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Ethan and I are delighted to announce the arrival of our son into the world!

Andrew Wynn Zuckerman

Born November 28, 2009 / 11 Kislev 5770

He is named after our maternal grandmothers, Alice Fried Epstein and Winifred Mootrey Campbell. His Hebrew name, Yitzchak, is after my maternal grandfather Isaac Epstein. And he has a Ghanaian (Akan/Twi) name, too: Kwame, because he's Saturday-born.

If you'd like to know more, or if you're interested in following the chronicle of our adventures with him, feel free to visit, where you can see his birth announcement, look at photos, and even subscribe to "his" blog (where we plan to post about life-with-baby.) For now, we wanted all of y'all who read our blogs to be able to share our joy.

(Remember that all comments on this blog are moderated. In these early postpartum hours/days I may not be online much, so please bear with us if it takes a while for your comment to appear.)


When I first went to Elat Chayyim in 2002, back at the old venue in the Catskills, and first experienced the discipline of heartfelt daily prayer as an adult, I was struck by the modah ani prayer for gratitude with which we began our morning worship. It was one of the first prayer practices I adopted. These days I try to say modah ani every morning first thing: if it's not the first thought in my mind when the alarm goes off, I try to make it at least my first intentional or conscious thought as the shower wakes me from sleep.

Cultivating a mindset of gratitude is one of the reasons why I value my prayer practice. So much of Jewish liturgy is aimed at saying "thank you" in one way or another: thank you for this body, thank you for the soul which enlivens it, thank you for the fact that I am alive today. Thank you for the food we're about to eat; thank you for the food we've just eaten. Thank you for giving us the discernment and consciousness we need in order to mark and sanctify time. Thank you for the rhythm of weekdays; thank you for Shabbat which interrupts that rhythm. Thank you for the wisdom teachings which call us beyond ourselves.

There are times when it's hard for me to feel grateful. When I'm sick or hurting or in pain, or when something has gone wrong which clouds my ability to access thankfulness. But the practice of saying thank you doesn't stop on those days. In those moments, says my teacher Rabbi Jeff Roth, the best we can do may be to pray for the ability to feel gratitude at some future moment, and to say our words of gratitude in hopes that speaking the words will cause the emotion to arise in us. We don't only get to say "thank you" when we feel like it. My mother, who did her best to teach me proper southern manners, would surely approve.

In the United States today is a day for giving thanks. I have an enormous amount for which to be thankful today. Family and friends, our home and the hills, a glorious abundance of food, and an amazing web of interconnections with loved ones around the world: all of these sustain me, and us, this Thanksgiving. And I'm thankful for my online life, the friendships which have formed through these matrices of pixels and these asynchronous conversations. I'm thankful for all of you who read this blog, whether you comment often or rarely, whether we tend to agree or disagree.

Thanks for being there, y'all. The last six years of Velveteen Rabbi have been a grand adventure, and I look forward to seeing what kinds of conversations we have in years to come. If you're celebrating Thanksgiving, I hope your day is full and sweet! And if you're not, I hope you have a fine Thursday, wherever you are.

This evening at sundown begins Eid ul-Adha -- I wish an eid mubarak, a blessed eid, to all of my Muslim readers & friends!

This week's portion: hatch


The question no one asked:
what did I want to bring with me

from the old hacienda, every rock
and bush familiar as my own palm?

What talismans of my childhood
could I sequester in the saddlebags

and sit on like a mother hen
brooding over her speckled eggs?

Even my husband doesn't understand
how these old beliefs shaped me

how my curves and corners fit
snug against what I've rejected

and what I embrace, even him,
even here in this goatskin tent

where my father's household is only
a memory clouded with distant dust.

This week we're in parashat Vayetzei, which includes the story of Rachel stealing Laban's household idols. (You can find it in Genesis 31:19-35.) I've always loved this story. There's comedy in the wry way the text shows us Laban getting his comeuppance. Of course, there's something funny about Jacob's obtuseness here, too. And I'm always struck by the theme of trickery and cunning throughout this generation of the family story: Rebecca schooling Jacob to trick Isaac out of Esau's blessing, then Laban tricking Jacob into marrying the wrong daughter first, and now Rachel tricking Laban out of his household gods.

