The adventure of staying somewhere new

13408497624_548d350a3a_n
View from the roof of the Ecce Homo, twilight. Below: intersection with minaret, shopkeeper's wares.

13408211325_efa47a699a_nI've never stayed in the Old City before. The moment I walk out of the convent guesthouse where I am staying, I'm on the cobblestones of the Via Dolorosa. Merchants selling Christian religious icons beckon me into their storefronts. If I continue walking away from the Lion's Gate, I reach a T-junction. If I turn left there, and follow the road as it zigs and zags a bit, I wind up at the Kotel. If I turn right, and follow the road as it zigs and zags a bit, I wind up at the Damascus Gate.

I don't think these streets are officially part of the marketplace (shuk in Hebrew, souq in Arabic), but there are market stalls along them nonetheless. A few vendors are selling prayer beads / rosaries (both Christian and Muslim), or religious icons. Others sell leather sandals, spices, Arabic candy, loops of sesame-encrusted bread, plastic toys, abayas, and alarm clocks shaped like the Dome of the Rock.

I am an obvious outsider in my jeans, sandals, and t-shirt. Even when I don't have my camera out, even without a guidebook in hand, I am clearly a foreigner, which means that vendors call out to me as I pass. "Hello! Miss! Step inside. Come and see." I smile but keep on walking; I'm not in the market for their wares. I wish I could snap photographs of the market stalls, and of the locals as they weave effortlessly through the foot traffic, but I don't.

Breathing in, I inhale coffee with cardamom, a tendril of the incense burning at the spice vendor's shop, vehicle exhaust, the apple-like sweetness of nargila smoke. The scents link me instantly with my summer in Jerusalem and with the trip Ethan and I took to Amman. This is the fragrance of the Middle East. I wonder whether I first encountered it on my adolescent trip to Cairo with my parents and sister, all those years ago, but I can't call up those sense-memories. One way or another, there is nothing like this scent back home.

13408386863_c75b22552c_nAround me I hear the clamor of voices, mostly speaking Arabic, which I do not understand. Occasionally I hear a snatch of Hebrew, mostly from the visibly-Jewish passers-by, the men in black frock coats with peyos and hats, the women with their hair wrapped in scarves who push strollers and lead little ones by the hand. The streets are narrow; there is barely enough room for the occasional car which creeps through, horn blaring when the foot traffic gets in its way.

As I return to the guesthouse, the set hour arrives for Muslim evening prayer. The adhān rings out first from one minaret, then from another, and within moments I am ensconced in an aural web of voices coming from every direction. The melody is plaintive and melancholy to my untrained ear. (Not so much a melody as a nusach -- like the old melodic modes in which we sing weekday prayer.) The voices seem to ripple, like the surface of a pond into which stones have been thrown. When the call to prayer falls silent, I hear the sound of church bells.

 

Photos, once again,  from my ever-expanding trip photoset.


Walking in (ancient) Caesaria

13332922384_0e2d06f3c5_nOn Shabbat morning I woke up in Jerusalem and, with nearly twenty members of my extended family, boarded a bus heading north. The first place we visited together was Caesaria (קֵיסָרְיָה / قيسارية‎).

Before our visit, the name mostly evoked the Hannah Szenes poem הליכה לקיסריה, "Walking to Caesaria." Here it is sung by Regina Spektor [YouTube link] -- gives me chills every time. (We often sing this in my synagogue at Yizkor / Memorial services.) The words mean, "My God, my God, I pray that these things never end: the sand and the sea, the rush of the waters, the crash of the heavens, the prayer of the heart."

Wanting to know more than just that beautiful melody, I read the town's Wikipedia page, and here's a snippet of what it says:

The town was built by Herod the Great about 25–13 BCE as the port city Caesarea Maritima. It served as an administrative center of Judaea Province of the Roman Empire, and later the capital of the Byzantine Palaestina Prima province during the classic period. Following the Muslim conquest in the 7th century, the city had an Arab majority until Crusader renovation, but was again abandoned after the Mamluk conquest. It was populated in 1884 by Bosniak immigrants, who settled in a small fishing village. In 1940, kibbutz Sdot Yam was established next to the village. In February 1948 the village was conquered by a Palmach unit commanded by Yitzhak Rabin and its people expelled. In 1952, a Jewish town of Caesarea was established near the ruins of the old city, which were made into the national park of Caesarea Maritima.

After the Roman material -- I'm always fascinated by Roman-era history, ever since spending all of those years studying Latin -- the British Mandate section is most interesting to me, especially the part about the village notable who approached local Jews in an effort to establish a non-belligerency agreement in 1947, and the Haganah presence which followed in 1948, resulting in the expulsion of the town's residents and subsequent demolishing of most of its houses. That said -- we didn't see any of modern Caesaria, so most of that research turned out to be background for a place we didn't visit!

