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This week's portion: the years of my life

This week we're reading the Torah portion called Chayyei Sarah, "The life of Sarah," which begins with Sarah's death and burial.

It seems to me that what Torah is saying in this juxtaposition is that the fullness of Sarah's life could only be measured when it had ended. Until it ended, it was in-progress, always changing. Only when her life came to its close could it be seen as a perfect whole. Only when it was over could Torah say "the life of Sarah" and refer to the totality of what Sarah's life was.

Each of us is like Sarah. The fullness of our lives can't be measured. The richness of our expriences, our relationships and adventures -- these are always in-progress, on a continuum. Any moment when we think we can stop and seize time in our hands, we've already lost what we were trying to hold on to. We are always growing and changing. We can't know the whole of our lives until the story ends.

Continue reading "This week's portion: the years of my life" »

A Richard Thompson 'Modah Ani'

Last night a friend and I caught the Richard Thompson Band on their Dream Attic tour. This is, I think, the fourth time I've been lucky enough to see Richard play; I've seen him twice with his band, over the years, and once on the Thousand Years of Popular Song tour. (I think I was the only person in the audience that night who screamed with joy when he played "So Ben Mi Ca Bon Tempo." What? I used to sing it with my madrigal ensemble!)

Last night's show had a somewhat unusual set list, to my mind. The first set was the entirety of the new album ("even the bad songs," Richard quipped, which got a laugh) and then the second set was an assortment of favorites from recent albums and from his amazingly deep back catalogue. There's a review of the show here at Masslive, for those who are curious.

Unsurprisingly, I woke up this morning humming RT songs. Specifically, I was humming one of my favorites among the new tunes he played last night, a track called "Sidney Wells." The song is in 9/8 time, also known as "compound triple time", used in slip jigs -- or so Richard told us last night.

The lyrics are somewhat grisly, but since the new album is relatively new to me, I don't know most of them by heart yet. And I often sing in the shower -- usually some variation on morning liturgy, to keep my head and heart in the right place while Drew entertains himself with toys outside the shower door. Can you see where this is going?

Yep: this morning in the shower I wound up setting Modah Ani, the morning prayer for gratitude, to the tune of Richard Thompson's "Sidney Wells." Drew seemed to like it, and I'm tickled by the repurposing of the melody, so I'm enclosing the mp3 below. If you're ever looking for a new Modah Ani tune, feel free to add this one to your repertoire!

I'm also enclosing, below, a recording of Richard Thompson and his band performing the song so you can see where this melody is borrowed from. (I couldn't find a video of the band performing "Sidney Wells," so the YouTube video below is visually uninteresting -- just a still image -- but the music is there.)

The tradition of using popular melodies for liturgical purposes is an old one, but this is the first Jewish liturgical use of Richard Thompson that I know of; if there are others out there, please enlighten me!


Another mother poem: childproofing





Wooden slats. U-bolts. Swinging hinges.
Sheets of transparent plastic. Plastic plugs
pushing their way inside every socket.
Fiddly gadgets to catch doors and drawers
before they reveal their vulnerable insides. And you

trundling across the floor, chasing
the ball that plays the same three measures
of classical music again and again,
sleuthing out hidden electrical cords. We can't
pad every surface: you whack your head

on the undersides of bookshelves, on
the coffee table, on the legs of a chair
you didn't realize you'd crawled beneath.
Sometimes if you catch us watching you wail.
Sometimes you barrel on, intent

on whatever's rolled just beyond your grasp.
When you fall we offer the comfort
of familiar arms -- or distraction: look, the cat!
Too soon you push away. The world calls.
You turn the corner and recede from view.

This week's prompt at Big Tent Poetry begins by inviting us to draw the interior of our home, and then to write about the drawing, and then to mine that written work to spark this week's poem. I didn't wind up drawing a floor plan, exactly, but we have been thinking about the inside of our house and how the rooms flow one into the next a lot lately, which inspired this week's mother poem probably obvious ways.

Drew's increased (and increasing) desire for independence is the subtext of this poem. He loves to crawl at a rapid pace down the hallway, from one room to the next, though often he stops to look back and make sure we're still there. He's becoming increasingly adept at flipping over, kneeling up to reach for things, and other physical tricks which would have been inconceivable even just  few weeks ago -- though he also ends almost every day with at least one good bonk, usually to the head as he gets tired and loses his balance or misjudges the distance between himself and some obstacle he intends to pass.

Anyway, it's fun to watch him explore his world.

I'll revise this post on Friday to include a link to this week's Come One, Come All post so you can see how others responded to this prompt.


Welcoming the Jewish Review of Books onto the scene

In our PO box recently I found a copy of the new Jewish Review of Books, a tabloid-sized quarterly chock-full of exactly what you'd expect. Two articles in the current issue are especially relevant to my interests, and while not all of the JRB's content is available online, these two articles happen to be online in full.

