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A Shabbat evening with the Nava Tehila community

At my first Jewish Renewal Shabbat services, back at the old Elat Chayyim in 2002, I felt as though my soul had come home. Every time I have davened with Nava Tehila, the Jewish Renewal community of Jerusalem, I have felt the same way.

When I saw that Nava Tehila didn't have a scheduled service during my time in Israel, I shrugged and figured that was just the luck of the draw. They only meet once a month; I was only here for ten days; it was okay. I made plans to spend Friday evening with Bill and Trudianne, two Jewish Renewal friends from Edmonton, whom I met at the Reb Zalman retreat at Elat Chayyim in 2004. I figured we'd come up with someplace to daven one way or another.

But then on Thursday night at my poetry reading (sponsored by Nava Tehila, and hosted in the home of a Nava Tehila member) I learned that the community would be having a service after all. It wasn't an official open-to-the-public service led by Reb Ruth and her band of amazing musicians; rather, a community service, led by community members, hosted in a community member's home. They were gracious enough to welcome us into their midst for the night, and it was exactly what my heart needed.

As the musicians began to play, people lit candles, and I went to kindle two tealights myself. As I lit them, I was overwhelmed by a wave of emotion -- thinking of my usual weekly tradition of lighting Shabbat candles with our son while Skyping with my parents 2000 miles away. I have had an amazing time in Israel, and will be enriched by this trip for a long time to come -- but I also really miss our little boy, and lighting candles without him made me a little bit weepy.

We sat in a circle in a gracious apartment with a big and beautiful mirpesset (balcony) from which one can see the Mount of Olives, the panorama of the Jerusalem foothills, and apparently on clear nights one can see the lights of Amman in the distance across the Dead Sea. There were several guitarists, one person playing a small harp, and one drummer. We moved through the psalms of kabbalat Shabbat, the service of welcoming the Shabbat bride, without any commentary or page numbers (or for that matter, siddurim) -- people just knew the words.

Many of the melodies were melodies I know from previous encounters with Nava Tehila, or from their two beautiful cds. (You can hear their music at Bandcamp.) Spontaneous harmonies unfolded. We sang with gusto. The musicians were terrific: all in synch with each other, changing tempo and mood effortlessly. At the best moments it felt as though we were all part of one organism, one heart with many bodies and voices giving voice to our shared Shabbat prayer.

When we went out on the mirpesset to welcome the Shabbat bride, I found myself overcome by emotion again. Grateful to be here -- grateful to be ringing in Shabbat with a room full of people who know what these words mean and who love them as much as I do -- amazed to be singing these ancient psalms, and these medieval Shabbat hymns, here, in this place, Jerusalem -- awestruck to be davening outdoors, looking over these hills which are at once so parallel to, and so wildly different from, the hills on which our deck looks out at home -- filled with yearning: for home, for here, for the healed and whole Jerusalem of my dreams, for my family (and especially our son), for connection with Shabbat...

And then someone I didn't know placed a kind hand on my arm, and I thanked her silently, and I pulled myself together and let the tears recede, and joined the singing again.

At one point, when we had paused for a moment, we heard the adhān ringing out from minaret after minaret. "God is great," someone murmured. "They're singing harmony with us," someone else said. A moment later came the riotous ringing of Friday evening church bells.

After an hour of luxurious kabbalat Shabbat singing, we heard a d'var Torah from a community member (usually given in Hebrew; tonight, in deference to the many visitors, he spoke mostly in English) and then another community member led us in a short-and-sweet ma'ariv (evening) service. We blessed juice and challah, enjoyed a glorious potluck (my contribution was the fresh strawberries I'd bought in the Old City that afternoon), and then spent some time in triads talking about how we're feeling spiritually as Pesach approaches. My trio sat on the mirpesset, and as we talked, we stopped to marvel at the fireworks down in the valley -- an Arab wedding, my hosts explained.

When we regrouped we sang some spontaneous niggunim -- more close harmonies, more deep feeling -- and then Bill and Trudianne and I regretfully bid the group farewell and caught a cab back to the Old City.

Before I left, I was honored with the request to share a poem. (I read this week's Torah poem from 70 faces, "Like God.") Before I read the poem, I thanked them for welcoming me. I said that every American rabbi comes to Jerusalem hoping for spiritual sustenance, for that feeling of one's soul being revitalized and rejuvenated -- and that I'm not sure everyone actually has that experience, even though it's what we come here for -- and that davening with Nava Tehila gives me exactly that: it fills me up and renews me to return home and bring these living waters back to the community I'm blessed to serve.

An unexpected messenger

I walked to Ben Yehuda street toward the end of Shabbat, thinking that I was going to wait on a park bench until Shabbat ended and the stores opened, in order to try to buy a Spiderman kippah for our son. (I should've just bought one in Tzfat when I first saw them; I haven't been able to find one anywhere else!) I did stay on a park bench for quite a while, and waited until well after nightfall, and the kippah stores did not open, and finally I walked back to the Old City and treated myself to one last Jerusalem dinner (kubbeh, pita and hummous, salatim, and a slushy mint-flecked lemonade -- glorious.)

But I did have an encounter on Ben Yehuda which may have been the real reason that I was there.

I was sitting on the park bench, thinking about my trip, thinking about home, when a man in a dark suit wearing a black hat stopped to ask me something in Hebrew. I answered, he thanked me, he moved on. A few minutes later, he was back. And he asked if he could talk with me. I was initially a bit reluctant, but there was something about him which felt safe to me, so I acquiesced. He said (in Hebrew) that he sensed that I was sad, and that his heart felt a connection to me, and that he wanted to urge me to cultivate joy. This sounds corny, doesn't it? But my instincts told me that this guy was okay, and I am never one to turn down a spontaneous spiritual encounter.

He asked if I pray, and I said that I do indeed. Then he asked if he could recite a psalm for me or with me. I suggested psalm 126, which I know by heart, and we recited it together. There was something extraordinary about saying those words -- that ancient psalmist's expression of joy at returning to Zion -- in this place. Then he offered psalm 122, and we prayed that one together, too. "I lift my eyes up to the mountains. From where comes my help? My help comes from the Holy Blessed One, creator of heaven and earth!" It's another one of my favorites.

