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September 2005
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November 2005

Beyond binaries

We take turns leading brief morning prayers, my fellow CPE interns and I, and today was my first chance to lead us in prayer before our day's work began. I chose to focus on a small excerpt from the Jewish weekday morning liturgy: first the asher yatzar blessing for the body and its companion piece the elohai neshama blessing for the soul, and then the litany of one-line blessings of gratitude. It went over really well. Several of my colleagues told me they enjoyed the chance to reconnect with Hebrew (which many Christian seminarians learn, at least a little) and people seemed moved by my explanation that the liturgical proximity of the blessing for the body and the blessing for the soul tells us something about how the two are interconnected in the Jewish understanding.

That interconnection turned out to be a major theme of our day. We spent the latter part of the morning with a woman from the Center for Donation and Transplant, talking about organ and tissue donation, policies and practices, and different definitions of death. I came away with a clearer understanding of what it means to be brain-dead, and the difference between brain death and cardiac death...and also a stronger sense of just how complicated these definitions can be. When we think of life and death as a binary pair, they're easy to distinguish. But in the grey area between the two, things get a lot trickier to define. What if someone has lost brain function and is only breathing with the assistance of a respirator? What if she fails the gag reflex and cough tests (two of the eight ways of gauging brain function) but not the other six? What's the difference between living and existing? What's our role, as chaplains, when we're called-upon to minister to families wrestling with these decisions?

Our conversation about life and death, body and soul, continued through lunch. Over our trays of hospital cafeteria food, we talked about what it means to have, and to be, both a body and a soul. My Baptist colleague asserted, in his sonorous voice, that he doesn't care what happens to his body once his soul is collected back to God. My Jewish colleague pointed out that according to our tradition, as my morning prayer had shown, there's something important about our embodiment. My Salvation Army colleague argued against the tendency toward absolute dualism, the asceticism or hedonism, which can arise from an excessive sense of soul/body split. And throughout, I found myself reflecting on how absurdly fortunate I am to be able to spend my Mondays having these conversations with these terrific people, and thinking about these important things.

We had some differences of opinion within our group, but I think we all agreed that life and death are mysteries we may never fully understand intellectually. It's sobering and uplifting all at once, like so many things about hospital chaplaincy. I've always relied on my brain to get me through difficult situations, but I'm learning that in ministry the brain alone doesn't suffice. Death isn't something we can understand with the brain, and if we try too hard to intellectualize it, we won't be able to be fully present with those who need us. This work requires us to go beyond the easy binaries, to sit with the discomfort of not-knowing, and to approach these questions with our hearts.

And sometimes all we can do is walk humbly with our "congregants" here who grapple with these issues, offering our support and our prayers. Baruch atah, Adonai, hamachazir n'shamot lifgarim meitim: Blessed are You, Adonai, who protects our souls beyond life and death.

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Preserving Sukkot

It turns out there are a lot of nifty things one can do with an etrog once Sukkot is done. Some folks poke them full of little holes, embed whole cloves, and use the ensuing pomander ball as their besamim (sweet-smelling spices) in havdalah thereafter. One reader commented here with a recipe for making limoncello that involves fifteen etrogim, a bunch of sugar, and some good vodka...and an eighty-day interim between preparation and consumption! But once my eye fell upon this etrog-ginger marmalade recipe, my path was set: preserves it would be.

I didn't realize until I was a few steps in to the recipe that the instructions are a little bit skimpy. The ingredient list includes four cups of sugar, for instance, but the instructions never mention adding it. (Whoops.) So while the slices of lemon and etrog were simmering, I did some quick googling for other etrog marmalade recipes (this one includes oranges and a grapefruit, mmm) to figure out when the sugar ought to be added. I'm glad I caught that; I would have wound up with some painfully sour preserves otherwise!

The recipe also doesn't tell you how much it yields. I sterilized two pint jars and two jelly jars, which turned out to be just right. All four of my jars sealed beautifully, with that satisfying popping sound that makes a home-canner's heart soar. And the stuff is beautiful, golden-yellow and spiked throughout with little suspended slices of fruit. Only trouble is, it looks more like syrup than like marmalade. We do a lot of pickling, but I've only made jam once or twice before (and never with sugar and liquid pectin.) Clearly I haven't mastered that part yet, since the marmalade didn't "set". Looks like I should have tested a spoonful and added more pectin as necessary until it was sufficiently thick.

Oh well; you win some, you lose some. I've got four jars of lemon-etrog-ginger fruit sauce, instead. It tastes lovely, and I imagine the flavors will intensify and marry as it sits on the shelf. It'll be excellent on vanilla ice cream, or waffles, or bread pudding, or potato latkes at Chanukah. And I like to imagine how golden-autumnal these "fruits of goodly trees" will taste at Tu BiShvat, when the world around us is covered with snow and the trees are still sound asleep, dreaming of the time when the earth will thaw and the sap will begin to rise. 