But what does it mean to steal the household gods? This question came up in our Torah Journeys class last week, and we had a fabulous conversation about the poetic imagery of Rachel sitting on the idols as though they were eggs she intended to hatch. That's the idea which gave rise to this week's Torah poem.

We don't tend to think in terms of household gods anymore -- the term puts me in mind of Aeneas taking the Lares and Penates, wrapped in his toga, as he flees from burning Troy -- but I like the idea that there is something each of us takes from our household of origin when we set off on our own to create our own homes and families. What from my parents' household has come with me the long way from south Texas to western Massachusetts? What did I bring with me, knowingly and unknowingly? How do the talismans and the stories of my childhood continue to shape me and my house, and what will they mean to my son as he grows?

Does any of this resonate for you?

Another Torah poem published

This seems to be a good week for me and poetry! The editors at Scribblers on the Roof have kindly published one of my Torah poems (the second one to see print this week, go figure) -- this time the poem in question is Instead of Sons (Vayechi).

I originally wrote this poem as part of my ongoing Torah poems series. Parashat Vayechi is the last Torah portion in the book of Genesis; last year we were reading it in early January. (This year we will, too.)

There's a special resonance for me in seeing this poem published this week. When I first drafted this poem, I was pregnant for the first time, which is probably why I gravitated toward writing about Joseph's Egyptian wife and the daughters for whom I imagined she longed. The day after I posted the poem to this blog, I had my miscarriage, which is chronicled in my collection Through. And now, as the poem goes online, I'm preparing for the birth of our son in a few days.

What an awesome year it has been. (I mean that in the most classical sense of the word -- I'm thinking of the Hebrew yir'ah, which means both awe and fear.) It's pretty mindblowing to think that within the last twelve months I have gone from pregnant, to the grief of losing that pregnancy, to carrying another pregnancy almost to term.

Anyway! If you don't know Scribblers on the Roof, you can learn about the site, and I recommend adding them to your aggregator if Jewish literature is your cup of tea. They're a terrific forum for Jewish fiction and poetry, and I'm delighted that they've chosen to publish one of my Torah poems. Thanks, editors.

ReadWritePoem prompt #102: Homemade


Little cubes, packed
with plump golden raisins
between sheets of waxed paper

I can still taste
their sweetness
creamy on my tongue

the recipe, reliant
on jarred marshmallow fluff,
was never the point

unlike her husband
or daughter, my grandmother
never loved to cook

but she let me use up
all the tinfoil in the house
making armor, let me

draw on their china plates
with blunt wax pencils
and said it was good

said I was good
whatever I created
with my own small hands

This week's prompt at ReadWritePoem invites us to consider our associates with particular foods -- a resonant theme for the week during which American Thanksgiving falls!

My response to the prompt arose out of remembering one of my favorite dishes that my maternal grandmother, Alice Fried Epstein (of blessed memory), used to make. Of course, the poem is more about her (and about being her granddaughter) than it is about the recipe on the back of the marshmallow fluff jar -- but I think that's probably the point.

If you'd like to see how others have responded to the same prompt, check out this week's Get Your Poem On post at RWP.



I'm delighted to be able to announce that I have a poem in the new issue of the online journal Melusine -- the Fall 2009 issue, issue 1.3 -- alongside some old friends and colleagues who I know from my Inkberry days, among them Sandra Kohler and Diane Lockward. The poem of mine published there is part of my Torah poems series, written during the first year of this ongoing practice; it's called Vessel.

There's something slightly bittersweet about sharing the screen with old Inkberry friends given the recent news about the nonprofit, but I feel like the org had a good run, and I'm glad that some of the programming of which we're most proud will continue. Anyway: check out Melusine, which is a beautiful journal filled with excellent work. Thanks for the publication, Melusine!