He asked if I would tell him what had been on my mind. I said that I was thinking about my son, who is far away. He told me about his eight children and grandchildren, and about his son Noam who was born with encephalitis -- "water on the brain" -- who died fifteen months ago at the age of twenty. I offered him the traditional words of consolation, and he clasped my hands and blessed me. He told me about the nonprofit he now runs, which provides free meals for the poor, and which is named in his son's memory, that the merit from the good deed might accrue on his son's behalf.

We smiled at each other. He told me that he is an Orthodox rabbi named Yitzchak; I told him that my name is Rachel, and he called me his sister. He expressed some surprise at my Hebrew and my fluency with the psalms, and asked what I do. I told him that I am a poet and a mother -- a partial truth; I didn't have the sense, in that moment, that he would respond well to hearing that I am a rabbi, so I left that part out. He blessed me that I should have joy in my writing and joy in my son. "Teach your son to love everyone," he advised me, solemnly. "That is the most important thing." He blessed me again, and I thanked him from the bottom of my heart.

So I didn't get the kippah I was hoping to find. But I did get a blessing -- several blessings, really. Perhaps the friendly man in the black hat was an angel, a messenger, stopping in to remind me to serve God with love and with joy.


Meeting new (old) friends

One of the joys of being a longtime blogger is having the chance to meet people whose words one has read for years. I've had the opportunity to meet three bloggers while I've been in Jerusalem. First I had lunch with Chaviva (of Just Call Me Chaviva); then Ilene (of Primagravida) hosted me for a poetry reading; and then I spent most of a day with Vicky (of Bethlehem Blogger.)

On Thursday Chaviva and I met for lunch on Emek Refaim in West Jerusalem, where we chatted about life, parenthood (her baby is adorable), how I came to the rabbinate, how she came to Israel, how Israel has and hasn't been what she imagined before she made aliyah, what it's like living far away from family, and so on. Chaviva lives in Neve Daniel, which I had seen briefly from the bus on my way home from Hebron the day before. It is lovely and green and looks like a great place to rear a kid. (Of course, to its residents it is a  suburb of Jerusalem; to the residents of Bethlehem just down the hill, it is an illegal settlement. I did mention that I'm trying to sit with the contradictions, right?) I didn't think to snap a photo, so you'll just have to take my word for our encounter.

The poetry reading, moderated by Ilene and hosted by a lovely woman named Rachel in her Baka apartment, was wonderful. I read poems from both 70 faces and Waiting to Unfold, and talked about Torah and parenthood and poetry and postpartum depression and all kinds of good things. It was such a sweet evening that I almost missed my guesthouse's curfew!

And then the next day Vicky came to meet me at the guesthouse for spiritual pilgrims where I have been staying in the Old City. She took me to a fantastic bookstore-café in East Jerusalem where we ate sandwiches and chocolate cake, and browsed books, and talked about all sorts of things -- how she came to Bethlehem, her PhD research, the children with whom she works, how and why I became a rabbi, culture, theology, her Bethlehem host family, and more. It was the sort of meeting where one instantly feels as though one is with a longtime friend. Of course, we've been reading each others' blogs for years, so we have known each other for a long time, even if we hadn't met in person before. But I suspect that our blog-familiarity is only part of why we clicked so comfortably.

St. Peter in Gallicantu.

Then she took me to see one of her favorite places in Jerusalem, an utterly spectacular church on the far side of the Old City. It's called St. Peter in Gallicantu, and the name denotes the cock crowing -- as in the story of Peter rejecting Jesus three times before the rooster could announce the morning. I didn't manage to get any great photographs of it, so the one above will have to stand in. The interior mosaics which cover the dome and its pillars are incredible: a soft rainbow of colors, a ring of angels bearing trumpets whose robes resemble clouds. And although there was a tour group there when we arrived, we sat quietly off to the side and in time they departed and left us alone in the basilica, which was quiet and peaceful in a way I rarely associate with this city! The church was serene and I said a silent prayer that real peace may come speedily and soon to this place where so many people for so many centuries have sought connection with God.

With Vicky, post-falafel.

She came with me back to my guesthouse so I could don a clean white shirt for Shabbat. We had glorious falafel near the Damascus Gate, and she taught me how to say strawberries in Arabic (so I could buy some for the Shabbat potluck I would be attending), and then we regretfully parted ways. Vicky wrote a really lovely post about our day together: Meeting the Velveteen Rabbi.

I'm grateful that the internet has brought me into connection with so many wonderful people here.

The adventure of staying somewhere new

View from the roof of the Ecce Homo, twilight. Below: intersection with minaret, shopkeeper's wares.

13408211325_efa47a699a_nI've never stayed in the Old City before. The moment I walk out of the convent guesthouse where I am staying, I'm on the cobblestones of the Via Dolorosa. Merchants selling Christian religious icons beckon me into their storefronts. If I continue walking away from the Lion's Gate, I reach a T-junction. If I turn left there, and follow the road as it zigs and zags a bit, I wind up at the Kotel. If I turn right, and follow the road as it zigs and zags a bit, I wind up at the Damascus Gate.

I don't think these streets are officially part of the marketplace (shuk in Hebrew, souq in Arabic), but there are market stalls along them nonetheless. A few vendors are selling prayer beads / rosaries (both Christian and Muslim), or religious icons. Others sell leather sandals, spices, Arabic candy, loops of sesame-encrusted bread, plastic toys, abayas, and alarm clocks shaped like the Dome of the Rock.

I am an obvious outsider in my jeans, sandals, and t-shirt. Even when I don't have my camera out, even without a guidebook in hand, I am clearly a foreigner, which means that vendors call out to me as I pass. "Hello! Miss! Step inside. Come and see." I smile but keep on walking; I'm not in the market for their wares. I wish I could snap photographs of the market stalls, and of the locals as they weave effortlessly through the foot traffic, but I don't.

