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A week at Elat Chayyim

A week-long class with Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi: $400

Six days/nights room and board at Elat Chayyim: $375

Feeling plugged-in, blessed, joyful; knowing I've found my spiritual home; experiencing genuine connection with God...? Priceless.

Elat Chayyim is a Jewish spiritual retreat center in the Catskills, affiliated with Jewish Renewal and therefore designed for (and used by) a wide range of people. Most of us are Jewish, but not all; we come from every denomination, from Reform to Orthodox. This week about 150 of us gathered to learn from Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, the zaide (grandfather) of Jewish Renewal, affectionately known as Reb Zalman.

This is a long post. (More than 7000 words.) Feel free to skim it, to read it over the course of several days, or to dive in and soak up the whole thing now! It alternates between chronicling my experience, and reporting some of the things Reb Zalman taught.

From the moment I hit the road on Monday, I felt great. The act of simply leaving the mundane exasperations of my (wonderful, but sometimes a little too busy) life did me good. The closer I drove to Elat Chayyim, the calmer and more solid I felt. It's a beautiful place, and every time I set foot on the grounds I'm a little bit amazed that it's real and it still exists.

My three room-mates were named Loyce, Leah, and Janice. Loyce reminds me of my Aunt Diane. She's a schoolteacher; she has studied with Reb Zalman and his wife Eve before, and she's been a regular at Elat Chayyim  for most of its fourteen years. She became Jewish in 1986. Leah and Janice are lifelong friends from Houston; they're affiliated Conservative now, but Leah was Chasidic for more than twenty years, and bore all seven of her children in that world. (Together they created The Mikvah Project.) Both of them were new to Elat Chayyim.

At the opening ceremony, a woman came around with a basket of angel cards -- little slips of paper, each with a quality or aspect written on it in English and Hebrew. We drew from the basket without looking. My slip of paper, my angel card, read "open-hearted." Like everyone else, I slipped it into my name-tag, beneath my name.

One of the ways Elat Chayyim helps people feel connected during week-long retreats is through mishpacha ("family") groups; I was in a group of eleven women, facilitated by a man named Darryl who I later learned is a Conservative rabbi. Mishpacha groups meet daily, except for Shabbat; there we process and discuss the ups and downs of our experience. We can't respond to each other in group (we can only listen), and we must respect confidentiality. In my mishpacha were women ranging in age from mid-twenties to late seventies, with most in the 35-45 range.


The retreat proper began on Tuesday morning; I skipped the 6:15am meditation (meditation at that hour is a recipe for me falling asleep) but got up for davvening (prayer) at 7am in the white yurt. The davvening may be my favorite thing about Elat Chayyim; it tends to be egalitarian, bilingual, almost all sung or chanted. We often davven fewer words so we can bring greater kavvanah (focus/intent) to them. Weekday morning davvening tends to be contemplative and sweet; Shabbat davvening tends to be riotously joyful.

Anyway, that first morning's experience was a terrific way to start the week. For the birchot hashachar, the morning blessings, we chanted the beginning of each line in Hebrew (Baruch atah Adonai, eloheynu melech ha'olam/Blessed are You, Adonai our God, ruler of the world) and then whoever felt moved to complete a blessing could do so; I sang out the first one, "...for bringing us together."

After breakfast (which we eat in silence on weekdays; that's surprisingly lovely, nodding and smiling at people but "fasting from speech" in order to build and maintain focus) we congregated in the great hall for the first class with Reb Zalman.

Let me pause to describe Reb Zalman for you. He's turning eighty this summer; he's of average height, with a round belly and a long white beard, a large mouth, and perhaps the most gentle and expressive eyes I've ever seen. He is never without his staff, a wooden cane that looks like polished driftwood. He wears a yarmulke at all times (except while leading Shabbat services; then he wears his "vegetarian streiml," a faux-fur Chassidishe hat). He also wears an amulet, a small suede pouch, around his neck. Most of the time he dressed in bermuda shorts, high socks, sandals, and a t-shirt; while teaching, he donned a black kittel or galabiyya (robe). His voice is deep and resonant, with an accent that reminded me of my grandfather (of blessed memory). Above all, what stands out about him is his presence. Imagine sitting at the feet of the Dalai Lama (not coincidentally, a beloved friend and colleague of his) and you begin to get a sense for what he is like.