I turned first to The Chabad Paradox, Abraham Socher's article about Chabad Hasidism which doubles as a review of two recent books. "While mainstream Orthodox Judaism has seen extraordinary growth through the ba'al teshuvah movement of 'returners' to religious observance, the foundations were laid by Chabad," Socher writes. "And while Orthodox Jews often express disdain for Chabad and its fervent shluchim (emissaries), they also rely on them for prayer services, Torah study, and kosher accommodations in out-of-the-way places from Jackson, Wyoming to Bangkok, Thailand, not to speak of college campuses around the world."

(Indeed, on a recent visit to Litchfield, Connecticut, I saw a clapboard house with a sign on the front which said "Future home of Chabad of Litchfield," which led me to quip to my friends "Chabad is here, Chabad is there, Chabad is truly everywhere!" That said, a bit of digging led me to discover that the story may be a bit more complex. But I digress...)

Socher notes, too, that "the charismatic founders of the groovy Judaism that arose in the 1960s, from the liberal Renewal movement to Neo-Hasidic Orthodoxy, were Rabbis Shlomo Carlebach and Zalman Schachter-Shalomi," both of whom were originally shluchim of the Lubavitcher rebbe. After offering a fairly comprehensive introduction to Chabad, Socher delves deep into two recent books about Chabad and messianism, exploring the question of whether the messianism at Chabad's heart is responsible for its success -- and yet might eventually be its undoing.

Continue reading "Welcoming the Jewish Review of Books onto the scene" »

A review of Eishes Chayil's "Hush"

I have just read a remarkable book. It is powerful and funny and sad and it made me weep by the time I reached its end. It's a young adult novel written by the pseudonymous Eishes Chayil (the name, which comes from Proverbs 31, means "A Woman of Valor.") It is called Hush, and it is about sexual abuse in the Hasidic community.

The book alternates back and forth between two timelines: the "then," when our narrator Gittel is a child who spends all of her time with her best friend Devory, and the "now" when Gittel is eighteen and about to get married and Devory has been dead for ten years, having hung herself with Gittel's purple sparkly jump rope to escape repeated molestation by her older brother.

Hush is a story about living in an insular religious world -- both the blessings of that life (Shabbos observance, the joy and the warmth, Torah learning everywhere, a deep sense of close-knit community) and the downsides (a willful lack of knowledge about the outside world -- and the chilling effects of silencing in a system where if a girl is known to have spoken out against something like rape, she and her sisters might never find a marriage match.) The book does a beautiful job of showing the many subtle ramifications of the reality that because sexual abuse is never spoken about, it remains unthinkable, and therefore those who endure it do so in silence, without words for their trauma or their shame.

Parts of this book are funny. Like Gittel and her friends dressing up as brides for Purim, or the scene where Gittel and her friends first encounter Oprah magazine, or the scene where Gittel first finds out how babies are made -- at eighteen, just before her marriage -- which is both hilarious and also kind of appalling. And many of the characters are wonderful: Gittel's father, for instance, who is drawn as a sweet and compassionate man who genuinely wants the best for his daughter. On the top floor of the house where Gittel lives is a non-Jew, a woman named Kathy, and Gittel's relationship with her (which is secret through much of her childhood -- what would people think if they knew she lived so near to an outsider?) is one of my favorite things about the book. Even Gittel's eventual husband, Yankel, becomes a likeable three-dimensional character by the end.

But parts of the book are completely heartbreaking. The sexual abuse, of course, and Devory's acting-out, and the other kids' inability (and the adults' refusal) to understand why she was behaving the way she was. The shock of Devory's death, and the immediate erasure of what really happened to her. But even more than that, what moved me most were Gittel's painful and halting attempts to make sense of this tragedy ten years after the fact, as she began to move into adulthood. Once she got married and first encountered sex and intimacy, her memories of Devory rose up and overwhelmed her, and Chayil doesn't flinch away from showing us what that does to Gittel as she struggles to move forward in her own life.

I enjoyed Hush's portrayal of life in the Hasidic community of Boro Park. My own Jewish life takes a rather different form than what's described here, but Reb Zalman -- my beloved teacher and founder of my rabbinic school -- was originally ordained as a rabbi within Chabad-Lubavitch, and has often adjoined his students to ensure that we remember that we and the Hasidim are part of the same broad Jewish community. It's hard for me to judge whether Chayil's portrayal of the Hasidic world would be accessible to someone who was a complete outsider to this world, but the book contains a glossary of the Yiddish and Hebrew words which might be unfamiliar to some readers, and I suspect that just immersing in the world of the book would be satisfying even if the environment Chayil describes is foreign to you.

