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Praying for what's possible

MiShebeirach Card (front)What does it mean to cultivate hope when the doctors say "there's nothing more we can do"? Hopes for a cure have to be set aside. There will be no miracle, no Hail Mary pass, no eleventh-hour wonder. Every specialist has been seen, every possible avenue of treatment or exploration exhausted. All of the tests have been run. What does it mean to pray for healing when the body cannot be healed?

Every Shabbat morning after we read from Torah we offer a prayer called Mi Sheberach, "May the One Who Blessed..." It asks God, Who blessed our ancestors, to bless our sick loved ones with healing. Some years ago at my shul we began using an alternative text. We still ask God to bless those in need of healing of body, mind, and spirit. To be with them, comfort them, strengthen them and revive them.

But not to heal them. Because we recognize that not everyone who is ill can be healed. And as one of my congregants has taught me, asking God repeatedly for healing which we know is never coming can be painful. And it can lead to (entirely understandable) fury at God for not fulfilling the yearned-for wish. Her perspective is actually quite aligned with Jewish tradition, in a certain way. Tradition teaches us not to pray for the impossible, lest we damage our own faith in the Source of blessing.

During the dry season in the land of Israel, it never rains. So all over the world during that season, when we reach the line in our daily prayer which asks God for the nourishment we derive from water, Jews pray instead for dew. Because rain is simply not possible (in the place where our prayers originated), and we don't pray for things which are impossible, perhaps because doing so would be tantamount to "testing" God.

Jewish tradition teaches that when one hears a fire truck going by with sirens wailing, one shouldn't pray "please, God, let it not be my house burning" -- either it is, or it isn't, but the prayer won't change whatever is already real. I learned this when I first studied Mishna several years ago (see Brachot chapter 9) -- one who prays over something which has already happened is praying in vain. Sometimes a medical diagnosis can be like that. All we can change is how we respond to what is.

When a loved one cannot be healed, perhaps a time comes when we stop asking God for healing. We can ask for perspective, for strength, for loving care. We can ask God to be with our loved one and help them find blessings in each day. We can ask for comfort, for some sweetness to mitigate our loved one's suffering or grief. We can ask God to be with their caregivers, and to strengthen the work of their hands. We can ask for what is possible, and that has to be enough.

Gratitude, Thanksgiving, and the golden land


Image removed: a still from "This Is America, Charlie Brown: The Mayflower Voyagers," 1973. (Removed because a reader observed that it perpetuates the very negative stereotypes which I had intended for this post to call into question. My apologies for causing hurt or offense.)

Today we remember a long-ago feast of gratitude. Perhaps that feast was held by Pilgrims along with their Wampanoag neighbors, who had helped the colonists survive the hardships of a brutal winter marked by sickness and loss (which had come after a difficult transatlantic crossing). Now there was a good harvest and sense of plenitude. (See Thanksgiving History | Plimoth Plantation.) That's more or less how the story unfolds on the Peanuts "This is America, Charlie Brown: The Mayflower Voyagers" special, and if Charles Schulz illustrated it, it must be true, right? (Hint: depends on who you ask.)

As a Jew I've always felt some identification with the Pilgrims who fled religious persecution and set off for a land where they could worship as they chose in peace. The same was true of both of my sets of grandparents during the 20th century. For many Eastern European Jews America was the Goldene Medina, the golden land of opportunity where all were equal and where religious freedom was guaranteed. In America anyone could get ahead if only they were willing to work hard. Something in me will always resonate with this vision of the United States as a place of equality and freedom.

Of course, the Pilgrims' arrival here was the beginning of an era of European colonization which left this land's Native inhabitants disenfranchised. That complicates the religious freedom narrative a bit.  European religious freedom and expansion came at a high cost. Between European notions of land ownership and that era's triumphalist sensibilities -- not to mention "manifest destiny," the establishments of Indian reservations, and the import of smallpox and other European diseases --  the colonists set in motion a paradigm shift which would badly damage the fabric of Native life.

