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Wedding report

I have never seen two people so happy to be with each other as I saw this evening under the chuppah. Tonight I married the photographer and the dancer, the first couple who came to me last spring seeking a Jewish officiant for their wedding. My rabbi only officiates for congregants, because doing otherwise pulls him away from the congregation; because I lead services semi-regularly, and because he knew I would be sensitive to the needs of an interfaith couple, he suggested they contact me.

The wedding was at Bucksteep Manor, in their carriage house, a beautiful barn with high cathedral ceilings, a big stone fireplace, and grand rafters decorated with strings of lights. Their chuppah was made of orange cloth (the color of the harvest moon) tied onto birch saplings which rested in pots of stones. Very autumnal and very beautiful.

Her processional was played on jazz clarinet, solo, and as she appeared in the doorway the proverbial hush fell over the room. She practically danced up the aisle. Though everyone in the room stood, her eyes were only for her soon-to-be husband, and his for her. The connection between them was so palpable the entire room shook with unshed tears. I actually had to take a deep breath and remind myself that, as the officiant, I'm not allowed to cry during the ceremony.

They had written their own vows, and had shared them with me but not with each other. So I was the only one who knew how powerful they were, and how beautiful, and also how funny (each of them duplicated one line of the other's, unknowingly). There was laughter. There were tears. In my homily I talked about the mystical teaching that when two people become beloved to one another, the combined light of their holy sparks sends a ripple of joy through heaven and earth, and I don't think there was a doubt in anyone's mind that this is that kind of marriage. It was an honor to stand at the front of the room and make it so.


I just read an excellent article by Josh Feigelson called Singing God's Praises: Psalms and Authenticity. It compares and contrasts two new (and very different) renditions of tehillim (psalms): one, on cd, by Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, and the other by Norman Fischer.

Josh quotes Reb Zalman: "In my work with liturgy I found that when a version was overly faithful to the Hebrew it was good for studying. If it was sonorous and high-sounding it was good for ceremony and high ritual. But to render the psalms as prayers a more direct and more heart-connected version would be better." Better, naturally, for Reb Zalman's purposes: getting the davvener inside the psalms, in order that the psalms may become a kind of two-way conduit for holiness.

Norman Fischer's psalms have a different goal in mind; they're cleaner and more spare. As Josh notes, Fischer is a poet as well as a Zen abbot: two callings which imply a certain affinity for simplicity. He quotes Fischer: "Since I am a poet and a religious practitioner, and not a Hebraist, my work with the Psalms rests largely on the work of translators. In that sense they are 'versions' rather than translations..."

The Zeek piece argues that Fischer's renditions may be more successful than Reb Zalman's, and that some of Reb Zalman's psalms work better than others. Josh suggests that the real merit here may be in the process, not the product. That fascinates me, because I've been working on my own prayer variants and I've also found the process at least as useful as the end result. I'm pretty happy with my variations on the birchot ha-shachar, but I'm even happier with the experience of getting inside the morning blessings to make them.

Toward the end of the piece, Josh writes that Reb Zalman begins inside the tradition and works his way out, while Fischer begins outside the tradition and works his way in. It's a smart formulation, I think, and near it comes my favorite quote from the article: "Zalman's relationship with the text feels like a marriage that has reinvented and reinterpreted itself over a lifetime. But fundamentally his partner, the text, is the same one he married many years ago." What a great metaphor! So go dig his essay, and then go dig these (very different, and also good) interpretations of tehillim. And while I'm praising my favorite psalmic things, here's a link to Steve Reich's Tehillim, an arrangement of several psalm texts for mixed-voice chorus and ensemble, in which melodies are structured to align with the meanings of the words. Inspiring stuff all 'round.

A Series of Fortunate Links

I'm not a huge fan of the Lemony Snicket books (to me they're basically B-grade Edward Gorey) but I'm amused to hear Daniel Handler, their creator, posit that Lemony Snicket is Jewish. The fact that Handler apparently plays the accordion at his readings also endears him to me. I'm still not sure I'll shell out to see the upcoming movie, but if he ever comes this way on book tour, I might just have to go hear him. Wonder if he plays Israeli folk tunes? I've always thought Yerushalayim Shel Zahav would sound great on accordion...


