it how the locals eat it, you know? Which meant that it came loaded with humus, salad, cole slaw, pickles, spicy red pepper paste, olive tapenade, tahini sauce, and a handful of French fries on top. It was extraordinary.

After dinner I walked by myself to the edge of the Old City, arriving just before sunset when the late light was painting the walls of the city pinkish-gold. I caught a glimpse of the windmill where, last night, I stood and looked at the Old City in the near distance. I went in through the Jaffa Gate, just for a minute, because I couldn't stand being so near but not actually going in.

Sesame breads, just inside the Old City, this morning.

A friendly rug merchant beckoned me into his store, and we chatted for a few moments. He drew me a map of the Old City -- a circle divided into four quadrants (Armenian Quarter, Jewish Quarter, Muslim Quarter, Christian Quarter) with eight hatch marks around the rim of the circle representing the gates. It's a mandala, I realized. There's all kinds of symbolism to the number eight: the quarters and cross-quarters of the year, the seven days of creation plus one more implying infinity...

Reluctantly I pulled myself away; dark was coming, and I didn't want to get lost. But I promised myself that I would return in the morning, so this morning after a bite of breakfast (fresh apricots with challah and hummous; I'm liable to turn into a chickpea this summer, I'm eating it so often) I charted a new route to the Jaffa Gate and went back inside.

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This week's portion: bloom


It's easy for women
to identify with Korach.
Why should all the power
reside in one set of hands?

Why shouldn't we
be able to speak to God
on our own time, lighting
our own smudge-stick hearts?

Why should our bodies
need concealment, like
faces of the Holy Blessed One
hidden from creation?

Sometimes when we say this
the earth swallows us whole
like Persephone, eater
of pomegranate seeds.

Sometimes we emerge
like spring itself,
overflowing with the stories
we learned underground

and the plain walking-sticks
of everyone around us
burst into improbable bloom.

This week's portion, Korach, contains the story of the rebel Korach who demanded a share of priestly power. He and his people were swallowed up by the earth. After that, we read that God resolved the dispute by asking for the staffs of every chieftain, and causing Aaron's to bloom -- a sign of divine favor on his priesthood. Imagery from both of those stories made it into this week's poem.

The idea of being swallowed by the earth reminded me of the story of Persephone. Persephone made me think of pomegranate seeds. Last night as we gazed into the windows of stores on Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall I saw more pomegranates than I could count: glazed ceramic ones, silver ones, embroidered ones, woven ones. A symbol of abundance and fertility; and also a symbol that used to adorn the High Priest's garb...

I've recorded the poem in raw form, but can't convert it to mp3 without a particular library which, it turns out, is no longer on my rebuilt machine. I'll download that library when I can, and upload the poem when I am able. Meanwhile, you'll have to just read it to yourself this week, and imagine that your voice is mine.

Edited to add: a revised version of this poem is now available in 70 faces, my collection of Torah poems, published by Phoenicia Publishing, 2011.

Departure and arrival

Departing JFK airport involves standing in a lot of lines. As I stood in my first line I marveled at how many visibly religious Jews were flying Virgin Atlantic to Heathrow! (I guessed that most of them would be joining me on El Al for the second leg of the journey, and I was right.) I saw men wearing everything from secular street clothes to black pinstriped frock coats, colorful knit kippot to black velvet kippot to hats of all sizes, cleanshaven and bearded in every imaginable iteration. Women wearing skirts below the knee, or skirts to the ankle; women with a range of hair coverings, hats and wigs and scarves. And, of course, plenty of people who weren't visibly religious, like me.

Travel is always a good reminder for me of how different we are from one another: our shapes and sizes, our skin tones, our modes of dress, the languages we speak. But as I watched my fellow passengers checking in for my flight, it struck me that travel offers an opportunity to remember how connected we are, too. Even with our differences. There's something universal about the experience of going on a journey.

