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)

 

 


Announcing April Dailies

AprilDailiesOne of my readers asked me recently, "Are you going to publish your National Poetry Writing Month poems? Because otherwise, we're going to have to resort to just printing them out." My mother said the same thing to me last year. In both cases, I promised that I could improve upon a sheaf of print-outs.

On that note, I'm delighted to be posting today to announce a new chapbook -- April Dailies! Here's the official description:

Writing daily poems is a discpline designed to prime the pump of creativity and to hone attention to the ideas, phrases, and everyday miracles which are a part of every life.

This chapbook collects the results of an annual month-long experiment in attention: daily poems written during the spring of 2013 and 2014, now revised for publication.

(It also replaces the chapbook I put out last year, which contained last year's daily poems plus the commentaries I'd posted alongside them -- that one's now officially out of print.)

Here are this year's poems, arising out of recent travels in Jerusalem and Hebron, Pesach and the journey into the Omer, small-town country life -- and last year's poems, arising out of parenthood, brushes with sorow, and spring.

Many of the poems have been substantially revised from the original versions posted here during NaPoWriMo.

I love the discipline of writing daily poems, especially in the context of a community of others who are engaging in the same practice. It's a lot like writing weekly poems, a practice which I've had off and on for years. (See 70 faces and Waiting to Unfold, both published by Phoenicia.)

Whether writing daily or weekly, the process mimics my former life in small-town journalism. The relentless constancy of regular practice mitigates against perfectionism, and that in turn lets me access a different kind of creativity.

Writing daily poems keeps me attentive to the poetic possibilities of ordinary life, just as daily prayer practice keeps me attuned to living with prayerful consciousness. I hope that reading them brings some joy to you.

Available at for $5.70 at Amazon.com, and for £3.50 at Amazon.co.uk and €4.00 at Amazon Europe.


Crossing Qalandiya: letters between two women

You have no idea how strange I feel lately - almost as if I've started seeing things differently -- through your eyes. Maybe this is normal, because we know each other relatively well now, and of course this has an effect. I keep finding myself explaining 'your side' to people. And, frankly, I am shocked at some of the reactions I get.

There are many people here who are completely blind to the way things look from your point-of-view, and to what your people are going through. I am sure this is also true for some of the people on your side. But suddenly it has become clear to me that so many of the problems are the result of miscommunication and misunderstandings... so the only solution is dialogue.

Crossing-qalandiya-220x330That's from one of Daniela Norris' letters to Shireen Anabtawi, as collected in Crossing Qalandiya: Exchanges Across the Israeli/Palestinian Divide, published by Reportage Press in 2010. But I'm getting ahead of myself. The book begins with a letter from Daniela, and here are her first words:

Dear Shireen, I hope you are well, and that you remember me. We met in Geneva last month, at a cocktail party, at Michelle's house. I admit that I was taken aback when you said you were from Palestine. I was convinced you were Italian or Greek -- something Mediterranean, anyway -- but I didn't imagine you were Palestinian.

It is strange, but despite the few kilometres that set us apart, I have never really gotten to know a Palestinian woman. Certainly not one as charming as you. What can I say? I am embarrassed to admit that the image I had of Palestinians was somewhat different...

I have a confession: I hesitated before I went to meet you the next morning. After all, you are supposed to be "The Enemy," and who knows what The Enemy has in store for them? But we said we'd bring our kids along, and when I arrived with my two little boys and saw you waiting at the café with your two beautiful children, I was ashamed of my previous thoughts... Ever since I met you, I read and listen to the news from our region differently, with more compassion for the other side -- your side.

Shireen, in turn, writes back:

Dear Daniela... I appreciate your frankness. I must admit that the only Israelis I've met over the past years have been the soldiers at road-blocks, and I, too, found it strange to meet an Israeli woman with whom I was able to connect so easily....

You ask about my daily life in Ramallah. I hope that one day you'll be able to visit me here. Ramallah is beautiful. When I was in Europe and said I was from Ramallah, people asked me whether we had roads, shops, food. I was surprised to hear these questions. It's so sad that this is the image we have in the eyes of the world.