Old habits die hard. It amuses me how, the moment I crack my Biblical Hebrew textbook and settle in to work on a new chapter, suddenly eleven thousand other things in my house call for my attention. I ought to pet the cat more! Dishes need doing! Have I watered the plants? Hey, maybe I have an idea for a poem! And so on. It's like being a kid who's avoiding homework, again.

This is probably why it's wise to have a hevruta (study partner): that way someone else would hold me accountable. It's like the way I'm more reliable about working out when I have a gym buddy; even when my gym buddy didn't always make it to meet me, when I had one I worked out religiously. Now that I don't have a gym buddy anymore, I'm lucky if I manage once a week.

Both of these are actually practices I enjoy, once I get over the initial hump of inertia. I feel better, both physically and emotionally, when I exercise regularly; and my brain feels pleasantly stretched when I obligate myself to do Hebrew exercises. (The ones I'm avoiding right now: memorizing the spellings of the verb היה, "to be," in the pa'al/perfect tense, and ascertaining when to use the special direct object preposition and when not to.)

I pride myself on being someone with good motivation and follow-through. That's why I'm a good freelance writer, and indeed, I just turned in an article today. (Precisely on-time, and exactly the requested wordcount. Go me!) And I have a good reason for wanting to master basic Biblical Hebrew, and I've given myself this fall and winter to do it; I'd better get moving. Especially since I just announced here in public that I'm not getting up from this desk until all of the exercises in chapter eight are done.

Right now, for instance, the procrastinatory tactic I'm employing to keep from working on Hebrew is blogging. Guess that's the end of this post; my flash cards are calling my name.

Go and read.

The inimitable Naomi Chana just posted a really thought-provoking blog entry about intermarriage. She observes, aptly, that mainstream Judaism grouses a lot about intermarriage, usually arguing that Judaism is doomed because those who intermarry don't transmit Judaism to their children. Naomi Chana does an excellent job of skewering that assumption, and she also notes that trying to stop intermarriage is Quixotic and may well be a misplaced focus for our communal energy. Here's my favorite line:

You see, I can't help wondering what would happen if we cut out spectacularly unsuccessful attempts to "prevent intermarriage" and went for the equally ambitious but infinitely more manageable option of giving Jewish children and adults -- whatever their parentage and marital choices -- a comprehensive program of Jewish learning which includes the mitzvah of teaching the Torah diligently to their children.

Preach it, sister. I've argued before that the way to ensure Judaism's survival and continued vibrancy is to teach people -- children and adults, Jews and interested non-Jews alike -- how endlessly rich and interesting Judaism is. If we teach our children why we love it, they might share our enjoyment of it and our investment in it. That's where our focus should be, and too often it isn't, because we're stuck on this intermarriage thing.

Anyway, Naomi says it far better than I, and has interesting insights to add to the conversation, so go read her post.

Digression: obsession with the poles

I'm digging Pop!Tech so far. Excellent speakers; a fascinating community; a spiffy location (an old Opera House in Camden, Maine.). This is a great conference for generalists, or for specialists who have an interest in each others' specialties.

My two biggest specialties -- Judaism and poetry -- have not been foci here. That's not surprising; neither has much to do with the theme of how we and our technology are shaping our future. Poetry and religion are old, probably as old as human endeavors get; and while I'd argue they have a real and important place in our future, they don't fit the agenda here. But to my pleasure, there's been some talk about one of my minor specialties: the polar regions.

My interest began in 1998 when I read Sara Wheeler's Terra Incognita. By the end of the book, I'd caught her fascination with Antarctica. I went on to read every classic explorer's narrative from which she quoted; since then I've read everything I can get my hands on, both about the golden age of Arctic and Antarctic exploration and about contemporary travels and journeys in both polar regions. This past spring I was a regular visitor to the Serco Trans-Arctic page, tracking the progress of Ben Saunders, the guy attempting to ski solo and unsupported across the Arctic from Russia to Canada across the North Pole. Niftily enough, he was one of yesterday's speakers!

