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Memories of McQueeney

Card00528_frIt's funny how memories come back at unexpected moments. The feeling of bobbing in the warm waters of the Guadalupe, lifejacket and waterskis keeping me afloat, with the bright woven ski rope threading through my hands as the boat idled forward. The big plants at the waterside, which we called elephants' ears; how green pecans stained the water and our hands; how we used to chase cottonwood fluff when the wind blew it across the wide-bladed St. Augustine grass.

Packing up the Suburban for two weeks at the lake house: coolers full of groceries, suitcases, our Siamese cat in his carrier yowling until I inevitably set him free and he marched across the dashboard (much to my father's chagrin.) The old songs Mom taught me -- "The Ladies in the Harem of the Court of King Correcticus" and "As I was walking down the street a billboard caught my eye..." The convenience store (was it in Seguin?) where we used to stop to get whorls of the hard spicy sausage which hung behind the counter.

The scavenger hunts my mom used to organize for my friends and me; I remember holding a sheet of paper marked in her neat curving handwriting, wandering around together in search of -- what, I can't recall, but I know we were successful. Climbing down the aluminum framed ladder into the river in front of our house. How my toes shied away from slimy lilypad stems. Making homemade raspberry ice cream, turning the hand crank; how the end result was brilliant pink with the berries' separated druples. Growing a small garden one year -- I couldn't resist picking an ear of corn before it was ripe, and hiding in my secret wilderness place in the unsold lot next door where no one would see me nibbling its sugar-sweet kernels. The thwock of tennis balls against rackets as Mom and Dad played doubles, resplendent in all white, on the court at the Ski Lodge.

Walking with Mom to pick Indian Paintbrush and cornflowers to bring home and put in a jar on the table. Pyrex casserole trays of King Ranch Chicken. Evening boat rides, my father's hair windblown, sitting on the back of the boat and watching the houses and boathouses and limestone cliffs along the river rush by. Early morning boat rides, the river and lake still as glass, perfect for cutting slalom paths in and out of our boat's wake. Venturing down our street with a friend, aiming for patches of shade because the asphalt was hot beneath our bare feet, and then down the boat ramp at the end of the block to float down the river in lifejackets back to our own pier. Playing games of rummikub with mom and friends on the square formica table, pieces clicking and clacking beneath our hands. The taste of the "special" nachos at the Ski Lodge, made with spicy queso. The orange blossoms my parents ordered there sometimes at the bar.

Catching fireflies on hot summer evenings, putting them in jars with perforated tinfoil on top, then letting them go. The pale yellow moths, redolent with dust the color of hardboiled egg yolk, which beat their wings helplessly against screen doors. The zzzzt of the bug zapper at work. Swinging in the hammock, endlessly. The two flavors of Bluebell we used to get at that Pic-n-Pac (Cookies & Cream, and Pralines & Cream), and the treat of scooping curls into beige melamine bowls and enjoying them at night before bed. Watching the Ski Bees show at the Ski Lodge on Thursday nights, pyramids of women on each others' shoulders, followed by brave and crazy barefooters like my brother. On the Fourth of July, after the ski show, lying back to watch the fireworks exploding brilliant against the Texas sky.

 

Photo: an old postcard of the swimming pools at the Lake Breeze Ski Lodge in McQueeney, Texas, sometime before they put up the diving board and high board I remember.


Variations on a liturgy for Tisha b'Av

Tisha b'Av is almost upon us -- that painful day when we remember the fall of the first Temple in 586 BCE, and the fall of the second Temple in 70 CE. The anniversary, tradition teaches, of all kinds of other atrocities, from Crusades to the Expulsion from Spain to the Chmielnicki massacre in Poland in the 17th century to the expulsion from the Warsaw Ghetto during the last century.

It's a dark day. It's also a darkness which contains within it the seeds of light and redemption. Tradition teaches that the messiah will be born on the afternoon of Tisha b'Av -- that from the depths of our grief will come the spark of our greatest hopes for transformation and wholeness.

This year I'm delighted to be able to share two versions of a Tisha b'Av liturgy -- a collaboration between myself and Rabbi David Markus who serves Temple Beth El of City Island. One version will be used at his "shul by the sea;" the other will be used at Congregation Beth Israel here in the Berkshires:

 

Download For the Sake of Ascent TBE [23 pages, 1.7mb, pdf]

Download For the Sake of Ascent CBI [17 pages, 173k, pdf]

 

Both versions feature excerpts from Eicha (Lamentations), the prayers of the evening service, and poems by Yehuda Amichai, Toge Sankichi, and Mark Nazimova, among others. Both feature prayers written by David and by me.

The TBE version draws a closer connection to the 9/11 bombings (after all, from City Island they could see the smoke rising); the CBI version draws a closer connection with recent trauma in the Middle East. The TBE version has a few songs which aren't in the CBI version; the CBI version contains a text study which isn't in the TBE version. The CBI version interweaves Eicha with the evening service, while the TBE version doesn't. They're variations on a theme.

I hope that these siddurim will open up some of this holiday's power and potential for the daveners who use them.

