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Happy new (secular / Gregorian) month of May! I'm doing two readings from Texts to the Holy this month in the Berkshires: one in Williamstown on Saturday May 5, and one in Pittsfield on Thursday May 10.
Saturday May 5, 7:45pm, Williams College Jewish Association
How do we engage the sacred through the written word? Join Rabbi Rachel Barenblat for a special se'udah shlishit (final Shabbat meal) and havdalah (ritual to close out Shabbat) where we'll read and learn from her recently published book of poetry, Texts to the Holy.
Rabbi Rachel Barenblat is spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams. A widely published author, popular teacher, and spiritual director, in 2016 she was named by the Forward as one of America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis and most recently is a Founding Builder at Bayit: Your Jewish Home.
All are welcome; FB users can RSVP at the FB event page. This program will harness the unique spiritual valance of Shabbat drawing to its end with niggunim (wordless melodies), poems from Texts to the Holy, a havdalah ritual, and (once Shabbat is over) an opportunity for schmoozing and getting books signed.
Thursday May 10, 10:45am, Knesset Israel (presented by Jewish Federation)
The Jewish Federation Connecting with Community presents "Two Contemporary Poets Read" with Jean P. Moore, PhD and Rabbi Rachel Barenblat. The women will share the stage as they read from their newly published books of poetry. Jean's presentation will focus on her nature poems, largely inspired by her many years spent in Tyringham. Rachel will read from Texts to the Holy, her latest collection.
This free program is part of the Federation’s Connecting With Community Series and will be followed by a kosher hot lunch. Lunch is a $2 suggested donation for adults over 60 years of age or $7 for all others. Advance reservations are required for lunch and can be made by calling (413) 442-2200 before 9 a.m. on the day of the program.
For more information, see the recent notice in the Bershire Eagle, Pittsfield - Jewish Federation Hosting Contemporary Poets. I'll have some copies to sell at KI and am happy to sign them if you would like.
If you're local to the Berkshires I hope to see you at one or the other of these events!
The reading was organized by Maxine Silverman, a fellow Ben Yehuda Press poet. To open the reading, Maxine offered a few poems from her gorgeous collection Shiva Moon (all poems that will appear in Beside Still Waters, the mourning-and-shiva volume that Bayit is co-producing with Ben Yehuda). After that, the reading featured me alongside Yaakov Moshe, author of Is: heretical Jewish blessings and poems. (Yaakov Moshe is a heteronym for Jay Michaelson.) Jay read, and then I read, and then we traded poems for a while, riffing off of each others' work, which was neat.
Larry Yudelson (our editor and publisher at Ben Yehuda) took some video at the reading and has shared some of it online. Here's me reading "The One Who Sees Me" from Texts to the Holy :
And here's "Awake," from the same collection:
Deep thanks to Larry at Ben Yehuda, and to Dr. George Kraus and Maxine Silverman at the Shames JCC on the Hudson, for making the reading happen! (Buy my new collection online here for a mere $9.95: Texts to the Holy / Ben Yehuda Press 2018.)
My Wednesday morning coffee shop hevruta group is reading Mesillat Yesharim ("The Path of the Upright"), by Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, with commentary by Rabbi Ira Stone. This morning, one of the sentences that leapt out at me came from Stone's commentary -- the line I cited, above.
"Love of God" can be an abstract concept. What does it mean to "love" the infinite source of all? But we can understand love of another human being. The love of a (healthy) parent for a child, the love of a friend for a beloved friend. If we are lucky, we know what it is to love.
And when one loves, there is a yearning to do for the beloved. Not because it's "commanded," but because one just wants to. I give to my child not because anyone told me to, and not because of anything he will do for me in return, but just because my heart calls me to care for him.
It's easy to say "I love you." But far more important, for Luzzatto, are the actions that underpin our words. It's not enough to say; we also need to do. In relationship with a human beloved, we do whatever we can to bring sweetness to that beloved. That's what "turns the love from sentiment to substance" -- that makes it real.
Our mystical tradition teaches that each of us is enlivened by a nitzotz Elohut, a spark of divinity. The love I feel -- that motivates me to yearn to provide goodness for those whom I love -- is, in a way, love of God. Because when I love another human being, I'm also loving the spark of God within them, whether I'm aware of it or not.
(That intersection between loving others and loving God is the place out of which Texts to the Holy was written.)
Our daily liturgy reminds us to love God with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our might. Saying those words is easy. More important, though, is doing those words. I think Luzzatto is saying that we (should) express love of God through seeking to act in a way that brings the Beloved joy. In this, we ourselves find joy.
It's a tall order. In every moment of my day I have an opportunity to choose to follow my yetzer ha-tov, my "good impulse," rather than my yetzer ha-ra (my ego, my drive, my "evil inclination"). I know how often I fall short. It's easy to fall into asking, who am I to imagine that I can give God joy?