13332642464_4d176dbb12_nWhere we actually went was Caesarea Maritima, the Israeli national park containing the extensive ruins of ancient Caesaria, which was established by Herod the Great around 25 B.C.E. (The town, not the national park, obviously.) Of course, this means that Caesaria isn't mentioned in the Hebrew scriptures, because it's far too recent for that. We spent a neat morning exploring the ruins along with the guide my sister had hired. He was full of interesting facts about, e.g., where the marble to build the columns had come from, and how the theatre and hippodrome were used, and how the city got its name, and how the manmade harbor was built out of concrete laid underwater during the first century B.C.E. (and why it later eroded away).

Much of what we saw was original -- for instance, the mosaic floors in various places, which were gorgeous -- though the outdoor semicircular theatre is mostly reconstruction, and so is the replica of the stone which bore the inscription "Pontius Pilate dedicated a building here to Caesar in such-and-such a year" -- the original is in the Israel museum, too precious to leave out to the winds and the weather, as it's the only place outside of the Christian scriptures where Pilate is mentioned. Apparently it was found face-down in the theatre; people had been using it as a stepping-stone for years, and were stunned when it was flipped over and they realized its historical importance. I particularly liked the ruins of the palace, with the mosaic floor, and the remnants of what may once have been a swimming or bathing pool, right on the edge of the sea.

13331836623_472610895f_nAfterwards we drove along amazingly twisty mountain roads to the Arab village of Ein Hud (not to be confused with the Israeli artists' village Ein Hod, which is next door) for a meal at Habait Be'Ein Hud, which was one of the most extraordinary meals of my life. There is no menu; you just eat whatever the mother of the household has cooked that day. I love putting my trust in a chef's hands like that, and oh, wow, this kitchen did not disappoint. The place was packed, and we were the only English-speaking table in evidence.

We were seated at a giant long banquet table next to windows overlooking the hills and wildflowers and olive trees. The food just kept coming: hummus, babaghanoush, tabbouleh, olives and turmeric-pickled cauliflower, every Arabic salad and appetizer I could name (and several I couldn't, including one which I think was made mostly out of Swiss chard with lemon and cumin.) That alone would have been plenty of lunch. But it turned out to be just the prelude to plate after plate of spiced rice and chicken, turmeric-yellow rice surrounded by chunks of fork-tender meat, eggplant in a rich sauce, stuffed peppers...!

13331732625_868e9eeafe_nI wish I could have eaten twice as much as I did; it was incredible. I just kept saying "todah rabah! shukran!" to the people who brought the food, over and over again.

That meal culminated in a downstairs sitting area, where we were offered tea or coffee (I chose coffee -- in a tiny eggshell teacup, dark and thick and cardamom-scented, which I sweetened with sugar; the flavor immediately took me back to the last time I was in this part of the world!) and ate baklava and relaxed.

There was another surprise in store. I think a local capoeira club happens to practice there on Shabbat afternoons. At least, my sister insisted that she had not hired them as entertainment; they just showed up, turned on music, and fought / danced / did their beautiful graceful moves. We sipped our coffee and tea, and applauded, and one of my older nephews got up and one of the dancers taught him a few of their simpler patterns...and then we got back on the bus and continued on our way.

 

All photos can be found in my growing photoset from this trip.


On my way

Il_570xN.184531812Mark Twain wrote that "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness[.]" I don't know about fatal, but anyone who travels with open eyes and an open heart can't help but be moved. By the things we have in common across the earth's wide expanse, and by the many fascinating places where we differ in custom, practice, dress, way of being in the world.

Travel can shake one out of calcified habits. Days have a different rhythm when one is away from home. Everything seems new, or has the capacity to seem new. Home is about sedentary comfort, the small joys of the mundane and routine. But most of those routines are shattered when one is on the road, waking in an unfamiliar bed, breathing unfamiliar air.

I love my home (the house itself, and the hilltop where it stands, and the community of which it is a part), and I like the rhythms of my life as rabbi, mother, poet, daughter, spouse. And I also love leaving home: walking with renewed attentiveness to the world around me, meeting new people, seeing new things, connecting where I've been with where I'm going.

Traveling, like parenthood, requires yielding a certain amount of control. We make the best plans we can, and inevitably something comes along to shift those plans into a new configuration. Traveling is an exercise in mindfulness and an exercise in cultivating graceful acceptance of whatever gifts the world places in our path, even if they don't look like gifts at the time.

This morning I will drive the familiar winding country roads which take me to the airport an hour away. After a short flight, I'll spend most of the day in an unfamiliar airport. And then I'll get on another plane -- a much bigger one, this time -- and fly all night, arriving tomorrow jet-lagged and disoriented in Tel Aviv.

I've been thinking about this trip for a long time. It was on my mind when I wrote The spiritual work of wrestling with the both/and (February, 2014.) I can't help thinking back to June of 2008 when I last made this journey -- though then I was leaving home for a whole season; this time I'll be abroad for a mere ten days. Then I was a student; now I am a rabbi, and a mom.

I think I know some of what these ten days will hold. (Time with family; a bar mitzvah; a day trip to Hebron; a poetry reading in Jerusalem next Thursday; meals and coffee with friends.) But I'm also going to do my best to be open to surprises, and to find the blessing in every moment, and to keep my mind and heart open to being further broadened, even when that broadening stretches me beyond my usual comfort zone.

