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Joy Ladin's Through the Door of Life


Joy Ladin's extraordinary memoir Through the Door of LIfe: A Jewish Journey Between Genders begins with a short chapter I wish I could excerpt in full. Instead, I will link you to it; it was published in Zeek, as the essay A Blessing Over Progesterone. Here is how it begins:

Every day I say a blessing in Hebrew over my medication: “Blessed are You, O Lord our God, who has kept us, preserved us, and brought us to this time.” That blessing is traditionally said at the beginnings of holidays, on the eating of new kinds of fruit, and at any joyous occasion at which Jews want to heighten their sense of gratitude by becoming mindful of the singularity of the moment and the precariousness of the lives that have brought us to it. It is not said on the taking of medication; it is specifically not to be said over daily events, for which there are different blessings; and it is never said over a disease.

The medications I take — progesterone tablets, which I swallow whole, and sweet circles of estrogen that I dissolve under my tongue — are synthetic versions of the powerful hormones that naturally define and regulate many of the physiological characteristics of normal female bodies. I don’t have a normal female body. Born without the capacity to produce more than trace amounts of female hormones, for decades my body instead has produced testosterone, masculinizing my face, bones, muscle, hair, and skin. Though there are few aspects of my physical form unravaged by testosterone’s effects, thanks to my medication, those effects are diminishing. For the first time in my life, when I look in the mirror, I see someone who has begun to resemble — me.

Every trans person has a coming-out story. Most of these stories involve struggle for acceptance -- from oneself and from others -- and often these stories are heartbreaking. Joy's struggle takes a very particular form: she dealt with the impact of her transition while teaching at the women's college of Yeshiva University, the flagship institution of modern Orthodoxy. She writes:

Orthodox Judaism, like most traditional forms of religion, considers the things transsexuals do to fit our bodies to our souls to be sins. In my case, those sins included wearing women's clothing and taking hormones that destroyed my fertility. I was also violating customs and conceptions of gender that, while not mandated by Jewish law, are held to with religious conviction by many Orthodox Jews[.]

That conviction is so strong that Joy feared that even receiving tenure at Stern would not be enough to keep her in her job once she transitioned. And transition was necessary. "My gender identity crisis had destroyed my marriage, shattered my family, and turned me into an unwelcome stranger in my own home," she writes. Upon receiving tenure, she moved out of the home she had shared with her wife. "My children were grief stricken, angry, and baffled by the double blow of losing their happy family and the strange transformation of the father they loved."

When she explained to her dean that she was beginning the process of transition, she was forbidden from setting foot on campus. But she was allowed to return to teaching in 2008. After much negotiation (including which bathrooms she would be permitted to use), she returned to her life as an academic.

Finally, September arrived, and with it, my first happy day in a long time. After years of hiding and pretending, I was finally going to stand before my students and colleagues as the person -- the woman -- I knew myself to be. More important, after centuries of intolerance, an institution representing Orthodox Judaism was about to welcome an openly transgender employee...

My office was heaped with the same stacks of papers, the same teaching anthologies, but the name beside the door said "Dr. Joy Ladin." It was a miracle. I -- the real me -- was here, in plain sight. I walked through the halls, waiting for my transition to matter to someone. It didn't. Teachers rushed to and fro, students talked on cell phones or swayed back and forth in prayer. People had more important things to do than think about my gender.

Continue reading "Joy Ladin's Through the Door of Life" »

Revised Mincha/Maariv/Havdalah siddur

Five years ago I worked with one of my nieces to put together a siddur for her bat mitzvah celebration -- a siddur for mincha, maariv, and havdalah. That siddur featured my niece's poetry, artwork, and midrash along with the basic liturgy for this time of day and this day of the week. I put the siddur online after her big weekend, and have received many requests to use and adapt it since then.

What I'm sharing now is a revision of that siddur. I've made several changes. Most notably, I've modified how I incorporate Uva L'Tzion, the prayer which speaks about redemption and encourages us to call out like the angels; I've improved the transliterations and the visual balance of English and Hebrew text on the page; and I've added a few simple images to make the pages more beautiful (including a shviti image designed for meditation during the silent amidah). And I've done a bit of abridging here and there to keep the service at a manageable length for my community.

When I use this siddur at my shul, I hand out the b'nei mitzvah's Torah portion on a separate sheet. It's easy to also include other material from the b'nei mitzvah if s/he wants to add any creative work or special readings, and/or to customize the prayers as desired (e.g. using "Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu" or Shayndel Kahn's "It's Upon Us" in lieu of the more traditional Aleinu.)

You're welcome to make use of this siddur if it's helpful to you. I revised it for my own current use in part because my shul owns the two-volume edition of Mishkan T'filah, the Reform siddur: one volume for weekdays and festivals, one volume for Shabbat. Which is great for those with fragile wrists, who wouldn't be comfortable holding a weekday-festival-Shabbat edition all in one book...but since Shabbat mincha is in one book, and weekday ma'ariv is in another book, holding a Shabbat mincha + weekday ma'ariv service is difficult. Asking people to juggle two hardback books seems logistically challenging; handing out a simple 12-page staple-bound siddur is simpler.

This file was created using Mellel version 2.9.1; if you want to edit your own version, and you need the Mellel file, let me know. Comments / reactions welcome, as always!




Mincha / Afternoon Offering

we offer ourselves & our hearts
during the special time of Shabbat afternoon
and we call one of our own to Torah as b'nei mitzvah

Ma'ariv / Evening

a short & sweet evening service


sanctifying the separation between Shabbat
and what comes next



A new liturgy for Shabbat afternoon and evening
created for Congregation Beth Israel /

ed. Rabbi Rachel Barenblat |

      Download MinchaMaarivHavdalahSiddur [pdf], 813 KB

Balm to my heart: Israelis celebrate Shavuot with African kids in Tel Aviv

I follow Mya Guarnieri on twitter, so when her post at +972 -- After race riots, Israelis celebrate holiday with African kids -- went live, I read it immediately. (The race riots in question happened last week in Tel Aviv -- I wrote about them in my post For you were strangers in the land of Egypt.) Here's an excerpt from Mya's latest essay:

After last week’s race riots, the mood in the area is dark, tense, pessimistic. While our conversations took place in public, a number of Africans told me that they are scared “even right now.” These were grown men who were frightened for their physical safety on busy streets in broad daylight.