But when trying to bring joy to God feels like more than I can grasp or manage, I can shift focus from the macrocosm to the microcosm, from the cosmic Beloved to my smaller human beloveds. And then my anxiety vanishes, and I can feel the channels of my heart opening, and it is the easiest thing in the world to let love pour through.
I shared poems from Texts to the Holy at a handful of readings and events while the volume was being written and revised and prepared for print.
But the first reading from the new collection since it actually came out will take place later this month.
It's part of the "Sundays @ The J with George and Friends" series, and it's a Ben Yehuda Press reading featuring three Ben Yehuda poets: Yakov Moshe (also known as Rabbi Jay Michaelson), author of Is; Maxine Silverman, author of Shiva Moon; and myself. The reading will be hosted by Dr. George Kraus.
You can read about it on the Shames JCC website: Sunday Poetry: Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, Yakov Moshe (Jay Michaelson), and Maxine Silverman. Or, for those who don't want to click through, here are the most salient details:
Sunday, March 18
Free for members; $10 non-members
Books will be available for sale and signing after the reading.
If you're in or near Tarrytown, I hope you'll join us!
Shabbat shalom to all!
A few days ago I shared with y'all about Beside Still Waters, a volume for mourners to be released this spring by Ben Yehuda Press and Bayit: Your Jewish Home (now available for pre-order). Today I'm writing with more delightful Ben Yehuda news!
My next collection of poems -- Texts to the Holy, a collection of love poems to the (divine) Beloved, or to a lower-case-b human beloved, as you prefer -- is coming out soon from Ben Yehuda Press, and is now available for pre-order at an advance price of $9.95.
I'm starting to schedule readings for this spring. The book will officially premiere at a reading at the Tarrytown JCC (in Tarrytown, NY) at 1:30pm on March 18, where I will appear alongside two other Ben Yehuda poets, Maxine Silverman (author of Shiva Moon) and Jay Michaelson (the pseudonymous author of Is).
Stay tuned for information on other readings (and if you'd like to explore bringing me to your community for some combination of scholar-in-residence event and poetry reading, let me know!)
Meanwhile, here's some advance praise for the collection:
From Merle Feld, author of A Spiritual Life and Finding Words:
These poems are remarkable, radiating a love of God that is full bodied, innocent, raw, pulsating, hot, drunk. I can hardly fathom their faith but am grateful for the vistas they open. I will sit with them, and invite you to do the same.
From Netanel Miles-Yépez, translator of My Love Stands Behind a Wall: A Translation of the Song of Songs and Other Poems, and co-author (with Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi) of A Heart Afire: Stories and Teachings of the Early Hasidic Masters.
Rachel Barenblat’s Texts to the Holy bridges the human and Holy, so that we realize the bridge is really just an illusion to get us to realize that the human is itself Holy—“Bless the One Who separates / and bridges. Even at a distance / we aren’t really apart.” And yet, in every honest line, she also comforts us in the uncomfortable knowledge that realization does not exactly bridge the unavoidable separation from That to which we are so close, and that sometimes, “yearning is as close as you get to whole.” The Ba’al Shem Tov or the Aish Kodesh couldn’t have said it better.
(You can see other kind things people have said about the book on my website.)
This collection has a special place in my heart, and I think it's the best work I've put into the world. I hope you'll agree. Pick up a copy now!
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!
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.)
Shechina is riding shotgun.
Her toenails are purple.
She's tapping at her smartphone
sending texts to the Holy.
What's it like, I ask her,
being apart? Do you wake up
melancholy and grateful
all at once, and fall asleep
thinking Shabbos can't come
soon enough, is always too short
you're always saying goodbye
and your own heart aches
to know he's hurting too?
And she looks at me
eyes kind as my grandmother
and timeless as the seas
and says, you tell Me, honey.
You tell Me.
The last time I saw Reb Zalman z"l, he spoke about conversing with God while driving. He would imagine Shechina, the immanent divine Presence, in his front seat -- and would pour out to God whatever was in his heart.
While driving recently I imagined the Shechina in my front seat... and this is the poem that ensued.
The original draft of this poem said that Shechina was writing "texts to the KBH." KBH is an acronym for the Hebrew phrase Kadosh Baruch Hu, which can be rendered in English as "Holy One of Blessing." Holy One of Blessing is a name associated with divine transcendence -- the part of God which is high-above and far-away. (Shechina, in contrast, is the part of God which dwells here in creation.) I've revised it, though, to be "texts to the Holy."
When we observe mitzvot with whole heart and intention -- says the mystical tradition -- we unify divine immanence and divine transcendence, for a time.
In my deepest yearnings, can I imagine what it's like for one part of God to ache for another part?
Edited to add: this is now the title poem of my next collection, which will be released by Ben Yehuda Press sometime in 2017 or early 2018.