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Yom Kippur at Elat Chayyim

I had a terrific Yom Kippur at Elat Chayyim with rabbis Jeff Roth and Elliot Ginsburg. Yom Kippur has always frustrated me; I've always felt like I didn't have full access to it. Not so this year: this year I threw myself into it with gusto, and the holiday repaid me. Predictably, I scribbled a lot over the weekend. Many of those notes, slightly redacted, appear below for those who are interested in what a Yom Kippur weekend at Elat Chayyim is like.

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A prayer before Yom Kippur

I'm off to Elat Chayyim shortly for their Yom Kippur retreat. To all of my readers who observe Yom Kippur, I wish a meaningful holiday; and to those who observe the tradition of abstaining from food and drink, I wish an easy and illuminating fast. I'll leave you with a prayer from the Elat Chayyim machzor (HHD prayerbook); see you on the other side!

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Holiday apparel

When I was a kid, September meant shopping. Mostly for new school clothes, though the season also always brought one new dressy outfit, to wear to synagogue on the High Holidays. Nice clothes were de rigeur for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. (In those days, "nice clothes" mostly meant black patent leather Mary Janes and dresses with smocking across the top.)

It's years since autumn meant the start of school for me, and I don't usually shop for holiday clothes anymore. I have a couple of decent fall dresses that have gotten me through the last several High Holidays; I'm not such a fashion maven that I need something new every year. But as Yom Kippur approaches, I've been feeling like I wanted something new to wear. Specifically, I wanted something white.

It's traditional in some communities to wear white on Shabbat. The first time I encountered that was at the UAHC summer camp where I worked the summer I was nineteen; I loved seeing the streams of kids pouring out of their cabins to walk to the outdoor ampitheatre as sundown approached, all clad in white. We do the same at Elat Chayyim, and though nobody looks askance at those who don't know the custom or don't bring white clothes, every time I go I find myself wishing I had white to wear. When I was there in June I promised myself I'd get a white dress for my next Elat Chayyim Shabbat.

My next Elat Chayyim Shabbat, it turns out, is Yom Kippur: the "Sabbath of Sabbaths," which this year falls on a Shabbat. A lot of people wear white on Yom Kippur, too. It's customary in some communities for men to wear a kittel, a white tunic, on festivals like Yom Kippur and Passover (bridegrooms wear them, too). The white represents purity; the kittel also resembles a burial shroud, which serves as a reminder of impermanence. On Yom Kippur in particular the kittel is supposed to remind one of what's genuinely important (repentance, right thinking, purity of thought, elevated consciousness) -- arguably better areas of holiday focus than, say, what hemline is "in" this year.

In the community I come from, we dress up on the High Holidays because fancy dress is a way of showing respect for the community and the holiday. And were I celebrating Yom Kippur with my parents, I'd surely be looking for something elegant and new to wear, out of respect for that custom! But since I'm going to be at Elat Chayyim, where people will be wearing simple white (and presumably wearing canvas sneakers in lieu of leather shoes, too; though hopefully not eschewing bathing), I want to follow their tradition. But most of my white clothing is super-lightweight linen (in which I would shiver at this season). I have a white sweater, and plenty of white t-shirts, but those do not a wardrobe make. What to do?

A quick trip to the Berkshire Mall solved my dilemma. I found a pair of sturdy, serviceable winter-white corduroy trousers to pair with the white shirts I already own, so if it's cold, there's my holiday garb right there. And if it's warm? A flowing white embroidered dress from the ethnic-clothes-and-incense store, which will also serve as my Elat Chayyim Shabbat dress for the next umpteen years. Now I just have to hope no one blinks at my burgundy Converse Hi-Tops...


Rosh Hashanah Sermon

Some folks have asked to see the text of the sermon I gave this morning, so I'm posting it here. Astute readers of my blog will recognize several of these ideas, metaphors, and references -- the sermon draws heavily on a few blog posts I made early in the month of Elul, and surely benefits from the thoughtful and engaged comments and questions y'all posed. Enjoy!

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The Great Aleinu

Some years ago I wandered into Rosh Hashanah services at Congregation Beth Israel. The rabbi there, a new guy named Jeff, did something startling near the end of the service: he invited us to get down on our hands and knees with him. This wasn't something I'd ever heard of before, and it startled me into paying attention. Jeff is now my rabbi, and CBI is now my shul, and the custom he introduced me to that year has become my favorite part of Rosh Hashanah services.

Rosh Hashanah festival services are substantial.*  I find it's easier to maintain focus if I'm spiritually "in-shape" from attending regular Shabbat services, but even so, by the end of the experience my spirit is usually flagging. The shofar service gets me going again, like a last lap around the track.