 

 


Preparing for Elul

ElulReflections-FrontCoverToday is Rosh Chodesh Av, the first day of the lunar month of Av. One month from now we'll enter Elul, the month immediately preceding the Days of Awe. Many of us strive to make Elul a month of introspection and spiritual preparation for the powerful holidays ahead.

Last year I blogged daily during the month of Elul, as part of #blogElul, an internet-wide carnival of posts on pre-high-holiday themes organized by Rabbi Phyllis Sommer (a.k.a. Ima Bima.)

Some weeks after the holidays were over, I began receiving email from my friend and teacher Rabbi Daniel Siegel in response to my #BlogElul postings. He suggested that I might share these Elul meditations in printed form, for those who would enjoy having a tangible book to hold and leaf through.

I did a bit of editing and pruning and layout work. And now, in time for the Elul to come, I offer a new chapbook of Elul material: Elul Reflections. Here's a description:

Prepare for the Days of Awe (the High Holidays) by reading these daily meditations for the lunar month of Elul, exploring the season's themes of forgiveness, transformation, and change. Each day of Elul is matched with a short essay or poem arising out of that day's theme. And each theme is a verb, an invitation to action, from "Prepare," "Act, and "Bless" to "Know," "Believe," and "Return."

This volume is meant to help you enter wholly into the spiritual potential of this month, the season of teshuvah, repentance/return. Also in these pages: a Psalm 27 variation by Rabbi Brant Rosen, a set of other Elul resources, and ample space to jot down your own responses as you do your Elul work.

Of course, you're also welcome to simply return to my 2013 archives and reread last year's posts here. And who knows, it's possible I'll do #blogElul again this year too, in which case those who subscribe to this blog will receive new material every day of Elul once again! But for those who liked what I shared last year and would enjoy being able to reread those posts in bound form, here you go. My thanks are due to Reb Daniel for his encouragement, and to R' Phyllis Sommer / Ima Bima for running #BlogElul in the first place.

$9 at Amazon |£ 5.61 at Amazon UK | €6.59 at Amazon Europe


Taking a break

I'm taking a break from the internet for a week or so.

May the Shabbat which begins tonight bring peace to our hearts and to our troubled earth.

May the week which follows be one in which kindness and compassion can flourish.

Be well, everyone.

4953684375_769799398b_z

 

Image: Pontoosuc Lake, Pittsfield MA. (Photo source.)


How news and social media can hurt us

Crying_computer_userLately I've been talking with rabbinic colleagues about how best to minister to our congregants who are struggling with the news out of Israel/Palestine. We're hearing from people who are unable to fall asleep because they can't stop thinking about the images of destruction and grief, or who wake up and immediately start agonizing about the conflict or worrying about loved ones.

For some, the realities of what's happening there provoke a crisis of faith. For others, those realities provoke profound anxiety. How can we best care for people who are struggling in these ways? The question feels especially relevant to me because not only am I tasked with extending pastoral care to people who are struggling, but because I myself am also struggling to maintain my emotional and spiritual equilibrium in the face of the violence, destruction, and fear.

Maybe the first thing we can do is honor the reality of the struggle. A colleague just pointed me to something I found really interesting -- research showing that media exposure to trauma can create trauma in those who are watching, even from afar.

Tens of thousands of individuals directly witnessed 9/11, but millions more viewed the attacks and their aftermath via the media. In our three-year study following 9/11, my colleagues and I found that people who watched more than one hour of daily 9/11-related TV in the week following the attacks experienced increases in post-traumatic stress (PTS) symptoms (e.g., flashbacks, feeling on edge and hyper vigilant, and avoidance of trauma reminders) and physical ailments over the next three years.

The previous conventional wisdom had been that indirect media-based exposure to trauma is "not clinically relevant." But these researchers found otherwise. The article continues:

The relevance of indirect media exposure became apparent again after last April’s Boston marathon. In the days following the marathon bombings, my University of California, Irvine colleagues and I decided to replicate our 9/11 study and examine the impact of media exposure to the Boston Marathon bombings. We sought to look at all types of media: how much TV people watched, their exposure to disaster-related radio, print, and online news, and their use of social media like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Vimeo in the week following the bombings. We were especially interested in responses to social media coverage. Unlike traditional media that warn us about the gruesome nature of an image before showing it to us, social media typically display such images without warning.

Here's the conclusion to which I really want to draw your attention:

People who consumed lots of bombing-related media in the week after the bombings were six times more likely to report high acute stress than those who were at the Boston Marathon.

Let me be clear -- I am not suggesting that those of us who are following stories out of Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza from afar are experiencing more trauma than those who are there. I recognize that from afar we can only barely begin to grasp the terror and the trauma. My child is safely watching cartoons; other peoples' children have been terrorized and killed. There is no comparison. What I am suggesting is that the media we consume has an impact in all four worlds: spiritual, intellectual, emotional, and even physical.

Continue reading "How news and social media can hurt us" »


Fasting today with Jews and Muslims for peace

10504985_10154414238775171_7317168910845165076_oI don't usually fast on the 17th of Tamuz.