...All in all, my life here is pretty good, but I must admit that it is difficult to come back to Ramallah after spending time in Europe. When we travelled, we drove from country to country and were rarely asked to show a passport. Here, if I want to visit my family in Nablus, I have to show documentation and permits; not only that, but I have to wait long hours at road-blocks, in the heat or in the rain...

Daniela and Shireen met by chance at a party in Geneva. Daniela had worked for the Israeli Foreign Service for seven years, and later was an advisor to the Permanent Mission of Israel at the UN in Geneva. Shireen is a former director of Public Relations at the Palestinian Investment Agency in Ramallah, and later worked for the Palestinian Permanent Mission to the UN in Geneva. As the book's introduction explains, the two women met many times in Geneva over several months, with and without family members, and their friendship bloomed. Neither speaks the other's language, so their communication was in English, the language which they shared.

Once they returned home again, despite the geographical proximity of their homes, they were worlds apart. So this correspondence began. Each wrote in her native language, and then translated it into English before sending. The end result is this book, which I bought at the Educational Bookshop in Jerusalem last month and have only now finished reading.

Continue reading "Crossing Qalandiya: letters between two women" »


Poems of miscarriage and healing

After reading Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin's poignant and courageous essay Can We Please Tone Down Mother's Day This Year?, about facing Mother's Day after repeated miscarriage, I wanted to post here to offer a reminder of a small resource which is free to share: my chapbook Through, poems of miscarriage and healing, published in 2009.

Through is available for free as a digital download, or printed at cost (under $5) if you want a paper copy for yourself or for a loved one.

Here's what others have said about the collection:

"This can't have been an easy experience to write anything about at all, let alone to distill into ten brief, searing, and luminous poems. As with Rachel's earlier chaplainbook, these are accessible poems with several different layers of meaning, so I think almost anyone who's ever gone through a miscarriage will get something out of it. Which is not to say the audience should end there: miscarriage is a subject every bit as relevant and revealing of the human condition as warfare, for example. So why doesn't it get more attention from writers and artists?" -- Dave Bonta, at Via Negativa

"The Velveteen Rabbi, Rachel Barenblat, has written a collection of poems about miscarriage -- based on her own -- and offers Through to any reader who wants or needs them. As Dave Bonta points out, miscarriage is not a widely discussed topic, certainly not by men too often, but not even by women. Find comfort and companionship in shared grief and experience. For yourself, or someone you know." -- Deb Scott, at ReadWritePoem

Miscarriage, and sorrow around infertility and attempts to conceive, are among the silent scourges we usually endure alone. But I believe there can be some small comfort in sharing our stories and in knowing that others have walked -- continue to walk -- these difficult paths.

You can read excerpts from the collection, and/or click through to the free download or the at-cost printed edition, at the original post announcing the chapbook's publication: Miscarriage poems: "Through."

May comfort come to all who mourn.


The inner lives of Arab and Jewish Peacemakers

6213_THE140213BRIDGES_47I live in two universes when I work in the Middle East. One is a universe where peoples are divided by bitter and violent sorrows, old resentments, understandable suspicions, and completely polarized affiliations. It is a world of great injustices and passed-on abuse, a place where people wait for apologies but are unable to offer any.

Within that world, however, there is another world, a secret world of those people who dare touch those of the other side with their words, their deeds, and their hearts. That special world is to me -- as an activist, spiritual seeker, and analyst of conflict -- a universe of enormous significance. For it is in that mysterious world of human bridges between enemies that we find flowering up from a ground of death, hatred, and war, something extraordinary: the seeds of life, the seeds of the future.

So writes Marc Gopin in the introduction to Bridges Across An Impossible Divide: The Inner Lives of Arab and Jewish Peacemakers.

