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Pekar & Waldman: Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me

Harvey Pekar was an American underground comix legend. A lot of people know him for American Splendor, a series of autobiographical comic books. He was a giant, in his own way. He died in 2010, survived by his wife Joyce Brabner.

JT Waldman is the creator of Megillat Esther, which I reviewed here several years ago. It's my favorite edition of the book of Esther, bar none. It contains -- as the saying goes -- the whole megillah; all of Esther, plus all sorts of commentary interwoven throughout the gorgeous artwork.

When Harvey Pekar died, he and JT Waldman were collaborating on a nonfiction graphic novel -- an illustrated memoir with historical divagations -- called Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me. The book follows the two authors through Cleveland as they discuss Pekar's relationship with Israel, from the Zionism he imbibed in childhood through a process of beginning to question Israel's role in the world.

In Megillat Esther, JT Waldman skillfully braids classical commentary on Esther together with the text of the megillah and with his striking and beautiful visual art. He does something similar here, only in this book he's interweaving the story Harvey tells, the experience of hearing that story from Harvey, and Middle East history.

Continue reading "Pekar & Waldman: Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me" »

We are responsible for one another (VR in the HuffPo)

It's a dreadful story. A house of worship burned; hateful graffiti scrawled on the walls; worshipers feeling spiritually homeless, the place to which they would ordinarily turn for consolation now smudged with ash and tinged with hate.

If this had happened to a synagogue, God forbid, Jews around the world would be up in arms. Certainly my rabbinic colleagues and I would be horrified. We would denounce the hate crime from our pulpits, preach loving kindness and consolation, perhaps call in the ADL to condemn the act in the strongest possible terms.

Instead, this month, the house of worship burned was a mosque -- and the burning was almost certainly committed by Jewish hands.

That's the beginning of an op-ed which I wrote a few days ago -- in response to the burning and vandalizing of the mosque of Jabaa -- which has been published in the Huffington Post. You can read it there: We Are Responsible for One Another: Outrage Over Crimes By My Own Community.

New toddler house poem



You greet the giant dragon
walking high upon his stilts.

Run up to a stranger
and engulf her in a hug.

Spend long giggly minutes
cresting a speedbump on foot.

After the red dancers whirl
you run onto the parquet

to twirl and leap, insisting
NO, mommy, it MY turn!

Dancers and audience laugh
as I drag you back offstage.

When I squirt a line of ketchup
on my own hot dog

your face crumples and you sob
indignant at the imposition

but once you've eaten half a bun
your good mood returns.

Bye, dragon you say in the car
I did dance, mommy

You did, and they all loved you.
Your eyes close; you say I know.

Another "toddler house" poem!

This one comes out of the experience of taking Drew to the Chinese street festival at the Clark. We were only there for about two hours, but we had an action-packed adventure. I hope some of that comes through in the poem. As always, all comments are welcome.

The toddler himself, mere moments before dashing onto the stage...

This week's portion: Moshe, the overtired parent

In this week's Torah portion, Chukat, Miriam dies and the Israelites are without water in the desert. Midrashic tradition connects Miriam with a well, often understood as a wellspring of Torah and insight in addition to water; when she dies, the well disappears. The people, predictably, begin to kvetch. "Why did you bring us out of Egypt? We're going to die out here!"

God tells Moshe to assemble the community, order a rock to yield water, and water will arise. But what Moshe does is a little bit different. He assembles the people, he says "Shall I get water for you from this stone?!" and he hits the rock with his stick. Water does arise, and the people drink -- but God is angry, and for this transgression Moshe is barred from entering the promised land.

God is angry, tradition tells us, because Moshe didn't trust him. God promised that if he spoke to the rock, a miracle would occur -- but Moshe brings sarcasm and violence to bear, instead. "What: am I supposed to get water from a stone?"

I believe that the reason Moshe doesn't enter the Land is that the journey is more important than the destination. It's important to have a destination to strive toward, but the real work of the spiritual path is to find holiness in the journey itself. That said, this week I'm interested in Moshe and why he whacked the rock with his stick.

As the mother of a sometimes willful toddler, I feel empathy for Moshe as he listens to the people moan and wail. He's dedicated himself to caring for these people and helping them "grow up" from a slavery mindset to one of freedom and covenant, but do they appreciate him? No: they take every opportunity to yell at him, to stamp their little feet and sit down on the sand and refuse to budge.

Moshe is burned out. And in a moment of exhaustion and overwhelm, he responds to the people's negativity with negativity of his own: whaddaya want me to do, dammit, squeeze water from this stone? Maybe as he looks at the stone he's thinking of his own heart, which right now is feeling dry and unwatered, baked hard as rock.

I like to imagine God's response as a kind of karmic corrective. "Hey, Moses, if you're going to talk to the kids like that? You need a time out. You're coming back to Me."

This year, I find in this parsha a message about self-care. If we ensure that our own emotional and spiritual needs are met, then we become able to respond to those who need us with generosity and compassion. That's when we can use words to work magic -- to cause sustenance to flow where none was there before.