In person, Ben is as charming and nutty as his blog had led me to expect. He told great stories, showed gorgeous slides, and managed to be simultaneously witty, inspirational, and informative, all the while laughing at himself and his mad endeavor. I took notes during Ben's talk, but since this kind of thing doesn't fit the usual usual focus of this blog, I wasn't going to post them. Then Scheherazade convinced me that maybe my readers would dig seeing another side of me and what I'm into. So I'm going to break my usual pattern and post a writeup of Ben's talk here in case anyone else out there shares this peculiar interest of mine.

Continue reading "Digression: obsession with the poles" »

Conference plans

Tomorrow and Saturday I'll be catching the latter half of Pop!Tech, a conference that seeks to explore the interface between great human potential and great human challenges. It looks pretty fantastic, and I'm not just saying that because Ethan is on the speaker list...

I'll be the woman in the purple barn jacket with the silver laptop and the Velveteen Rabbi badge. If any VR readers are there, please come tell me hello!

Ramadan mubarak!

It's the lunar month of Heshvan according to the Jewish calendar; to our Muslim cousins, it's Ramadan.

I've only ever fasted on Yom Kippur. This year in particular I found the fast exhausting, exhilarating, and cleansing in equal measures. The Yom Kippur fast is a minimum of 25 hours, but it happens only once a year; during Ramadan, the practice of abstaining from food and drink during daylight is repeated all month long. The sustained focus of the practice humbles me -- as do its logistical challenges. I was in Accra during Ramadan a few years ago, and our driver Émile was observing the holiday. I could barely walk ten feet without needing to chug bottled water; I was amazed that he could function, fasting in the heat of the day.

It's my understanding that the fast from food and drink is meant to both represent and spark the desire to improve oneself and live according to God's will. (Sounds familiar: that's what our fast is supposed to do, too.) The doors of heaven are considered to be open during Ramadan, another intriguing commonality between our two holiday conceptions. On Yom Kippur, Jewish tradition teaches, the gates of heaven are opened; the final service of the holiday, ne'ilah, represents the time when the gates are closing.

Last year at this season I remember really enjoying Jesse Maceo Vega-Frey's Hunger is God's Food, an essay exploring one guy's decision to observe Ramadan and his process of self-discovery during the month. (It's really excellent. I recommend it.) And this year I've just read Faiza Saleh Ambah's Enough Faith to Fast, also good.

I wish my Muslim readers a Ramadan mubarak! May your observance be fruitful. I'll be thinking of you as the Heshvan/Ramadan moon waxes and wanes.

The Dream of a Common Language

I'm studying parashat Noach in preparation for reading and teaching Torah this upcoming Saturday. These are fun weeks to be subbing for the rabbi; the first two parashiyot in the Torah are laden with interpretations and stories. The specific part of the parashah that we're reading this week is Genesis 11:1-9: the story of the Tower of Babel. (Find it here, here, and here.) To me, the big question is, what was so bad about the people wanting to build a tower to make a name for themselves? Why did this bother God so much that God scattered them and confounded their speech?

Here are two midrashim on the Babel story, one old and one new. The old one suggests the traditional interpretation, that God destroyed the tower of Babel (and destroyed our linguistic commonality, and scattered us over the face of the earth) because building the tower became a form of idolatry, and because the people intended to attack God in the heavens. (None of this is in the source text; it's all extrapolation from "to make a name for ourselves, else we shall be scattered all over the world." I love midrash.) Of course, there's an irony in that "else we shall be scattered," since we readers know that they will be scattered over the face of the earth.

Here is another terrific collection of texts on the theme of a common language (and our post-Babel lack thereof). I like the Ginzburg midrash which suggests that the people became so obsessed with building the tower that they stopped making time even for childbirth. That goes a long way toward explaining why the tower was a bad idea: because the obsession with construction came to supercede the rhythms and cycles of life. (Also, that Adrienne Rich quote, from which the title of this blog post is drawn, has been one of my favorites since college.)

Most interpretations read "tower with its top in the sky" as "tower reaching toward God," since "the sky" is a frequent metonym for "God." In antiquity this may have clearly implied hubris, since traditional interpretations held that the reach toward God was inappropriate. Commentators have argued that God didn't want the people to be able to "make a name for themselves." Presumably they were supposed to act with the priority of sanctifying the Great Name, rather than magnifying their own.