I have been working my way through this book slowly. The writing is clear, but the stories the peacemakers tell are intense and they merit close attention. Here's another quote from Gopin, responding to the beginning of  the story told by peacemaker Ibtisam Mahameed. Ibtisam has mentioned the battle in Tantura in 1948; in the standard Palestinian narrative, this battle was a horrific massacre of Palestinians by Israelis. In the standard Israeli narrative, though the fact of a battle is uncontested, there is no massacre. Gopin writes:

I have become used to hearing these stories from the many Palestinians who I have come to know over the years. So many stories, and they seem to add up to a pattern of abuse in 1948 that continues to shock me. Each time it sends me into a tailspin, and I am still trying to examine my own reaction. Is it shame? I was brought up to believe that Jews were incapable of acting this way.

Gopin's description of the tailspin engendered by hearing these kinds of stories is familiar to me. I don't want to devolve into endless navel-gazing about how my Jewish soul aches both when Jews are victimized and when Jews victimize others -- but I think that confronting my own feelings can help me do the important spiritual work of living with the both/and where the Middle East is concerned.

Ultimately, he concludes, for the purposes of this book it does not matter whether 250 people were killed extrajudicially in Tantura or fifty. What matters is that it was a horrifying night for civilians, who (everyone agrees) were expelled from their homes and imprisoned just after the battle, and that there were deaths, and that this memory continues to haunt those who were there and the descendants of those who were there. What matters, on a personal scale, is the trauma which continues to be carried. (On every side.)

In her interview, Ibtisam moves from the trauma of memory to a philosophy which argues that war and violence are the easy path, and that peace is the hard courageous work:

I don't want to leave anger and sadness in my heart. First of all this will affect my health, and I felt that dialogue and discussion with the other side, even if you feel a strong pain inside, is better than throwing a rock at them. I want to give peace as a legacy to my children and grandchildren.

Ibtisam articulates a feminism which is rooted in her sense of the God-given equality of men and women. And she also argues for the importance of having women as peacemakers and bridge-builders:

I believe that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict started long ago, not from the 1948 war, it started since Ibrahim's era when he decided to marry Hagar, who gave birth to Ishmael. Then Sarah gave birth to Isaac, and then both of those women have a conflict over one man, Ibrahim. Therefore Ibrahim had to take Hagar with her breast-feeding baby to a distant mountain which was deserted. He left her there and return back to Sarah. Therefore the brothers were raised separately and didn't have any kin relationship...

I believe that at the end, there will be a solution to this conflict, and there will be peace in the Middle East. But the role of women in this conflict is harder than that of men, because women are those who hold their child inside. And they are the ones who are responsible to raise him. So, if a mother loses her child, she will hold a severe pain in her heart. That's why we as women have to be more aware to the political movement, and become part of it.

Here's an excerpt of an interview with Ibtisam. This is part of an interview series called "Unusual Pairs," also a Marc Gopin project (with filmmaker David Vyorst) -- I believe the videos came first and the book grew out of the video interviews.

(If you can't see the embedded video, you can go to it at YouTube: Elana and Ibtisam.)

Continue reading "The inner lives of Arab and Jewish Peacemakers" »


The December Project

Some of you may have read the recent essay by Sara Davidson in the Huffington Post titled Passover Asks: Are You Ready to Go? Here's an excerpt from near the beginning of the piece:

When I arrived that morning at his home in Boulder, CO, the rabbi's wife, Eve, was in the kitchen, preparing for Passover by removing "hametz" -- anything containing flour that's risen -- from every drawer, shelf and counter. I walked down to the basement, where Reb Zalman stood up from his computer desk and greeted me with a hug.

"What does Passover feel like in the December years?" I asked, as we settled in chairs facing each other.

"That's such a good question. Give me a moment to go inside." He closed his eyes, waiting to sense what would arise. "When we come to the end of the seder, we open the door for Elijah the prophet. I ask everyone to be silent and think, 'What question would I like to ask the messenger of God?'" He said people reflect on that, sitting quietly while the door is open, and after it's closed, he asks if they'd like to share what they heard.

"Then we come to the place in the ceremony where Elijah asks, 'Are you ready to go?'"

"Go where?" I said.

"Go forth from the seder into the world. But for me it's also, 'Are you ready to go?'"

Readiness is an essential quality in the story of the Exodus: readiness to leave, to head into the unknown, to trust. Readiness is part of celebrating seder. And readiness is required if one wants to face the end of life gracefully, whenever that end may come.

