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Welcome home to a place where you've never been

Anytime I enter a place where my Jewish Renewal community has gathered, it feels like coming home.

Part of that is the experience of seeing old friends and beloved teachers (many of whom are now old friends, too!) And that makes sense. I spent a few years going to every ALEPH retreat I could afford while I was in the discernment process about the rabbinic ordination program. I wanted to meet teachers and students and deans and ask questions and begin to suss out whether this was the right place for me (and whether they felt I was the right kind of candidate to apply.)

And then there were the five-plus years of fulltime rabbinic school, when I saw these folks at least twice a year for intensive one- or two-week-long residencies, and for programs like DLTI, and in between those times I took classes every week via teleconference (and davened via teleconference for a while, too!) and did hevruta learning via Skype and and and and. Some of the deepest and most intense learning I've ever done, I've done with these friends. These people are an intimate part of my life in all of those ways. The reason it feels like a family reunion is that it is one.

But I've had this feeling of coming-home to Jewish Renewal since my very first retreat at the old Elat Chayyim, back when I didn't know anyone here at all. Probably since the first time I sat down at a meal with strangers, and they smiled at me and welcomed me and wanted to know my story (Jewish and otherwise) and what had drawn me to that place. Certainly since my first Jewish Renewal shacharit service the next morning, in the white yurt, sitting cross-legged in a circle on the floor, learning my first liturgical chants, unaccountably moved at the sight of women wearing tefillin.

NameHave you ever heard anyone say "Welcome home to a place where you've never been?" That was how it felt for me, the first time I gathered with my Jewish Renewal chevre. Here were people who cared about Judaism, who cared about God, who blended the passionate God-focus of Hasidism with the kind of feminism and social justice underpinnings I hold dear. I struggle to describe it; ultimately it's a feeling, an experience. I have always been quirky, spiritual, different. From the moment I first set foot in a Jewish Renewal retreat setting, I could tell that I wasn't alone. I knew that I had found my spiritual tribe.

I remember a conversation with my mother at Pearlstone a few years ago, when I was still a rabbinic student, when our son was an infant and my mother had come with me to a rabbinic student intensive to provide childcare while I was learning. Midway through that week, I remember her turning to me, and saying, with some wonderment, "I think everyone here is a spiritual seeker!" It's most true in the ordination programs, of course; no one goes through the rigors of rabbinic school (or cantorial school, or the rabbinic pastor program) without a powerful spiritual motivation. But I think it's true across the board at Jewish Renewal gatherings, or at least it tends to be.

The Kallah moves around every two years, so each time it happens, it's convenient for someone. This year, it's convenient for me. Two years ago we were in California; this year we're a scant two and a half hours from my house. In assiyah, the world of physicality, I haven't traveled very far at all. But in the worlds of emotion and spirit, I've tessered into that magical space where everyone smiles at strangers, where conversations about prayer and mysticism don't draw a raised brow from anyone, where shouting "Hello, rabbi!" causes people all over the room to turn around. Into this space where, as soon as we're all together again, it's as though we had never been apart at all.


It's almost time for Kallah!

The ALEPH Kallah is almost here! I can't wait.

First and foremost, I'm thrilled to be teaching a class. My materials are prepared and I'm looking forward to meeting the students who are new to me and re-meeting the folks who I already know.

I'm also delighted to be honored with the opportunity to be part of the opening plenary session on Monday night. Four people will share our thoughts on the theme of Kol Echad, "One Voice." (I'll share my remarks here after the fact, so if you're not going to be at the Kallah, stay tuned.)

Most of all, I'm eager to immerse myself in the temporal mikveh of a week with my Jewish Renewal community: friends, conversations, davenen, song, and joy. For those who are joining us in New Hampshire next week, travel safely! And if you're not registered for the Kallah but are still considering coming, you can still register; as this Kol ALEPH post notes:

With over 500 souls registered, this is on track to be the biggest Kallah since Albuquerque, New Mexico in 2007. Over 600 are expected in Rindge, New Hampshire for our lakeside retreat in the shadow of Mt. Monadnock. There is still time to register - right up until July 1st for the full conference, or July 5th for the Shabbaton! But why wait? “Lech lecha”- get yourself right now to the Kallah website and get registered, and get ready to enjoy one of the best weeks of your life. What are you waiting for?


On yesterday's grief and today's rejoicing

Nr35p_-00_lifestyle_rainbow-flagWhat a rollercoaster of a week. Yesterday the Supreme Court of the United States handed down a ruling which gutted the Voting Rights Act. That ruling was a major blow to minority voters in this country, and to all who recognize that voters of color in many places still face extraordinary hurdles in getting to the polls on voting day. And today SCOTUS handed down the ruling [pdf] that the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional. Yesterday's ruling was devastating; today's is a source of joy.

Today's victory for human rights doesn't undo yesterday's damage. The two issues -- minority voting rights, and the right to marry one's beloved -- intersect, and the communities impacted by these decisions intersect and overlap. The work of perfecting our flawed democracy, of eliminating prejudice and discrimination, of ensuring that everyone has full and whole access to the equal rights which are our God-given inheritance as human beings (including both the right to marry and the right to vote): that work remains ahead of us. The road to liberation is long and there are miles to go before we sleep.

But Jewish tradition teaches us to celebrate our victories, even when there is still further we need to go. As we read in my haggadah:

What does this mean, "It would have been enough"?  Surely no one of these would indeed have been enough for us.  Dayenu means to celebrate each step toward freedom as if  it were enough, then to start out on the next step.  It means that if we reject each step because it is not the whole liberation, we will never be able to achieve the whole liberation.  It means to sing each verse as if it were the whole song -- and then sing the next verse.

[That quote comes from The Shalom Seders, compiled by New Jewish Agenda, (New York, Adamah Books, 1984.)]

