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November 2011
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Top ten (prose) posts of 2011

Every year I post a round-up of my ten favorite prose posts -- here's the 2010 edition. (Some years I also post a list of my ten favorite poetry posts, though I'm not sure I'm going to manage that this year.) It's always fun, as the calendar year winds down, to look back over what I've written and where this blog has taken me.

Perhaps not surprisingly, none of my posts about politics or current events (either in the US or in the Middle East) made the cut. It's interesting; whenever something major is unfolding I feel the burning need to comment on it, but as months or years go by, those posts don't stick in my mind, and upon rereading they often feel mired in their original moment. Or maybe I'm just more inclined to see my more spiritual work as timeless. Who knows.

Anyway: with no further ado, here are my ten favorites posts from 2011! Here's to 2012.

  • Three scenes from the day of my smicha. And then the ten of us sit in a circle facing outwards, with another ring of chairs facing us, and one by one, our teachers take turns sitting in the chairs which face us and they give us blessings. My teachers bless me with savlanut (patience), with the ability to balance the rabbinate and motherhood, with the awareness that it's always okay to put my family first. My teachers bless my ability to write, and also bless me that I might be aware that sometimes the writing is a safety net because words come so easily to me. They say extraordinary things about who they understand me to be and who they understand me to be becoming. I am blown away. Again and again my cup overflows. One teacher blesses me with words about the smicha of Moshe and the rabbis of the great assembly, placing hands on my shoulders, and I weep.

  • This is spiritual life. There's no necessary dichotomy between real life and spiritual life. Spiritual life isn't just something that happens when we can make time for it, or when we can dedicate ourselves to it wholly -- as delicious as that is! Those of us who've had the luxury of occasionally going on retreat know that the real challenge can be integrating the peak experience of the retreat into ordinary life once one has come home again. The question isn't "who am I when I can spend my morning in yoga and meditation and prayer" -- it's "who am I when I wake up to the baby and the bills and the tasks on my plate?"

  • Tasks which have no limit. A funeral needs to happen when it needs to happen, regardless of whether or not it's "convenient" -- just as a child needs to eat, or nap, or be held, or be entertained at the moment when the child needs those things. (Older children's needs can, I know, be shifted somewhat...but that largely hasn't been my experience of parenthood yet.) Funerals can be painful, messy, inconvenient just as children can. It can be difficult, I am learning, for a rabbi-mama to simultaneously navigate the needs of mourners and the needs of a child.

  • A Passover letter to my son. Will you grow up in love with liturgy, as I did? I have no idea. You will become whoever you become. I do hope that you will come to cherish this holiday, this season when we retell the story of how our people came to be a people, how we were lifted out of slavery and constriction by God's mighty hand and outstretched arm. How it is possible that even though this is a once-upon-a-time story, it happened to each of us -- it happens to each of us even now. I hope you'll thrill to the songs and the flavors as each year's new spring unfolds. I hope you'll ponder the question of what it means to be free.

  • A sermon in poetry for parashat B'ha-alot'kha. This week's Torah portion, B'ha-alot'kha, begins with the instruction to kindle seven lamps in the portable Tabernacle. The Torah is filled with detailed instructions for the construction of the mishkan, the place where God's presence dwelled among us. Of course, even if the mishkan's construction is a historical reality rather than a spiritual and literary one, centuries have passed since it was built. What can this verse about a golden lampstand tell us about our spiritual lives today? When I look at the verse through the prism of poetry, I find metaphors which hold meaning.

  • Seeking and finding (six more glimpses of Kallah). 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.

  • This year's wrestle with Tisha b'Av. During most of the year, I explicitly reject the victim mentality which looks at history through the lens of all of the awful things which have happened to us... but I've come to think that there may be value, once a year, in sitting with our painful history. Maybe if we go deep into these narratives today, we can free ourselves from the need to carry them with us every day as we live in the world. Maybe we need a day when we remember our collective traumas, from the Babylonians to the Romans to the Crusades, so that having immersed in those stories we can make the conscious choice to shape our narratives and to understand our place in the world differently.

  • Earth and pine. The fresh scents of newly-turned earth and sweet unfinished pine might connote a construction site, a place where new dreams are being built. I think of the ground opening up to hold a new structure, scaffolding rising into the waiting sky. But these are equally the scent of a Jewish funeral in summertime, when the earth is warm enough to be fragrant as it is opened to receive. The plain pine box in which Jews are traditionally buried has a woodsy scent which rises on the summer air, and the earth smells like new furrows, like farmland, like something precious enough to cradle in our own bare hands.