The tale of the First Thanksgiving may be biased mythologizing. And the fantasy of an America entirely free from prejudice, where anyone could "bootstrap" their way to prosperity, turns out to be not exactly the whole truth either. Both that classic Jewish immigrant story, and the Thanksgiving story as I learned it when I was a kid, are sanitized and rosy-hued. Intellectually I know that there is more to both of those realities than the neat narratives can explain. And yet there's something about these stories which is still compelling for me, even though I know they're not the whole truth.

What do these tales do for us? What purpose do they serve in our psychospiritual lives? I think the persistence of these stories shows us something about how we want to see ourselves and our nation. I think both stories encode a yearning for a home where harvests are plentiful, gratitude is free-flowing, and opportunities abound. They can teach us something real and true -- not about the way things were or are, necessarily, but about the way we wish things were.

In Jewish tradition we say that Shabbat offers us a taste of the world to come. When we tell these old stories about America as a haven of perfect equality and freedom, about the Pilgrims and the Indians sitting down in harmony, about a place of opportunity where a Jew can aspire even to the highest office in the land, I think we're seeking that same kind of taste of what it would be like for our nation to live up to our holiest ideals. Maybe today we celebrate the abundance, freedom, and thankfulness which characterize the America of our deepest hopes.

Happy Thanksgiving to all who celebrate.


Injustice: the Ferguson grand jury's decision

I'm mostly offline this week, but I just saw the news that officer Darren Wilson, who shot unarmed teenager Michael Brown on August 9, will not face trial. (See Ferguson police officer won’t be charged in fatal shooting and Ferguson smolders day after grand jury decides not to indict officer.) Apparently this means that the grand jury decided that there was not "probable cause" that Wilson had committed a crime. The chair of the Congressional Black Caucus says that the Ferguson decision shows that black lives have no value.

This decision is part of a pattern (see Ferguson Cop Darren Wilson Is Just The Latest To Go Unprosecuted For A Fatal Shooting, which looks at shootings by police in the St. Louis area: "Since 2004, St. Louis County police officers have killed people in at least 14 cases. Few faced grand juries, and none was charged.") And I know that this is not only a problem in St. Louis. (See 'Epidemic of police violence in US’: Black person killed every 28 hours, and on, Ferguson: the signal it sends about America.) While I'm sharing links, don't miss Chronicle of a riot foretold by Jelani Cobb in the New Yorker, which I found both painful and powerful.

My computer time right now is limited, and I don't have the spaciousness to craft an impassioned essay about how and why this is not the America of my hopes and dreams. (Instead I'll link you back to what I wrote a few days after Michael Brown's killing -- Grief at the deaths of unarmed black men.) But I am holding the family of Michael Brown (may his memory be a blessing) in my prayers. And I pray for change and for justice. In the words of the prophet Amos, "May justice roll like a river, righteousness like an ever-flowing stream."


Edited to add: I commend to you rabbinic student Sandra Lawson's A Prayer for Ferguson.



Dealing With Chronic Illness at The Wisdom Daily


I'm deeply delighted that the folks at The Wisdom Daily, a publication which I greatly admire, wanted to reprint a version of a blog post which first appeared here.

They reposted my piece about Toni Bernhard's book How to Be Sick as Dealing With Chronic Illness: Can You Do Well At Being Sick?

If you didn't read that post when it appeared here, or if you'd like a refresher, feel free to click through and read the (deftly edited) version they shared with their readers.

Thanks, Wisdom Daily!

Peace Parsha at APN - If this is so, then why am I?

Peace-parsha-feature-1-logoEarlier this fall I was honored by the invitation to offer some words of Torah as part of the Peace Parsha series at Americans for Peace Now.

You can read my commentary on parashat Toldot at APN: If this is so, then why am I? I'm also archiving it below.

"The children struggled in her womb, and she said, 'If this is so, then why am I?'" -- Genesis 25:22

We read in this week's Torah portion that even in the womb, Rebecca's children Jacob and Esau quarreled. And their perennial struggle brought her to an existential outcry: if this is so, then why am I? If this is the only possibility for my sons, she seems to be saying, then my motherhood -- even my whole existence -- feels called into question. If fighting is all there is, then what's the point?

