Announcing Toward Sinai: Omer Poems

About a year ago, I had an audacious thought. I frequently aim to write daily poems during April, National Poetry Month in the United States. Over the last few years I've written daily poems during Elul (some of which are now collected as See Me: Elul Poems.) What if I could combine daily writing discipline with spiritual practice again and share 49 daily poems during the counting of the Omer?

As regular readers of this blog know (at least, those of you who were reading regularly last spring!), I came home from last year's OHALAH conference fired-up and inspired, and my level of poetic output surged. I did post 49 Omer poems here during the days between Pesach and Shavuot. I am delighted now to be able to share my collection of 49 Omer poems -- revised and improved for print -- with you.


TowardSinai-frontThe Omer is the period of 49 days between Pesach (Passover) and Shavuot. Through counting the Omer, we link liberation with revelation. Once we counted the days between the Pesach barley offering and the Shavuot wheat offering at the Temple in Jerusalem. Now as we count the days we prepare an internal harvest of reflection, discernment, and readiness. Kabbalistic (mystical) and Mussar (personal refinement) traditions offer lenses through which we can examine ourselves as we prepare ourselves to receive Torah anew at Shavuot. Here are 49 poems, one for each day of the Omer, accompanied by helpful Omer-counting materials. Use these poems to deepen your own practice as we move together through this seven-week corridor of holy time.


Praise for Toward Sinai: Omer Poems

Rachel Barenblat has gifted her readers with a set of insightful poems to accompany our journey through the wilderness during the Counting of the Omer. Deft of image and reference, engaging and provocative, meditative and surprising, this collection is like a small purse of jewels. Each sparkling gem can support and enlighten readers on their paths toward psycho-spiritual Truth.

--Rabbi Min Kantrowitz, author of Counting the Omer: A Kabbalistic Meditation Guide

 

Rachel Barenblat comes bearing a rich harvest. In Toward Sinai, her series of poems to be read daily during the counting of the Omer, a poem chronicles every step between Exodus and Sinai. The poems exist in the voices of the ancient Hebrews measuring grain each day between Passover and Shavuot, and also in a contemporary voice that explores the meaning of the Omer in our own day. Together, the poems constitute a layered journey that integrates mysticism, nature, and personal growth. As Barenblat writes: “Gratitude, quantified.”

--Rabbi Jill Hammer, author of The Omer Calendar of Biblical Women

 

Your Torah is transcendent and hits home every time.

-- Rabbi Michael Bernstein, Rabbi Without Borders Fellow


Toward Sinai: Omer poems $12 on Amazon

Those who will be attending the OHALAH conference next week will have an opportunity to pick up copies of this new collection at the shuk -- and I'll gladly inscribe them for you or for the recipient of your choice! Deep thanks to all of my readers, especially to Rabbi Michael Bernstein, Rabbi Jill Hammer, and Rabbi Min Kantrowitz who graciously offered reflections on the book before print.


Jay Michaelson's "The Gate of Tears"

GoT-220x300Have you ever felt that a book's arrival in your life was a perfectly-timed gift? That's how I felt when I received my copy of Jay Michaelson's The Gate of Tears, new this month from Ben Yehuda Press. As I delved into the book, that sense deepened.

This book was not easy for me to read, but I am grateful for its presence on my bookshelves, and I know that I will read it again.

"Joy and sadness are not opposites. Sometimes, they coexist, like two consonant notes of a complex yet harmonious chord," Jay writes. Most of us would probably prefer joy, and probably try to avoid sadness. Sadness isn't something we want to focus on. That's part of the backdrop against which the book is written:

At our contemporary moment, the ordinary sadness that is part of a life richly lived is often stigmatized, shamed, deemed a kind of American failure... Perhaps counterintuitively, it is the surrender to sadness that causes it to pass -- not the suppression of it.

I know that I have shamed myself for my sadness. I so value gratitude that when sadness arises I can feel like I'm failing. Sometimes my mental monologue has demanded, what's wrong with me that even with all of these gifts in my life I still feel sad? But I've come to see that being aware of sadness is not a sign that something is wrong with me -- rather that something is right.

I try to cultivate gratitude: first thing in the morning, last thing before sleep, and a million moments in between. And that doesn't cancel out the fact that learning to sit with sadness can help me connect with God. As Jay writes, "The art of being with sadness, and other unwanted houseguests of the mind, brings about an intimacy with what is -- what the mystics call the One, the Divine, the Beloved."

The book is clear that there's a difference between sadness and depression:

[A]s someone who has experienced depression at times in my life, I feel qualified to say that sadness is not the same thing. Depression is a medical condition, a function of brain chemistry. It can be crippling, devastating, bleak. It makes it hard to live one's life. Subjectively, I experienced it as a dullness, a kind of lessening, or graying, of all emotion. Sadness, on the other hand, is part of being human. So is loss, pain, and loneliness. These are not veils in the way of feeling; they are feeling.

A thousand times yes. Longtime readers know that I experienced postpartum depression in the months after our son was born. I have experienced depression in other ways at other moments in my life. Sadness and depression are not the same, at all. Depression flattens me and makes life feel un-livable. Sadness is not like that.

Sadness hurts, of course. Sadness can come in waves so intense they take my breath away for a time. But sadness passes, and in its wake I feel the joy of being alive. And sometimes I can feel that joy even while the sadness is present. That's the experience at the heart of this book, for me.