This is the d'var Torah I offered at last night's religion committee meeting at my shul. You can find my other divrei Torah on this portion in the Velveteen Rabbi Torah Commentary index.

Thinking ahead and staying put, or, how a toddler is like a meditation bell

One of the oddities of the congregational rabbinate is that one is always thinking ahead to a liturgical season which hasn't happened yet. Already this week I've solidified our schedule for the Days of Awe. I'm spending time contemplating what my sermons might be, revising selichot liturgy, planning an ad-hoc book discussion group around R' Alan Lew's This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared (which I wrote about back in 2006.)

But it's just a few short days after the summer solstice. I want to be enjoying this moment: picking strawberries at Caretaker with my family, enjoying the late long light of evening, getting ready for the congregational Fourth of July picnic next week. And yet I can't help having one foot planted in a season which hasn't yet arrived. I justify it in the name of being organized, planning ahead -- and it is true that this is always the way I have worked best; I am most comfortable when everything is in-progress well in advance -- but I wonder sometimes what might be the spiritual impact of living in the future instead of in the now.

It's a little bit like looking ahead to a much-anticipated vacation. On the one hand, imagining the vacation and planning how it might go can extend the pleasure well beyond the days of the trip itself. First you get to enjoy thinking about it in advance; then you get to go; then you get to enjoy remembering it afterwards! It's a triple blessing that way. And on the proverbial other hand, the danger in this kind of anticipation is that it can provide an easy opportunity to escape whatever's happening now. Plus, getting attached to expectations means running the risk of disappointment if and when something changes or the expectations don't come to pass. (See How to avoid having a strop & the secret to happiness, which Fiona just posted yesterday at Writing Our Way Home.)

So maybe the real question is, what are good tools for maintaining balance? How can I ensure that if I spend all morning with my head in the clouds of Elul and Tishri, I return to the present moment? That if I lose myself in daydreaming about a weekend with friends in late summer, I return to where I am now?

In a funny way, having a toddler is an excellent antidote to the tendency to get lost in the future or the past. Drew lives pretty much in the now. I think he can grasp the idea of immediate future (it seems to be helpful when I outline for him what the morning is going to hold, or how long a playdate is going to last), and I know he remembers the past -- but often he brings the past right into the present, narrating things we did days ago as though they were happening right now. Maybe for him they are.

A toddler is like a meditation bell, forever calling me back to the now. In meditation each Friday morning, I often remind myself (and those who are sitting with me) that the mind will wander; that's what minds do. Having thoughts is what minds are for! So when our minds wander, as they inevitably do, we can notice that without judgement and call them back to the present moment, this breath, right here, right now. Drew does that for me a million tiny times a day. "Want to play catch, mommy?" Catch. Yes. My son is right here, and I was distracted, but now I'm back. "Want to read Oh My Oh Dinosaur?" Of course, climb into my lap and I will read to you.

I remember thinking, last summer, as I was first settling in to my pulpit, that it was a tremendous blessing to have a reason to leave work at 4pm and take my child to a playground every day. (Indeed: that the whole world would be healthier if we all had to stop working after eight hours and spend some time playing instead.) I don't think I knew how true that would continue to be. I'm grateful to be part of a liturgical / spiritual tradition which flows throughout the year, like waves, going and returning: the cycles of day and week and month, the cycles of festivals which lead one to the next. I'm grateful to have reason to place myself out of time, to prepare for the holidays which are coming. And I'm also grateful to have a child who, without knowing it, reminds me every day to return to him and to myself and to right now. Right now. Right now.

Looking back at camp after eighteen years

Eighteen years ago, my sister gave birth to a daughter. I wrote a poem for her from far away; I think I sent it in a letter for her baby naming. I was working, that summer, as a cabin counselor at the Greene Family Camp for Living Judaism in Bruceville, Texas. I came out of that summer yearning to become a rabbi. I don't think I imagined the roundabout path I would take to make my vocation real.

That summer is a mixed bag in memory. I liked my campers, but I was lonely. Most of the other counselors had been campers for years; I had only attended Greene once, when I was nine. Most of the other counselors had pledged Jewish sororities and fraternities at UT; I had chosen a small liberal arts college in western Massachusetts which eschewed the Greek system altogether. The other counselors were perfectly nice -- we were just coming from different places, and at nineteen that isn't always easy.

I remember writing poems about the Berkshires, wistfully remembering the crunch of boots on snow as I sat on our cabin's cement porch in the evening heat. I remember Friday afternoons, when the whole camp dressed in white and we all walked together slowly to the limestone ampitheatre for kabbalat Shabbat. I remember the Friday night song sessions after dinner, led by camp director Loui Dobin -- that experience of singing Hebrew songs, sometimes jumping up and down with sheer enthusiasm, swept me up and carried me away.

Continue reading "Looking back at camp after eighteen years" »

Walking meditation

Had there been a small plane taking off from the tiny North Adams airport this morning, the pilot would have seen half a dozen people walking very slowly in meandering loops around the mown grass behind the synagogue.

