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Another mother poem: sustenance


The taqueria doubles as a car wash.
You're asleep in the backseat
when we pull in. Sun glints
off of tinted Suburban windows.

Iced tea in a Styrofoam cup
too big for our rented cup-holders.
The flour tortillas are homemade
and the salsa tingles my tongue.

Next year we'll sit at a Formica table
and cut a bean-and-cheese into wedges
your pudgy fingers can hold.
We'll wipe your ecstatic face clean.

Now all we can do is rave quietly
about this dingy corner of heaven
and drive away, keeping secret
what sustenance remains in store.

Last Wednesday morning, in San Antonio, Ethan and I went looking for a particular taqueria which my sister-in-law had recommended for breakfast tacos. We didn't find it, but we found another place, and the parking lot was full, so we pulled in. The tacos were so terrific that we returned there the following morning, too.

Visiting Texas always offers me an opportunity to replenish the part of me which misses the place where I grew up. The sounds of south Texas birdsong, the scent of my parents' neighborhood streets after a rain, the tastes of the Tex-Mex I grew up on -- all of these are rich and evocative for me. This time, the trip had a new valance, because it was my first chance to begin introducing Drew to the place where I grew up.

He won't remember this first trip to Texas, of course, but the rest of our family will. I hope that in years to come, the accrued memories of annual trips to San Antonio will be food for his heart too, as they are for mine.

This is the latest in my series of mother poems.



Lately I've been wrestling with time-bound mitzvot.

Back up a step: I should define my terms. Although in the American vernacular the Hebrew word מצוה (mitzvah) is often translated as "good deed" (as in: "holding the door open for that guy on crutches was a real mitzvah"), it means "commandment." Jewish tradition speaks in terms of positive and negative mitzvot, things we are commanded to do and not to do. Some of these are considered time-bound, which means that there's a span of time during which we're supposed to do them. And in the most traditional understanding, men are obligated to perform time-bound mitzvot and women are not. (For more, read the Wikipedia page on positive time-bound mitzvot.)

As a feminist and a liberal Jew who is committed to religious egalitarianism, there's much that's problematic for me about this set of ideas. I don't like the gender essentialism implicit in the notion that men do one thing and women do another. I don't believe that women should be exempt from full participation in normative Jewish life. Beyond that, the Orthodox paradigm presumes an understanding of commandedness which is different from what I'm used to. In my experience, both men and women choose Jewish practice not so much because we understand ourselves to be "commanded," but because we trust that taking on these practices will have spiritual benefit or will bring us closer to our community and to God.

Since Drew was born, though, I haven't been able to fulfill some of the positive time-bound mitzvot which had been an important part of my pre-motherhood life. One of these is laying tefillin -- I love laying tefillin, and yet I haven't taken my set out of their velvet bag since the baby was born. Counting the Omer is another one -- I blogged about that a while back. And this pains me, because during my pregnancy I promised myself that I wouldn't let my spiritual practices lapse, and yet here I am doing pretty much just that.

Continue reading "Time-bound" »

On holy community

The folks at Temple Beth El, my parents' shul, graciously invited me to give the d'var Torah at the service in the Barshop Auditorium this erev Shabbat. This is what I'll be saying from the bimah tonight; if you're going to be davening with us, you might want to skip this post so you can hear the d'var with fresh ears...

When our son Drew was born, we entered a haze of sleep deprivation, joy, and overwhelm. Drew came into the world with a profound case of jetlag. For nine months, he’d been lulled to sleep by my movements during the day and had danced the fandango inside me at night. When he emerged from the womb, his circadian rhythms were backwards. Sleep debt isn’t the only reason we had a tough adjustment to parenthood, but it was a big one.

Thank God for our families -- and also for our friends, who brought us dinner and sent baskets of granola bars for me to snack on, offered home remedies for nursing difficulties, helped to fold our laundry, and dropped by to keep us company. During our annual New Year’s gathering, back when it often took an hour to rock Drew to sleep after each feeding, friends took shifts in the middle of the night to rock Drew so we could rest. Friends subscribed us to Netflix and lent us dvds and offered email advice at all hours of day and night.