I think this is an amazing book, not only because it's a young adult novel which tackles an incredibly difficult subject head-on but also because it does so with so much love. It is clear to me that Eishes Chayil, whoever she may be, comes out of a Hasidische community and has a lot of love for that community alongside her righteous fury. Religiosity does not innoculate a community from having members who are drawn to commit sexual assault, and a communal policy of maintaining silence about such things (God forbid we should allow outsiders to see that there is anything wrong in our collective house!) makes things even worse. It seems to me that Chayil is arguing that it's exactly because this community is a religious one that child molestation needs to be exposed and protected-against. Because to do otherwise -- to pretend that molestation doesn't happen by us, that we as Jews or as religious people are immune from these kinds of traumas -- flies in the face of our most deeply-held religious values.

Hush was given to me by a friend of mine who's a children's librarian, who tells me that this book is getting a lot of attention in the YA-literature world. (Here are some reviews: Hush reviewed by GreenBeanTeenQueen, Hush reviewed at the Book-Splot. One thing I haven't been able to find are any reviews written by Orthodox Jews, teen or adult -- I wouldn't expect to find a review online by anyone Hasidic, in part because of that community's mistrust of the internet, but if you have a link to an Orthodox person's review of the book, please let me know.) One way or another, I'm glad that this book is making the rounds. This is a subject we need to be able to discuss -- no matter what kind of religious or secular community we call home -- and this book does a beautiful, and poignant, job of talking about sexual abuse and the people it hurts most.

Kol hakavod to Eishes Chayil for writing this powerful and necessary book.

Irish and Israeli voices for justice and peace

Yesterday the folks at Ta'anit Tzedek / Jewish Fast for Gaza held a conference call with Irish Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mairead Maguire and former Israeli pilot Yonatan Shapira, both of whom have travelled on boats to Gaza. (Here's another brief bio of both Maguire and Shapira.)

Shapira authored "The Pilot's Letter," signed by Israeli pilots who are refuseniks (refusing to fly missions over the Occupied Territories); he's a co-founder of Combatants for Peace. Maguire was the aunt of three children who died when they were hit by a getaway car, which sparked marches throughout Northern Ireland; she co-founded The Peace People, and is involved with the Nobel Women's Initiative which recently took a group to the Middle East.

Ta'anit Tzedek convened the conference call with Judge Goldstone last year, which I found really valuable, so I wanted to sit in on this call, too! Because of the scheduling, I wasn't able to be present during the call with Maguire and Shapira, but the recording of that call is now online at the Ta'anit Tzedek website, so I listened to much of it during Drew's nap this morning.

"In 1976, in the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, my sister's three children were all killed," Maguire recalls, "and a young IRA man was also killed... and so myself and two others made a call for peace. Violence was not going to solve our problems. There had to be another way," Maguire says. "We had a deep ethnic political conflict, but it was not going to be solved through militarism and paramilitarism; we had to sit down to dialogue with each other."

Rabbi Brian Walt asked, "How did you then broaden your work... to working for peace in the Middle East?" Maguire is a member of the International Peace Council, which brings together people from different religious backgrounds, and they were invited to go to Israel about ten years ago. The invitation came from Rabbis for Human Rights and those against the demolitions of Palestinian homes. That was her first trip to the Middle East. "I was deeply moved by the suffering of the people on both sides," she says, and because of her background with Ireland/Northern Ireland, she knew that militarism would not be the solution. "I do believe that peace is possible," she says.

Continue reading "Irish and Israeli voices for justice and peace" »

The entrance to the tent

A tiny word of Torah, which I give over in the name of my friend and colleague Mark Novak, who taught this Elimelech of Lizhensk text in our Torah as a mirror for spiritual development class yesterday.

This week's Torah portion, Vayera, begins:

וירא אליו יי, באלני ממרא; והוא ישב פתח–האהל כחם היום

The Lord appeared to him [Avraham] by the terebinths of Mamre; he was sitting at the entrance of the tent as the day grew hot.

The Hasidic rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk says that the word ohel, "tent," hints at holiness. (Probably because later in Torah, when the Israelites are carrying the portable mishkan / dwelling-place-for-God through the desert, it's referred to sometimes as ha-ohel, "the tent.") Avraham is sitting at the petach, the entrance or opening, of holiness.

That reading transforms this line: it's not just about Avraham sitting in the doorway of his tent on a hot day, but rather, he's sitting in an existential state of openness to holy encounter.

No matter where we are, we can strive to be like Avraham. We can know ourselves to be at the opening of holiness, the doorway to a meeting with God.

Avraham's meeting with God takes the form of a meeting with three strangers; if R' Elimelech's teaching holds true, then he challenges me to see the strangers I meet as faces of God.

Try this on for size: "I am sitting at the entrance of holiness, and the people who appear to me are divine messengers." The people at the coffee shop; the guy behind the counter at the post office; even the person online who's giving me a hard time -- all come from God. How does it feel to aim, even for a moment, to emulate Avraham in this way?

Shabbat shalom!

Another mother poem: Fears





I can't wrap you in gauze.
The world is sharp.

Someone will hurt you
and I won't be there to swoop you up.

Your tender heart will be broken
in ways no one can repair.

Or we'll hurt each other.
You'll yell that I don't understand.