I am grateful for the opportunity to make the journey. May all who travel reach their destinations safely, today and every day.

 

 


Checklist

Passport: check.
Prescription medication: check.
Jeans, skirts, shirts, sweater: check.
Boarding passes: check.

Books loaded on my Kindle.
Charging cables.
Plug converters.
Camera and charger.

Tallit. (Small, blue, silky, portable.)
Siddurim (two in print, plus the two on my tablet.)
Books to deliver to a friend of a friend in the Old City.
Kippot, coordinated with wardrobe.

Carry-on-approved toiletries.
Assorted drug store necessaries.
Rain jacket just in case.
Printouts. Check, check, check.

All I really need is the first stanza.
Everything else is commentary.
I tick things off today's to-do list.
My mind is already en route.


Some of Montreal's small pleasures

A latte the size of my head (okay, not really, but it comes in a bowl, which I can't help but admire):

Interesting graffiti (a form of art which I've photographed in this city before, though not this specific piece of it):

Windows filled with fascinating treasure:

An old car with beautiful wheels (look at the wooden spokes!)

An impromptu picnic in the park with dear friends:

I'm grateful to have had the chance to spend a couple of days in this city -- and to share poems from Waiting to Unfold alongside stories of parenthood and spirituality, poems from 70 faces alongside a sermon.

(I'm home now. Thanks, Montreal, for a lovely time!)


Illustrated travelogue

When I left home it was a beautiful afternoon:

I decided to take route 43 all the way to the Northway, and it was stunning:

I caught sight of Albany from a distance as I drove by:

The Adirondacks were pretty glorious, too:

But then the hills went away, and as soon as I crossed the border the fields were sere and flat:

And by the end of the day I was safely ensconced with friends, making Shabbat creatively with a tealight and a Montreal bagel!


The sand and the sea

אלי, אלי, שלא יגמר לעולם
החול והים
רשרוש של המים
ברק השמים
תפילת האדם

My God, my God, may it be that these things never end:
the sand and the sea
the rush of the waters
the crash of the heavens
the prayers of the heart.

-- Hannah Szenes, הליכה לקיסריה / "A Walk to Caesaria"


An historic synagogue in Rhode Island

Touro synagogue 3Stepping inside the Touro Synagogue feels a little bit like stepping inside an Old World Sefardic shul. There's a good reason for that. All of the oldest congregations in the New World were founded by Sefardic Jews, including this one.

There's no mechitza; instead there's an upstairs section and a downstairs one. The bimah (pulpit) from which the shaliach tzibbur (prayer leader) leads prayer and reads Torah is in the middle of the sanctuary, almost in the back, so he's leading from within/among the community, not standing in front of them Protestant-style. The ceiling is lofty and painted and ornamented in simple, elegant Colonial fashion. There are twelve big columns (one for each of the twelve tribes, naturally) and twelve smaller ones in the women's gallery above.

It is, I learn when we visit, the oldest still-standing synagogue in North America. (There was one founded earlier, in what was then New Amsterdam, though it burned down. It was rebuilt and the congregation is still extant, as is this one, but that makes this the oldest still-standing Jewish worship space in the country.) The community is celebrating its 250th anniversary this year.

Two hundred and fifty years may be a mere eyeblink in terms of human history -- certainly there are many European houses of worship older than that! -- but for a house of worship on these shores, 250 years is a very long time. And somehow there's something extra-special about being in a North American synagogue which is that venerable.

Its history is really cool. The first Jews came to Newport in 1658, of Spanish and Portuguese origin. (You might recall that Jews were unilaterally cast out of Spain in 1492. Thanks a ton, Ferdinand and Isabella.) Some of them came from Curaçao, and for a bit of a first, they came because they were interested in the colony's experiment in religious liberty, not because they had just been kicked out of where they'd been living. Rhode Island's colonial charter said, among other things:

No person within the said Colony, at any time hereafter, shall be any wise molested, punished, disquieted, or called in question, for any differences in opinion, in matters of religion, who does not actually disturb the peace of our said Colony ; but that all and every person and persons may, from time to time, and at all times hereafter, freely and fully have and enjoy his own and their judgments and consciences, in matters of religious concernments, throughout the tract of land heretofore mentioned, they behaving themselves peaceably and quietly and not using this liberty to licentiousness and profaneness, nor to the civil injury or outward disturbance of others

Synagogueinterior2009It's worth remembering that the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony banned Catholics in 1647, and weren't particularly fans of Quakers, Baptists, or Anglicans either. In Colonial days, suspicion of "Jews, Turks and Infidels" was pretty standard fare. But Rhode Island set out to be different, and that attracted a handful of Jewish families from early on.

In its earliest years the community davened in each others' homes. They began constructing a building in 1758. The architect, an English fellow named Peter Harrison, had never seen a synagogue before. (Most non-Jews probably hadn't.) He designed the interior based on what he learned from the community's prayer-leader, Reverend Isaac Touro, who had recently emigrated from Amsterdam and had been part of that city's great Portuguese synagogue.