December_projectThis is a story which also appears in Sara Davidson's new book The December Project, subtitled "An Extraordinary Rabbi and a Skeptical Seeker Confront Life's Greatest Mystery." The book chronicles two years' worth of regular conversations between Sara and Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, "Reb Zalman," about navigating the December of one's life, doing spiritual end-of-life work, and approaching death with open eyes, clear heart, and untroubled mind.

The resulting book is somewhere between memoir (stories of Reb Zalman's childhood, upbringing, adventures, and spiritual life) and the kind of conversation one might have over coffee with a dear friend after many years of connection, when you can go straight to the stuff that matters.

For we who are students of Reb Zalman, or students of his students, much of this material will be familiar. Many of us will have heard him tell these stories, often more than once! But that doesn't make them any less a pleasure to read, and being able to imagine his presence, his humor, and his singing voice just adds to the experience of diving into the book. And for those who haven't been blessed with a personal relationship with this rebbe, the book offers some of those gifts in printed form.

Reb Zalman's been working with these ideas for years. Some of the practices at the end of this book are similar to the exercises in his From Aging to Sage-ing, a book which I also recommend. But this book takes a different tack. And Sara Davidson, this book's author, offers an interesting path in. She is open about both her doubts and her hopes. Over the course of the book, she takes us on her journey -- not only into these conversations, but also into her mother's illness and death, and into her own anxieties about the end of life and what comes after. She strikes a keen balance between sharing enough of herself that she is a real presence in the book, and withdrawing enough of herself that we can feel that we too are sitting in intimate conversation with Reb Zalman, gleaning some of what he's harvested over nearly ninety years of life.

In one scene which has stayed with me, Sara has appeared for their regular appointment and Reb Zalman is clearly unwell, struggling with a variety of physical ailments which are dragging him down. They talk about his need to disengage even from beloved students in order to marshall his energy for his own survival. And then he tells her about how he used to maintain an open-door policy on Shabbat, where people were welcome to come and pray and sing and learn; now he spends Shabbat only with his wife. Here's how Sara describes it:

Before Friday night arrives, he writes his love-letter and slips it under her plate. On Saturday at dusk, they sit outside if the weather is mild and sing Shabbos melodies until it's totally dark. "It's so wonderful," he said, and I watched his body soften and his breathing become more relaxed. It was as if the words, like the smell of chickens roasting on Fridays at camp, had a Pavlovian effect, taking him to a Shabbos state of mind.

In telling the story of how he has come to adapt Shabbat practices for his late eighties, he models for us what it would be like to thoughtfully choose what to relinquish as we age.

Reb Zalman's sweetness, his sense of humor, and his deep hunger for God all come through in this book -- as do his idiosyncracies and some of the challenges which have resulted. Here are stories about Chabad, about meeting Howard Thurman and coming to deep ecumenism, about experiencing Christian and Buddhist mentors, even about experimenting with LSD as a path to God. He's also honest about his failings and his mistakes -- not in a self-congratulatory way, but thoughtfully. I was particularly moved by his frank and gentle words about his first marriage and its dissolution, and by the chapter where he asks to undergo taharah -- the washing / blessing / dressing of one's body after death -- in order to prepare himself for that experience when it comes.

5362606310_35a01cbb56_nOn a purely personal note, I got a particular frisson of joy while reading the chapter "You Can Take Me Now," in which Sara describes two different ALEPH ordination ceremonies. She describes Hazzan Shoshanna Brown singing a niggun which had been a favorite of the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, as a prelude to asking Reb Zalman to offer a teaching. Sara writes:

With high color in his face, Reb Zalman took the mike and faced the audience. He explained that the Rebbe used to sing that melody to prepare himself and his students for a transmission. "Want to hear my transmission?" he asked. Turning to the ordinees on stage, he threw out his arm. "You are my transmission."

That was at my ordination, and it is a moment I will never forget. (Photo source.)