We moved like bridesmaids in a wedding procession: step -- pause. Step -- pause.

Some of us had our eyes closed. One person stopped and stood, rooted to the great rotating ball of the earth.

One person's tallit fluttered like irridescent rainbow wings.

New Torah poem - inspired by the book of Amos



Amos stands on a subway platform
littered with stubbed-out cigarettes.
For three sins, even for four,
I will not reverse it!
The commuters
skirt his dirty robes, avoid eye contact.
He rails about forgiveness
and fire, the sun going dark at noon
and if anyone listens, they roll their eyes
at the homeless guy who doesn't know
an eclipse from an apocalypse.
Late afternoon he loses steam
-- hungry or disheartened; does it matter?--
and curls into his cardboard box
trying to disappear. The clink of coin
startles him: a woman with greying hair
crouches at his feet, waiting for him to see.
She merges back into the crowd.
Justice will well from the deepest trench,
he mutters, righteousness like waters
flooding a dry ravine.
He rises,
the money clenched in his dirty palm.
You will slink into your ruined cities
and drink from your vineyards again!

Rush hour again: but for this one moment
he doesn't mind that no one hears.

This poem arises out of the prophetic book of Amos. It was also inspired, however obliquely, by the blog post Cup, written by my friend Beth at The Cassandra Pages. (Beth is also my editor at Phoenicia.)

Recasting a Biblical prophet in the role of a contemporary homeless man (or, I suppose, comparing the rantings of the Biblical prophets with the ravings of someone who is disheveled and quite possibly mentally ill) is nothing new. But I like the idea that a gift of momentary connection, a gift of being seen, might be enough to spark the light of forgiveness even in someone who has suffered greatly, or someone who speaks for a suffering God.

Two poems from Before There Is Nowhere to Stand

Cover722-196x300I mentioned a while back that I have two poems in Before There Is Nowhere to Stand, an anthology of poems arising out of Israel / Palestine.

I hope, over time, to make several posts about this anthology. No two poems in this collection tell the same story. Often any two poems tell very different stories. What makes this anthology so powerful (and, I think, so valuable) is this juxtaposition of two narratives which are on the one hand irreconcilable -- and on the other hand, what transformation might be possible in all of us if we were able to truly enter into the story as it is experienced by the "other side"?

Here are two poems which moved me deeply as I began reading the book. One poem is by Rick Black, a book artist and poet, the founding editor of Turtle Light Press. He lived in Israel for six years, studying literature at Hebrew University and then working as a journalist in the Jerusalem bureau of the New York Times. The other is by Reja-e Busailah, who has been blind since infancy, and who (along with his family) was forcibly evicted from his home in Lydda into exile. Educated in Cairo, he earned a PhD in English from NYU and taught for thirty years at Indiana University.

Take a deep breath and enter into the words of these two poets. If you want to talk about the poems or their impact on you, perhaps conversation will unfold in comments.

Continue reading "Two poems from Before There Is Nowhere to Stand" »

Teacups and Torah

Ceramic teacup by Chris Warren.

Back in the days when Ethan and I studied Isshin-Ryu with Sensei Steve Buschman, we learned the parable of Nan-in and the teacup. (I heard it again at some point during my hashpa'ah training.) Here's how it goes:

A zen student came to the zen master Nan-in seeking wisdom, and they sat down to tea.

Nan-in poured tea into the student's cup. And then kept pouring. And the tea overflowed. Eventually the student could not contain himself, and exclaimed, "Can't you see that the cup is already full?"

"Just so," said the Zen master, "You are already full of opinions and certainties. I can't teach you until you first empty your cup."

In spiritual direction a few days ago, I re-learned that the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, taught that it is necessary to "give over" Torah -- to teach Torah to others -- in order to open oneself up to receive more Torah. When one teaches Torah, that act stimulates the flow of more Torah from on high.

(This is what kabbalah calls itaruta di'l'tata -- Aramaic for "arousal from below." When we give over Torah, when we give over blessings, our action "arouses" the divine will, and God pours more Torah and more blessing into the world.)

In order to receive more Torah, one has to give over the Torah one has already received. In order to receive the wisdom of zen, one must first empty one's teacup: relinquish preconceptions in order to receive that which is new.

They're not quite the same teaching. Nan-in was interested in clearing the mind of preconceived notions and assumptions in order to make space for new learning, new insights, new understandings. The BeShT was interested in the act of teaching, of giving-over Torah to students, as a mystical stimulus which would open the divine spigot and cause more Torah to flow into creation.

But I love the way that, in each of these paradigms, it's important to notice when one's teacup is full, and to share what one has with others, in order to make room for more. If one hoards blessings, then new blessings can't flow. If one maintains a full teacup, then there's nowhere for new tea to go. The only way to receive more is to give what you have.