This week's portion: a Torah journey with Rebecca

This fall I'm taking a class called "Torah Journeys" with Rabbi Shefa Gold. Reb Shefa is teaching us her method of intensely personal exegesis, as appears in her excellent collection of parshaniyut, Torah Journeys. We've each been asked to engage in a "Torah journey" of our own around a Torah text of our choosing; I chose this week's portion, Toldot.

At the very beginning of this parsha, we learn that Rebecca is childless. Yitzchak pleads with God on her behalf and she conceives. She feels the tumult of the twins within her, and goes to inquire of YHVH, אם כן, למה זה אנכי? -- usually translated as "If this is so, then why do I exist?

1) Where's the blessing here?

The beginning of this parsha has always struck a chord with me. Even someone who has never been pregnant knows the experience of mixed emotions, of feeling tumultuous motion within oneself, of wondering "Why am I here?" Rebecca is deeply conscious of her own mixed feelings, of her swirl of emotions. They lead her to ask: what am I here for? What am I doing? What is my purpose? And she brings these questions to the Source of All. Although we've never seen her speak directly to God before, she doesn't seem to feel that she needs an intermediary; she brings her question directly to the Holy Blessed One.

It's interesting to me that Rebecca doesn't ask YHVH for a child, nor does she take the extraordinary steps which other Biblical foremothers took -- she doesn't bring her handmaid to her husband as Sarah did, nor does she beseech God herself for a child as Hannah will do. The text doesn't tell us how she felt before the conception: did she understand herself as bereft, as empty? Or was she contented with her situation, and surprised when something new and strange began to grow inside her? One blessing I find in this part of the parsha is Rebecca's readiness to speak directly to God. Another blessing is her willingness to question.

Now that I am only a few short days away from birthing my first child, this text offers me new blessings. I can relate to Rebecca's question not only as an intellectual and spiritual matter, but also as a physical one. In assiyah (the world of action and physicality), although I don't know what it's like to bear twins, I do know now what it feels like to have something which is not-me stirring inside my body. I've struggled at times with the anticipation of yielding control over my life (both in pregnancy, and especially once the baby comes and I am no longer able to pursue rabbinic studies full-time), and I find reassurance in the fact that this foremother struggled too with the question אם כן, למה זה אנכי?

What's more: when Rebecca asks, God answers her. Although I have only rarely had the experience of feeling directly answered by God, this story reminds me to reach out to God when I have questions and fears, and to know that God hears me.

Continue reading "This week's portion: a Torah journey with Rebecca" »

Psalm 20: a psalm for childbirth

As I mentioned a while back, my final project for my psalms tutorial is an exploration of two psalms which have classically been associated with childbirth, one of which is psalm 20, which begins "May God answer you in your day of trouble." In one interpretation,  Midrash Tehillim draws an analogy between the God-Israel relationship and the relationship of a mother and daughter who, though they have quarreled, are still so deeply connected that when the daughter cries out in labor, her mother -- even if her mother is in heaven, e.g. the world to come -- cries out along with her. "The suffering of my daughter is my suffering," the mother says. How wondrous that the sages could understand God as our Mother, who endures the birth-pangs of our transformation along with us!

I have a few more teachings to share on this psalm, but first I wanted to offer my (somewhat clunky) translation of psalm 20. Please note that where the original text features the tetragrammaton, I've replaced that Name with יה, because this is my working copy of the psalm designed to be printed and there are Jewish traditions which prohibit writing the four-letter Name on anything which might be treated carelessly or thrown away.

Psalm 20
תהילים פרק כ
א  לַמְנַצֵּחַ, מִזְמוֹר לְדָוִד.
For the leader: a psalm of David.

ב  יַעַנְךָ יה, בְּיוֹם צָרָה;    יְשַׂגֶּבְךָ, שֵׁם אֱלֹהֵי יַעֲקֹב.
May God answer you in your day of trouble,
May the name of the God of Jacob place you in safe shelter,

ג  יִשְׁלַח-עֶזְרְךָ מִקֹּדֶשׁ;    וּמִצִּיּוֹן, יִסְעָדֶךָּ.
Send forth help for you from the holy place,
And support for you from Zion.