The shofar service has three parts, each focusing on one aspect of our experience of God: Malchuyot (Kingship), Zichronot (Remembrance), and Shofarot (Revelation). The centerpiece of the shofar service is the blowing of the shofar, obviously, and I love that. It's an eerie sound which never fails to wake me up (spiritually, though I expect it would serve as a fine physical alarm clock, too). But aside from hearing the shofar, my favorite moment of the day comes at the beginning of the Malchuyot section: the prostration during the Great Aleinu.

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Bread bowl

One of my most prized possessions is an enormous clay bowl finished in Bennington Pottery's trademark blue agate glaze. It was a gift from my husband years ago, before we were married, when we were living in our first one-bedroom apartment down the street from the Baptist church. It's a factory second, which means it isn't quite round; I suppose the potter's hands wobbled guiding it on the wheel. I worked at the town bookstore the year the bread bowl found its way into my life, and I arranged my schedule that year so I got Fridays off. I baked bread almost every week, then.

These days the bread bowl gets less frequent use, though it makes me no less happy than it did when it was the grandest and newest thing in our kitchen. I never wash it with soap, only with water, in hopes that over time the yeasts it has known will permeate its surface and give savor to future loaves. At least the memories of the breads it has birthed add something to my baking, even if the resultant bread isn't different in any way one could name.

I especially enjoy baking bread on erev Rosh Hashanah. The work of yeasts always seems vaguely miraculous. Kneading dough is always soothing and centering, and as I work the dough I can pour into it all of my hopes for the year to come. I bless the nascent challah that my days might be light and sweet, that my spirit might rise, that my year might be nurturing and warm and shaped by my own hands.

Baking bread makes me magnanimous, so it's easy to wish the same for my friends and loved ones; for my family and my community; and for all of you. May we all have a new year abundant with blessing, and may we know ourselves to have been inscribed in the Book of Life.


Changes in plans

It turns out I will not be leading services this Rosh Hashanah after all. In a way it's a relief; in another way, a disappointment. This is always the danger with expectations. I got attached to the fantasy of leading the community in prayer during the Days of Awe, and now I'm feeling a little bummed about having prepared for something I won't actually get to do.

It makes sense that the rabbi wants to lead High Holiday services himself, now that the baby is born and is healthy and well. The congregation expects him to lead High Holiday services. For the many who only attend shul during the Days of Awe, this is the only time this year they'll see him; they need to feel that their rabbi is doing his job. And he did tell me, back when we first discussed this, that leading Shabbat services is more fun than leading Rosh Hashanah services, because on Shabbat the crowd is more participatory. I've loved leading Shabbat services, and I imagine he's right that they're more fun, so part of me feels thankful that I get to do the fun stuff without having to do the hard stuff. I'm honored that he felt I was capable of handling Rosh Hashanah, in a crunch; that honor remains, even though the crunch didn't materialize. I still have some mixed feelings, though.

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Maybe I'm reading too much science fiction...

Tonight I went to a Laurie Anderson concert at MASS MoCA. It was a premiere of brand new stuff, never before performed. Perhaps most fascinating for me was the discovery that when work is new, she needs it written down; her pacing is a little off; she doesn't maintain the usual dry Laurie Anderson drawl throughout. Anyway, she just finished a gig as NASA's first artist-in-residence, so she talked a lot in this piece about space. Maybe that's why, when I got out of the car at my house, I reflexively glanced up.

It's a clear night, and we're about as close to moonlessness as we get. (Wednesday night and Thursday are new moon, Rosh Hodesh Tishri, also known as Rosh Hashanah.) The sky is salted with stars, more of them in my field of vision than I could possibly count. In a great streak across the middle of the sky there are so many stars it looks like fog, or like cloud: I'm looking longways into the spiralling arm of the Milky Way. As many times as I've seen this, it is always breathtaking.

At the end of this upcoming Friday's Torah reading, an angel promises Abraham that his descendants will be as many as the stars in the sky. To me tonight, that sounds like an implicit promise of space travel. So many descendants couldn't fit on this earth and survive: if the children of Abraham will be so numerous, we'll have to establish a home on Mars. (Unfortunately, it looks like the first Orthodox ruling on a halakha of space travel doesn't smile on permanent offplanet habitations.)

Personally, I'd love to see how space travel would influence our liturgy. The ma'ariv aravim prayer blesses God Who, among other things, sets the stars in their appointed paths; imagine the power of saying that prayer in space! Will we recite old blessings for wayfarers when departing for space, or will new brachot for liftoff arise?

I'm reading Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy now. One of the intriguing things he posits is what he calls the Martian timeslip: the thirty-odd minutes when the clocks stop, between midnight and 12:01, so that the Martian day can be separated into 24 hours like the Terran one is. To me, that sounds like a little taste of Shabbat: a time outside of time. I think space travel could enrich Jewish practice in fascinating ways.

Or maybe I'm just reading too much science fiction. Which reminds me...my bedside reading is calling my name.


