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Tele/Presence (a poem for the spiritual practice of reading the paper)



I want to keep you with me
when I raise the remote
turn the dial, flick the knob

when I fall to the temptation
of reading the comments
at Ha'aretz or the Post

I want your presence
twined around my forearm
when I snap open the Times

when I fret over trending topics
when I dream in status updates
scrolling endlessly

remind me, God, to seek you
not only in the timeless flow
of liturgy on the page

but in the stock ticker
and the commercials for windshields
and the interplay of punditry

beyond the debt ceiling
within every celebrity
there is nothing but you



My friend Reverend Peter Elvin asked recently whether I had a poem which touches on the subject of how to remain mindful of God while reading the daily news. I didn't, but I was intrigued by the suggestion, so I set myself the challenge of writing one.

It's not always easy to be religious and to be engaged with secular public life: between news media and social media, whatever fragile sense of divine presence I manage to cultivate during prayer can dissipate in an instant. I meditate for 45 minutes... and then I check my email and poof! there goes my focus. At least, that's how it feels on the tough days.

But just as I love the Hasidic idea of avodah b'gashmiut -- serving God in and through corporeality (not despite it) -- I have to believe it's possible to serve the Holy Blessed One not by withdrawing from the world (the newspaper, the radio, the tabloids, the billboards, Twitter and Facebook and Google+) but by bringing my awareness of holiness to the world. One of the pieces of art hanging in my synagogue office is a print by Jackie Olenick which reads ein od milvado: "there is nothing else but God." If that's true, then God is in the headlines; God is in the casualty reports; God is in my twitter stream.


ETA: this poem will appear in my third book-length collection of poems, Open My Lips, due from Ben Yehuda Press in 2014.

Approaching Av... and Ramadan

On the Jewish calendar, next week we'll enter the month of Av. Av is a month of introspection. On the 9th of Av we observe a communal day of fasting and mourning in remembrance of the two fallen temples in Jerusalem and in remembrance of our communal suffering from the crusades to pogroms. Some see Tisha b'Av as a day to recognize the brokenness of creation writ large. And from there, we count 49 days until Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year. These seven weeks, taken together, offer a picture of what the Hasidim call "descent for the sake of ascent" -- from the spiritual depths of 9 Av, we are newly able to make the spiritual ascent into and through the month of Elul to the Days of Awe. From Tisha b'Av to Rosh Hashanah unfold seven weeks during which we can do the internal work of tefilah, teshuvah, u-tzedakah -- prayer, repentance / turning-toward-God, and giving to the needy, which our liturgy teaches us can sweeten the severity of divine justice in our lives.

On the Muslim calendar, the lunar month which will begin next week is the month of Ramadan. Ramadan too is a month of introspection; of fasting, prayer, and giving alms to the needy. A time during which Muslims strive to align themselves with the will of God and to become conscious of God's presence in the world and in their lives.

Ramadan and Av do not always coincide. A few years ago, when I was blessed to attend a Retreat for Emerging Jewish and Muslim Leaders, Ramadan coincided with the month of Elul, which immediately prececes the Days of Awe. (I wrote an essay about that: Allah is the Light: Prayer in Ramadan & Elul.) Both the Muslim calendar and the Jewish one measure months by the moon, but the Jewish calendar is metonic; seven years out of every nineteen we insert a "leap month," which keeps our calendar more-or-less aligned with the solar one. So our high holidays always fall in the northern hemisphere autumn, and Pesach always falls in northern hemisphere spring. (The rabbis who designed our calendar were, alas, not thinking about the needs of Jews in the global South!) The Muslim calendar doesn't have this kind of correction mechanism, so Muslim holidays move around the solar calendar; this year Ramadan begins around August 1, next year it will begin around July 20, the year after that around July 10, and so on.

In the confluence of our calendars this year I find a powerful reminder that we and our Muslim cousins -- descendants, our tradition says, of the half-brothers Yitzchak and Yishmael, Isaac and Ishmael -- are walking parallel paths toward the Holy Blessed One. During the coming lunar month, as the moon waxes and wanes, both communities (in our varied forms -- Jews whose practice ranges from Reform to Hasidic, in Israel and in Diaspora; Muslims of Arab, South Asian, African American, and every other descent, all around the world) will be engaging in prayer, in fasting, and in giving generously to those in need, in order to more wholly align ourselves with God's will.