I took pages of notes. What follows, between the asterisks, are tidbits, tastes of the things he said that I want to share with you. Please bear in mind that these are necessarily taken out of context (I don't imagine most of you want to read transcripts of what was, in the end, twelve hours of classtime!) so if anything is unclear, ask.

Oh! And before I get there, let me introduce you to a concept that's big at Elat Chayyim: the four-worlds paradigm. In a nutshell, the idea is that there are four worlds, four planes of existence: assiyah, the world of physicality; yetzirah, the world of emotions; beriyah, the world of thought and understanding; and atzilut, the world of essence. In atzilut, the world of essence, there is nothing but God. (In the other three worlds that's arguably also true -- but God is immanent, masked, embodied in creation.)

So. Tastes of Reb Zalman's teachings, Tuesday. What appears in [square brackets] are my translations and clarifications, in case I'm using unfamiliar terms.


Thanks to philosophy and advanced study, we can come to understand the enormity of God, of the ein-sof ["without-end," a mystical understanding of God]. The problem is, God becomes a little too big. What are we that this enormous and infinite God should find us significant? But this is a heresy greater than that of thinking God is small. To God a muon or psion, a galaxy, a human life: each has significance. I am not an "oops" of God!

I'm a spiritual Peeping Tom. I want to see how people get it on with God. It's all real, in every religion; that's what escaped us in Hebrew school.

Concepts are objective. They're the means with which I think. But God is not a concept. God is in the nominative: not existence, but pure being.

Many religions have good ways of connecting with God. I'm a gonif ["thief"]: I steal them. And usually it turns out we had them already! What Judaism has which is unique is the idea of covenant...The Torah tells us we are children of (we share DNA with!) God. But the covenant is two-sided: anu amecha, v'atah malkeinu. ["We are your people, and You are our ruler"]. This is our root metaphor, deeper than our way of thinking. It's a relationship with God.

How often we davven words, discuss theology, without addressing God. It's almost an insult, to talk about God as though God weren't right here! We need to relate to God in the second person, I-Thou.

The Zionist dream is shattered. It doesn't energize us as it once did. The American dream, too, is shattered; the 4th of July used to be such an important yontif [holy day] for me! What will fill these gaps?

When we are infants, all our needs are filled by nursing. As adults there's a temptation to go to the refrigerator to fill all of our needs, but it won't work; it can only feed physical hunger. We feel scarcity on this plane, in assiyah, because we don't know the other planes exist. We need to learn the discipline of asking, "In what plane am I hungry?" Food will feed assiyah hunger, but yetzirah hunger is for love. Beriyah hunger needs great thoughts in order to be sated. And atzilut hunger requires us to go inside, to reach for God.

To connect with God, to log on to God, we need only awareness, because God is there all the time, making your heart beat.

The mystics talk about bittul ha-yesh, destroying "thingness," ego. But I don't want to destroy my ego! It's a good manager, though a lousy boss. My goal instead is to make the ego more translucent, more transparent. To remove opacity so divine light can shine. The ego says, "it's all me." But we need to own that everything in us is God. Some days I wake up and think, "Oy, God, you decided to be Zalman again today?"

The tradition teaches that the Shekhinah [feminine, immanent divine presence] is there whenever a minyan prays together; when one prays alone, angels carry one's words to God, and since angels traditionally were understood to speak only Hebrew, that's why prayer was supposed to be in Hebrew. For me: I want to davven in Hebrew on Shabbos because it connects us all around the world and throughout time. But during the week when I davven alone, I often want to pray in English because that way I can pour out my heart to the Presence that hears me.


That day in class I met a man who reminds me a little bit of my brother-in-law Ron. Over the course of our conversation I learned that he had cancer this year; after eight months of radiation and chemo and surgery, he seems to be okay, and this week at Elat Chayyim was his celebration of that. I am always amazed by the stories of the people I meet there, and by their willingness to open up. I suspect everyone in the world has amazing stories, but it's rare to be in a context where we trust strangers enough to tell them.

At lunch, Leah laughed, "Zalman's such a Hasid."

"Yeah," I said, "The kind of Hasid who speaks Arabic!" In his morning's teaching he had used Arabic, Latin, Hebrew, Yiddish, and Italian without batting an eye.