During the American Revolution, many of Newport's homes were destroyed by the British army (not only because pillaging is a time-honored form of wartime violence, but also because the houses were wooden and New England winters could be awfully cold -- the troops needed firewood.) Our tour guide confided in us that Touro himself was a Loyalist, rather than a supporter of the Revolution. One way or another, he convinced the local British invaders not to burn the synagogue but to use it as their field hospital. Its beautiful chandeliers and brass fixings went to New York for safekeeping until after the war, and the sanctuary became a place where the wounded could convalesce.

After the revolution was over, when the new president George Washington was traveling the colonies in hopes of getting the Bill of Rights passed, the congregation's then-leader Moses Mendes Seixas wrote to the president pressing him on the question of whether non-Christians truly had the right to worship in this country as we pleased. In response, President Washington wrote a fairly remarkable letter. He wrote, in part:

It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support...

May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.

Ten-commandmentsTo bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance. It's not just a matter of the privileged "tolerating" otherness. At our best, our nation has always been about something better than that. (Indeed: the first item in that Bill of Rights which President Washington was trying then to pass is a clause enshrining freedom of religion in this nation.)

The Touro synagogue is a relatively modest structure, though a very lovely one. (I particularly like the mural of the ten commandments over the ark, and seeing the community's antique Torah scroll, now behind glass -- it's more than 500 years old, written on deerskin.) What makes it most remarkable to me is the realization that for two hundred and fifty years, people of my religious tradition have been gathering there in joy and in sorrow, davening the daily and weekly, monthly and yearly liturgies. It's sanctified by its very longevity.

And it feels holy to me because it's an early symbol of the religious liberty which is so foundational to this country. It was by no means obvious, two hundred and fifty years ago when this nation was new, that all people would be free to worship here as we pleased; that this wasn't simply a place where Christians of one stripe or another could be free from the prejudices of other Christians, but a place where Jews and Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs, people of every religious persuasion and of no religious persuasion whatsoever could together form the fabric of a nation where we walk in our own paths and cherish our differences.

I'm glad to have had the chance to sit, however, briefly, in this hallowed space. On my way out the door, I said a silent prayer of gratitude for its existence and for the principles of religious freedom which allowed it -- and every other community in this nation -- to flourish.

 

Photos from this gallery.


A blessing over a Middle Eastern apéritif

170px-Glassofarak_enI'm not sure when I first tasted arak. Wikipedia tells me that it's the traditional alcoholic beverage across Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and Iraq. It turns out that arak is typically made from the distillation of fermented grapes and/or vines, making it a sort of grappa, though on the second distillation aniseed is added -- hence the drink's characteristic liquorice taste.

I have a distinct memory of drinking arak with Ethan at a bar in Amman back in 2002. That was a business trip for him and a pleasure jaunt for me; I spent most of my days sightseeing, he spent most of his days in meetings, and then in the evening we'd meet for dinner and to stroll around the city and explore Amman by night. And one night we wound up at a bar sipping arak. I seem to remember that I'd tasted arak before that, though. Or maybe it just reminded me of other anise-flavored beverages from other corners of the Mediterranean. I've always loved anise, especially when its setting is at least as much savory as sweet, so arak and I were immediate friends.

2620310565_7b97df9231_m During the summer when I lived in Jerusalem, I used to walk from our sublet on Rechov Lincoln to a nearby restaurant and bar. This is five years ago now. It seems both far more recent, and far more distant -- an artifact, I suspect, of the ways in which life shifts when one has a child. But this was in our pre-child days. And because Ethan and I have lived in rural America for the better part of twenty years, I took pains that summer to go out from time to time, if only to experience the unique gifts of city life.

My housemates were a dear rabbinic school friend, her husband, and their daughter, who was three and a half that summer. Their kid was the same age then that our son is now, which is humbling and amazing when I stop to think about it; that was my first experience of living with a little one, and it was part of what made me feel able to take the leap into trying to get pregnant the following fall. Anyway, that kiddo and her mama went to bed early, for reasons I understand now all too well. So sometimes, in the evening, I'd walk to the nearby Restobar by myself, wanting to get out of the apartment and to take advantage of living in a city for a change.

Restobar was usually busy in the evenings, but I could usually find a table where I could nestle out of the way by myself. When my server came around, I would order kos arak, b'vak'sha. When it arrived, I would open up my laptop and use their wireless internet to correspond with Ethan or with friends back home (there was no internet in our apartment) as the melting ice turned the clear liquor cloudy and my mouth tingled with anise. Their menu also featured arak with grapefruit juice, but I was never able to imagine that combination of flavors -- and anyway, my blood pressure meds make grapefruit generally contraindicated. So I stuck with drinking it on the rocks, and was quite content.

Despite living in a small town in western Massachusetts, Ethan and I live a fairly cosmopolitan lifestyle -- but there are certain flavors which are hard to come by around these parts. None of the stores in our entire county stock arak, and for whatever reason, sambuca (which is easy to find) doesn't have the same zing for me. At the end of my Jerusalem summer, I spent my final wad of shekels on a bottle of arak at the airport duty-free shop, meaning to bring it home for Ethan to enjoy with me...only to have it poured into a trash can by an overzealous customs agent at Heathrow, because it hadn't been in a sealed ziploc bag when I got off the plane. Needless to say, I was miffed. (Obviously on some level I still am, or I wouldn't remember the story so well.)