Summer solstice and Rosh Chodesh Tamuz

NewmoonTonight at sundown we'll enter into the new lunar month of Tamuz. In a day or two, we'll reach the solstice -- in the northern hemisphere where I live, this is the summer solstice, the longest day of the year which is also always the beginning of the days starting to shorten again. The name of this month on the Jewish calendar recalls the Sumerian deity Tamuz, who died at this season and went into the underworld. Like Tamuz, we too will experience a kind of remembered death during the season to come, as we descend into mourning for the temple which has long fallen.

I've spent the past few weeks collecting teachings about the month of Tamuz in Jewish tradition (the Tammuz page at Tel Shemesh is extraordinarily helpful) and about the summer solstice in Jewish tradition (hat tip once again to Rabbi Jill Hammer; also to Rabbi T'mimah Ickovitz for her solstice teachings) and preparing a short ritual for the new moon of Tamuz which is also a ritual of havdalah, separation, between the spring now ending and the summer we're about to begin.

Tonight (many of) the women of my congregation will gather in my backyard for this havdalah new moon ritual and then for some learning about this new moon and about the solstice in Jewish tradition. There are some tough things about Tamuz. In the coming month we'll remember the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem; we'll enter into the Three Weeks, the period called bein ha-meitzarim, "between the narrow straits," during which we prepare ourselves to mourn the fallen temple and the broken world at Tisha b'Av.

And yet this month contains blessings, too. Rosh Chodesh Tamuz is the birthday of the patriarch Joseph. Like the Sumerian god Tamuz, Joseph descended into the earth -- not into the underworld, but into a pit, and then into Egypt. And it was because of that descent that he was able to ascend so high, and to bring his entire people with him. May our descent during this season also be for the sake of ascent!

For those who are interested: here are two pages of collected teachings about Tamuz and the summer solstice, and also a two-page ritual for entering into summer / celebrating havdalah ha-tekufah, a solstice havdalah. (This is what we'll be working with at our Rosh Chodesh group tomorrow night, so if you're part of that group, you might want to skip these downloads in order to encounter the ritual and the teachings fresh. Or, you might want to download them in advance in order to spend more time with them! As you prefer.) I am deeply indebted to Rabbi Jill Hammer, from whom this ritual is adapted. Feel free to use and enjoy. Chodesh tov / a good new month to all.

Download RoshChodeshTamuzRitual [pdf]

Download RoshChodeshTamuzTeachings [pdf]

For our teachers and our students

This past weekend we had two celebrations of bat mitzvah at my small shul: one at Shabbat morning services, and one at a mincha/maariv/havdalah service. At both services, many of those in the kahal were not Jewish and had never been to a synagogue before. It was a long day for me, and a tiring one both physically and spiritually, but it was also a wonderful day.

I love inviting up anyone who has never seen the inside of a Torah scroll, and asking them how this differs from the books they usually read (it's in Hebrew; it's a scroll; it's handwritten; it's on parchment; oh, and by the way, there are no vowels in this text) before the b'nei mitzvah kid reads from the Torah. I love seeing the parents and grandparents of our b'nei mitzvah kids beaming. Most of all, I love seeing our young people shine.

As it happened, this particular weekend I received some very gratifying feedback. People came up to me after services and told me that the service felt welcoming, that they understood what was going on, that they felt included, that they felt at home. It made me really happy. The desire to help people gain access to some of the beauty of Judaism is one of the reasons I became a rabbi.

Maybe the most powerful response came from a relative of one of the b'nei mitzvah, an older woman who lives in Israel. I could see during the service that she was following me into the prayers -- I saw her nodding, smiling, looking surprised. She came up to me afterwards and said: I have never seen anything like this before. The energy, the warmth, the joy, the understanding of what the prayers really mean. This is extraordinary.

I told her that her words meant the world to me, and that I would pass them up the chain to my teachers, because it is thanks to my teachers that I am able to do what I am able to do. I am able to open the doors of Jewish tradition and share its sweetness because of those who trained me.

Thank you to everyone with whom I studied during my years as an ALEPH student. Thank you to the teachers at DLTI; thank you to the ALEPH va'ad; thank you to my mentors, both long-distance and (formerly) local. When I am able to lead services in a way that connects people with Jewish tradition, with Torah, with community, and with God, it is because of you.

There is a prayer traditionally recited after the completion of learning. It's called the kaddish d'rabanan: the "kaddish of the rabbis" or "kaddish of the teachers." In the contemporary vernacular version written by Debbie Friedman (may her memory be a blessing), the prayer says:

For my teachers
and my students
and for the students of my students
I ask for peace and lovingkindness
And let us say, amen.

And for those who study Torah
here and everywhere:
May they be blessed with all they need
and let us say, amen.

May there be peace and lovingkindness
and let us say, amen!

I offer this prayer now, in honor of my teachers, with all the gratitude of my heart.

The voices of American Muslim men

All-american-final-cover"Those who seek the divine want to make this world a better place, which first requires that we communicate." That's Congressman Keith Ellison in his introduction to All-American: 45 American Men on Being Muslim.