But to the modern eye, God's unease at the people's common-language aspirations may seem oddly defensive. Surely if we had a common language today -- "language" being shorthand for language, culture, frametale, perspective -- the world would be in better shape. And what could be better than coming together to reach toward our common Source?

Personally, I like Rabbi Leslie Bergson's interpretation: that perhaps "a common language is not something that should be granted to us by God but rather something that we must achieve on our own so that we may say, in our common language, 'Come, let us build a city of peace.'" Maybe the lesson is that we should, indeed, strive to build structures in our lives which unite us and bring us closer to God...but those structures should be internal, not external. We reach God is by working together on healing what's broken in the world, not by building the tallest tower we can muster.

Blog is my copilot!

The new issue of Bitch is out -- no. 26, Fall 2004 -- and it includes Blog is my co-pilot: the rise of religion online, my article on some of the women who populate the godblogosphere.

Not all of the interviews I conducted (or pullquotes I nabbed from the blogs in question) made it into the final version of the piece, but I'm still really happy with how it turned out. I'll admit to having gone a hair over the requested wordcount, and the editors did an excellent job of trimming the piece to fit their needs while maintaining its structural integrity. Relapsed Catholic, Open Book, Holy Weblog!, Baraita, The Heretic's Corner, Fructus Ventris, Kesher Talk, The Revealer, and of course Velveteen Rabbi all make appearances.

Single issues are $5; a year's subscription is $15. At that price, subscribing is a bargain! Or, grab issue 26 at the magazine rack at the nearest indie bookstore. And once you've read it, drop me a comment; I'd love to know what you think.

Wedding story

Today I officiated at my first wedding for people I didn't know before they hired me. I'd done a wedding once before (actually a year ago tomorrow), for my friends J and C, but this was my first for people I didn't already know before I started working with them. It was a really good experience for me.

I met the groom's dad this summer; he's an antiquarian bookseller in my town. Not long after that, I got a call from bride and groom, then living on the West Coast; we talked about my ritual work, about why I enjoy working with people to create custom ceremonies, about my perspectives on intermarriage (in their case, as in ours, the woman is Jewish and the man comes from an interfaith household). Shortly after that they emailed me and said they'd like to work with me.

Continue reading "Wedding story" »

Meditations and invitations

This morning I showed up at meditation to find my friend David R. in the rabbi's usual chair, in the middle of the bimah (pulpit) space facing the congregation. (Our shul doesn't have a raised bimah, so everyone's on the same level.) The rabbi is out of town this weekend, so I figured David was going to lead meditation; he and I are the regulars. But as I walked in he opened his eyes, smiled, and said, "I've been keeping the seat warm for you." And stood and beckoned me to the chair, before I could protest. So, hey, change in plans; guess today's meditation leader is me!

I structured the time as Jeff does. After a few minutes, I reminded us to release tension from our bodies, and to focus on the breath. Fifteen minutes in, I gave a small impromptu d'var on the first two lines of Psalm 121, "I lift my eyes up to the mountains from whence comes my help/ my help is from the Holy Blessed One, creator of the heavens and earth," because I had the melody in my head. I offered the interpretation that when we are firmly rooted, we are as mountains; at its root our help comes from our Source, but that Source works through us as we turn to each other for aid. We sat with that for fifteen minutes, and then did ten minutes of walking meditation. That's always my favorite part. Today I could see my breath puffing before me, and the mountains were gilded with early-morning light. Summer's riot of birdsong is past; it's a new season now, the marshlands purple and brown and straw. We ended with our usual niggun.

Afterwards, David and I went for coffee and a bagel, and he unofficially invited me to join the synagogue board. (An official invitation would have to come from the nominating committee.) Apparently they're looking for new members with new energy, and there's an interest in me becoming more active on the religion/liturgy committee, and from there it's an easy hop over to board membership. I've seen this coming for a while -- I am young, energetic, active, plus I'm the kind of super-organized person to whom board invitations gravitate -- but I hadn't expected the invitation to come with such warmth. So I think I'm about to join the board of CBI. Even though the invitation didn't come as a huge surprise, it's still gratifying.


As part of my continuing mission to give the rabbi a break in the wake of his new daughter's arrival, I'm leading services the next two Shabbat mornings. This week's Torah portion is Bereshit. We're starting at the very beginning (which I'm given to understand is a very good place to start.) Because my shul operates on a triennial cycle, I don't get to read those familiar opening lines; instead, I'm reading Genesis 2:15 through 2:25.

I'm intrigued, naturally, by the fact that God brings the animals for naming to the earthling (a term which sounds wacky but actually isn't, given the wordplay between אדם/adam and אדמה/adamah /earth). God creates all the wild beasts and all the birds of the sky ex nihilo, but when it comes time to name them God brings them to the "living creature," the earth-being. What's that about? A little later in the portion, when God creates another being out of the earthling's rib, it's the adam who names her, who says she will be called an אשה (isha, woman) because she was taken from an איש (ish, man). So clearly naming is a human, or earthly, gift. God can create, but it’s given to us to name.

As a writer, I love the possibilities inherent in this. Like Margaret Atwood says, A word after a word/ after a word is power. Imagine the creation of a tiny fluttering winged thing, breast irridescent, hovering in midair: did it know itself until it was named "hummingbird?" What we're called matters: just think for a moment of the term you use to describe your ethnicity or sexual orientation, and then think of a derogatory synonym, and see what a difference a word makes. From the very beginning, this story tells us, we were given the power to use language to shape our world.

In our stories, and sometimes in reality, names connect to essence. That's at the root of the Jewish custom of changing the name of a very-ill child, to fool the Angel of Death. That's why so many cultures have naming/welcoming ceremonies for their children. That's why it's significant when Abram changes his name to Abraham, or when your teenaged daughter comes home and says she wants to be called something else now, a name of her own choosing.

Regardless of one's perspective on the "truth" of the creation stories in Torah, these early verses tell us something important about how Judaism views our role in the world. The earthling's first real task is naming what God creates. In that way, the adam is God's partner in creation. When we pray baruch she'amar we praise God Who speaks the world into being; God's speech manifests as creation. But creation isn't finished until we add human speech to God's speech, making our own names for things, adding our voices to the world's song.

Homilies: my contribution to the virtual coffee klatsch

Today I'm working on the first of two wedding homilies I get to write this month. As if to provide inspiration, Rachelle over at Notes from a Truth Seeker just posted the homily she wrote for a friend's wedding.

Sometimes the godblogger corner of the blogosphere feels like a clergy-and-lay-leaders coffee clatsch: Father Jake's talking about books, Danya's grooving on Temple dioramas, Karen's musing on St. Francis, Elf recaps the Yom Kippur service she helped put together (which sounds lovely, and not just because they used one of my poems!), Vicar Tony is thinking about how the Church, and God, change over time. And Rachelle and I are writing wedding homilies. It's nice to know I'm not alone.

I've written a wedding homily once before: last fall, when I married my dear friends J and C. I felt impossibly honored when they asked me to work with them on writing their ceremony, and to officiate for them. I expected I might be nervous, when the time came, but in reality I was anything but; I felt solid, strong, connected with something far greater than myself. I felt like me, only better. I feel that way sometimes when I'm reading poems to a good audience, but it's hard to sustain that feeling through a whole poetry reading. Serving as wedding officiant was easy, though: the focus felt natural. And giving the homily was a kick. I had spoken with both bride and groom about each other and their relationship during the wedding-planning process, and I drew on those conversations in the homily...and at one point the bride burst out, "Did I say that?" The whole room laughed.

This homily has been slightly more challenging to write. I met this couple over the summer; the groom's father was one of the signatories on my Justice of the Peace application (on which no word, as yet, though I continue to hope). He's a neighbor of a friend of mine, and as we chatted before he signed the application, he mentioned that his son had just gotten engaged and might be looking for an officiant. Sure enough, I got an email the following week, and started working with N and K in July.

I want their homily to be short and sweet, to say something meaningful about marriage in general and about them in particular. And I want its tone, its metaphors, to suit the couple. That's the hard part, because we've only known each other for a season. It's a fascinating challenge, honestly. I've always championed the power of language to transform (which is never so obvious as it is in a wedding, when speaking a set of words actually changes one's relationship with another human being); this is my chance to put my wordcraft to work in service of these two people. Exciting, but a little daunting, too.

Last weekend I did my first babynaming for a couple I hadn't known before they engaged me. I've created and performed naming/welcoming ceremonies before, but always for family and friends. I'd met the baby's mothers via email and over the phone, and we'd traded drafts of the ceremony back and forth, but we'd never met in person before I drove out to their house on Saturday morning. I had wondered whether I would be nervous then, too...but my putative jitters were nowhere to be found. I made friendly conversation with the grandparents, gathered everyone in a circle in their beautiful backyard, and made the ceremony happen. I imagine that marrying K and N will feel similar.

This work is a natural outgrowth of what I've been doing these last few years, but when I stop to think about it I realize I'm absurdly lucky to get to do these things. What could be more exciting to a poet than proof that language really does have power? And what could be more fun than working with people to shape the words that bring something holy, something timeless, into their lives?

Speaking of shaping words...that homily draft is calling my name.

The joy of a new book

I dreamed last night that my Biblical Hebrew textbook had arrived and that I was beginning to study. So I went to the PO box this morning, and lo and behold, there it was! The first few chapters are an overview of the alef-bet and pronunciation, so I'm starting with chapter four. I took a little coffee break this morning and worked my way through the chapter, which was also mostly review (familiar words) but it was good to push myself a little. It's rare that I have need to translate sentences from English to Hebrew or vice versa, even simple ones like "The king remembered" or "The young man guarded the house." It's ten years since my last Hebrew class, in fact my last foreign-language class of any stripe, and I can feel my brain creaking back into motion.

The book has thirty chapters, and the latter ones get into much trickier territory. It's exciting to open the book towards the end and see line after line of Hebrew text, waiting for me to unlock it. But first I'll have to master the grammar. I dimly remember that Hebrew verbs are complicated. The names of the seven binyanim (verb "houses" or structures) are familiar to me, but I don't remember how they work. Well, it'll come, in time. Now the challenge is putting the book away so I can actually do my work today...

Sukkot meditation

This morning we sat meditation in the sukkah outside the synagogue. Jeff welcomed us into the sukkah with words about finding contentment in the midst of uncertainty, knowing that we are protected even in a flimsy structure that's vulnerable to the elements.

As we focused on our breathing, on being present in the moment, the cornstalk roof rustled to keep us company. As we grew still, the birds returned to the roof, trilling their songs and pecking at the ears of corn. There was a chickadee over my head, singing its name over and again, "chick-a-dee-dee-dee-dee-dee."

Our meditation was shorter than usual today so we could take the time to bentsch lulav. Bentsch means pray, more or less, and lulav is shorthand for the Four Species (though it's literally the name of one of the species, the date palm). In our left hands we each held an etrog (a citron, from Cypress, the only fruit which preserves the flower which bore it), and in our right hands the plaited bundle of three greens: long narrow palm in the middle, soft willow on the left, fragrant myrtle on the right.

Interpretations for the symbolism of the four species abound, but Jeff taught us one today which was new to me: the etrog represents the heart, hence our ability to connect emotionally with one another; the willow, our mouths, so our ability to speak with one another; the myrtle, our eyes, so our ability to truly see one another; and the palm frond, our spines, so our ability to stand tall in the world.

We said the blessing and then shook our bundles in the six directions, each time with the intention of connecting ourselves with that direction and connecting that direction with ourselves. Afterwards I led us in a shehecheyanu, because I had never fulfilled the mitzvah of shaking the lulav before. (Somehow, writing this, I find myself wanting to sing, "shake your lulav thing, shake your lulav thing, yeah yeah!" Which may be not entirely inappropriate, since many people close out the festival of Sukkot with dancing, and one interpretation holds that Sukkot is essentially a fertility festival. It's not a hard leap to make when you're holding the lulav and etrog together in your hands...)

The commandment for Sukkot is usually translated as "to dwell in the sukkah," but the Hebrew word לישב relates to the verb "to sit." So sitting meditation in the sukkah seems like an apt way of celebrating: sitting, breathing, being conscious of the impermanence of our structures and the permanence of what really shelters us.