I arrived at Tel Aviv Yafo airport without incident. Alas, I can't say the same for my suitcase -- about 40 of us on the LHR-TLV leg of the journey were still sans luggage when the carousel stopped moving. That was frustrating, for sure, and there's a part of me that is tempted to continue agonizing about it even now, cataloging the items I packed which I really need and really don't want to replace. But I've been telling myself that this is clearly a sign that God wants me to enter this Israel experience without my "baggage" -- and I'm hoping that if I can keep the emotional baggage in check, perhaps I'll merit the receipt of the physical baggage in the morning.

Thanks to everyone who's expressed concern about my laptop misadventures. The bad news is, my hard drive was completely fried and nothing on it was retrievable. The good news is, the melt-down happened the day before I left (instead of, say, while I was above the ocean) and the drive has been replaced. Now I'm working slowly on restoring my files. I anticipate that it's going to take a while.

My deep thanks are due to the friendly folks at the genius bar at the Apple store in Crossgates Mall. One of the guys told Ethan that they think of themselves as a kind of hospital; people who come in with sick computers tend to be stricken and panicked, and it's the employees' obligation to basically offer not only practical fixes but also pastoral care. They certainly lived up to that in my case. This little box is how I work, think, connect, create, and play; its temporary malfunction felt like a major loss, especially on the cusp of this trip. Thanks for your help, guys -- and especially Ethan, who spent the day before his departure for the Global Voices annual meeting trying every trick in the book to bring my machine back to life.

Of course, there's a ton I hadn't thought to back up. (Isn't there always?) Also, for reasons I don't understand I can neither log in to Flickr/Yahoo nor load iPhoto on this machine, so it may be a while before I can show off photos of my new neighborhood. (It's pretty here; looks basically like this...) Both the computer woes, and the reality that I'm here without my possessions, serve to remind me that as much as I like to be well-prepared, sometimes all I can do is try to meet what arises gracefully, even if I don't have my familiar tools in-hand.

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Going through

Either you will
go through this door
or you will not go through.

If you go through
there is always the risk
of remembering your name.

Things look at you doubly
and you must look back
and let them happen.

If you do not go through
it is possible
to live worthily

to maintain your attitudes
to hold your position
to die bravely

but much will blind you,
much will evade you,
at what cost who knows?

The door itself
makes no promises.
It is only a door.

-- Adrienne Rich

I first discovered this poem in Mishkan Tfilah, the new Reform siddur. The poem appears there without its title, as do all of the poetry selections in the book (a decision intended, I assume, to make the poems feel like prayers, rather than the expression of any individual poet's heart). Simcha Daniel taught me that the poem is called "Prospective Immigrants Please Note."  I don't know what it's like to emigrate, but I know what it's like to make the conscious decision to dive in to something unknown and unknowable.

I see a chiastic structure here. For me, the middle stanza is the pivot on which the poem hinges. "If you do not go through / it is possible / to live worthily," Rich writes. Whatever leap you're considering taking: there's nothing wrong with not taking it. But if you don't take the leap, you won't know what new vision might await you on the other side.

The scary thing about beginning my year as a hospital chaplain was not knowing whether I could live up to what the job would demand of me, or what unexpected experiences were in store. The blessings of that experience easily exceeded its challenges, but there was no way to know that until I walked through the door.

Yesterday Ethan and I enjoyed the longest day of the year together. Today he'll drive me to an airport hotel near JFK. Tomorrow morning he'll take me to the airport at five a.m. and I'll begin my Jerusalem journey. I don't know what's on the other side of this door, but I trust that the blessings will outshine the challenges here too.

Mobius posted an amazing quote from Reb Nachman on Friday: "All beginnings require that you unlock a new door." (This post was already in draft then, so the serendipity made me smile.) Here goes nothing: my hand is on the handle, the hinge creaks, the door is about to open --

Just to make my departure more interesting, my computer died a grisly death this morning. (Good thing I'd saved a draft of this post at TypePad.) I'll be heading to Israel with a loaner machine. Thank you in advance for understanding if I'm even slower than anticipated to respond to emails and comments...

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Strawberry fields forever

The voices of friends floated down to me from the far end of the row. After I'd finished picking my quart, I made my way toward the aisle to meet them. "I didn't think I'd see you again before you left town," Jonquil said. I hadn't known we would cross paths again, either.