Breathing in, I inhale coffee with cardamom, a tendril of the incense burning at the spice vendor's shop, vehicle exhaust, the apple-like sweetness of nargila smoke. The scents link me instantly with my summer in Jerusalem and with the trip Ethan and I took to Amman. This is the fragrance of the Middle East. I wonder whether I first encountered it on my adolescent trip to Cairo with my parents and sister, all those years ago, but I can't call up those sense-memories. One way or another, there is nothing like this scent back home.

13408386863_c75b22552c_nAround me I hear the clamor of voices, mostly speaking Arabic, which I do not understand. Occasionally I hear a snatch of Hebrew, mostly from the visibly-Jewish passers-by, the men in black frock coats with peyos and hats, the women with their hair wrapped in scarves who push strollers and lead little ones by the hand. The streets are narrow; there is barely enough room for the occasional car which creeps through, horn blaring when the foot traffic gets in its way.

As I return to the guesthouse, the set hour arrives for Muslim evening prayer. The adhān rings out first from one minaret, then from another, and within moments I am ensconced in an aural web of voices coming from every direction. The melody is plaintive and melancholy to my untrained ear. (Not so much a melody as a nusach -- like the old melodic modes in which we sing weekday prayer.) The voices seem to ripple, like the surface of a pond into which stones have been thrown. When the call to prayer falls silent, I hear the sound of church bells.


Photos, once again,  from my ever-expanding trip photoset.

Two historic synagogues in Tzfat

After a wonderful morning of davening the morning service with my family and celebrating my nephew as he became bar mitzvah, and a delicious lunch at the Bar-El guesthouse, our guide Kobi took us to visit two historic synagogues before setting us loose to wander the streets of the artists' quarter.

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At the Karo synagogue: lights, and corner genizah; Sefardic-style Torah case.

The first is the synagogue named after Rabbi Joseph Karo, the author of the Shulchan Aruch, "The Set Table," a compendium of halakha first printed in 1565 which is considered authoritative in many quarters even today. Rabbi Karo was born in Spain in 1488, though emigrated as a child to Portugal when the Inquisition began. After the Jews were driven out of Portugal, he made his way to in Tzfat, where he was chief rabbi for 35 years.

The synagogue we visited bears his name, though it is not precisely the one where he davened. That one was destroyed in the earthquake of 1759. It was rebuilt, and then a second earthquake in 1837 took the second version down, too! But both times, the wall containing the aron, the ark where the Torah scrolls are kept, remained intact. Some saw that as a miracle. Others, our guide noted, attributed it to the fact that the wall containing the ark was double-thick.

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At the Ari Ashkenazi synagogue: stained glass window; aron / ark, with wooden carvings.

From there it is a very short walk, only a few scant blocks, to the Ari synagogue, named after Rabbi Isaac Luria who is known as the Ari. That synagogue was built in the late 16th century, and may be the oldest synagogue in Israel to have been continuously in use. The Ari is the one of the original guiding lights of what we know today as kabbalah.

It was the Ari who took his disciples each Friday evening into a nearby field to greet the Sabbath bride -- the custom which has evolved into the service we know today as kabbalat Shabbat, "receiving" or "welcoming Shabat." (If you see a similarity between kabbalat and kabbalah, that's because kabbalah literally means "that which is received" -- wisdom which comes to us from beyond.)


Ceiling at the synagogue of the Ari.

When I think of the Ari, I think of kabbalah. The idea that when God's initial light streamed into creation it was too powerful to be contained, and the vessels of creation shattered, leaving sparks of divinity scattered everywhere, and it's our job to perform mitzvot mindfully and thereby uplift those sparks back to God...? That's Lurianic; that's what tikkun olam means.

When I think of Rabbi Joseph Karo, I think of halakha, because the Shulchan Aruch has been so foundational. It's easy for me to forget that he too was a mystic. It is said that he was visited by an angelic being who taught him secret mysteries of Torah.

I can't say that I had a mystical experience in either synagogue; perhaps the general tourist experience isn't conducive to that. Still, they are truly beautiful prayer places, and I am glad to have visited them again.

Leading my family in morning prayer, again

Seven years ago I had the honor of leading my family in prayer as we celebrated my niece's bat mitzvah. It was my first time leading services for my family, which was an incredibly meaningful experience for me. I had also never led a service by myself for such a large crowd; we were close to 150 people that Shabbat afternoon!

This morning I am once again presiding over a family simcha (joyous occasion) -- the bar mitzvah of that niece's little brother. This time around, a group of about 20 will be davening together in a more intimate setting -- the prayer space at the Bar El bed and breakfast in Tzfat. (This is where the Renewal-style minyan of Tzfat meets during the Days of Awe.)

We're borrowing a Torah scroll from my friend Reuven Goldfarb, who took my "Writing the psalms of our hearts" class at the ALEPH Kallah last summer. (I'm also borrowing a guitar through Reuven, which I deeply appreciate!) There will be song, prayer, poetry, and Torah aplenty.

It's always a joy to be a part of a young person's coming-of-age into a new stage of maturing Jewish identity, and the joy is increased when that young person is part of my own family.

For those who are interested, here's the siddur we created for the occasion: MaxSiddurFinal [pdf]. (The ones we'll be using this morning in Tzfat each have unique covers, featuring art courtesy of my niece; this is just the interior material.) It's a pretty simple weekday morning siddur, with some good poetry interwoven with the prayers -- I'm looking forward to using it.

Whether or not you are davening shacharit this morning, I hope you will think kindly of my family today as we celebrate this lifecycle milestone wtih joy!



In Akko: Crusader-era ruins and the Jezzar Pasha mosque

13358289154_bf1dcfd468_nAnother new-to-me destination on my family's travels was Akko -- one of the oldest continuously-inhabited sites in the region. (Bet She'an has evidence of habitation for about 6000 years; Akko, about 4000 years.) From the city's Wikipedia page I learned that the first settlement on this site was in the early Bronze age, about 3000 BCE. I also learned that "The name 'Akka is recorded in Egyptian sources from about 2000 BCE, with three signs (the initial guttural, "k" and "a"; followed by the sign for 'foreign city.')" How cool is that?