Must one be in one's "December years" to get something out of this book? Not in the least. As a student in the ALEPH hashpa'ah / spiritual direction program, I spent a semester studying and engaging in the work Reb Zalman calls 'sage-ing' -- preparing, mindfully and consciously, for the transition out of this life. Many of you know that I am not yet forty. Then again, I'm also a multiple stroke survivor, so I'd already begun to approach some of these big questions.

I remember talking with my spiritual director about what it was like to begin doing this sage-ing work at a young age. She told me that she had done the same, and that doing this work had enriched her in innumerable ways. After all, our tradition prescribes making teshuvah on the eve of our death, and since we never know when that will be, the sages teach us to make teshuvah -- to do this inner work of discernment, forgiveness, and letting go -- every night before we sleep. (I've written about this before -- see my post The vidui prayer of Yom Kippur -- and of every night.) 

Death is perhaps the greatest mystery there is. In this book, Sara Davidson and Reb Zalman have given us a beautiful example of how to live with that awareness joyfully, and how to approach it not as something to be abhorred, but as a holy transition -- the end of this deployment, to use Reb Zalman's language, and the beginning of something new.


A reading in Jerusalem!

70FacesSmall WaitingToUnfold-small

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Joshua Prager's Half-Life

HalfLife_Byliner_396_612_35I recently finished Joshua Prager's Half-Life: Reflections from Jerusalem on a Broken Neck. Prager was a young man of nineteen studying in Jerusalem when the bus he was riding in was slammed by another vehicle -- not an act of terrorism, as one might have assumed, (especially when a Palestinian driver hits a bus full of Jews), but simple carelessness and bad driving. His neck was broken, a moment of rupture which divided his life irrevocably into a "before" and an "after."

The book's narrative curls around and loops in on itself. We read about Prager as a hale and hearty student; we read about him paralyzed; we read about the morning of the crash, and the last bodily freedom he remembers; we read about physical therapy and the excruciating effort to regain bodily control. Learning to breathe and to sit again. From quadriplegic to hemiplegic to walking, albeit with difficulty, with a cane.

We return with Prager to Jerusalem, and as voyeurs on his shoulder we accompany him as he slowly makes his way through the city where his life changed. Navigating, for instance, the cobbled streets and uneven city curbs which I remember from pushing a stroller there in the summer of 2008 with my housemates' three-year-old in tow.

This book is full of poignant tension between what was, and what is, and what might yet be. The same could be said of Jerusalem, with its storied history and contested present and future. As Prager himself notes: "This ancient city is a palimpsest, its narratives written and rewritten on white stone." This memoir's structure evokes that quality. At the beginning of any new section, we might be in the now or we might be in the then -- or any moment in between. Even in the now, the then peeks through.

Prager approaches his subject with clear eyes and deft turns of phrase. I admire his ability to write so candidly about his experience, without sentimentality and without sparing anyone, including the reader. The scene where he goes to meet the driver of the minibus responsible for his injuries is a particularly fine example of that. He doesn't sugar-coat and he doesn't flinch from what is -- and he also resists the urge to demonize or oversimplify. (You can hear him tell that story in his TED talk, which I've linked to below.)

One of the book's most memorable moments for me (as a rabbi and sometime hospital chaplain) is the scene where the rabbi emeritus of his synagogue walks into his hospital room and loudly prays over his prone body. Prager writes:

I was mortified. No, rabbi! NO!

But I, who one month before had wrestled a trio of classmates, pinning each, was unable to fend off a rabbi in his eightieth year. And as the litany unfurled -- God asked to shine his face upon me, to be gracious to me, to lift up his countenance to me, to give me peace -- I wished to disappear. But I saw over my stockinged feet that the congregation was not listening, the yellow man beside me, his saffron urine bagged between us, minding his tea. And so I succumbed to a blessing.

In some ways this whole memoir feels to me like a book about succumbing to blessing with grace, and also a book about fighting for every inch of recovery and understanding. The two coexist sometimes uneasily, and that tension is part of what drives the narrative forward.

Prager resists the platitudes -- "everything happens for a reason" or "God only gives us what we can handle." (Two of the top sentences on my list of things never to say to hospital patients, by the by.) But he also resists, I think, the sense that if God doesn't have a "plan" then our lives is meaningless. I experienced this book as Prager's work at making meaning out of his own life, out of the lived Torah of his human experience. And in reading about his process, we join him in making, or finding, meaning too.