I pre-ordered this book as soon as I heard about it from my friend Ayesha Mattu, co-editor of Love Inshallah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women. (Which I thought I had reviewed here, but apparently I didn't; shame on me! I was blessed to receive an advance copy before publication, and in response I wrote to the book's editors that "[t]hese essays are meaningful, poignant, and powerful. I'm so grateful for these glimpses into the lives of American Muslim women, all of whom feel to me now like cousins I'm glad to finally know." The book merits a full review; I'll try to write one soon.)

Anyway: having savored that collection of writings by American Muslim women, I wanted to also read a collection of writings by American Muslim men. (I've since learned that there is a collection of essays by American Muslim women which is more directly parallel to this one -- I Speak for Myself: American Women on Being Muslim -- which I suspect I would also enjoy.)

When my copy of the book arrived, I turned immediately to the table of contents, since I knew that at least one of my friends had an essay here: Hussein Rashid of Islamicate, who I first met at the Progressive Faith Blog Con back in 2006. I read his essay first, with great delight. (More about that below.) Then I read the one by Shahed Amanullah of AltMuslim, who I've likewise known for years; he notes that "[i]n the end, all the PR in the world won't convince our fellow Americans of our worth any better than a typical Muslim can do by simply being a friend to their neighbor." Then the one by Svend White of Akram's Razor, about growing up as a white Muslim kid in Boston. The one by Aziz Poonawalla of City of Brass (who writes that "there's more to integration than making Halloween halal.")

And then I started opening the book at random, reading stories which caught my eye. Jason Moy's "Disable Your Cloaking Device," about making wudu (the ablutions required before prayer) as a captain in the Army, deployed in Afghanistan. Shakeer Abdullah's "Memoirs of a Mighty Mite Muslim," in which he explains (humorously but also with obvious truth) the similarities between Islam and football. Tynan Power's "Stepping Across the Gender Divide," which begins with the story of a trans Muslim man going to Friday prayer before having his gender reassignment surgery. Baraka Blue's "Manhood," which explores how interacting with Muslim men around the world empowered him to own his emotions.

This is terrific stuff. Wide-ranging, diverse, heartfelt, often surprising. I would expect nothing less from any collection of essays by any religion's practitioners. But because Islam is so often misunderstood in America -- especially in this post-9/11 era -- this book's variety of voices and experiences becomes all the more valuable to have in print. (If only I thought the people who fear Islam most would pick this volume up!)

Continue reading "The voices of American Muslim men" »

With whatever is best

The Holy Ari (Rabbi Isaac Luria) teaches us that our every intention and acton changes the whole world, either driving us away from God or bringing us closer, either healing the world or harming it.

So writes my teacher Rabbi Shaya Isenberg in his essay "Blessings in the Darkness" (in Writings from the Heart of Jewish Renewal, a publication of ALEPH, 2003.) In that essay he introduces something he calls the Chesed (lovingkindness) Meditation. He and his wife Bahira adapted it from Rabbi Jeff Roth, who adapted it in turn from a Buddhist metta meditation. I first experienced this meditation at a Tuesday afternoon mincha service on retreat at Elat Chayyim in 2005.

Reb Shaya writes:

This is how we do it:

Begin with yourself. As you inhale, say internally, "May I be blessed with..." As you exhale, imagine yourself as you finish the blessing, "shalom, peace and wholeness."

Continue that breathing/imagining pattern. "May I be blessed with...simcha, joy. May I be blessed with...r'fuah, healing. May I be blessed with...whatever is best."

Why begin with yourself? It is the airplane principle: before you help someone else with her oxygen mask, put yours on first. If I am under-blessed, how can I bless? So resist the temptation to skip that part. Don't feel it's too egocentric, but rather that we all deserve to be blessed! All of us!

After going through this with oneself, Reb Shaya teaches, one can offer this meditation with someone else in mind. Imagine a loved one, and as you breathe, think to yourself: may this person be blessed with wholeness. May they be blessed with joy. May they be blessed with healing. May they be blessed with whatever is best.

If that's easy -- and it may be -- stretch yourself a little. Imagine being at the grocery store, in traffic, at a gas station, and seeing someone you don't know. Can you find it in yourself to say these same silent blessings for a stranger? (I would add: imagine interacting with someone online: a blogger, a commenter, the people who comment on news articles. Can you offer these blessings for them?)

Reb Shaya doesn't stop there. It's our obligation, he writes, to offer these blessings even for those we actively dislike:

Because someone who feels fully blessed would not do the things they do! We want those who play the role of the enemy for us to be truly happy. Happy people don't intentionally harm and destroy. It's critical that when I'm blessing someone difficult, I am not hating them. When we bless we channel the holy energy of blessing through us. In the very act of blessing another, especially one whom we feel the least like blessing, the intensity of blessing required to overcome our own inner resistance spills over into the world.