Continue reading "Psalm 20: a psalm for childbirth" »

This week's portion: birthings


Eleh tol'dot Yitzchak

these are Isaac's generations
this is the history

but generations
shares a root with birthings

seems to me
this portion ought to begin

these are the birthings
of Rivka, tales of pregnancy

and uncertainty
a belly slowly swelling

twins jostling for space
in the family they share

someone reframed it
so that Isaac comes first

but Rivka's tale persists
she asks her own questions

I do too

This week we're in parashat Toldot, which begins וְאֵלֶּה תּוֹלְדֹת יִצְחָק / v'eleh tol'dot Yitzchak, usually translated as "these are the generations of Isaac" or "this is the history of Isaac." Intriguingly, though, there's another way to read that word-root, and the story quickly moves from the initial mention of Isaac to its preoccupation with Rebecca and the twins. It's out of that disjunction that this week's Torah poem arose.

By the by, I feel I ought to mention a brief personal note: as regular readers are aware, Ethan and I are expecting our first child pretty soon. ("Soon" as in "the end of next week.") At some point in the not-so-distant future, I will stop writing and posting Torah poems, at least for a while. If you find that you miss them, of course, you can always check out my index of divrei Torah -- all of my Torah poems from the last few years are posted there.

This week's readwritepoem prompt was a word cloud filled with "p" words. I didn't manage to write to the prompt, but if you're curious to know what others did with it, you can check out this week's get your poem on post.


Paradigm shifting and Hasidut

Part 3 of a series of blog posts arising out of final reflections on the class Moadim l'Simcha, "Seasons of Our Rejoicing," which I recently completed. Part 1 can be found here and part 2 can be found here.

Paradigm shifting: How might we/you draw on these sources for our own spiritual path? For the world of Jewish Renewal? What teachings/practices might be adapted/surrendered to? What might be creatively recast? Are there elements that can’t be (easily) absorbed? What do we learn from these "unassimilable" elements (or roughage)? Why study them nonetheless?

There's much in the sources we've studied which speaks to me. There's also some material here which doesn't speak to me (yet), or which requires the kind of reading that Wendy Doniger describes in her convocation address [.pdf] -- a "hermeneutics of retrieval, or even of reconciliation."

What speaks to me most plainly is the passion for God, the yearning for devequt (cleaving-to-God), the often intricate pathways toward sanctifying holidays which might otherwise slip by unheralded. I know that having studied these texts will change my relationship with Purim next year, with Pesach, with Shavuot, with the Three Weeks and Tisha b'Av, with the Days of Awe and Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret. As my relationship with the wheel of the year is deepened, I am more invested in learning, and in teaching what I've learned.

What challenge me most strongly are these texts' occasional assumptions about non-Jews and about women. (They were clearly written by, and for, Jewish men whose views on women and outsiders don't match mine.) But this challenges me in almost all of my immersion in Jewish texts, from Tanakh through Talmud straight through the Hasidic masters. I'm with Wendy on this one: we owe it to our texts to read them first with an eye to what they are, then we owe it to our political and personal sensibilities to wrestle with the texts, and then we owe it to the texts to find a way to return to them and read them not blindly, but still with love. That I read these texts with love is always a given.

What I see as the essential truths in these texts are truths that I desperately need. I believe they are truths that the people I teach desperately need, too, whether or not that need is clear to them. (It's my job to make that need clear even as I work to fill it.) We need to enliven our holiday practices, to access these deep meanings which are hidden in plain sight. Jewish Renewal is experiential; we can offer profound encounters with the tradition and with God, but in order to do that, we need to know (to borrow a classic Hasidic metaphor) the keys to the doors of God's palace. These texts can be some of those keys, and to discard the keyring because some of what it holds doesn't accord with contemporary post-triumphalist or gender/sexuality sensibilities would be short-sighted.