At one time Akko was ruled by Rome; then became part of the Byzantine empire; then spent a while under Muslim rule; then the Crusaders took control. By the 1130s it had a population of around 25,000 and was the biggest city in the Crusader kingdom except for Jerusalem. Eventually the Ottomans ruled there; then it became part of British Mandate Palestine. In 1929 there was a pogrom during which Arab residents demolished the synagogue in the old city. Tensions between Arabs and Jews were high again between 1936 and 1939. In 1948, when the city became part of the modern state of Israel, about 3/4 of its Arab inhabitants were displaced. But today it remains a "mixed city," with both an Arab and a Jewish population.

What reading I was able to do before the trip suggested that the relationships between the Arab and Jewish populations here are still complicated: see Arab rock attack at home in Acre, 2013, or The Israeli TV guide to cheap Arab lives, 2014. (Note that those reports come from very different news sources, so they paint quite different pictures.) I'm heartened to read about places like the Sir Charles Clore Jewish-Arab Community Center -- though I don't know enough to know how to balance the existence of a place like that against the other stories to which I just linked.

13356256385_92f1ed8d39_nAnyway: given the link that my sister sent out before the trip (Underground Crusader city revealed beneath streets of Acre, Ha'aretz) I suspected Akko was on our agenda for primarily archaeological reasons, and I was right. Here's a glimpse of that Ha'aretz piece to whet your appetite, as it did mine:

Preparing to open a new subterranean section to the public, workers cleaned stones this week in an arched passageway underground. Etched in plaster on one wall was a coat of arms — graffiti left by a medieval traveler. Nearby was a main street of cobblestones and a row of shops that once sold clay figurines and ampules for holy water, popular souvenirs for pilgrims.

All were last used by residents in 1291, the year a Muslim army from Egypt defeated Acre's Christian garrison and leveled its remains. The existing city, built by the Ottoman Turks around 1750, effectively preserved this earlier town, which had been hidden for centuries under the rubble.

"It's like Pompeii of Roman times — it's a complete city," said Eliezer Stern, the Israeli archaeologist in charge of Acre. He called the town "one of the most exciting sites in the world of archaeology."

I know that archaeology is often political -- especially in the "Holy Land;" here's a great article about that, actually: Digging for the Truth -- but I couldn't help being excited at the prospect of seeing ruins like these, especially given that the whole Old City is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

13356287753_a024faee29_nWe began with the Ottoman-era Citadel, and then entered the Hospitallers' Fortress, the vast vaulted halls built and used by the Hospitallers knights during the Crusader era, which had been buried for centuries beneath the Citadel and nearby prison. Our guide explained that the structures above them had caved in during an invasion (perhaps the Mamluk invasion? it's hard to keep track!) and it was apparently easier to just fill the spaces with sand and build on top than to clear them out. So for a time, prisoners in the local prison yard did their exercises on top of these ancient hidden halls.

I've never been much of a Crusader buff. Jews didn't fare well during the Crusades, and that's never been a period of history into which I've wanted to delve too deeply. But leaving aside for the moment the problematics of the Crusades as violent holy wars, this complex of early medieval halls and great rooms is dazzling.

Toward the end of our time in the Crusader complex we walked through a tiny underground tunnel which once served as the sewer conduit between this underground complex and the sea -- and then through the Templars' tunnel, which is believed to have been a secret Crusader escape route which allowed them to flee to their waiting boats on the sea. Running water flowed beneath our feet as we trod on a well-constructed wooden walkway, sometimes crouching beneath a surprisingly low vaulted ceiling, and made our way underground to the shore.

13357463725_8113d7aa81_nWe also visited the largest mosque in Israel outside of Jerusalem, the Jezzar Pasha Mosque , built in 1781. I hadn't known we were coming to a mosque today, so was wearing short sleeves. The friendly gentleman at the entrance to the compound passed out dark blue cloths which several of us used to cover in various ways in order to be appropriately-respectful. Once we were adequately draped, we stepped inside.

I'm not sure I would have been much of a fan of Jezzar Pasha himself, whose nickname was "The Butcher." (Sounds like he wasn't very nice to his Jewish chief advisor, Haim Farhi.) But the mosque which takes his name, constructed on his orders in a single year, is quite beautiful.

The Jezzar Pasha mosque inhabits a lush, peaceful courtyard where birds sing and a water fountain (with faucets for wudu) flows merrily. The inlay on the outside of the building is gorgeous, as is the green dome. Inside, names of God twine around the building in gold letters on blue, and beautiful inlay and painted ornament rest side-by-side with an LED clock which displays the time until the next prayers.

13357956374_2ae768fa41_nWe spent a while walking around its courtyard, admiring the artistry of the Byzantine and Persian ornamentation, and standing in small groups quietly inside the doors of the mosque (not on the prayer rugs, but on a little wooden area just inside the door which was clearly meant for visitors) just letting the space wash over us.

After visiting the mosque, we walked back to the Crusader ruins -- and heard the adhān about two minutes later, while standing in a small grassy square just outside one of the main entrances to the ruins. We stopped and listened to its haunting melodies. God is great! rolled out like auditory calligraphy, floating on the sea-scented air.


All photos in this post come from this trip's photoset, which I'm doing my best to add to each day (wifi permitting.)


Walking in (ancient) Caesaria

13332922384_0e2d06f3c5_nOn Shabbat morning I woke up in Jerusalem and, with nearly twenty members of my extended family, boarded a bus heading north. The first place we visited together was Caesaria (קֵיסָרְיָה / قيسارية‎).

Before our visit, the name mostly evoked the Hannah Szenes poem הליכה לקיסריה, "Walking to Caesaria." Here it is sung by Regina Spektor [YouTube link] -- gives me chills every time. (We often sing this in my synagogue at Yizkor / Memorial services.) The words mean, "My God, my God, I pray that these things never end: the sand and the sea, the rush of the waters, the crash of the heavens, the prayer of the heart."