"I wanted to get in a little Farm time," I said. "Pick strawberries while I still can!"

"I'm pretty sure they have strawberries in Jerusalem," she assured me.

"But not like this," I said, gesturing to the fields and the hills around us. There's nothing else quite like this.

My friend Ali recently published A love post of sorts (this time, for my CSA). It made me smile with recognition. I've posted a few love letters to Caretaker in this blog: Shabbat at the Farm, Basil harvest, Hardy green, my recent Torah poem Caretaker.

Tonight we'll dine on a Caretaker salad: beautiful lettuce leaves, arugula so explosively flavorful it makes my mouth sing, tiny sweet white turnips and bright spicy radishes. And then maybe we'll end the day with a bowl of fresh strawberries, vibrant and sweet. The flavors of home, sustaining me as I prepare to venture forth.

I've been comparing the seven weeks of my trip to the counting of the Omer, that season of spiritual growth culminating in first fruits both intellectual and physical. Visiting the Farm yesterday reminded me that I'll be home just in time for some physical harvesting, to match the spiritual and emotional harvest I hope I'll be bringing in. May I glean sweetness, there and here, now and always.

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This week's portion: larger than life


Look, everything about the land
is larger than life.

The state airline sends secret agents
to travelers' houses at random.

The grapes there grow so heavy
no single man can carry them.

The navel of creation is there,
an eternal portal to Eden.

Love and hatred permeate the air
like spices, like roses, like

the echoing call to prayer
and the memorial day sirens.

If you don't feel at-home there
the moment the wheels kiss the ground

for God's sake don't tell a soul!
When the spies admitted their fears

(they said the land ate its own)
they doomed a whole generation.

I've been a bit fixated this week on preparing to depart for Jerusalem. It's been hard to focus on much else in a sustained way. Given that, I wondered how I would achieve the focus I would need in order to write this week's Torah poem.

I laughed when I realized that this week's portion is Sh'lakh l'kha, in which the Israelites send their first delegation of scouts into the land (with fairly disastrous results.) This was my niece Emma's bat mitzvah portion! Of course, this year I'm reading it during the days leading up to my own journey into the land, which changes how the portion resonates for me.

Jason Shinder, of blessed memory -- my fourth and final poetry mentor at Bennington -- used to say, "Whatever gets in the way of the work, is the work." He was speaking in poetry terms, but it's true on a spiritual level too. Whatever's happening in my life this week which might prevent me from engaging with the intellectual and spiritual material in front of me becomes the very material with which I need to engage.

So this week's Torah poem riffs on the notion of fears and expectations, entry into the land, the tall tales and wild stories people tell about it (then and now), the welter of emotions that go along with crossing a boundary into someplace strange and new.

As usual, if you can't see the audio player embedded in this post, or if you'd like a copy of the recorded poem, you can download life.mp3.


Edited to add: this poem is now available in 70 faces, my collection of Torah poems, published by Phoenicia Publishing, 2011.


Veery fine

One of my favorite sounds of Berkshire summer is the call of a particular bird. We have at least two of them in the woods behind our house, and at this time of year we hear them calling back and forth to one another for hours on end. The song is difficult to describe. I've always heard it as a kind of spiralling metallic sound. Ethan says it sounds like an Icelandic techno band.

Just now, between the two of us and some judicious Googling (and the slightly surreal experience of hearing birdsong coming both out of our computer speakers and through the windows from the outside world) we've figured it out: it's the song of the Veery, also known as the Veery thrush.

(At this link, you can click where it says "song" in the upper left-hand corner of the page and listen to its call. You can also do so here. And if you want to get truly hardcore, you can listen to Veery calls and see graphical representations of their soundwaves and see them rendered as sheet music.)

I've bookmarked the song on; I know it's something I'll want to hear again. Maybe I'll play it in Jerusalem when I want to remember one of the sounds of home. Maybe I'll play it in February when all of the veeries have retired to the tropics, along with the wood thrushes, leaving us with the hardy chickadees and juncos whose tunes are less showy but whose tiny presences still comfort me during the snowy season.