My challenge as a Jewish Renewal rabbi is to continue to plumb these wells for the profound spiritual sustenance they can offer, and then to give over these teachings in a way which neither does violence to the original texts nor to the audience before whom I place the words. One way I hope to do that is by studying the texts myself, generating my own translations, and teaching them in my congregation at appropriate moments. Another method of integrating these texts into my spiritual life and my teaching is the process of turning them into poems, and sharing those with as wide an audience as my poems can reach.

Ultimately, the process of wrestling with complicated texts can also yield its own rewards. As the Me'or Eynayim has written, "You struggle and find the light that God has hidden in God's Torah. After a person has truly worked at such searching, it comes to be called her Torah." (Okay, he didn't phrase it in quite those words. But I'm pretty sure it's what he was saying.) That's a life's work, and it's work I'm grateful to be beginning to do.


I wake on my own time, when my pregnant bladder demands. I doze some more. I decide to rise. I check blood pressure, shower, take my morning meds, and putter my way down to the kitchen, pausing to retrieve the two Boppy slipcovers from the dryer and to place one on the pillow which waits in the silent nursery. I go into the garage, which is deliciously cold, and retrieve a Honeycrisp apple from the old wooden box which serves as our root cellar. Diced, it goes into a little pot with oats and raisins and a dash of cinnamon.

Once I'm fed, I put on tallit and tefillin and spend a little bit of time with the siddur. This morning I am drawn to the first two lines of the ashrei, which translate to,"Happy are those who dwell in Your house; they will praise you forever, selah." The small being in my womb seems excited by these lines; the whole time I'm reciting them, he's twitching and kicking and squirming around. Or maybe he's just enjoying the infusion of blood sugar from my breakfast, who can say? I stick with the ashrei for a while, though, enjoying contemplating what it means to dwell in God's house. I am in God's house. My son is, too.

And then I settle in to my desk to prepare for today's two classes: a session of Torah Journeys with R' Shefa Gold and a study session with one of my classmates on parashat Toldot seen through feminist lenses.

How many mornings like this one remain to me?

Reflecting on study of the Baal Shem Tov

How would you integrate the teachings of the Ba'al Shem Tov into your thought, your life, and into your work as a rabbi?

One answer is that I hope to continue studying the Besht's teachings. Despite their relative textual simplicity, there's a depth to them, and they speak to me deeply. Another answer is that I hope to continue teaching the Besht's teachings, on the theory that the best way to learn something is to give it over to someone else in turn.

I've found great value in [what my teacher Reb Burt calls] the Sacred Study Process. I've found the practice of asking "what is my immediate personal response to the teaching?" and "what underlying question do I think the teaching seeks to answer?" to be incredibly helpful, and I'd like to share those with others.

Still a third answer is that I know I will have to take a step back from active text study and teaching in the coming year, as I allow myself to immerse in parenthood. So then how will I integrate the Baal Shem Tov's teachings into my life as a new mother? My hope is that the learning we've done will germinate in me, yielding new insights.

Perhaps when I find myself frustrated with changing diapers, I'll remember the Besht's injunction to create a dwelling-place for God by doing whatever work is at hand with holy consciousness and full attention.

Perhaps when I am feeling overwhelmed with love for my son -- or when I am feeling overwhelmed and unable access that overflow of emotion -- I will remember the Besht's teaching that when we love our fellow human beings we are loving the spark of God which enlivens each of us, and in that way loving my son will become a path to (or a manner of) loving God.

It may be that I won't know how the Besht's teachings will ripen and bear fruit in me until a year has gone by, or two, or ten. But I'm committed to continuing to delve into them. I see myself (and my chevre / classmates) as new buds on the tree which he planted, and I aspire to live up to his teaching as my rabbinate unfolds.