The words "I hate you"
will be your rusty knife.

Long after you leave the room
I'll be dazed from what I've lost.

This week's prompt at Big Tent Poetry invites us to write a poem with something scary in it. I suspect the suggestion was meant to get us thinking along Halloween-y lines, but when I started thinking about what's scary to me now that I'm a mother, my thoughts went in a more personal direction.

Here's a link to this week's Come One, Come All post so you can see what others wrote in response to this prompt.


Supporting transformative works

The other day I mentioned fanfiction to my sister, in passing, and she said "...what's that?"

"It's like midrash," I said. "Stories written to explain or explore loopholes or character motivations or what-ifs, only instead of exploring what-ifs about Torah, these are what-ifs coming out of other books or movies or tv shows which we love."

Fanfiction is very like midrash. (Aggadic midrash, anyway -- midrash which explores and tells stories -- as opposed to midrash halakha, which is a primarily legal category of exegesis.) Subscribers to the journal Religion & Literature will get to read me expounding on this subject next year; an essay I wrote, called "Transformative Works: Fanfiction and Midrash," will be published in that journal sometime in 2011. (I'll post about that here when it comes out, since I imagine some of y'all might be interested in it too.)

Fanfiction does many of the same things that midrash does. And, like midrash, fanfiction is the creation of an interpretive community. Just as one midrash responds to another, one fanwork often responds to another. And then fans get together and talk about our stories and our vids and our art, and through those conversations we constitute community.

I'm on the board of a nonprofit organization which serves that community -- the Organization for Transformative Works; some of you may remember my essay On Transformative Works from a few years ago, which talks about my relationship with the idea of transformative work in a variety of contexts, from liturgy to poetry to fandom -- and this week, that org is having our annual October fundraising drive.

Curious? You're welcome to check out some of the things the OTW does, like our communally-authored wiki, Fanlore, which collects our histories, or Transformative Works & Cultures, our academic journal. (There's a full list of our projects on our website.) If you've ever enjoyed a fanvid (like those made by Luminosity, profiled here in New York magazine) or a fan-written story, if you want to support one of the biggest woman-run open source software projects on the internet, if you're interested in educating teens about fair use, we'd love to have your support.


Guest blogging at BAP

I'm guest-blogging at the Best American Poetry Blog again this week.

Last time I blogged there, I posted daily poems, many of which were sparked by lines I asked other poets to donate. The time before that, it was poems from Israel, since I was wrapping up my summer in Jerusalem.

This time I'm planning a week of posts about poetry, music, Torah, and more. The first two posts are live: motherhood poems (about that Heid E. Erdrich book I wrote about here a few weeks ago) and Dave Bonta's utilitarian odes.

Anyway, if you're interested, feel free to pop over there and check out my guest posts, or to subscribe to the BAP blog and get a regular infusion of poets rambling about life, the universe, and everything delivered to your aggregator or inbox!

Here's a link to all my BAP posts if you want to see them all in one place. Thanks, BAP editors, for inviting me onboard again.

Brit Milah: A Parent's Q-and-A

Last winter I learned that being the rabbi at a babynaming and being the mom at a babynaming are two very different experiences. Drew's brit milah was challenging for me in part because I thought I knew what to expect, but it turns out I didn't. Since then I've spoken with other new moms who likewise had questions they wish they'd known to ask. Hence this post. If you've been in these shoes and there are other questions you wish you'd asked (or questions you did ask, with answers which were helpful to you), please feel free to ad them in the comments to this post.

    Brit Milah: A Parent's Q-and-A

1. How am I going to feel on the day of my son's brit milah?

Okay, I can't actually answer that -- no one can -- but please know that a wide range of emotional response is normal. Elation, fear, anxiety, joy, sadness, something else entirely -- whatever it is, notice it and experience it and let it be what it is. Don't try to hold yourself to whatever you think you're "supposed" to be feeling. Whatever you're feeling is what you're supposed to be feeling.

Don't be surprised if your emotions are running really high. Bear in mind that you have an eight-day-old child; whether or not you're the parent who just labored to bring this baby into the world, you've probably been sleeping in increments of an hour at a time all week long. If you just gave birth, you're also dealing with postpartum hormones, which can be powerful. Be gentle with yourself.

2. How am I supposed to deal with throwing a party when I have a newborn?

Make someone else deal with the arrangements. Seriously: your job is to take care of the baby and to take care of yourself. Let other people deal with everything else: food, napkins, flowers, whatever other logistics are involved. The odds are good that you're exhausted, and you may also be overwhelmed. Make sure you're eating plenty and drinking plenty (especially if you're nursing.) And try to take it as easy as you can. It's not your job to be a host/hostess at this moment in time.