Today's step toward freedom is a big one. Today's ruling argues that "interference with the equal dignity of same-sex marriages" was DOMA's essence, and that such interference is unconstitutional. (I would also add, unconscionable.) This is a victory for GLBT Americans, for binational queer couples who will no longer be forced overseas because they can't get a spouse visa, and for everyone who believes that love should be honored and that commitment should be celebrated. Today, we celebrate! And tomorrow we roll up our sleeves and rededicate ourselves to fixing what's still broken.

The work of ensuring equality is not done. When any of us faces institutionalized discrimination, our whole nation is diminished. Yesterday's ruling on the VRA should galvanize us to work toward ending racism and prejudice, both on the micro level (individual people) and the macro level (systemic racism and inequality across the board). And today's ruling on DOMA is still only a step toward true marriage equality; remember that while same-sex marriage is legal and honored in many states, it's not yet legal and honored everywhere in this country. We're not there yet. But I am endlessly grateful for today's ruling and for the ability to hope that we can continue to perfect our imperfect union.

Jewish tradition offers a blessing for moments like this one:  ברוך הטוב והמטיב (Baruch HaTov VeHaMeitiv). "Blessed are you, God, who is good and who does good!" Amen, amen, selah.

17 Tammuz, justice, and broken walls

2620422893_93cb85c9f4_mToday is 17 Tammuz, a minor fast day in Jewish tradition. Today we enter into the Three Weeks, also called Bein Ha-Meitzarim, "In the Narrows."

On this day, we remember the first breach in the walls of Jerusalem during a long-ago siege of that holy city, the first step toward the destruction of the Temple three weeks later. On this day, we remember the shattering of the first set of tablets which Moshe brought down from Sinai. When he saw the children of Israel worshiping the golden calf, he smashed the tablets in sorrow and despair.

On this day, we allow ourselves to be conscious of what's broken. Moshe's heart broke when he saw his community choosing idolatry and wickedness. My heart breaks when I read that the Supreme Court has struck down parts of the Voting Rights Act. (See SCOTUS decision, pdf. For context, see Do we still need the Voting Rights Act?, PBS and Why we still need the Voting Rights Act, Washington Post.)

"In 1965, the states could be divided into two groups: those with a recent history of voting tests and low voter registration and turnout, and those without those characteristics...Congress based its coverage formula on that distinction. Today the nation is no longer divided along those lines." (That's from the decision itself.) Halevai -- would that it were so! But I do not believe that racism is over. (Neither do the researchers behind this study, released last month.)

The New York Times notes that although the Court upheld Section 5, which protects voters in the places where discrimination has been the worst, "without Section 4, which determines which states are covered, Section 5 is without significance — unless Congress chooses to pass a new bill for determining which states would be covered." I fear that leaving it to Congress to reach consensus on where discrimination happens (before steps can be taken to ameliorate the discrimination) is tantamount to inaction. And inaction means that the discrimination can not only continue, but flourish.

17 Tammuz was the day when the walls of Jerusalem began to fail. Where are the places in our world today where the walls of human rights, the walls of justice, the walls of empathy and compassion are cracking and becoming unsound?

Whether or not you're fasting today; whether or not you were even aware, before you read this post, that today was the fast day commemorating the breaching of those long-ago walls; whether or not you place stock in the traditional teaching that today is the anniversary of the day whe Moshe smashed those tablets of stone -- don't let today pass you by. Don't look away from what's broken.

I believe that the dates on our liturgical calendar have real meaning. (Whether the meaning is innate in the day itself, or whether it accrues over the course of thousands of years of us investing these dates with meaning, I experience the meaning either way.) The spiritual valance of today, on the Jewish calendar, is brokenness. Today is a day to let our hearts break when we see what's wrong in our world. Don't fight it; experience it.

And -- because there is always a next step -- then gather your courage to do something about it. Hold on to the wisdom of the great sage Leonard Cohen, who wrote "There is a crack in everything / that's how the light gets in." Every breakage is also an opening. May we bring light to this world's broken places, and justice to everywhere marred by its absence. Speedily and soon.




Rebuilding with our Torah and our hearts, 2012

The Three Weeks: healing our sight, 2012

The photo which illustrates this post is mine; from here.

What we can learn from the daughters of Zelophechad

Five daughters of Zelophechad by Sheila Orysiek. [Source]

A fascinating thing happens in this week's Torah portion, which is called Pinhas. The daughters of Zelophechad -- Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah -- come before Moshe. And they say:

"Our father died in the wilderness. He was not one of the faction, Korah's faction, which banded together against the Lord, but died for his own sin; and he has left no sons. Let not our father's name be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us a holding among our father's kinsmen!"

Moshe doesn't know what to do. So he brings their case before God directly. And God answers him and says:

"The plea of Zelophehad's daughters is just: you should give them a hereditary holding among their father's kinsmen; transfer their father's share to them.

"Further, speak to the Israelite people as follows: 'If a man dies without leaving a son, you shall transfer his property to his daughter.... This shall be the law of procedure for the Israelites, in accordance with the Lord's command to Moses."

Here's what's interesting to me about this passage. First, that these women have the holy chutzpah to come before Moshe and plead their case. The default understanding was that property passed from fathers to sons. But somehow, they have the certainty and strength to act on their convictions and ask for what they know is right.

Secondly, Moshe takes the case directly to the highest authority -- which is to say, the Holy Blessed One. It was clear to him that Torah as he'd received it didn't say anything about women inheriting property; but apparently it was equally clear to him that denying these women their family's inheritance would be unjust. So he asked God.

And thirdly, God's response is swift and unequivocal. God says, what these women are asking is just. Give them an inheritance. Furthermore, if a man dies without a legal heir, from now on, let Torah teach that his property goes to his daughter.