Maybe my favorite part of this practice is the final line: "...with whatever is best." I may not know what's best for me. I may not know what's best for you, or for the stranger in the check-out line at the grocery store, or for the person I can't help finding challenging. When I offer this blessing, it's an opportunity for me to relax gratefully into the humility of not needing to know what's best. I'm not in charge. At best, I can try to make myself a conduit for blessing, but the nature of the blessing -- that's not up to me.

We offered this blessing this morning toward the end of our Friday morning meditation minyan. I hadn't looked at this essay in a while, so I didn't remember that one of the lines is a blessing for healing; now I'm not sure what I offered this morning, though I think it was the quartet of peace, joy, wholeness, and whatever is best. (Same general principle, anyway.) It was a really sweet practice, and when it was over, after the closing niggun and the closing meditation bell, we sat in the sanctuary and beamed at each other. What a lovely way to begin the ending of my week.

Review of two books by Reb Zalman

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If you read the Forward, you may already have seen this; but I wanted to share it here just in case! I recently had the lovely experience of getting to review two books by my teacher Reb Zalman (Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi) for the Forward, and that review is now published. One book is A Hidden Light, a compendium of tales and teachings about the early Hasidim; the other is All Breathing Life, a collection of prayerful poems.

Here's a taste of the review -- first, of A Hidden Light:

A tremendous amount of knowledge is distilled into these pages. The sheer number of names, rebbes, dynasties and towns may overwhelm readers. To Schachter-Shalomi, each of these is an intimate friend.

The authors interweave the life stories of Nachman of Bratzlav and of Schneur Zalman of Liadi, founders, respectively, of Bratzlav Hasidism and of HaBaD (also known as Chabad; in the HaBaD spelling, the capitalized letters represent a Hebrew acronym for three different aspects of God), with their parables and teachings. In one anecdote, Zalman tells his son that as a young man, he had the choice of studying with the Vilna Gaon or with the Maggid of Mezritch: “In Vilna, they teach you how to study, and in Mezritch, they teach you how to pray.” Of course, the binarism is overstated, but Zalman’s choice — and Schachter-Shalomi’s — is clear.

And here's a taste of the second part of the review, about All Breathing Life:
At the core of Shachter-Shalomi’s teaching is the attempt to open up the possibility to feel really connected with both God and community through these Hasidic prayers and teachings, despite all the ways in which neither I nor many of its intended readers fits the classical Hasidic mold.

Post-it notes proliferate on my copy of “All Breathing Life,” showing which poems I most often use in my own prayer life: “Ana B’Khoach,” “Nishmat Kol Chai,” “We Are as Clay,” Psalm 27. (Many of these are also available as audio recordings on the publisher’s website.) I share these with my congregation and with my blog readership. Sometimes I pray them by myself...

You can read my review of both books here: Hasidic Tales and Prayer-Poems. Thanks, Forward!

The moment, here and gone

The crib. June 2012.

I can't count how many times this happened when Drew was an infant. Someone would see me holding him, their face would go soft with nostalgia, and they would say something like, "oh, these days are so precious, and they're over so fast. Treasure every moment." And I would find some way to politely laugh or deflect, thinking: you must not remember these days at all. Because if you did, you would not be reminiscing about them in such bucolic tones.

We didn't have the easiest time of infancy. Drew had colic; I suffered postpartum depression. In hindsight, it's no wonder I had a snarky internal response to the "treasure each moment!" refrain. Yes, babyhood is over quickly in the grand scheme of a kid's lifetime -- but when one is experiencing depression, sleep deprivation, an infant whose cries are difficult to soothe, and time appearing to pass at the speed of cold molasses, it doesn't seem as though it's ever going to be over at all.

On the whole, infancy is a time I don't mind having behind us. Having a toddler -- really, these days, a kid; a growing boy -- is far more fun. So I've been surprised to discover that, as we've begun preparing to transition Drew out of a crib, I've had some pangs of nostalgia. Remembering rocking in the silent bedroom, quite pregnant, wondering what it would be like when we had an actual baby to put in that crib. Remembering that first winter, when Drew was a wee comma punctuating the crib mattress's great expanse.

Continue reading "The moment, here and gone" »

Weekend in the Toddler House


Today you oscillated between Pocoyo
and Kai Lan, roared like a dinosaur,
insisted I swing alongside

when I looked away for an instant
you tried to shuck your shorts
to play in the sprinklers

we whirled between blocks and trains
deck, kiddie pool, swingset, ball
a book and a cuddle, then off again --

and finally this gloaming, citronella
burning brighter as the veery thrush calls,
as evening's curtain cloaks the hills

I bless the fruit of the juniper bush
as the white noise machine ferries you
to the far shore of your own sea.


It's been a few weeks since I last posted a toddler house poem. Here's the latest installment in the series. This is probably the fourth or fifth draft; it's undergone a fair number of changes, and I'm still not sure that this is its final form, but I think it's decent enough to share.

I'm finding it an interesting poetic challenge, trying to capture the constant motion of an active toddler -- maybe especially because the times when I sit down to write are the times when Drew is asleep or at daycare, when his energy and movement are elsewhere.

All thoughts / feedback welcome, as always.


G. Willow Wilson's "Alif the Unseen"

9780802120205I still remember how I felt when I first read Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash in college. Its blending of internet imagination and ancient Sumer, the power of text and the power of code, felt as though it had been written just for me. I felt the same way reading G. Willow Wilson's Alif the Unseen.

I've written here about Wilson's work before -- her graphic novel Cairo; her beautiful memoir of choosing Islam and living in Egypt, The Butterfly Mosque -- and given how much I enjoyed both of those, I knew I was going to like this one. But I didn't know how much. (A lot.)

Alif the Unseen interweaves a story about jinn, and about the power of stories, into a story about a young man who's chosen the nom-de-internet Alif, the first letter of the Arabic alphabet. Alif is a "grey hat" hacker who offers his services to those whose online speech is otherwise in danger, whether they be Islamists, dissidents, or pornographers.

I don't want to spoil the book for you -- its twists and turns are so delicious! -- but Alif's programming choices get him into trouble with the dangerous government figure known colloquially as the Hand of God. He and a childhood friend wind up on the run. And his world turns out to be much bigger than he, and likely also the reader, imagined.

As I read, I kept marveling at places of intersection between Willow's religious tradition and mine; the notion that angels are like computers, e.g., devoid of free will. Or the sense that the holy language in which scripture was revealed has its own kind of power, and that the words of holy text are uniquely rich because they contain endless unfolding meaning.

Of course, I'm a religion geek and a rabbi with a longstanding interest in the places where Islam and Judaism mesh; it stands to reason that I would dig that stuff. But I'm also a longtime lover of comics, a SF geek (there's a moment in the book where a jinn archly references the original Star Wars movie, which made me literally laugh aloud), and a denizen of a handful of different online worlds -- and this book works equally well for me on those levels, too.

Alif the Unseen is a gorgeous expression of the post-Arab-Spring world -- which is prescient, since (here's a quote from a post at Wilson's blog:)

The titular character is a hacktivist in an unnamed emirate who battles shadowy, oppressive state security forces using methods both digital and arcane. (There are jinn involved, and ancient texts that are supposed to be hoaxes but aren’t. And at least one car chase.) While I was writing, even I thought I was maybe overdoing it just a little, and assigning too much importance to hackers and internet junkies in the Middle East. But I was fresh off a visit to Cairo, where a group of guys I’d met through Twitter organized a signing for me at a bookstore that was packed to the gills. We talked about comics and politics and the media, and I walked away with my heart pounding, thinking “this is really going to work.” I wasn’t even sure what “this” was.

Five months later, those same kids were overthrowing the government. I finished Alif the Unseen just as Mubarak left office, Tunisia was under new management, and uprisings had begun in Libya and Syria, in what would come to be called the Arab Spring.

Anyway. If anything I've said here appeals to you, you will almost certainly dig this book, as I did. Get a copy, read it, and then feel free to come back here and tell me what you think! I had a blast reading it, and I can't wait to foist it on several friends, Ethan first among them. (Given that he just gave a talk entitled Cute cats and the Arab Spring, I think I can safely say that he's going to enjoy this.)

Still need more convincing? The first chapter of the book is available online: Excerpt, Alif the Unseen. Enjoy!

The new Koren Talmud Bavli


I just got my copy of the first volume of the new Koren Talmud, Volume א: Berakhot. One of my bat mitzvah students was in my office this afternoon and caught sight of it on my desk. "What is that?" she asked, so I opened it up -- first from the right-hand side, to show her a page of Talmud, which she had never seen. (I think she was mostly impressed by the columns of non-English characters.) And then I flipped it open from the other end, to show her what it looks like in English. "Wow," she said. "It has pictures!"

Indeed it does. Here's how the publishers describe it:

The Koren Talmud Bavli is a groundbreaking edition of the Talmud that fuses the innovative design of Koren Publishers Jerusalem with the incomparable scholarship of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz. The Koren Talmud Bavli – Standard Edition is a full-size, full-color edition that presents an enhanced Vilna page, a side-by-side English translation, photographs and illustrations, a brilliant commentary, and a multitude of learning aids to help the beginning and advanced student alike actively participate in the dynamic process of Talmud study.

(The new Koren Talmud is available for $50 a volume -- a reasonable price, though of course at 41 volumes, it'll add up -- but this first volume is currently selling on Amazon for half that.)

It's a beautiful edition. If you open it from the right (like a Hebrew book), you get tractate Brakhot ("Blessings") in the original: mishna and gemara, marginal commentaries, all arranged in the classical Vilna format, with Koren's typical eye to readability. If you open it from the left (like an English book), after a few introductions, you get mishna and gemara in Aramaic neatly lined-up alongside English translation, and in the margins there are contemporary commentaries explaining, for instance, what the text means when it uses the word תרומה (terumah, an offering made for the consumption of the priests), or the implications of language about time, or bios of the various rabbinic personalities who appear in the text.

The commentary on the English side of the book bears a bit of explanation. Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz spent a lifetime translating the Talmud into modern Hebrew; for those who can read and understand Hebrew, his translation is the gold standard. The English material in this new Koren Talmud is an English rendering of Rabbi Steinsaltz's Hebrew. (Still with me?)

And while the pages are primarily taken up with text (as is only appropriate!), there are also illustrations which illuminate aspects of what the text is talking about. A depiction of the knot on the tefillin shel rosh when the text alludes to God's own tefillin; a full-color illustration of the coiled-clay-snake stove known as the oven of Akhnai (which plays quite a central role in a fabulous, and rightfully famous, set of Talmudic stories); a diagram of early synagogue layout alongside a passage about entering two doors in order to pray.

Koren Talmud Bavli Sneak Peek #2. If you can't see the embed, you can go directly to it at YouTube.

Will this edition entice those who are maybe otherwise a bit intimidated by Talmud to give it a try? I can only hope. Of course, it's not the first bilingual edition; but this one is made with Koren's characteristic attention to beauty and to detail. In places where the text offers us poetry (prayers, quotations from psalms, etc), the English-language text is laid-out like English-language poetry, a visual cue which tells the reader something meaningful about the text at hand. This is one of the reasons why my pocket Koren siddur is my standard daily siddur -- as a poet, I can't help loving a siddur (and by extension a publishing house) which makes poetry look like poetry! -- and I love that they've done that here, too.

My real question now is: do I invest in the whole set of beautiful hardbound editions, or via the forthcoming iPad app? The bibliophile in me wants the tangible books (and I love the translucent paper book jacket with the pomegranate on the cover); the part of me that loves shiny new technology (and portability!) wants the multimedia capabilities and searchability of the iPad version. (Please don't tell me to buy both, unless you feel like giving me the $2000 a full set will cost.) Nu: it's a good problem to have.

Kol hakavod (all the honor) to the folks at Koren for putting together this truly beautiful, truly readable, truly usable bilingual Talmud. I can't wait to spend a lifetime diving in.



For another perspective (and many terrific photographs), try Andrew Greene's post Review: The Koren/Steinsaltz English Talmud Bavli.

A rabbi and a nun walk into a bar

It ought to be -- it probably is! -- the opening line of a joke: a rabbi and a nun walk into a bar...

Okay, it isn't a bar; it's a restaurant, though I do have a beer. (Who could resist a brew named Rapscallion Blessing?) And we begin our wanderings hours earlier, at Thorne's marketplace, where Drew -- happily chatting with everyone in the mall as he shows off his small wooden robot and his box of raisins -- accepts the presence of mommy's friend in the grey Buddhist nun's robes without blinking.

All afternoon we roam Northampton: from Look Park (an ice cream despite the chill, dashing about from the blue playground to the red one and back again), to Cup and Top in Florence (tea for the grown-ups, a snack for the toddler, a small indoor slide and assortment of toys, and surely every other toddler family in town), to my in-laws' apartment (where Drew demonstrates both his love of Thomas the Tank Engine and his skill at knocking down towers of blocks.) In between entertaining Drew we snatch snippets of conversation. Parents and parenting. The monastic life and how it both is and isn't similar to my householder existence. Clothing as religious signifier.

And then, thanks to my sister-in-law's willingness to babysit, we nip out to the aforementioned restaurant, where there is glorious food and even more glorious uninterrupted grown-up conversation. About what it's like to weave the words of a second language into one's own -- words for prayer or for practice, words for ideas which aren't neatly expressed in the tongue we share. About gender and the rabbinate, gender and the monastic life. About life and travel, New England and Korea, Hebrew and Tibetan, silence and chanting.

We could have talked all night. (Well: more properly, all morning -- we're neither of us night owls anymore, not given Seon Joon's responsibilities to her temple family and mine to my congregation and toddler and spouse.) As it is, we savor every moment we are given, and we part with a hug and a promise.

There is something incalculably precious about friendship between people committed to different spiritual paths. The glimmering shift between one set of lenses and the other: this is how we do it, and oh, that's how you do it, how wonderful! The same and not the same. We speak in terms of God (though, as I quipped last night quoting my beloved teacher, "the God you don't believe in, I don't believe in either") and you speak in terms of Buddha. Before meals I bless this way, and you bless that way. The differences sparkle because they're set against so very much common ground.

Equally precious, I think, is friendship cultivated over distance and time. First via blog and email. Then in person. Then via blog and email. Then via paper letters, envelopes adorned with foreign stamps and creased from long travel. Then via blog and email again. Then by -- well, walking into that proverbial bar.

Having had the thought, I can't help wondering whether this actually is an extant joke. A quick googling reveals that there are several jokes which begin "a rabbi, a priest, and a nun walk into a bar..." No offense intended to our brothers on our various spiritual paths, but we can have a good time on our own, thank you kindly. And we do. We really do.


I've linked to this before, but it bears rereading: Seon Joon's post Bhikkuni Ordination, April 3, 2012.