Or, in Jay's words, "When the desire to banish sadness is released, sadness cohabitates with joy, and gives birth to holiness. More moments merit being named as Divine. After surrendering the fight to stay afloat, I drown, but find I can breathe underwater." There can be release in letting go.

Continue reading "Jay Michaelson's "The Gate of Tears"" »


Announcing Annunciation

2444974Many months ago, my friend and publisher Beth Adams, of Phoenicia (which brought out my first two books, Waiting to Unfold and 70 faces: Torah poems), asked whether I had ever written a poem about Mary. She was exploring the idea of a collection of poems about Mary accompanied by her own original linocut prints, and she wanted the poets represented in the volume to come from a variety of faith-traditions: Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, secular. She wrote:

"The annunciation story is a complicated foundational story in western culture. Patriarchies have used Mary as a model for ideal female acceptance, faith, and submission to authority, while at the same time millions of people have identified with her courage, suffering, and patience, and accorded her their personal devotion and deep respect.

I suspect that if we look closely, most of us may have been touched by her story in some way
. I want to encourage you to look at the annunciation from a modern point of view, as contemporary poets of different cultural backgrounds. Your work can be religious or secular, traditional or decidedly not, written in  a feminist light, a current-events light, a personal light. I'm not looking for any particular type of thrust or interpretation, but rather a broad range of responses to this story and this person we know as Mary.  I want to encourage you to think deeply and fearlessly, and to write from your hearts."

I did not have any poetry about Mary, but I spent some time learning and researching and praying and then I wrote a poem to contribute. So did fifteen others.

Announcing Annunciation: sixteen contemporary poets consider Mary -- brand-new from Phoenicia Publishing, and available before November 20 at a special pre-publication discount of $17.95. Ten percent of proceeds from the book will be donated to benefit refugee women.

On the publisher's website you can read process notes from the sixteen poets -- among them Ivy Alvarez, Kristin Berkey-Abbott, Chana Bloch, Luisa A. Igloria, Mojha Kahf, Marly Youmans. (What great company to be in!) Also on that page you can read about the process of making the original linocut relief prints which Beth created in response to our poems. (I have a small framed print of Beth's in my synagogue office -- I love her work, and can't wait to see the images in this volume.)

Read about the book, and buy yourself (or someone else!), a copy here: Annunciation.


When sadness and joy co-exist - at The Wisdom Daily

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My latest short piece for The Wisdom Daily is excerpted from a longer post I'm writing about Jay Michaelson's new book The Gate of Tears, which just came out this month from Ben Yehuda Press. Here's a taste:

Sadness can feel like something shameful, especially for people (like me) who make a practice of practicing gratitude. But sadness is a necessary part of the emotional landscape.

It's worth noting: Sadness is not the same as depression. The book distinguishes between the two, and so do I. Depression flattens me and makes life feel un-liveable. Sadness is different.

Feeling sad hurts, of course. Sadness can come in waves so intense they take my breath away for a time. But the emotion passes, and in its wake I feel the joy of being alive. And sometimes, on rare occasions, I can feel that joy even while sadness is present. For me, that's the experience at the heart of The Gate of Tears.

Read the whole thing here: When Sadness and Joy Co-Exist. (And stay tuned for my longer piece in response to the book -- coming soon.)


Wisdom from R' Alan Lew for the Ten Days of Teshuvah

ThisisrealLongtime readers know that I maintain a practice of rereading Rabbi Alan Lew's This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared: the Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation at this season. I begin reading it at Tisha b'Av, and finish reading it at the end of Sukkot. That's the period of time which the book covers, and Rabbi Lew annually enriches my journey through those two months and through my own spiritual life. 

One of the things I love about reading this book is that I have been underlining and making marginal notes in my copy for many years. There are passages I've underlined, and places where I drew exclamation marks in the margins. Blue ink, black ink, pencil markings. Each year my eye is drawn to the passages I marked in previous years, and often those passages still resonate for me. And each year my eye is drawn to something I haven't underlined before which is speaking to me in a new way this year because of where I am or what's on my mind and heart.

Here are some of the lines which leapt out at me this year.

First of all, we learn that Teshuvah can arise in the most hopeless circumstances... Most of us only embark on the difficult and wrenching path of transformation when we feel we have no choice but to do so, when we feel as if our backs are to the wall, when the circumstances of our lives have pushed us to the point of a significant leave-taking... Transformation is just too hard for us to volunteer for. Interestingly, God is depicted as the one who is doing the pushing here. We are in the predicament that has brought us to the point of transformation because God has driven us there. In other words, that predicament is part of the process. It is a gift, the agent of our turning.

It's easy for me to be glib about teshuvah, repentance / return. This year I am resonating with his point that sometimes transformation is most possible when we have exhausted every other alternative. Sometimes we aren't ready to change until we've tried everything else we can think of. Sometimes we only become ready to seek transformation when it becomes clear that the status quo is untenable. We may not know where we're going or who we're becoming, but we know we can't stay here.

Continue reading "Wisdom from R' Alan Lew for the Ten Days of Teshuvah" »


When we are mindful

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Judaism believes in the particularity of time, that certain times have special spiritual properties: that Shabbat has an extra degree of holiness; that Pesach (Passover) is the time of our liberation; that Shavuot is a time unusually conducive to revelation. But they have these special properties only when we are mindful. If we consciously observe Shabbat, Shabbat has this holy quality. If we don't, it is merely Friday night, merely Saturday afternoon...