After lunch, afternoon classes began. I took a course called Rebbecraft, with Rabbi Alter Shoresh Barry Barkan and his wife Debbie. ("Alter Shoresh" is a new name given to him during a recent illness; he mostly goes by Barry.) Both Barry and Debbie are founding members of the Aquarian Minyan in Berkeley; she is sweet, and he is a big jolly man with shoulder-length hair who distributes blessings like flower girls throw rosepetals.

The course could have been called "the path of the tzaddik" (righteous person), because basically it was a set of conversations about leading a good life. "Our goal is creating bodhisattva'im," Barry said the first day, which got a good laugh from the room because he was mixing Buddhist concepts (bodhisattva) with Hebrew grammar (putting "im" on the end to pluralize). Over the week we focused on blessings, accessing awe, mediating realities, and forgiveness.

On the first day we spent a while wandering around the room and meeting each other; we were asked to each find a chevrutah, a study partner, to work with. That first day we were asked to introduce our partners to the class, rather than introducing ourselves; my chevrutah Bill did a beautiful job of encapsulating what I'd told him into an introduction of me.

That night Susan Deikman led us in Hebrew kirtan. Kirtan is an Indian form of devotional chanting, directed to the Beloved-who-is-God. Susan was joined by an excellent tabla player named Lenny Seidman, and by a guy on harmonium, and my mishpacha-mate Tamuz sang backup; Susan led the chants, and we followed. The music was wonderful; a lot of people got up and danced. We chanted mostly in Hebrew: dodi li va'ani lo/ haroeh ba-shoshanim ("I am my Beloved's and You are mine; You shepherd me among the roses"), that kind of thing. My personal favorite, though, was Ha-rakhaman, hare hare! ("Ha-rakhaman" means "The Merciful One," and "hare" turns out to mean "I see" in Aramaic, though most of us associate it with Hare Krishna chants...) Afterwards I marveled at the harmonium, which is a neat little hand-pumped tabletop organ, an Indian hack of the British foot-pedal ones.


On Wednesday I noted, with pleasure, that the doors in my dorm building have signs on them which explain that they are fire doors and must be closed...and which end with "may you be blessed in your going out and your coming in."

Wednesday morning's early davvening was led by Rayzl Feuer, the new director of summer programs. Two years ago she was my room-mate and my mishpacha leader; I was delighted that she remembered me fondly. She taught us movement to go with kadosh kadosh kadosh Adonai tz'vaot ("Holy, holy, holy is the God of hosts"). She and Reb Zalman taught us a simple round to serve as the ahavah rabah prayer ("With a great love You have loved us..."). The words are, "It is perfect/ You are loved/ All is clear/ And I am holy." It works on a four-worlds level: in assiyah, it is perfect; in yetzirah, we are loved; in beriyah, all is clear; and in atzilut, God is holy. The yurt was filled with people and Reb Zalman pointed to the different sides of the room to get the round going, and it just swelled and swelled and my heart swelled with it.

I love how much we sing at Elat Chayyim. The only other time I sing that much is at Elizabethans reunions!

Then we davvened the shema zikr-style, as Sufis davven: leaning left, leaning right, leaning forward. I came out of the davvening sparkling.

Bits from Zalman's teaching, Day Two:


Don't get snowed by the words. Go to the referent, which existed before the word. God said to Noah, "Come into the ark;" the word for "ark" also means "word." Come into the word.

Reality exists in 360 degrees. Who knows the whole truth? Look at Rashomon! So we have variations. A guy who talks ten degrees of the truth seems learned; a guy who talks ninety degrees looks a little crazy; a guy who talks 180 degrees of truth contradicts himself. And the full 360 degrees isn't comprehensible through the intellect! "Fullness is emptiness and emptiness is fullness." God is speaking on all 360 degrees; the question is, how do we open ourselves to the broadcast?

If I could hear all of the vibrations in this room -- cell phones, broadband, wifi, radio waves, microwaves -- I'd hear a jumble. If I can tune in to a particular frequency, I might hear something I could understand. God broadcasts on all frequencies; we need to adjust our radios to attune to God.