You can read an excerpt online here. To my surprise, the Kindle edition is only $3.99 on Amazon. Worth a read.

 

For more:

Joshua Prager's TED talk, In search of the man who broke my neck [video]

The Q & A: Joshua Prager: Reconstituting a Self, The Economist


Almost done; living in hope

There's a particular energy which comes from the momentum of a big creative project approaching fruition. It's a combination of excitement, anticipation, glee, eager nervousness, hope. Above all, hope. Hope that this prayerbook reaches the people who need it. Hope that I have made something worthwhile, something of use.

I scroll through the draft, admiring the product of countless hours of work. I discover a new image I want to include, dash off an email asking permission to reprint, teeter at the edge of my chair until that permission is granted.

I spend hours learning to use online image-editing software so that I can take apart the cover (designed for a left-to-right book) and reconstitute it for a right-to-left printing. Then I ask an actual graphic designer to do it better.

It's a little bit like anticipating a birth. So many months (or in this case, years) have gone into growing and shaping this creation. Soon it will be born into the world, and people's response to it will be beyond my control.

I go through phases where the project consumes me, and all I want to do is read it and reread it. I proofread again, searching for typos, making sure the internal page references are all correct.

I look back through correspondence and silently thank God again for everyone who agreed to let me include their work for free, because they believe in the project. I hope the project will live up to their expectations.

I try not to imagine the project's reception, or who will use it, or how it might speak to the people who use it -- and of course I fail. All I can think about is seeing this book in someone else's hands, hoping ardently that it is enriching their prayer experience. There's that hope again. It fills my chest as the presence of God filled the mishkan, displacing everything else.

And maybe no one will ever use what I have spent so long shaping. I need to be okay with that, just as when I put a poem (or a collection of poems) out into the world. How can I be okay with that? But becoming okay with that -- that's part of the work, too. This is my offering: to God, to community, to whoever thirsts. And it's almost done.


Leah Vincent's Cut Me Loose

Cutmeloose_finalI can't remember how I first heard about Leah Vincent's memoir Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After my Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood. I suspect I read an excerpt, probably at Unpious.com, and on the strength of that excerpt pre-ordered the Kindle edition long before publication. (Unpious is the magazine edited by Shulem Deen -- the blogger formerly known as Hasidic Rebel -- which specializes in "voices generally suppressed" in Hasidic and ultra-Orthodox publications. It's worth checking out if you don't know it already.) One way or another, the memoir materialized on my Kindle, so I read it. And holy wow, is this one powerful, painful, and ultimately redemptive story.

Many years ago I reviewed the anonymous YA novel Hush by Eshes Chayil, which told a story of sexual abuse in a Hasidic community. There are ways in which Vincent's memoir reminds me of Hush -- the trajectory from loving and comfortable religious community to ostracism; the unflinching descriptions both of what can be sweet about growing up in a deeply religious community, and also of what can be almost unthinkably bitter. Of course, Hush is fiction while Cut Me Loose is memoir. (Also one is set in a Hasidische community and the other in a Yeshivish community -- though I suspect that distinction won't make much difference to a lot of readers; the two versions of deep Orthodoxy will seem equally foreign.)

Maybe because I came to the book only having read one excerpt, without having read the back jacket copy or any reviews, the book took me frequently by surprise. A trajectory from ultra-Orthodoxy, to going "off the derech," to some kind of new life in the non-ultra-religious world -- that, I expected. But I didn't expect the many mini-journeys along the way: to Britain, to Israel, the rastafarian "boyfriend," the cutting and suicide attempt, each turn off of the prescribed path darker and more painful. Vincent writes about all of this with powerful clarity, and I followed her emotionally into every place her journey went.

