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Which Ten?

I don't usually pontificate about politics. The blogosphere doesn't need another political blowhard, and my passion is religion, not political life. But when religion works its way into political matters, I figure politics becomes, briefly, fair game...

I'm speaking, of course, of the U.S. Supreme Court's controversial ruling on the display of the Ten Commandments. Apparently it's okay to display the Ten Commandments outside the Texas State Capital, but not inside a Kentucky courtroom. This raises fascinating questions about the nature of the much-bruited division between Church and State: what does it mean to display an excerpt from a particular religion's holy text in civic spaces? What if the faith (or non-faith) of constituents differs from the faith of lawmakers: would we here in Massachusetts be troubled if Governor Romney wanted to engrave a quotation from the Book of Mormon outside the State House in Boston? These important questions deserve our consideration.

I'm a little bit surprised, though, that no one's asking the burning question on my mind: which version should we be, or not be, posting?

Continue reading "Which Ten?" »

Book meme

I've been tagged by Faithful Progressive to answer this particular iteration of the Book Meme that's floating around the blogosphere. So, here goes:

Number of books I own:

Good heavens, I don't have any idea. Thousands, certainly. We tried counting them last time we moved (six years ago now) and gave up in the high several hundreds when the magnitude of the task became clear. The year after college I worked in a bookstore, where the pay was terrible but the employee discount was good, and I brought home more books than our one-bedroom apartment could really hold. Fortunately we now live in a house; our book collection has grown to fit the size of its new container.

My mother says one can't have too many shoes. I say the same of books.

Last book I read:

Thursbitch by Alan Garner. A small and spectacular novel which interweaves an early eighteenth-century storyline with one set in the present day. Explores life and love, puts forth some fascinating pre-Christian Yorkshire ritual, and uses language more beautifully than anything else I can think of. I recommend it really highly. Here's an excellent review of it, from the Guardian.

Last purchased:

Chasing the Sea by Tom Bissell, which I read on vacation last week. He does a fantastic job of balancing his own Uzbekistan narrative with a solid overview of the region's history. Top-notch travel writing -- makes me feel like I was there alongside him, teaches me stuff I didn't know, and leaves me feeling invested in a whole new part of the world.

Books that mean a lot to me:

I'll limit myself to five, else we'll be here all day:

The Jew in the Lotus by Rodger Kamenetz, which set me on the path I'm currently following;

- Hyssop by Kevin McIlvoy, another small and spectacular novel which I have read more times than I can count (and find more in, each time I return to it);

- Video Night in Kathmandu by Pico Iyer, though it's a bit dated now, because it was the first work of travel literature that I really connected with (and now travel lit is one of my favorite genres);

- Otherwise, by Jane Kenyon, who is one of my favorite poets (I'm kind of cheating; it's a new-and-selected collection, so it allows me to include several of her titles at once);

- and Stone Work by John Jerome, a reflection on work and its rhythms, and a chronicle of the passing year.

Tag five more:

Abdul-Walid, Naomi Chana, Danya, Aviel, and Eric: tag, you're it!

Also, if any of my readers has done this meme, or chooses to do this meme, drop the url in the comments? I'd love to read all of y'all's responses to this one!


I found my way to 17d Via Torrearsa in Palermo on Friday evening around six-thirty, as the oppressive heat of the day was beginning to consider settling down. Inside the hammam door was a small modern fountain and a set of marble steps which led down to a counter where a pretty blonde woman waited for me. "Scusi, signora," I said, "parla Inglese?" She did, and with some relief I asked in English whether it was possible to take a bath.

I traded my clothes for a thin white towel, blue flipflops, and a locker key I wore around my neck. As I changed, I realized that I recognized the vaguely Middle Eastern music that was playing: the melody I know as "zochreinu l'chaim" ("remember us for life") off of cantor Richard Kaplan and Rabbi Michael Ziegler's album Turning the Soul. I was already vaguely considering the bath my pre-Shabbat treat, and hearing this familiar melody made it feel all the more like Shabbat preparation!

First came a shower; then a second beautiful woman (dressed, as were all of the attendants, in orange capris and orange-and-pink striped tank tops) led me into the big octagonal white marble room with the black marble slab. She seated me on the slab and brought me four copper pails of water (hot, hotter, hottest, and pleasantly cool) and a hammered tin dipping bowl. We established that her English was less existent than my Italian, so in French she explained that I should dip the water onto myself in order to become relaxed and accustomed to the heat.

She left me in privacy for a while. Since I was the only person there, the experience became meditative pretty quickly. I melted into the steam of the room and the sound of water running in the marble sinks in the corners. As I sluiced the hot water over my body, I thought, "I am washing away the week." I washed the week away in each of the four worlds: my actions, my emotions, my thoughts, and the essence of the week beyond words. Each dipper of water came to represent something I wanted to celebrate in memory, or something I wanted to release.

After a while she returned, gestured for me to lie down, and dippered the remaining hot water all over me in slow, steady streams. Have you ever had a massage or bodywork done, and discovered that pressure on certain parts of your body makes you want to smile or weep inexplicably? It was like that. (And it didn't occur to me until just now, as I began transcribing the experience, how similar that was to the way my fellow chevra kadisha members and I washed the body of our fellow congregant back in April -- in the absence of a mikvah, a continuous stream of water poured from buckets is considered to purify...) Then she rubbed my back with ghoussal, an herbal liquid soap from a round white ceramic dish, and encouraged me to coat myself with it.

From there, to the steam room: a brick dome lit by a constellation of little white lights, a simple white marble fountain (just a disc with water rising from it) in the middle of the room, a marble bench running the circle of the room which was surprisingly cool despite the tremendous steamy heat. I basked there for a while. When I exited, my attendant lay me on another marble slab and scrubbed me with a rough blue glove that made my skin tingle with gratitude. Then a quick shower, and a whirlpool dip. I returned to the steam room for a bit, then had my extra treat: an herbal mask, which was painted on to my body in the big marble room. I sat with the mask for ten long sweet minutes, then showered it away. At the end, I wrapped in a towel and drank a pot of mint tea in the sitting room piled with pillows and rugs, idly poking through Italian travel magazines but mostly luxuriating in the way my body buzzed.

Travel is a kind of immersion. Navigating foreign streets and odd driving customs, unfamiliar menus and the wash of a language one doesn't much speak, can feel like drowning -- or like a triumphant swim in supportive waters. (Usually, I think, it's both.) Maybe that explains why it felt so especially good to round out last week with meditation and water the way my few hours at the hammam enabled me to do.

I wonder how many other people have used Turkish baths like this one as a pre-Shabbat mikvah? Naturally this wasn't actually a mikvah -- these were not mayimei chayyim (living waters), I wore a key around my neck, my vivacious Italian masseuse was hardly a mikvah lady, my immersions were in a hot tub for crying out loud -- but it did exactly what my rare but precious pre-Shabbat mikvah dips have done: sealed my week, awoke my sense of connection with the All, and left me wet-haired and beaming. A definite highlight of my week! I wish we had a hammam around here...


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Buon giorno, Sicilia!

Tomorrow I'm off on a family vacation: a week in Sicily with my in-laws. It may be a stretch to make this trip relevant to VR readers! Though there were Jews in Sicily before the Common Era began (the first Jews were brought as slaves after Pompey's army sacked Jerusalem in 63 B.C.E.) the local Jewish community converted or left during the Inquisition thanks to the 1492 edict of expulsion. (Thanks a lot, King Ferdinand.)

There are Jewish tours of Sicily, but they seem to largely involve Jewish inscriptions on castles and cathedrals, tombstones in museums, and synagogue sites (e.g. places where synagogues used to be, but aren't anymore).  That said, the history of the Jewish community in Palermo is pretty interesting. And though the community mikvah has long since vanished, the city does have a hammam, open to the public, which sounds amazing -- though we'll only be in Palermo on our final day, a Saturday, and Saturdays are men-only days. Alas for me!

Palermo's really just our point of entry and egress, anyway. Mostly we'll be on the western tip of Sicily, in a town called Bonagia, which I understand is part of Valderice, which is part of Trapani. Trapani once had a Giudecca (a Jewish Quarter), though -- surprise -- nothing Jewish remains.

So though I won't get any good Jewish-travel blog posts out of the experience, I have high hopes of spending some time on a beach, reading some good books, and drinking a lot of good Italian coffee (not to mention good Italian wine). I should still be able to get my religion geek on; there are churches and cathedrals in every city, plus Erice has some very old temples (one built to Venus) which I think would be fun to walk through.

And there's plenty else to do. I'm psyched to see the early-morning pescheria (fish market) at the Piazza Mercato di Pesce in Trapani (wonder if it will be anything like the one Ethan photographed in Japan?) and I wouldn't mind driving part of the salt road to see the saltworks if we have time. Regardless, I imagine we'll eat well. Bagna Cauda (one of my favorite dishes from Elizabeth's) seems to be a local dish -- and is listed on a Jewish-Italian food site, which is pretty neat.

I don't think I have any readers in Sicily -- at least, not according to this nifty hitmap -- but if I'm wrong, let me know (within the next eighteen hours while I still have internet access) -- I'd love to meet for a drink. And if you have Trapani-region travel suggestions, I'd love to hear them. Otherwise, have a terrific week, all, and I'll see you on the flipside!

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We did it again! The tikkun leyl Shavuot I orchestrated at my synagogue lasted until dawn, like last year. Over the course of the night there were some surprisingly transcendent moments, and though I'm entirely exhausted now, it feels terrific to have fully celebrated the holiday when we commemorate the giving of the Torah at Sinai, the foundational covenant moment of the Jewish people.

We began the night with an evening service at eight pm. Five of us were there: Jeff (the rabbi), Joanne (the congregational president), Marc (a retired writer and editor), Darlene (a poet, who you might remember from my post about the chevra kadisha), and me. I think we were probably all concealing anxiousness about our low numbers. Last year we began the night with about twenty people, and dwindled to five as dawn approached. What would happen this year, with only five at the start of the night? My intention was to accept and enjoy what is rather than bogging myself down in expectations; the low attendance was my first challenge in that regard.

Below the fold: descriptions of all of the lessons we taught (don't miss the ketubah text we wrote in the middle of the night!), links aplenty, the astonishing arrival of dawn, and some sleep-deprived ruminations on what Shavuot means.

Continue reading "Revelation!" »

Book review: Service of the Heart

"It is my contention that prayer is crucial and essential for a Jew today even if no One is listening or answering." So writes Rabbi Hillel Silverman (emphasis his, not mine) in his introduction to Evelyn Garfiel's Service of the Heart: A Guide to the Jewish Prayer Book (Wilshire Book Company, 1958). The question of why we pray (and the corollary question of whether prayer "works") is an oldie but a goodie. I think it's interesting that Rabbi Silverman addresses that question in his introduction to this book -- as if to say, "Look, before we get to the juicy stuff about how our prayerbook works, let me address those pesky questions about whether prayer matters and why we do it in the first place."

He offers six reasons why prayer is good for us: When we pray, we appeal to the best within us. Prayer reintegrates us with our whole selves (mitigating the depersonalization inherent in modern life). Prayer creates "the experience of mystery." Prayer connects Jews with our past, present, and future. Prayer teaches us about our religious values. And prayer brings pleasure and joy. Prayer, he concludes, "will not produce miracles, if by miracle we mean the supernatural suspension and violation of the laws of nature...But prayer can and does produce miracles in the sense that it impels men to produce miracles within themselves." (Emphasis his, again.) Then, having presumably reassured the reader that prayer is relevant even in the modern age, Rabbi Silverman gives a resounding round of applause to Evelyn Garfiel's book, which he regards as an excellent tool for beginning to understand the liturgy -- a prerequisite for meaningful prayer.

Continue reading "Book review: Service of the Heart" »


Ring bells of celebration across the blogosphere: Abdul-Walid and Sophie are wed! I copied one of my favorite love poems ("This Marriage" by Rumi) as a benediction for them.

I love weddings because they're the perfect point of intersection between poetry and religion. In these liminal moments, people pay close attention to the words they use. Beneath the chuppah a state-change is effected, and when the couple walks back down the aisle they're something different than they were when they arrived. What could be more exciting to me as a poet than this proof that language really is transformative?

Also I'm a romantic. I'm charmed (and awed) every time I see two people committing to cherish and celebrate one another, day after day. Asserting that while everyone grows and changes over the course of a lifetime, these two intend to do so side-by-side. Making the leap of faith that says, "I want you to be my fellow traveler, wherever this road may take us."

I sent one of my favorite love poems to Abdul-Walid and Sophie. Today I am posting two more of my favorites beneath the fold. Because once upon a time a rainstorm blew in on the 7th of June, which they tell me was good luck. I'm not sure I ascribe much to the fact of the rain, but my astonishingly good fortune is undeniable, today and every day.

Continue reading "Nuptials" »

Judaica for the Mac?

I'm starting to feel like it would be helpful to own a copy of the Encyclopedia Judaica.  Much as I would love to own it in book form, the full eighteen-volume set costs $1000 new, which is way out of my price range. There are a few editions on eBay, but I've never actually used eBay before (I know, surely I'm the last person on the internet to cross that boundary) and I have to imagine the bidding will get a lot higher before the deal is done. Besides, the shipping costs would be outrageous.

The CD-ROM costs a mere $100, which seems reasonable in comparison, and it would take up a lot less space on my bookshelves, too. (Plus, searchability is a nifty feature.) The only trouble is, I've searched high and low and I've only been able to find it for the PC, and I'm a diehard Macintosh user. Can anyone out there help me find a copy of the EJ on CD for the Mac?

While we're at it, I'd love recommendations of good Hebrew software for the Mac, too. At the moment, when I want to insert Hebrew into a Microsoft Word document, I switch to my spiffy Hebrew freeware font -- and type from left-to-right, e.g. backwards. One of these days it'd be nice to find a better alternative...

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In the garden

Over the weekend, we put in twenty-four blueberry bushes along the edge of the cliff that borders our backyard. In preparation, a few days before, Ethan  had rented a tiller and turned the soil over, adjusting its pH and adding peat moss for drainage; our weekend task was to install the irrigation system and dig twenty-four little holes for the plants, which had arrived on Friday from Nourse Farms in a big cardboard crate. Little frozen bundles of rootball wrapped in plastic, each with a few greening twigs poking out.

A visiting friend (fortunately a good sport about being conscripted into projects like this one) helped us, and we nattered while we worked, so our gardening process wasn't as meditative as the gardening that Karen of Kinesis describes. Even so, I came away reminded of the leap of faith gardening necessarily entails. We just spent a fair chunk of change, and a good portion of our time, establishing a strip of soil at the edge of our yard. Today that strip is a border of mulch punctuated by sticks. But we will water those sticks and care for them, in hopes of cultivating a hedge -- which, by next summer, might produce fruit. Gardening is a longterm project. And itโ€™s grounding: it roots me in our soil alongside the lavendars and the lupine and now these wee future blueberries.

Gardening has a lot in common with religious life. If one is going to be a committed gardener, one needs to learn to enjoy the regular round of watering, weeding, fertilizing, pruning. Abundance can be encouraged, and it's unlikely to arise without some work on our part, but it requires a dash of something ineffable, too. And as involvement in my tradition trains me to see a spark of holy potential in everything I encounter, good gardeners learn to see the promise of fecundity even in the pepper-specks of seeds.

A surprising number of my favorite poets seem to be gardeners. In Jane Kenyon's poem "February: Thinking of Flowers" I see a fundamental optimism, hope for spring's return despite winter's frozen ground. Wendell Berry captures this, too, in his poem "The Man Born to Farming," in which he describes the gardener who "enters into death/ yearly and comes back rejoicing," who "has seen the light lie down/ in the dung heap, and rise again in the corn." Though I don't share Berry's (or, for that matter, Kenyon's) connection with the Christian story of resurrection, I too see gardening as a kind of training for a life imbued with faith in things unseen. Fruit may spring from the unlikeliest beginnings, if we take (or make) the time to nurture what grows.

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Braided halakha

Danya at Jerusalem Syndrome made two really good posts recently about halakha (usually translated as "The Law," though the word comes from ื”ืœืš, the root which means "to walk," so I like to think of it as "The Path" or "The Walking"). A lot of what she said rang a bell for me, which is fascinating, because I have some issues with halakha. (More on that shortly.)

Halakha, she says, is what Jews have instead of monastic living. It's the framework that keeps our focus on relationship with God at all times. Best of all, it's portable, enabling us to live simultaneously "in the monastery" and in the world. "Finding that balance can be difficult, but that, too, is part of the thing--sitting around the (literal) monastery is relatively easy. Negotiating a rigorous spiritual practice when there are a million tugs in every direction is not, and part of the work to negotiate that is vital to the spiritual process." No argument from me on that. Judaism is meant to be lived in the world, not in seclusion, and navigating the tension between worldly priorities and religious priorities is an important part of the path.(This comes from her first post on the subject, halakha is your friend. Go, read the whole thing!)

In the addendum post, more, she makes one of the points that resonates the most for me:

Judaism is not about chasing the next great aesthetic high. It's not about just having feel-good experiences where the sky opens up and you feel all, like, connected and spiritual. I've had them, lots of them, some really big ones. They're fun. But they are not the point. The point is staying focused and present and connected to God in all the small moments, the hard moments, the drudge moments.

Preach it, sister. Spiritual highs are a piece of the picture, but they're not the whole picture, and ultimately they're not the point of Jewish practice. The point is enriching our lives, the low points as well as the high, with connection to the All. It's easy to be mindful in a moment of spiritual peak; it's harder to maintain that consciousness when one's stuck in traffic and running late, or to begin the day with the blessing for gratitude when one wakes up with a sinus headache. Maintaining a regular practice can help one train oneself to connect with the Divine through all things. 

Discipline and practice make sense to me. The desire to sanctify the ordinary makes sense to me. Continually re-creating space in one's life in which God can arise makes sense to me. And yet my relationship with halakhah is...complicated.

Continue reading "Braided halakha" »