That's Rabbi Alan Lew z"l in the book I reread slowly each year at this season, This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation. Every year I start rereading the book around Tisha b'Av, the day of deep brokenness which launches us in to the season of teshuvah, repentance or return. Every year I find myself drawn to some of the same passages I underlined last year or the year before -- and every year some new passages jump out at me, too.

This year the first new thing I underlined was the quote which appears at the top of this post. I've been thinking a lot lately about sacred time, and about how being aware of where we are in the rhythm of the day and week and the round of the year can help us attune ourselves to spiritual life... and also how being unaware of where we are, or ignoring where we are, can damage that attunement. It's as though lack of mindfulness were a radio scrambler which keeps us from hearing the divine broadcast.

One of the things I love most about my Jewish Renewal hevre (my dear colleague-friends) is that we are jointly committed to seeking mindfulness. To living with prayerful consciousness, as my friends and teachers Rabbi Shawn Zevit and Marcia Prager taught us during DLTI. Knowing others who care about this stuff as much as I do is restorative. It lifts a weight of loneliness off of my shoulders. My hevre inspire me to try to be the kind of person, the kind of Jew, the kind of rabbi, I want to be.

There's much in ordinary life which pulls me away from the awareness I want to maintain. Away from consciousness of Shabbat as holy time, and of its internal flow from greeting the Bride to rejoicing in the Torah to yearning for the divine Presence not to depart. Away from consciousness of the moon and the seasons, and from the process of teshuvah (repentance / return.) Ordinary life is full of obligations, frustrations, distractions, and a whole world of people who don't care about the things I love so deeply.

Sometimes it's a little bit alienating -- carrying this tradition around with me like an extra pair of glasses, an extra lens which shapes the way I see everything in my world, all the while knowing that most of the people around me don't have this lens and probably don't want it, either. Sometimes it feels like an exquisite gift -- as though I had the capacity to see a layer of beautiful magic which overlays all things, because I'm willing to open myself to this way of seeing and this way of being in the world.

Without mindfulness, Shabbat becomes plain old Friday night and Saturday. Without mindfulness, the new moon of Elul coming up at the end of next week is just a night when we'll be able to see a surprising number of stars. Without mindfulness, Yom Kippur doesn't atone -- it's just a long day, maybe one we're spending with grumbly stomachs saying strange words in a language we don't understand. I don't want it to be like that. Not for me, not for you who are reading this, not for anyone.

There's nothing wrong with plain old Friday night and Saturday. (And so on: plain old new moon, September days instead of the High Holidays...) But because I've tasted the transformation that's possible when consciousness of holy time enlivens those hours and makes them new, I want to make these holy times more than "just ordinary." I want to sip that nectar again, and to come away with my spirit renewed. Because I know that diving deep into Jewish sacred time sustains me like nothing else.

What our tradition is affirming is that when we reach the point of awareness, everything in time -- everything in the year, everything in our life -- conspires to help us. Everything becomes the instrument of our redemption.... The passage of time brings awareness, and the two together, time and consciousness, heal... This is precisely the journey we take every year during the High Holidays -- a journey of transformation and healing, a time which together with consciousness heals and transforms us.

Here's hoping. May it be so.

 

Elul begins in one week. Rosh Hashanah begins five weeks from Sunday.

Shabbat shalom to all who celebrate.


All the Words

3306168_origI've been trying to figure out how to write about Magda Kapa's All the Words (Phoenicia Publishing, 2015).

This is not an ordinary volume of poems. These are brief aphorisms, glancing definitions, collected in groupings by month. They are periodically in conversation with ghostly categories written in greyed-out headings which almost escape the margins and fall off the page. 

These lines, Magda writes, "are not my conclusions but my unfinished thoughts. They are my little flags to be followed or burned in time. They are crumbs I leave behind as I walk my way reading, thinking, and, of course, living."

Each of these verses was written on Twitter, so none is longer than 140 characters, and all were originally released into the world via that ephemeral medium.

Here are four glimpses, each taken from a different part of the book -- these are not parts of the same poem (except to the extent that the whole book could be read as one long poem) but in juxtaposing them I find them to be in conversation with each other even so.

Love: no matter what.

Mute: not not to speak, but not to be heard.

Grief: it comes in waves and leaves with parts of the rocks.

Line: unites and separates. And its two ends, they way the disappear in the distance, but still feel each other trembling.

There's something about "Love: no matter what" which feels, as I read it, like the promise I make to those most dearly beloved to me every time we part.

"Mute: not not to speak" -- the double negative startles me and then touches me somewhere deep. Because yes, the most painful silence is not mere silence, but what happens when one tries to speak and the person to whom one wants to be speaking can't hear.

"Grief: it comes in waves" -- like the sea; that much is a familiar image, unsurprising, but then she twists deftly to "and leaves with parts of the rocks." Yes: that is how grief is like the sea. Bit by bit it wears one away and transports one to someplace new.

"Line: unites and separates" -- that one makes me think of a line in a poem, of a line on the page...and also of an attenuated connection between two beloveds which may be thin, and may demarcate their separateness, but also holds them together so that when they tremble, they don't tremble alone.