This wasn't entirely unique in antiquity. The Code of Hammurabi, the Babylonian law code written down around 1750 BCE, protects a woman's right to hold and inherit property. But it's still meaningful that Torah enshrines a mechanism for women inheriting property. Rebecca West famously quipped that feminism is "the radical notion that women are people." This is an early instance of what one might call a strand of feminism embedded in our holy text.

Of course, it's only a small step forward. If there are brothers, in the Biblical context, the brothers are the ones to inherit. Women only inherit if there are no men who can do so. And once a property-holding woman marries, the property returns to the man into whose care she enters; for this reason, the daughters of Zelophechad will need to marry men from their father's tribe. But it's still a step in what I would call the right direction.

We no longer have the luxury of directly asking God what to do when we're faced with thorny questions of legal and moral interpretation. In our religious / spiritual lives, we have the obligation of engaging with our holy texts ourselves, learning them widely and wisely enough to be able to reach our own determinations. And of course we've inherited a rich and broad tradition of interpretation on which we can draw. In our secular / legal lives, we bring instances of injustice to the courts, and we hope and pray that they will rule justly.

There's an interesting confluence this week between reading the story of the daughters of Zelophechad, and waiting anxiously for the Supreme Court's ruling on DOMA, hoping and praying that their ruling will be compassionate and just. Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah take their case to the highest authority in the land -- Moshe, who serves both as a legal leader and a spiritual one -- and Moshe in turn takes the case to God and receives a ruling which is righteous and compassionate. God's ruling enshrines women's rights and, in a sense, women's full humanity. I pray that SCOTUS will offer their ruling in the same spirit, acknowledging the full humanity of all and recognizing that every couple has the right to marry, regardless of gender.

Reading the story of the daughters of Zelophechad this week as it coincides with these issues in our national news can teach us that when something is unjust, it's worth speaking up. That the road to a world of complete justice is long and takes many turns, and one generation's victories may need to be fought-for again in generations to come. That we shouldn't let the perfect be the enemy of the good, but embrace positive change whenever we can reach it. That our social distinctions -- whether Biblical views on women, or historically-recent definitions of marriage -- aren't permanent, and that in the eyes of God, justice and compassion trump our human categories.

And I hope this week's Torah portion can remind us that change is possible. That as humanity evolves and becomes more kind, more just, and more enlightened, we can collectively make choices which give the full rights of personhood to everyone. Kein yehi ratzon: may it be so.

A poem in the Jewish Women's Literary Annual

9116708425_5f47e2d52c_mI'm always honored and delighted when my work appears in the Jewish Women's Literary Annual. This year I have a poem -- Mother Psalm 9 -- in Volume 9, which is the 2013 edition. (That poem is also available in my new collection Waiting to Unfold (Phoenicia, 2013).

I'm also honored to be in such fine company. I've only begun to dip into this rich volume, but I'm savoring work by Marge Piercy (whose poem "Working at it" shows how "much in Tanakh is a mixed / bag, a tangled message"), Judith Barisonzi (whose poem "Moses" shows us one little girl on the cusp of the crossing of the sea), Marilyn Bentov (whose poem "Animals: Battles" chronicles a meeting with a tarantula -- I especially love the image of Esther, who loves pesticides: "'Fleet!' she'd scream with joy, / holding the can high above her head like a victorious // Moses battling Amalek in the Sinai desert"), Sheryl L. Nelms (whose poem "In the Seguin Cemetery" does beautiful things with very, very short lines) and Arlyn Miller (whose poem "Gathering the Waters" is subtitled "Guidance upon retirement or loss," and begins "Approach the water. Bring who you are / and what you have lost...")

It's also particularly delightful for me to share these pages once again with Vicki Pieser, whose short essay about a visit to Cuba is sharp, powerful, and poignant. She's also my aunt, and I love that we're published here together! (She doesn't have a website, but if you're interested in her work, don't miss her essay Travels With Joshua, about exploring the world with her autistic son.)

You can learn more about the annual, and subscribe / order copies, here at the National Council of Jewish Women website. Thanks to the editors for including my work!

Meditation to prepare ourselves for Shabbat

The Shabbat bride is on her way and she'll be here at sundown tonight!

In the understanding of our sages and mystics, Shabbat isn't just a day off from work. It's a day of cosmic alignment, a day when creation is irrigated with blessing. And we have a role to play in that process.

Think back on the week now ending. Start with last Sunday: what did you do on Sunday? What was sweet, and what was bitter? Where did you live up to your hopes, and where did you miss the mark?

And then let it go.

Remember Monday. What was good, what was difficult, where did you shine, where did you fail? And then let it go.

Tuesday. Wednesday. Thursday. Today. Turn the days over in your mind like pieces of sea glass in your hand, holding each one up to the light to see where it gleams and where it's flawed. And then let them all go.

Do you want to thank someone for a kindness this week? Reach out and do so. Do you need to apologize to someone for a place where you erred this week? Reach out and do so.

Seal the week's sweet memories in your heart; release the week's bitter memories from your consciousness.

In this way, you clear out the channels of your heart, mind, and soul. You're washing out the pipes, as it were, ensuring that nothing is blocking the flow of blessing from coming into your life -- and, through you, into the world.

Our tradition teaches that we each receive an extra soul, or an extra portion of soul-awareness, on Shabbat. When you light candles tonight, take a deep breath and feel the expansiveness of that second soul settling in. And then open your heart and let blessing, joy, and kindness flow from God into you, and from you into everyone you meet.

Join me on Sunday in Great Barrington for poems and conversation

Join me this coming Sunday at the Book Loft bookstore in Great Barrington for a south county reading from my new collection of poems. I'm happy to answer questions and share some conversation, as well as to sign books. I hope you'll join us!