I love that our two religious communities share a vision of how we can make use of the practices of prayer, fasting, and tzedakah / zakat in order to realign ourselves toward God. And I love that this year, Jews and Muslims the world over will be entering into a sacred season of doing this spiritual work at the same time. May we give one another strength and blessing in the weeks ahead!

Recommended reading for the season:

  • 30 mosques - a Ramadan road trip to 30 different mosques all over the USA. A beautiful set of anecdotes and photographs which illustrate the diversity of American Muslim life and practice.

  • Prayers for the Ninth of Av - Reb Zalman's prayer, meant to be offered on the afternoon of Tisha b'Av when our grief begins to give way to hope for transformation. I especially like how his prayer touches on Jerusalem / Al-Quds.

  • Hungry for Ramadan - My friend Shahed Amanullah of altmuslim blogged daily through the month of Ramadan in 2007; these are his posts on Beliefnet.

  • New moon ritual for Elul - An earth-based Jewish ritual for the new moon which will come 3 weeks in to our 7-week journey from 9 Av to the Days of Awe.

Without Ceasing (a poem to recite before prayer)




The wash of dawn across the sky
reveals your signature.

Cicadas drone your praise
through the honey-slow afternoon.

The angular windmills on the ridge
recite your name with every turn.

And I, who can barely focus on breath
without drifting into story:

what can I say to you,
author of wisteria and sorrel,

you who shaped these soft hills
with glaciers' slow passage?

You fashioned me as a gong:
your presence reverberates.

Help me to open my lips
that I may sing your praise.

This poem began a few weekends ago, when Drew was sick and wouldn't go to sleep. One evening I put him in the car and we drove. He fussed for ten minutes and then sacked out, and I drove through the twilight of late summer evening on winding roads in far eastern New York state. We passed the wind farm on the ridge and it occurred to me that the windmills -- which I find very beautiful -- could be reciting prayers in their rotations, á la Tibetan prayer wheels. That was the image which sparked this poem.

The first three stanzas contain oblique references to the three times a day of Jewish prayer: dawn (shacharit), afternoon (mincha), and the windmills are my no nod to evening prayer (maariv.)

I struggled with the ending of this poem through a few revisions; the ending felt anticlimactic to me in the first few iterations. Then I realized that I needed to end the poem by speaking directly to God -- which put me in mind of the one-liner we recite before the amidah (the standing prayer which is central to every Jewish service) -- adonai, sefatai tiftach, ufi yagid tehilatecha, often rendered as "Eternal God, open up my lips that my mouth may declare your glory." So that's how I ended the poem.

I think this poem could serve as a prelude to the amidah, either in personal (solitary) prayer or in a communal setting. If you use it that way, let me know how it works for you!

The Ishbitzer on the power of purifying the imagination

This week we're reading parashat Matot. Parts of this parsha may be challenging to the contemporary liberal religious sensibility. One of the pieces which challenges me is God's commandment that the Israelites must take vengeance on the people of Midian on account of the Midianites having induced the Israelites to be unfaithful to God, and the subsequent slaughter of every man in the Midianite tribe. (That story gave rise to my Torah poem for this parsha two years ago: Spoils.) This is a violent text. What can we find in it which might be redemptive?

Earlier this week, in the Wednesday morning coffeeshop Torah study in which I am blessed to participate, we read the Ishbitzer rebbe's commentaries on this parsha, and one of them struck me profoundly. He drashes the name Midian, מדין, as related to דמיון (dimion), imagination. (I don't know that this is etymologically sound, but as a bit of aural wordplay it works beautifully.) And building on that interpretation, he says that what this passage is really about is that we're supposed to seek out and kill the part of our own imagination which keeps us separate from God. When this negative midian / imagination is removed from our hearts, then we will be innately and naturally aligned with the will and the presence of God.