You can support independent publishing by buying All the Words, or any of Phoenicia's many beautiful titles (including two of mine), at the Phoenicia website.

Shabbat shalom to all who celebrate!


Revisiting Jew in the Lotus after 20+ years

25 years is a long time. Some of the things I loved 25 years ago -- the books, the ideas, the certainties -- don't necessarily speak to me now. Then again, some of the things which were formative for me two-plus decades ago are every bit as central in my life now as they were then -- maybe more so. Rodger Kamenetz's book The Jew in the Lotus is in that latter category. It was my doorway to Jewish Renewal. It's how I first "met" Reb Zalman, and Reb Zalman is the reason I became a rabbi.

I read the book when it was new, in March of 1994, when my dear friend David handed it to me saying "You really have to read this." (He was right.) This book was the door which led me to Jewish Renewal and ultimately to both my adult spiritual life and my rabbinate. (I wrote about that a while back: How I Found Jewish Renewal, And Why I Stayed.) I've dipped into the book countless times in the last twenty-plus years. But it's a long time since I've sat down to read the whole thing, cover to cover.

In a few weeks I will spend a weekend in West Chester, PA, at ALEPH's Getting It...Together, a Shabbaton (Shabbat retreat) and Sunday event which will celebrate the historic journey taken by those diverse rabbis to Dharamsala to meet with His Holiness the Dalai Lama 25 years ago. (If you're free the weekend of July 4, join us -- you can register for the full weekend, for Friday night only, or for Sunday only, and the retreat schedule and registration information are on ALEPH's website.)

What better time to reread the book which set me on my life's spiritual journey?

1148312Part of what's remarkable for me, rereading the book now, is how some of the things which seemed radical and almost unimaginable to me 20 years ago are simply parts of my life now -- not taken for granted, exactly, but no longer surprising. "Reb Zalman...told me he saw himself as 'doing Jewish renewal, not Jewish restoration,'" Rodger writes. I suspect that reading those words was the first time I ever encountered the phrase "Jewish renewal."

"Reb Zalman, the Matisse of religion, rearranged Jewish thought with decorative freedom...At sixty-seven, he was our loosest, freest spirit -- heir to the joy and zest of the legendary Hasidic masters." That's Rodger's prelude to the story I love so much, about how one evening-time Reb Zalman asked their driver to pull over so that he could daven ma'ariv (pray the Jewish evening service) alongside Sikhs saying their evening prayers. When I first read that story, I marveled at his openness. When I read it now, my heart beams with knowing fondness alongside the admiration.

One of the things which moves me most now, rereading this book after so many years, is recognizing that this book sparked in me yearnings for a kind of prayer I had never experienced... which is now a regular part of my life, especially any time I am together with my Jewish Renewal hevre (friends.)

Each morning before breakfast, the Jewish group assembled outside Kashmir College for shakharit davening -- morning prayers. The men strapped leather tefillin on the left arm and just above the third eye. In our brightly colored tallises and our headgear, which ranged from knit kippahs to sateen yarmulkes to Blu Greenberg's gray silk scarf to my own neo-Hasidic Indiana Jones fedora, we were quite a sight to the Tibetan kitchen workers, who always managed to break away for a glimpse. The davening was delightful: vigorous, lusty, witty and raucous, quiet and joyful.

This was all new to me.

I remember when this was all new to me, too. I remember when I couldn't quite imagine the kind of davening Rodger describes. I remember what it felt like the first week I experienced this kind of davening, and how my heart opened like a flower coming into full bloom. And I remember how it felt, when I did DLTI (the Davenen Leadership Training Institute), to discover that I too could participate in co-creating this kind of enlivening prayer. Holy wow, what an amazing journey this has been.

Continue reading "Revisiting Jew in the Lotus after 20+ years" »


Natural history of a world that never was

Anhod-coverOne of the things I frequently love about science fiction and fantasy is that it opens up the possibilities of worlds other than our own. In that sense it's a very redemptive genre, because it holds out hope that the way things are is not necessarily the only way they could possibly be.

The most recent SF/F book I've devoured does this -- with a twist. The setting isn't futuristic, but the past, in a world which is clearly not this one but has enough in common with our own that the changes are striking. The book in question is Marie Brennan's A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent, which purports to be the illustrated memoir written by the woman who pioneered the study of those magnificent beings.

All the world, from Scirland to the farthest reaches of Eriga, know Isabella, Lady Trent, to be the world's preeminent dragon naturalist. She is the remarkable woman who brought the study of dragons out of the misty shadows of myth and misunderstanding into the clear light of modern science. But before she became the illustrious figure we know today, there was a bookish young woman whose passion for learning, natural history, and, yes, dragons defied the stifling conventions of her day.

Here at last, in her own words, is the true story of a pioneering spirit who risked her reputation, her prospects, and her fragile flesh and bone to satisfy her scientific curiosity; of how she sought true love and happiness despite her lamentable eccentricities; and of her thrilling expedition to the perilous mountains of Vystrana, where she made the first of many historic discoveries that would change the world forever.