For that matter, I didn't even take on the practice of fasting for Tisha b'Av until a few years ago. (See This year's wrestle with Tisha b'Av, 2011.) I didn't grow up observing the minor fasts, and I've never taken them on as a practice.

Instead I've tended toward finding other ways of understanding 17th Tammuz. Instead of focusing on the breach of Jerusalem's walls 2,600 years ago, I ponder breaches in the emotional walls which keep us safe, or the internal and interpersonal walls which need to come down in order for genuine connections to form.

But this year there is so much trauma and tragedy in Israel and Palestine, so much grief and destruction and fear happening right now, that I am fasting today and I am dedicating my fast to peace, compassion and kindness in that beloved corner of our world where so many people are suffering.

This was not my idea. Across Israel and Palestine, groups of Jews and Muslims are consciously choosing to fast on this day in solidarity with one another as what was initially called a Hunger Strike Against Violence, and has become part of an initiative called בוחרים בחיים / اختيار الحياة / Choose Life. The idea came from Eliaz Cohen, an Israeli Jew who lives in Gush Etzion, and Ali Abu Awwad, a Palestinian Muslim who lives in Beit Ummar, north of Khalil (Hebron). Cohen is a poet and a self-identified second-generation "settler kid" who supports the idea of one homeland for two peoples. Abu Awwad is founder of Al Tariq (The Way), which teaches Palestinians principles of nonviolent resistance.

(For more, see the front-page story in yesterday's Times of Israel, Aided by calendar, Jews and Arabs Unite in Joint Fast: West Bank activists organize Choose Life, a shared initiative to combat political violence and promote coexistence.)

Continue reading "Fasting today with Jews and Muslims for peace" »


A prayer in remembrance - now in Hebrew

Not long ago I posted a prayer co-written with Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb in remembrance of Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Sha'ar, Eyal Yifrah, and Muhammad Hussein Abu Khdeir. (It's here: A prayer in remembrance.)

Rabbi Lila Veissid, who serves Kibbutz Ha-Ma'apil in central Israel,  has translated that prayer into Hebrew. With her gracious permission, her translation is reprinted here.

 

תפילת זיכרון


מאת הרבה רחל ברנבלט
והרבה לין גוטליב

 

יהי רצון שזכרם של בנינו
שנהרגו בשל שנאה חסרת פשר
יהיה לברכה.

יהי רצון שרוחם תעלה
ותתנחם בחיבוקה החם
והאימהי של אלוהים.

יהי רצון שילדינו היקרים יהיו בטוחים מכל צרה.
יהי רצון שכל הילדים יהיו ילדינו.
יהי רצון שנגן על כל ההורים מן השכול.

יהי רצון שלבבנו ולבבם של בני עמנו
יירפא במהרה בימינו
מפצעי העבר וההווה.

יהי רצון שכל הורה אבֵל ימצא ניחומים.
יהי רצון שנזכה לראות את היום
שבו לא יהיו עוד הורים אבֵלים


 

(You can read the prayer in English at the original post: A prayer in remembrance, July 3 2014.)


Poetry and prayer are all I've got

I have been watching the news (and reading blog posts and tweets and Facebook updates) out of Israel and the Palestinian territories with a sense of unbearable heartbreak. It brings me to the brink of something like a panic attack: my chest tightening, my throat choked with tears, the embodied feeling that the grief will wash me away altogether. And I am aware that those who live there are experiencing something far more powerful.

The only thing which brings any comfort is poetry and prayer. Bethlehem Blogger posted A prayer in times of violence, which though it is explicitly Christian speaks to me nonetheless. Wendell Berry's poem The peace of wild things speaks right to my heart. I daven the oseh shalom blessing -- "may the One Who makes peace in the high heavens make peace also for us" -- with particular fervor.

If there are prayers or poems which bring you comfort at times like these, please feel free to share them in the comments so that other readers (and I) can benefit from them.

I wrote a prayer in 2012 called Prayer for the Children of Abraham / Ibrahim, which begins:


For every aspiring ballerina huddled
scared in a basement bomb shelter

    For every toddler in his mother's arms
    behind rubble of concrete and rebar

For every child who's learned to distinguish
"our" bombs from "their" bombs by sound...

 

I hate that it is once again resonant. I yearn for the day when this prayer will look outdated and ridiculous -- when the children of our children, running across this prayer in some shred of their grandparents' generation, will say "I can't believe that war went on for so long." Please, God, may the day come speedily and soon.


Announcing a hardback edition of Days of Awe

As of summer 2015, the hardback edition is no longer available. Liturgical development is an iterative process; I would rather release the machzor as a digital file or a paperback book than as a hardcover book. Apologies to anyone who wanted a hardcover edition!

 


A few people have asked, so I also want to add -- there are also other Jewish Renewal machzorim which are fantastic. I'm particularly fond of the New Kehilla Machzor edited by Rabbi David Shneyer and Machzor Kol Koreh edited by Rabbi Daniel Siegel. (You can see an excerpt from Kol Koreh in this post from Reb Daniel: Malchuyot, Zichronot, and Shofarot.)