So I was moved to see a couple of bright spots in the area. The Garden Library -- the initiative of local NGOs, including Mesila -- was up and running yesterday. Asylum seekers and migrant workers were perusing the books while Israeli volunteers played with African and Filipino children.

In the grass to the side of the Garden Library, a small group of Jewish Israelis and the children of African asylum seekers marked Shavuot by reading the Book of Ruth together in Hebrew...

This sign reminds that while racism and xenophobia are huge problems in Israel society, there are some Jewish Israelis who oppose hatred of foreigners (photo: Mya Guarnieri)

The whole piece is very much worth reading.

After posting a link to her essay, Mya tweeted "Caveat to last tweet: that bright moment does not mitigate or whitewash, in any way, the prevailing racism in Israeli society." In response, I tweeted back saying "Bright moment doesn't change underlying issues, but it does my heart good."

Mya's bio on +972 tells me that she's working with an agent on a book about migrant workers in Israel. I can't wait to read it.

Before There Is Nowhere to Stand

I'm delighted to be able to say that my poem "In the Same Key," which appears in 70 faces (Phoenicia Publishing, 2011) will be anthologized in Before There Is Nowhere to Stand (Lost Horse Press, 2012) alongside poems by many poets I respect and admire, including Naomi Shihab Nye, Alicia Ostriker, Mahmoud Darwish, and Merle Feld -- and many poets whose work I don't yet know but am excited to discover.

In 2009, as Operation Cast Lead unfolded, editors Joan Dobbie and Grace Beeler (both Jewish descendants of Holocaust survivors) issued a call for poetry. I responded to their ad in Poets & Writers, which read:

Are you Jewish or Palestinian? Of Palestinian or Jewish heritage? Please submit poetry for an anthology that strives for understanding in these troubled times. All points of view wanted in the belief that poetry can create understanding and understanding can dull hatred.

The collection which resulted from that call for submissions is now available:


In her introduction, Alicia Ostriker writes:

"Nation shall not lift up sword against nation," prophesied Isaiah in the 8th century BCE, neither shall they learn war any more.” Presently we are not holding our breath waiting for that moment. Jews have a story. Arabs have a story. Jews and Arabs can both be experts at seeing themselves as victims and the other side as implacable foes. As my engineer friend in Tel Aviv says, “It all started when he hit me back.” The story of Israel/Palestine is ugly, tragic, human. But the book you hold in your hands exists to remind you that the story is not finished.

The editors had hoped to also feature an introduction by a Palestinian poet, but were unable to make that happen. Instead they chose (with permission) to include their correspondence with, alongside two poems by, Vivian Sansour "in lieu of an introduction."

You can order the book directly from Lost Horse Press, or pre-order it from Amazon. A percentage of profits will be donated to Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam (the Oasis of Peace), a cooperative village in which Jews and Palestinians of Israeli citizenship live together in a community based on acceptance, mutual respect and cooperation. (I've written about Neve Shalom / Wahat al-Salam before.)

Contributors to the anthology are working on setting up readings in a variety of places, mostly in the US and in Israel / Palestine. I'm working on setting up a reading in western Massachusetts for the three of us who are local to my neck of the woods; I'll post about that once it's organized.

I'm looking really forward to reading this anthology. I suspect that I will find the poems in this collection moving, heartbreaking, uplifting, saddening, beautiful -- as I find the place, and the peoples, at the anthology's heart.



Sleeping and waking, Torah and revelation

Midrash holds that the children of Israel fell asleep on the cusp of the revelation of Torah. This is the reason usually given for the custom of the tikkun leyl Shavuot, the late-night or all-night study session whose name means "healing on the eve of Shavuot." The healing needed is a kind of spiritual rectification, a chance to make up for our own mistake. When we stay up late studying Torah, we are saying to God (and to ourselves) that revelation matters to us; that we want to be open to the Torah which is coming. We don't want to oversleep this time.

Curiously, the midrash also tells us that God was pleased with the Israelites, and ensured that no mosquitoes bit them that night, so they could enjoy a deep and restful slumber. Perhaps, as the author of Angels, human beings, and the Torah argues, they went to sleep because they knew they couldn't grasp the full meaning of Torah with their conscious minds. They wanted to receive revelation in their dreams. And God got that; God was pleased! But God still asked Moshe to wake them up so that Torah could be given to people who were spiritually (and physically) awake.

In the Hasidic understanding, the Torah which we know in this world is a physical manifestation of -- and also a pale reflection of -- the supernal Torah which is known to God on high. Bereshit Rabbah (a classical commentary on Genesis) teaches us that when a person sleeps, a portion of their soul ascends on high and is united with God; upon waking, the soul returns to the body. Who can know what Torah was revealed to our ancestors in that holy sleep? Their souls (or, as another midrash has it, our souls -- since we all stood at Sinai, every Jewish soul which has ever been or will ever be) ascended on high and connected with God. And then they woke up, and received revelation in a different way.

I've long loved the custom of the tikkun leyl Shavuot. Late at night, the world feels different. I can believe that revelation takes a unique form in the wee hours of the night. When I used to stay up all night for fun in college, I relished both the silliness and the philosophical insights which arose at, say, three a.m. When I did my year of hospital chaplaincy, many years later, I found that some of my deepest and most meaningful encounters took place in the wee hours. Maybe we're more vulnerable in the middle of the night. Maybe we're open to things in a way which is different than the ordinary waking day.

Of course, since Drew was born, I don't stay up so late anymore. (Indeed: he's two and a half and I still haven't shaken the habit, learned during his first year, of keeping jealous track of my hours of sleep. When I wake in the night, I can't help counting how much sleep I've managed and how much I know I still need in order to function in the new day.) I've learned since having a child that sleep is a precious commodity, not necessarily replaceable, and that when I don't have it, I don't function well.