Sunday June 23, 6pm
Poetry reading and conversation / signing / Q-and-A
 The Book Loft, 332 Stockbridge Road, Great Barrington
sponsored by MotherWoman and the Berkshire County Perinatal Support Coalition

Poet Rachel Barenblat (70 faces, Phoenicia 2011 and Waiting to Unfold, Phoenicia 2013) will read from  her new collection written during the first year of parenthood, with booksigning and conversation / Q-and-A (on subjects ranging from poetry and spirituality to postpartum depression and parenting) to follow.


Praise for Waiting to Unfold - from the Berkshire Eagle

Many thanks to Nichole Dupont at Berkshires Week for writing, and to the editors at the Berkshire Eagle for assigning, this very gracious and thoughtful article about my work! It appears in Berkshires Week today, both in print and online; I'm reprinting it here with gratitude.



Poems held her in her son's first year

By Nichole Dupont, Special to Berkshires Week

Rachel Barenblat, published poet and rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel, holds her son, Drew Zuckerman, now 3. (Photo courtesy of Rachel Barenblat)

LANESBOROUGH -- When you're a new mother, your infant upends your world. And when you're breast-feeding at 3 a.m., trying to soothe a colicky baby to sleep, the night may seem endless.

Isolation and winter don't help either, according to Rachel Barenblat of Lanesborough. Yet, through the thick fog of sleep deprivation and a tenacious case of post-partum depression, Barenblat, who is the rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams and a published poet with an MFA from the Bennington writing program, managed to write a poem a week during the first year of her son's life.

"Waiting to Unfold" (Phoenicia Publishing, 2013) is a lyrical collection of poetry that slices to the heart of parenting, capturing everything from the banality (and humor) of changing diapers to the ferocity of maternal protection to the nerve-ending jag of self-doubt.

But more importantly, Barenblat said, the book is a letter to her now three-year-old son, Drew: a chronicle of memories that would otherwise have been lost through the chaos and ritual of raising a child.

"It's a little astounding. I find myself grateful to have written these poems," Barenblat said. "I would have forgotten all this, but when I read the poems it takes me back, right to that moment in time. I recently gave a reading to a group of senior citizens, mostly women, who haven't had children in the house for 50 or 60 years, but they said the poems made them remember. There's something universal in this whole experience of mothering."

Continue reading "Praise for Waiting to Unfold - from the Berkshire Eagle" »

Psalm before the summer solstice

Day Before the Solstice

a psalm of thanksgiving

For sky as implausibly blue
as a plastic kiddie pool,
scrawled with the white streaks
of self-erasing contrails.

For grass stretching up,
for the rustle of oak and birch,
for sumac spreading its canopy
over blackberry and wild grape.

For this canvas umbrella
once red as a tomato
now leached by sun
to Nantucket pink.

For cold coffee, milky
as a silted river
and sweet as birdsong,
ice cubes rattling in my glass.


What we learn from Balaam about blessing

MahTovucolorlogo"How good are your tents, O Jacob; your dwelling-places, O Israel!" We sing these words at the beginning of morning prayer as part of Mah Tovu. This is a quotation from this week's Torah portion, Balak; the words come from the foreign prophet Balaam, who was hired by Balak to curse the Israelites.

Balaam seems to have a standing relationship with God, which is unusual. In the Biblical mindset, foreign prophets have relationships with their own foreign gods (this is the henotheistic view -- our God is the right one, but there are other gods out there) or perhaps they are deluded altogether (this is the monotheistic view -- our God is the only God; there are no others), but it's rare for the Torah to show us a prophet of another tradition who's on speaking terms with the One.

Twice Balak sends messengers to Balaam to persuade him to come and curse the children of Israel, and each time Balaam says: I can't do or say anything contrary to the command of my God Adonai. Balaam speaks directly with God twice. Eventually God says to him: okay, fine, go. But when you get there, you're going to say what I tell you to say. That refrain is repeated by the angel of God who temporarily stands in Balaam's way the next morning.

When Balaam gets to the mountaintop, he instructs the king to make lavish sacrifices, and then goes off alone to commune with God before offering any words. God becomes manifest to Balaam and tells him what to say, and instead of curses, Balaam offers blessings. Not once, but thrice. Balak, exasperated, finally says "don't curse and don't bless" -- don't say anything! But Balaam can't help offering blessings. Balak sends him away in a huff, thoroughly exasperated that his plot has been foiled.

The story is practically slapstick. Balaam repeatedly tells the king that he can't offer curses when God wants blessings, but the king refuses to listen, dragging the prophet from mountain to mountain as though he might offer a different proclamation from differnet ground. (And of course there's the talking donkey who sees the angel of God when the prophet does not. That one never gets old.)

Priestly-blessing-englishBut behind the slapstick I find a powerful message: when we're attuned to God, we offer blessings. Even when we're primed, contextually, to think in terms of curses. Even when those around us are prompting us to respond with unkindness and vitriol. One who is listening for the presence of the Holy One of Blessings will respond with blessings, not curses.

This isn't a modern text or context. But we can extrapolate from it. There are places (both online and off) where hatred and vitriol are cultivated. There are people who seem to delight in saying awful things about others. They are modern-day Balaks, and they behave in ways designed to rouse our energies of anger and hatred in response.

It is easy to get drawn-in to that worldview and to respond to their hatred with hatred of our own. But Balaam is our reminder that there is another path. Take deep breaths, open yourself to God's presence, and instead of offering anger, offer blessing. Unveil your eyes, as Balaam did, and find something to bless. This is a high level of spiritual practice. But if a foreign prophet was capable of it (even in the Biblical paradigm), then surely so are we.


The image of the priestly blessing is from Cymbal Designs.

Previous years' commentary on Balak

The red heifer, life and death, and the story

Here's the d'var Torah I offered yesterday morning at my shul for parashat Chukat. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi Blog.)