Days of Awe was designed with the needs of my own community in mind, and I'm thrilled that it's being used in a few other communities this year as well -- but if you are interested in Jewish Renewal prayerbooks or in machzorim in general, I commend to you both New Kehilla and Machzor Kol Koreh. With machzorim, as with everything else, there's no single way to "do Renewal."

Enjoy!


A psalm of need before Shabbat


Shekhina, I need to recharge
    help me find a dock
    with the right number of pins.

I'll send You every gratitude
    every blessing, spoken and unspoken
    every yearning.

Install Your presence on my heart
    install comfort
    install forgiveness.
    
I can't face murder and grief
    without despair anymore:
    update my trust.
    
When my system is corrupted
    by vindication and despair
    update my kindness.

Toggle my settings
    so no matter where I go
    I have five bars of You.


In my post about Reb Zalman z"l (may his memory be a blessing), Remembering my rebbe, I wrote about his love of computer metaphors. I thought of him as I wrote this psalm this week.

May the coming Shabbat bring peace and recharging to everyone who needs it -- especially in the wartorn Middle East, where I grieve every death of recent days.


Descent for the sake of ascent: the fast of 17 Tamuz

EJmR3188046On Tuesday, July 15, many Jews will observe Tzom Tamuz, "the fast of Tamuz" -- one of Judaism's minor fast days, commemorating the breach of Jerusalem's city walls which led (three weeks later) to the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 C.E.

I say "many Jews" because I know that the minor fasts are not universally observed, especially in liberal Jewish communities. The notion of commemorating the first chink in Jerusalem's armor almost two thousand years ago may seem strange to us.

But I think there's value in observing 17 Tamuz, and being conscious of the Three Weeks which link it with Tisha b'Av, even if you do not fast, and even if you aren't certain you actually want to mourn the fall of a Temple you can barely imagine.

There is a deep wisdom in the way the Jewish calendar unfolds. Our festivals and fast days are waypoints along the journey we travel each year. 17 Tamuz marks the beginning of the descent toward Tisha b'Av. At Tisha b'Av, we mark the beginning of the ascent toward the Days of Awe.

In Hasidic tradition there's the idea that often in order to rise, one first has to fall. Yeridah tzorech aliyah: one has to go down in order to be able to go up. Descent for the sake of ascent. This drama plays itself out in a variety of places in Torah -- for instance, in the Joseph story, in which "descent for the sake of ascent" is a recurring motif. The downs are necessary precursors to the ups.

For Lurianic kabbalists, the whole of creation was a shattering which it is our unique privilege to be able to rebuild. If there had never been a rupture, then there couldn't be a healing.

EMy+barn+This drama plays itself out on the stage of every human life. We fall down, we get up again. And while our modern sensibilities may be offended by the notion that tragedy or trauma is necessary in order for growth or forward motion to appear, I believe that there are gifts to be found when circumstances have laid us low. As the 17th-century Japanese poet Mizuta Masahide wrote, "My barn having burned down, I found I could see the moon."

17 Tammuz, the Three Weeks which follow it, and Tisha b'Av which comes at the end of those weeks, are a time for us to delve together into descent. It's not only "my barn" which has burned down -- it's our barn, the place which was spiritual home for all of us together. It's not only my life which sometimes contains brokenness or sorrow -- it's all of our lives. We're in this together.

It can be tempting to want to paper over the places that hurt. To look on the bright side, to put on a happy face, to focus on the positive. I do these things all of the time. But 17 Tammuz and the weeks which follow are an opportunity to let ourselves experience moments of descent, together.

17 Tamuz is a day to consider: when and how do your "walls," the boundaries of your emotional and spiritual integrity, feel breached? What is it like to feel that something painful has come through your defenses? When and how do we come to feel that the integrity of our community has been shattered? What issues, subjects, or sore spots make us feel defenseless and alone?

The tradition says that 17 Tammuz is the anniversary of the day when Moshe came down the mountain, saw the people worshipping the golden calf, and in heartbroken fury shattered the first set of stone tablets containing God's words. What are the idols our communities have fallen into holding sacred? Can we allow ourselves to grieve the ways in which our communities are not yet what we most yearn for them to be?

The point of 17 Tammuz and the Three Weeks and Tisha b'Av isn't wallowing in anger and sorrow. It's allowing ourselves to recognize the things that hurt, the places where we are broken, so that together we can emerge from those places humbled and energized to begin the climb toward the spiritual heights of the High Holidays. Descent for the sake of ascent. If we're willing and able to go down together, we build bonds of community which will lift us to greater heights when it's time to climb up.

All of the things I've just written are, I think, true every year as we reach this moment in our seasonal-liturgical cycle. Here is something which is unique to this year:

This year the 17th of Tammuz falls during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, when our Muslim cousins are fasting from dawn to nightfall every day. (This "minor fast" in our tradition is observed in the same way -- morning to night, not 25 hours like Yom Kippur.) And this year, 17 Tammuz arises amidst tremendous bloodshed and suffering in Israel and Palestine -- the murders of the three Israeli teens Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Sha'ar, and Eyal Yifrah; the murder of Muhammad Hussein Abu Khdeir, apparently burned alive; Hamas firing rockets into Israel (see A view from Jerusalem - Israel at war); Israel bombarding Gaza in return (see You can never be emotionally ready).