And yet, come Shavuot -- come Shavuot, I offer God my wakefulness until the darkest hours of the night, two and three and some years even four. Over the years, I've come to see the tikkun leyl Shavuot as a mysterious blend of waking-consciousness and dream-consciousness. My body is awake and I am giving myself to the experience of Torah study: in that sense, I'm repairing the mistake made at the night before Sinai. But after a while I'm not exactly awake -- not awake in the same way as during the ordinary daytime, anyway. Who knows what the revelations may come when I'm in that strange spacey middle-of-the-night headspace and heartspace? Once a year, I have a date with God; I can lose a little sleep for that.

Still, I can't help being struck by the mixed messages in the midrash. On the one hand, God kept the mosquitoes from biting on the eve of the theophany at Sinai. God wanted to ease our sleep, to help our souls reach the deep Torah which can be accessed not with the waking mind but with dreaming consciousness. And on the other hand, God told Moshe to wake us up (and our central holiday practice is one of attempting to "heal" our error in oversleeping.) Because the spiritual, heady, dreamy aspects of Torah which we can access while we're sleeping are only part of the revelation. The other part -- perhaps the practical tangible part, the this-worldly part -- has to happen while we're awake.

This is one of the reasons I love teaching Torah poetry in the middle of the night at Shavuot. Poetry can function on levels beyond the purely intellectual. Like dreams, poems often work associatively. They recast ideas and images in new ways. Reading Torah poetry in the middle of the night feels a bit like a waking dream -- a chance to fulfil both the mitzvah of staying awake for Shavuot, and the mitzvah of opening ourselves up to the revelations in our dreams.

Poems of Ruth - for Shavuot

Chag sameach! I hope you're having a wonderful Shavuot so far.

I promised I would share the poems I taught last night at the tikkun leil Shavuot co-created by my shul and the shul up the road in Bennington. Here you go -- enjoy!

Poems of Ruth


woodcut by Jacob Steinhardt

Shavuot 5772 / 2012

Poems by Marge Piercy, Rachel Barenblat, Catherine Tufariello,

Tania Runyan, Victor Hugo, Kathryn Hellerstein, Anna Kamienska

Download RuthPoems [pdf]

Loving the Ger

One of my favorite verses in Torah is Deut. 10:19,  וַאֲהַבְתֶּם, אֶת-הַגֵּר  כִּי-גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם / v'ahavtem et ha-ger, ki gerim hayyitem b'eretz mitzrayim: "and you shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." It's a powerful ethical teaching; it's a big piece of how Ethan and I try to live our lives. (Indeed: earlier today I shared a serious post which borrows that verse as its title.)

It also makes me grin because of a multilingual pun. The Hebrew word ger means stranger or foreigner. The Mongolian word ger means a small round dwelling -- what most Americans would call a yurt.

I got interested in gers about ten minutes before I first landed in Mongolia. As the plane descended to the Ulaanbaatar airport, I saw green hills dotted with white. The little dots were sheep - the big dots were gers.

Gers are circular houses, lived in by many Mongolians and by some other central Asians. They're portable, lightweight, spacious, well insulated and comfortable. While more people know the Russian word "yurt", many Mongolians prefer the word "ger".

So writes Ethan in his photo-essay Behold the Power of String, written (and posted) in 2004, the year we built our first ger in the backyard out of "non-dimensional lumber" (saplings held together with twine.) The following year we built our second ger, this time out of latticed wood. We've reprised it every year since.

On New Year's Eve Day, we assemble the frame, cover it with shiny insulation and then with canvas, line the floor with tarps and plywood and then an assortment of old blankets and rugs. It becomes our extra guesthouse over New Year's Eve.

Created with Admarket's flickrSLiDR.

Some years, the ger framework has served as our sukkah, too. I love our homegrown ger. It's beautiful, it's fun to build, it's fun to camp out in. (If you can't see the embedded slideshow, you can go directly to the Homegrown ger photoset at flickr.)

But I have to admit, our old ger pales a bit in comparison with our new one, delivered and assembled by the guys from Groovy Yurts:

Created with Admarket's flickrSLiDR.

(If you can't see the second slideshow, here's my Mongolian ger photoset.) The giant semi-trailer arrived on our street this morning; Yves and Felix cheerfully loaded the pieces of the ger into my Toyota Rav-4 (with Drew in his carseat, enjoying the show) and we drove it up the hill. Then I did my best to keep Drew out of their way while they assembled the ger from its component parts.

We're going to build a platform for it (it's better for the ger to be raised slightly, rather than placed directly on the -- right now very wet! -- ground.) And I know Ethan has hopes of bringing it with him to Boston at some point. But it is so cool, and so beautiful, and Drew thinks it is so nifty, that I'm not sure it's ever leaving our back yard again.

Love the ger? Absolutely.

For you were strangers in the land of Egypt


Photo of the anti-asylum-seekers rally in Tel Aviv by Tomer Neuberg.

My friend rabbinic student Marisa James shared this photo on FB, adding, "At the anti-asylum-seekers protest yesterday in Tel Aviv - the slogan on the shirt reads "death to the Sudanese." I'd love to know where the girl wearing the shirt would be living today if her ancestors had been deported back to where they came from. Or if she would be living at all." Her comment struck a chord with me, and it's been resonating in me uncomfortably all day.

I've been reading news stories about the violence against Sudanese migrants at the recent rally in Tel Aviv. Here are a few: Hundreds demonstrate in south Tel Aviv against illegal migrants (Ha'aretz); Israeli politicians are fanning the flames of anti-migrant tension (the Guardian); Africans attacked in Tel Aviv protest; MKs, 'infiltrators' are cancer' (+972); Politicians stoke hatred for African Refugees (NIF newsletter). The rhetoric is ugly (right-wing members of Knesset calling illegal migrants "a cancer in our body"); the violence and beatings (Ha'aretz reports that "nine people were arrested, some while they were beating Sudanese migrants") even more so.