I suspect that many of us who care deeply about Israel and Palestine have those moments of heartfelt crying-out. If this is so, then why am I? If struggle and violence are inevitable, "then why am I" giving my heart and soul to working toward peace?

Continue reading "Peace Parsha at APN - If this is so, then why am I?" »

Coffee talk

We hesitate at the unlit stairwell
but two men sitting in the dark
nod and point us upwards.
Four flights up we reach
al-Sendebad: open on all sides,
Abraham’s tent in concrete.
We sit on plastic chairs
overlooking streets, square, park,
noisy with people in the cool of night.

We are the only visitors here.
Everyone else is local, a regular.
They wear pants and caftans, sport
mustaches and checked kefiyyahs.
I am the only woman in sight.
Two men play backgammon; two
cards; everyone talks. One man
juggles pipe with cellphone,
old world with new.

Thumbing our Berlitz we eke out
requests for hot mint tea and a nargil.
The waiter gestures, raises a brow,
confirming we really do want
what tourist literature translates
as “hubble-bubble pipe.”
The tobacco, cut with molasses,
smells sweet as the honeysuckle
that blooms at twilight.

With their thick mustaches,
backgammon and smoke,
these men remind me of my father.
I imagine him here, nargil trailing
from his lips, scattering dice
on the table and moving stone pips
across the board. He doesn’t play
in person since Philip died,
just online games with strangers

now and then fast words
in the chat window, “What’s wrong,
U still there?” Some of his opponents
are Arabs, Saudis he says, maybe even
Jordanians. Looking out at Amman
at night, listening to the men laugh
and play, I wish my father were here.
Maybe the smoke and coffee
would add up to a common language.

First published in The Wisconsin Review, Vol. 38, No. 1, fall 2003.

Beth's drawings of mint tea and sheesha made me think back to my first trip to Amman, Jordan, in 2002. That, in turn, led me back to this poem. I wrote this in 2002 shortly after our return home.

2002 was before I had my first digital camera, so my photographs from this trip are all prints in an album -- the kind with sticky pages and clear plastic overlays. Twelve years later the plastic overlays are brittle and breaking, and some of the photos don't want to pull free from their pages. Although there were no photos from the nighttime coffee shop visit which sparked this poem, I scanned some of the best ones from the album. If you're interested, you can find them here.


You, standing in line
at the coffee shop

or shivering at the gas pump --
what phone call do you dread

in the back of your mind
from the moment you wake up?

I don't know what grief lurks
in your dark corners

or what kind word
would settle around you

like a knitted afghan
warming your cold places,

would salve
your abraded heart.



I've been thinking a lot lately about the invisible worries and sorrows we carry with us, whether intimate or geopolitical. This poem came out of those reflections.

Usually titles are hard for me, but once the last couplet came together I knew what the poem's title would be. I like the way it hints both at balm and (via Latin) at salvation.

There has to be another way

Today's news out of Jerusalem rends my heart.

The mere fact of being alive being means that each of us will experience suffering: sickness, pain, grief. These come with being human. Being human means we experience love and joy and connection, and it means we also experience sorrow and loss. Sometimes I struggle mightily against that truth, but deep down I recognize that it's part of the way the world works. Human lives contain enough pain just by virtue of being human lives. Why do we add to that pain with hatred and killing?

I woke this morning to news of killings in a Jerusalem synagogue. My social internet this morning is full of images of bloodsoaked prayerbooks, tallitot, and tefillin -- unspeakably horrifying for those of us who pray with these same garments, these beloved words. The images evoke the Jewish community's worst fears and most deeply-entrenched memories of trauma. We can't help imagining our own morning prayer shattered, our own loved ones attacked in these ways.

My social internet is also full of people responding to this tragedy in the ways that we always do,1 which heightens my grief with a sense that our conversations are futile. We're not getting at what really matters: when are human beings going to stop killing each other? What kind of spiritual and emotional evolutionary leap would it take, and how many more parents and children and spouses and siblings are going to have their lives shattered by trauma before we get there?