Wanting to know more than just that beautiful melody, I read the town's Wikipedia page, and here's a snippet of what it says:

The town was built by Herod the Great about 25–13 BCE as the port city Caesarea Maritima. It served as an administrative center of Judaea Province of the Roman Empire, and later the capital of the Byzantine Palaestina Prima province during the classic period. Following the Muslim conquest in the 7th century, the city had an Arab majority until Crusader renovation, but was again abandoned after the Mamluk conquest. It was populated in 1884 by Bosniak immigrants, who settled in a small fishing village. In 1940, kibbutz Sdot Yam was established next to the village. In February 1948 the village was conquered by a Palmach unit commanded by Yitzhak Rabin and its people expelled. In 1952, a Jewish town of Caesarea was established near the ruins of the old city, which were made into the national park of Caesarea Maritima.

After the Roman material -- I'm always fascinated by Roman-era history, ever since spending all of those years studying Latin -- the British Mandate section is most interesting to me, especially the part about the village notable who approached local Jews in an effort to establish a non-belligerency agreement in 1947, and the Haganah presence which followed in 1948, resulting in the expulsion of the town's residents and subsequent demolishing of most of its houses. That said -- we didn't see any of modern Caesaria, so most of that research turned out to be background for a place we didn't visit!

13332642464_4d176dbb12_nWhere we actually went was Caesarea Maritima, the Israeli national park containing the extensive ruins of ancient Caesaria, which was established by Herod the Great around 25 B.C.E. (The town, not the national park, obviously.) Of course, this means that Caesaria isn't mentioned in the Hebrew scriptures, because it's far too recent for that. We spent a neat morning exploring the ruins along with the guide my sister had hired. He was full of interesting facts about, e.g., where the marble to build the columns had come from, and how the theatre and hippodrome were used, and how the city got its name, and how the manmade harbor was built out of concrete laid underwater during the first century B.C.E. (and why it later eroded away).

Much of what we saw was original -- for instance, the mosaic floors in various places, which were gorgeous -- though the outdoor semicircular theatre is mostly reconstruction, and so is the replica of the stone which bore the inscription "Pontius Pilate dedicated a building here to Caesar in such-and-such a year" -- the original is in the Israel museum, too precious to leave out to the winds and the weather, as it's the only place outside of the Christian scriptures where Pilate is mentioned. Apparently it was found face-down in the theatre; people had been using it as a stepping-stone for years, and were stunned when it was flipped over and they realized its historical importance. I particularly liked the ruins of the palace, with the mosaic floor, and the remnants of what may once have been a swimming or bathing pool, right on the edge of the sea.

13331836623_472610895f_nAfterwards we drove along amazingly twisty mountain roads to the Arab village of Ein Hud (not to be confused with the Israeli artists' village Ein Hod, which is next door) for a meal at Habait Be'Ein Hud, which was one of the most extraordinary meals of my life. There is no menu; you just eat whatever the mother of the household has cooked that day. I love putting my trust in a chef's hands like that, and oh, wow, this kitchen did not disappoint. The place was packed, and we were the only English-speaking table in evidence.

We were seated at a giant long banquet table next to windows overlooking the hills and wildflowers and olive trees. The food just kept coming: hummus, babaghanoush, tabbouleh, olives and turmeric-pickled cauliflower, every Arabic salad and appetizer I could name (and several I couldn't, including one which I think was made mostly out of Swiss chard with lemon and cumin.) That alone would have been plenty of lunch. But it turned out to be just the prelude to plate after plate of spiced rice and chicken, turmeric-yellow rice surrounded by chunks of fork-tender meat, eggplant in a rich sauce, stuffed peppers...!

13331732625_868e9eeafe_nI wish I could have eaten twice as much as I did; it was incredible. I just kept saying "todah rabah! shukran!" to the people who brought the food, over and over again.

That meal culminated in a downstairs sitting area, where we were offered tea or coffee (I chose coffee -- in a tiny eggshell teacup, dark and thick and cardamom-scented, which I sweetened with sugar; the flavor immediately took me back to the last time I was in this part of the world!) and ate baklava and relaxed.

There was another surprise in store. I think a local capoeira club happens to practice there on Shabbat afternoons. At least, my sister insisted that she had not hired them as entertainment; they just showed up, turned on music, and fought / danced / did their beautiful graceful moves. We sipped our coffee and tea, and applauded, and one of my older nephews got up and one of the dancers taught him a few of their simpler patterns...and then we got back on the bus and continued on our way.


All photos can be found in my growing photoset from this trip.

A reading in Jerusalem!

70FacesSmall WaitingToUnfold-small

I'm thoroughly delighted to be able to announce that I'll be giving a talk and poetry reading in the Baka neighborhood of Jerusalem next week! Here's the event description:

Thursday, March 27, 8pm: Rachel Barenblat on motherhood, poetry, and spiritual life

Join poet and rabbi Rachel Barenblat for a talk about motherhood, poetry, blogging, postpartum depression, and spiritual life. Rachel will intersperse poems from Waiting to Unfold (Phoenicia, 2013) with narrative about new motherhood and postpartum depression, using these poems (written one each week during the first year of her son's life) as a springboard for a conversation about how parenthood shapes both poetry and spiritual life. Depending on the interest of those who are present, she may also talk about Torah poetry and/or about blogging; her blog Velveteen Rabbi was named one of the top 25 sites on the internet in 2008.

I'm really looking forward to sharing poems and conversation. If you are in or near Jerusalem, I hope you will join us! The event will take place at the home of Rachel Shalev, a member of Nava Tehila, the Jewish Renewal community of Jerusalem. Seating is limited, and the event is RSVP only; if you're planning to come, please contact Rachel Shalev and ensure your place.

Deep thanks to author and journalist (and friend) Ilene Prusher, who did the work to set this up for me. Her books will be available for sale at the event, as will a limited number of copies of mine.

On my way

Il_570xN.184531812Mark Twain wrote that "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness[.]" I don't know about fatal, but anyone who travels with open eyes and an open heart can't help but be moved. By the things we have in common across the earth's wide expanse, and by the many fascinating places where we differ in custom, practice, dress, way of being in the world.

Travel can shake one out of calcified habits. Days have a different rhythm when one is away from home. Everything seems new, or has the capacity to seem new. Home is about sedentary comfort, the small joys of the mundane and routine. But most of those routines are shattered when one is on the road, waking in an unfamiliar bed, breathing unfamiliar air.