Test run

The late-night drive to the hospital sometime before one's child is born is a rite of passage. Almost every pair of expectant parents I know has done it. Maybe there's a preterm labor scare, or the mother starts having contractions which seem to be trending longer, stronger, and closer together and the parents-to-be dash to the hospital to see if this is "really it," bringing their already-packed labor suitcase and strange new carseat along for the ride just in case. In our case it was some blood pressure readings which led us to call the Mother-Baby Unit late at night; their instructions were to come in immediately, so we did, and we wound up staying for a while.

There's no cause for alarm; baby and I are fine, though the staff there kept us for observation (and to work on titration of blood pressure medication) for a few days. The first night at the hospital I dozed a scant few hours of sleep, interrupted by the sounds of laboring women down the hall and the sudden startling (and startled) cries of newborns. The second night, although nurses woke me every few hours to check my BP, I was so exhausted from that first night that I actually slept in between the checks. Being able to get reasonably satisfying sleep in short snatches seems like good preparation for the early weeks of parenthood.

There were things about this adventure which reminded me of my stroke hospitalization a few years ago. This is the same hospital where I was a patient then. (Indeed: the stroke center is right down the hall from the wing where laboring mothers and their babies stay.) And there are elements of the hospital experience which feel the same no matter what one's in for -- the sounds and scents, the beeping of monitors, the tactile experience of getting an IV port or feeling an automatic blood pressure cuff inflate. Since I just recorded a podcast of a stroke poem for Qarrtsiluni's upcoming health issue, it's been surreal to revisit those memories.

Of course, in other ways this experience is entirely different from that one. Where the strokes came out of the blue, these late-term pregnancy complications are not a big surprise. (My history of hypertension all but guaranteed that this, or something like it, would arise.) And there's the awareness that at the end of this journey, God willing, we'll come home with a tiny person: that changes everything.

Continue reading "Test run" »

This week's portion: departure


I'd never been further from home
than Aram of Two Rivers
where the Tigris and Euphrates
flow together in a muddy swirl

sometimes on market day
I'd buy figs, shallots, garlic
sometimes there were traders
with bolts of indigo

but mostly I knew our homestead
the smoke-stained oven, the paddocks
where we penned the goats
to stay safe overnight

and now this camel's steady gait
rocks me step by step across the scrub
toward a distant cousin, a stranger
who will welcome me into his tent

my father and brother blessed me
that I might grow into myriads
I can hardly imagine
another heart beneath my own

This week we're reading parashat Chayyei Sarah, the parsha with the ironic name: though its first two words mean "Sarah's lifetime" (or "the lives of Sarah"), the parsha begins with her death. The woman for whom the parsha is named appears in these columns of text only to be buried.

One of the central stories of this parsha is the story of how Abraham's servant (commonly known as Eliezer) goes back to the land where Abraham came from in order to find a wife for Isaac. That's the story I chose to focus on for this week's parsha poem.

The text doesn't give us many details about Rebecca. Eliezer prays that the woman who offers him water and offers to water his camels be the one he's looking for, which raises fascinating questions of how we discern the right course of action in an unknown situation. We know that she is beautiful, and she is generous with water and with her time. Once her father and brother agree that she should go with Eliezer, her brother and mother ask that she allowed to remain for ten days, but Eliezer asks to leave right away, and Rebecca acquiesces.

That's pretty much all we get, so this week's Torah poem explores some of what might have been going on in her mind as this story unfolds. What resonates for you, reading the story of Rebecca's departure from home?

I didn't manage to write to this week's ReadWritePoem prompt, which has to do with repurposing images from dreams, but here's a link to this week's Get Your Poem On post in case you'd like to see what other RWP folks wrote this week.


By the way, if you enjoy these Torah poems: allow me to recommend Awkward Offerings. Sue Swartz offers a variety of musings on Torah, including a series of Torah poems which are very different from mine and also quite wonderful. You can subscribe to the blog, or check out her index of Torah/Poetry, as you prefer.