On a recent trip to the big city -- for the final Rabbis Without Borders retreat -- I happened into a liquor store and noticed that they had Israeli arak on their shelves. Bingo: I picked up a bottle and schlepped it happily home. After that, the Berkshires were cool and rainy for a while (there was even danger of frost) so I forgot about the arak entirely. In my mind it's a hot weather beverage, something to sip slowly over ice on a warm night. But this weekend, summer has arrived wholly. And after I put our little guy to bed, my eye chanced on the bottle, and I poured myself a few fingers over ice. It swirled milkily as the ice began to melt on contact with the room-temperature anise-flavored liquid. I wondered whether I would still like it, after all this time.

The first sip was extraordinary. If I closed my eyes I could be right back at the Restobar, listening to people cheering and shouting in Hebrew at a televised soccer match, knowing that an endlessly ancient and endlessly complicated city was just outside the door. Or back at that bar in Amman, sitting on a barstool beside Ethan, listening to the sounds of Arabic around us. Instead here I am at our house in western Massachusetts, listening to local birdsong, surrounded by the rustle of green leaves, our son (God willing) at last falling asleep in his downstairs bedroom. But the taste of the Middle East is delicious and complicated on my tongue, and I am grateful for it.

Is there a bracha for an apéritif? The traditional answer is that alcohol which isn't wine is blessed with the blessing known as shehakol; it's the garden-variety all-inclusive one, the blessing for anything that doesn't have its own dedicated bracha. (It goes like this: "Blessed are You, Adonai our God, ruler of the universe, Who creates all things with Your word.") But I can't help thinking that the right blessing is actually the shehecheyanu, the blessing through which we sanctify time. Blessed are You, Adonai our God, source of all being, who has kept me alive, and sustained me, and enabled me to reach this moment -- and enabled me to be so immersed in memory -- and enabled my connections with places and moments which are far away, but which still live in my mind, and in my heart, and on my tongue.

 


 

Related: Foods of Israel: Arak cocktails in The Jew and the Carrot.


On arriving in the city one last time

One of the things I'll miss about this Rabbis Without Borders Fellowship, when it formally ends after this week, is the routine I developed this year of driving to the train station and taking Amtrak into the city, then walking to the hotel where RWB puts us up. I've loved the feeling of having a regular city routine: I know my way around Penn Station now, I know how to walk to the hotel, I know my way around this hotel, the rooms are familiar...

I lived in this city as a kid, for one year. My parents, bless them, had always wanted to live in Manhattan. And the year I turned ten, they were able to; so we did. One of my brothers stayed in my childhood home and house-sat. We moved into a Manhattan apartment for a year. I attended a posh city girls' school. Our building had a doorman, and an elevator that went very, very high. (Or at least it seemed that way to me; I was nine when we got here, and had lived my whole life in a standalone limestone house with a Spanish tile roof.) New York amazed me then. It still does.

I used to think I would move here when I grew up. And the city is an incredible place, full of life and vibrancy. There are more people on this one island, not to mention in the other boroughs of this vast interconnected cityspace, than I can honestly imagine. I love walking past all of the different restaurants and stores and food carts, the stoops and windows and doors. I love seeing all of the different kinds of people one encounters in any city in the world. I know now that living here isn't my path -- I love my small mountain town too much -- but I always love dipping in to the river of New York.

When I arrived this time, I walked through a corridor of greenery on my way to the hotel. Apparently that block is a floral district of some kind, and now that it is May, the block is fully decked out for spring: standing plants, walls of wooden vases and birchbark flowerpots. I think the greenery is particularly noticeable because it's against the backdrop of all of this noise and exhaust and commotion, these tall buildings stretching toward the clouds. It was funny to suddenly be surrounded by green, just as I am at home at this season.

On the morning of my departure, our son solemnly told me to have a good time in New York City. "Some day I could take you there," I offered. "We could take a train to the big city, and go see some other kids whose mommies are my friends, and then go to a big museum where you can see dinosaur bones." His eyes grew large as saucers. "We can?" he breathed, as though I had just told him we could fly to the Moon. "Really, mommy?" Really, I promised. We really can. Not today, but maybe one day soon.

So I know I'll be back, New York; I've promised my son that I'll show him some of your wonders. (He's actually been here before, twice, but doesn't remember either trip. This time, though, I suspect he'll engage with the city in a whole new way.) For now, I have a couple of days during which I get to relish being part of this fabulous cohort of rabbis from across the different streams of Judaism: two days of conversations, meals, learning, collegiality, and the rare gift -- for the mother of a three year old -- of being entirely on my own, free to peoplewatch, to walk at an adult's pace, and to enjoy the company of colleagues and friends.


A visit to Sagrada Familia

Gaudí's Sagrada Familia is amazing. I've never seen a cathedral like it. And I have seen a fair number of cathedrals. (I guess it isn't technically a cathedral; it won't be home to a bishop. But what else can one call such a grand and soaring Christian religious space?)

Beams of light.