Slaughtering people at prayer is one of the most despicable acts I can think of. That's true whether the slaughter is committed by a Jew against Palestinians, or a Palestinian against Jews. And now I read that Netanyahu has vowed to "respond with a heavy hand," and that Hamas praises the attack (though Abbas has condemned it), and my heart cries out for God's sake, stop! Where can the spiral of violence and retribution take us but more violence and retribution? There has to be another way.

We need a larger framework of conflict transformation. We need to find a way to lift ourselves up, out of the positions we already hold and the things we've already tried. We need to seek to see the situation from a God's-eye view in order to create a path toward a different future. The Sfat Emet teaches that from where God sits (as it were) there are no binaries, no us/them, just goodness and oneness and love. As human beings we all have to find a way to see each other through God's eyes.

The worse things get, the harder it becomes to imagine anything other than continuing hatred and bloodshed. We have to imagine something other than continuing hatred and bloodshed. Please, God. Help us write a different ending to this story. And bring Your comfort and peace to those who mourn.


Mourner's Kaddish

I pray to You God,
that the power residing in Your Great Name
be increased and made sacred
in this world which God created freely
in order to preside in it,
and grow its freeing power
and bring about the messianic era.
May this happen during our lifetime
and during the lifetime of all of us
living now, the house of Israel.
May this happen soon, without delay
and by saying AMEN we express our agreement and hope, AMEN.

Continue reading "There has to be another way" »

Tempest in a teapot

TeapotI was writing an email to a dear friend recently and acknowledged, somewhat ruefully, that my mind has been spinning in circles lately. By way of illustration, I typed out the several things at the top of my mind. When I saw it all written down, I started to laugh. It seemed comical all of a sudden, and repetitive, and impossibly mundane. Like a boring and familiar grocery list of the things which come up again and again.

The friend wrote back and offered me a mental exercise: imagine a container, she said. Imagine every detail, where it's placed, what it looks like, everything about it. And then take all of these recurring worries and put them in the container and close the lid. You're not ignoring them; you're putting them away for safekeeping. You can think about them later. When she first did this, she told me, the container she pictured was a teapot.

I was immediately charmed by the mental image of stashing away one's worries in a teapot. Like graciously inviting a genie to return to its lamp. Not forever; just for now. Usually "a tempest in a teapot" means something minor which has been exaggerated out of all proportion. And who knows, my recurring worries may fit that bill. But I like the idea of being able to shrink my internal tempests and tuck them away somewhere safe. (Perhaps the teapot is bigger on the inside.)

I read recently that the goal of meditation isn't to "silence" the mind, but to attune oneself to its chatter. I know this to be true, and yet it's always good to be reminded. Thinking thoughts is the mind's job. Of course the mind is always abuzz. Thoughts, reminders, to-do lists, memories, regrets, anticipations, hopes, yesterdays, tomorrows. When I sit still and let myself notice what arises in me, then I can begin the work of relating to myself gently, with compassion, without judgement.

And sometimes, when my mind just keeps yammering about the same subset of things, I think I may try to open up the teapot and gently pour those things inside. I imagine myself saying, "Yes, work deadline, I see you there. Yes, upcoming travel, I see you there. Yes, concern for a loved one, I see you there. You have made your presence known and I acknowledge you. Now it's time for you to go into this teapot so that I can enjoy the now, instead of listening to your clamor about later."


If I were going to pour my tempest into a literal teapot, this would be a good one -- it is made of cast iron and seems pretty indestructible.


Looking for Chanukah gifts? Support independent publishing!

Chanukah begins in mid-December, and perhaps you are looking for Chanukah gifts for someone in your life who loves poetry. (Hey, I can hope, right?) I hope you'll consider clicking through to Phoenicia Publishing, the wonderful independent press in Montreal which published my first two collections, and buying their books as Chanukah gifts.

Of course I'm always happy for people to buy my work. So if you know someone who would enjoy a copy of 70 faces: Torah poems or Waiting to Unfold (poems of pregnancy and motherhood), by all means, please buy copies and give them away! (The publisher and I both earn a wee bit more if you buy directly from Phoenicia rather than via Amazon, using these links: 70 faces, Waiting to Unfold.)