Eliaz Cohen, a poet who lives in the settlement of Gush Etzion, has suggested that in the midst of so much sorrow and violence in Israel and Palestine, Jews and Muslims can choose to consciously fast on this day in solidarity with one another, as a "Hunger Strike Against Violence." You can learn more at Fasting Together, Jews and Muslims Choose Life (FB, mostly in Hebrew) 0r War Looming: Make Fasts of 17 Tammuz and Ramadan Hunger Strikes Against Violence (English). Some of us who are the talmidim (students) of Reb Zalman are taking on this joint fast in his memory, knowing that he wept for both the children of Abraham and the children of Ibrahim.

Whether or not you fast from food and drink on 17 Tammuz, I ask my Jewish and Israeli readers to please consider fasting from negative assumptions about our Muslim cousins and Palestinian neighbors; whether or not you are observing the Ramadan fast from food, I ask my Muslim and Palestinian readers to please consider fasting from negative assumptions about your Jewish cousins and Israeli neighbors in turn. May this minor fast day, and the following Three Weeks of opening ourselves to grief, bring us together in our low places so that together we may begin the work of building a better world.


Remembering my rebbe

Zalman-faceHow can I begin to write about Reb Zalman?

So many others knew him longer than I did. And so many others have written, and will write, about how his extraordinary life and work have shaped Jewish life today. I only knew his work for the last twenty years; I only knew him in person for ten years. Many of his students, colleagues, and friends spent a lifetime with him.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow has written, "No one else in the 20th/ 21st century  brought such new life, new thought, new joy, new depth, new breadth, new ecstasy, new groundedness, new quirkiness, into the Judaism he inherited –- and transformed." (Reb Zalman: His Light is Buried Like A Seed -- To Sprout.)

Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan has written, "Reb Zalman was an extraordinary individual who appeared at an extraordinary moment in time, and helped shape a response. In many ways, all of Judaism today is a renewed Judaism." (A Special Person at a Special Time: Reb Zalman's Jewish Renewal.)

Rabbi Jay Michaelson has written, "Hundreds of teachers, rabbis, cantors, and Jewish leaders found in Reb Zalman’s 'translation' of traditional Judaism into contemporary life a way to savor the blessings of Jewish life and practice, while consciously confronting those aspects of Jewish tradition which needed to be renewed — or discarded outright." (Reb Zalman, the Prophet of Both-And)

Other people have written about him wisely and well, is what I'm saying. But his teachings and his life have been so foundational to my sense of what Judaism is and can be -- I can't let his passing elapse without writing something here. Writing is how I remember, and I want to remember him. Have you ever been around someone who -- the moment you enter into their presence -- you can just feel that they really have it together, that they're tapped into something deep? Reb Zalman was one of those people.

I said last week that Reb Zalman is the reason I became a rabbi. And he is. I became a rabbi because I wanted to serve God and the Jewish people. But for many years I thought that was a yearning which would go unfulfilled. I found my teachers, my community, and ultimately my rabbinic lineage through Reb Zalman.

RebZ-DalaiLamaAnd I found Reb Zalman through Rodger Kamenetz.

 In 1994, my dear friend David (who is now soon to be ordained a rabbi himself) gave me a copy of Rodger Kamenetz's book The Jew in the Lotus. The story it tells is a true one: about the delegation of rabbis spanning the breadth of Judaism and Jewish practice who went together to Dharamsala, India to meet with the Dalai Lama and answer his question of how the Jewish poeple had survived 2000 years of Diaspora.

I remember reading that book -- I was in college at the time -- and being deeply moved by Rodger's descriptions of Reb Zalman. I remember in particular the scene where Reb Zalman  goes to daven alongside Sikhs at prayer in their temple. Rodger writes:

Reb Zalman's spontaneous davening in a Sikh temple had placed him squarely on the side of total immersion dialogue. Explaining to me later, he quoted from the Psalms, "I am a friend to all who respect you, O Lord." The Sikh guru and he are "in the same business, struggling to see holy values don't get lost. I see every other practitioner as organically doing in his bailiwick what I am doing in mine. When a non-Jewish person affirms me, I feel strengthened in my work. When I affirm a non-Jewish person, he or she feels strengthened in their work." Zalman also cited Isaiah's prophecy, "My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations."

...I was electrified by his joyous crossing of boundaries, his davening chutzpah. It broke through my own neat categories. I associated Orthodox practice with insularity. Yet here was Zalman, making contact with another religion by davening maariv.

I read that and I thought: holy wow -- his roots are so deep, and his wings are so broad.

Continue reading "Remembering my rebbe" »


Fourth of July: not a yontif, but still has meaning

320px-US_Flag_BacklitTen years ago when I first heard Reb Zalman (zichrono livracha / may his memory be a blessing!) teach in person, he sighed that the Fourth of July had once been an important yontif  (holiday), but seemed no longer to be so for many American Jews. He was talking about how certain ideas don't necessarily hold the power for us that they did in earlier eras. (For instance, "King" used to work well as a metaphor for God, but today it doesn't have the resonance it used to, so we've needed to find different partzufim, different "faces" of God, to which we can better relate.)