(That's how the book is described on the author's website.) It's a pitch-perfect rendering of a Victorian memoir, with the most delightfully plucky and well-rounded heroine one could ask for. And -- you will probably not be surprised to discover that this is a part I thought was neat -- the book hints at a kind of alternate version of Judaism in this unfamiliar world. Or, actually, two versions. My first clue was the passing reference to Lady Trent having published her memoirs in 5658. That sounds like the Jewish way of counting time, not the Christian one. But that one detail wasn't enough to convince me that this world's alternate Judaism was intentional.

My second glimpse was when Lady Trent, offhandedly, mentions that the Vystrani pray and study scripture in Lashon, whereas in Scirland they use the vernacular. "Hm," thought I. "Lashon means 'The Language' in Hebrew. I wonder whether that's an intentional shout-out, or whether she just chose the syllables because they sounded nice." I shouldn't have doubted; everything else about the book is so thoughtful, of course Brennan made her imaginary linguistic choices intentionally. Sure enough, immediately after the reference to Lashon vs. vernacular, we learn that both variations of this world's dominant religious tradition make use of a "blessing at the end, with fingers divided," and that the blessings final words are "and bring you peace." If that's not the Priestly blessing, I'll eat my kippah.

Religious practice in Scirland and in Vystrana are not the book's primary theme. We catch glimpses of this world's religious life only insofar as it's relevant to the unfolding plot. There are two primary forms of the dominant religious tradition, one Temple / sacrifice-based and the other centered around study. In Vystrana the locals are highly concerned with purity, and require immersion in "living waters" when the visitors encounter a potential spiritual contamination. (Hello, mikvah immersion! That, in turn, reminded me of one time when I followed ancestral practice and immersed in an outdoor source of living waters before Yom Kippur...which was awfully cold, though not nearly as bad as what Isabella expriences.)

Also when the visitors encounter that contamination, the townspeople rush them with graggers, which Isabella notes she's only ever encountered before at a particular religious festival when the noisemakers are used to drown out the name of the villain, wicked Khumban. That festival will be Purim, in our world, which is coming up in just a few weeks, so that reference made me grin.

Part of what's delightful for me about this is that Brennan doesn't make any kind of big deal about Judaism (or variations thereupon) being central to the book. It's just part of the background, part of how Isabella processes the world around her.  Brennan's written about her decisions to work with Judaism in these ways in a guest post at AlmaNews -- Marie Brennan on 'Natural History of Dragons.' See also Prodding the Defaults, episode 316. One of the things which can be frustrating about being part of a minority religious tradition, in our world, is that the imagery, iconography, and assumptions of the dominant tradition are everywhere, and no one questions that default setting. I enjoyed reading about a world in which traditions and practices are intriguing variations on my own, rather than variations on Christianity.

Anyway, it's a lovely book, and I'm already looking forward to the sequel.

 


Legends of the Talmud: fantastical stories, in fantastic art

Donating to Kickstarter campaigns is like giving a gift to one's future self. I didn't come up with that idea myself -- it's Ethan's -- but I thought of it a few days ago when I received a copy of a book I had helped to fund, but had forgotten would be arriving eventually in my mailbox: Legends of the Talmud: A Collection of Ancient Magical Jewish Tales, by Leah Vincent and Samuel Katz, illustrated by Aya Rosen. (I reviewed Leah Vincent's memoir Cut me loose a bit less than a year ago.)

Here's how the project was described on its Kickstarter page:

ImagesLegends of the Talmud will introduce readers aged 6+ to one of the oldest and most influential texts of Judaism: the Talmud. Although often viewed as a collection of religious laws, the Talmud is also a cultural legacy filled with foundational Jewish ideas and magical tales.

The five stories curated in Legends of the Talmud are presented without doctrinal overlay. They are recounted exactly as they are in the original text: cultural treasures that depict earthy and frank experiences of love, suffering, hope and persistence that all humans grapple with as we move through life. 

Written by Leah Vincent and Samuel Katz and illustrated by Aya Rosen, this revolutionary book will introduce children of all backgrounds to the Talmud and allow Jewish legends to proudly take their place in the global library of ancient magical stories.

The book does what the Kickstarter promised and then some. It is stunning.

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A two-page spread from one of the book's stories, "The Matron and Reb Yose."

This is a richly-illustrated collection of short stories. (I can't exactly call it a graphic novel, because it isn't a novel, but it's very much in that vein -- beautiful illustrations which are themselves the story, not just accompaniments to the story.) It contains five vignettes from the Talmud: For the Love of Chanina, Hillel the Sage, the Test of the Bitter Waters, It is Not in Heaven, and the Matron and Reb Yose.

In these tales we read about how the sage Chanina loved learning more than he loved the law (and what the consequences of that love turned out to be). How the sage Hillel allowed himself to freeze overnight on the skylight of the house of study (and his famous on-one-foot encapsulation of Torah). How the sotah ritual, the "test of the bitter waters," allowed a woman who knew she had not sinned to prove her innocence. How the rabbis reminded God that interpretation of Torah is not in heaven, but here on earth, which means that it is in our hands. And how God spends God's spare time making love matches here on earth, which is a more difficult task than we tend to think.

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A two-page spread from the tale of Hillel the Sage.

These are all stories that I know, and if you have spent any time studying Talmud, you know them too. But even if they are familiar to you, this volume's sparse retelling (and especially Aya Rosen's gorgeous artwork) will bring them to life for you in a new way. And if you know someone who doesn't know these tales from the Talmud, oh, is that person in for a treat!

I want to give this book to everyone I know who loves graphic novels, because it's a beautiful introduction to some foundational Jewish stories. (I give the authors particular props for including the whole "It is not in heaven" story -- not ending with God's joyful shout of "my children have defeated me," but going all the way to the story's conclusion, which is considerably more emotionally complicated.) And I want to give it to everyone I know who loves Talmud, because it's such a lovely addition to the corpus of Talmudic lore.

Leah Vincent's website says the books will be available at our favorite booksellers in spring of 2015, and a Twitter conversation with her confirms that. Follow the book's Facebook page to get an update when the book is available to the general public. Ass soon as that happens, I'm buying a pile of these -- to give to my b'nei mitzvah students and to share with comics-loving friends, and especially one to give to our son.

 


Essay in Shma Koleinu

51qavIAkugLHappy Gregorian new year! I'm delighted to be able to begin the year with news that I have an essay in a new anthology of Jewish voices on prayer. It's called Shma Koleinu: A Jewish People's Commentary on the Siddur, edited by Rabbi Steven Schwarzman, and my essay is about one of my very favorite prayers, the modah ani prayer for gratitude.

Here's how the publisher describes the book:

Shma Koleinu: A Jewish People's Commentary on the Siddur will take you through deep reflections on prayers in the Jewish prayerbook, giving you new insights into the prayers and new courage to find your own.

Rabbi Steven Schwarzman and other writers, including rabbis, cantors, and "ordinary" people - people just like you - delve deeply into the prayers, their texts, their history, their melodies - and just as deeply into themselves.

As the Talmud says, come and hear. Come and hear these voices, and use them to strengthen your own voice in deeper Jewish prayer.

Advance reviews have been good, and I'm excited to see the whole book (my copy is on its way to me now.) Here's some of what people are saying:

"Shma Koleinu: A Jewish People's Commentary on the Siddur is just what the Jewish community needs: a commentary that consists of real and personal prayer experiences. This is not a removed, ivory-tower, collection of philosophical theories, but rather a collection of down-to-earth, engaged, deeply felt responses to the Jewish worship experience. That is why it is so powerfully inspiring!" - Rabbi Jeff Hoffman, D.H.L., Rabbi-in-Residence and Professor of Liturgy at The Academy for Jewish Religion, NY.

"Rabbi Steven Schwarzman has gathered a splendid collection of inspiring interpretations of many of the most important prayers in the Siddur. Reading these meaningful and personal readings on the Jewish treasure-house of petitions, supplications, and words of praise, will greatly enhance the spiritual experience of any worshiper." - Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins, author of In the Spirit: Insights for Spiritual Renewal in the 21st Century

Order yourself a copy now! If you buy it via this Amazon link, a small donation will be made to ALEPH: the Alliance for Jewish Renewal.


An essay in Keeping Faith in Rabbis

KFR-Web-Optimized-Large-Front-CoverI'm delighted to be able to announce that I have an essay in a new volume called Keeping Faith in Rabbis: A Community Conversation on Rabbinical Education, edited by Ellie Roscher and Rabbi Hayyim Herring, new this month from Avenida Books.

Here's how the editors describe the volume:

Keeping Faith in Rabbis: A Community Conversation on Rabbinical Education is an original book of essays by rabbis, academics and lay leaders who explore the question, “What goes into the making of a 21st Century rabbinical leader?” Keeping Faith in Rabbis does not prescribe formulas for rabbinical education. Rather, it is an intentionally curated conversation across ideological boundaries that both celebrates the work of rabbis and suggests new paradigms of rabbinical education and leadership.

The list of contributors includes some real luminaries. My essay "In the Right Direction: Hashpaah and Spiritual Life" appears alongside "Speaking Torah: from Stammering to Song" by Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld; "The Loneliness of the Rabbi" by Rabbi Harold M. Schulweiss; "A Letter to a New Reform Rabbi" by Rabbi Rami Shapiro; and "Growing Rabbis" by Rabbi David A. Teutsch. (I'm also especially looking forward to reading "The Roar of the Cat Rabbi: The Vital Role of Introverts in the Congregational Rabbinate" by Rabbi Edward C. Bernstein" -- because I straddle the line between introvert and extrovert, and I just love that essay's title.)

It is a particular delight for me that my words will appear alongside the words of some of my  ALEPH colleagues, including Rabbi Julie Hilton Danaan and Rabbi Geela Rayzel Raphael, and some of my Rabbis Without Borders colleagues, including Rabbi Richard Hirsh.

Here's some of what others have said about it so far:

“Keeping Faith in Rabbis is like having coffee with 33 rabbis and lay leaders who speak to you as a trusted confidant. Before you get to the last drop, you’ve been challenged, and inspired to re-imagine the future of rabbinic leadership and education for our changing world.” –Cyd Weissman, Director of Innovation, Congregational Learning, The Jewish Education Project, Adjunct Lecturer Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion 

Keeping Faith in Rabbis delivers even more than it promises. Through the conversation about raising up the rabbis of tomorrow, the essays in this volume put forth bold visions of what Jewish life in America could yet be. These are voices of leadership, unfettered.” –Professor Shaul Kelner, Professor of Sociology and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt University

“Passionate, deeply personal, funny, erudite (though worn lightly), sometimes confessional, always thoughtful and reflective, the essays in Keeping Faith in Rabbis probe the changing demands on and possibilities for rabbinic leadership. Essential reading for everyone who cares about the future of Jewish life.” –Dr. Ronald Krebs, Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Minnesota

Keeping the Faith in Rabbis is available from Avenida Books and on Amazon (Print edition $17.95 | Kindle edition $9.99). If you're interested in Jewish community or in questions of where the Jewish future may lie, I think this book will be a terrific resource -- and also hopefully a conversation-starter, both in our communities and in other liberal religious communities where the questions raised in this book will resonate. Pick up a copy today!

 


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.


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" »


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!


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


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!


Debra Zaslow's Bringing Bubbe Home

Several years ago, at an ALEPH Kallah in California, I was blessed to take a week-long sacred storytelling class taught by master storyteller Debra (a.k.a. Dvorah) Zaslow. The class was wonderful, not least because Dvorah's way of telling stories, and teaching the telling of stories, goes straight to the heart. So when I heard that she had a new book out -- Bringing Bubbe Home: A Memoir of Letting Go Through Love and Death (White Cloud Press, 2014) -- I knew I wanted to read it.

Here's a video trailer for the book:

"Seventeen years ago I was immersed in my life as a professional storyteller, wife of a rabbi, and mother of two teenagers when I felt compelled to bring my 103 year-old grandmother, Bubbe, who was dying alone in a nursing facility, home to live and die with my family. I had no idea if I'd have the emotional stamina to midwife her to the other side."

The story unfolds with slow inexorability. There is nothing easy about bringing an elderly relative home to die, and this slim but powerful memoir doesn't gloss over the hard parts. And yet once I started reading, I didn't want to stop; I wanted to know how it would unfold. It's not exactly that I wanted to "know what happens next" -- obviously the book was going to lead to death, the end of every human story since time immemorial. But I wanted to see how it would happen, and how Dvorah and her family would get there, and what blessings might be there for the finding.

Continue reading "Debra Zaslow's Bringing Bubbe Home" »


What's in a name? Torah, meanings, translation.

TorahFive holy books are treasured in the innermost heart of my tradition:

Beginning. Or "in the beginning" or "as God was beginning." The beginning of creation. The beginning of our tradition. The beginning of our story. The beginning of our ancestry. How the world came to be what it is.

Names. The names of our ancestors. Their histories and stories. The name of the narrow place where we were held constricted, and the names of those who led us free. Names have meaning. Names tell us who we are.

God Called. God called to us. God calls to us still. Though we've replaced the service of the altar with the service of the heart, God is still speaking. God calls us to ethical behavior. God calls us to love one another.

In the Wilderness. The wilderness is the place where we open ourselves to transformation. The place where we most clearly see God's work in the world. The place where we hear the Voice calling us to covenant.

The Words. These are the words; these are the memories; these are the stories we tell about the journey we've been taking. These are the words of our teachers, spoken in the last moments before their deployment in this incarnation comes to an end.

Beginning. Names. God Called. In the Wilderness. The Words. To me these names evoke an entirely different set of associations than Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy.

The names we most often use in English come to us via a few levels of translation. A few millennia ago, these books of Torah had colloquial Hebrew names: Ma'aseh B'reshit ("The work of creation"), Yetziat Mitzrayim ("The going-forth from Egypt"), Torat Kohanim ("The laws of the priests"), Pekudim ("Countings / census"), and Mishneh Torah ("The repetition of the Torah"). Those names got translated into Greek, probably when the Torah was translated into Koine Greek in what eventually came to be called by the Latin name Septuagint. (That translation happened sometime around 300 B.C.E.) And then from Greek, the names were translated again into English.

Our English names for these Biblical books, therefore, have echoes of Greek. For instance, the name "Deuteronomy" comes from Deuteronomion, "the second law," which is a translation of mishneh Torah, "the repetition of the Torah," because that book of Torah contains a recapitulation of some of what has been said before. But I don't speak Greek, so deuteronomion doesn't have much meaning for me. I have to pause and translate the English Deuteronomy into the Greek deuteronomion and then translate again from that word to the concept "second law." That name is always at a remove.

And yet those are the names which English-speaking Jews most often use. They're considered to be the standard English names, and we speak English, so it makes sense, right? But in using these names, I think we reinscribe a certain kind of foreignness in our minds and hearts. The fact that many of us know these names better than we know the books' Hebrew names shows the distance between us and the words of our tradition. Our minds have been colonized. The words we use for our tradition are not our own.

For those of us who understand at least some Hebrew, the Hebrew names of the five books are far more resonant than the Greek-inflected English ones. B'reishit / בראשית , Shmot / שמות, Vayikra / ויקרא, Bamidbar / במדבר , Dvarim / דברים -- each of these Hebrew words evokes other related words, cousins to those words, descended from the same word-roots. As Rabbi Marcia Prager has written in The Path of Blessing:

Like leaves and branches growing from a tree trunk, most Hebrew words derive from what is called a root. Just as each leaf must be understood as a part, fed by the roots of the whole tree, individual Hebrew words cannot be fully understood without reference to their whole tree. The root stores all the meanings flowing into each one of the leaves.