It's a bit as though an art deco - modernist worship space had been built in Tolkien's mythical Lothlorien. I think it's the giant soaring columns modeled to look like plane trees, holding up the exquisite skylight-riddled roof, which put me in mind of golden elvish Mallorn trees. It's almost as though the columns (several different shapes and diameters, each made of a different stone) grew organically from the floor to create the ceiling. Which I guess would be one explanation for the wonderful and whimsical finials on the roofs which look like unearthly fruit.

Seen from outside.

It is enormous. Mind-bogglingly enormous. It can hold thousands of people. In the way of cathedrals, it has already taken well over a century to build. Most of the main building is complete, and there are three extraordinary towers (into which visitors can ascend) -- though the plan calls for a total of eighteen towers, so there's a lot more left to build. When Gaudí died in 1926, only a quarter of the project was complete.

Pillars and light.

There are spiraling staircases and great openings and amazing light. There are sculptures which tell stories. At the top of the many spire / tower roofs there are the kind of giant and fanciful mosaic fruits I saw on the roof of a Gaudi-designed mansion the day before. One side of the church (known as the Glory facade) has exterior pillars which appear to rest on a giant tortoise and a giant turtle -- symbols of land and sea. This is a structure which praises God through lifting up aspects of nature, aspects of creation, in their beauty.

Windows.

When I was there on a Friday morning, they were piping in choral music which completed with the sounds of construction continuing overhead. As I sat in a chair in the huge and spacious nave, and quietly davened some morning blessings to myself, I heard the strains of Duruflé's "Ubi Caritas," one of my very favorite Christian sacred pieces to sing. Where there are charity and love, there, one finds God -- yes indeed.

Crane at work.

I wandered the building in a daze, dodging other tourists who, like me, were attempting to capture the ineffable on film. I took an elevator up to the top of the tower named for the Passion, and marveled at the views of Barcelona, and then slowly, slowly, walked the 425 steps back down to the ground. I trailed my fingers along the narrow staircase as I went, and marveled at the work of all of these combined human hands.

Light on columns.

I always love visiting sacred spaces. Even if they're not "mine" in the sense of being Jewish sacred spaces, I feel an affinity for them because they are someone's idea of holy; because they are built for community and prayer; because they are meant to reflect a tiny fraction of the glory of the Infinite. I'm really glad to have spent a morning in this one.


(For more images from our few days in Spain, including a few more of Sagrada Familia and a few of a mansion designed by Gaudí called Palau Guell, here's my Barcelona photoset on Flickr.)


Unexpected gifts

At an airport restaurant in Boston I withdrew my kindle from my bag. It's the kindle Ethan gave me when Drew was born; I think of it still as "the nursing kindle," because it made possible the act of reading-while-nursing (and, even more importantly, reading while my sacked-out son slept on me.) Reading a book while holding a sleeping infant was impossible; the crinkle of turning pages (not to mention the movement) would wake him straight away, but the small thumbclick of the "next page" button didn't. It was a godsend.

Anyway, last week I purchased a few books I've been wanting to read -- Ted Conover's book on roads, Anne Lamott's journal of her grandson's first year -- and last night as I sat down for a sandwich before my flight, I pulled out the kindle, ready to read. Alas! The screen was broken. I fiddled with it for a while, but it was pretty clear: this was, as Monty Python might have said, an ex-kindle.

I hastily downloaded the books onto my phone (now doing triple duty as phone, camera, and e-book reader) and resolved to look into the kindle paperwhite when I got home. Then it was time for the transatlantic flight. The so-called "sleep" over the ocean is better left undescribed. Upon arriving at Heathrow, though, a real gift was waiting: breakfast with my parents.

My parents live in Texas, where Drew and I visited them a few weeks ago. Long story short, they're joining some friends on a tour of (parts of) India this month. To make the travel and the shift in time zones slightly easier for them, they flew into Heathrow a day before the rest of their group and spent the night in an airport hotel, getting a good night of sleep in a real bed before embarking on the eight-hour flight to Delhi. As it happened, they had a few hours of layover between waking up in their airport hotel and departing for India. And those few hours matched precisely the few hours of my layover between one flight and the next!

Even though it had sounded as though the stars might be aligned for us, I was dubious. (For one thing, there's a transportation strike in Barcelona which had caused my first flight to be canceled; though the airlines claimed they were rebooking me on a later flight, who was to say it too wouldn't disappear?) And Heathrow is enormous. Who was to say we would actually be able to find each other, even if our layovers did magically overlap?

I didn't entirely believe it was going to work until I saw my mother standing outside a Duty Free shop. What a joy, to see my parents in this unlikely way, so far from home! We found a place which served oatmeal (just the thing for our slightly travel-addled systems) and we talked about their trip and my trip and how incredibly blessed we all feel to be able to do this travel at this moment in our lives. They'll see a few things in India which Ethan and I saw on our 2002 trip (I told them to keep an eye out for the monkeys at the Taj Mahal at sundown), though they'll also see places I didn't get to go. And I'll see things in Barcelona which will be new to them (it's a city they haven't yet visited), though our trip will be far shorter than thers -- a mere 3.5 days, attached to Ethan's speaking obligation at News X Change.