In a million ways, our local Jewish community, our CSA community, and our friends in the Berkshires stepped in to lend a hand. So did folks from the geographically-dispersed ALEPH rabbinic program, from Ethan’s global community of thinkers and bloggers, and from my worldwide community of writers and media fans. Whether we’d originally been brought together by geography or by common interests, people from all of these communities helped to sustain us when parenthood was new.

"You shall be holy, for I, Adonai your God, am holy." This instruction is at the heart of this week's Torah portion, Acharei Mot-Kedoshim. The Hebrew word for "holy" is kadosh, קדש kuf / daled/ shin: this is the root of the word kiddush, the sanctification of wine; kaddish, the prayer which sanctifies the name of God; and kiddushin, the ring ceremony through which one partner in a marriage is sanctified to the other. This root is usually understood to mean separation or withdrawal. Something which is kadosh is set-apart.

Continue reading "On holy community" »

And we're off!

Big Texas sky.

Drew and I are off to Texas -- his first time on a plane, and his first chance to meet his extended Texas mishpacha.

If you're in San Antonio, and are free on Friday night (April 23), feel free to come to the 6:30pm "alternative" service in the Barshop Auditorium at Temple Beth El, my parents' shul. I've been invited to give the d'var Torah, so my family and I will be there...and although 7pm is Drew's usual bedtime, I'm hoping he'll nap well that day and might be able to stay awake and cheery through the service!

Anyway: blogging has been light here lately since Drew was born anyway, so it seems a bit silly to say that blogging will be light while we're in Texas, but it will. Off we go into the wild blue yonder!

Another mother psalm


Raise your legs, then let them fall
again and again as though you knew
turning over is just a twist
and roll away. Do you remember
somersaults in the warm recesses
of the womb, suspended weightless
like an astronaut on his tether?
Sometimes you kick for long minutes
without stopping, now as then, though
the sensation is lost to me except
in the dreams I visit between feedings.
A few warm days and suddenly
the icebound troughs of winter
are as implausible as pregnancy.
The birches go first, and the willows
a haze of green and gold
on the verge of bursting free,
a new world already almost here.

This week's mother poem takes the form of a psalm, and like the previous two mother psalms I've written (1, 2) draws on seasonal imagery as well as images of my son's growth and change.

I'm not participating in the daily poem festivities at Read Write Poem, but if you head over there you can applaud the people who are writing daily verse...and also those who, like me, are writing one poem a week and sharing it with the community on Thursdays, as we've grown accustomed to doing. (Here's today's RWP post - links to poems in comments.) Where will we share our work on Thursdays when RWP is gone?


Calling all angels

One of my favorite times of day with Drew is late evening. Well, what passes for late evening in his world, which is to say, 6-7pm. I put him in pyjamas and we lie on our backs on a quilt and I read him a picture book or two. Then I nurse him, and sit him on my lap to read a couple of board books about going to bed. And then, most nights, I sing to him.

I sing a lot of things. Suzanne Vega's "Gypsy" and James Taylor's "Sweet Baby James" were two of the first lullabies I sang to him, during those early weeks before he knew the difference between day and night. Lately I've been singing "The Angel Song," also known as "B'shem Hashem." The tune is by Reb Shlomo Carlebach, z"l.

Shlomo Abramson performing B'Shem Hashem. (If you're reading this post in an aggregator or via email, and can't see the embedded video, you can go directly to it here on YouTube.)

The words are simple:

B'shem Hashem, elohei Yisrael
B'ymini Michael u-smoli Gavriel
U-milfanai Uriel, me'acharai Raphael
V'al roshi, v'al roshi, Shechinat-El

I also learned a singable English version, so I sing it to Drew in both languages:

In the name of God, the God of Israel
On my right is Michael, on my left is Gabriel
In front of me is Uriel, behind me Raphael
And all around, surrounding me, Shekhinat-El.