Childbirth psalms

One of my favorite classes this (brief but intense) term has been a tutorial in psalms, which I'm taking with one fellow student, taught by Norman Shore. Each week he assigns us a few psalms to translate, and also some secondary material -- sometimes Midrash Tehillim, other times Talmud, sometimes chapters from books in English (I've become quite a fan of Kugel's The Great Poems of the Bible), sometimes assignments which ask us to make mental leaps between the psalms we're studying and various bits of liturgy and practice. I love being in a two-person class. It's like hevruta study, with the added benefit of an instructor who can guide us in our learning.

My final project for that class is a paper on psalms 20 and 113, both of which are classically associated with childbirth. I chose these two psalms on the theory of "whatever gets in the way of the work, is the work" -- a mantra I got from one of my old poetry mentors, Jason Shinder (of blessed memory.) What Jason meant was, whatever emotional or intellectual or spiritual stuff was getting in the way of one's ability to work on poems, that is precisely the stuff that ought to be feeding the poems. But I figure it's a good approach to this semester, too: instead of worrying that my increasing focus on childbirth and impending parenthood is getting in the way of my rabbinic learning, I should find a way to make my rabbinic learning dovetail with the major life event that's on its way.

I've done a preliminary translation of my two psalms (which I hope to share here once I've workshopped them with my fellow classmate and my teacher) and I've done some reading in classical sources, Midrash Tehillim, and Yalkut Shimoni which mostly recapitulates what's already in the midrash. I've got a few more classical sources to translate. But in addition to the oldschool material, I'm also interested in how these psalms are used in contemporary life. It's easy to find Chabad resources for the recitation of psalms during childbirth -- though many of the resources I've seen seem to presume that the husband of the laboring woman is the one who recites, and that's not the paradigm in which I live.

Which is part of why I'm interested in contemporary liberal religious practices relating to childbirth and psalms (especially psalms 20 and 113), too. I've gotten some great suggestions from my rabbinic school classmates, but figured I'd throw the question open here, too: do you have any anecdotes to offer on this? If you've been part of a labor and delivery experience (as the laboring mother, or her partner; as a labor coach or doula; as a doctor or nurse or chaplain) have you used these psalms, and what was that experience like for you? For the purposes of my paper, I'd like to hear from those who self-identify as Jews; for the purposes of good conversation, I'd be happy to hear from anyone of any religious tradition. If you have stories to share about childbirth and psalms, especially psalms 20 and 113, please drop a comment or an email!

This week's portion: aftermath


The oaks touch branches
like a gaggle of old women
taking comfort in fingers brushing
as they stand and sway.

A man sits in the entrance
of his tent. Heat shimmers
though beneath the trees
if he holds still, it's not so bad.

Hours later, the rug
is littered with tufts of flatbread
tipped with labneh and zaatar
and shreds of meat left behind.

Outside the door, brass basins
for the washing of feet
shimmer, their water cloudy
from recent use.

Behind the tent, in the grove
a woman leans against a tree
and blinks away tears
but doesn't speak.

This week we're in parashat Vayera, which contains a number of powerful stories: Abraham's visit from the angels beneath the oaks of Mamre, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the birth of Isaac and eventual exile of Hagar and Ishmael, the akedah (binding of Isaac.) Any one of these narratives could give rise to endless commentaries and poems. I chose a piece of the story which spoke particularly to me this year.

This week's prompt at ReadWritePoem is setting the scene, so I aimed to hint at one of the stories in this week's parsha through showing the scene without any of the dialogue or action. I'm curious to know whether the poem makes sense to those who don't intimately know this section of Genesis, or whether it requires familiarity with the text at which it hints.

It's a fascinating story: God appears to Abraham, then three mysterious strangers appear (always understood in Jewish tradition to be malachim, "messengers" or "angels"), then there's the feast and the promise that despite their mutual advanced age, Abraham and Sarah will have a son within one year's time. This year I'm particularly struck by what it must have felt like for them to learn that news -- to know that their lives were going to change irrevocably in ways they couldn't yet imagine.

Other people's responses to this week's RWP prompt will be linked at this week's Get Your Poem On post. Enjoy!