So this troubling passage isn't really (or isn't merely) about genocide; on a deeper level it's about ferreting out the part of one's own imagination that tells one untruths which keeps one separate and distant from the Holy Blessed One and from God's will for who and what we should be.

It's a radical drash, and it obviously requires the reader to take a substantial leap away from the pshat (plain meaning) of the Torah text. But for me, this is a beautiful and powerful interpretation. It allows me to reread this passage in a way which speaks to my spirit and my heart.

Shabbat shalom!

Lifting me out of myself

A few days ago I picked up a minister-friend of mine in my car and we drove together to a local hospital where she has been part of a rotating group of clergy who do a regular spirituality group in the mental health ward. Together we spent the better part of an hour with some of the people who are patients there, talking with them about life and God and spirituality and whatever else entered the picture. We read a couple of psalms together (100 and 121, for those who are curious -- and I sang the first few verses of psalm 121 in Hebrew, which seemed to go over well.) In coming weeks, I'll enter the regular rotation, and will probably lead this spirituality group once a month or so.

I'm so glad to be doing this. I've missed hospital ministry. And while I know that if I were a fulltime chaplain I would miss leading liturgical davenen, and I would miss the experience of working with people with whom I can develop long and deep relationships, this feels like the perfect balance: a congregational rabbinate, some time for my child and my writing life, and a regular periodic dip into hospital work again.

There's something about hospital ministry which lifts me out of myself, more than any other kind of pastoral work tends to do. That feels like a funny reason to offer for my love of hospital work; surely the work matters because of what it is, not because of the impact it has on me and my own spiritual and emotional life! But all the work I do shapes my life, on all levels and in all worlds, and I've found that hospital chaplaincy work (of whatever form) tends to uplift me. Even when the work brings me into contact with tragedy. There's something about being able to be there for people in moments of extremis which helps me put my own narrative and my own stuff into perspective. I almost always come away from the work feeling changed.

I'm especially glad to be ministering to those in the mental health wing of the hospital. Longtime readers know that I wrestled with postpartum depression after Drew was born. I also have dear friends who have been hospitalized for mental health reasons, and in my extended family there are people who have suffered from mental illness, too. This doesn't make me unique -- far from it. Pretty much every family is touched by mental illness somewhere. I'm glad to have an opportunity to care for people who are struggling with mental illness -- even if it's just a single spirituality group meeting once a month.

Meeting me

We're having a Meet the Rabbi shindig at CBI. Actually, we're having two: one on a Sunday afternoon, and one on a weekday evening, later this summer (July 31 and August 24, to be specific.)

Of course, many of the members of CBI know me already, since I've been a member there for several years and I served there during rabbinic school. But not everyone knows me; and those who do know me, know me as a fellow member or someone who used to pinch-hit in leading services or maybe as that poet who used to run the literary arts nonprofit. That's different from knowing me as the rabbi.

So we're throwing the doors open and inviting folks to come chat, nosh a little, and -- most importantly -- talk with me about what they want and need from their rabbi and from their congregation. Even if you're not a member (yet) but might want to become more involved with our community, I hope you'll come.

Invitation appears below the extended-entry tag.

Continue reading "Meeting me" »

Tzom Tammuz

Today is the 17 of Tammuz, also known as Tzom Tammuz ("the fast of Tammuz"), one of Judaism's lesser fast days, which inaugurates the "Three Weeks" of mourning which will culminate in Tisha b'Av.

A few years ago I wrote a post called Reflections on 17 Tammuz. Here's a taste:

According to the Mishna, this was the day the Romans breached the walls around Jerusalem, which led to the destruction three weeks later of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. Tradition also holds that today is the anniversary of Moses breaking the tablets of the Ten Commandments when he came down the mountain to find the Israelites worshiping that golden calf...

For those who don't observe the Three Weeks in the traditional ways, and don't yearn for the restoration of sacrifice atop the Temple mount, can 17 Tammuz still hold meaning?

To see how I answered, read the whole essay -- and feel free to comment in response, either on that original post or on this one.