The four figures named are angels; the first two are Biblical in origin, the latter two are post-Exilic and entered the tradition much later. Their names mean -- roughly -- "Who is Like God?" "God's Strength," "Light of God," and "It is God Who heals." You can learn more about the lullaby here at (there's also a downloadable mp3 of the song, sung simply. For Neshama Carlebach's rendition of the tune, listen to track 7 here at Rhapsody.)

As Reb Duvid notes at Neohasid, invoking the protection of these angels is part of the liturgy of the bedtime Shema (here's context at My Jewish Learning; here's a translation of the traditional text of the bedtime prayers.) In one of my favorite children's books, The Bedtime Sh'ma by Sarah Gershman, the words of the bedtime prayer are reframed in age-appropriate imagery alongside beautiful paintings by Kristina Swarner. Anyway, to me the angels represent wonder, strength, light, and healing.

I like the idea of invoking these four qualities, and the immanent divine presence, to protect us as we sleep. Drew seems to like the song, though whether he has any sense that I am singing a prayer is unknown to me. Maybe he just likes being waltzed around his nursery...

Another mother poem: carry this in your pocket


For the sake
of your sternum
rising and falling,
the deep folds
in your thighs,
your peach fuzz
beneath my palm
the whole world
was created

every domino
tipping the next:
my young father
playing the bugle
and flirting with
his movie star
at summer camp,
paper cigar ring
on her finger --

every thing leads
to you standing
in the exersaucer
on your tiptoes
damp fists clenched
humming to yourself
in a language
which only God
can understand

This week's mother poem takes its title from the Hasidic parable about the rabbi who carried two slips of paper in his pockets, one which read "for my sake was the world created" and the other which read "I am dust."

I don't know how long I'm going to continue writing weekly poems about my experience of motherhood, but so far I feel like I'm only beginning to plumb these depths. Motherhood, like Torah, strikes me as the sort of subject about which one could write pretty much forever. At some point I'll probably return to writing weekly Torah poems, but not yet; for now, new motherhood is still looming large in my emotional and spiritual life, and I'm not sure I could manage to write poems right now about anything else.


Omer, interrupted

Last year I didn't manage to count the Omer (that's the process of marking, and sanctifying, the 49 days between Pesach and Shavuot, between liberation and revelation.) I had a good excuse for my distraction, but this year I'd like to do a better job of noticing the passage of time during this spiritually-rich season. 

Because counting the Omer is considered one long mitzvah which lasts for 49 days, most halakhists argue that if one goes a whole night and day without counting, one can no longer say the blessing. So in years past, I've followed the practice of only making the bracha when I've managed an unbroken streak of Omer-counting. But I've known rabbis who teach otherwise, and this year I'm going to try a different practice.

One of the biggest lessons I'm learning from parenthood thus far is not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Our sleep schedule still isn't what I might wish for, and I can almost guarantee that at some point in these next 7 weeks, I will forget what day of the week it is! I'm living by the baby's rhythms, not so much by calendrical time. If I only offer the blessing when I have a perfect track record of remembering to do so, my Omer count is liable to be truncated and I run the risk of missing the spiritual gifts that even a partial Omer experience might bring.

I know that this is part of the argument given for why women have historically been considered exempt from positive time-bound mitzvot: our lives can't be strictly-regimented in the way that the classical understanding of the mitzvot requires, because we have to take the needs of our children into account. But I come from a paradigm in which women and men both choose the mindfulness practice of the mitzvot. (For that matter, I also come from a paradigm in which men and women share the workload of parenting.) I need to find a way to experience the holiness of the Omer count from where I'm at.

A popular kabbalistic teaching holds that during each of these seven weeks, we move through one of the seven lower sefirot (emanations or faces of God, each associated with a particular divine quality.) Each week, a different sefirah comes into focus, and each day of the week likewise. Because we are created in the image of God, each of these combinations of qualities exists in us, too. I think of the sefirot as a multi-sided prism refracting divine light; as white light contains all colors within it, so divinity contains all of these qualities, and the prism of counting the Omer allows us to isolate these subtle gradations across the spectrum.