Philosophers don't dig it because they want a single definition, an object. I'm talking about God as a verb. People who have triumphalist notions that God only speaks to the Jews are not correct. Different people attune to different frequencies; God speaks on all frequencies; we receive based on where we're open.

In Aramaic, the word for window is kavan, related to the term kavvanah [focus or intent, esp. in prayer]. In davvening, we need to open a window.

When we first saw earth from space, there was a paradigm shift. We can conceive of earth as a single being now. Earth is a being who maybe has emphysema now, has blood poisoning. And people who care only for themselves and their own expansion are like cancer cells. But every religion is a vital organ of the planet: all are needed, all are interdependent.

So then people ask, "If you're so universal, why be Jewish?" And my answer is, because the Jewish organ needs to be healthy, and if we're truly who we are, that helps the other organs be who they are.

We have a responsibility to tune in. Be clear what you are doing. What screen name do I want, to log in to God?

Some people drive using only the rearview mirror. "Is this what we used to do? Then we'll do it this way."

My recording of the Psalms is like canned soup: it can feed you, but you have to heat it up yourself.

The person who leads prayer has to check out what the people can handle, and enter into it with them. In unfamiliar worship contexts, I pause and ask myself, "How can I serve God in this place and this way with these people?"

Find your ideal of God that you can be vulnerable to. For me, it's Ribbono shel Olam [master of the world]; for you it might be God as therapist, God as guru, as rebbe.

Even the four worlds teaching is only a mental scaffold.

Torah isn't just information; we don't just read it for the literal meaning of the text. Imagine if Eve said to me, "Zalman, I love you," and I replied, "Yah, you told me that last week, I know already!" It's not about the information.


He called us back from our break by singing "When the Saints Go Marching In," in English and then in Hebrew, which made me laugh. Then there was a Q-and-A period, in which people asked questions like "what is evil?"

Wednesday after lunch I connected with Barbara, a woman from south Berkshire County who I had known only as an e-mail address on a Torah discussion mailing list. We sat on the round wooden benches in the herb garden and talked. We had a great conversation, about my hopes and fears relating to the possibility of trying to become a rabbi someday, about her shul, about our lives.

I also had a delightful chat under a tree with my chevrutah Bill and his wife Trudianne. I learned that they have daughters my age; we talked about road trips and hikes and car trouble in British Columbia and boreal winters.

In rebbecraft class that afternoon we talked about the purpose of spiritual practice, about mantras (I decided to try a new one, Yah Echad, God is One), and about blessings and how to give them. "To give a blessing," Barry said, "is to be the violin: not the player or the tune."

At the end of class we walked around blessing each other. Barry gave me a wonderful blessing, that I might know how beautiful I am, that I might have joyful friendships and also productive solitude, and that I might know that one door opening doesn't necessarily close any others. I blessed him that he might experience renewed vitality and healing so he can continue sharing his joyful brand of Judaism for years to come.

That evening, to my amazement, I got a private meeting with Zalman. He had a gabbai (a bouncer, basically) who was taking requests for meetings; they said over and over that he is tired, that he can't meet with everyone who wants to meet, so I didn't expect to get one. But I did!

We had about five minutes. I told him a little bit about myself. On some level I think I wanted him to  answer my grand questions about life or offer me certainty that I would get into rabbinic school, stuff like that; instead he asked some good questions, gave me a few things to think about, wished me "mazal and naches" with my Judaic writing, and told me to contact him if I want further counsel someday. He blessed me, at the end of our brief session, that I might find clarity in knowing what my path is.

That night's entertainment was a cabaret. Some of the acts were excellent, especially the improv theatre done by two guests and Dove, and the Tom Lehrer song performed by the young daughter of the new executive director. Before the end, I slipped out to have a soak in the hot tub. I couldn't find the light switch in the hot tub building, so I soaked in the dark, looking up at the stars through the skylight.


Early-morning davvening was led by Rabbi Jonathan Kliger of Woodstock, a former student of Reb Z's. He reminds me of the poet Mark Doty: tall, very close-cropped hair, laughing eyes. He gave a great drash (interpretive teaching) on the Torah portion: Miriam dies, and the people of Israel have no water. (It's long been a midrashic teaching that the well was Miriam's gift.) So the people sing to the well, inviting it to flow, and it does. There's another place in the Torah where the people sing: after crossing the Sea of Reeds, Moses and the Children of Israel sing mi chamocha, "Who is like You, God?" But this time, Moses doesn't sing: only the Children of Israel do.  They have to learn to sing the holy songs by themselves, without their great leaders.