  • On compassion (inspired by Dr. Dan Gottlieb). Gottlieb's essay inspires me. Faced with physical trauma I can't begin to imagine, he finds his way to a place of feeling blessed by love and relating to his own body with compassion. This is the kind of profound existential shift which I hope that my prayer life (including my meditation practice) can help me achieve. This is, I think, a kind of teshuvah, a turning or re-turning to orient oneself in the direction of holiness and connection with God. When I can relate to my body, mind, and spirit with compassion, I am more able to experience God's presence in my life.
  • A call for kindness during Kislev. Here is what I have to offer: be kind to yourself during these days. // Pay attention to what your body is saying, to what your heart is saying, to the places where your mind gets tied in knots. What are the stories you tell yourself about this time of year? What are the old hurts to which you can't help returning, what are the old joys which you can't help anticipating? Listen to your body, which is your oldest and dearest companion, and be gentle to it.

Recapturing a family tradition

Roast goose with knedliky.

Many years ago, when my grandparents Isaac and Alice ("Eppie" and "Lali") were still living, their children hired an oral historian to take down their life stories. We have hours of recorded audio (and also a beautiful hardbound transcript, which sets out their stories in print accompanied by photographs.) It's an incredible treasure.

One of the questions the oral historian asked had to do with memories of holidays and food. It's a resonant subject: what do you remember being cooked, in your household, as the major holidays rolled around? For me that list would include the cornish hens and honeyed carrots we used to eat at Lali and Eppie's house at Rosh Hashanah, my mother's kreplach (and her blintzes for break-the-fast at the end of Yom Kippur) -- and her mango mousse (and also cornbread dressing) at Thanksgiving -- and her "chicken Leslie" with artichoke hearts and mushrooms at Pesach.

When the oral historian interviewed them, my grandfather recounted all sorts of culinary holiday memories from Russia. Even outside the oral history context, he used to love to tell stories. About cheder, about accompanying a fellow villager to the market to sell eggs, about learning Latin in gymnasium. And, yes, about food; he was the cook in their family, and food always comes with stories. So he had plenty of stories to tell when the oral historian came to call.

My grandmother, much to my surprise, told the oral historian about eating roast goose (and sometimes carp with a sweet sauce) on Christmas Eve, alongside their tree decked with chocolates wrapped in colored foil. This was in Prague in the 1920s, well before the second World War changed the face of Europe (and drove my grandparents, and their young daughter, to flee in 1939.) My grandfather told endless stories about his smalltown Russian Jewish upbringing; my grandmother was more reticent in general, and didn't talk much (to me, anyway) about growing up as a "kind of Reform" Jew in Prague. The oral history offers me tantalizing glimpses; I wish now that I had asked more questions while she was alive.

This winter, Saveur magazine, to which Ethan and I have subscribed for years, offered a recipe (designed to be prepared on Christmas Eve) for roast goose with chestnut stuffing. "Goose," I said; "I think that's what my grandmother said she used to eat on Christmas Eve as a girl in Prague!" I couldn't resist the prospect of trying to walk, just a little bit, in her culinary footsteps.

So we ordered a goose from Guido's, though we gulped a bit when we discovered how much a 12-lb goose cost. (I suppose the expense just makes the whole thing seem more Dickensian.) Ethan prepared it according to Saveur's recipe. We decided to go Czech with our side dishes, in homage to my grandmother's childhood memories, so we made made zely -- red cabbage spiced with carroway seeds; we also flavored ours with cider vinegar, allspice, and juniper berries -- and knedliky, the Czech bread dumplings my grandfather used to make which were a major part of my childhood foodscape. I helped Ethan form the knedliky, which we boiled wrapped in cheesecloth and then sliced, as is customary, with string.

And on December 24th, after lighting Chanukah candles, we sat down for a festive meal with my in-laws and some close friends of ours (and their kids). Drew, predictably, didn't eat a bite of goose (right now he's emphatically not interested in foods he doesn't already know) -- but we did, and it was delicious, dark and full of flavor. The wild-rice stuffing was fantastic. The knedliky reminded me of childhood. The zely reminded me of visiting Prague. And despite the one broken goblet, and the occasional toddler scuffles over sharing toys, it was a lovely evening -- and while this was probably a far less formal Christmas Eve dinner than the ones my Czech grandmother remembered, it was a wonderful way for me to remember her.

Celebrating daughters on the 7th night of Chanukah

In North African countries, the seventh night of Chanukah (1st of Tevet) was set aside as Chag haBanot, the Festival of the Daughters. Mothers would give their daughters gifts, and bridegrooms would give gifts to their brides. Girls who were fighting were expected to reconcile on Chag haBanot. Old women and young women would come together to dance. Another tradition was for women to go to the synagogue, touch the Torah, and pray for the health of their daughters. There might also be a feast in honor of Judith. There was also a custom of passing down inheritances on Chag haBanot. Chag haBanot recognizes that 1 Tevet is a time of receiving the gift of light, and of drawing generations together to honor the birth of spirit within us.