Continue reading "Brit Milah: A Parent's Q-and-A" »

Another mother poem: mother psalm 8





When all else fails, a stroll will put you to sleep.
We walk beneath trees still mostly green, here
and there a branch burst into purple flame, until
Whole Foods looms glossy at the sidewalk's end.
We load into the basket beneath your sleeping form
a pumpkin and a gourd hooked like a swan's neck.
All the way there my sister and I talk about marriage
and I wonder with whom you'll walk like this someday
remembering aloud the house you grew up in, our
spiral staircases, the boxes of dolls in the basement.
The minute we stop, you wake; I pepper your head
with kisses, try to adjust your already-drooping socks.
It's autumn in Newton. My muddy iced coffee is the last
of the season. Little man, you can move yourself now
across the floor with intent, though you pause and sit
contemplating whether the ball that's rolled away
is worth the effort of the journey. It's always worth
the effort of the journey: the ball, the book, the child
you may someday try to raise, as clueless as we.
Make your way across the room. Pluck sweetness
from every interaction, extract smiles from strangers.
Go get it: we're cheering each painstaking step you take.

This week's prompt at Big Tent Poetry is a wordle word cloud, from which I chose the words gourd, hook, purple, kiss, drooping, staircase, muddy, doll, extract, glossy, and pluck (the only word I didn't manage to work in was "bitter.")

This is the latest in my series of mother poems. Of the forty-three mother poems I've written so far, eight take the form of  psalms, and this is the latest of those.

I'm really loving the experience of writing one mother poem each week. Recently I've been working on my Torah poems manuscript (stay tuned for more information on that, later this fall) and it seems to me that this is a really good way for me to work. The discipline of writing one poem each week is good for me, and the desire to find something new each week stretches me in good ways. Plus, of course, I enjoy knowing that I get to share a draft with all of y'all!

Here's this week's Come one, come all post -- check out the comments to see what others did with this wordle prompt.


This week's portion: on going forth

I was given the assignment of writing a d'var Torah for this week's portion, Lech Lecha. The question posed to me was "How is God speaking to you through Torah, what is the message, and how can you incorporate this into your personal and professional life?" Here is some of what I said in response -- along with some of the wisdom I gleaned from my classmates in the discussion which followed.

God says to me: go forth from your land, your birthplace, your father's house, to the land that I will show you...and I will bless you; your name shall be a blessing.

When I was seventeen, I left San Antonio, Texas, for a small town in the Berkshire mountains of Massachusetts. I wasn't consciously on a holy journey, but my collegiate adventure was a rollercoaster of individuation and self-discovery.

In college I found my first tribe, a circle of geeks and geniuses and oddballs who became chosen family for one another. I began to explore my desire to help others. (My freshman year I hung a little placard on my door, mimicking Lucy in the comic strip Peanuts. The card read, on one side, "The Doctor is Out" and on the other, "The Doctor is In.")

At nineteen, I realized I wanted to become a rabbi... but I turned away from the rabbinate, fearful that my various unorthodoxies would disqualify me for service. Like Avram, who lied about his relationship with Sarai in order to avoid Abimelech's potential wrath, I have sometimes hidden parts of myself or parts of my life because I have feared the consequences of visibility.

And now, like Avraham (whose name was changed by God; some say that the extra ה in his name represents the presence of Shekhinah)—like Avraham, I need to let those old patterns go.

Continue reading "This week's portion: on going forth" »

Jews in medieval Christendom

The Jewish situation in medieval western Christendom was a most difficult one. Constituting only a tiny minority of the population, the Jews were widely viewed as latecomers and interlopers. In a society that was highly homogenous, united primarily by the Roman Catholic Church and its standards of Christian practice and belief, the Jews stood out as the major dissenting element in society, a people in fact stigmatized not only by religious dissent but by the charge of deicide as well... Thus the basic realities of Jewish existence were isolation, circumscription, and animosity.

So writes Robert Chazan in his book Church, State, and Jew in the Middle Ages. I've moved into a section of my Medieval Jewish History class which looks at the experiences of Jews in medieval Christendom. Since I posted a while back about the early history of Jews in medieval Islam, I figured I would share some of what I'm learning about Jewish life under Christian rule, too.

In the medieval Christian world, Jews tended to be geographically isolated into separate neighborhoods, limited economically to plying trades which Christians would not or could not ply, and forced to limit their numbers in towns lest they make the Christian authorities nervous. There was, Chazan tells us, "a constant, unabating hostility" from Christians toward Jews, which was kept in check during good times but which flared into devastating violence during periods of stress.

Intriguingly, although the Roman Catholic Church fostered a great deal of anti-Jewish animosity, the church's basic position on Jews included safeguards for Jewish life and property, Chazan writes. Every scholar I've read agrees that Jews had a right to practice Judaism in the Christian world. (Though it appears to me that during the later medieval period, that right was largely abrogated by increased anti-Jewish hostility, which had support from certain quarters within the Church -- more on that toward the end of this post.)