I always try to say a shehecheyanu when I hear the first thrush-song of the summer. My friend John Jerome, of blessed memory, wrote beautifully about it in his book Stone Work:

How do they make those sounds? It isn't a whistle, is it? (Birds can't exactly purse their lips.) It's song, all right, some kind of complex shout, or cry, air squeezed out of bird-sized lungs across bird-sized vocal cords. Little bitty muscles, doing work: bird labor, for which a certain amount of the energy budget must also be set aside. A single bird, flexing a bit of muscle and connective tissue smaller than a matchhead, filling the woods with sound. At sundown, the melting liquidity of the wood thrush's song -- responsible, when I do manage to listen, for an untrustworthy sensation in the region of my own vocal cords -- is also fueled by the conversion of glucose to adenosine triphosphate. From grasshopper meat, no doubt.

Thinking of such things gets in the way of hearing the song. To learn to listen better, I sit with Chris through summer sunsets, trying to pick out the last thrush's call of the day -- which is impossibly backward, since you can't realize it was the last one until a quarter of an hour after you heard it. The quality of my attention falls away quickly, though, and between calls, between the very notes, I slip off into some other foolish speculation and miss the song. According to our friend Becky, what the wood thrush says is, "Here I am." Long pause. "Over here." Long pause. "Loving you." It is very peaceful, never mind the feeling it gives you at the back of the throat.

On one of the email lists to which I belong, we've been talking about mindfulness lately. What "mindfulness" means, what we like and don't like about the vagueness of the term, how we do or don't practice it in our daily lives. Noticing music, and being attentive to the ways it sparks my own emotional dips and swoops: that's the kind of mindfulness to which I aspire. Whether the sounds entering my ears are the birdsong of our very own hill, or the muezzins of a far-away city I can only begin to imagine.

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A whirlwind tour of Biblical History

"If you were presenting a one-hour lecture on 'Biblical History and Civilization' to a group of generally well-educated, but Jewishly less knowledgeable adults, what would you say?"

That was the first question posed by Reb Leila at the end of the first part of ALEPH's two-semester Biblical History & Civ class. (I've posted a couple of times about some of the reading for that class.) She asked us to limit ourselves to ten pages of double-spaced text, and to write without recourse to footnotes, as though the product of our labors really were going to be delivered aloud to a lay audience. It was a fabulous exercise for me. I found that as I went back over my notes in preparation for writing the essay, the themes of the course coalesced into (what felt to me like) an integrated whole.

I titled my paper "What We Talk About When We Talk About Biblical History" (a nod, of course, to the Raymond Carver story of almost the same name.) So what are we talking about? Everything from archaeology to theology. We're talking about history, and also about stories which contain deep truth though they may or may not be factual. We're talking about the era in which a disparate collection of tribes—sometimes known as ivrim, "boundary-crossers"—coalesced into a religious community with shared theology and a shared central story.

My intention was to offer a sense for the sweep of events and ideas from Abraham through the end of the first Temple period, and to touch on the major ideas and shifts that arose during that time within the community we now call ancient Israel. I began with the patriarchs, detoured to questions of Torah's historicity, spent some time on the Exodus and Sinai and our covenant with God (and how it parallels other covenants of the region and era.) The conquest of the land, the relationship between Israelite tradition and other traditions of that place and time, the establishment of the monarchy (pretty radical in its day) and the rise and fall of the united kingdom of Israel. 

And then I closed with some reflections on what the study of Biblical history means to me. The rest of the essay isn't really blog-appropriate material, but I'll include those last few paragraphs below the extended-entry tag for those of you who might find this interesting. (If you're also in the class, I trust you'll refrain from reading this until you've handed in your own work!)

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A benediction for my travels

My dear friend Kate posted today about juggling work and writing and life. The tension she describes is probably familiar to anyone who balances work and art, practical life and spiritual life. 

At the end of the post, she included the poem she wrote for me on my birthday this year, which is pretty stunning. The poem begins like this:

When you are walking wide streets under palms
or leaning forward at an outdoor table,
let the sun steep you in the gentle heat
of argument. A breeze lifts linen from you.
Bowls of dates hold corners of translations,
and muezzins call, not far away...