When we saw our gates listed on the overhead board, we regretfully hugged and parted ways, wishing wished one another bon voyage. "Enjoy every moment," we said to each other, and beamed.What a sweet little interlude. The chance to sit down for breakfast with my parents is rare enough now that I live a thousand miles away, but the chance to do so in London, as our paths temporarily crossed on our various arcs across space and time zones? Priceless.

 

Breakfast at Heathrow with Mom and Dad!


Dancing With the Widow (reprint of an essay from 2000)

Like the others, she's clad in skirt and blouse with an extra yard of fabric wrapped shawl-fashion. Unlike the others, she wears a coarse rope around her waist. Sometimes another woman leads her by it, into the dancing, out of the dancing. Sometimes it just dangles. We are in the town of Medie. The bound woman is a new widow: the dancing is her husband’s wake.

Medie is a village not far north of Accra, Ghana's capital city. Medie is not a place many Westerners visit, although that may change in time. We are there because the elder brother of a close friend has died of lung cancer ("He wasn't Y2K-compliant," jokes our friend, familiar with the Y2K bug although he's never used a computer) and we are there for the last six hours of his two-day wake.

Bernard

Xylophone music in Medie. A few years after this funeral.

Continue reading "Dancing With the Widow (reprint of an essay from 2000)" »


America

O beautiful for spacious skies (highway, south Texas)

 

for amber waves of grain (winter rye, western Massachusetts)

 

For purple mountains' majesty (Berkshires, western Massachusetts)

 

Above the fruited plain (strawberry field, western Massachusetts)

 

America, America, God shed His grace on thee (border crossing, northern New York)

 

And crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea (rocky coast, Maine: Atlantic)

 

to shining sea (jetty, southern California: Pacific)!

 

(lyrics from America the Beautiful.) Happy Fourth of July to all who celebrate!


Texas-bound

Last time we visited Texas, my son was 18 months old:

My son and my dad. June 2011.

This time, he's two years and 2.5 months. (Eight months make a big difference at this age.) I'm looking forward to once again reintroducing him to my hometown, and to his extended Texas clan.

I'm not sure he understands when I say we're going on a plane to see his grandparents, though he repeats the words: "onna plane! See Na, see Pop!"

And while we're there, we get to celebrate the wedding of one of my cousins. A joy all around.

Blogging will be minimal (or nonexistent) while we're on the road. So will my ability to respond to email and comments. Thanks for understanding. See y'all on the flipside.


Off we go!

Vacance

Back in July, when I began planning my first Days of Awe as a pulpit rabbi, I said to Ethan, "We should pick a weekend after all the holidays are over, and find a way to spend that weekend doing something fun together."

We knew already that he was going to be starting his new gig at MIT and would be in Boston half of every week. We knew that his fall was going to feature a lot of extra travel as well, and we knew that his first month or so at MIT was likely to be pretty densely-packed. And we knew that the Days of Awe are a busy time for everyone in my line of work: so many services to plan and lead, so many details to organize, so many hopes and expectations to try to meet. I figured the odds were good that he and I wouldn't get a ton of time for us until his busy start to the semester, and my busy High Holiday season, were past.

And then Ethan got invited to speak at yet another conference. This happens with fairly predictable regularity, of course; it's a big part of how he works, these days. But this time the invitation came from a college friend who we haven't seen in years -- and the conference was scheduled right after my long string of holidays (Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur to Sukkot, Hoshanah Rabbah, Shemini Atzeret, Simchat Torah) was slated to end. Oh, and the conference in question is in Paris.

"Paris," I pointed out, "would be a fabulous place to spend a weekend together."

So Ethan said yes to the conference (which will happen early next week), and we booked an extra plane ticket and a couple of extra nights at a hotel, and my in-laws graciously agreed to spend these few days staying at our house with our adorably rambunctious toddler, and we are going on a weekend vacation.

One of Drew's favorite things to say is "Off we go!" (Clearly we say this to him when we're getting ready to hit the road, and he has learned to repeat it with great enthusiasm and glee.) So I'll echo our beautiful child and say: off we go! See y'all on the flipside.


Three glimpses of Texas

leading services

Leading services for an enthusiastic crowd of about 30, Temple Chai, Shabbat morning.

carousel

Drew enjoys the restored 1918 carousel (with cousin Elaine), Kiddie Park, midweek.

sunrise in Bandera

Sunrise, Medina River Ranch, Bandera, Shabbat morning.

My family and I (in various combinations) spent a wonderful ten days in Texas. I got to participate in services at my parents' congregation (where I grew up and was confirmed), lead davenen for a new congregation which has arisen since I moved away, join with a retired minister in a poetry reading and free-flying conversation -- and take Drew to see some of San Antonio's best toddler-appropriate sights, see my parents and siblings, and enjoy the flavors of the town where I grew up. The trip culminated in a weekend at a ranch in the hill country where we celebrated a variety of family milestones. I'm endlessly grateful to have gone, to have had these experiences and adventures, to have reintroduced my son to the place I come from...and now to be home in the Berkshires again.