But I'm not just here to try to entice you to buy more copies of my books. Phoenicia has also published a lot of other wonderful things -- recently How Many Roads?, a collection of beautiful photographs from the 60s and early 70s by Jonathan Sa'adah, and Night Willow by Luisa A. Igloria, both of which are really worth owning and would make terrific gifts.

I've recently received an official publication date for my next collection of poems -- it's definitely coming out in 2015 from Ben Yehuda Press, along with collections of poems by two other terrific writers! -- and while I can't yet encourage you to buy that new collection, if you're interested in books of general Jewish interest you will certainly find goodies on their website too.

Thanks for bearing with me during this commercial interlude! And thanks for supporting indie publishers -- I know how hard they work to bring beautiful work into the world, and I want their efforts and care to be rewarded.

Reaching wholeness: brief thoughts on Chayyei Sarah

Here's the d'var Torah I offered yesterday at my shul. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)


For me the most striking feature of this parsha -- which contains Sarah's death, Avraham's purchase of the Cave of Machpelah, Eliezer his servant going forth to find a wife for Isaac, Rebecca watering his camels at the well, and finally Avraham's death -- is that Isaac and Ishmael come together to bury their father.

How often it happens that a death brings a family together, trumping distance and even estrangement. When we gather together to mourn, we are united in the most defining characteristic of human life: every life ends.

Torah doesn't tell us how Isaac and Ishmael felt, reunited for this purpose. It doesn't tell us how the brothers greeted one another, or whether there was animosity between them; whether they blamed their parents for the tensions of their divided family, or whether they were able to let all of that go.

I imagine them embracing, old resentments discarded in the face of their shared grief. I imagine them grateful to be together, caring for their father's body lovingly as their descendants still do today. That imagining probably says more about me than about them; we know surprisingly little about their internal lives.

There's a Hasidic commentary, from the rabbi known as the Degel Machaneh Efraim, which translates the words "Sarah died" in a really interesting way. He says we should understand the word tamat, "she died," as actually meaning wholeness and completeness. (This is a bit of Hebrew wordplay which is hard to translate -- just roll with me on this.)

For the Degel, what happened to Sarah, in her hundred and twenty-seventh year, was that she achieved perfect wholeness and completeness. When she died, her life became complete, by definition, no matter what she had done or not done. She left the imperfections and the limits of her body and her health and her circumstance and entered into a state of perfect wholeness.

And at the end of the parsha, we read yamat Avraham - the same verb, "he died," or "he reached perfect wholeness and completeness." I like the Degel's interpretation. When a soul leaves this life, brokenness and alienation and small-mindedness all fall away. The soul gets "breathing room," as it were, for the natural expansiveness which connects it with God.

That doesn't mean that Isaac and Ishmael didn't grieve. For their sakes, I hope that they did. I hope they were able to mourn their parents. I hope they were able to embrace their loss as a sign of how fortunate they were to love and be loved, even by figures as flawed as our Biblical patriarchs and matriarchs seem to have been.

But I hope there was comfort for them in being with each other, and in knowing that Sarah and Avraham's journeys were complete.


I followed this d'var Torah with the poem "In the Same Key," which you can find in 70 faces: Torah poems (Phoenecia Publishing, 2011.)


Four poems from 70 faces set to music

Several years ago, composer Michael Veloso set two of the poems from the manuscript which would become Waiting to Unfold to music. I had the extraordinary experience of being able to hear them in concert, performed by the Boston-based ensemble Cantilena, at a concert of music about mothers, on my first mother's day as a mother.

70FacesSmallI'm delighted to say that another composer has found inspiration in my words. Michael Scherperel set four poems from 70 faces for piano, violin, and voice in a series called "שבעים / Shiv'eem" ("Seventy"). The series was recently performed by Michael and vocalist Susan Boardman at two recent concerts, one at Penn State and one at Studio 37 Recital Hall in Fishers, Indiana. (He tells me the songs were very well received!)

You can read about the composition, and if you are so inclined order the score, at his website. You can also click on the Soundcloud link there and listen to a live recording of one of those performances -- or you can listen to it at Soundcloud. (I'd embed the audio here but that doesn't seem to be possible, so if you want to hear the songs, you'll have to click through.)