The post is here -- I recommend the whole thing, prose and poetry alike. I'm especially glad that she posted the poem, because it's exactly the benediction I feel that I need as I get ready to depart for Jerusalem.

T-minus one week and counting. My to-do lists proliferate like mushrooms after a rain. Today I planted a small hydrangea on the front side of the house -- my mother-in-law brought it to us in a pot to adorn our Pesach table, and today I finally had time to dig a little hole and give it a real home. Planting it felt like a good reminder that although I'm preparing to fly away for the summer, my roots here will sustain me.

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This week's poem: Shine (B'ha-alot'kha)


The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron and say to him, "When you mount the lamps, let the seven lamps give light at the front of the lampstand." -- Numbers 8:1-2

One for each day of creation
and a seventh for Shabbat,
the pearl in the crown
the flowering apple tree
the culmination.

One for each blessing
your children will recite
beneath the chuppah
marveling at what they find
in one another's eyes.

Each representing one
of the sefirot or chakras,
colors of the rainbow
musical tones in a scale
we've never imagined.

Even now, with our portable
dwelling-place for God
long vanished irretrievably
into the attic of memory,
these lamps still shine.

There's a ton of good stuff in this week's Torah portion, B'ha-alot'kha: instructions for how to offer the Pesach sacrifice belatedly, the words Moses used to say when the ark went forth (which we still recite in many synagogues when the Torah is brought out of the ark), a story about quail and a plague, and Moses' siblings' distress upon his marriage to a Cushite woman (and their plaintive "doesn't God speak through us, too?") which result in Miriam being stricken with tzara'at and Moses praying, "Please, God, heal her!"

But when I sat down to write this week's Torah poem, it was the very beginning of the portion that leapt out at me. As prose, the first two verses in the portion aren't all that compelling to me -- okay, fine, seven lamps mounted on a lampstand, moving on. But the notion of seven lights resonates for me on a poetic level. The symbolism of seven is all over Jewish tradition; light can represent not only the visible light we receive from sun and moon, stars and fire, but also the spiritual light of insight and wisdom and knowledge.

As usual, if you can't see the audio player at the top of this post or if you'd like a copy of the recorded poem, you can download shine.mp3.

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Shavuot: anniversary of a cosmic marriage

I taught the last lesson of the night at our tikkun, which I called Shavuot: anniversary of a cosmic marriage. I began by talking about two classical ways of imagining Shavuot as our collective wedding anniversary. In one interpretation, at Shavuot we married the Torah (with God and Moses as witnesses) and in another, we married God (with Torah as our ketubah, and heaven and earth as witnesses -- that's the one I've encountered most often.) I talked about what it's like for me to be celebrating two anniversaries this weekend, ten years of marriage and this ongoing relationship with the Source of Blessing, and how the two intersect and interact for me.

Together we looked at a handful of texts, including this one from Zohar:

Rabbi Shimeon used to sit and learn Torah at night when the bride joined with her spouse. It is taught: The members of the bride's entourage are obligated to stay with her throughout the night before her wedding with her spouse to rejoice with her in those perfections (tikkunim) by which she is made perfect. [They should] learn Torah, Prophets and Writings, homilies on the verses and the secrets of wisdom, for these are her perfections and adornments. She enters with her bridesmaids and stands above those who study, for she is readied by them and rejoices in them all the night. On the morrow, she enters the canopy with them and they are her entourage. When she enters the canopy, the Holy One, blessed be He, asks about them, blesses them, crowns them with the bride's adornments. Blessed is their destiny. (Zohar I:8a)

The bride in this context is Shekhinah, the immanent / indwelling aspect of God; the spouse is the Holy Blessed One, the aspect of God that's wholly transcendent. We're the bridesmaids, attending the Shekhinah on the eve of her marriage; all who study Torah on erev Shavuot strengthen her and cause her to rejoice, and in return YHVH crowns us with the Shekhinah's jewels beneath the chuppah at dawn.