Here in the States our discourse around immigration, and migrant workers who are here illegally, can get pretty ugly too. (I'm not going to dig up links, but we all know it's out there; instead I'll link to The Damage of Anti-Immigrant Laws and Rhetoric, an excellent interview which deserves the signal-boost.) If it's troubling to mistreat illegral migrants who are seeking a better life for themselves and their families, how much more so when the mistreatment is of those who seek asylum.

Of course, there are voices within Israel -- including members of the Knesset -- who are outraged by the rhetoric and the violence. (See, e.g., Gal On: Stop Inciting Against Illegal Aliens!) MK Gal On argues that the violence we've just seen in Tel Aviv is ultimately caused by economic hardship -- which makes sense to me; when people are feeling economically and socially marginalized, they lash out at someone more marginal than they.

Violence against those who are powerless happens everywhere. And it shouldn't. But one could argue that it especially shouldn't happen in a state which aims to embody Torah ideals. "You shall love the stranger," Torah tells us, "for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." (For some beautiful commentary on this verse, and how it applies today, see Va'ahavtem et ha-Ger: Love the Stranger; also Love the Stranger [pdf] by Rabbi Mordechai Liebling.)

Jewish history is filled with exile and wanderings. Our community retains the memory of being marginalized and mistreated. When economic times were tough, time and again, we have been the victims of attacks, of prejudice, of pogroms. I'm reminded of another verse from Torah: that which is hateful to you, do not do to another. (The sage Hillel famously cited that verse as a summation of the entire Torah -- adding, of course, "all the rest is commentary; go and learn.")

In Ha'aretz this morning I read an essay by Sudanese refugee Adam Ibrahim, who writes:

If you don't want us here, don't turn your rage at us, because we have no choice. I have nowhere to go. I just want to live in safety. I agree to be deported to any African country, other than Sudan. I just want to live with dignity, without people talking about the color of my skin, and I want to stop feeling hostility on the streets.

It is important for me to say that we are not a burden on society. We work for less than minimum wage in jobs that Israelis wouldn't want to do themselves anyway. We pay rent, and make do with organizations that we established ourselves. It is hard for me to hear Eli Yishai's statements in the media. Their impact on Israelis is tremendous, since in Israel everyone listens to the news.

The state is spreading negative propaganda against us – they say it is unsafe here because of us. I feel that the Jews are doing to us the exact same thing the Germans did to them.

(That's from his essay An African migrant's plea for a few basic rights.)

Props to my friends and colleagues in Israel who are standing up against this wave of anti-immigrant hatefulness. (ETA: props to the New Israel Fund for Our Book of Ruth, which connects this situation with the book of Ruth which we'll read in a few days on Shavuot, and to Rabbis for Human Rights for Today Ruth Would Be Considered an 'Infiltrator,' Forbidden From Gleaning.)  If you're wondering what you can do to help, The African Refugee Development Center does good work, and they're raising funds to support their community in the wake of the attacks.

I'll close with a few words from Haggai Mattar, from his essay How I Survived a Tel Aviv Mob Attack (again in +972):

Morning is now up, broken windows of shops and houses need mending, and the peace is somewhat restored. At the end of the day, we must remember that most of the people in our southern neighborhoods largely live together in peace. Many try to bridge gaps and find solutions. Many on both sides know that their enemy is not the asylum seekers or the local Israeli population but the government – which is both creating this impossibly flammable situation and throwing burning matches into it. But this is not the end of the story. It is only the beginning.

What would it take to change the story -- to move from this beginning into a story of compassion and connection?

VR Podcast Episode 3: A Shabbat Morning Service


VR Podcast Episode 3: Shabbat Morning Service.

This is an experimental edition of the Velveteen Rabbi podcast. Instead of featuring me talking about some aspect of Jewish life and spiritual practice, this is a prayer service podcast -- a recording of a Shabbat morning service at my shul. I co-led this service with ALEPH rabbinic students Rhonda Shapiro-Rieser and David Curiel.

The siddur we are using is Mishkan T'filah, the current Reform prayerbook, though hopefully this recording is enjoyable (and is something you could pray along with if you were so inclined) no matter what siddur you have on hand -- or indeed whether you have one on hand at all.

The only part of this recording which is bound to a certain moment in time is the Torah reading, which comes from last week's portion, Behar-Bechukkotai. If you find it disconcerting to hear a Torah reading after the assigned date for that portion is past, you can always fast-forward that part.

Several of y'all have asked if I might consider offering prayer podcasts in this way; I'll be curious to see if this works for you! I've edited out the weekly announcements (which come at the end of our service); the recording is otherwise unaltered. It was made in a rather unsophisticated way, so sound levels may vary.

My deepest thanks are due to David and Rhonda for leading the service with me, for sharing their voices and their ruach (spirit), for playing their instruments (ukulele and sruti box) alongside mine (guitar), and for giving me permission to share this service as a podcast here.


To listen online or download:

1 hour, 50 minutes, 30 seconds / 106.2 MB MP3 file


If you're so inclined, you can subscribe via iTunes.

All feedback is welcome and appreciated, always.


New toddler house poem for Shavuot

Shavuot in the toddler house

You don't remember, but
    you gathered at Sinai
        with the ganze mishpacha

the broadcast came
    in every language at once
        our spirits electrified

Torah in our mouths
    like mother's milk
        sweet as wildflower honey

You don't remember, but
    you learned the deepest Torah
        floating in my salt sea

an angel kept you company
    and taught you holiness
        you somersaulted with joy

you didn't know
    only traces would remain
        on the hard drive of your heart

You don't remember, but
    you spent night after night
        drawing down my Torah

I'll spend my remaining years
    learning the Torah of you
        every day revelation anew

This is the latest addition to my growing collection of "toddler house" poems, which I wrote -- and share -- in anticipation of the festival of Shavuot, which will begin this coming Saturday night.