This kind of creative collaboration is part of why I make my poems available online for free, and why I'm such a big supporter of Creative Commons and of remix projects like the Poetry Storehouse. I'm honored that Michael Scherperel liked my poems enough to set them to music, and hearing them performed is an amazing experience. Thank you, Michael and Susan!

Two years ago: Barcelona

Two years ago this week Ethan and I went to Spain, where I had never been before. He had been engaged to speak at a conference in Barcelona, and we took advantage of that fact to snatch a tiny little vacation. The conference put us up at a hotel we would almost certainly not have chosen -- the W, which is perched on a curl of land at the very edge of the sea. When we walked along the beach and looked back at our lodgings, the building evoked a billowing sail open to the wind.


When we are at leisure, we tend to spend our days walking. We walked miles every day, all over the city. We snapped photographs of building facades and architectural details and glimpses of the city life unfolding all around us. Every so often we stopped for a coffee or a glass of wine, and then we set off on foot again. One of the places we made sure to visit was the open-air market. I love breathing in the scents of whatever is local -- fresh fruits, or burlap bags of spices, or the briny harvest from the sea.

Continue reading "Two years ago: Barcelona" »


This handwritten copy of one of my poems was shared at morning davenen at the Reconstructionist Rabbinic College yesterday:


(The image was sent to me by a friend and colleague who was there.)

I am so gratified and humbled that someone loved this poem enough to copy it out and share it!

There is something especially beautiful, I think, about a handwritten copy of a poem. Handwriting has personality. It's irreducible, irreplaceable; it can only come from the hand which wrote it. Seeing my poem written out in an unfamiliar hand is like hearing one of my poems recorded in someone else's voice.

And, of course, I'm glad that my love of all of these figures -- Avraham, Sarah, Isaac, Ishmael -- comes through for the person who chose to copy this poem.

You can find this poem in 70 faces, my collection of Torah poems published by Phoenicia Publishing in 2011. (Makes a great Chanukah gift for lovers of Torah and lovers of poetry alike!)

May peace and love come to all of the children of Avraham / Ibrahim, speedily and in our days.



There is something satisfying about the tangibility of the beads. I like the way they feel in my hands, the smoothness of them beneath my fingers. I like the feel of one clicking against the next.

They sit in a coil on my desk. Every so often I pick them up, holding them in my left hand. I take one bead between thumb and forefinger, and in my mind I chant Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad, Adonai Echad.

The melody is one which I learned for a Sufi-style zhikr practice many years ago. In that practice, we chanted the words of the Shema over and over, leaning left (shema Yisrael) and right (Adonai Eloheinu) and then forward (Adonai Echad) and forward again (Adonai Echad.) I'm not moving my body now, any more than I'm singing aloud, but I am remembering the movements along with the melody and the words.

And then I click the bead down the string and take the next one under my thumb and mentally chant the lines again.

And again.

I do this while I'm on the phone, sometimes. Or while I'm reading. When the beads are under my thumb, the prayer just keeps repeating itself, a subroutine running automatically in the back of my mind while my forebrain is focusing on my reading or my conversation.

Listen up, you Godwrestlers! The Infinite is our God; the Infinite is One.

No matter what I'm doing, no matter what's happening in the world, everything is part of a deeper unity. God is One. And God is everywhere; as we read in Tikkunei Zohar, leit attar panui mineih -- there is no place devoid of the Presence. Everywhere, everyone, everything, is part of that unity. Ein od milvado: there is nothing else but God, in the end.

I can't walk around all day in mystical awareness of the Oneness of all things. In order to live in the world, I have to be an individual -- a single person, with a single mind and heart and soul. And I love being this person, in these relationships, doing this work in the world. But deep down, I'm not separate from you. Or from her, or him, or them. None of us is separate. We're all part of the One. We're droplets of water falling over the waterfall, and when we reach the bottom we rejoin the Oneness from which we came.

And with every bead I click along this string, I recite a line of prayer which reminds me of that.

Are mala beads an "authentically Jewish" practice? Nope. This is a practice borrowed from Buddhism. (Actually a lot of traditions make use of prayer beads, among them Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity. This particular string of beads was a gift from a dear friend who is Buddhist.) But this piece of borrowed spiritual technology adapts well to the Jewish ideal of praying constantly. As Rav Abraham Isaac Kook (of blessed memory) wrote, "Prayer comes into full bloom only as we become aware that the soul-breath / the neshamah is always praying."

Moving the beads between thumb and forefinger is a little bit like winding the fringes of my tallit around and between my fingers while praying. I remember winding the silken strings of my grandfather's tallit between my fingers when I was a kid. There's something satisfying about the tactile experience of drawing the fringes between the fingers. Having recently learned how to tie tzitzit, I am extra-conscious of the fact that the windings and knots represent the phrase Adonai Echad, "God is One." Fingering my tzitzit is a reminder of that Oneness.

And because the Shema is my current mantra, fingering these beads is a reminder of that Oneness, too. A way of infusing my workday with a little bit of contemplative practice.

Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad, Adonai Echad.




How to be sick well: Toni Bernhard's guide for the chronically ill

How+To+Be+SickThis book is written for people who are ill and aren't going to get better, and also for their caregivers, people who love them and suffer along with them in wishing that things were different. It speaks most specifically about physical illness. In the largest sense, though, I feel that this book is for all of us. Sooner or later, we are all going to not "get better."

That's acclaimed Jewish-Buddhist teacher Sylvia Boorstein in her introduction to How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers by Toni Bernhard.

The book was recommended to me by one of my congregants who cares for a chronically ill loved one. She described Bernhard's book as "How to be sick well" -- how to achieve emotional and spiritual wellness even when one's body remains sick.

Bernhard became ill in 2001 and has suffered from chronic illness ever since. The first two chapters tell the story of her illness. Beginning in chapter three she shares how her Buddhist learning offered her a way of approaching her illness as a spiritual practice. She wanted to know "how to live a life of equanimity and joy despite my physical and energetic limitations." This book offers her answers to that question.

Early in that third chapter she writes about the power of "just being" with what is:

Just "being" life as it is for me has meant ending my professional career years before I expected to, being house-bound and even bed-bound much of the time, feeling continually sick in the body, and not being able to socialize very often. [Drawing on Buddhist teaching,] I was able to use these facts that make up my life as a starting point. I began to bow down to these facts, to accept them, to be them. And then from there, I looked around to see what life had to offer. And I found a lot.

I struggle a little bit with her language of "bowing down to" these facts. And yet I recognize that there is wisdom in accepting what is, instead of getting caught up in wishing that things were different. I know that in my own life I get into trouble when I get attached to my expectations of how something will be, and I feel more open to blessings when I can simply be with what is.

Continue reading "How to be sick well: Toni Bernhard's guide for the chronically ill" »

Preparing for shiva

Looking for a printable shiva minyan liturgy? There's one at the end of this post.


I almost always begin a shiva minyan by telling a story about what we're doing and why we're doing it. (Shiva means seven and minyan means the group of at-least-ten who gather together to pray; a shiva minyan is a prayer gathering during the week called shiva, the first week after a loved one's burial.)

The custom of the shiva minyan came about, I explain, at a place and time where it was assumed that all Jewish men considered themselves obligated to pray three times a day. (This often draws forth a chuckle from the room, because we know that this is not how most of us in the room approach our prayer lives.) Imagine that you have the custom of going to shul every day: both because you feel metzuveh (commanded / obligated) to daven (pray) in community, and because you want to help the community make a minyan, the quorum of ten which is required for our call-and-response prayers, among them the Mourner's Kaddish.

Suddenly your life is ruptured by loss. A loved one dies. Now your days feel strange and measureless as you navigate this new landscape of aveilut, mourning and bereavement. The sages of our tradition recognized that in the wake of a loved one's death, the mere prospect of getting dressed nicely and leaving the house may feel completely overwhelming. So during the first week of mourning, the minyan comes to you. The community comes to your home; they bring prayerbooks, they bring food, they sit with you and listen to you and daven with you so that you can recite the Mourner's Kaddish in the embrace of loving community.

A shiva minyan, in other words, is intended to be something to soothe and comfort the mourner -- not yet-another-thing for the mourner to worry about doing, or doing "right." It's not supposed to be an onerous obligation; it's supposed to remove the onerousness from the obligation which one has already taken on, the obligation of daily communal prayer. But for those who don't have a practice of daily communal liturgical prayer, and/or who may not be especially comfortable with the Hebrew of traditional Jewish liturgy, the prospect of a shiva minyan may seem daunting. It may feel like an unwanted obligation, or be a source of discomfort, which is exactly the opposite of its purpose.

Continue reading "Preparing for shiva" »

Thanks, Berkshires Week!

Many thanks to Kate Abbott of Berkshires Week, the weekly magazine which is part of The Berkshire Eagle, for the lovely article about Jewish Book Month happenings in Berkshire County. The article begins with a quote from one of the poems in my first book 70 faces: Torah poems (Phoenicia, 2011.) It continues with some history of Jewish Book Month, and a recounting of a conversation between Kate and me:

I asked Rachel what books she would recommend, if she and I were putting together a list of wonderful things to suggest to people this month -- people who would love words and stories as much as we do and see new worlds to explore.

Off the top of her head, she suggested "The Rabbi's Cat," a gentle graphic novel by Joann Sfar; "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay," a novel set in the early days of comic books by Michael Chabon; "The Golem and the Jinni" by Helene Wecker...

Read the whole thing here: Berkshires Join Jewish Book Month. (For those who are interested: I posted about The Rabbi's Cat 2 here back in 2008, and about The Golem and the Jinni in January of this year.)

Thanks, Kate and Berkshires Week, for sharing word of some nice Jewish happenings in our county!



No one knows who these men are or why their photograph has been handed down in our family. If I had to guess, I would say that this photo is probably from Belarus, childhood home to my grandfather Isaac, a.k.a. Eppie (may his memory be a blessing). It is a tiny photo, only three and a half inches by two and a quarter inches. It was in a box of miscellaneous family photographs at my parents' house; I found it in a small envelope labeled "treasures old and new" in my mother's handwriting.

Who were these men? Religious Jews, it seems clear; they are bearded and wearing yarmulkes. Then again, they don't have peyos, the sidecurls which are seen on many Hasidic or Orthodox Jews, and their beards are trimmed neatly. (Though apparently peyos were banned in the Russian Empire in 1845.) It appears that they're wearing long black coats and black kippot, though that may or may not have been a signifier of anything in that place and time, whatever that place and time were.

I looked through The Family History of Alice Fried Epstein and Isaac Epstein, M.D., a volume which contains the transcript of oral history interviews conducted with my maternal grandparents. I remembered that the book contained a variety of black and white photographs, many of which were taken in Europe and date to the early years of the last century when my grandparents were young. But I didn't find either of these men in any of those pictures from early 20th-century Belarus or Prague.

Every time I look at this photograph I'm drawn to the man on the left, with the white beard, who has looked up from their chess game to regard the unknown photographer. I am charmed by his subtle smile. Presumably he knew whoever was taking this picture. Maybe he was winning the chess game. Maybe it was just a beautiful day in the park and he was happy to be alive. Could he have imagined this print traveling across the ocean and surviving more than a century to wind up in my hands?


I'm taking advantage of the #throwbackthursday / #tbt meme -- which usually involves posting old photos on Thursdays -- as an opportunity to write short snippets of remembrance, sparked by whatever old photo I find to post.

Thanks, Moment!


It's lovely to be the Jewish Renewal voice quoted in this Moment magazine article about cultured meat and its putative kashrut. (Science fiction future, here we come?) Here's how it begins:

In Genesis, God granted humans dominion over animals. In modern times, that dominion has spawned one of the planet’s biggest threats: a livestock industry that spews greenhouse gases, guzzles resources and renders the lives of billions of animals brutish and short. Last August, vexed by the problem, a Dutch physiologist named Mark Post came up with a solution: a burger no cow had to die for. He called it the “test-tube burger.”...

Read the whole thing here: Test Tube Burgers: Holy Cow? (I don't chime in until the very end, but I'm honored to have the last word!)