In this week's Torah portion, God tells Moses and Aaron how to cleanse the tum'ah, the "ritual impurity," which comes from contact with death. Take a red cow without blemish, on which no yoke has been laid. Give it to Elazar, the priest. Bring it outside the camp and slaughter it. Burn it there along with hyssop, cedar, and red thread.

The ashes from this fire, mixed with water, make a potion called mei-niddah, "waters of lustration." Anyone who comes into contact with a dead body must be cleansed with the waters of lustration. Otherwise that person cannot enter the Temple precincts, and will be cut off from the people.

Contact with death confers tum'ah. And yet the ashes of the red heifer, which is itself dead, confer taharah; they make one pure again. In the Zen tradition, one might call this a koan, a teaching-riddle. In our tradition this is the classic example of a chok, a divine commandment which doesn't make rational sense.

The sages of our tradition spend a lot of time on this one! Yochanan ben Zakkai argued that the ashes have no intrinsic power. They purify because this is a divine commandment, and following the mitzvot refines the human soul and makes one pure.

In other words: spiritual purity arises when we understand ourselves to be in relationship with God, and therefore do what God asks of us even when we don't understand it. Through accepting ol malkhut mitzvot, the "yoke of the mitzvot," we also accept ol malkhut shamayim, the "yoke of heaven."

Continue reading "The red heifer, life and death, and the story" »


"All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well." -- Julian of Norwich

Even when the rains fall
sheeting down the windows
for days without end.

Even when factories explode,
when gun deaths rise
like flood waters,

when long-held prejudices
prove impossible to dislodge,
when there's no way around

admitting that what hurts
isn't going away.
For every wound, a salve.

For every insult, kindness.
Someone presses ten dollars
into an empty hand.

A bag of clothes appears
on the porch just as you wonder
how to afford new sizes.

Someone is writing a story
just for you, hoping
it will find its reader.

Tomorrow the sun will rise
and you will be loved.
It isn't enough. It's enough.



Julian of Norwich was a Christian mystic in the fourteenth century of the Common Era.

There was a chemical plant explosion in Louisiana yesterday. And here's Slate's tally of gun deaths since Newtown.

On the brighter side: several writers in the SF/F community are matching donations made to the Carl Brandon Society, "a non-profit group dedicated to increasing the 'racial and ethnic diversity in the production of and audience for speculative fiction.'"

Jane Goodall's Reasons for Hope. See also this list of Kindness Ideas.

We are loved by an unending love.

Sharing mother poems with a crowd

I didn't expect some 25 people to show up at the synagogue on Sunday for a celebratory reading from Waiting to Unfold. It was a beautiful sunny day; I had braced myself for the possibility that only my parents (visiting from Texas) and one or two congregants would be there! And that would have been okay. Back in the Inkberry days, we certainly hosted plenty of poetry readings with tiny crowds. But our small sanctuary felt full of people. It was a real joy to see so many familiar faces -- and a few unfamiliar ones, too.

Reading these poems aloud is still an intense and powerful experience for me. Each one clicks me immediately back into the moment of its composition, connecting me with realities and emotions to which I would otherwise have lost access.The poems are so intimate that some part of me always wonders whether they'll be too much for listeners. But so far, people seem to be moved by the poems, and to find resonance in them, even if they aren't parents themselves (though maybe especially if they are.)

At this reading, our son -- who had just woken up from a nap, hence the slightly glazed look in his eye -- sat quietly the entire time, listening. I don't know how much he understood; I suspect that much of the poetry went over his head. But it was moving to me to have my mother there, and my husband, and our son, especially given this collection's subject matter. Afterwards, when people clapped, our son joined them in applauding, noting approvingly, "We're clapping so loud!"

And then people asked wonderful questions. Were you ever shy about sharing something so personal? When did you start writing poetry? (I let my mother answer that one.) What was it like, writing a poem each week? Was writing mother poems different from writing Torah poems, and if so, how? What are you working on now? Who do you hope will read these poems, and what's that like for you? And so on. And then there were cookies (thank you Roberta!), and cheese and grapes (thank you David and Joanne!), and I signed books, and it was thoroughly lovely.

My deep thanks go to everyone who attended the North County reading, who listened so attentively, and who asked such terrific questions afterwards during the Q-and-A. Thank you for being here and for helping me celebrate this new book!

Photos by Jane Shiyah.

Waiting to Unfold costs $13.95 (US, CAN) / £9.10 / €10.66 and is available at Phoenicia Publishing and on Amazon (and Amazon UK and Amazon Europe) -- though publisher and author earn more if you buy it directly from Phoenicia. Still: buy it wherever works for you, I'm just happy that people want to read it!

Who separates, and connects, Shabbat and week

8991890544_aeb0e20fe9_mIt's not something I often do, by myself. I don't know why not. It only takes a few moments. At this season and at this latitude, of course, it happens well after putting our son to bed; in deepest midwinter it happens in the afternoon, well before even his early supper. I love that when we live attuned to the seasons around us, we experience that pendulum shift. The challenge, of course, is to enjoy what we have now without fearing what comes later; to enjoy what comes later without yearning for what we have now...

Havdalah makes me think of the end of the various retreats I went on as part of my rabbinic school journey: the end of a week at the old (or new) Elat Chayyim, the end of smicha students' week, the end of the ALEPH Kallah, the end of a week of DLTI. Our learning always culminated in a Shabbat which honestly felt like a foretaste of the world to come. And then we would gather for havdalah, standing in a big circle -- outdoors, if the season permitted it -- and the flame of the havdalah candle held aloft would streak our faces with gold.

I always used to cry during havdalah at those retreats. I would cry because the end of Shabbat meant that our retreat was ending; that my precious time with my community of fellow travelers, students and teachers alike, was waning; because as much as I looked forward to returning to my ordinary life back home, every time I parted from those beloved friends (and our shared paradigm, our shared language, our shared love of learning and of Torah and of God) felt like tearing myself away from something I wasn't sure how to live without.