A prayer for my installation

Last night, after havdalah, we celebrated my installation as the interim rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel. My dear friend Cantor Bob Scherr gave me a beautiful blessing; two board members spoke on behalf of the board. For my part, I offered a new prayer-poem which I wrote for this occasion. I'm sharing it here because I wanted all of you to have a little bit of a sense of having been present for my installation, too. (And to anyone who finds this post in the lead-up to your own installation as clergy, if you want to use this poem in your ceremony, you are more than welcome to do so -- just indicate where it came from, please and thanks.)


Prayer for installation


Dear One!
You Who are near
as the blood in my veins

Ribbono shel Olam!
You Who are grandly distant
as galaxies unfolding

be with me
as I accept responsibility
for this community

strengthen my arms
as I cradle Your children
in celebration and in sorrow

sustain my heart
that I may open other hearts
to Your presence

uplift my spirit
that I may lead prayer
which makes You manifest

help me to learn, to teach
and to live
Your Torah

when I minister
to my own family
and to this family

Holy One of Blessing,
consecrate my hands
to Your service.



Edited to add: for those who are interested, a photoset of images of my installation is now available on flickr. Thanks, Len!

Kedushat Levi on the role of the spiritual leader (parashat Pinchas)

If you're coming to Shabbat morning services (and to the Torah study which follows) this week, you might want to skip this post -- or else, read and begin contemplating it now, so you'll have fully-formed thoughts to offer in our discussion! This is the Kedushat Levi text which David and I translated together this week; it arises out of part of the Torah portion which we'll be reading during services, specifically Numbers 27:15-23.



Kedushat Levi (Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev) on parashat Pinchas

Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev (1740-1809) was one of the main disciples of the Maggid of Mezritch. He was known as “the defense attorney” for the Jewish people, because people believed that he could intercede for us before God.

Moshe spoke to Adonai, saying, "Let Adonai, source of the breath of all flesh [or: God of the spirits of all flesh] appoint a leader for the community who shall go out before them and come in before them, and who shall take them out and bring them in, so that Adonai's community may not be like sheep that have no shepherd." (Numbers 27:15-17)

The Blessed Creator causes shefa (abundance) to flow into the world of the serafim (angels) and into the realm of the cosmic creatures of the zodiac, and from there the shefa flows to us. The Blesed Creator sends that flow into the higher realms so that it can be received by us. It's as though the Blessed Creator were constricting God's-self into this stream of abundance, and sending forth this abundance so that we can receive it. And in receiving it, we find God. All of the chesed (lovingkindness) which flows into those higher realms is like a teaching or lesson which flows into the lower worlds to be received.

Continue reading "Kedushat Levi on the role of the spiritual leader (parashat Pinchas)" »

On the Israeli "Boycott Law" and a wish for nuance

If you follow Middle East politics, you've probably already read about the new Israeli law which makes it illegal to publicly call for a boycott of products made in the settlements. If you haven't heard about this yet, the New York Times has a solid article about it, Israel Bans Boycotts Against the State, which begins:

JERUSALEM — The Israeli Parliament on Monday passed contentious legislation that effectively bans any public call for a boycott against the state of Israel or its West Bank settlements, making such action a punishable offense.

Critics and civil rights groups denounced the new law as antidemocratic and a flagrant assault on the freedom of expression and protest. The law's defenders said it was a necessary tool in Israel's fight against what they called its global delegitimization.

Passage of the law followed a string of efforts in the rightist-dominated Parliament to promote legislation that is seen by the more liberal Israelis as an erosion of democratic values.

For a far angrier look at the bill, try Israeli newspaper Ha-aretz, where Alon Idan argues that The boycott law is fascist and where Bradley Burston writes Israel's boycott law: the quiet sound of going fascist. Burston writes "The Boycott Law is the litmus test for Israeli democracy, the threshold test for Israeli fascism. It's a test of moderates everywhere who care about the future of this place.// This is the one. This is where the slope turns nowhere but down." As Israeli papers go, Ha-aretz is center-left -- but the right-leaning Jerusalem Post dislikes the bill, too; see their (byline-less) editorial The bad boycott bill.