Reaching a different readership

A few weeks ago I participated in a rabbinic conference call with Judge Goldstone, of the Goldstone Report, and shared a transcript of that call along with some reflections here on this blog (A conference call with Judge Goldstone.) That post got linked pretty widely, and Mohamed Nanabhay, Head of Online at Al-Jazeera English, contacted me to ask whether I would consider writing something for them about the report and its reception in my community.

The Israeli government and the American government have done their best to quash the Goldstone report. Many Jewish organizations have joined them. But that's by no means the only extant opinion in the Jewish community. It's important to me that the world know that there are Jews who receive the report in a different way. So I wrote an essay for Al-Jazeera English, which went live there today. It's called The Goldstone Report: A Jewish View.

Please be aware that I will not be monitoring comments at the Al-Jazeera website. Though I will moderate comments on this post as usual, I may not be able to respond to them -- this is an unusually busy week for me, and because I have multiple doctors' appointments and a ton of coursework to complete, I will have to hope that the essay stands on its own.

Thanks to Mohamed and the other editors at Al-Jazeera English for giving me the chance to speak to their readership.

The view from week 35

Pregnancy, 36 weeks. (I'm not quite there, but I'm close.)

I haven't written much at Velveteen Rabbi about being pregnant, aside from that initial announcement post this summer and a handful of offhand mentions this fall. Those of you who don't know me in person (which is most of you!) could be forgiven for imagining that perhaps the pregnancy hasn't loomed large in my consciousness. Maybe the reason I'm not writing about it is that it's just not a big deal?

That's an erroneous assumption, of course. If anything, pregnancy is such a big deal that I find it hard to write about, at least in prose. I've written half a dozen poems on the subject since I found out I was pregnant last Pesach, but they aren't ready for public consumption. Unlike the Torah poems I often share here, these poems don't feel ready for prime time. There's something intimate about them, about the whole experience. Which is funny, because it's also a very public experience; no one who sees me now can doubt that they know (at least some of) what's going on in my life.

I write here about Judaism, about God, about spiritual life -- a range of subjects which could easily encompass meditations on pregnancy and impending motherhood, if only I could find the way in. Part of the challenge is that the subject is at once so big and so small; it's an enormous life-change and a perennial miracle, and yet it's a perfectly ordinary thing that humanity has done since time immemorial. There's a balancing act here. This is incredibly important, and it's also incredibly mundane. Though I guess the same could be said of daily spiritual practice, too.

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The year as spiritual practice

Part 2 of a series of blog posts arising out of final reflections on the class Moadim l'Simcha, "Seasons of Our Rejoicing," which I recently completed. Part 1 can be found here.

It might be argued that the spiritual year is the “spiritual practice” par excellence of Judaism. Assess this statement. What does it mean 'tzu loyfn mit der tzeit,' to "run" (or live) with the times?

Each year is one long spiritual practice, with inevitable energetic ebbs and flows. We have times of great activity and energy: preparing for Pesach in our homes, preparing for the Days of Awe in our hearts and in our congregations. And we have times of stillness: the mountain-peak of Shavuot, the holy pausing of Shemini Atzeret, the fallow month of Cheshvan. This is the ratzo v'shov (ebb and flow, cf. Ezekiel 1:14) of spiritual life, built in to our seasonal-liturgical cycle.

As the sage Mary Oliver has written, in her poem "Five A.M. in the pinewoods," "So this is how you swim inward. / So this is how you flow outwards. / So this is how you pray." For every inhalation, an exhalation. Lather, rinse, repeat. Spiritual life has peaks and valleys, and we need to be conscious of the everyday practices which will sustain us when we're not riding the rollercoaster of the moadim (festivals.)

To live with the times means being aware of the flow of the year, the way one holiday leads to the next. Our festivals aren't discrete gems studding a crown or individual raisins peeking forth from a loaf of challah; they need to be understood as part of a whole. I experience the moadim (even the sad ones) as high points, extraordinary time, set in the framework of chol (everyday). And we need chol in order to integrate the moadim. Each of the moadim takes us somewhere, and then points us toward our next destination.

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