Of course, the gift of havdalah is that it ushers in a new week, full of new joys and new adventures. And at the end of each week, Shabbat returns -- if we're willing and able to take notice. The flywheel keeps turning. Shabbat leads to week, which leads to Shabbat, which leads to week. Shabbat wouldn't be so special if it weren't experienced against the backdrop of weekday; but the weekday too has its ordinary pleasures.

There's something magical and bittersweet about havdalah, about marking the end of Shabbat with these words and these intentions. A last taste of Shabbat before it goes away for a week. The wine, a remembrance of how just last night we made kiddush. The fire, which gleams and glints on our fingernails, reminding us that we are beings made of light. The spices, which pre-emptively revive us lest we faint away at the removal of the second soul which tradition says we borrow during Shabbat. The blessing for God who separates between -- and, in the version I favor, also connects between -- Shabbat and week. (I learned that variation some years ago.)

Once the candle fizzles out in the wine, there's a palpable feeling of something missing. Singing Eliahu Hanavi and Miriam HaNeviah stirs my heart. What would it feel like, if the entire cosmos could live in Shabbat consciousness all the time? If cruelty and suffering could cease, if we could live in a world truly redeemed? God only knows. But at least we have the opportunity to dip into that feeling once a week, if we're willing and able to take it. And even when we sorrow at its departure, we know it will return.

Shavua tov / a good week, a week of peace; may gladness reign, and joy increase.




Distinctions (a poem for havdalah), 2013

As Shabbat wanes (2009)

Worth reading: Ethan Zuckerman's Rewire

Pardon me for a moment while I kvell. My husband Ethan Zuckerman has a new book out: Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection, published by WW Norton. Here's how Norton describes it:

Rewirecover-197x300We live in an age of connection, one that is accelerated by the Internet. This increasingly ubiquitous, immensely powerful technology often leads us to assume that as the number of people online grows, it inevitably leads to a smaller, more cosmopolitan world. We’ll understand more, we think. We’ll know more. We’ll engage more and share more with people from other cultures. In reality, it is easier to ship bottles of water from Fiji to Atlanta than it is to get news from Tokyo to New York.

In Rewire, media scholar and activist Ethan Zuckerman explains why the technological ability to communicate with someone does not inevitably lead to increased human connection. At the most basic level, our human tendency to “flock together” means that most of our interactions, online or off, are with a small set of people with whom we have much in common. In examining this fundamental tendency, Zuckerman draws on his own work as well as the latest research in psychology and sociology to consider technology’s role in disconnecting ourselves from the rest of the world.

For those who seek a wider picture—a picture now critical for survival in an age of global economic crises and pandemics—Zuckerman highlights the challenges, and the headway already made, in truly connecting people across cultures. From voracious xenophiles eager to explore other countries to bridge figures who are able to connect one culture to another, people are at the center of his vision for a true kind of cosmopolitanism. And it is people who will shape a new approach to existing technologies, and perhaps invent some new ones, that embrace translation, cross-cultural inspiration, and the search for new, serendipitous experiences.

I am most certainly biased -- I've read the book many times over in draft form; besides which, I'm awfully fond of its author (today's our fifteenth wedding anniversary!) -- but I think this book is fantastic.

As it happens, I'm not alone in that. Publisher's Weekly gave it a starred review, calling it a "fascinating and powerful reflection on what it means to be a citizen of the world in the Internet age" and praising its "imaginative and inventive reflections [which] offer a resourceful guide to living a connected life with intention and insight." And sources ranging from The LA Times to Foreign Policy call it one of the top books to read this year.

Rewire combines a thoughtful and nuanced exploration of what it means to be a citizen of the world today, and of the places where our habitual blinders keep us from connecting across borders and cultures, with engaging personal stories -- some from Ethan's own experiences, some from his voluminous research. (I'm particularly fond of the one about Arnel Pineda. We both became big Pineda fans when he was researching that story; we even bought a Journey Live in Manila dvd!) And the book also offers thoughts about the choices we could make in order to shape a better, and more interconnected, world. At its heart, this book is about people, and about the amazing richness to which we have access when we connect with each other across our differences.

In my life and work this takes a somewhat different shape -- cconnecting with people across religious differences, both within Judaism and across the broader religious (and non-religious!) spectrum -- but this kind of bridging and connection is a passion which Ethan and I share. It's one which we hope to pass on to our son. And I love knowing that someday, when our son is old enough to read it and understand it, we can press this book into his hands and say, "This is what your dad was working on when you were born, and he wrote it for you."

danah boyd writes:

A compelling account of an intertwined global world, Ethan Zuckerman’s Rewire makes you fall in love with a wide range of cultural practices and peoples. As he explains the importance of understanding not just how information flows but also how people connect, he lays a foundation for rethinking what global citizenship can and should be.

You can buy it on Amazon (hardcover; Kindle) or Powells (hardcover). If you want to natter about it once you've read it, feel free to come back here and join the conversation in comments! I am so happy that this book exists -- not only because my husband wrote it, but also because I think it says important, valuable things. Here's to rewiring our world.

Join me on Sunday for poems, Q-and-A, and conversation!

This past Monday I gave my first public reading from Waiting to Unfold, at Knesset Israel synagogue in Pittsfield after their kosher hot lunch. I read to an avid and interested group of about 25 people, and then took questions about everything from Torah scrolls to postpartum depression. Aftewards, a pair of older ladies approached my bookselling table and told me that it had been 60 years since they had parented newborns, but that hearing my poems brought it all back. Hearing that from them was a real gift for me.

Midweek I shared a few poems at a local hospital's training about postpartum depression. (And our son came with me, which added a special spice to the evening.) That was incredibly powerful for me, too: sharing some of the poems of my postpartum journey with people who will be tasked with diagnosing and caring for women who suffer from PPD, who may be able to let them know that there is hope and that they are not alone.