For an opinion from outside of Israel, try the article Knesset of Fools in Foreign Policy, which argues that "A harsh new anti-boycott bill will help achieve the exact opposite of what its advocates intended: the delegitimization of the Jewish state."

Continue reading "On the Israeli "Boycott Law" and a wish for nuance" »

Poem: morning prayer


Some days I say good morning
while the hose splashes into the kiddie pool
and the cat sniffs curiously at its curls

my lightest tallit
a sweep of blue silk
across bare shoulders

Blessed are You
Who straightens the bent, I sing
as I reach for the heavens

and blessed is the One
Who speaks creation into being,
walking across a patch of wild thyme

the mosquitoes want to rejoice in me
so I swish my tzitzit
inscribing letters on the air

without a siddur my amidah is brief
though I linger on the prayer for healing
imagining your mother, my mother

the friend in hospice
whose words have been snatched
by cancer's insidious grasp

then swirl my tallit off
like a bullfighter's cloak
blue rippling around my fingers

it's time to go inside
I turn off the faucet
but Your abundance keeps flowing

One of the best lessons of parenthood thus far, for me, has been the integration of my prayer life and my "regular life." In rabbinic school (particularly at DLTI, the davenen leadership training institute) we spoke often about living with "prayerful consciousness," but I don't think I really integrated prayer with ordinary time until I had to -- until Drew came along and I was no longer able to take the luxury of long, slow, uninterrupted periods of prayer. These days it seems perfectly appropriate to sing morning prayers while I'm in the shower, while driving Drew to daycare, or -- as in this poem -- while refilling Drew's kiddie pool so that the waters will be warm by the time I bring him home in the afternoon.


I brought my son with me to the synagogue on the evening when I was slated to sign the brit (covenant) between me and the congregation. He skipped around gleefully, found a calculator and held it up to his ear, tore up a piece of paper with great gusto, and successfully begged to hold and jingle the giant keyring which the president of the synagogue board was wearing on her belt. I fed him supper in a high chair there as I chatted with the president of the board about the year to come. When Drew started to melt down, I signed the contract and then I took him home for pyjamas, story time, and bed.

The next day, once my in-laws arrived to look after Drew, I loaded the back of my car with several boxes of Judaic books and headed for the synagogue. My intention was to begin settling in; I am the kind of person who feels discomfited until my boxes are unpacked and my work space feels like home. To my surprise, my first day on the job turned out to be deliciously full. I connected with people around two different upcoming lifecycle events. I met with the religion committee chair to begin planning the Days of Awe. I unboxed everything I had brought, and marveled that there are still more feet of bookshelves to fill.

When I left the synagogue, my mind was buzzing with everything on my to-do list. It felt good to be thinking about phone calls to congregants, pastoral care, high holiday prep, planning for summer and for fall...and then it felt good to come home, to swoop my son into my arms and listen to him babble, to lie down on his colorful play mats in the position I knew would entice him to come running over to me beaming his hugest grin and climb all over me as though I were a jungle gym.

Sometime in the early months of Drew's life, I remember talking with my sister about balancing work with parenthood. I seem to recall that she said something like, on the good days I feel like I have it all, and on the tough days I feel like I'm failing everyone -- my children, my clients, my spouse. I think about that conversation often now that I'm entering the workforce for the first time since becoming someone's mama. I pray that there will be more good days than tough days, but I know that both will inevitably arise in the months ahead.

When I went to the ALEPH Kallah a couple of weeks ago, I was first amazed by the glorious experience of being on my own for a week, and then humbled by the difficult experience of missing my son and knowing that he was missing me. I loved seeing my teachers and friends, I loved the learning and the davening...and I missed Drew desperately. (And Ethan, too! But he and I have years of practice at being apart and then coming together again; Drew is a different story.) I'm glad that I went and glad that it was wonderful -- and I'm glad too that it was so hard.

I hope I can approach the gift of this job in the same way. I'm glad to be serving as this community's rabbi, glad in anticipation of how wonderful I know it will be -- and glad that it will be difficult sometimes, too. I am blessed to have a vocation which I love and a family who I adore, and I wouldn't trade either of those for the world. 