I suspect that when Reb Zalman was a young man it was easier than it is today to feel unambiguous patriotism. That may have been especially true for Jews who came here in the wake of the Shoah and saw America as the goldene medina, the golden land of opportunity and freedom where it was safe to be a Jew and where anyone could succeed. Certainly that was true for Reb Zalman, as it was true for my grandparents -- all of whom escaped wartorn Europe, all of whom lost loved ones in the Shoah, all of whom found new opportunity in this land.

In my generation, at this moment in time, patriotism can be a complicated thing. Many of us have mixed feelings about our government and its actions, regardless of which party is in power. We're increasingly aware of how our nation's exercise of power around the world can be problematic. We're also increasingly aware of systemic racism and injustice -- places where our nation hasn't lived up to our hopes.

I love many things about this country; I love many places in this country; I love many of the ideals of this country. But I don't love everything that this national entity does. And patriotism seems inextricably linked with nationalism, and nationalism has led to a lot of suffering around the world in recent history. As Lee Weissman tweeted a few days ago:

It seems to me that nationalism played a role in both World War I and World War II. (Certainly German nationalism was one of the forces which fed into Hitler's ascent to power and the horrors of the Shoah and the deaths of millions.) Nationalism played a role in the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, in which at least a million people were killed and some 12-14 million people were displaced. And I think nationalism plays a role in the continuing conflict in Israel and Palestine.

In our household we talk a lot about cosmopolitanism, embracing the notion of being a citizen of the world in all of its interconnectedness. Here's how my husband Ethan described cosmopolitanism in an interview with Henry Jenkins:

[Kwame] Appiah, a Ghanaian-American philosopher, suggests that cosmopolitans recognize that there is more than one acceptable way to live in the world, and that we may have obligations to people who live in very different ways than we do. This, he argues, is one of the possible responses to a world where we find ourselves interacting with people from very different backgrounds. Cosmopolitanism doesn’t demand that we accept all ways of living in the world as equally admirable – he works hard to draw a line between cosmopolitanism and moral relativism – but does demand that we steer away from a fundamentalist or nationalist response that sees our way as the only way and those who believe something different as inferior or unworthy of our consideration or aid.

(Read the whole interview at Henry Jenkins' blog. And hey, while you're at it, read Ethan's award-winning book Digital Cosmopolitans: Why We Think the Internet Connects Us, Why It Doesn't, And How To Rewire It.)

What does one do with all of these feelings on the Fourth of July?

For me, the glorious Fourth feels a little bit like the tailgate party outside a Green Bay Packers game. Does that sound sacreligious? I suppose that's evidence for Reb Zalman's theory that for many Jews today, Independence Day is less a yontif than it was for our forebears. But I don't mean it as a knock on the day. It's great to celebrate one's team and the community which has arisen around that team -- as long as one doesn't fall into the fallacy of imagining that people who support a different team are inferior.

How will we celebrate the Fourth? Weather permitting, we'll go to the sweet little parade in a nearby town. Everyone will be wearing red, white, and blue. There will be bunting and streamers and balloons galore. There will be a marching band, and kids on tricycles, and people riding in classic convertibles throwing candy. Everyone will cheer. Then my family will go to the synagogue picnic, where little kids will splash in a kiddie pool, and adults will grill hot dogs and hamburgers, and we'll eat watermelon and popsicles. Then, after the kids are put to bed, we'll sit on our deck and watch distant fireworks across the valley.

It feels great to celebrate community. But at the end of the day, just as I know that there are other teams in the NFL besides the Packers for whom one might reasonably root, I know that my community -- this nation -- isn't the only wonderful one in the world. I know that our customs and contexts aren't the only way to live. (They're not even the only good way to live. Those who've been fortunate enough to live in, or even to visit, more than one country get a sense for how norms and customs differ, without any one set being the "right" ones  -- that's part of why travel is so wonderfully broadening.) And that's okay. I don't need my country to be the "best place on earth" -- I just need it to be the best version of itself that it can be.

I want to live in an America which lives up to the ideals I hold dear. Some of those ideals were built into the fabric of its founding (equality, rights, liberty and justice for all.) Others have arisen in recent decades as humanity as a whole has become more enlightened (equal rights for women and for people of all races, equal marriage rights, equal rights for GLBTQIA folks, and so on.) When I think about the positive valances of patriotism, I think of those ideals. I think of times when I've felt hope that this country could be a better place, a kinder place, a more just and righteous place. That's what I'd like to be cultivating today.

Some months ago a friend and I went to the Williams College Museum of Art to see, among other things, original copies of some of America's founding documents. I felt a frisson of awe looking at that looping old handwriting, the paper so fragile but the words so enduring. "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men [sic] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness..." I admire the idealism and the optimism with which those words are imbued.

Is today a yontif, a holy day, for me? Not exactly. But it is a day for pausing to celebrate where we are, before we pick up our tools again and continue the work of -- in the words of our Constitution's Preamble -- trying to "form a more perfect Union." Happy Fourth of July to all who celebrate.