Continue reading "Jews in medieval Christendom" »

Gathering the Waters Mikveh Conference Roundup

Here are links to the six posts I managed to make over the last couple of days at Gathering the Waters, the second international mikveh conference:

Deep thanks to all of the organizers and all of the presenters; this conference has been a great experience! Today (Tuesday) I hope to tweet occasionally about the presentations even though I won't be able to blog -- keep an eye on the #mikvehconf hashtag.

Gathering the Waters: Ritual Hazing and Holy Vulnerability - Exploring Resistances to Mikveh

I'm blogging today from Gathering the Waters, the mikveh conference.

During the next workshop slot, I decide to attend the session which seems as though it might be a bookend to the session I attended in the morning (about Marking life transitions with ritual immersion) -- this one is called Ritual Hazing and Holy Vulnerability: Exploring Resistances to Mikveh. The description says:

Is discomfort a meaningful component of initiation, covenantal, and lifecycle rituals? Since it requires nakedness and total immersion in water, can mikveh be seen as a hazing ritual? This session will question the assumption that the current mikveh revival has erased all anxiety and fear. We will invite a frank discussion of emotional and psychological responses to mikveh, considering such issues as personal boundaries and control and the history of women’s relationship to mikveh.

The session is led by Rabbi Debra Reed Blank, Dr. Lori Hope Lefkovitz, and Dr. Vanessa Ochs again.

Dr. Lori Hope Lefkovitz begins by offering an overview of feminist rejection and then embrace of mikvah ritual. "We want to make explicit that the mikveh experience can inspire a range of feelings, including fear and shame," she says, by way of beginning. The hope, she says, is that this group might be able to collectively generate a statement which explains how personal discomfort can be part of the transformative ritual function of mikveh immersion, and how the discomfort needs to be dealt with as part of the experience.

This is fascinating to me in part because my own mikveh experiences have all been uniformly positive. I have loved my mikveh experiences, all of which have been in Jewish Renewal contexts, and I always come out of them feeling blessed to be part of a community where I can have that experience of entering into holy immersion with so many women of so many ages, shapes, and sizes. When we break into singing "Woman I Am," or when we sing a shehecheyatnu and dance around the pond or pool or spring, I love the way that feels, and I love being in my body around these other bodies. But I know that mikveh is inevitably a charged subject, and that for many women, the prospect of revealing their bodies in this way -- even to other women, even in these ways which feel safe and sweet to me -- might feel incredibly unsafe.

"As a Jewish feminist, I have learned the mitzvah of blessing my words so that I can eat them," Lefkovitz says, and the room laughs. Many Jewish feminists once upon a time said that mikveh was entirely unredeemable; and today, many of those same Jewish feminists find themselves relating to and reconstructing mikveh in new and creative ways.

"For me, it's all about body image," says Lefkovitz. "I don't want to get naked in front of somebody and get into water! This business about kavanah and transformation -- get naked and get in water in front of somebody? forgeddaboudit!" And this is a woman who loves and values ritual; she's been the executive director of, she believes in ritual, and yet this is one ritual which is just not comfortable for her.

Continue reading "Gathering the Waters: Ritual Hazing and Holy Vulnerability - Exploring Resistances to Mikveh" »

Gathering the Waters: the Emerging Mikveh Movement in Israel

I'm blogging today from Gathering the Waters, the mikveh conference.

After lunch (which was tasty, and I got to sit at a table with a few ALEPH colleagues and also a few lovely people who aren't, or aren't yet, part of that world) there was a lunchtime session on the Emerging Mikveh Movement in Israel, featuring Rabbi Maya Leibovich (who identifies herself as the first Israeli-born female rabbi), author Varda Polak Sahm and Rabbi Haviva Ner David. The session is moderated by Rabbi William Hamilton.

(I loved R' Ner David's Life on the Fringes: A Feminist Journey Toward Traditional Rabbinic Ordination, and am very much looking forward to her new book Giving Chana Voice: A Feminist Rabbi Reclaims the Women's Mitzvot of Baking, Bathing, and Brightening, which will be published this fall by Ben Yehuda Press.)

Rabbi Maya Leibovich tells us that of all the places in Israel, she thinks Jerusalem is the most special place to be. "As a Jew, when you walk in Yerushalayim, even if you're nonreligious, something in your inner kishke beats Jewish," she says. "What happens in Yerushalayim should be meaningful to anybody sitting here." It is her most beloved and most sacred space. "And yet, I want to bring you in to two opposing pictures of Yerushalayim, and I want to say that both of them coexist although they are very contradictory."

She tells us about the most recent Sukkot in Jerusalem. "If you come to Yerushalayim now, you will see more black hats than you've ever seen before." Many non-religious folks have moved out of Jerusalem, and a lot of black hats have moved in. Though she notes also that many black hats have left Jerusalem because they don't have the money to live there! But there is violence. She tells the story of a woman named Adi who wanted to show her boyfriend what Sukkot was like in Mea Shearim, where she had grown up; the woman was most modestly dressed, but she was not allowed in to the neighborhood because she had her boyfriend with her, and she was physically attacked. And was also physically saved, by three haredim (ultra-religious people) -- but the whole thing was exposed in the Israeli papers, and it's a dreadful story.