"The ganze mishpacha" is Yiddish for "the whole family" -- an allusion to the midrash which says that the souls of all Jews who have ever lived or will ever live were mystically present for the theophany at Sinai. The idea that the divine broadcast was heard in whatever language each person understood / needed also comes from midrash (and is echoed in the Christian scriptures, as well.) The Torah-as-mother's-milk metaphor comes in part from the tradition of eating dairy at Shavuot. The image of an unborn child learning Torah in the womb and forgetting it upon birth comes from Talmud (Niddah 20b.)

All comments / responses welcome.



It's after Drew's bedtime. He's asleep in his crib. We've finished dinner. The sky is turning a glorious deep fading evening blue. I step outside to see if there are stars; I can only spot one, but I hear the first veery thrushes of the season. Their spiraling song amazes me again, and I call to David and Amberly and Rhonda to come outside and hear them with me. I say the shehecheyanu; I haven't heard this song since last year.

We return to the indoors, sit and natter a little longer. A short while later, when we go back outside, there are three stars. It's time.

We stand in a circle. I light the braided havdalah candle and hold it high, its many wicks making a bright flame which dances and casts shadows across the deck. I feel like Lady Liberty, holding my torch aloft.

We sing " לַיְּהוּדִים, הָיְתָה אוֹרָה וְשִׂמְחָה, וְשָׂשֹׂן, וִיקָר / layehudim haita ora v'simcha v'sason v'ikar" -- "'For the Jews there was radiance, and happiness, and joy, and honor' / so may it be for us!" (The quote is from Esther 8:16.) Let us be a light, I think, in the week to come.

We take turns offering the havdalah blessings -- over wine, over fire, over sweet spices, over separation -- interspersed with the melody we were already singing. This is a melody we learned from Rabbi Marcia Prager and Hazzan Jack Kessler. Some say the melody is by Shlomo; others say it's by Moshe Schur, written for Reb Aryeh. I grew up on Debbie Friedman's melody; it takes me back to summer camp and to childhood and to havdalah with my family of origin. But this other one stirs something deep in me.

Hearing it, I am mystically hyperlinked to the havdalah ceremony at the end of every Jewish Renewal Shabbat I've ever experienced. The end of smicha students' week at the old Elat Chayyim, in Albuquerque, in Ohio, at Pearlstone. The end of every DLTI shabbat and Elat Chayyim retreat Shabbat. It's so beautiful, and yet so bittersweet. It means Shabbat is over. The retreat is ending. It's time to return to ordinary life. I remember weeping through havdalah, time and again, not ready to say goodbye to the Shabbat bride or to my friends.

And yet here I am now, standing on my own deck at my own house, and I have brought those friends -- and the Shabbat bride! -- home with me. We are singing the same melody, with the same intentions, with the same heart. In our faces I see the radiance of Shekhinah.

After the candle is doused in the wine, as we sing Eliahu HaNavi and Miriam HaNeviah, David dips a finger into the kiddush cup and paints a drop of the sanctified wine above each of our eyes, an embodied blessing that we might see the world through the eyes of Torah and blessing in the week to come.

Shabbat comes, Shabbat delights, and then Shabbat leaves. But the connections we make with her, and with one another, remain.


Havdalah candle image by Kim Romain.

The Rabbi And

Ready for a Shabbat picnic.

Sometimes it's a little bit challenging to be the rabbi and. The rabbi and mommy. The rabbi and sometimes solo-parent. The rabbi and hostess. And and and.

I'm hosting two of my dear ALEPH friends here as houseguests this weekend. They'll be co-leading services with me tomorrow morning. Leading davenen with friends is truly a joy. Our ruach (spirit) is reflected and refracted and magnified somehow between us; it becomes more than the sum of its parts. And there's something about hearing these longtime friends' voices in my ears as I pray which always lifts me up.

Ethan's out of town, on a truly nutty whirlwind of a trip from here to New York to Boston to Toronto to Texas to Virginia to here again. (At least I think that's how the itinerary goes. It's easy to get confused.) And -- unrelated, but also relevant to my weekend -- we have plasterers in our house right now, on their second week of repairing extensive water damage from a formerly-leaking roof.

We're blessed to have guys who can make our ceilings whole again. And Ethan is blessed to have interesting work which takes him to interesting places! But I'm realizing, in retrospect, that this is why I've been running around like the proverbial headless chicken these last few days: because I'm trying to be the rabbi and.

Yesterday I stocked up on diapers and Drew-compliant foods for the weekend. (Mommy task.) This morning I led meditation, set the Torah scroll for tomorrow, spent a few hours working toward weekend's Shavuot and bar mitzvah plans (rabbi tasks) -- and then dashed to the store, bought groceries for houseguests, came home and popped a chicken in the oven to roast, made up the guest beds. (Hostess tasks.) Meanwhile checking synagogue email. (Rabbi task.) And making sure I had a check for our daycare provider and for the plasterers. (Household task.) And tidying Drew's toys. (Mommy task.) And putting up the umbrella on our deck table so that we can eat a quick and early Shabbat dinner outside (hostess task), since our kitchen and dining room tables are piled with drygoods and home-canned pickles thanks to the plasterers moving things around. Now I'm preparing for tonight's speaker at shul (rabbi task) and periodically checking the roasting potatoes (hostess task.)

It reminds me a little bit of the way we used to have to scurry in Jerusalem to complete our Shabbat preparations before everybody closed for Shabbat. Most stores and restaurants in West Jerusalem aren't open on Shabbat, so Friday morning and early afternoon is a flurry of crazed shopping and cooking and dashing about. But then the evening light on the Jerusalem stone turns pink and gold, and you light the candles and bless the bread and wine, and peace settles in.

I'm looking forward to peace settling in tonight...even though the "peace" of a working Shabbat isn't exactly the peace of total relaxation. I'll be back at shul tonight (babysitter for Drew), and back at shul tomorrow morning (dropping him off at a friend's house for a few hours.) In some ways, the real Shabbat menucha (rest) comes tomorrow afternoon when my work obligations are over and my houseguests and I can relax into chasing an active toddler around the backyard. Okay, "relax" might not be the right word even then, but I know it will be sweet.