We also read this, from Michael Strassfeld's The Jewish Holidays:

One of the most beautiful images of Shavuot of that of the marriage between God (the groom) and Israel (the bride.) Developing this image, Pesach is the period of God’s courtship of Israel, and Shavuot celebrates the actual marriage. Sukkot, then, is the setting up of a bayit ne’eman—a household faithful to Judaism.

Even the midrash’s problematic imagery of God holding the mountain of Sinai over the Israelites’ heads while saying “Accept My Torah or else!” is transformed in this romantic symbolism as the mountain becomes a huppah—a wedding canopy for the marriage.

My handout also included Rabbi Simon Jacobson's essay The Cosmic Marriage (which we didn't discuss, but I wanted to include because it's thought-provoking, if hetero-centric) and The Shavuot Marriage Contract by Philip Goodman which talks about the Sephardic custom of beginning the holiday by reading a ketubah which formalizes the relationship between God and Israel.

We also read and discussed a few of my favorite poems about marriage: a Wendell Berry poem which I posted a few years ago, Marge Piercy's Reshaping Each Other, and Rumi's This Marriage. Each of these was written about a human relationship, but we chose to try reading them as though they'd been written about relationship with God, which yielded some fascinating perspectives. The exercise reminded me of the extent to which our relationships with our human beloveds are always a reflection or refraction of our relationships with the divine Beloved, and vice versa.

We closed by reading Hosea 2:21-22, the verses recited each day as the final twists of tefillin are affixed to one's hand. "I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you to me in righteousness, in justice, in lovingkindness, and in compassion." Those are the marriage vows that Ethan and I spoke to each other ten years ago, so I get a little shiver every time I say them. The verse recited upon donning tefillin continues, "And I will betroth you to me in faithfulness, and you will know God."

The verse is talking about a knowing that inheres in deep identification-with the other. It linked beautifully back to the first lesson of our night, in which we explored the kabbalistic prayer said before the tikkun leil Shavuot begins. That prayer makes clear that our study is undertaken for the sake of the unification of the Holy Blessed Name and the Shekhinah -- a union of transcendence and immanence. During the tikkun we study God's names in all of their permutations (whether via the traditional assemblage of texts, or via the more interpretive dance through Torah in which my liberal community engages) in order to bridge the binary between God-far-above and God-deep-within. That's the kind of knowledge Hosea's talking about.

One of the women in the circle spoke about the leap of faith involved in taking the first step down the aisle when she married her husband many years ago. It's a truth of relationships and of spiritual practice, too: one doesn't begin a marriage by saying, "okay, so, tell me everything that's going to be entailed in this relationship over the next X years, and then I'll decide whether I'm up for it or not." One begins a marriage with an existential yes! Just so in our relationship with the Holy Blessed One -- remember, Torah tells us that the Israelites' response to God was na'aseh v'nishmah, "We will do and we will hear." Action comes first. We take the leap of enacting our relationship, trusting that our understanding of one another and our bond with one another will deepen as the years go by.

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Ten wonderful shiurim!

Chag Shavuot sameach / happy Shavuot to all!

Like last year, my shul and the shul up the road celebrated Shavuot together. We had a really sweet time. This year we began the night with almost forty people present, around an enormous seminar table, and we savored ten lessons over the course of the evening:

  • What are we supposed to be repairing at the Tikkun? An investigation of the kabbalistic creation of the study vigil on the night of Shavuot, taught by Rabbi Jeff Goldwasser

  • What's in a Re-Naming? Another look at the story of Jacob's new name, taught by Joan

  • Shavuot and unharvested fields in Torah, taught by Karen

  • The sounds of prayer and study: how our musical traditions influence our approach to praying and learning as a community, taught by Cantor Bob Scherr

  • Honoring the Image of God: What does Jewish Law have to teach about Torture?, taught by Rabbi Joshua Boettiger

  • Three folk tales about Shavuot, taught by Werner

  • Water, Wells and Words: A Look at Miriam's Relationship to Water, taught by Betty

  • Spaces Between: stringing pearls of Torah into narrative, taught by Elma

  • Musical Settings of Revelation, taught by Cantor Emily Wigod Pincus

  • Shavuot: anniversary of a cosmic marriage, taught by me

I was especially moved by Joan's teaching about Jacob's new name Israel, which drew deeply on an essay called "The Engendered Shema: Sarah-Echoes in the Name of Israel" by Elizabeth Wyner Mark (published in Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought -- I'm psyched to dig up the article next time I'm at the college library.) And Karen's teachings about gleaning led me to consider the ways in which Shabbat and festivals allow us to glean holiness in the margins of our work lives -- how relationship with God is something we harvest best when we sit still. 