That's from Rabbi Jill Hammer's teachings on Tevet at Tel Shemesh; she also offers a page called Festival of the Daughters, and a Chanukah ritual for the Seventh Night.

I love the idea of celebrating daughters, celebrating girls and women, on the seventh night of Chanukah -- the new moon of Tevet, when the moon begins to wax again, just as (here in the northern hemisphere) the sun's presence in our lives has just begun to increase again.

Even if you aren't interested in a whole celebratory ritual (like the one Reb Jill offers), how might you bless the women in your life as you light tonight's seven candles of Chanukah?

AJWS launches Where Do You Give?

(If you can't see the embedded video, above, here's a direct YouTube link.)

American Jewish World Service has launched a new program which I think is pretty terrific. It's called Where Do You Give? The idea is to reimagine tzedakah -- often translated as "charity," though the root of the Hebrew word implies justice, not pity -- through a national design competition and online interactive resources to engage Jews in critical questions about where we give, to whom and why. (For more on tzedakah, check out What is Tzedakah?)

For educators, there's also a Student Track Lesson Plan which uses text, personal reflection, art and student interviews to set the stage for students to design their own tzedakah boxes that express the realities of where, to whom and why they give tzedakah. (Those boxes can then be submitted to the AJWS contest in the secular new year.) The contest actually takes three forms: students can submit an actual tzedakah box, or a digital tzedakah website, or a piece of art or sculpture inspired by these ideas. And the lesson plan is excellent -- I'm planning to teach with it / from it when I return to my b'nei mitzvah students after the Ohalah conference next month.

At this time of year, all sorts of worthwhile organizations tend to clamor for our attention and our wallets, reminding us that in order for donations to be tax-deductible on our 2011 taxes, we need to make them by the end of the secular year. It's true, of course, and many of us do a lot of giving at this season. But I appreciate the AJWS' reminder that tzedakah is an imperative: not only at year-end, not only for tax purposes or because it feels nice to help others, but because God asks it of us. All of us. All the time.

One candle in the dark

Three menorahs, one candle each

Our three chanukiyot.

Today is the first day of Chanukah. Reb Jeff has a beautiful post on The Miracle of the First Day of Chanukah, about the leap of faith involved in having hope.

It's also the winter solstice, or something very near to it -- the shortest day of the year (and the longest night) here in the northern hemisphere. The ritual of lighting one more candle each night is an act of bringing more light into the world -- the light, of course, being both literal and metaphorical. It feels as though, in creating what light we can, we're affirming our part in healing the world, and trusting God to do the same.

May we all be blessed with the ability to hope, and with light in the darkness.

Chanukah remixed

Last year around this time, Tablet magazine put out Anander Mol, Anander Veig / Another Time, Another Way, an online album (free for download) of remixes in celebration of Chanukah. Marc Weidenbaum writes:

They are a people, albeit a diverse and dispersed one, spread throughout the world, separated by geography and language, yet still connected through a rich and shared cultural lineage.

I'm speaking, of course, about remixers.

Remixers are electronic musicians who take a pre-existing piece of recorded music and turn it into something else, sometimes something else entirely. They delight in finding choice moments in the original and rearranging what was there until it resembles the source material yet feels wholly new, wholly its own.

As Hanukkah approached this year, I sent a note to various remixers, asking if they’d be interested in selecting a holiday staple, or a song from another festive Jewish event, and taking a stab at remixing it. The response was swift, strong, and positive—as was the supportive response from the musicians and bands who had recorded the originals from which the remixers would subsequently work.

I'm a big fan of remix (it's a form of transformative work which often works well for me), so I thought this was pretty neat. You can listen to the entire album track by track, or download individual tracks or the whole album in one go, at Tablet magazine. Chag sameach / happy holiday to you!

Two oldies-but-goodies as Chanukah & Christmas together approach

As we approach the confluence of Chanukah and Christmas, I wanted to highlight two posts from previous years which I think and hope might still be useful or germane:

  • Mai Chanukah?, 2008: "Chanukah has been different things to different people over time; it's different things to different people even now. That's a lot of layers of context for what is, in the grand scheme of things, a fairly minor Jewish holiday. But the multivalent character of the holiday speaks to something I deeply love about Judaism: that the tradition is always multivocal. That there's always more than one answer to every question. That our interpretations change over time, as our understandings of God and Torah and our relationship with the world change over time. That a holiday which could start out as a commemoration of military victory could turn into a holiday celebrating a leap of faith, into a holiday inviting us to purify our hearts, into a chance to hang out and eat fried foods and sing songs and exchange presents, into all of the above at the same time."

  • Forest beyond the trees, 2010: "I understand the American Jewish tendency to focus on The Tree, but I'm more interested in the bigger question of how we relate to other religious cultures, especially the majority religious culture within which our various Jewish cultures flourish. For me, the question of whether having (or enjoying) a tree diminishes one's Jewishness is beside the point. Jewish identity shouldn't be so fragile that a decorated evergreen can shake its foundations. At this season, we can become so fixated on the matter of the tree ("to trim a tree or not to trim a tree" -- is that really the question?) that we lose sight of the forest beyond it -- which is to say, the bigger religious picture of the year, of which December is only a small part."


Brettler and Levine on the Jewish Annotated New Testament

On Saturday evening I drove south to Great Barrington, to hear Dr. Marc Zvi Brettler and Dr. Amy Jill Levine speak about the Jewish Annotated New Testament at Hevreh of Southern Berkshire. (For background, here's the article I just wrote for the Berkshire Eagle: Jewish scholars give perspective on the New Testament.)

When I arrived, shortly before six, the parking lot was full; I had to drive further down to the overflow parking lot! The place was totally packed -- hundreds of people were present. (Midway through the event, someone asked any Christians present to raise their hands -- I'm guessing about a quarter of the room was Christian.)

Our speakers were introduced by Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman, a member of Hevreh and also a member of the Berkshire Minyan which meets at Hevreh. The evening was co-sponsored by Christ Church Lutheran, St James Episcopal, Congregation Beth Israel, Jewish Federation of the Berkshires, and the South Berkshire Friends Meeting.

"On this Saturday night I am struck by the fact that we are sitting together on a kind of bridge in sacred time. Saturday night marks the end of the Jewish Shabbat and precedes the Christian Sabbath. Resting on this bridge together, we are graced with a unique opportunity," said Rabba Stern-Kaufman. The Jewish Annotated New Testament, R' Stern-Kaufman said, "deepens the possibility of understanding and healing" between Judaism and Christianity.

Marc Zvi Brettler

When many people see the title of the book they think that this is a controversial book, noted Marc Brettler. The first blog entry he saw about the book began thus, "Without having read it, and I can guarantee you I never will, I can guess it's a new bold attempt by the rabbinic Talmudists to undermine the faith." (Looks to me like this is actually a comment on someone else's post.) Meanwhile, the first review on Amazon read, "It is evil for Christians to try to convert Jews...why don't you people leave us in peace?" You just can't win, he joked. But more seriously -- "we just could not find a better title for the book!"

Oxford University Press discovered long ago, he explained, that Bibles sell well. Fifteen years ago OUP was revising its standard college and church Bible, the New Oxford Annotated Bible, and the main editor contacted Brettler, saying that he wanted someone to be involved who was not Christian, in order to ensure that the newer editions would not draw the spurious distinction between the Old Testament God of law and war and the New Testament God of grace. A few years later came the Jewish Study Bible, in which the Hebrew Bible was commented-on by Jewish scholars -- it was remarkable, Brettler noted, that there were finally enough Jewish scholars for that volume to happen!

After he finished co-editing that, he said to his editor, partially in jest, "what would you think about a bunch of Jews getting together to do the New Testament the way we just did the Hebrew Bible?" It took his editor a few years to talk the rest of OUP into it, but here we are.

Edited to add: I've just had a lovely email exchange with an editor at OUP, who offered a gentle correction to the previous sentence of this post. He writes: "When I proposed the Jewish Annotated New Testament, the issue among my colleagues was not whether to commission and publish it – everyone agreed on that, once they saw the positive academic reviews – but rather whether it was a book for general readers or only for academics.  Most of the people I worked with thought it would be a library and professional book, not one intended for non-experts." Many thanks to Don Kraus for the clarification!

"I think this book is important to different people for various different reasons," Brettler noted. "I am tired of hearing people talking about the Judeo-Christian heritage of America, implying that Judaism and Christianity are more or less the same thing!" He cited the book The Myth of Judeo-Christian Tradition and said he wished it were more widely-read. "Part of what worries me about this term, Judeo-Christian, is that it is often used in a pernicious sense, to exclude Muslims in various ways," he noted. And then, for a laugh, he held up the bumper sticker someone had sent him -- the fish with feet (Darwin-fish style) which reads "Gefilte."

Brettler continued:

I hope that we are able to respect each others' scriptures, which are different in a variety of ways, and that we can come to understand each others' scriptures... and get a sense for what the commonalities, as well as the differences, are.

Continue reading "Brettler and Levine on the Jewish Annotated New Testament" »

Article in the Eagle about the Jewish Annotated New Testament

BECKET -- Becket resident Marc Zvi Brettler, co-editor with A.J. Levine of The Jewish Annotated New Testament (Oxford University Press, 2011), never expected a best-seller -- but the first printing sold out within days of publication.

This is the first edition of the New Testament to appear with marginal commentary and interpretive essays by Jewish scholars. It places the Christian scriptures within their original Jewish context, and it also faces the questions of how the two traditions have interpreted these texts over the centuries -- and the tensions which those differing interpretations have sometimes perpetuated.

That's the beginning of an article I just published in the Berkshire Eagle, after I had that chat with Marc Brettler.

Like "The Jewish Study Bible," this volume contains both annotations of Scripture and a set of essays which put the material in context: essays on early Jewish history, Judaism and Jewishness and the notion of "The Law." Writers explore the Greek term "Ioudaios" -- translated as either "Jew" or "Judean" -- and its implications. They consider the concept of the neighbor in Jewish and Christian ethics. They try to understand of John’s "Logos," the "Word," as a kind of midrash -- a form of storytelling, which explores interpretations of, loopholes in, and questions about scripture.

"Figuring out what Jewish readers, Christian readers, and other readers should understand -- and then finding people to write about those subjects -- That was intellectually very interesting," Brettler said.

I'm looking really forward to hearing the editors of this volume speak on Saturday evening at Hevreh. Meanwhile, my thanks to the editors at the Eagle for inviting me to interview Marc! You can read the whole article here: Jewish scholars give perspective on the New Testament.

Kedushat Levi on embodying the qualities of our ancestors

This is the text I'll be teaching at our Torah study at my shul this coming Shabbat morning -- an extended riff on the first sentence of this week's portion. This is a short text from R' Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev (1740-1809) one of the main disciples of the Maggid of Mezritch; he was known as the "defense attorney" for the Jewish people, because it was believed that he could intercede on their behalf before God. The text comes from ספר קעשת–לוי, page פג–פד. The translation is my own.

On embodying the qualities of our ancestors

"And Jacob dwelt in the land where his father had sojourned (or: where his father had been a stranger), the land of Canaan." (Genesis 37:1)

One way to understand this comes from Ramban in his book Faith and Trust. He writes that the Holy One of Blessing made a promise to Jacob our father, and Jacob's side of the bargain was to live in a state of יראה (yir'ah), awe/fear, fearing that which causes one to sin and therefore to stop serving one's Creator.

Each of us should strive to serve God in every moment. We are called to live in joy when we sees that our fellows have goodness in this world; but if, God forbid, things are turned around (and our fellows suffer), we need to share in their sorrows. And we should always be concerned about that which causes sin and thereby causes us not to be able to serve the Creator.

Jacob lived at this high spiritual level, in a state of yir'ah of that which causes sin and which would then make him unable to turn his hands to his obligation to his Creator. And this is what is meant when it is written: "Jacob dwelled in the land where his father had sojourned" (or "where his father had been a stranger") -- which is to say, he always had fear. The word "sojourned" / " been a stranger" implies a kind of fear. In what way was Jacob fearful? He was afraid of not being able to serve his Creator.

The land where "his father" had sojourned -- this is to say, he had the qualities of his father, e.g. the fear which characterized Isaac, as Isaac served his Creator through the quality of awe/fear, as it says, "the Fear of Isaac." (Genesis 31:42 -- "If the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac, hadn't been on my side...")


Questions for consideration:

1. What does it mean to us to live in the land where our parents sojourned? In what ways is this true for you, or not true for you?

2. How do you respond to the idea that we are called to live in yir'ah of God? That we are called to live in yir'ah lest we sin and therefore become unable to serve?

3. How is the condition of "sojourning" or "being a stranger" connected with fear?

4. What brings forth yir'ah in you?

Oasis of Peace - Israel/Palestine summer workshop in Vermont

This morning I posted Israel/Palestine: hoping for hope, in which I articulated my prayer that God might help me find hope for the Middle East again.

About an hour later, an email came into my inbox about a new summer program for Jewish and Arab adults in their 20's, sponsored by Friends of Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam. The goal is to faciliate better relations and on-going dialogue about the Israeli Palestinian conflict.

Neve Shalom / Wahat al-Salam -- "Oasis of Peace" -- is a cooperative village of Jews and Palestinian Arabs of Israeli citizenship, located midway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv-Jaffa. They do a lot of educational work for peace, equality, and understanding between the two peoples. Now the US-based Friends of Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam is putting together a retreat for Jewish and Arab twentysomethings, to be held at Oscars Farm retreat center in West Burke,Vermont in August 2012.

The retreat will be facilitated by two people from the School for Peace, "a unique educational institution offering Jewish-Arab encounter programs." Here's how the School for Peace folks describe their work:

Our intention is to enable participants to enrich their perspectives, to critically examine things ordinarily taken for granted, and to try to comprehend the turbulent and violent processes taking place all around us. We have found that a unique learning experience can be offered by relating directly to events, in a safe space that permits people to examine their feelings and thoughts in the group setting. Facts and information alone are inadequate to create social awareness and prompt a renewed examination of things as they are: We must pose new possibilities and challenge the existing reality. Our team of facilitators brings a critical approach to current reality and emphasizes the implications of majority-minority relations and the asymmetry in the existing power relationships.

This sounds pretty awesome. And I can't help being wryly amused that God apparently answered my plea -- with an email from a PR firm! Hey, the Lord works in mysterious ways.

If you're college-aged, Jewish and/or Arab, and interested in the Middle East, or if you know someone who is, contact 2012workshops (at) oasisofpeace (dot) org.

Israel / Palestine: hoping for hope

Israeli-American Emily L. Hauser recently posted A snapshot of despair: one week in Israel/Palestine, which chronicles one week's worth of depressing happenings in the contentious Middle East. Soon thereafter, Rabbi Brant Rosen shared a guest post called Sam Bahour: Where's My Friend? Here is a small excerpt:

My friend is Walid Abu Rass. He is the Finance and Administration Manager for the Health Work Committees, one of the largest community health service providers in the occupied Palestinian territory. HWC serves over 500,000 patients/beneficiaries per year...

On November 22nd, Israeli occupation soldiers arrived at his home at 1:30 A.M. Walid lives in Ramallah with his wife, Bayan, and two daughters, Mais, 13 years old, and Malak, 4 years old, who were all frighteningly awakened during his arrest. Walid was taken into custody and transported in the bone chilling cold of the night to Israel’s Ofer Military Detention Center where hundreds of Palestinians are detained, the vast majority with absolutely no knowledge of why.

Not long after that, Palestinian Mustafa Tamimi was killed -- shot by an IDF soldier at point-blank range with a teargas cannister -- at the weekly protest in Nabi Saleh. (For more on this incident, The New York Times' The Lede blog has a good piece: After Fatal Shooting of Palestinian, Israeli Soldiers Defended Use of Force Online.) Then at his funeral procession, in an act of painful irony, the IDF fired teargas at angry mourners. I tweeted about this: "God, help us hope 4 better" -- and my tweet included a link to the Guardian article Israeli soldiers clash with mourners at funeral of Palestinian protester. (For more on Nabi Saleh in general, I recommend B'tselem's recent report Show of Force: Israeli Military Conduct in Weekly Demonstrations at Nabi Saleh, which came to me in print form here at my office but is also available online.)

I don't know how to respond to stories like these except with sorrow and grief. I try to hope and pray for better things: for a better future for the peoples of Israel and Palestine, for harmony and mutual respect in the Middle East. It is an article of faith for me that things can always get better. That we, with God's help, can heal and transform the world.

But sometimes, looking at the steady stream of suffering and violence in Israel and Palestine -- not to mention the many other places where suffering and violence are everyday happenings: Afghanistan, the Mexican Drug War, Yemen, Syria, so many others around the world -- hope can be difficult to sustain. Everyone I know in Israel yearns for a better future; I know that Palestinians do too. And yet how is it possible to reach that future when the situation there seems to just keep getting worse and worse?

Rabbi Jeff Roth taught me, years ago, that when reciting the modah ani (the morning prayer for gratitude), it is good to focus on my own gratitude, to cultivate that gratitude and let it well up in me to inform my singing of the prayer. And if I can't access gratitude? If for some reason I am too far from thankfulness to be able to call it up? Then I can use the prayer, he said, as a time to pray that gratitude may someday rise up in me again.

For now, I may need to pray for the upwelling of my ability to hope. To hope for a better future for the Middle East; to hope for a safer and kinder world; to hope that we, with God's help, can heal and transform what is broken. Please, God, help me to hope...and then help us get there, speedily and soon.

Poem: havdalah in the toddler house






When we light the candle
you begin to wail

frightened by the unruly flame
spreading from wick to wick

(or maybe you aren't ready
for the Bride to leave us)

you refuse the strange silver tower
of cracked cinnamon curls

(at two, the extra soul
doesn't yet depart)

during the redemption song
we whirl and your face shines

This poem is the second in a small budding series (the first being Early maariv in the toddler house, written and posted at the tail-end of November.)

Havdalah means "separation;" it is this ritual which formally separates between Shabbat and workweek. It involves the lighting of a braided candle, blessing wine and blessing spices, blessing God Who creates separations, and then extinguishing the candle in the wine, after which one sings "Eliahu Hanavi" (and, in our house, "Miriam Ha-Neviah"), a song about prophets and redemption.

(At Jewish Women International there's a video of a havdalah ceremony, beginning with R' Shlomo Carlebach's melody for the prayer Hineh El Yeshuati and then moving into Debbie Friedman's melody for the havdalah blessings -- may both of their memories be for blessing. On that page you can also read my teacher R' Leila Gal-Berner's words for "Miriam Ha-Neviah.")

The scent of spice, associated with Shabbat and with Shekhinah (the immanent, indwelling Presence of God) is intended to revive one when Shabbat's extra soul departs. In our house we use a tall silver spicebox shaped like a tower.

Does Drew know what Shabbat is? He may know that sometimes he gets watered grape juice in his sippy cup instead of milk, and that on those nights, there are often candles on the table, and also challah, which is one of his favorite breads. At two, he's too young to intellectually understand concepts like Shabbat and work-week.

But in a certain way, I wonder whether babies and very young children experience life as a kind of perennial Shabbat. Shabbat is an opportunity to re-enter the garden of Eden; but before language is fully developed, I think our children may already be there, that "extra soul" and connection with the Infinite already part of who they are.

The river of attention

Fiona Robyn and Kaspalita, who edited the gorgeous "Worship" themed issue at qarrtsiluni, are inviting the world to join in the practice of writing a "small stone" -- a tiny bit of prose or poetry arising out of mindful noticing of the world -- each day during January of 2012. (Here's their post about it: Writing Our Way Home: The River, Jan '12.)

A lot of the writers and bloggers I admire have written small stones at one time or another. Dave Bonta recently shared an excellent post entitled Why you should join the river of stones.

I don't know if I can manage to write and post a small stone every day in January, but I'm game to try; if nothing else, it will strengthen my commitment to noticing the world around me, and to putting that mindfulness into words. That's good for my poetry, and good for my spiritual life, both.

I'll probably tweet my small stones, rather than posting them here. (I'm @velveteenrabbi on twitter.) Feel free to follow along -- and, if you're so inclined, to join the river too.


A chat with one of the editors of the Jewish Annotated New Testament

I just had the profound pleasure of spending half an hour on the phone with Marc Zvi Brettler, author of How to Read the Bible and co0editor of the Oxford Jewish Study Bible (both of which were essential rabbinic school textbooks for me.) Brettler and A.J. Levine recently edited The Jewish Annotated New Testament, also published by Oxford -- the first-ever edition of the Christian Scriptures, annotated and contextualized by Jewish scholars. (For more on that, read Focusing on the Jewish Story of the New Testament in the New York Times.)

The first printing sold out almost immediately; a second printing is in the works, but I'm extra-glad to have received a review copy from Oxford, since I was eager to get my hands on this!

Brettler and Levine will be speaking at Hevreh of Southern Berkshire on Saturday, December 17, at 6pm. My interview with him -- transformed into article form -- will run in the Berkshire Eagle sometime shortly before that. (I'll let y'all know when it's published.)

We had a delightful conversation about the Bible, academia, the mishna and the gospels, Judaism and Christianity, "holy envy" and stained glass windows, and more. It was definitely one of those "wow, my life is really fun" moments. Thanks for taking some time to chat with me, Marc! I'm so glad to have this volume on my bookshelf.


Unseasonable warmth, spiritual wills, Jacob's ladder

A grey and rainy day. "All wet," said Drew when I opened the door between the garage and the outdoors today. (And then, with mingled fear and delight, "Puddle!" The puddle at our door was so large I wound up carrying him through instead of letting him stomp in his police car boots.) The last few days have been unseasonably warm here, the low clouds of the sky mingling seamlessly with fog. The bare trees look reddish to me, the bushes faintly bright, and I wonder: after one solid snowfall, do they interpret this peculiar warmth as spring? Are they on the verge of leafing?

The forecasters say that the mercury will plummet tonight and that several inches of snow may fall by morning. Something in me is just the tiniest bit glad to hear it. Even though snow means the return of windshield scrapers, trying to wrangle mittens onto toddler fingers, shoveling a path to the car, it's what I've come to expect from December here. It's been strange to walk outside in this balminess as the Christmas lights go up, illuminating field fences and eaves on rural back roads, spangling bushes and windows all over town.

I browse pictures of size 3T pyjamas online: rocket ships or trucks or Thomas the Tank Engine? Questions it never occurred to me to ponder, before. The voices of Anonymous 4 sing an English ladymass in unknowing counterpoint with the sounds of laundry ricocheting around the dryer. Soon I'll plug in my headphones and connect with my fellow spiritual-directors-in-training. We've been reading one anothers' spiritual / ethical wills all day. I'm humbled by the beautiful things my chevre thought to write. I want to revise mine to reflect their wisdom.

It's the eleventh of Kislev. Two years ago today, in the lunisolar calendar of Jewish time, Drew entered the breathing world. We were in Parashat Vayetzei that week -- the story of Jacob who dreamed a ladder with angels moving up and down. Vayetzei, the parsha in which Jacob meets his kinswoman Rachel for the first time, and falls immediately in love. The parsha in which Jacob's complicated family story continues: Leah and Rachel, Bilhah and Zilpah, jealousy and sons, Jacob's flight from Laban and Rachel's theft of her father's household idols. The parsha ends with angels once again: Jacob meets angels of God on the road.

I wonder whether my son will grow up to encounter angels everywhere he goes. Which deep family stories will he replicate, and which will he revise?

Reb Zalman on Chanukah, the third Temple, and God's broadcast

We're in the month of Kislev, which contains the festival of Chanukah. I recently received in my inbox A Mystical Message about Chanukah from Rabbi Zalman Schachter Shalomi -- sent courtesy of Tikkun. (That teaching can also be found at Tikkun, titled This Is About Hanukkah.) Here's how it begins:

Several times the Bible tells us that God wants to have a place "to make His name dwell therein." It's interesting that it says not that 'I will dwell there' but that my Name will dwell there. While everything is God, in God, the whole cosmos is not separate from God, the point that a Temple makes is, there is a concentrated, stronger focus of the quality of divinity for those who enter there. So while it is true that God is in everything there is, everything that is broadcasts its own quality, a Temple was a broadcasting tower from which a signal went out to the world...

In each human being there is a receiver for that broadcast –– because divine compassion broadcasts on human wavelengths. People who are open to God and want to be open to receive that beacon can in this way recalibrate their moral and ethical life.

Although the First and the Second Temples were destroyed, the teaching says that the Third Temple is already present on a higher and more subtle vibratory scale. The broadcast comes even now from that Temple and is received by some people and –– alas –– not by others. The beacon to us human beings also invites us to contribute to that broadcast, and in the way in which we invest energy we boost the signal strength in public worship and in private prayer, in meditation and then acts of justice and compassion. We beam these back to the source of the broadcast which we call the Name of God.

Reb Zalman goes on to offer a teaching about how the Second Temple's broadcast was denatured and damaged by its invasion and desecration, and how the miracle of the oil arose because the people were so desperate to begin receiving the blessing of divine transmission again that they lit the holy lamps even without enough oil. The yearning for relationship with God led to the miracle, or maybe to awareness of the miracle.

I've heard Reb Zalman teach before on the notion that God broadcasts on all wavelengths, and that we receive that broadcast depending on how and where we're "tuned in." But the idea that the Third Temple is not a physical structure (as were its two predecessors), but a kind of subtle vibration, a stream of blessing coming from God which is received by those who are attuned to the signal -- that's new to me. And I like the idea that through our prayer and meditation (both private and communal), and in our acts of justice and compassion, we strengthen the signal of God's broadcast.

This teaching might change the way I relate to Chanukah. It's easy for me to connect with the notion of light in a time of darkness, and with the sense that miracles can arise when we have faith in the redemption which I think the sanctified oil represents -- but because I've never related to God through the practice of Temple sacrifice, it's easy to feel a bit removed from the wonder of reconsecrating the Temple structure to divine purpose.

But if the Temple served as a kind of spiritual broadcast beacon, and that same broadcast is still flowing forth from God on the "higher and more subtle vibratory scale" which Reb Zalman describes, then Chanukah becomes a time to celebrate the story of how we once cleaned up our broadcast tower so that awareness of divine compassion could flow into creation again. And maybe it's also a time for rededicating ourselves to the work of receiving God's transmission, recalibrating our moral and ethical and spiritual lives, so that we reconsecrate the Third Temple which exists in spirit and metaphor though not in stone. Chanukah becomes a time for discerning the inner work we need to do so that we can open our own spiritual channels and "hear" God's presence more wholly.

End-of-year gifts

Many different December opportunities for gift-giving are on their way. Whether you celebrate Chanukah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, Festivus, or simply enjoy the experience of giving and receiving at this time of year, you're probably doing some holiday shopping right about now.

If you are looking for a gift for someone in your life who enjoys poetry, and/or someone in your life who is interested in Torah / Bible / scripture, I hope you'll consider giving them a copy of 70 faces, my collection of Torah poems. Alicia Ostriker, author of For the Love of God: the Bible as an Open Book and The Book of Seventy, writes "These poems are so out there, so radical, and at the same time so gentle and inviting. Barenblat manages to do work that has passion and truth behind it, without ranting. I love the simple and confident way she deals with the akedah -- and I love the final poem in this collection -- gliding right past heartbreak into renewal, which is what her poems all seem to do." (And the akedah poems to which Alicia refers were recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize.) The collection costs just $14, and in purchasing it, you support an independent press which puts out really beautiful work.

If you're feeling overwhelmed by the consumerism of the season, or if you want to give a gift to someone but don't want to burden them with more stuff, there's always the option of making a donation in someone's honor to a cause that they support. And as Jihadi Jew recently reminded me, the Baal Shem Tov wrote that "It is best to give a little bit of sadaqah /tzedakah every day to train your hand to give." For my part, I would be delighted if donations were made to Congregation Beth Israel (the community I serve), to ALEPH: the Alliance for Jewish Renewal (the body which ordained me), the Organization for Transformative Works (where I'm about to finish up a three-year Board term), or Rabbis for Human Rights (whose work I deeply admire.)