Wishing a sweet and joyful Shabbat to all who celebrate.

This week's portion: a Shabbat for the earth

Here's the d'var Torah I'll offer tomorrow morning at my shul; if you're joining us for Shabbat morning services (which I'll be co-leading with two dear rabbinic school friends, Rhonda Shapiro-Rieser and David Curiel) you might want to skip this post so you can hear the d'var fresh!

When I teach this Torah portion, the exhortation to let the land lie fallow every seventh year (the shmittah year) and then to let it lie fallow again in the 50th year, the yovel (usually translated as Jubilee), someone always asks: was this ever really done?

Short answer: I don't know. Some say yes. Some say no. Some point to the rabbinic argument that these laws are meant to be followed only under very specific circumstances, e.g. when the majority of the world's Jews once again live in the land of Israel.

But I think the question misses the point. When it comes to Torah, I'm just not that interested in whether or not these stories "ever happened." Instead, I want to ask: what can this text teach us about our people's core values, about our ongoing struggle to lead righteous and meaningful lives?

The Torah tells us, quite clearly, that the earth deserves a Shabbat just as we do. Just as we do all our work for six days, and take the seventh day as a Shabbat to Adonai, a "sanctuary in time," a space of holiness in which we assert that there is something more meaningful than the bottom line -- the earth, too, lives by these same cycles.

Continue reading "This week's portion: a Shabbat for the earth" »

Dear me

If you could talk to your 16-year-old self, what would you say? What advice, warnings, or encouragement would you give your younger self?

Dear me.

3857605736_a04d7f0406_mLet's see, you're sixteen. Still grateful to have escaped the dire fate of "sweet sixteen and never been kissed," though it's hard for you to shake the sense that something must be wrong with you because the ones you have a crush on never want to date you. Oh, honey, that's going to get so much better -- take it from someone who knows.

You're -- what, taking AP bio, right? Thrilling at the strangely grown-up feeling of drinking hot tea made over a bunsen burner in the bio lab with Mr. Kaestner at 7:30 in the morning, before any of the other classes have begun. Taking Latin, too, if memory serves -- translating the Aeneid with Lindsay, line by gloriously ancient line. Many of the memories you're making now will last.

People talk about how these are the best years of your life. And yes: there's a lot that's wonderful about where you are now. But there's a lot that's awkward about this moment, too -- I get that. You're not sure who you want to be. You don't always feel at-home in your own skin. You're desperate to be loved and wanted, and secretly afraid that you're too weird to find the kind of connection you yearn for. (You're not. I promise.)

College is going to be so good for you. You're going to meet some extraordinary people, many of whom will still be among your nearest and dearest in twenty years. You're going to find your tribe. Indeed: you're going to find several, in college and beyond, and they will be among your chosen-family for the rest of your life.

There are so many books and ideas and discoveries ahead of you, and they are going to make your universe impossibly vast and your heart impossibly full. Oh, there's so much good stuff coming! Thandeka, The Jew in the Lotus, Jane Kenyon, Reb Zalman...

3856806219_7d9701c9fb_mKeep writing poetry. There's a reason it feels so central to who you are: it is. Writing will always be one of your best ways to explore your own inner landscape and to find kindred spirits.

Enjoy everything there is to love about where you live now. Walk on the Riverwalk, eat Tex-Mex as often as you can possibly stand it, notice the birdsong and the scent of giant magnolia blossoms, swim in the Guadalupe.  I don't think you're ever going to live in Texas again, but you will always love the big sky.

Tell Lali and Eppie you love them, just because you can.

I know that you often feel like a square peg in a round pegboard. You're offbeat and intellectual and geeky, and that's not always comfortable.  You're not sure yet whether you want to be the girl in Birkenstocks and flowy skirts or the girl in bluejeans and a preppy buttondown. Guess what: you can be both. You can be other things you haven't even imagined yet. And you will.

I could tell you all about the quirky, beautiful, steady life you're going to build for yourself: the marriage, the vocation, the son. But you'll have more fun discovering them for yourself.

Really I just want to say: be kind to yourself. You are loveable. (You are loved.)


I'm not sure where this meme originates, but it might be Maps by special guest Elizabeth Eslami; I first saw it at Dale's post Glimmer. Both are beautiful and worth reading.

Morning prayers in the car

"How about a cd, mommy?" says Drew in the car. "How about the orange one! How about Shawn!"

"The orange one" and "Shawn" mean the same thing: Morning I Will Seek You, by my friend and teacher Shawn Zevit. I like to listen to it in the mornings on the way to daycare and then to work, and apparently so does Drew. (The physical cd itself has an orange face, if that weren't clear.)

I like beginning my day with prayer. Modah ani l'fanecha -- I am grateful before You, living and enduring God; You have restored my soul to me, great is Your faithfulness. (I've written about that prayer before.) Halleli nafshi et Adonai -- my soul sings out to God, I will sing to God with my very life... (That's the first two verses of psalm 146.)

That verse from psalms came up in spiritual direction recently. I was bemoaning the reality that I still don't manage daily liturgical prayer as reliably or wholly as I wish I did, as I feel I ought to. My mashpi'ah gently reminded me of this verse, and it was a revelation. Of course! I will sing to God b'chayyai, with my life. My life is the song I sing to God; that's what I should be aspiring to. It's okay if that song doesn't always take the classical full-text liturgical forms.

Drew is at a moment in his life where he doesn't often want me to sing to him, unless I'm singing the alphabet song or "twinkle twinkle little star" or "Old McDonald had a farm." The one exception is at bedtime; he lets me sing our bedtime songs every night, curled for one delicious moment into my arms. But otherwise, when I sing -- whether it's the morning prayer for gratitude, or the Shabbat blessings -- he shushes me and tells me firmly to stop.

But apparently he doesn't mind listening to Shawn sing. I'm grateful for that! And I trust that in time, I'll be able to teach Drew some of the melodies I love best for the prayers I try to weave into my every day.

"Complicating Israel" reading list

If I were to assemble a reading list, or book discussion group curriculum, on the Middle East, what would I choose? That's the question which prompted this post. This is a list of 20 nonfiction titles: some by Israelis, some by Palestinians, some by outsiders; some more historical, some more personal. I think it's valuable (both spiritually and intellectually) to juxtapose disparate voices and to open ourselves to stories we might not otherwise hear.

I welcome thoughts / responses/ suggestions. I've pondered using this as the curriculum for an in-person discussion group at my shul -- or for an online discussion group (different bloggers claiming different titles and hosting conversations about them?) -- but for now, it's just a curated reading list.

City of Oranges: An Intimate History of Arabs and Jews in Jaffa, by Adam LeBor

I read this book while living in Jerusalem; my review is here at Velveteen Rabbi. Here's an excerpt from my review:

The book tells the history of Jaffa (and to some extent also Tel Aviv, its neighbor) through the histories of six families: three Arab (Christian and Muslim), and three Jewish. Through letters and diaries and interviews with the current generation of these families, LeBor paints a picture of what life was like in Jaffa ninety years ago...and how it has changed, repeatedly, between then and now.

LeBor has chosen a fabulous way to make history clear. It's one thing to say "Muslims and Jews and Christians used to interact in a mode of genuine respect and friendship," but it's another thing entirely to tell the story of an Arab family attending a Jewish wedding, or how Jews and Arabs both used to gather at a Jewish-owned spice shop or an Arab-owned bakery. The stories of real families make the history engaging and meaningful...

LeBor doesn't take sides, and he doesn't editorialize -- though I come away with the sense that he loves Jaffa a great deal, and that he respects and admires all of the families he interviewed over the course of writing the book. In the end, it seems to me that Jaffa serves as a microcosm... The narratives of these interwoven families stand in for all of the narratives of every family who's inhabited this land in reality or in memory, through arrival and departure and return.

The Hour of Sunlight: One Palestinian's Journey from Prisoner to Peacemaker by Sami al Jundi and Jen Marlowe

I reviewed this recently; I think it's excellent. Here's a taste of my review:

This book wasn't always easy for me to read, but it is powerful and it is worth reading, especially for anyone who (like me) may have more access to Israeli narratives about the Middle East than to Palestinian ones... Ultimately he joins two of his teenaged friends in making a pipe bomb which they intend to plant at a fruit and vegetable market -- a story which is not easy for me to face by any stretch of the imagination. But even as he's treading this ground, he's also working at an Israeli sandwich shop and developing a crush on a young Argentine Jewish woman who's in the process of making aliyah. His relationship with Israel and Israelis is always already complicated.

Once he enters Israeli prison -- colloquially known as "university," because of the system of self-improvement and education developed there by Palestinians -- the book becomes doubly fascinating to me... Probably the most moving part of the book, for me, begins once Sami is out of prison and slowly beginning to form relationships with Israelis despite the tremendous difficulty involved in finding common ground. ami becomes involved with the Seeds of Peace Center for Coexistence, where he meets co-author Jen Marlowe. They write beautifully about that journey. That part of the book brings me both joy (watching Sami's trust and hope grow) and also inevitably sorrow (because I know, reading this now, that the changes for which he hopes have not yet come to pass.)

There's a brief excerpt from the book at Spirituality & Practice, and the co-authors are interviewed on GRITtv.

A Tale of Love and Darkness by Amos Oz

Amazon says: "Tragic, comic, and utterly honest, this extraordinary memoir is at once a great family saga and a magical self-portrait of a writer who witnessed the birth of a nation and lived through its turbulent history.

It is the story of a boy growing up in the war-torn Jerusalem of the forties and fifties, in a small apartment crowded with books in twelve languages and relatives speaking nearly as many. His mother and father, both wonderful people, were ill-suited to each other. When Oz was twelve and a half years old, his mother committed suicide, a tragedy that was to change his life. He leaves the constraints of the family and the community of dreamers, scholars, and failed businessmen and joins a kibbutz, changes his name, marries, has children, and finally becomes a writer as well as an active participant in the political life of Israel.

A story of clashing cultures and lives, of suffering and perseverance, of love and darkness."

You can read an excerpt at the NPR website.

Continue reading ""Complicating Israel" reading list" »

A mother poem for Mother's Day

To all who celebrate, I wish a happy Mother's Day! Here's to mothers of all kinds: our mothers and grandmothers, the "other mothers" (caregivers and teachers and nannies) in our lives, to we ourselves who are mothers -- may we all feel rightly celebrated today. And to all who struggle with infertility and miscarriage, for whom today may bring more sorrow than celebration, may that sadness be soothed and healed.

As mother's day has approached, I've been thinking again about how best to get Waiting to Unfold, my collection of mother poems, out there into the world. I remain hopeful that someday it will see print! Meanwhile, in honor of the day, I'll reprint the final poem from that manuscript here. Enjoy!



A psalm of ascent


When the doctor brought you
through my narrow places
I was as in a dream: tucked behind
my closed eyes, chanting silently
we are opening up in sweet surrender.
The night before we left the hospital
I wept: didn’t they know
I had no idea what to do with you?
Even newborn-sized clothes
loomed around you, vast and ill-fitting.
I couldn’t convince you to latch
without a nurse there to reposition.
But we got into the car, the old world
made terrifying and new, and
in time I learned your language.
I had my own narrow places ahead,
the valley of the postpartum shadow.
Nights when I would hand you over,
mutely grateful to anyone willing
to rock you down, to suffer your cries...
But those who sow in tears
will reap in joy, and you
are the joy I never knew I didn’t have.
I have paced these long hours
bearing a baby on my shoulder
and now I am home in rejoicing,
bearing you, my own harvest.


(If you're so inclined, you can read the commentary I offered when I first posted the poem back in November of 2010.)

Awesome community media piece: Mind the Gap in Crown Heights

Via this post at Jewschool I found a pretty wonderful piece of community media called Mind the Gap in Crown Heights:

(If you can't see the embedded video, above, you can go directly to it at YouTube.)


This is a radio and film piece made as part of Radio Rookies, "a New York Public Radio initiative that provides teenagers with the tools and training to create radio stories about themselves, their communities and their world." Here's how the video is described on YouTube:

Four teenage girls, all new immigrants from the Caribbean, arrive at a high school in the heart of what was the epicenter of the Crown Heights riots 20 years ago. As newcomers they know nothing of the long history of tension between the Black and Lubavitch Jewish communities in the neighborhood. They set out to try to educate themselves about a culture so different from their own, in the midst of stereotypes and misinformation about Jewish people.

Editor's Note on video: The Crown Heights Community Mediation Center works to improve inter-group relations in Crown Heights by creating a safe space where people of different backgrounds are encouraged to discuss hard conversations, through activities and workshops. For example, the scene in the video where Amy Ellenbogen, the Center's Director, poses a statement about co-existence in the neighborhood is a part of a game, "The Human Barometer", where participants move to different parts of the room to show if they agree, disagree or feel neutral about the issue.

It's wonderful to be able to watch and listen as these four girls from the Caribbean begin to learn about their Chabad Lubavitch neighbors -- and vice versa. Of course, the encounter isn't always comfortable or easy; but I give these kids props for their curiosity and their genuine desire for encounter.

As I think on it, there are a lot of stereotypes which could stand to be shattered not just in the Jewish communities' relationships with the broader world, but within our own communities, too. For instance, the liberal Jewish kids I teach and the young people who attend yeshiva in a Chabad setting -- those are groups of youngsters who never have a chance to connect and who almost certainly have all kinds of unconscious prejudices and misconceptions about one another. I guess that's always true.

I wish it were more possible to create more of these kinds of encounters, both within the Jewish communities and between our communities and others! But meanwhile, kol hakavod -- mad props -- to Selena Brown, Chantell Clarke, Sabrina Smith, and Tangeneka Taylor for going outside their comfort zome and making something really wonderful.

For more on this:

In Crown Heights, Getting Past Stereotypes Through Learning, in the New York Times



A poem about Orpah



Maybe you envisioned
your husband's grave
choked with weeds

maybe you knew
the Israelites would scorn
your foreign features

the sages say
God gave you four sons
because you wept as you left her

the pundits whisper
once Naomi was gone
you spread your legs for anyone

did the men of Moab
grind your body
like bruised corn

did you birth Goliath
and rend your garments
when you lost him too

did you live for centuries
destined for the sword
of one of David's men --

or did you bathe
your aging parents
and die a quiet spinster

comforted by the scent
of the wild rosemary
outside your childhood home?

In preparation for the lesson I'm going to teach at my shul's Tikkun Leil Shavuot (late-night Torah study gathering -- beginning 9pm, Saturday May 26; let me know if you want to join us!), I've been collecting poems arising out of the Book of Ruth. (Including my own The Handmaid's Tale (Ruth), which I posted here last year.)

To my surprise, no one seems to have written any poetry (contemporary or otherwise) about Ruth's fellow sister-in-law Orpah. So I settled in to see what I could write.

Most of the details in this poem come from classical midrash about Orpah -- there's a good online compilation in English at the Jewish Women's Archive called Orpah: midrash and aggadah. The final two stanzas have no basis in classical tradition, and come purely out of my own imaginings.

I welcome whatever response(s) this poem evokes in you.

Celebrating marriage

538802-silver-wedding-ringsSometimes I think about what might surprise Drew, later in his life, when we tell him stories about before he was born or about his early years. The first time we ever did a video-skype call with my mother in Texas, she told him a story about being a little girl on a party line, and I thought: wow, we have come an incredibly long way, technologically speaking, since his grandma was a girl. To Drew, the fact that we sometimes "have dinner with" his Texas grandparents via Skype is entirely ordinary. He's never lived in a world where that wasn't possible.

Drew isn't old enough to know what a President is, but someday he'll learn that his parents voted in the historic election in which we elected our first African-American president. (I even wrote a Torah poem about it.) Drew has a deck of Presidential cards (like baseball cards, but featuring Presidents; picked up in the dollar bin at Target, I think) and when he scatters them on the floor, they are a sea of white faces -- all except for one. But maybe by the time my grandchildren are ready to vote, it won't be so remarkable anymore to think that this nation could (begin to) overcome its legacy of racism in this way.

Drew also isn't old enough to know what marriage is, though I'm grateful that he's growing up in a state in which gays and lesbians have the same right to marry as male-female couples do. His lesbian aunties on his dad's side were married here some years ago. His mama the rabbi officiates at gay weddings with great delight. And now we have a President who has openly affirmed his support for gay marriage, too.

I hope that by the time Drew is old enough to understand, the notion of a state passing a law against gay marriage will seem as misguided, plainly hurtful, and outdated as the notion of a state passing a law against someone of one race marrying someone of another. (I'm far from the first to note the painful similarities there.) I don't know who Drew will love; right now I'm pretty sure he loves his family and his friends and Thomas the Tank Engine, and that's as it should be. But I hope and pray that by the time he's ready to marry, if and when that day comes, he (and his generation) will have the right to marry, period. And not just in a handful of states, but anywhere in this country.

Because marriage is awesome. Getting married means standing up beside someone you love and speaking words which change your relationship to one another in a magical, powerful, and honest-to-God holy way. And after you get married, you get to be married, which is even better. Being married means loving someone, growing and changing along with someone, meeting the highs and the lows of a lifetime along with someone, navigating the bills and the laundry and the household chores with someone, discovering how lovemaking changes after ten and fifteen and fifty years with someone, learning from someone, giving to someone, for as much of a lifetime as you can manage.

Of course people can do those things without being married. But being married is is one of humanity's most time-honored ways to do them. And I'm grateful to have a President who supports the ability of my queer friends and loved ones to enjoy the same rights and privileges that my husband and I are blessed to receive. Shehecheyanu, v'kiyimanu, v'higianu lazman hazeh!