It makes me really happy that our two congregations celebrate Shavuot and Simchat Torah together. There's a wonderful energy in our togetherness. When we first began our short festival maariv (evening service) the wave of song and impromptu harmony swept me away. We opened the evening with the blessing for Torah study, in order that our every interaction from then on -- the formal learning, and the informal conversations over espresso mocha milkshakes -- would be a form of engaging with Torah. And we closed the evening a hair before two, the seven final stalwarts standing in a circle in the sanctuary and passing the Torah around. Each of us receiving and giving.

I'll post later today or tomorrow about the lesson I taught. For now, I'm having a sweet slow day -- after several wonderful days of houseguests and anniversary celebrations of various kinds, I'm pretty beat! -- and feeling really blessed.

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For E.

The wind was cold and salty on the day
that you and I became a new kind of "we."
You reached into your pocket for the ring
and when you first slid it onto my hand
a wild amazement cracked my heart open
and everything in my world felt new.

I would have said, then, that I knew
what it meant to wake beside you every day,
to treat each as a present to open
together. I didn't understand how we
would grow together, traveling hand
in hand on cobblestones and ring

roads, how our travels would ring
too internal continents, mapping new
territory of the heart. Since I took your hand
in the gentle rain ten years ago today
I've felt you with me, no matter where we
are. The future is wide open

like our chuppah, like our household, open
to our family of friends, the ring
of everyone who gathers when we
celebrate. Every morning is new.
That I get to walk beside you night and day
still awes me. This sign upon my hand

fills me with joy. We've each had a hand
in this handiwork, building this open
trellis within which our life blooms day
by day. It's flexible like the ring
of our arms around each other, always new.
This is the life that we

have made, and I love the way we
keep each others’ dreams close to hand.
Like watching Local Hero, something new
in every viewing; like a waltz in open
3/4 time; your voice, our vows, ring
and reverberate in me to this day.

And our faces, our hearts: we are open.
The gears of marriage turn by hand. Ring
the bells! Leap with me into a new day.


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Sestinas for everyone!

I'm on a sestina roll! I posted another one to the Best American Poetry Blog. Here's how it begins:

I certainly wouldn't claim to be the best
though I suppose no one could quibble with "American"...
Either way, I'm here to share adventures
from the Berkshires, post by post,
happy to be blogging here, a guest
of our esteemed editors, recently abroad.

In just three weeks, I too will be abroad,
combing the streets of Jerusalem to find the best
coffee and tabouli, staying as a guest
in the apartment of an extpatriate American.
I hope for easy wifi in order to post
about Hebrew, psalms, syntax, adventures...

Read the whole thing here: Sestina Featuring Six Words Commonly Used On This Blog. (And this time, unlike my two previous posts there, you can actually comment on my post if you want to.) If you're remembering that I did something similar here a few years ago, you're right; just for kicks, here's a link to Sestina Using Six Words Blogpulse Chose For Me.

Oh, and while I'm at it, let me point to a sestina I just read that knocked my socks off: Peter Cole's Palestine, A Sestina (published alongside a few of his other poems at Zeek.) It's stunning.


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Interview with Rodger Kamenetz, now online at Zeek

A while back I had the profound pleasure of interviewing Rodger Kamenetz for Zeek. We spoke about dreams, poetry, the Zohar -- really a few of my favorite things.

Now you can read our conversation online: Dreaming with Rodger Kamenetz. Here's a tiny taste:

ZEEK: I think there's a deep connection between poems and dreams. We relate to both of them in a way that's not purely intellectual.

