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!


Three days at Knox

Old Main.

On my first day in Galesburg, after a walking tour of the Knox campus (including the site of one of the famed Lincoln-Douglas debates) and lunch with a handful of Knox faculty and staff, I had the profound pleasure of discussing my Akedah Cycle of poems (now published in 70 faces) with the students in the Feminist Methodologies class who had been assigned the task of reading the relevant sections of Genesis alongside the poems themselves.

We had a fabulous and free-wheeling conversation about the Bible (some of them had gone to years of religious school; others had never cracked open a Bible before), midrash (which one of the students compared with fanfiction, to my delight -- that's an argument which I'm going to explore in some depth in a forthcoming article), theology, names for God, the divine feminine, the Lurianic cosmogony and the task of lifting up the sparks, reproductive technology, the idea of reading beloved texts with awareness of their problematic qualities but still with love (I was thinking of Wendy Doniger's excellent essay Thinking Critically About Thinking Too Critically [pdf], though I couldn't come up with her name in that moment), the responsibility to wrestle with the texts we hold dear, and more.

Posters.

That evening I gave a talk about midrash and poetry, which culminated in a reading of the Akedah Cycle and then some Q-and-A. That was a lot of fun, too; I had forgotten the extent to which those poems were intended to be read aloud (though of course they were; I wrote them as a sermon in the first place) and people asked excellent questions, like how becoming a mother had changed my relationship with these Torah texts and whether I'd explored the extent to which some of these same stories appear in the Qur'an. (I got to talk a little bit about the retreat I attended for emerging Jewish and Muslim religious leaders and the study of the Joseph/Yusuf story that we did there...)

Thursday morning was spent with a rotating group of Knox students (from SASS, Hillel, and other places), a giant latte, and a pile of mini-muffins from the local bakery. We talked about school and religion and theology and travel and life after college and all kinds of good stuff. And then I got to have lunch with three faculty members, during which we discussed everything from hadith about Isaac and Ishmael to the appeal of Eastern religious traditions to religious pedagogy to the theologies of Battlestar Galactica and the Sarah Connor Chronicles.

Having a latte on hallowed ground.

And finally, on Thursday afternoon, I read from my poems as part of the Caxton Club's literary series. I read mostly poems from 70 faces, though also some poems from chaplainbook, and even a handful of poems from Waiting to Unfold, my as-yet unpublished manuscript of mother poems. The crowd was smallish (perhaps because the posters had, it was discovered, been printed with a January date) but those who were there were receptive listeners, and they asked fabulous questions afterwards -- about my creative processes, about commitment, about Torah poems and motherhood poems. It was grand.

And now, as Shabbat approaches, I'm on my way home -- and getting ready to lead services at my shul tomorrow morning, and looking forward to seeing my sweet little boy again! I'm so grateful to the community at Knox for welcoming me into your midst. Thanks for giving this rabbi, poet, and mama a chance to spend a few days with you, discussing subjects I hold dear.

 


Off to Texas again

Drew and me in a field of wildflowers; San Antonio, April 2010.

This morning Drew and I are off on the second plane trip of his life -- once again, to San Antonio, my birthplace, where we'll spend a week visiting my family. I'm looking forward to reintroducing him to his uncles, taking him to the zoo, and introducing him to his first bean-and-cheese taco (which I expect will be a huge hit!) Also, of course, to the joy of seeing him with my parents.

Blogging will likely be pretty sporadic while we're on the road. Have a great week, everyone!