This is a tough book to read for me as a passionate liberal religious Jew, especially as a Jewish Renewal rabbi who claims connection through Reb Zalman with Hasidic lineage. I can see in this book some of the things I envy about committed religious community -- families automatically living according to our tradition's rhythms, from choosing a perfect etrog at Sukkot to dancing at Chanukah to turning the house upside-down cleaning for Pesach, experiencing every Shabbat as a time apart from time. But I also see here the things which are most upsetting about insular religious community: control, a rigidity which has no room for personal deviation, and a system which relies upon keeping young women thoroughly uninformed about the outside world (in the name of keeping them "pure") which, when it backfires, can be life-destroying.

It's easy to imagine the ways in which the grass is greener on the other side of that fence -- to fantasize that in a community where everyone cares about Judaism and God as much as I do, it must be easy to keep the rhythms of Jewish life; to live in constant devekut / union with God; to aspire to serve God with joy in all things. This book reminds me that there is a terrible shadow side to that kind of insularity, and that those who deviate from the community's norms -- especially women -- pay an unthinkable cost.

Looking at the book with my Bennington MFA hat on, I relate to it as a gripping memoir. Vincent is a skillful writer with a keen eye for the details which will make a scene pop right off the page. That old writerly adage of "show, don't tell" --? She does that, in spades. Several times, reading this, I thought back on Bennington conversations and panel discussions about memoir, memory, and the complicated ethics of telling one's own story when that story inevitably involves other people who may not wish for it to be told, or for it to be told in the way that feels true to the person writing the memoir.

Looking at the book with my rabbi hat on, I relate to it as though it were a congregant's story, and that makes my heart ache. This book isn't a polemic against ultra-Orthodoxy or against religion. It's just Vincent's own story, and the story speaks for itself. I'm thankful that in the end there is redemption, as well as a community of former compatriots (see Footsteps) who understand both where Vincent is coming from and where she's choosing to be. Still, I come away from the book aswirl with emotions. Wonder, anger, admiration, grief, and above all gratitude that we, her readers, are privileged now to bear witness to the story she so deftly tells.

There's a part of me that wishes I could offer pastoral care to the author of this book. I wish I could sit down with her over coffee or a glass of wine and offer her the listening ear and the loving response which her religious community didn't give. I can't help clinging to the hope that Vincent's sense of herself as a spiritual being, and her connection with God, wasn't thoroughly shattered by the ordeal of her upbringing and its aftermath. That's my own bias as a reader, and I own that. Part of what makes me angriest about Vincent's description of her upbringing is just how badly this religious community mis-served her -- how a family and a spiritual community which should have been a source of nurturing and support became a fountain of rejection, neglect, and emotional abuse.

The author's twitter handle, @EhyehLeah, hints both at God (Who, you may recall, named Herself/Himself/Hirself to Moshe as Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, "I am Becoming Who I Am Becoming") and at the author's own becoming. Maybe that's the best blessing I can offer: celebration of her process of becoming as it unfolds in these pages. May the Source of All Being bring comfort and companionship, self-determination and meaning, joy and gladness in the life she has chosen. And may there be many more books from this strong new literary voice. Kein yehi ratzon -- may it be so!

 

There's an excerpt from the book at JTA: The first step out of an ultra-Orthodox world.


Phoebe North's Starglass

StarglasscoverI posted last week about Helene Wecker's The Golem and the Jinni, which I had the opportunity to finish on my way home from the OHALAH conference of Jewish Renewal clergy.

The other book I read on my way home was Phoebe North's YA novel Starglass. It's about a girl named Terra growing up on a spaceship which has been traveling for 500 years toward a new home, a planet the would-be colonists call Zehava, a name which means something like "Golden." (If that puts you in mind of historical Jewish yearning for Yerushalayim shel zahav, Jerusalem, city of gold, you're not far off the mark.)

The premise -- ship full of travelers who departed Earth in crisis and are seeking a new home -- is one I've seen before, and probably you have too. (I think especially of Molly Gloss's gorgeous The Dazzle of Day, one of my favorite examples of that trope.) Part of what makes Starglass unique is how Judaism is woven into the fabric of shipboard life. Well: a kind of Judaism. A Judaism which has evolved in complicated ways over the 500+ years since the asteroid wiped out life on Earth and these colonists set out on their long journey.