KAMENETZ: We've lost an understanding of something people once knew: if we're talking about the human soul, what are we talking about if not imagination? So when we're talking about people who write or paint, creative thinkers who we call inspired, we're talking about the realm of the soul. And the unconscious, the psyche, dreams. Our religious discourse is so impoverished if people don't refer to the imagination, it's all intellect, it's all in a book...

Read the whole thing here, and feel free to leave a comment either there or here if you have responses or reactions! My deep thanks go to Rodger for taking the time for the conversation.

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This week's Torah poem: Voice (Naso)


When Moses went into the Tent
to converse with God

he would hear the Voice
coming from atop the ark

in the space between
the two cherubs (not babies

with round cheeks but angels
whose wings made a canopy)

sometimes they embraced
sometimes rested back-to-back

like an old married couple
fighting in their sleep

when the people were kind
the cherubs gazed

into one another's eyes
and God's voice issued forth, saying

in case of jealousy, eat my words
let me tell you how to bless

but Moses didn't take notes
and we've been playing telephone

we've lost the part that said
for My sake and yours

have a little fun out there
I know whether or not it's true

that you only live once
but I'm not telling

This week's portion, Naso, includes the bizarrely magical Sotah ritual (which I wrote about two years ago), the priestly blessing, and instructions for prospective nazirites, among a bunch of other things. It's the longest Torah portion of them all, weighing in at 176 verses.

This week's poem arose out of the final verse of the portion, Numbers 6:89, which describes how Moses would go into the tent and hear God's voice speaking to him from between the two keruvim. I've always liked the teaching that God's voice arises in the place of interaction between the two figures -- in their I-Thou stance, as it were. The notion that the cherubs could either face each other or give each other the cold shoulder, reflecting the community's behavior, is midrashic.

As usual, if you can't see the audio player embedded at the top of this post, or if you would like to have a copy of the recording, you can download voice.mp3.

Poem cross-posted to The Best American Poetry blog, with different commentary. For reasons we can't fathom, my posts there won't accept comments, though the blog as a whole does. So if you have a comment, please leave it here!

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Seven weeks

Going away for seven weeks requires a lot of work. Between Ethan's surgery (he's recovering well, thanks for asking) and my trip to Texas, I lost a month in there somehow. When I returned to my desk, it became clear how imminent my travels really are. Three weeks from this morning I'll be stepping dazedly off a plane.

New items sprout on my pre-trip to-do list almost as fast as I can cross them off: enroll in emergency medevac insurance (done), research Israeli cell phones (still in-progress), figure out how to get from the Tel Aviv airport to my apartment in Jerusalem after arriving at five in the morning on a Tuesday (any suggestions?)

I make mental lists of things I want to get at the pharmacy before I go. I wake up early and listen to the birdsong pouring forth from our woods -- red-winged blackbirds and the liquid call of thrushes and so many others I don't know how to name -- and wonder what sounds I will hear in my Jerusalem apartment at dawn. Probably cars, and the voice of the five-year-old in the room beside mine.

The practical preparations are taking up so much of my energy that I haven't had much time to engage with the emotional preparations, the intellectual preparations, the spiritual preparations. How I feel about the prospect of being away from home for almost two months, and also how I feel about the specific place where I am going. The things I'm excited to learn. The things that scare me.

It's a strange experience, getting ready for a trip like this. I used to do this kind of thing every summer when I was a kid -- not travel to Jerusalem, naturally, but other adventures. A homestay in rural France the summer I was fifteen. Six weeks in the rainforest the year after that. In hindsight now it seems to me that those trips were training runs for college, ways of stretching my wings and figuring out what it might feel like to go far away from home.

Doing this as an adult is a whole different ball of wax. We'll celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary before I go, reaffirming some of the roots that keep me steady and happy, and then we'll... email often, I guess. Make phone calls over Skype. Ethan posted a few years ago about traveling 150 days a year; he reminded me yesterday that I'm talking about 49 days, which is -- comparatively speaking -- not such a long time. I'm just not accustomed to being the one who goes away.

As we mark the last few days of the Counting of the Omer, the forty-nine days between Pesach and Shavuot, I'm thinking about what a journey 49 days can be. How I hope to emerge from this journey, and from that one, strengthened in my sense of where I fit and who I hope to be.

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