And on this coming Sunday afternoon, I'll be sharing poems from the collection again:


Sunday June 9, 4pm
Poetry reading and conversation / signing / Q-and-A / plus refreshments!
Congregation Beth Israel, 53 Lois Street, North Adams
cosponsored by MotherWoman and the Berkshire County Perinatal Support Coalition

Join Rabbi Rachel Barenblat (70 faces, Phoenicia, 2011) for a reading from Waiting to Unfold (Phoenicia, 2013), her new collection of poems, written as weekly poems during her first year of motherhood. Rodger Kamenetz says, "The intense observation of the poet and the intense observation of the mother unite in a celebration of what is new and newborn, what is intensely felt and cherished and what is lost and mourned." Refreshments & book-signing to follow.

CBI is my shul, and I'm honored to be sharing my poems from the bimah there. If you haven't yet visited our beautiful sanctuary set like a gem beside wetland and mountains, and coming to services doesn't tempt you, come listen to some poems instead!

We'll also hear a few words from a MotherWoman representative, who will speak briefly about the work they do with new mothers across Berkshire County. Please join us!

My first poetry reading with our son by my side

By the time we find the right room, it feels as though we've taken every elevator in the hospital complex. Though once we go down the right one, and exit on floor G, I realize in a flash that I have been in this place before -- this is the floor where we took childbirth classes, an infinity ago before our son was born. "I think I've been here before," I say aloud.

"I don't think so," says our son, who is holding his pink Hello Kitty water bottle in one hand and holding my hand with the other.

"It was before you were born," I tell him.

"Ohhh," he says, meaningfully, though I'm not sure he really understands what "before you were born" means.

We're at Berkshire Medical Center to be brief special guests at a MotherWoman training for caregivers -- therapists, nurses, and so on -- who work with postpartum women. When we enter the room, it's packed. And it is the very same room where Ethan and I practiced different kinds of labor breathing.

Their time is tight and they have a lot to cover, so I'm only going to read two poems from Waiting to Unfold. Since this is a training about working with women who may have postpartum depression, I choose an early poem from the collection which was written during the worst of the depression: "Besieged." As soon as I tell them the title, a knowing hum runs around the room and someone murmurs, "that's all you really have to say." I read the poem, and I can feel them receiving it and taking it to heart.

After I finish the first poem, our son, who is sitting at a table full of therapists, says "Mommy?"

"Yes, my love?"

"Can I help you read the story?"

"You can come up here with me," I offer, and he does; he stands at the front of the room, holding my hand. I can feel the energy in the room shift. Everyone here saw me come in with a little boy, but there's something different about hearing these first-year poems with the subject of the poems standing at the podium too.

I start reading the last poem in the collection, "One Year (Mother Psalm 9)," and as I read the first few lines, I realize that I am near tears. "When the doctor brought you / through my narrow places / I was as in a dream" -- and this is the very building where the doctor did that very thing -- where I was transformed from a woman into a mother.

As I'm reading the words, time is telescoping. I'm inhabiting two spaces in time at once: his birth and those early days, and this moment, right now, standing with our tall and funny three and a half year old in front of a room of caregivers reading this poem.

And then he chimes in, over the top of the poem, "And don't forget, you have to look out for alligators!"

The whole room collapses in laughter. I manage to finish the poem, they thank us for coming, and we find our way back to the right elevator again.

Pearls from Heschel's Heavenly Torah

41r3QS5xzTL._SY300_When Rabbi Akiva found difficult or strange language in the Torah, his ears would widen, for in his view strangeness in the text was a gateway to the discovery of the Torah's secrets. Rabbi Ishmael's goal was the integrity of the text. The Torah speaks in human language. If there is difficult or strange language in the Torah, then it is a mistake to take it at face value...

Rabbi Ishmael would teach that raz [Hebrew: "secret meaning"] is an anagram for zar [Hebrew: "bizarre"], for a text should be interpreted according to its plain meaning. But Rabbi Akiva would teach that peshat [Hebrew: "plain meaning"] is an anagram for tippesh [Hebrew: "foolish"], for the truth cannot be grasped with nothing but the tongs of plain reason...

There were thus two points of view among the Sages: (1) a transcendent point of view, comprising a method of thought always open to the higher realms, striving to understand matters of Torah through a supernal lens; and (2) an immanent point of view, comprising a method of thought modest and confined, satisfied to understand matters of Torah through an earthly lens defined by human experience.

My Wednesday morning Torah study group is reading Abraham Joshua Heschel's Torah Min HaShamayim b'Aspeklaria HaDorot / Heavenly Torah As Refracted Through the Generations (translation and commentary by Gordon Tucker.) This book was originally published in Hebrew in three volumes, and has only recently been released in English. I'm endlessly grateful to Gordon Tucker (whose work I had already admired) for his work in translating this so that it is opened up to a wider readership.

Each week, our group meets for coffee and bagels and companionship. And, after a period of chatting and catching up, a silence falls over the table, and someone says, "shall we do some learning?" And we all grab our books, and we make the blessing over Torah study, and then we dive in. We take turns reading aloud, pausing every so often for conversation and questions. We've been working our way through this book for some weeks now, and we're almost finished with the introduction. (This book is going to take us a very, very long time. But that's okay.) So far, I have to say, it's fantastic.

I'm fascinated by the binary between these two great sages, Rabbi Akiva (whose name and whose story are quite familiar -- as is his martyrdom) and Rabbi Ishmael (about whom I knew little, before we began this learning, beyond his 13 exegetical principles.) Heschel does a beautiful job of articulating their differing sets of interpretive lenses and perspectives. Often the text comes across as mouth-puckeringly tart. (Take that line about raz being an anagram for zar and peshat being an anagram for tippesh -- that made our whole table laugh out loud. Okay, maybe you had to be there. But it's really quite witty and dry.)