To a secular Israeli, this looks like a monolithic, zealous world which is meaningless to someone who is secular. And these communities are expanding -- e.g. stories of haredim who want women to stand in the back of the bus. "This is one side of the picture, and it's worrying, because it wasn't like this in the past. Jerusalem was the most pluralistic place!" Rabbi Leibovich describes how it used to be, and says "we've lost something, and we grieve that."

"On the other hand, in that very same city, if you dig a little deeper, you will see a variety of new religious expression crossing all denominations," she tells us. "You will see Israelis who for years said 'this is not for me; I'm Israeli, I couldn't care less for synagogue' saying now, 'wait a second, I'm a Jew, I want to daven.'" There are egalitarian Orthodox minyanim with a mechitzah (a curtain separating men from women) which looks like a little shmatte, she tells us! (Indeed there are; I've been blessed to visit some.) She tells a story about an Orthodox woman whose daughter became bat mitzvah, who read from Torah, and when this rabbi asked her how was this possible and how did the men respond, the woman said, "what men? they didn't even know!" Mikveh is like this in Israel, she says: it's something women can do on their own, and men don't need to know.

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Gathering the Waters: Marking Life Transitions with Ritual Immersion

I'm blogging today from Gathering the Waters, the mikveh conference.

In the second slot of the day, there are six options to choose from, all happening simultaneously! I opted for Marking Life Transitions with Ritual Immersion, which is described this way:

The power of water in times of change, joy and sadness. We will explore the power of the mikveh immersion and the elements—in preparation and process—that are critical to a “successful” experience: the water, the ritual, and you, the Jew. How can these forces combine to create psychological, social and even physical change? Led by Rachel Brodie (watch a brief interview with her about "wide-angle Judaism" here on YouTube) and Dr. Vanessa Ochs.

(Tangentially, I posted about one of Dr. Ochs' books years ago when this blog was still relatively new: More than meets the eye. I'd like to reread that book now; I suspect it might strike me differently than it did then...)

Vanessa Ochs tells us that today we'll be talking about using water to mark moments of joy and moments of sadness. "Many of us think about [these issues] day and night, in our personal lives and communal lives," she notes. The goal of this session is to help us understand this ritual (mikveh immersion) more deeply, and to understand how we can become more adept at transmitting our knowledge of ritual to our students, congregants, family members -- how we can become more attuned to the kinds of work that ritual needs to do, and how we can become better teachers, facilitators, participants in this work.

Ochs invites us to name different kinds of transitions which are marked ritually which are not-so-neat. (Transitions which aren't simple or binary.) People around the room call out suggestions like "retirement," or "saying kaddish" during the year of mourning for a parent. Someone else mentions brit milah. Someone else mentions coming out. Someone else mentions saying the mi shebeirach, the prayer for healing -- when is someone "ill enough" to say the words, and when are they "well enough" for us to stop doing so? And in return, someone else mentions receiving a life-threatening diagnosis. Preparing food for a celebratory moment: how does that act provide joy, or not, and what happens when the food is all gone? These are all ritual moments which have the capacity to be a bit ragged, a bit blurred.

In the case of these transition rituals, is part of their purpose to bring us to God, or to please God, or to act in God-like ways? Ochs asks. "Maybe we shy away from that theological question, but what if we enter into this ritual, and the communal work has been done, but what if we didn't feel that we recognized God along the way?"

"Mikveh isn't the answer to everything," says Rachel Brodie. "Mikveh isn't the answer to all of the things which have been mentioned. But we'd like to think about, if you're using a medium like water, what's the symbolism, and does it match with your intention for the transition that you're marking?"

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Gathering the Waters: Navigating Ambiguity, Rituals & Transitions

I'm blogging today from Gathering the Waters, the mikvah conference at Mayyim Hayyim.

Today's first session (following shacharit, which alas, I had to miss, because I was taking Drew to daycare for the day) is Navigating Ambiguity: Mikveh and transitions. This session will "explore the concept of liminality and the way rituals help ease the confusion that comes with change. We will examine how and why water works to transform sexuality, Jewish identity, and even the 'identity' of inanimate objects." (Does that last bit sound far-out? It's because mikva'ot have traditionally been used to make things like glass dishes kosher.) The speaker is Dr. Erica Brown, scholar in residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and the Director for Adult Education at The Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning, whose most recent book is Spiritual Boredom: Rediscovering the Wonder of Judaism.

Aliza Klein welcomes us this morning and talks about who we are as an ad hoc community: 270+ people from around the world, ranging in age from 20s to 70s, ranging in observance / affiliation from Renewal to Orthodox to non-Jewish. She offers a little Hebrew word game: the word "mayyim" (water) can be understood as mah + im, "what" plus "if." Water offers us a chance to explore the what-ifs, to flow fluidly into new possibility. We're here to share the possibilities of mah + im.

It's fascinating, Erica Brown says, that we're having a public conversation about a very private ritual. There is no safer space than mikveh. During mikveh immersion are in a private, renewing space; in absolute privacy; and in the mystical readings of the experience, we're re-entering the womb! (I blogged about a Hasidic texton that subject a while back: returning to the divine womb.) And yet we're talking about it in public today.

Liminal time is in-between time; "liminality is the feeling of being in-between." We collectively brainstorm examples of this: mezuzot, which are between public space and private space, on a threshold, in a doorway which is both exit and entrance. "Right at that point, Judaism says: put a marker there. A reminder of who we are. Every time you go in and out, there's a certain thoughtfulness about who you are." Havdalah, which is in-between Shabbat and week, a ritual which separates these two time periods but also cushions us in getting to the next point. Applying to college but not yet being accepted -- being in some way done with high school, but not yet into the new thing, the new place. "Transition on a lot of levels!" For parents as well as for children. Anxiety and excitement.

"What we've identified are space, time, and milestone events which are actually transitions," Brown says, and she notes that all religions are intrigued by transitional times, which produce anxieties; we place rituals in those moments for that reason. We brainstorm some of the anxieties involved in transitional moments: bar/bat mitzvah, marriage, and so on. Within an ancient framework, these are often sexualized in some way -- for instance, the classical determination for becoming bar mitzvah has to do with having three pubic hairs! And this is one of the reasons that we have so many rituals around these moments of entering puberty and entering into marriage.

Brown also talks about death. "We [Jews] do death well," she quips, and talks about all of our familiar rituals around death (from organizing the food, to gathering the community, to the stages of grief as they unfold.) By the end of the shiva week, a mourner told her that instead of the grief she expected to feel, she felt instead that she had been given the gift of hearing about new parts of her father all week long, and that it felt like a holy time. We have mitzvot for the seven days after, for the thirty days after, for the year after. "There's an orderliness to the way that we express happiness and the way we express grief." We experience these transitions in a powerful way anyway; the rituals force us to pay attention to the subtle gradations of how our experience changes over time. The rituals allow us to experience what we experience within certain structures.

That's our introduction to liminal time: liminality is the cushion in transitional times, and every ritual can be understood in this framework. "What is prayer? What is kiddush? What are all of these different ceremonies which the mikvah comes in handy to mark -- what's liminal about them? What is the anxiety that's produced, which the ritual is trying to ease us into or ease us out of?" These are the questions at hand.

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Gathering the Waters: Opening Session


I'm blogging today from Gathering the Waters, the mikvah conference at Mayyim Hayyim.

The opening session is Why Now? Understanding the resurgence of mikveh in the context of contemporary American Jewish history, featuring American Jewish historian Professor Jonathan Sarna (author of American Judaism: A History) in conversation with writer/Mayyim Hayyim founder Anita Diamant and Mayyim Hayyim Executive Director Aliza Kline (author of the article Beneath The Surface: Taking Our Principles Seriously, which offers a nice introduction to Mayyim Hayyim.) The session is moderated by Aaron Katersky, national correspondent for ABC News. (Here's the conference writeup on this session and on the four participants in it.)

First, Paula Brody -- another of the center's founders -- talks about how the center was founded nearly twelve years ago, and how at this point thousands of immersions have taken place there! She welcomes us to the second international mikvah conference; the first was in 2006. We are a crowd of more than 250 people, which amazes and delights me. We come from 22 states cross the USA and also from Israel, and at least eight groups of people are here because they're considering developing a community mikvah like Mayyim Hayyim in their own communities. This is an opportunity, she tells us, to see how mikvah can impact Jews from all walks of life.

Aaron's first question is, "Jonathan, what are we doing here, at a conference about mikvah -- how did we get here?" We got here, Jonathan Sarna says, because of Anita (Diamant), and the room laughs. "It is indeed an astonishing moment," he allows. Almost as far back as we can go, in American Jewish history, we can see men complaining that the mikvah is neglected and that women aren't doing what they should be doing -- these complaints are, he says, historically almost always issued by men! -- in the 19th century there are synagogue meeting minutes filled with notes about the problem of the mikvah, the leaking mikvah and so on, and in the 20th century suddenly it becomes hushed-up, "something that American Jews are rather embarrassed about."

Sarna cites the book The Secret of the Jew, a book which was self-published by Rabbi David Miller in 1930 and was once upon a time frequently given to (male) rabbinic students. It's all about mikvah. Sarna shows a diagram from that book, depicting all of the Jewish institutions in the country on one side of a scale, and the mikvah on the other, and the mikvah would outweigh everything else! Another slide shows a drawing of a mikvah hidden in the closet, which is, he notes dryly, rather telling.

How, then, Aaron asks, did we get from there (gesturing to the slide of the imaginary mikvah in the closet) to here?

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