Meditations

As we move into September, and towards Tishri, the mountains here remain green but there's a yellow tinge lurking beneath the visual spectrum, waiting for its moment to shine. Here and there a branch has already turned, a torch of red leaves shining the way to where we are all, inevitably, going. Summer's fields of brush have given way to oceans of goldenrod, waving yellow in the cool wind.

This morning I wore my new fall jacket for the first time. It is an eggplant-colored canvas barn jacket, lined with grey flannel and cuffed with rich brown corduroy. I folded it on the seat beside me during sitting meditation; when it came time for walking meditation, I slid it on before taking my slow steps outside. It felt like I was ringing in the turn of the season with my own new color, like the fields and the trees.

***

After meditation, my fellow meditator David asked the rabbi about variations in practice. David commented that some days meditation is "easy," while other days he can't reach the place he wants to go. In response, the rabbi compared meditation -- or any spiritual practice, from davvening to karate -- with a romance. A romance when it's brand-new is different from a romance five years in, or ten years in. Just so, a spiritual practice is never the same from day to day or year to year. The challenge is to be fully present in what is, instead of getting caught up in what was or what we hope will be.

What the rabbi said about spiritual practice and romance reminded me of a quote by Julia Cameron, from The Right to Write: "Being in the mood to write, like being in the mood to make love, is a luxury that isn't necessary in a long-term relationship. Just as the first caress can lead to a change of heart, the first sentence, however tentative and awkward, can lead to a desire to go just a little further." It's as true of spiritual practice as it is of writing, I think. Being in the mood to pray or meditate isn't necessary if one has committed onself to the practice; once one starts doing it, the mood arises of its own accord.


Unexpected pleasures

A woman in my congregation called me at work today. She's reading Torah on Rosh Hashanah (as it turns out, she's doing the portion right after mine) and was nervous about her pronunciation, so she wanted someone to listen to her practice, adjust her pronunciation, and help her translate it so she would know how to phrase the Hebrew. Ordinarily she'd ask the rabbi, but we're all trying to refrain from bugging him this week (he's home with the new baby) so she asked whether I could help.

She came down to my office, and we sat on the couch, and I listened to her practice. (She sounded great.) Then we talked through the translation of her passage; it involved a few words I don't know, and I don't have a Hebrew-English dictionary on hand (that'll teach me to leave home without one! If only Penticon supported Hebrew functionality for my Palm Tungsten c) but I was able to figure it out based on syntax. We had a translation on hand; she just wanted to know which English word corresponded with which Hebrew one, and I could more-or-less work that out.

The translating was fun. So was listening to her read. And the whole thing made me conscious of how momentous the last year has been for me. This time last year, this woman and I were both new members at our shul; we were two of the three newbies asked to speak on erev Rosh Hashanah (the holiday's eve) about our wishes for the congregation in the new year. I didn't know her, and I was only beginning to feel at home at my shul. Today I'm part of the community; I know the pleasure of leading this group in prayer; and I'm beginning to grow into the role I want to be capable of.

Our shul just sent out a fundraising letter. Since I run a nonprofit organization myself, I empathize with the difficulty of fundraising in this economic climate. Sadly, no one has yet offered to be a patron of my poetry, which makes me pretty low on the income totem pole...so there will be no donation from me this time around. But I like to think that I give to the community in other ways. I'm not writing a check, but I can sit down with congregants and help them learn their Torah portions, and that's a happy thing indeed.


Reading Palestine

I'm a big fan of comics and graphic novels. And I've known for a long time that the medium, despite its reputation for shallowness, can tell important stories: look at Art Spiegelman's Maus, Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, Howard Cruse's Stuck Rubber Baby. So I suspected I was in for a powerful experience when I picked up Joe Sacco's Palestine.

Sacco spent two months with Palestinians in the Occupied Territories in 1991 and 1992, travelling and taking notes. Upon returning to the States, he wrote and drew Palestine, which recounts his experiences there. He's a journalist, basically, but instead of writing prose, he writes comics. Sacco appears in the book (we see him, notebook in hand, travelling through the Territories in search of people to interview), and leavens the story by poking fun at himself. His voiceover frequently exults at getting the vicarious thrill of engaging with tragedy, even as it's clear he knows he can only handle it because it's not really his life.

He doesn't shy away from the ugliness of this story. There's a lot of hatred over there, and Sacco doesn't flinch from it. Many of the Palestinians in this book hate the Israelis or hate Jews, so if you're a Jewish reader, let me warn you that reading this book is really difficult. It may make your chest tighten with anger and fear. It may make you feel threatened and attacked.