Rabbi Akiva, in Heschel's framing, is the transcendent thinker, the poet, the mystic, the one who insists that every letter of Torah contains hidden meaning and that our every action impacts the Holy Blessed One. Rabbi Ishmael, in contrast, is the immanent thinker, the rationalist, the one who looks for plain meaning and for intelligible practice which we can derive logically from the text.

In a certain way, Rabbi Akiva is the more literal reader of Torah, finding supernal possibilities in every letter and so cherishing the individual letters even when a phrase's meaning is unclear or strange. Rabbi Ishmael is the more relaxed reader of Torah, willing to acknowledge that some of what's in Torah is an articulation of custom rather than a holy commandment from on high, interested in the laws and practices we can build on the scaffolding of the text. One might say that Rabbi Ishmael comes to Torah with a human's-eye view, while Rabbi  Akiva aspires to approach Torah with a God's-eye view.

I love Heschel's assertion that when Rabbi Akiva found something strange in Torah, his interest would be piqued (in the original language, it says his ears would open like funnels) because in his mind Torah's moments of strangeness, its oddities, its incongruities were doorways into the Torah's secrets. There's a playfulness there which appeals to me, both as a poet and as a rabbi. But I also love Heschel's articulation of Rabbi Ishmael's calm, gentle intellectual approach. The Torah is written in our own language, says Rabbi Ishmael; it's meant to be understandable and clear. There's something of the dichotomy between the Hasid and the mitnagid, here. Part of what interests me is the importance of the fruitful tension between these two age-old perspectives.

I remembered having heard someone speak about this text some years ago, so I went digging in my own blog archives, and found a post from the URJ Biennial in 2005: Rabbi Marmur on Heschel. I hadn't realized, until I reread that post just now, that some od the same quotes and ideas which I find so compelling now (my edition is becoming peppered with marginal notes and exclamation points) are the same ones I chose to include in that post eight years ago.

Anyway: this is great stuff. I'm excited to be delving into it, and I trust I'll find further pearls to share with y'all as we go. Meanwhile, I'll be over here chuckling at "the truth cannot be grasped with nothing but the tongs of plain reason" for the rest of the morning...


Korach, privilege, and striving for more

Korach-rebellion-TTThe story of Korach is a fascinating one.

Right on the heels of last week's portion (the scouts, their negative report, the declaration that this generation would wander in the wilderness for forty years), Korach decides it's a good time to foment rebellion.  He tells Moses and Aaron that they have no right to raise themselves above the community, because the whole community is holy. A sacrifice contest ensues, in which Aaron makes an incense offering and so do Korach and his followers. God, exasperated, tells Moses and Aaron to stand back so that God can wipe out the whole ornery community. But Moses argues that it's not fair to punish the whole community for the sins of just a few. So instead, God causes the earth to open up, and it swallows Korach and his followers.

This year I'm struck, right away, by the detail that Korach is a son of Levi. In the ancient priestly system, there were three categories of Israelites: kohen, levi, and yisrael. The Levi'im, or Levites, had the special task of performing certain kinds of priestly and sacrificial service. The Kohanim, a subgroup of Levi'im, were the Levites who were descended from Aaron directly. (Since Aaron didn't worship the Golden Calf, the story goes, he and his descendants were granted the privilege of making the sacrifices.) Everyone else fell into the category of Yisrael.

Korach's argument appears, initially, to be a communitarian one. "For all the community are holy, all of them, and Adonai is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above Adonai's congregation?" Who among us can't relate to this plaintive outcry? All the community is holy, not just the people who do the work of leadership! Maybe especially when that leadership is a hereditary privilege, open only to a certain few. It's easy for that to rankle.

But Korach isn't speaking on behalf of the ordinary Israelite who might feel disenfranchised by Moses and Aaron. Korach is a Levite, already part of the hereditary priestly system. He says the whole community is holy, but when push comes to shove, he battles with Aaron via competing sacrifices. It appears that he wants to be High Priest himself. Seen through that lens, suddenly his rebellion doesn't look so laudable.

Of course, it's possible that this story was enshrined in Torah because the priests wanted to make sure that their exclusive right to the priesthood was understood to be divinely-ordained. (The Documentary Hypothesis ascribes the story of Korach's rebellion to P, or "priestly," source.) But that doesn't make it any less powerful as a parable about human nature.

Korach has a legitimate argument for how the community could become more just -- but he sabotages his own argument because he's not willing or able to work within existing community systems to create change. (And it doesn't seem to occur to him that from the outside, his impassioned drive for change also looks like a way of solidifying and expanding his own privilege.) How might his story (and ours) have been different if he'd been willing to look for the partial truth even in the viewpoint with which he disagreed?

The Reform and Reconstructionist movements have relinquished the divisions between kohen, levi, and yisrael. In our egalitarian communities, all are equal (whether descended trom one tribe or another; whether Jews by birth, or Jews by choice.) And even in parts of the Jewish world which still honor the kohen/levi/yisrael divisions, the rabbinate has never been a hereditary aristocracy, and each Jew has the full right to connect with God in prayer.

Maybe we've finally built what Korach was agitating for. I suspect that we can still benefit from learning from Korach's mistakes. We need to bear in mind that if our yearning for social justice is going to bear fruit, it may require us to work within flawed systems. That it's laudable to strive for more, but we need to be conscious of our own privilege and of how others see us. The whole community is holy, and God is indeed in our midst! And the best way to open ourselves to that divine presence is to be gracious, generous, and kind to each other, even when we disagree. Otherwise, we may be swallowed up by our own self-importance, and lose the opportunity to build a better world.


 I don't know who's responsible for the image which accompanies this post; if you do, please tell me and I'll amend the post.

Previous divrei Torah for this portion: