Support new Jewish poetry in 5778

I'm a longtime admirer of Ben Yehuda Press. They published Rabbi Jay Michaelson's The Gate of Tears, and Sue Swartz's we who desire, and Rabbi Shefa Gold's Torah Journeys, and they've recently brought out Jews Vs. Zombies. (No, really.) They also published my most recent volume of poetry, Open My Lips -- and will be publishing my next one, Texts to the Holy. And I've had the opportunity to read a couple of the other poetry volumes they'll be bringing out in the coming year, and oh, wow, are they fantastic. 

They're doing a Kickstarter to support the publication of six volumes of new Jewish poetry in the year 5778 (that's 2017-2018, for those of you on the Gregorian calendar). Here's some of what they have to say about that:

People need poetry. Jewish people need Jewish poetry. Not only Jewish poetry, God forbid — we would never part with our Robert Frost or Wendell Berry or Mary Oliver or the rest of our shelf — but we also need poetry that expresses our specific culture and language. "Poetry," Frost wrote, "is what gets lost in translation." So too, translated yiddishkeit isn't quite the same. Hence, Jewish poetry. At Ben Yehuda Press, we publish poems (and other genres) whose Jewishness is integral.

Our Jewish umbrella casts a very wide shadow. Some of the poets we publish are intoxicated by God. Others look for spirituality in a world without God. Some allude to the Bible, others to Jewish experience. Ben Yehuda Press believes there is no one true Judaism, no one authentic Jewish voice. It is the multiplicity that defines our community, and our Judaism, and, optionally, our God.

With this Kickstarter campaign, Ben Yehuda Press is launching its poetry volumes for the Jewish year 5778. Immediately after Rosh Hashanah, we hope to publish three books of poetry. Three more volumes will be published in the spring.   

These six titles come on the heels of the four we already published, starting with one volume in 2007, then three more in 2015. Now, with our ambitious line-up for 5778, we hope to begin a regular commitment to publishing Jewish poetry. But we need your help, to prove that there is a community of readers open to these new Jewish voices, and to help us grow that community.

I've donated toward this project, because as far as I'm concerned this is holy work that the world needs. (In the words of William Carlos Williams, "It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.")

Take a look at their Kickstarter, and if you can throw a few bucks toward the project, please do. Support the bringing of new Jewish poetry into the world!


Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg's Nurture the Wow

9781250064943Somewhere in my first year or two of parenthood, it dawned on me -- through the haze of fatigue, laundry, diapers, and tantrums (Yonatan's and mine both) -- that I actually had access to a treasure trove of wisdom that could help me do the exhausting, frustrating, challenging work of loving and raising my kid. It took me a while to realize it, though, because how I was changing as a mom seemed to be taking me away from my tradition's ideas about what spiritual practice is supposed to be. It had been panic-inducing for some time there, honestly, feeling like I was on a boat that was drifting, slowly, from the island on which I'd made my home for almost fifteen years.

And yet, when I looked more closely, I realized that the treasures that had sustained me for so long could nourish me through this new, hard, bewildering thing. In fact, the Jewish tradition (as well as other religious traditions that I'd studied, even if I didn't live as intimately with them) can actually illuminate the work of parenting -- the love, the drudgery, the exasperation, all of it.

That's from the first chapter of Nurture the Wow by Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, and it is as good an encapsulation of this beautiful, thoughtful, necessary book as any review I could write. (You'll also find a good encapsulation in the subtitle: Finding Spirituality in the Frustration, Boredom, Tears, Poop, Desperation, Wonder, and Radical Amazement of Parenting.)

From what I just quoted, R' Danya continues:

This fact isn't necessarily intuitive, though, because, let's face it, for thousands of years, books on Jewish law and lore were written by men, mostly talking to other men. These guys were, by and large, not engaged in the intimate care of small children. Somewhere else, far from the house of study, other people -- women, mothers -- were wrangling tantrumy toddlers and explaining to six-year-olds that they really did have to eat what was on their plate. At least, I assume that was what was happening -- again, for most of history, the people who were raising children weren't writing books, so we don't totally know.

This means a few things. This means that a lot of the dazzling ideas found in our sacred texts about how to be a person -- how to fully experience awe and wonder; how to navigate hard, painful feelings; how service to others fits into the larger, transcendent picture -- was never really explicitly connected to the work of parenting. It just didn't occur to the guys building, say, entire theological worldviews around love and relationships to extend their ideas to the kinder -- probably because the work of raising children just wasn't on their radar screen.

Oh, holy wow, do I wish this book had existed when my son was born seven and a half years ago!

Continue reading "Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg's Nurture the Wow" »


Falling Upward

DownloadOne day recently, two friends from completely different quadrants of my life sent me a gorgeous Rilke poem that Father Richard Rohr had posted on his website. I had run across the poem myself a few months before, and had already tacked it up over my desk. But when two people sent it to me within an hour of each other, I couldn't help feeling as though someone wanted me to be paying attention -- both to that poem once again, and to Richard Rohr who had posted it.

Then my friend and teacher Rabbi Jeff Fox, with whom I was privileged to study a few weeks ago, recommended Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, by the same Richard Rohr. I ordered the book right away.

Rohr writes:

There is much evidence on several levels that there are at least two major tasks to human life. The first task is to build a strong "container" or identity; the second is to find the contents that the container was meant to hold.

The basic argument of Falling Upward is that most of us get caught up in "first half of life" issues and struggles and never make it to the work of the second half of life -- work that can only be done after one has done the internal work of the first half. Of course these two halves don't necessarily map to chronological age, and Rohr acknowledges that; it's possible to be quite young and already be doing one's second-half-of-life work, and vice versa. (If these ideas resonate, I recommend From Aging to Sage-ing, by Reb Zalman z"l.)

One of the challenges of spiritual life is staying open to being changed. Father Rohr writes:

The familiar and the habitual are so falsely reassuring, and most of us make our homes there permanently. The new is always by definition unfamiliar and untested, so God, life, destiny, suffering have to give us a push -- usually a big one -- or we will not go. Someone has to make clear to us that homes are not meant to be lived in -- but only to be moved out from...

The soul has many secrets. They are only revealed to those who want them, and are never completely forced upon us. One of the best-kept secrets, and yet one hidden in plain sight, is that the way up is the way down. Or, if you prefer, the way down is the way up

The Hasidic masters had an aphorism for that one: ירידה לצורך עליה / yeridah l'tzorech aliyah -- descent for the sake of ascent. That's a frequent theme in Torah (the Joseph story is a paradigmatic example), and it's a frequent theme in spiritual life. Often we have to fall in order to rise. We descend or fall further from God (the language of distance is of course metaphor, but it's a good way of describing internal experience, even if we know that God isn't any "further away") and that descent itself sparks the yearning to ascend and seek closeness. 

Reading this book during the Three Weeks, I was struck by how Rohr's teachings suit this season in the Jewish calendar year:

By denying their pain, avoiding the necessary falling, many have kept themselves from their own spiritual depths -- and therefore been kept from their own spiritual heights... The human ego prefers anything, just about anything, to falling or changing or dying

Of course the ego wants to avoid falling or changing or dying -- that's the ego's job. Part of our work is ensuring that one has enough ego to be able to live healthily in the world, without necessarily allowing the ego to be in the driver's seat, as it were. It's natural to resist change and loss and "falling." And yet all of those things are built in to the rhythms of human life. As I learned recently in a beautiful text from R' Shlomo Wolbe, our times of distance and sorrow are an important part of spiritual life too. If we deny our pain and avoid falling, we're slipping into the trap of spiritual bypassing, and that's not a path of genuine growth.

If change and growth are not programmed into your spirituality, if there are not serious warnings about the blinding nature of fear and fanaticism, your religion will always end up worshiping the status quo and protecting your present ego position and personal advantage -- as if it were God! ... This resistance to change is so common, in fact, that it is almost what we expect from religious people, who tend to love the past more than the future of the present. 

Change -- or one might say התחדשות / hitchadshut, renewal -- is core to spiritual life. One of my tradition's names for God is אהיה אשר אהיה / Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, "I Am Becoming Who I Am Becoming." God reveals God's-own-self to us through the unfolding of perennial change. The voice of revelation always sounds from Sinai, and it's our task to be attuned so that we can continue to enliven the world. That's the work of renewing Judaism, and the work of my rabbinate, and it's the work in which I believe Rohr is engaged, too, on his Christian path. And... I resonate deeply with his words about the profound irony of religious people, who should be pursuing growth, becoming attached instead to the status quo and fearing change. 

There's much in this book that puts me in mind of my spiritual direction training and my experiences in spiritual direction, both as someone who has worked for many years with a spiritual director and as a mashpi'ah myself. The Hebrew term for spiritual direction is השפעה / hashpa'ah, which comes from a root connoting divine abundance or flow. In Rohr's words:

More than anything else, the Spirit keeps us connected and safely inside an already existing flow, if we but allow it... Like good spiritual directors do, God must say after each failure of ours, "Oh, here is a great opportunity! Let's see how we can work with this!"

I love the idea of God as the ultimate spiritual director, sitting across from me and helping me grow. Often on long drives I imagine God sitting in my front seat -- a practice I learned from Reb Zalman z"l, who spoke of imagining Shechinah "dressed down" in blue jeans as his listening passenger -- and I pour out my heart to the One Who always hears me. Sometimes I even hear a response in return. (The title poem of my next collection of poetry came out of that experience...) On that note, the final quote I'll share here is one about being in I-Thou relationship with God, and being wholly seen. Rohr writes:

Many of us discover in times of such falling the Great Divine Gaze, the ultimate I-Thou relationship, which is always compassionate and embracing, or it would not be divine. Like any true mirror, the gaze of God receives us exactly as we are, without judgment or distortion, subtraction or addition. Such perfect receiving is what transforms us.

On the Jewish liturgical calendar we will shift soon (at the end of this Gregorian month -- erev Tisha b'Av is July 31) from the Three Weeks of mourning and brokenness to the Seven Weeks of consolation that lead us from Tisha b'Av to the Days of Awe. The challenge now is to let ourselves experience the "falling" of these Three Weeks, and to let ourselves be fully seen and fully known not despite our falling but even in and through it, so that our falling can be what Rohr might call "falling upward" -- descent for the sake of ascent, and for the sake of growth, and for the sake of becoming who we are most truly meant to be. 


The Book of Joy

9780399185045When a friend told me that she was reading a series of dialogues between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu on joy, my first thought was "I need to read that too." Their dialogues are published in a book attributed to the two luminaries along with Douglas Abrams, called The Book of Joy.

Here's the first place in the book that drew forth my impulse to make marginal markings. This is the Archbishop speaking:

Discovering more joy does not, I'm sorry to say, save us from the inevitability of hardship and heartbreak. In fact, we may cry more easily, but we will laugh more easily, too. Perhaps we are just more alive. Yet as we discover more joy, we can face suffering in a way that ennobles rather than embitters. We have hardship without becoming hard. We have heartbreak without being broken.

We may cry more easily, but we will laugh more easily, too -- that feels right to me. Joy is not the antithesis of sorrow. It doesn't cancel sorrow out, or make one less prone to the sorrows that come with human life. But joy can help us face our sorrows in a different way.

Abrams seizes on this, and brings it back to the Archbishop: "The joy that you are talking about," he says, "is not just a feeling. It’s not something that just comes and goes. It’s something much more profound. And it sounds like what you’re saying is that joy is a way of approaching the world." The Archbishop agrees, and adds that as far as he is concerned, our greatest joy arises when we seek to do good for others.

Coming from anyone else, that might sound insincere, but from Desmond Tutu I am inclined to believe it. Reading his words made me aware that I fear I don't spend enough time seeking to do good for others. But then I realized that he could be speaking not only about vocation or community service, but also on a more intimate scale about trying to do good for people I love. Doing something to brighten the day of someone I love brings me intense joy. (Maybe the real work is figuring out how to broaden the sphere of those whom I love.)

The Archbishop also says some things about hope that resonate deeply for me:

"Hope," the Archbishop said, "is quite different from optimism, which is more superficial and liable to become pessimism when the circumstances change. Hope is something much deeper..."

"I say to people that I'm not an optimist, because that, in a sense is something that depends on feelings more than the actual reality. We feel optimistic, or we feel pessimistic. Now, hope is different in that it is based not in the ephemerality of feelings but on the firm ground of conviction. I believe with a steadfast faith that there can never be a situation that is utterly, totally hopeless. Hope is deeper and very, very close to unshakable..."

"Despair can come from deep grief, but it can also be a defense against the risks of bitter disappointment and shattering heartbreak. Resignation and cynicism are easier, more self-soothing postures that do not require the raw vulnerability and tragic risk of hope. To choose hope is to step firmly forward into the howling wind, baring one's chest to the elements, knowing that, in time, the storm will pass."

I love his point that optimism depends on feelings, and it's the nature of feelings to be malleable. Often I know that the way I feel isn't necessarily correlated with how things "actually are" -- intellectually I can see that things aren't so bad, but emotionally I feel as though they are. (Or the other way around.) If my optimism depends on feeling good about the situation at hand, it will necessarily falter sometimes.

Hope, for the Archbishop, is something different. Hope is a choice, a way of being in the world. Hope is an affirmation that whatever challenges, or grief, or sorrow may be arising will pass. Hope says: there is more to life than this, even if we can't see that right now. In a sense, it requires a leap of faith. It asks us to operate on the assumption that there is more to life than whatever we are experiencing right now.

Abrams writes:

We try so hard to separate joy and sorrow into their own boxes, but the Archbishop and the Dalai Lama tell us that they are inevitably fastened together. Neither advocate the kind of fleeting happiness, often called hedonic happiness, that requires only positive states and banishes feelings like sadness to emotional exile. The kind of happiness that they describe is often called eudemonic happiness and is characterized by self-understanding, meaning, growth, and acceptance, including life’s inevitable suffering, sadness, and grief...

"We are meant to live in joy," the Archbishop explained. "This does not mean that life will be easy or painless. It means that we can turn our faces to the wind and accept that this is the storm we must pass through. We cannot succeed by denying what exists. The acceptance of reality is the only place from which change can begin."

I'm struck by the Archbishop's assertion that we are meant to live in joy -- and that this doesn't mean that life can be, or even should be, devoid of pain. Joy and sorrow are so often intertwined: at the happy occasion when one remembers a loved one who has died, at the celebration of a joyous milestone when a loved one is struggling. We shatter a glass at every Jewish wedding to remind us that even in our moments of joy there is brokenness. Authentic spiritual life calls us to hold this disjunction all the time.

Archbishop Tutu is right that authentic spiritual life also calls us to begin by recognizing what is, and sometimes what is is painful. But we can hold that painful reality loosely, alongside awareness of the gifts we receive from loving others and aspiring to sweeten their circumstance. As the Archbishop also notes, when we seek to do good for others, we open ourselves to some of life's deepest joy. And that's a joy that is rooted not in what we have, but in what we give away -- in the love and caring that comes through us. And because it comes through us, rather than from us, it has no limits.

The Psalmist wrote, "Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes in the morning."  The "night" in question may be long. It may be personal, or national, or global. But we can live in hope that morning will come and will bring joy, even if we don't know what that will look like, even if we don't know when or how that will be.

 

Related:

Joy, 2009


Learning to Walk in the Dark

51LLOq4rwuL._SY344_BO1 204 203 200_If you are in the middle of your life, maybe some of your dreams of God have died hard under the weight of your experience. You have knocked on doors that have not opened. You have asked for bread and been given a stone. The job that once defined you has lost its meaning; the relationships that once sustained you have changed or come to their natural ends. It is time to reinvent everything from your work life to your love life to your life with God -- only how are you supposed to do that exactly, and where will the wisdom come from? Not from a weekend workshop. It may be time for a walk in the dark.

-- Barbara Brown Taylor

When we were in Tuscaloosa, my friend and colleague Reverend Rick Spalding mentioned to me that he was reading Barbara Brown Taylor's Learning to Walk in the Dark. "That sounds like a book I need to read," I said. Not long thereafter, I found his copy in my mailbox, waiting for me to read it.

And oh, wow, did I need to read this book. The copy I was reading wasn't mine, so I didn't give in to the temptation to underline and highlight -- but if I had, it would be marked up everywhere, because so much of what Barbara Brown Taylor writes here resonates with me. Like this:

Even when you cannot see where you are going and no one answers when you call, this is not sufficient proof that you are alone. There is a divine presence that transcends all your ideas about it, along with your language for calling it to your aid... but darkness is not dark to God; the night is as bright as the day.

Sometimes we feel that God is agonizingly absent from our lives, but this is a matter of epistemology, not ontology -- a matter of how we experience the world around us, not a genuine indicator of how that world actually is. This is a core tenet of my theology. I felt a happy spark of recognition, reading it in Brown Taylor's words.

Continue reading "Learning to Walk in the Dark" »


Book news!

I'm delighted to be able to announce this happy news: Ben Yehuda Press will be publishing my next collection of poems, Texts to the Holy!

17424877_10154560927338507_5171476987573167536_n

Many of the poems from Texts to the Holy have appeared on this blog over the last few years. It is my collection of love poems to the Beloved, and I am so excited that it will see print.

Ben Yehuda published my most recent collection, Open My Lips, in 2016. You can find all of their poetry collections on their website -- celebrate World Poetry Day by supporting independent poetry publishing!

(And while you're at it, please support Phoenicia Publishing, too -- they published my first two collections, and they've published some amazing work since.)


Dave Bonta's Ice Mountain

Icemtn-cover-500pxI've been a fan of Dave Bonta's poetry for a long time. (I reviewed his chapbook Odes to Tools at the Best American Poetry blog some years ago.) So when I learned that his new collection was coming out from Phoenicia Publishing -- the same press that brought out his Odes to Tools (and, full disclosure, also the same press that published my first two books of poetry, 70 faces and Waiting to Unfold) -- I pre-ordered a copy instantly.

Ice Mountain: an elegy is spare, elegant, and deeply moving. These are daily poems arising out of walks on Dave's home territory, a mountain which he describes in the foreword as "a high section of the Allegheny front across the valley to the northwest of our own mountain," in 2013 "desecrated by an industrial wind plant[.]"

In that introduction he writes eloquently about the price paid by wildlife for those wind turbines, and about the extent to which the Appalachians remain a "national sacrifice area" in our perennial quest for cheap energy.

The introduction offers a geopolitical framing. The poems simply offer windows into the landscape, interspersed with Beth Adams' linocut prints, as spare and elegant as the words themselves.

Some of them explore an interior landscape that hints at the outside world, like this one:

4 February

In a dream I run
through my half-remembered high school
still an outcast

I grew up with a woodstove
instead of a television
I know all the theme songs of oak

the crackle and bang
the hiss and whistle
and sudden sigh of collapse

I love "all the theme songs of oak," and how the phrase "sudden sigh of collapse" hints at (but does not directly reference) the ecosystem in distress.

Others are explicitly about the mountain and its power installation, and hint at an interior world, like this one:

4 March

Ice Mountain's propellors
spin at different speeds
face this way and that

you can't hear them from here
their low-frequency moans
like lost whales

what won't we sacrifice
to keep the weather just right
inside our homes

I love that he compares the propellors to whales -- lost indeed, so far from any ocean -- seeing even in their deadly monstrosity an analogy to something found in nature.

The natural world and the manmade world are always in uncomfortable proximity here, as in this poem:

15 March

the highway's tar has been bleached
by a winter's worth of salt
and in the mid-day sun

it almost shines
I squint at the shapes on the shoulder
as I pass

here some saltaholic's crumpled fur
there a fetal curl
of flayed tire

Dave resists easy binaries. There is a kind of beauty in the salt-bleached highway that "almost shines." But our human needs for progress come at the cost of animal lives, and this collection never lets us forget that. 

Because it is deep midwinter in the hills where I live, I am most drawn to the February and March poems, the ones that unlock the austerity and beauty of winter landscape. The summer poems feel dreamlike to me now, both in their beauty and in their dark undertones. I'm looking forward to rereading this collection at different times of year and seeing what speaks most to me on future re-readings.

Ice Mountain: an elegy is available at Phoenicia Publishing.

 


Not by Might

Not_by_might__medium


I'm honored to have a poem in Not By Might: Channeling the Power of Faith to End Gun Violence, edited by Rabbi Menachem Creditor with a forward by Shannon Watts of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense

Shannon Watts writes:

"The emergence of Rabbis Against Gun Violence and this powerful collection of American faith voices reassures me that citizens of every variety are ready to stand together, to speak, preach, and act to demand an end to the ongoing American gun violence epidemic."

The anthology features work by Sarah Tuttle-Singer, Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin, Rabbi Michael Bernstein, Rabbi Matt Rosenberg, Lorraine Newman Mackler, Rabbi Michael Knopf, Rabbi Simcha Y. Weintraub, Rabbi Evan Schultz, Rabbi Hannah Dresner, Rabbi David Evan Markus, Alden Solovy, Rabbi Jesse Olitzky, Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Hermmann, Diane O'Donoghue, Rachel Weinberg, Rob Eshman, Rabbi Ben Greenberg, Rabbi Richard Myles Litvak, Rabbi Ron Fish, Rabbi Noah Farkas, Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, Margo Hughes-Robinson, Rabbi Marcus Rubenstein, Eileen Soffer, Rabbi David Lerner, Amy Ramaker, Rabbi Salomon Gruenwald, Marc Howard Landas, Rabbi Seth Goldstein, Rabbi Daniel B. Gropper, Rabbi Rick Sherwin, Rabbi Aryeh Cohen, Francine M. Gordon, Rabbi Gary S. Creditor, Rabbi Jeremy Markiz, Rabbi Yael Ridberg, Rabbi Daniel Kirzane, Rabbi Menachem Creditor, Rabbi Annie Lewis, David Paskin, Rabbi Denise Eger, Rabbi Larry Bach, Rabbi Danielle Upbin, Barbara Schutz, Stacey Zisook Robinson, Lisa Rappoport, Liav Shapiro Gilboord, Nicole Roberts, Rabbi Sara O'Donnell Adler, Rabbi Jill Berkson Zimmerman, Maxine Lyons, Rabbi Kim Blumenthal, Rabbi Shawn Israel Zevit, Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt and Rabbi Aaron Alexander, Rabbi Ben Herman, Rabbi Philip Weintraub, Rabbi Michael Adam Latz, and Joy Gaines-Friedler. (And me, of course.)

Here's a review of the collection on the URJ website. Copies are available on Amazon. Deep thanks to Rabbi Menachem Creditor for putting this volume together.

 
 

Announcing Open My Lips

Pages-from-open-my-lips-cover-259x400I could not be more delighted to announce this news: Open My Lips, my new collection of Jewish liturgical prayer, has just been published by Ben Yehuda Press! Here's how the publisher describes the book:

This volume of contemporary liturgical poetry is both a poetry collection and an aid to devotional prayer. This collection dips into the deep well of Jewish tradition and brings forth renewed and renewing adaptations of, and riffs on, classical Jewish liturgy. Here are poems for weekday and Shabbat, festival seasons (including the Days of Awe and Passover), and psalms of grief and praise. Intended for those who seek a clear, readable, heartfelt point of access into Jewish tradition or into prayer in general.

For those who seek a prayer practice in English but don't know where to start, this volume offers several starting points (poems for weekday and Sabbath, psalms of grief and of praise.) These poems could be used to augment an existing prayer practice, Jewish or otherwise -- either on a solitary basis or for congregational use. For the reader of poetry unfamiliar with liturgical text, they can serve as an introduction to prayer in general, and Jewish prayer in particular. And for the pray-er unfamiliar with contemporary poetry, these poems can open the door in the other direction.

The publisher and I welcome remix and transformative works. The poems in this collection are available online; feel free to (with attribution) use them in services and share them widely, and also to create your own prayer/poems based on or inspired by them -- as long as you also release your own material under a creative commons license which permits remix and transformative works too. And please support independent publishing and buy a copy of the book: for yourself, your rabbi, your pastor, your roshi, your imam, or anyone else in your life who you think might enjoy it!

Open My Lips, Ben Yehuda Press, April 2016 - $14.95


Advance praise:

“You enfold me in this bathtowel/ You enliven me with coffee,” writes Barenblat in Open My Lips, a collection of accessible and compelling prayer-poems that manages to locate the sacred in the quotidian. After reading these poems, one realizes the ordinary moment is filled with hidden light, and inspiration isn’t as far away as we often assume.

— Yehoshua November, author of God’s Optimism (Main Street Rag Press, 2010)

 

Poet and rabbi Rachel Barenblat is determined neither to surrender her tradition, nor to surrender to it. She creates here a liturgy which is an ongoing struggle with her own tradition. Her project is to find the sacred in every moment, high or low, and to turn towards it without hesitation.

In her meditation on removing leaven for Pesach, she notes that “odds are good there are stale O’s / in the crevices of the car seat.” She does not shy away from them or their implications: they become, surprisingly and delightfully, part of the ritual. And her lesson for us is larger than the lesson of any particular ritual of any particular tradition: that if we have not yet found the sacred meaning of any thing, we have not yet looked hard enough.

Dale Favier, author of Opening the World (Pindrop Press, 2011)

 

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat’s work is incredibly moving. She takes a traditional prayer, understands its essence, and then recreates it in a way that makes it accessible to anyone.  She opens a path for the reader to feel and understand the traditional Jewish liturgy from a modern feminine perspective. I love it!

Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu, Director, Rabbis Without Borders

 

Readers from every point along the spiritual spectrum will find poems that appeal and satisfy in Open My Lips, the latest collection of poems from rabbi and poet Rachel Barenblat.  A portion of her poems are firmly rooted in the cycle of Jewish holidays, yet by anchoring them in the rhythms of the year and the seasons, she renders them accessible.  All but the most hardened atheists will understand the desire to pray and to grieve and to celebrate a Sabbath, and Barenblat offers poems for all of these spiritual occasions.  And even hardened atheists will appreciate the deft way she uses science and the natural world.  In short, Rachel Barenblat has achieved a remarkable feat with her latest collection.

—  Kristin Berkey-Abbott, author of Whistling Past the Graveyard (Pudding House, 2004) and I Stand Here Shredding Documents (Finishing Line Press, 2011)

 

Rachel Barenblat’s latest offering is truly beautiful – moving, ethereal, grounded, accessible and profound. Her words will nourish the journeys of anyone who opens the book’s pages, connecting the deeply personal to the larger currents of time and life to the Source Within and Beyond Us All.

Rabbi Wendi Geffen, Rabbi Without Borders Fellow, North Shore Congregation Israel, Chicago IL

 

Barenblat’s God is a personal God – one who lets her cry on His shoulder, and who rocks her like a colicky baby. These poems bridge the gap between the ineffable and the human. Her writing is clear and pure and the poems are excquisitely executed. This collection will bring comfort to those with a religion of their own, as well as those seeking a relationship with some kind of higher power.

Satya Robyn, author of The Most Beautiful Thing and Thaw

 

Rabbi Barenblat’s poems are like those rare cover songs that bring new insights to familiar rhythms and melodies. Her interpretations of ancient liturgy turn up the volume and realign the balance on our tradition’s greatest hits.

— Rabbi Elana Zelony, Rabbi Without Borders Fellow, Congregation Beth Torah, Dallas TX

 

With gorgeous language, a profound sensitivity to the yearnings of the soul, and deep knowledge of the power of traditional Jewish prayer, Rabbi Rachel Barenblat has composed this extraordinary collection of liturgical poems. Useful for the expert and novice, seeker and skeptic, believer and doubter alike, Barenblat’s exquisite and powerful verse will enrich your connection to Jewish prayer, enhance your spiritual journey, and encourage your ability to connect to the Divine within and around you.

Rabbi Michael Knopf, Rabbi Without Borders Fellow, Temple Beth El, Richmond VA


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

Logo-twd-header

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

-1

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.

752d809c6a2d035f2cbf89a80d9110d9_large

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.

Cf713b3c0fa1a0c8fe02260e1ff709b9_large

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.