(For more on this, check out my review of Rabbi Prager's book -- and consider picking up a copy of her book, which is tremendous.) The word "Deuteronomy" is foreign, but דברים / D'varim -- "The Words" -- now that speaks to me. As a writer, as a poet, as a Jew, I know that words matter. If I think of that last book of Torah as "The Words," something opens up in me. I want to know: which words? Why these words, and not others? What story do the words join forces to tell?

In an ideal world, every Jew would speak enough Hebrew to be able to name the books of the Torah using our tradition's own names, and would understand what those names mean and feel the ripples of the other related words and ideas which those names evoke. But we don't yet live in that ideal world. It's fine to argue that we should be using our own tradition's native names for these books, but for those who don't yet speak much Hebrew, the Hebrew names may feel as foreign as the Greek ones do.

I wonder how the books of the Torah might feel different to English-speakers if we called them by English names which evoke the meaning of their Hebrew names, instead of by English names which evoke Greek words which most of us don't intuitively know.


Announcing Days of Awe

 


RtoLHalfCoverIntroducing...

Days of Awe

a machzor / high holiday prayerbook

for the Yamim Nora'im (Days of Awe / High Holidays)

edited and assembled in the transdenominational spirit of Jewish Renewal

Featuring liturgy both classical and innovative; translations both faithful and creative; original artwork and photographs intended to stir the soul; teachings from Rabbis Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Burt Jacobson, Rami Shapiro, Hanna Tiferet Siegel, and many others; and powerful poetry by poets ranging from Yehuda Amichai to Marie Howe, David Lehman to Alicia Ostriker.

6 x 9

348 pages

Cover art by Natalia Moroz

Edited and assembled by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

with Rabbi Jeff Goldwasser

 

$7.53 bound L-to-R (like an English book) at Amazon

$8.46 bound R-to-L (like a Hebrew book) at Lulu

If your congregation is interested in a bulk order, email me and we can talk about how to make that work.

 

About the project

For many years now, we at Congregation Beth Israel have used a looseleaf machzor created by Reb Jeff (a.k.a. Rabbi Jeff Goldwasser) called B'Kol Shofar. And also for many years, I've been supplementing that machzor with handouts, additions, and extra pages. A few years ago I began writing and collecting High Holiday material -- poems, prayers, different renderings of classical liturgy -- with the hope of compiling a machzor which would incorporate both the basic framework and many transliterations and translations from B'Kol Shofar which have become familiar and beloved to me and to our community, and all of the new material I've been collecting, hopefully stitched together with an invisible and light editorial touch.

As I worked on this project, I had a few goals in mind:

  1. I wanted the machzor to be visually beautiful. Days of Awe features original artwork and photographs (some contributed by artists from my congregation, among them photographer Len Radin, artist Heather Levy, and papercut artist Anna Kronick; some from other artists, among them woodcut artist Loren Kantor, soferet Julie Seltzer, printmaker and jewelry artist Jackie Olenick, and rabbinic student Salem Pearce)  as well as what I think is a pleasing and readable layout.
  2. I wanted the machzor to sparkle with great poetry. Days of Awe features poems by a wide range of amazing poets, among them Yehuda Amichai, Alicia Ostriker, Myra Sklarew, David Lehman, Philip Schultz, Judy Chicago, and Rumi as translated by Coleman Barks. (It also features some of my own poetry.)
  3. I wanted the machzor to be user-friendly. Days of Awe features transliterations of everything which my community does aloud (and then some), and translations of absolutely everything, along with clear directions on where to turn next. Whether you're a lifelong high holiday afficionado or attending your first Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur service, this book will help you through.
  4. In classic Jewish Renewal spirit, I wanted the machzor to blend tradition with innovation. Days of Awe pairs traditional text (much of what you would find in any machzor, including of course cherished prayers like Unetaneh Tokef and Avinu Malkeinu) with new liturgy both in Hebrew and in English (including rabbinic pastor Shayndel Kahn's Aleinu, Rabbi Hanna Tiferet Siegel's Hashkivenu, and Rabbi Goldie Milgram's Psalm 150.)
  5. I wanted the machzor to be inspiring. Days of Awe features deep holiday teachings from Rabbis Jill Hammer, Burt Jacobson, Marcia Prager, Rami Shapiro, Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, David Seidenberg, and others.

Days of Awe was created with the needs of my own community in mind, but I hope that it will suit other communities as well, and I'm honored that a few other communities are already planning to use it for their high holiday services this year.

 

Not-for-profit labor of love

Days of Awe is a not-for-profit endeavor, a labor of love given freely to my local community and to the Jewish world at large. I'm a proponent of remix culture, and I believe that every new prayerbook is at heart a remix, bringing a beloved old text into renewed life.

Over the last few years I've contacted the poets, artists, and liturgists whose work I hoped to include, and received their permission to use their work in this way, as long as I kept to my intention of selling the book at cost. No profit is made: I'm charging exactly what it costs to print and bind. A list of sources / credits appears at the back of the book, so you can see which artist is responsible for each illustration and photograph and piece of calligraphy, and so you can look up the source for each written poem or meditation.

This project has consumed an uncountable number of hours over the last few years. I am so proud of the end results, and so pleased to be able to share them with all of y'all. If you use the machzor, either in your community or at home alone, please let me know what it's like for you -- I welcome feedback of all kinds.

Available at Amazon $7.53 L to R binding (paperback) | Available at Lulu $8.46 R to L binding (paperback)