The worldbuilding is terrific. (There's a whole page on the author's website dedicated to explaining the world, the ship's architecture, and so on -- but you don't need to read any of that before you dive into the novel; it's just fun stuff to explore once the pleasure of the novel is over.) North trusts us to follow her narration and to understand Terra's world by watching her grow up in it. North doesn't overexplain, and as a result, I as a reader got all kinds of happy little glimmers of recognition as I figured things out.

As the book unfolds, it becomes clear that this isn't just an ordinary coming-of-age story -- not even an ordinary coming-of-age story in space. This is a book about history, totalitarianism, politics, liberty, the importance of fighting for what you believe in. And, of course, also about choice and romance and growing up and parenthood and childhood and all of that good jazz.

For me, the glimpses of how Judaism has been both preserved and mutated are the most fascinating part. The passengers' lingo is peppered with Yiddish and Hebrew words, most of which retain the meanings I know -- but some have shifted. For instance: bar mitzvah, in this book, refers to the coming-of-age ceremony whereby a shipboard boy gets his vasectomy so that accidental pregnancies won't disrupt the delicate ecosystem of shipboard life. (Babies are grown in uterine replicators anyway.) All kinds of substantive Jewish ideas and concepts have been subtly refigured here: mitzvah, tikkun olam... It's both beautiful and chilling to see how Jewish language and practice has shifted in this fictional universe.

There's an excerpt online at Tor.com -- take a peek and see if this book might be your cup of tea, as it was mine. My only real quibble was where it ended; I felt as though we were on the cusp of a whole new adventure, and while it was a reasonable ending-point for the novel, I still wanted more. Then I found out there's a second book coming out next summer, Starbreak. Now I can't wait for July when I get to find out what happens to Terra next.


The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

GolemJinni-PB-199x300When I started this blog in 2003, it never occurred to me that I might wind up with a sideline in recommending religion-related speculative fiction. But here I am, having written about Saladin Ahmed's delightful Throne of the Crescent Moon last month, and G. Willow Wilson's delightful Alif the Unseen some time before that, and now I've got another recommendation  -- Helene Wecker's The Golem and the Jinni.

This book interweaves two mythologies into one entrancing novel. This is the story of Chava, a golem (think: creature made of earth, brought to life via mystical kabbalistic incantations, á la Rabbi Loew of medieval Prague) and Ahmed, a jinni (think: fire-spirit as mentioned in the Qur'an, the sort once enslaved by Suleyman a.k.a. Solomon) who meet in New York at the turn of the 20th century.

I've known the golem stories for as long as I can remember. I have a tiny clay golem figurine which I bought from a street vendor in Prague (my mother's birthplace) on my first trip there in 1993, and when I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the mystical letter-combination practices of the Sefer Yetzirah and Abraham Abulafia, I spent some time dipping into golem stories just for fun. The jinni material was less known to me, but the book is so deftly-woven that my relatively shallow familiarity with that story didn't matter.

Wecker's depiction of 1899 New York is rich and detailed. Equally so are the depictions of Konin in the late 1800s, and the Bedouin encampment a millennium before. But I think what I like best about the book is the slow, cautious friendship which develops between the two supernatural beings. Both the golem and the jinni are lost in almost-20th-century New York, and as each of them struggles to process the peculiarities of this place and time, the reader experiences the unfamiliar landscape along with them. For both Chava and Ahmed, being exposed to ordinary human society would have disastrous repercussions.

Those similarities aside, they're about as different as two characters can be. One's from Jewish folklore and the other's from Arabic folklore. One's newly-made and the other is ancient as the sands. For that matter, one's (literally) an earth elemental and the other's quintessentially fire, with all of the personal characteristics which those terms imply: steadiness versus capriciousness, rootedness versus wanderlust, quiet contentment versus burning passion. Their relationship is by turns sweet and prickly, filled with misunderstandings -- but as they come to know each other, we get to listen in, and that's a real delight.

There's an excerpt on the author's website. Take a peek, see if this might be a good fit for you. I envy all of y'all who haven't yet read it, and will get to enjoy its twists and turns for the first time.