The word for well also means "interpretation." Just so, Jonathan told us, we the modern-day Children of Israel can sing to our source of words and interpretations, in order that living waters might arise to sustain our spirits...and Reb Zalman is like Moses, all he wants is for us to learn the holy songs ourselves so we can bring forth sustenance on our own. That was it: living waters arose in my eyes!

I cried almost every day, actually, but most were joyful tears.

That morning with Jonathan we also learned a new song to sing as a variant on modah ani, the thankfulness blessing. Part of it went, "I am alive, I am alive, I am alive/ Who is this aliveness I am? Is it not the Holy Blessed One?" We sang it lustily over his guitar, harmonies evolving naturally, clapping and stomping, and really meant the words. [Edited to add: that's a melody from Rabbi David Zeller z"l.]

That day Marsha, a friend of a friend from Berkeley, brought me a pair of yarmulke clips with little stars of David on them. An unlooked-for gift. They made me smile.

Snippets from Reb Zalman, Day Three:


My bubbe [grandmother] exemplified the priesthood of the kitchen. We all wish sometimes for that simple piety.

Look at the face of someone praying and you have an idea of what their God is like.

Our single independence condemns us to live in a bubble of solipsism, deeply and existentially lonely.

Just as we have physical DNA, so we also have spiritual DNA operating in us. We can't drive solely with the rearview mirror...but we can't drive without it, either.

Nefesh, Ruach, Neshama, Chaya, Yechida [levels of soul as understood by the Jewish mystical tradition]: these are vast parts of ourselves we aren't aware of. When we shed our bodies of flesh, we still have bodies of energy.

Once I davvened in a synagogue in India. In the Hindi siddur [prayerbook] the word "Adonai" [Lord] was translated as "Rameshvar," rama eshvara, my chosen deity. Some people choose Ganesh, and some people choose Kali, and some people choose Adonai!

We give each other permission to fully celebrate the Divine in our own way ("you show me yours, I'll show you mine"!) We need a dialogue of devoutness between peoples, not a dialogue of theology which leads to argument.

One of my favorite bumper stickers reads, "Don't believe everything you think."

I'm interested not only in solo contemplative practice, but in "socialized meditation!"

Sometimes I talk with people and ask, "Who are you?" And they tell me their name. And I say, "Thank you, but who are you?" And they tell me they're the parent of, the child of. And I say, "Thank you, but who are you?" And they tell me about the work they do. And I say, "Thank you, but who are you?" And so on, until the only answer we can give is, "I am God."

The hadith, revelation to Mohammed, tells us, "God is closer to you than the vein on your neck."


We broke then, to do an exercise in pairs. I connected with Deliah, a woman from my mishpacha group; she lives in Conway, not far from me, and is creator of what she calls Chai Qigong. We held hands under our two tallitot, like a tent over our heads, and took turns each speaking to the spark of God in the other. I can't tell you what we spoke; it was intensely private. But I felt certain that God heard me; and that God heard her. By the end we were both dewy-eyed.

More Reb Z:


In Psalms it says "God heals the broken heart," which means to me that God takes away our depression so that we can feel a healthy sadness.

I believe in progressive revelation. A metaphor: my first computer had 36k of memory. And I could do a lot with that. But some things, I couldn't do! Every generation adds more bytes. What we couldn't do individually, we can do collectively.

We need to connect with God every day so we can meet other people as holy people.

It doesn't matter if this particular cell of the global brain survives, because I have connected with other people and uploaded information. I've been saved, on your hard drive!

In the first Jewish paradigm, the time of the patriarchs, God was far away and beyond us. It was a kind of deism. In the second paradigm, the time of the destruction of the Temple, we began to believe in souls that survive physical death, and aspired towards an elevated God. We operated in terms of dualism: spirit vs. flesh. This was theism. Now we're entering the third age: nothing is there except You, God. Take away the water, there is no sea; take away God, there is no world.