Drew is already at-home at this synagogue; he's been going there with me since he was an infant. (I still remember the first time I brought him to Shabbat morning services, back when he was new and the experience of taking him anywhere was still faintly terrifying.) I don't know what it will be like for him to grow up with a mama who is a poet and a working rabbi. But I trust that there will be blessings in this experience: for him, for me, and hopefully also for the community-at-large which will be enriched by his laughter and his energy (even if those sometimes come hand-in-hand with his frustration and a tantrum or two.)

Reb Zalman's "All Breathing Life" - old liturgy, new poems


Zalman insists that the poems in this volume are not translations. They are, instead, free verse evocations of themes and imagery inspired by our liturgy and collective psyche. Their nuance marks the intersection of an often indecipherable tradition and contemporary life. They bring what might otherwise be lost into the light of everyday spirituality.

After all, that is what Zalman does, who he is. He takes old Jewish stuff (legend, mime, gibberish, and gesture) that people either didn't know existed or...didn't know what to do with it, and slips it back into our back pockets when we're not looking. And then we say, months, years later, "Oh, yes, Zalman taught me how to (sing, pray, meditate on, dance, understand) do that." Indeed, Zalman has been doing that for almost three generations of otherwise rootless and assimilated American Jewish spiritual seekers. He is our way "back in" and "back home." And these poems are a complete set of VIP entry passes.

So writes Rabbi Lawrence Kushner in the introduction to Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi's latest book, All Breathing Life: At the Interface Between Poetry and Prayer, edited by Dr. Michael Kagan (author of The Holistic Haggadah, and husband of Reb Ruth Kagan of Nava Tehila fame.) Zalman is, Kushner notes, a bridge figure. He bridges between two worlds, the world of contemporary American culture and the world of ancient Jewish tradition and classical Hasidut.

And "this rebbe," writes editor Kagan, "is a master -- a master of the word, a master of the letter, a master of the song, a master of the rhyme and the rhythm, a master of the niggun, a master of music, a master of intercession, and above all, a master of prayer." I completely agree. (I've written about Reb Zalman many times before -- most recently Ten minutes with my rebbe and last year's Shavuot post Reb Zalman: the Torah of our mothers.)

Continue reading "Reb Zalman's "All Breathing Life" - old liturgy, new poems" »

A poem in the Jewish Women's Literary Annual

The Jewish Women's Literary Annual is a venerable publication, and every time it comes out I marvel at the breadth and depth of the Jewish womens' voices it showcases.

I'm honored to be able to say that I have a piece in the annual this year -- as does my aunt Vicki Pieser, which is a really neat family happening! This year's annual also features Enid Dame, Wendy Marcus, Marge Piercy, Myra Shapiro, and many others.

My poem which appears in the annual is "Mother Psalm 1" (a psalm of anticipation.) Some of y'all probably read the first draft of that poem when it was posted here during my year of weekly mother poems.

The current edition is volume 8 (2011); subscription information can be found at the National Council of Jewish Women website (or, if you just want the current edition, send a check for $10 and a note indicating that you want volume 8 to the address listed there.)

New essay about mikveh at the Mayyim Hayyim blog

I've posted here many times over the years about my love of creative mikveh experiences, and last October I offered six blog posts from the Gathering the Waters mikveh conference held at / by Mayyim Hayyim. If these subjects are of interest to you, hop over to the Mayyim Hayyim blog, where they have graciously asked me to share a guest post. Here's how that post begins:

My first mikveh experience took place in early Elul. Shabbat was approaching at my first week-long Jewish Renewal retreat at Elat Chayyim, and I decided to join the group which was going to do "spiritual mikveh" in the swimming pool. Rabbi Phyllis Berman explained, beforehand, the ways in which our mikveh would be atypical: we were using a swimming pool (not a source of "living waters," though it is occasionally augmented by rain), we would go in together rather than one at a time, some women would choose to wear swimsuits while others chose to remove all impediments between themselves and the water. I had never considered immersing in a mikveh, but my week had already opened me to so many new spiritual experiences — heartfelt weekday prayer; women laying tefillin; chant and meditation — that I was open to trying one more...