The thing is, almost everyone in this book has been beaten. Arrested for no discernible reason. Held for days or weeks in a prison cell with too many people and not enough toilets. Many have been shot. Many have been tortured. Many have had their olive groves chopped down because molotov-cocktail-throwers might try to hide in them. Most are out of work. All have lost loved ones. And while I do not argue that this list of sorrows justifies suicide bombings (and, to be clear, I don't think Sacco's book argues that, either), it sure puts Palestinian anti-Israel sentiment in context.

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Moving beyond the Big Three

Happy Arrival Day!

Jonathan asked us to write about "Jews, Judaism, Jewish thought, perceptions of Jews or interaction between Jews and gentiles. Because this year is the 350th anniversary of the American Jewish community, I also ask - although I won't require - that the essays focus on a common theme: the Jewish future."

In order to reach the American Jewish future I hope we're headed for, we need to acknowledge and then remove (or sidestep around) a stumbling block I see in our path. The obstacle is, we have a tendency to fixate on three things that aren't actually fundamental to Judaism. I call them the Big Three: 1) remembrance of the Shoah, 2) Zionism, and 3) abhorrence of intermarriage. They crop up in sermons, and get hammered home in Jewish youth group activities and teen programs. They pepper the pages of our synagogue newsletters, and of magazines like Reform Judaism and Hadassah. The assumption that these are priorities for all American Jews shapes our discourse, and shapes the way the non-Jewish world sees us.

Why is this a problem? Well, our attention is limited, and by spending so much of it on these three things, we give short shrift to Judaism's many other facets. Plus, I'm not convinced these three things are genuinely central to Judaism. They're all relatively recent historical developments,* they're all social or political phenomena (as opposed to spiritual/religious ones), and I think they've outlived their usefulness as rallying cries.

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An afternoon in the City of Peace

As previously reported, we spent Saturday afternoon at Hancock Shaker Village. It's about twenty minutes from our house, and embarrassingly enough I had never taken the time to go there before. It's a really beautiful place: the lands are beautiful, the gardens are beautiful, the structures are beautiful. Their signature building is an enormous round stone haybarn, which is, yeah, pretty spectacular (it reminded me of the rebuilt Globe Theatre), but the other buildings are pretty amazing, too.

I was glad to have read Suzanne Skees' God Among the Shakers: A Search for Stillness and Faith at Sabbathday Lake before I went. Because there's a lot that's fascinating to me about the Shaker enterprise, and having a pre-existing fascination made walking through the Hancock Shaker grounds especially meaningful.

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Shabbat: prep pays off!

Today was, in many respects, a perfect Shabbat. First I had the pleasure of leading morning services at my shul; then my sweetie and I explored the town just south of where we live, and spent the afternoon at Hancock Shaker Village, so I got to contemplate the intersection of work and holiness pretty much all day. Those two things deserve separate blog posts, though, so here's the first half.

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Happy Torah prep

Joyful news! My friends rabbi and rebbetzin had their daughter today. All are healthy, and mother and father are happy. May the One who blessed our ancestors bless my friend who has given birth, along with the child born to her, with good fortune and length of days.

This means I don't have to prepare the Torah reading for the second day of Rosh Hashanah, because the rabbi will be there to read it himself. Hooray!

However, I just got tapped to lead services tonight and tomorrow, so I need to learn all of Ki Tavo by tomorrow morning. Oh, and prepare a discussion on it, though honestly that's the easy part. The portion includes instructions to inscribe words of Torah on stones, and to build an altar of whole stones and make wholeness offerings there (the word for "whole," shlemot, relates to the word shalom, which we translate as "peace"); plus there's the reminder at the end that we thereby become the people of our God: there's plenty to discuss in these three aliyot (sections of the portion). Now I just have to learn to read it.

Thank heavens for this site, which shows the portion in vowel-less Torah-style script; I just printed these pages, so I can practice reading it without vowels once I get a little more fluent with it.

Shabbat shalom! If you need a reason to jump for joy this Shabbat, think of my friend whose labor was speedy and safe and whose new daughter now lives and breathes.


On Fathers and Kings

Over the course of the last decade I've gone from being indifferent to God-language to caring about it quite a lot. In the course of that journey, I have at various times subscribed to almost every theory there is about how we should refer to the fundamentally unnameable.

In college I realized I didn't want to refer to God only as Adonai (Lord) and Melech (King) anymore. Masculine God-language seemed unduly androcentric to me; doesn't Torah tell us that both genders were created b'tselem Elohim, in the image of God? For a while I alternated Melech and Malkah, King and Queen, Father and Mother. Then I decided that these were tainted with power-over, while I wanted my God-language to reflect power-from-within; I wanted words which didn't smack of dominance. So I started using terms like Creator and Source, Wellspring and Breath of Life.

None of these was exactly right all the time. I was caught in the dialectic of All-Mighty and All-Merciful, transcendence and immanence, wanting the word that would span and include all possibilities and always, frustratingly, unable to find it.

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