 

Related: the poem Not There Yet. "When Moshiach comes / everyone will celebrate / interdependence day..."


May his light continue to shine

My beloved teacher, rebbe, and zaide ("grandfather") Rabbi Zalman Shachter-Shalomi, z"l (may his memory be a blessing) died this morning in his sleep. He was 89.

Here is a seven-minute video in which he explains and explores psalm 23 -- which seems like a fitting way both to remember his vitality, his laughter, and his wisdom, and also to ease the hearts of those who grieve.

I'll write more about him later. Right now I have only tears and gratitude.

Reb Zalman is the reason I became a rabbi. That's a longer story; maybe I'll tell it next week. For now, I am so endlessly grateful to have known him, to have learned from him, and to be a part of his rabbinic lineage.

May all who mourn his passing -- most especially his widow Eve, his many children and grandchildren, his students and the students of his students -- be comforted. זכרונו לברך –– may his memory be a blessing.

 

Memorial contributions may be made to ALEPH's Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi Endowment for Jewish Renewal.


A prayer in remembrance


by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat and Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb


May the memories of our boys
killed in senseless hatred
be for a blessing.

May their spirits be lifted up
and comforted in the close embrace
of God's motherly presence.

May our precious children be safe from harm.
May all the children be our children.
May we protect all parents from mourning.

May our hearts and the hearts of our people
be healed quickly in our day
from the wounds of the past and present.

May every grieving parent find comfort.
May we live to see the day
when no parent has to grieve.




We'll read this prayer at my congregation on Shabbat morning before mourner's kaddish. If it speaks to you, you are welcome to share it with your community, though please take care to keep authors' names attached. May the families of Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Sha'ar, Eyal Yifrah, and Muhammad Hussein Abu Khdeir be comforted.

 

Edited to add: this post has also been shared at Kol ALEPH, the blog of ALEPH: the Alliance for Jewish Renewal.

Edited to add: Rabbi Lila Veissid has graciously translated this prayer into Hebrew; you can read it here.


A poem about night waking

WAKING

I will wake in the morning -- will my breath remember me, will my spirit be returned back from the rooms' shell, caverns echoing and empty?

-- Seon Joon, "the quiet"

 

Because You grant it
    I will emerge from sleep
        not once but twice tonight

my spirit returning
    to alight in this body
        like a small butterfly

as I shuffle yawning
    across warped floorboards
        until my feet reach cool tile

and half-asleep
    bless miraculous
        tubes and openings

if one were to be closed
    where it should be open
        -- another clot to the brain

this time maybe
    not so gentle. But so far
        so good: the body's working

and when dawn comes
    my soul, my breath
        will be restored to me
        
for another day
    of offering praise.
        You have faith in me.


 


This poem was inspired by a line from Seon Joon's post the quiet, which was in turn inspired by a poem by Luisa A. Igloria.

On "miraculous / tubes and openings..." see Morning blessings for body and soul (2007) and Sanctifying the body (2005.)

On "another clot to the brain," see One year stroke-free (2007.)

On "my soul, my breath / will be restored to me," see One from the archives: morning blessing poem cycle (2012). (Some of those poems will appear in my next collection, Open My Lips, forthcoming from Ben Yehuda Press -- stay tuned.) Also see On gratitude and thanks: a sermon for the UU community of Montréal (2013.)

 


Not everyone can carry the weight of the world

ImagesA while back I ran across a quotation from Audre Lorde which really struck me, so I copied it into the to-do list file which is always open on my computer, as a reminder that self-care is always on the to-do list. Lorde wrote:

"Caring for myself is not self-indulgence;

it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare."

Our world tells us, in myriad subtle and unsubtle ways, that taking care of ourselves is self-indulgent and that we should be focusing our energies on more important things. (This message is, I think, most insidiously communicated to women, particularly mothers -- though I'm sure that men and non-parents hear it too.) But I believe Lorde is right: taking care of oneself is an act of self-preservation, and because that act flies in the face of every voice which would argue that we're not important, it's an act of profound defiance.

You are important. You, reading this right now. Regardless of your gender or race or class or faith, regardless of whether you are healthy or sick, whether you are able-bodied or disabled, no matter who you are and where you come from -- you matter. And your wellbeing matters. In (Jewish) theological language, I would say that you are made b'tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. Your soul is a spark of light from the Source of all light. And that makes you holy and worthy of care, as are we all.

I'm going to assume for the moment that you agree with me that self-care is valuable and that each of us is deserving of care. So far, so good. But what does it mean to care for oneself online? In the offline world it's relatively easy to discern ways of taking care of oneself: get enough sleep, exercise, perhaps treat oneself (budget permitting) to an iced coffee or a manicure -- we all know our preferred modes of self-care. But how do we practice responsible self-care online?

I'm not entirely certain what online self-care entails, but I'm pretty sure that one piece of that puzzle is being mindful in where we go, online, and what kinds of conversations we have when we're there. The things we read, the news we consume, the conversations in which we engage: all of these have an impact. They impact us in all four worlds: not only intellectually, but also emotionally, spiritually, even physically in our bodies. And there's a lot of tough news in the world right now.

Maybe for you it's news about the Facebook research on "emotional contagion." (Lab rats one and all: that unsettling Facebook experiment.) Or the recent Supreme Court decisions. (I feel sick: liberal pundits react to Hobby Lobby ruling.) Or the deaths of Gilad Shaar, Naftali Frankel, and Eyal Yifrach. (We should all be ripping our clothes in mourning.) Or the death of Yousef Abu Zagha. (What was Yousef Abu Zagha's favorite song?) Or something else I haven't mentioned -- there's always something else.

One way or another, our social media spaces -- our virtual public square -- are the places where we connect. And as Facebook's "emotional contagion" research showed --and I suspect most of us knew this intuitively -- the things we hear from the people around us have a measurable impact on how we ourselves feel. (As Charlie Brooker quipped in the Guardian, "Emotional contagion is what we used to call 'empathy.'") When people are expressing joy and celebration, our hearts incline in that direction too. And when people are expressing grief, anxiety, sorrow, pain, our hearts incline in those directions instead.

That our hearts feel a pull toward the emotions expressed by other people in our lives is a fact of human nature, and on balance I think it's a good thing. But the internet facilitates more kinds of connections, between larger networks of people, than used to be part of ordinary human existence. Many of us check in with social media many times daily. Maybe you keep Twitter open in another browser tab, or check Facebook on your phone while standing in the check-out line at the drugstore. This can be a tremendous boon -- I remember nursing our infant son in the middle of the night and reading updates from friends on my phone, and feeling incredibly grateful that I could be connected with their lives even when my own life felt so isolating.

But sometimes our interconnection can become enmeshment. And at times of tragedy or crisis, it's easy to get caught-up in online conversations which aren't actually healthy. Pause and notice how you're feeling when you're navigating your online world. Make an active decision about whether your online spaces are helping you feel connected, or whether they're contributing to feelings of alienation or overwhelm. Different people can handle anger, anxiety, and grief to differing degrees. And any single person will be able to handle different levels of these emotions at different times in their life, depending on what else they may be carrying.

Maybe you're usually able to handle a lot of negativity around a given issue, but right now you're worried about a sick family member, and as a result your heart feels more exposed, which means you're experiencing everyone else's sorrow more deeply, so reading Twitter has you near tears. Maybe you're usually untroubled by confronting other people's anxiety, but today you're finding that your own fears are triggered by what you're reading, and watching friends argue on Facebook is making your chest feel clenched and tight.

If being in your usual online spaces is giving you more anxiety, or more grief, or more anger than you can comfortably manage, give yourself permission to step away. (Or if you need permission from outside yourself, consider it rabbinically granted!) Keeping up with every latest update -- every news bulletin, every blog post, every Tweet and status update -- may help us feel informed, but it doesn't necessarily help us emotionally or spiritually. Guard your own boundaries however you need to do.

It's okay to step away from certain parts of the internet, or to deflect certain dinner table conversations, in order to maintain your equilibrium. And if someone in your life needs to step away from something, give them the benefit of the doubt. We never know what the other people in our lives are dealing with. (We especially never know what other people on the internet are dealing with.) No one can be responsible for taking care of everyone's emotional and spiritual needs, but each of us can be responsible for her own.

 

This post's title is borrowed from an REM song.

I also commend to you Beth Adams' A plea against anxiety.


Moments

640px-Omega_pocket_watchThere is only one of me; I can only be in one place at one time. And yet my job calls me to inhabit several moments in time simultaneously. This is the nature of rabbinic work.

On the one hand:  today. This is the day that God has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it! I offer a morning prayer for gratitude, I open up my calendar, I scan to see with whom I am meeting today and what is on my to-do list.

On the other hand: Shabbat. I study this week's Torah portion, I prepare verses to read from the scroll, I think about songs and prayers. I pick up my guitar and my fingers automatically go to the chords for our Shabbat melodies.

On yet another hand: the Days of Awe. Now the machzor is released into the world, and I'm having weekly Skype dates with our student cantor. Every time he sings a line of high holiday nusach, the holidays come rushing in around me like waves.

On another hand still: a funeral which took place many months ago, and the ritual unveiling of the headstone which will take place some months hence. A "then" which is past, and a "then" which hasn't happened yet.

I remember preparing the eulogy for that funeral. I remember standing on the cold winter earth. I imagine what it will feel like to return to that spot with the family to dedicate the stone which marks that spot, which memorializes that life.

One of the names for God which we most frequently use is מלך העולם, melech ha'olam, usually translated as "king of the world" or "sovereign of the universe." But the word olam can mean both space and time (as in l'olam va'ed, "for ever and ever.")

My son sometimes asks me at bedtime where God is, and I tell him that God is everywhere. ("But invisible," my son prompts, and I confirm that yes, he's got that right.) God is also everywhen -- present in every moment. Past, present, and future all at once.

It's my job to be in this moment -- if I am sitting with a congregant for a pastoral conversation, they deserve my full presence. And also to be in that moment, and that other moment -- remembering what has come before; anticipating what's yet to come.