Two vignettes from the 70 faces book tour

Southern Quebec on a spring afternoon.

On Saturday evening we gathered in a beautiful underground chapel at the Unitarian Church of Montreal. This might in another church have been a plain cinderblock room, but here the four walls were painted with scenes from Canada's different landscapes: on one wall boreal forest, on another plains and prairie, all the way to the icebergs and polar bear cubs of Nunavut. The one pillar in the middle of the room was painted to resemble a tree. What a transformation!

Some folks came from the Unitarian Church of Montreal, a bunch from Chavurah Har Kodesh, plus one fellow blogger (that I knew of, at least), Susannah of Delight Was Once. We dimmed the lights and began with havdalah, which was lovely; it was the first time I'd ever used ras el hanout as the b'samim, the fragrant spices intended to revive us from the departure of Shabbat's extra soul. I think I saw one person moved to tears.

And then I asked the crowd to tell me favorite bits of Torah, and/or bits of Torah which challenge and distance them, and explained that if I had poems which arise out of those bits of Torah I would share those, and that would be the structure for the reading. People asked for wonderful and surprising things. Usually when I do this, people ask for Abraham, Isaac, Joseph; this time people asked for the thicket of sexual laws in Leviticus (I read "Naked" and "Gevurah"), for Miriam (I was so sorry I didn't have my seven Miriam stories poems with me! though I read my Song at the Sea poem), for Moshe receiving revelation.

After the formal reading was over, people stayed and schmoozed for almost an hour, eating cookies and drinking juice and chatting with me and each other as I signed books.

And then I went home with my friend Shoshanna, and savored a Unibroue, and in the morning I got to enjoy crépes and a bowl of café au lait big enough to swim in.

 


Montreal skyline, seen through my windshield.

Christ Church Cathedral is glorious and soaring. It has a beautiful ornamented ceiling, and stained glass windows which put me in mind of Reb Zalman's saying that in order to understand how a Christian worships, one needs to enter into his/her sacred space and relate to it from there -- to see the beauty of the stained glass windows from the inside, as it were. When we arrived, the choir was practicing something which sounded late-medieval or early Renaissance, with close harmonies, exactly the kind of music I used to most love to sing.

The service was lovely (complete with a baptism of three kids, which we were all invited to come up close to witness.) I enjoyed the sermon, which was about Cleophas and Mrs. Cleophas meeting Jesus on the road from Jerusalem -- and about intertextuality, which was a great set-up for our lunchtime discussion, actually.

And then we had lunch -- 20+ people around an enormous table eating sandwiches -- and Beth and I talked about poetry, Torah, midrash, and interpretation. I shared five poems from 70 faces ("The angels say" from the akedah cycle for Genesis; "The Psalm I Sing" for Exodus; "Like God" for Leviticus; "Downside" for Numbers; and "Mobius" for Deuteronomy -- please note that I'm linking here to the original versions of the poems; some were revised before publication, but these are the online versions I can point to.)

Using the five poems as jumping-off points, we talked about each of the five books, about their themes, about midrash and feminism and wrestling with difficult texts, along the way touching on Israel/Palestine, miscarriage and motherhood, and more. (A video of our conversation will be online at some point -- I'll let y'all know when it's up.)

And then helping hands whisked away the sandwiches and the water pitchers as I signed books and chatted with folks, and slowly people drifted away until only my hosts and I remained.

And once we changed into jeans, Beth and Jonathan and I walked around town, and had coffee and pastries, and relaxed with an early evening glass of wine, and eventually strolled to a neighborhood bistro for dinner just before closing time.

And in the morning, I drove home.

Returning home.


Edited to add: for more on this, don't miss Beth's beautiful post Sweetness, about our presentation, our afternoon together, and the wonders of a friendship which bridges so many divides, religion among them.


Three glimpses of vacation

 

A gull and the bright blue sea.

 

The majesty of Chichen Itza.

 

Swimming in a cenote.

And now it's back to normalcy: parenting, dishes, laundry, preparing to lead a mock Rosh Hashanah service tomorrow (test-driving the Reform movement's machzor-in-progress), and getting ready for a trio of 70 faces events in Boston this weekend (about which more shortly.) Still, it was lovely to get a few days away. And now it is lovely to be home.


Beach-bound

Beach umbrella and surfer.

Last time I went to a beach, I was entering my second trimester of pregnancy (with substantial relief -- after one miscarriage, I spent that first trimester on tenterhooks.) That was a trip to South Padre Island, on the Gulf coast of Texas.

The photo above is from a different beach: one of the beaches just north of the city of Tel Aviv, on one of the Shabbatot I took as a mini-vacation the summer I was living in Jerusalem.

And today Ethan and I are off to yet a different coast: we're headed for Playa del Carmen in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo. We'll be away for five days, all told. And Drew is staying home with his grandparents, which means we're going to get to savor the newly-strange sensation of being alone together!

I have high hopes of seeing some ruins; I also have high hopes of just lying on a beach for a little while, listening to the waves. Anyway: not planning to blog while we're gone. Precious moments of vacation are too hard-won. See you when we're home again!