Read the whole thing here: Immersing With Intention, Creating Mikveh Experience Beyond the Mikveh.

Seeking and finding (six more glimpses of Kallah)


The labyrinth.


A glorious morning service out on the big quad. The air is cool at this hour and I relish my tallit wrapped around my shoulders. The davenen is led by two of my ALEPH chevre, both cantorial students, and the singing is wonderful: just the right balance between beloved melodies and classical nusach. I realize, at the end of the service, that I ought to have recorded it so I could sing along with it when I daven at home -- but I didn't think of that in time; it can only be what it was, a beautiful hour of prayer which arose and then disappeared like a sand mandala after a wind.



I discover a meditation labyrinth behind one of the buildings where we've been having class. It is painted and carved into the concrete. I put down my backpack and begin to walk. At first I take slow steps as though in a wedding procession. After a while I realize that I have walked and walked and am still nowhere near the center. The path is longer and twistier than I expected. (What else is new.) Soon I am almost running, my sandals slapping the pavement, keeping an eye on the road ahead step by step but not allowing myself to anticipate where I'm pretty sure I'm going. And suddenly I'm at the middle, the jewel in the lotus, the surprise at the heart of the rose.



Wednesday turns out to be Miraj -- the Ladder -- when Muslims commemorate the night journey taken by the Prophet (peace be upon him) into seven levels of heaven (where God granted Muhammad the gift of the obligation to pray 50 times a day, and Moshe convinced him to return to God and ask for a reduction -- hee!) After hearing this story we move into a meditation in which we enter the seven levels of the heavens of our hearts, the place of light upon light, where everything is One. After that, reading Zohar texts about the cave of Machpelah, and Bawa texts about the infinite holiness in the deepest level of the human heart, feels like returning to a place where, thanks to our meditation, we've already been.



I am sitting with two friends around a small table, outdoors, not far from the dining hall. The sky is blue darkening into grey, but there are no stars yet, which means we can still daven mincha, the afternoon offering. We sing the ashrei with gusto. Another friend walks up and we offer him a place in our davenen, but he's already prayed, so he just keeps us company and offers hearty amens. We sing the weekday amidah, our voices blending and braiding. The sky subtly darkens more. By the time we are done we've attracted a few more friends who join us as we share a drink and talk about the program. When we part, at last, night has fallen. I go to bed with the melodies of prayer in my ears.



We follow a winding path into a tiny Eden, a hidden garden filled with birds and blooms. Sitting beneath a wrought-iron bower laced with vines, we each write our own personal storytellers' prayer. And then we take turns telling the stories we've spent the week preparing. I tell my adaptation of Naftali the Storyteller and His Horse Sus (by I. B. Singer) and as I speak and gesture I can feel the story coming to life. My classmates tell stories which give voice to Bathsheba, to Elijah the Prophet, to the animals aboard Noah's ark. Each time someone steps forward to take the stage we are all rapt with attention. At the very end of our class, Devorah Zaslow tells a story about the power of stories, and blesses us that we might take these skills into our lives and become tellers too.



In the final session of my afternoon class, we read the amazing tale of the Rabbi and the Sheikh, by Rabbi Yitzhak Farhi (d. 1853) as translated by Zvi Zohar. (There's a synopsis of the story here.) It is a beautiful tale about a rabbi and a sheikh agreeing to trade a mystical secret, fasting and immersing and making teshuvah and then entering into a secret garden and into the holy of holies together. It's extraordinary -- not only because it's a stunning story of spiritual seekers across traditions, but also because it was written not by a 21st-century ecumenist but in the late 1700s or early 1800s by a rabbi in Damascus. And in the story, each seeker had some wisdom the other didn't have. Each one learned something about his own wisdom through the other. True wholeness, and the deepest connection with the Holy, was only possible when the two seekers journeyed together. How good and beautiful it is when brothers and sisters learn together in peace.