I may not manage to bless each day, but I don't want that to be a reason not to count at all. Maybe there's a way to turn the "imperfection" of missing a night or two of counting into something positive. Each time I bring myself back to mindfulness of the Omer count again, I can ask myself: what is it about today's special combination of qualities that resonates with me? Is there something in today's combination of qualities which called me back to awareness? What can I learn from the experience of reawakening to the Omer count today?

One of my favorite texts from the first semester of Moadim l'Simcha ("Festivals of Our Rejoicing," a class I took last spring and this past fall) comes from the Netivot Shalom, Rabbi Shalom Noach Barzofsky. He offers the following parable:

The path of serving God is like a person being elevated to the summit of a high mountain, where one is shown all of the beautiful and splendor which is around one, and one can see what good is to be found there. After that, one descends down to the bottom, and from there one works to ascend to the summit again through one's own strength, because after one has seen how good and beautiful it is to be up there, one would certainly make an effort through one's own strength to ascend! Just so, the service of God on high: initially one experiences "arousal from above" [God reaches down to us and arouses our desire for God], so that one can see how good it is, one can get a taste for that goodness, and after that one is returned to one's place [e.g. the bottom of the mountain] in order to climb to the top again.

On the first night of Pesach, we're elevated to great spiritual heights -- like being whisked by God to the very top of a mountain. Then the next morning we waken and we're at the bottom again -- but because we've seen the amazing views from on high, we're motivated to do the work of slowly working toward the summit. Having seen the splendor at the top gives us the impetus to keep climbing, step by step.

It seems to me that making myself mindful of the qualities which God and we share -- lovingkindness, boundaried strength, harmony, and so on -- is worth doing even if I'm not able to live in the constant state of devekut (cleaving-to-God) to which I might aspire. And what's more: cultivating that mindfulness is one way my tradition offers me to climb toward connection with God.

My Omer count this year won't be perfect. But I'm still on a journey toward Shavuot, toward the spiritual high of receiving Torah at Sinai. I'm still climbing that mountain, even if I pause to nurse the baby along the way.

On a tachlis (nuts-and-bolts) level, I'm trying a couple of new things this year. I downloaded the Omer Counter iPhone app (find it, along with other resources, here at I'm also reading Counting the Omer, daily blog posts by my friend Rabbi Min Kantrowitz who recently wrote a book about the Omer count. We'll see whether these keep me on track.

Another mother poem (also a poem for Pesach)


When a truck cuts me off
on the day which will become
the first evening of Pesach

I slam on the brakes
and the crockery in the back seat
slides forward with a crash

unpacking the dishes
in my sister's kitchen I weep
as though they mattered

the next day
a mental thread snags
on the calendar's sharp edge

my cells already dividing
into hair and nipples,
eyelids and tongue

I choose grape juice
for my four cups of joy
not yet able to imagine

your squeals of delight
as I chant the fifteen steps
from kindling the candles

to singing Had Gadya,
the unfamiliar joys
of our newly-disordered lives

Pesach began this week. As I prepared for the first night of the festival, I couldn't help remembering last year: driving to Boston for seder, my inexplicable weeping when I broke a couple of dishes, and then my realization the next day that my emotions might be running high for hormonal reasons -- that I might be pregnant again. That memory is what sparked this week's poem, which is another in my series of mother poems.

It might be helpful to know that the word "seder" means "order;" that it's customary to drink four cups of wine during the seder, and that wine can be understood in Judaism as a symbol of joy; and that Had Gadya is a song which traditionally concludes the seder.

I didn't write to this week's Read Write Poem prompt, but if you want to read other RWP folks' poems, you can find them linked in the comments to this week's Get Your Poem On post.

On a related note, I remain deeply sorry to hear that RWP is closing up shop. I hope that the relationships and reciprocal readerships which have evolved via Read Write Poem will continue. Having co-founded a literary arts nonprofit which closed its doors not long ago, I can imagine how Dana Guthrie Martin and the other RWP admins might be feeling at this moment. Thanks for a great ride, y'all.