In rebbecraft class that afternoon we talked about mediating realities: reality of spirit-life and daily/mundane life, conflicting individual realities, the realities of our different roles, being different people at different times, the realities of different lenses and perspectives. "We have to mediate the voice that says 'I am dirt' and the voice that says 'I am God,'" Barry observed.

I talked about the work I want to do with interfaith families/couples, mediating their realities (their varying religious backgrounds). Barry blessed me as a bridge-builder, that I may bring peace and understanding through this work.

Bill and I spent part of class talking about qualities we have, and qualities we want to work on, especially in our professional lives. I decided I want to work on consciousness and gratitude.

At the end of class, we learned that two of our members were leaving early, so we gathered and blessed them: Shayna, born Orthodox and now enrolled in a nondenominational rabbinic school (though her Orthodox brothers can't speak the name of what she's doing, it's too weird to them) and Carol who suffers from an autoimmune disease. Apparently Carol's illness had prevented her from being able to cry, and she had thought she might never shed tears again, but while we blessed her water rolled down her face. That was pretty intense.


A new pair led davvening, a woman named Tsura  (a newly-minted rabbi) and a man whose name I've lost. Good guitar, good singing, good clapping and kavvanah. Reb Zalman offered a little teaching: when we pray in a circle (as we always do, in the yurt which is naturally round) we don't need to turn towards the east/Jerusalem for the amidah, the central standing prayer: we can pray into the center, into the heart of the community.

Later that morning I stood in line for hot water to make myself tea, trying to be patient as I waited to get to where I could reach the Lipton on a high shelf, and then I looked right in front of me and saw a box of Tazo Earl Grey which I far prefer to Lipton. I laughed; what better metaphor could there be for "open your eyes to what's right in front of you?"

Bits of Reb Zalman, Friday:


The Jewish holiday cycle mirrors the cycle of a life. We begin with Chanukah, as light grows in darkness. Then comes Tu B'Shvat, things begin to vernalize, juice begins to flow. Then Purim, adolescence. Then Pesach, we're emancipated, like turning 21! By midlife we have a mature connection with God and receive revelation, and this is Shavuot. Then comes the midlife crisis: Tisha b'Av, the destruction of the Temple. Then the shofar blows, retirement comes, it's time for teshuvah (inner work/turning towards God), Rosh Hashanah. Then Yom Kippur, in which we realize that some things are only reparable if we meet God in atzilut to wipe the slate clean. Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah are full of zaide-energy. Sukkot is retirement age, we move out of our homes and into little dwellings. And then comes Chanukah again, and that's the end.

"Once upon a time," Eliade's "in illo tempore": we begin stories by hearkening back to holy time, elastic time, time before time.

If we can't remember the revelation at Sinai, we need to recreate the memory. It's like experiential karaoke! The tradition is the music, and we reenact and recreate the words of the song.

On Rosh Hashanah we install a new Godfield, because the old one has been clogged over the course of the last year.

God is scattered in our lives. But imagine if we came together to invest our mitzvot, our spirit, our bit of God in a kind of credit union in which we each had a share. We each make deposits, of prayer and energy; we pool our energy; and then we're connected and can draw from the pool too. And it grows with every generation. And we're all shareholders, stakeholders, in it. How many of us own shares in the future of Judaism?

Once we offered sacrifices, sheep. Then we offered words to mimic the sacrifices. Now we offer time and attention to God.

One of the greatest pains in old age is unlived life. Get a sense of your story, your trajectory, to plan where you want your life to be.

Once I prayed, "God, inscribe me in the book of Life!" And God said, "Don't be a fool! Write your own page."

Deep ecumenicism: really squaring ourselves with the ideas of a post-triumphalist period, with the idea that God speaks more languages than we.

When you run out of old stories, invent new ones. I told one to my children once about the Baal Shem Tov [early Hasidic master, lit. "Master of the Great Name"] of the future, on the Enterprise. A call came in from a planet needing help: a planet of creatures with two heads, who wanted to know how many are required for a minyan! So he goes to talk with them, learns who they are, discovers that in almost every case one head is a Hasid and one is a mitnagid! [A rationalist, opposing the mysticism of Hasidism.] So he decides, for a minyan you count ten heads and not ten penises...which also means you count women, too.

Activate the imagination to give meaning to your life, to help you repair your dreams and darn the holes in the world.

This is nothing new. I'm just here to remind you of what you already know. Learning it once isn't enough.

We are dreaming the dream of Judaism into the future.


I lunched that day with my friend Howard, who was in Cambridge the night of the first gay marriages and who has been working with GLAD on the gay marriage issue.

That afternoon in rebbecraft class we talked about forgiveness: what purpose does it serve? How does it work? We decided it's not the same as absolution; it's a letting-go, which changes the forgiver even if it doesn't change the forgivee. Forgiveness might involve a letting-go of resentment and festering anger, but it doesn't necessarily mean relinquishing all anger.

At the end of class, Bill blessed me that my whole life might be a blessing; even the parts which aren't perfect. He ended by calling me "Daughter," which moved me tremendously.

Then came the mikvah.

This is my second mikvah experience; my first was at Elat Chayyim two years ago. It's not a kosher mikvah; it's what they call "spiritual mikvah," and I love it. Most of the women met at the pool midafternoon; they'd fenced it off with a wall of sheets, so we were visually isolated. We sang a song that I knew would recur in Shabbat davvening, and took some time to contemplate women who have supported us in the four worlds. Then we paired up and told our buddies who the women are, so that we could bring them with us into the mikvah experience.

Then we stripped -- some to bathing suits; most to bare skin -- and together said the blessing over the mikvah...and, with our buddies, walked or jumped into the pool! I immersed four times, one for each world, with my buddy witnessing; then she immersed, and I watched her. Then we formed a circle, danced a grapevine/hora dance around the shallow end singing, and had all the "mikvah virgins" (first-timers) get in the middle of the circle so we could bless them with a shehecheyanu and a splash fight!

Then about 10 of us piled into the hot tub, singing, and welcomed the Sabbath bride to join us in the tub with "Lecha Dodi." By the time I went back to my room and changed for Shabbat, I felt cleansed and mellow and blissed-out. I wrote my first poem of the week after mikvah.

Another fifty people joined us for the weekend, bringing our numbers to 200 (a capacity crowd). That night services were led by Jeff Roth, the founder and former executive director (he just stepped down this year). I took a meditation class with him two years ago, and he led the Shabbat Shuvah retreat last fall, so I was glad to see him back. I love the way he leads Friday night services! We sang the whole way through. And there were so many people, so many drums and tambourines and rattles and shakers, that we could barely hear his voice and guitar. The energy was tremendous.

He told a beautiful story about a big wave and a little wave in the middle of the ocean. The big wave was crying, and the little wave asked why. "If you could see what I can see," the big wave said, "You'd know that ahead of us are rocks. We're going to crash on the rocks and die!" The little wave offered to teach the big wave something that would remove his fear, and first the big wave asked if it would cost anything, or if he would be required to chant a bunch of mantras and stand on his head, but the little wave said no and that in fact it was only six words. So the big wave said, "Sure, teach me." And the little wave said: you're not a wave, you're water.

After dinner that night there was singing and dancing. We moved tables around and did a crazy conga line and hora around the room. Someone had brought a fiddle. Jeff played guitar. A couple of (thankfully decent) drummers had djembes. Elat Chayyim turns thirteen this summer, and this was the first weekend of the season, so we decided it was Elat Chayyim's b'nai mitzvah party!

There was also storytelling. Reb Zalman told stories about two Shabbats of his which started out crummy (car breaking down in a snowstorm, etc) and which ended with beauty, and then told a long Hasidic folktale he had learned from Reb Shlomo Carlebach. When I went to bed at eleven, the party was still going.


Shabbat morning breakfast wasn't silent; it felt strange to talk through the meal. Then a dozen of us gathered for impromptu Torah study with Darryl, my mishpacha leader. We read part of the portion and brainstormed questions about it, then looked at it through the framework of pshat/literal meaning, remez/history, drash/story and sod/foundational meaning. (The four words together make an acronym, PaRDeS, which means orange grove; the metaphor is, we dip into the grove in search of knowledge.)

After that, Reb Zalman led services, which he referred to as a "lab in davvenology" (ie he wanted to teach us some modes of prayer). It blew the top of my head off. He did a call-and-response halleluyah; first he got us going by singing instructions ("I'll sing one line like this and then you'll answer," and we'd all chorus, "Halleluyah!") and then he chanted lines for us to respond to, some from Psalms, some from prayers, some of his own devising ("Praise God all you great whales and little guppies too!") The harmonies were phenomenal. The energy was phenomenal.

Then he noted that there's something weird about singing "Sing unto God a new song" when, well, it's not a new song, we all know how it goes. So he picked a major chord and we all closed our eyes and improvised notes to go with it, wordless, sometimes interspersed with names of God. I was pretty surprised that we sounded good: a 200-person improvisation, are you nuts? But it worked.

He told stories, too. 

Then his wife Eve Ilsen led a guided meditation to prepare us for the nishmat kol chai ("the breath of all life praises You") prayer: we closed our eyes, took three breaths, and "became" the first creature who came to mind. I found myself thinking of my cat, so for the next few moments I imagined being Thorn, fur and paws, tiny under the echoing ceiling of the living room, curling into a circle and purring praise. That was kind of wild, actually. Then we prayed nishmat slowly, with our tallitot over our heads, entering into every line as Reb Zalman read it to us.

Other bits of the service: he sang the blessings for taking the Torah out of the ark to the tune of "Happy Birthday"! And sang "Sim Shalom" (a song requesting peace) to the tune of "Dona Nobis Pacem." At the end of the Amidah he told us to turn to one another and say (and truly mean) "Adonai elohechem emet," "Your God is a true God." Just like he told Rodger Kamenetz in Dharamsala. I got chills.

That afternoon I napped, and had a strange and lovely dream in which the personification of Elat Chayyim was giving gifts. To Karen, one of the women in my mishpacha group, he gave a seven-foot kippah (like a braided rug) that she wrapped herself in; I received a fullsized Torah scroll that was actually a plastic case filled with massage oil. Many friends offered interpretations of that when I woke up!

I had dinner that night with Bill and Trudianne, and with my friend Ora, who observed that I looked completely different than I had when I arrived. I think she was right; I felt different. Centered, the way I felt when I officiated at my friends' wedding last year.

That evening we sang a birkat hamazon (grace after meals) in Ladino, led by cantor Robert Esformes, which was lovely. After a short havdalah led by Reb Z, we had a concert by a guy who goes by the stage name of Rebbe Soul. I liked how he played bouzouki. And he taught us a groove called saidi, from the Egyptian town of El-Said, which we drummed and clapped along with some of his songs.


I awoke a little sad that it was the last day, but also really excited to come home and see my sweetie. The davvening was led by a guy named Steve, a board member from Alabama; it was contemplative (brief chants, interspersed with silence) and very good.

After breakfast we had our final mishpacha group meeting; we each spoke about what we wanted to carry away, and asked the group for a blessing, and then each stood in the middle of the circle with everyone else's hands on us and closed our eyes and soaked in the blessings that they all offered at once. They call it the shower of blessings, and it's a pretty remarkable feeling -- both the giving, and the receiving.

Closing ceremonies...brunch...and we were already all half-gone, our minds on home. So I hugged a few people goodbye and got in the car.

Now that it's over...

I'm working on re-entry into my usual life. I learned a lot that I want to carry into my writing (the Judaism manuscript and the poems), and also a lot that I want to carry with me in general.

Part of what makes Elat Chayyim neat is that it's conspace. (If you've ever been to a science fiction or media fan con, or a convention of poets and writers, you may know what I mean by that.) There's an assumption of community even among people who've never met before; we look at each other's name badges, smile, introduce ourselves. (One of the friends I made this week, Dinah, has an MFA from Warren Wilson, and she agreed that it feels very much like the MFA residency experience!) It makes returning to the regular world a little jarring; suddenly I can't assume that everyone I meet has this important thing in common with me.

Every time I go, I come away feeling genuinely connected with a spiritual community and with God, which does me a world of good. I hope to return for a week every year, if I can swing it, and maybe at other times, too (I'll be back for Yom Kippur this year, yay).

I find myself wishing that everyone I know and love could have this experience...though I know that six days at Elat Chayyim wouldn't be this satisfying and sustaining for everyone I know. I guess what I really wish is that each of my loved ones could find their equivalent, the thing that renews them the way this does me.

Thanks for reading this mammoth journal entry!