I love my home (the house itself, and the hilltop where it stands, and the community of which it is a part), and I like the rhythms of my life as rabbi, mother, poet, daughter, spouse. And I also love leaving home: walking with renewed attentiveness to the world around me, meeting new people, seeing new things, connecting where I've been with where I'm going.

Traveling, like parenthood, requires yielding a certain amount of control. We make the best plans we can, and inevitably something comes along to shift those plans into a new configuration. Traveling is an exercise in mindfulness and an exercise in cultivating graceful acceptance of whatever gifts the world places in our path, even if they don't look like gifts at the time.

This morning I will drive the familiar winding country roads which take me to the airport an hour away. After a short flight, I'll spend most of the day in an unfamiliar airport. And then I'll get on another plane -- a much bigger one, this time -- and fly all night, arriving tomorrow jet-lagged and disoriented in Tel Aviv.

I've been thinking about this trip for a long time. It was on my mind when I wrote The spiritual work of wrestling with the both/and (February, 2014.) I can't help thinking back to June of 2008 when I last made this journey -- though then I was leaving home for a whole season; this time I'll be abroad for a mere ten days. Then I was a student; now I am a rabbi, and a mom.

I think I know some of what these ten days will hold. (Time with family; a bar mitzvah; a day trip to Hebron; a poetry reading in Jerusalem next Thursday; meals and coffee with friends.) But I'm also going to do my best to be open to surprises, and to find the blessing in every moment, and to keep my mind and heart open to being further broadened, even when that broadening stretches me beyond my usual comfort zone.

I am grateful for the opportunity to make the journey. May all who travel reach their destinations safely, today and every day.




Passport: check.
Prescription medication: check.
Jeans, skirts, shirts, sweater: check.
Boarding passes: check.

Books loaded on my Kindle.
Charging cables.
Plug converters.
Camera and charger.

Tallit. (Small, blue, silky, portable.)
Siddurim (two in print, plus the two on my tablet.)
Books to deliver to a friend of a friend in the Old City.
Kippot, coordinated with wardrobe.

Carry-on-approved toiletries.
Assorted drug store necessaries.
Rain jacket just in case.
Printouts. Check, check, check.

All I really need is the first stanza.
Everything else is commentary.
I tick things off today's to-do list.
My mind is already en route.

Two perspectives on Zionism

As I prepare for my own departure tomorrow, I've paused in my packing to read two essays written by respected rabbinic colleagues, both published this week in Al-Jazeera. In one essay, Rabbi Ari Hart writes about why he is a Zionist. In the other, Rabbi Brant Rosen writes about why he is not.

Rabbi Ari Hart writes:

5e4085425f7bc9f0a0ac43ed63f6a9adThe Psalmist says it best: Zionism and the return to Israel is like a dream. It is an ancient dream, thousands of years older than the Holocaust, European anti-semitism and colonialism. It is a three-part dream of returning to the home from which we were exiled, living out our destiny as a people, and bringing righteousness and justice into the world. It is a dream we carried with us from Algeria to Azerbaijan, New York to New Dehli for 2,000 years.

For millennia, the dream lay embedded in Jewish yearning, scripture and prayer, but with only the faintest hope of it being realised. The consistent attempts by Jews to live and flourish in the land of Israel, long before the existence of Zionism as a political ideology, were an expression of that dream. The more recent emergence of political Zionism and the founding of the state of Israel have marked the beginning of that dream coming true.

...The challenge of my Zionism is to recognise two things at the same time: how positive Zionism and the state of Israel have been for the Jewish people and the world, and that a beautiful dream does not always mean a perfect reality.

-- Rabbi Ari Hart, My Zionist dream, my Zionist reality

In response, Rabbi Brant Rosen writes:

9-9-11-Brant-RosenLike Rabbi Hart, I am profoundly inspired by the Jewish dream of return so powerfully evoked in Psalm 126. I do not, however, understand these words to be a "blueprint" for Jewish political nationalism. For most of Jewish history, in fact, the Jewish dream of return to the land was not understood literally but was rather projected onto a far-off messianic future. The rabbinic sages who developed Jewish tradition forcefully prohibited the forcing of God's hand through the establishment of an independent Jewish state...

I believe that as Jews, we must be willing to own [our] dark history and say it out loud: during 1947 to 1948, Zionist military forces either displaced or forcibly expelled over 700,000 Palestinians then forbid their return, creating what is today the largest refugee population in the world. Today more than 4,000,000 Palestinians harbour their own dream of return - not to a mythic Biblical homeland but to a land that they remember only too well.

In short, Israel's founding is inextricably bound up with an inherent injustice to the people who had made a home in this land. More critically, it is an injustice that continues until today through policies of dispossession and displacement designed to maintain a Jewish demographic majority in the state of Israel.

-- Rabbi Brant Rosen, A Jewish dream beyond political nationalism.

Reading these two essays side-by-side is an experience of wrestling with the both/and, for sure.

A poem from 1999


Texas doesn't have the Mediterranean
but any native knows the similarities.
The sabra is prickly on the outside,
sweet on the inside, like cactus fruit.
Texas has cactus, and we're also
not short on attitude.

Variations: Israeli ranchers are
Bedouins living in corrugated metal
and black plastic, moving goats
and sheep through Judaean desert,
not big men with Rolex watches
and Lucchese boots.

But the sky is the same, and the rocks:
I grew up surrounded by Jerusalem stone.
No wonder Zionism was innate.
Every palm, fig, banana tree
reminded my parents of kibbutz fields
rising like soldiers across the Negev.

This poem appears in my second chapbook What Stays (Bennington Writing Seminars Alumni Chapbook Series, 2002). It's on my mind because I'm about to spend several days with my extended Texas family in that other landscape which looks so much like the one where I grew up -- so similar, and so different, in all kinds of ways.

Sabra is Hebrew slang for "native-born Israeli." The name comes from the plant I grew up calling prickly pear cactus, which grows all over south Texas. (I know the paddles as nopales, an ingredient in Mexican and Tex-Mex cooking.)

There are things I would do differently if I were revising this poem now -- I'm not satisfied with the last line at all; I can see what I was trying to evoke, but I don't think it works -- but this is the way the poem appeared when first published. What Stays had a limited printing, but I still have some copies; email me if you're interested in buying one. (Also someone's selling one on Amazon!)

Giving thanks in the present moment: parashat Tzav

Thank-youHere's the very short d'var Torah I offered at my shul yesterday for last week's Torah portion, parashat Tzav. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

We read in this week's portion that one who offers a korban for the purpose of thanksgiving must eat that offering on the day when it is offered.

Korban: this is the Hebrew word we translate as "sacrifice." But the root connotes not giving-up but drawing-near.

One who seeks to draw-near to God for the purpose of thanksgiving must eat that offering on the day when it is offered.

Drawing-near to God: we can understand this yearning.

Thanksgiving: we can understand that outpouring.

But what can we make of the exhortation to eat the meat of the sacrifice on the day when it is offered, and not to set any of it aside until morning?

Perhaps this comes to teach us that one who seeks to draw-near to God for the purpose of saying thank You needs to be in the moment. Give thanks for what is, right now, and experience that thanksgiving wholly. Don't hold some of it over until tomorrow: give yourself over to thanksgiving now.

And, a corollary: trust that tomorrow there will again be blessings in your life which merit the giving of thanks.

As I say every Friday morning in meditation: focus on the breath as it comes and goes. And when your mind inevitably drifts to something in the past, or something in the future, that's okay; it's what minds do. Just gently notice that, and on the next exhale let it go and return to right here, right now.

Drawing-near to God in thanksgiving seems to require that same kind of mindfulness, that same cultivated ability to be in the moment and to offer thanks from this moment. There is so much to be thankful for: right here, right now.

Video conversation about this week's Torah portion

I had the recent pleasure of participating in a video interview with Shmuel Rosner, the man behind the section of the Jewish Journal called Rosner's Domain. The interview is part of his weekly Torah talk series.

Shmuel has hosted several of my friends and colleagues in this interview series, among them fellow Rabbi Without Borders alumni Rabbi Jason Miller, Rabbi Josh Yuter, and Rabbi Rachel Ain, as well as Rabbis Rick Jacobs, Sharon Brous, and Eliot Dorff. I'm honored to be in this fine company!

We spoke for 8-10 minutes about this week's Torah portion, parashat Tzav; I shared this week's Torah poem from 7o faces; and we talked about Hasidic interpretations of sacrifices, the anointing / ordination of Aaron and his sons, and more.

The video is now live, and you can watch it here:

If you'd like to leave a comment, feel free to do so here at Velveteen Rabbi, or to go to Rosner's Domain where the piece originates: Rosner's Torah-Talk: Parashat Tzav With Rabbi Rachel Barenblat. Enjoy!


Recent reprints

My thanks go to the editors at the Reform Judaism blog for reprinting my post Why I love havdalah. I serve a Reform shul and I'm delighted to have that post circulating to the broad Reform community.

And my thanks also go to the editors at Kol ALEPH, the voice of the Alliance for Jewish Renewal, for reprinting my post What was the ALEPH rabbinic program like? (retitled as An ALEPH rabbi reflects on the journey.) I'm delighted to have that post circulating in the broad Jewish Renewal community too.

(And hey, if more Reform readers click through to Kol ALEPH and more Jewish Renewal readers click through to the Reform Judaism blog, that's lovely too!)

Shabbat shalom to all, and chag Purim sameach -- a happy and joyful Purim starting on Saturday night.

What was the ALEPH rabbinic program like?

RebRachelReadsTorahPeople ask me sometimes what rabbinic school was like. My short answer is "amazing -- really hard -- and one of the best things I've ever done." But maybe a longer answer would be interesting to those who read this blog.

Disclaimer: this may not be characteristic of everyone's experience; I was a rabbinic student, so I can't speak to the experience of students in ALEPH's other programs; and of course the program continues to evolve, so students today may have some different experiences than I had. That said...

The ALEPH rabbinic ordination program is low-residency, which means that students and faculty live all over the world and come together a few times a year for intensive "residency" periods. In between those in-person gatherings, we learned together in other ways. (When I first started the program, half of my classes were held via conference call; by the time I finished, we were using videoconferencing instead.) Years before coming to rabbinic school I got an MFA in writing and literature at Bennington, and that's a low-residency program too, as many creative writing MFA programs are. It was great preparation for the ALEPH learning experience.

Each ALEPH student works with a Director of Studies (a member of the ALEPH ordination programs va'ad) to establish a committee of mentors who will help her or him navigate the program's requirements

A minimum of sixty graduate-level classes is required in order to be a candidate for rabbinic smicha, and when I was a student, ALEPH offered about 60% of those classes. For the other classes I needed, I pursued learning at other institutions; entered into small-group learning with ALEPH-approved teachers (I have fond memories of translating and interpreting the Me'or Eynayim with two friends and with Rabbi Bob Freedman); and also often engaged in structured one-on-one tutorial learning with a local rabbi friend (once that learning had been approved by my Director of Studies -- which generally required a syllabus and at least one major paper.) Most semesters, I took two ALEPH classes and two classes elsewhere, or three ALEPH classes and one elsewhere. But the majority of my learning was done in an ALEPH context.

It's also worth mentioning that the 60-course minimum is just that -- a minimum. Often the va'ad imposes additional requirements tailored to the learning trajectory of the student. (Which makes sense; we all come to this with strong suits and weak suits, and they aren't all the same.) Our dean, Rabbi Marcia Prager, likes to say that the va'ad isn't merely graduating students -- they're developing colleagues.

Continue reading "What was the ALEPH rabbinic program like?" »

What it means to become "perfumed" at Purim

Tree-of-life-jaison-cianelliPurim is almost upon us! The full moon falls this weekend, and Purim begins on Saturday evening at sundown. In honor of the coming holiday, here's an adaptation of a teaching from the Hasidic master known as the Sfat Emet. (You can read it at greater length in this post from 2009.)


1. Above good and evil

We read in the Gemara that it is the duty of a person to mellow (or "perfume") oneself on Purim until one cannot tell the difference between 'cursed be Haman' and 'blessed be Mordechai'." This means raising one's consciousness until one is higher than the tree of the knowledge of good and evil -- in other words, expanding one's consciousness so much that the binary distinctions between good and evil fall away.

We read in the megillah of Esther about Haman's gallows, which is called "a tall tree of 50 cubits." (So there are two trees here: the tree of knowledge of binarism, and the tree which is the gallows.) There's an ancient teaching that there are 49 "gates" (or levels) of impurity, and the 50th level is the level of holiness. (There's that number 50 again -- like how Shavuot is the 50th day after the 49 days of counting the Omer.)

If we can ascend past the 49 levels of impurity, we reach the 50th level where everything is holy. If we can reach that high level, we've gone higher than the tree of knowledge of good and evil; we've reached God's vantage, from which everything is good. "Perfuming" ourselves on Purim means opening our minds and ascending to that high God's-eye-view place.

2. Defeating Amalek

Amalek is the name given to the tribe which attacked the Israelites from behind during the Exodus from Egypt. Haman, who sought to destroy the Jews of Persia in the story of Esther, is considered to be a descendant of Amalek. Amalek and his ilk exist on every level of spiritual understanding except the top one, which is the level of holiness. (Maybe the Sfat Emet is saying that Amalek exists in some form in all of us, except for those who are at the very holiest level of spiritual understanding.)

Amalek pursues evil on those lower 49 levels, but at the 50th level, Amalek's power disappears. When Amalek attacked our ancestors, Moses lifted up his hands to God, and as long as his hands were upheld, the Israelites were able to rout the enemy. Moses reached up to God and Torah, and Amalek was defeated. God and Torah are what we find at that 50th gate or rung of spiritual understanding. So: ascending to that high level of spiritual consciousness also enables us to live without fear of our enemies, because at that high level, enmity can't harm us.

3. Accepting the Torah on Purim

There's even a teaching that our ancestors, the ancient Israelites, accepted the Torah on Purim.

What? you ask. Isn't Shavuot the anniversary of when we accepted the Torah? Well, yes. But there's also a midrash which says that we accepted the Torah at Shavuot under duress -- that God held the mountain over us like an inverted barrel, and we accepted Torah rather than perish. But another sage says, "Even if that is so, they re-accepted the Torah in the days of Achashverosh," pointing to a line from Esther which said that we "received it upon ourselves" -- he says that what we received, at Purim, was the highest form of Torah.

And when we approach Purim now with the appropriate consciousness -- awareness that at the highest levels there are no differences between good and bad, between Haman and Mordechai, between "my side" and "your side" -- we can access the highest Torah once again.

That's what it really means to become "perfumed" or "mellowed" -- not to get so drunk we forget who the good guys and bad guys are, but to become so enlightened that we see the unity beyond all differences. When we access that kind of perfume, we're breathing the scents of spices which filled the world at the time of the revelation at Sinai -- maybe even the spices which filled the world at the first moments of creation.

Happy Purim!

Image source: Jaison Cianelli.

Interview with Jen Marlowe, coauthor of I Am Troy Davis, in Zeek

Earlier this week I had the privilege of interviewing Jen Marlowe for Zeek magazine. We spoke about her new book, I Am Troy Davis, co-authored with Martina Davis-Correia, which tells the story of Troy Davis who was executed by the state of Georgia. We also talked about The Hour of Sunlight, the book she co-authored with Sami al-Jundi; about the death penalty and the state of the American criminal justice system; about how her Jewishness informs her activism; and about where she finds cause for hope. That interview is now published online, and here's how it begins:

Iatd-cover-5319fd32I first encountered Jen Marlowe’s work thanks to blogger (and frequent Open Zion, Ha’aretz, and Forward contributor) Emily L. Hauser. She had written a review of The Hour of Sunlight: One Palestinian’s Journey from Prisoner to Peacemaker, which Marlowe had co-authored with Sami al-Jundi. I read the book, found it powerful though not always comfortable to read — and ultimately partnered with other local organizations to bring Marlowe to my town to speak about her work.

I knew then that she was already working on a new book, also co-authored. That new book is now out. It’s called I Am Troy Davis, and it’s written by Marlowe and Martina Davis-Correia along with Troy himself.

Much like The Hour of Sunlight, I Am Troy Davis shines a spotlight on systemic injustice not by speaking in generalities, but by telling one person’s story — and thereby opening up the experiences of countless others who are in similar shoes. I spoke with Marlowe about these two books, how her Judaism animates her work, and what we as readers can do to strengthen justice in an unjust world.— RB

ZEEK: Tell us about I Am Troy Davis. What is the book, and how did you get involved with it?

JM: I Am Troy Davis grew out of my relationship with Troy and with the Davis family. Troy was a man who spent 20 years on Georgia’s death row despite a very compelling case for his innocence. When that compelling case came to the attention of human rights organizations and then the media, it led to a worldwide movement, both to try to prevent the travesty of justice of Troy being executed, and also toward the abolition of the death penalty, especially when there’s such recognition of the human error that the system is rife with. A system like that has no business making the decision to take a life.

The book grew out of my friendship with him and his family. It was my way of helping them tell their story.

Read the whole thing: Broken Justice and the Death Penalty: Q and A With Jen Marlowe, Co-Author of I Am Troy Davis.

A cinquain about morning prayer (and after)




an echo on
my arm, a spiral fading.
I hope the imprint on my heart



This little poem is a cinquain, a five-line poem. I've posted this kind of poem here before -- see last year's Daily April poem: a cinquain -- though last year's cinquain was written with both syllabics and stresses in mind, and this one only follows the pattern of stresses. (One stressed syllable in the first line; two stresses in the second; three; four; and then one again.)

The "echo" referenced in the poem -- this is probably obvious to those who wear tefillin, but perhaps less so to those who have never tried the practice -- is the winding mark left on my arm by the tefillin straps, which fades over the course of half an hour or so. Speaking of which, there's a new tefillin category on this blog; if you're interested in posts having to do with tefillin, click on the "tefillin" link in the category cloud in the sidebar, or click here.

Shabbat shalom!