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Sufism: beyond the veil

For next week's session of my Deep Ecumenism class, we're reading William C. Chittick's Sufism: A Short Introduction. I devoured the book in a single long gulp, copying out some four pages of quotations. It's fantastic, and though I wouldn't be so arrogant as to say that I understand Sufism in any deep way now, I'm intrigued by what I've read, and I'm really looking forward to talking about it with my colleagues! Meanwhile, I figured I'd talk about it with y'all.

In his introduction, Chittick cites a hadith (saying of the Prophet) which outlines the three basic dimensions of Islam: submission (islam), faith (iman), and "doing the beautiful" (ihsan).  Islamic jurists, he says, focus on the first of these by expounding on sharia, which defines Islamic practices;  Islamic theologians focus on the second of these by elucidating dogmatic theology and credal teachings. "It is the Sufis," Chittick writes, "who take doing the beautiful as their own special domain."

Before reading Chittick, I would have said that Sufis are Islamic mystics. Chittick prefers the term "Sufism" to "mysticism" for reasons of linguistic precision, but I think it's a useful simplification, especially for an outsider looking in. One way or another, Sufis are interested in what one might call intimate knowledge of, or union with, God. No small wonder I find them so congenial; I have a longstanding interest in this kind of thing. (Allow me to note that this blog post will offer only a bare taste of the feast Chittick makes available for us. If there's lack of clarity here, it's certainly mine, and not his.)

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Short midrashic poem.

This upcoming Shabbat, I'll be reading from, and teaching, the "Eve and the snake" pericope of Genesis. It's a really fun story, and if I have time later this week I'd like to post about its nested narrative and about how easily and wildly I think it's misunderstood in the popular imagination. On an entirely unrelated note, yesterday the autumn rain turned to snow, so our mountaintop is sugar-frosted with white, even the trees which hadn't yet dropped their leaves.

Studying Genesis, marveling at early snowfall: no wonder I'm so struck by this poem from Jack Gilbert (who Inkberry is bringing to town next month -- he'll be giving a talk and a reading on November 5th). I love that he mentions their clothes (which Torah tells us God stitched for them out of skins, a sign of divine protection despite their exile), and I love the way the last line turns the story on its head. It's so easy to long for the garden we've never known, but maybe Jack's right about how perfection would feel to us.


In the morning when Eve and Adam
woke to snow and their minds,
they set out in marvelous clothes
hand in hand under the trees.

Endlessly precision met them,
until they went grinning in time
with no word for their close
escape from that warm monotony.

-- Jack Gilbert, from Refusing Heaven

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A different kind of Torah

Last night I wanted to be dancing in the aisles with a Torah in my arms, like other folks were. Instead I spent my Simchat Torah on-call at the hospital.

On our first day of CPE, our supervisor spoke about the importance of learning from the "living human document." At its best, this work is not only counseling and comfort but also theological inquiry; every patient, family member, and hospital staffer we encounter is a face of the living God.

Last night I listened to stories about an overseas childhood, a sick baby scare, a robbery, an old wound that still aches. I heard deep anger with religion, and deep love of God. People told me their dreams, sang me snatches of song, and allowed me to witness their grief and their weeping.

There's a beautiful metaphor in Jewish tradition, which describes the Torah as written in black fire on white fire. The black fire are the words on the scrolls; the white fire is what's between them, the spaces and places where new stories emerge as our understanding of revelation expands. Last night I met some of that white fire, the lived Torah of human experience. 

Though I'm sorry I missed the chance to join my congregation in dance and song, I can't think of a better way to celebrate Simchat Torah than this. May we be blessed with genuine joy in the stories we're given, even the difficult ones. May we see, in the unfurling of each others' lives, God continually unfolding.

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I am poet: hear me read!

Dennis Pollock runs a poetry reading series on the third Thursday evening of every month at Bellissimo Dolce in Pittsfield. "Enjoy your favorite pastry and beverage while listening to exceptional local and regional poets reading from their work," their flyer says. I'm honored to be billed that way; tomorrow night's reading will feature Rosemary Starace and yours truly, starting at 7pm.

In Serving Up Poetry in Pittsfield, journalist (and poet!) Michelle Gillett writes,

It's Thursday night, and Pittsfield’s North Street is relatively quiet -- but it’s standing room only at Bellissimo Dolce. Two poets are reading their work, and the audience is enjoying not only the poetry but coffee and tea and pastries offered for purchase at the counter. The Tuscan yellow walls glow with the warmth of the place and the event. A glass case with its display of peanut butter, sugar, oatmeal, chocolate chip cookies, Katy Miller’s South Mountain truffles, various other baked treats and the smell of coffee stir the appetite. No one goes hungry here; there is food for the soul as well as the stomach.

Doesn't that sound grand? If you live within driving range of Pittsfield and if you're free tomorrow night, I hope you'll come to 444 North Street for poetry and coffee. I'm planning to read a couple of brand-new poems that have never been heard before, a couple of poems from What Stays, and a handful of poems from my current manuscript, which has the working title of Manna because so many of the poems center around what sustains me.

If you'd like to get a sense of my work before showing up, you're in luck. Here is a poem published in Zeek, here are three poems in The Texas Observer, and (dipping way back into internet antiquity now) here are the poems PoetrySuperHighway published when they made me Poet of the Week back in April of 2000.

Hope to see you tomorrow night!

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What's shakin'?

It was widely rumored there would be a lulav shortage this year. Egypt, the world's largest supplier of the ritual palm fronds, apparently decided to drastically decrease the number of fronds harvested and shipped. (Lulav can mean either palm, or the trio of branches, of which palm is one, bound together for Sukkot use.) The cut-back in frond-cutting was caused by concern that green branches off of desert palms damages them irrevocably. Apparently an increasing number of lulavim are grown now in the American southwest, and inquiries are being made into the possibility of farming them in Jordan, but before Sukkot the J-blogosphere was abuzz with worries that some Jews might be out-of-luck come festival time. High Sukkot drama!

The anticipated problem doesn't seem to have materialized, though; I ordered a set (lulav and etrog -- which is to say, bundle of palm/willow/myrtle and nubbly yellow citron) online from West Side Judaica last week with no problem. The Jerusalem Post explains ("Lulav prices drop after cartel bust") that a shipment of 100,000 lulavim was exported (or smuggled?) on Yom Kippur eve, alleviating the shortage. Go figure. Anyway, one way or another, there seem to be enough branches and fruits to go around.

The practice of celebrating Sukkot with the Arba Minim (Four Species) comes from Torah:

On the first day [of the festival] you shall take the product of goodly trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before Adonai your God seven days. [Leviticus 23:40]

Early rabbinic authorities interpreted that verse to mean the three branches of the lulav (does anyone know how/why the etrog entered the picture?), and established the practice we follow today, of shaking the Four Species together in all six directions. We also shake them during recitation of certain parts of the liturgy (mmm, hallel), and there's a custom of carrying them around one's synagogue sanctuary daily during Sukkot (and seven times on Hoshannah Rabbah, the seventh day of the holiday.)

For what purpose do we shake? That depends on who you ask. Some say the shaking invokes an abundance of blessing (of all kinds, e.g. coming from every direction), or that it praises God Who is everywhere, or that it wards off damaging winds and stops harmful dew (that's the classic explanation; it comes from Talmud). Shaking the Four Species in all six directions has been compared with the practice of circle-casting. Personally, I like the interpretation that with each beckoning motion, I draw holiness toward me, inviting God-consciousness to surround me on all sides.

It's not just the action that's overdetermined; there are more interpretations of the Four Species themselves than you can shake a lulav at. They can be understood to represent four kinds of Jews, or four aspects of a human being. (In either metaphor, it's significant that the Four Species are always held and used together, implying something about the importance of balance and unity.) Some say that the Four Species represent the four letters of the Tetragrammaton (about which more anon), or the four winds, or the four directions, or the four worlds. It's not much of a stretch to see the lulav as a phallic symbol; complementing it, the etrog becomes symbolic of a womb. (That might be why some Jewish folk traditions prescribe eating thin slices of etrog to aid in labor.) One midrash suggests that the etrog, not the apple, was the fruit eaten by Eve and Adam in the Garden of Eden.

This year I ordered my first lulav-and-etrog set (I've fulfilled the mitzvah of shaking them before, but never with my very own bundle of fruit and leaves) and was amazed at their fragrance when they first came out of the box. The myrtle and etrog in particular have a spicy sweetness to them. It seems a shame to go to all this trouble to order them from so far away, and then unceremoniously pitch them when Sukkot is over. Fortunately, at least where the etrog is concerned, I have a better plan.

The Jewish Holidays tells me that some folks make etrog preserves to be eaten at Tu BiShvat, the New Year of the Trees. It's a way of connecting the two festivals across winter's long cold chasm. Ethan and I are big fans of canning and preserving, so I did some digging and found this ginger-etrog marmalade recipe. I might have to pick up a few lemons and some ginger root next week and give this a try; I love the idea of extending Sukkot's sweetness in this way.

I'll close this post with one more interpretation of the Four Species, from this week's Shalom Report, courtesy of Rabbi Arthur Waskow:

Traditionally, the 4 Species are said to replicate the Holy Name: etrog is Yod, lulav is Vav, etc. BUT--If as traditionally defined you hold the etrog in your left hand and the lulav etc in your right hand and try to "read" them as Hebrew from right to left, you get the letters backward. (HWHY) The only way to get them right is for someone else to "read" your 4 species and you to read theirs. Only with I-Thou is YHWH present.

I might offer another reason why it's useful to shake the Four Species in company -- the photo op. In order to snap the following photo, I had to hold both components in one hand, which isn't the traditionally-accepted way to do things (and yes, I realize I'm holding the etrog upside-down; technically the stem should be pointing the other way). Cut me some slack; it's not easy to fulfil a mitzvah and take one's own picture all at the same time! At least I didn't try to document the actual shaking. Though if I ever learn how to use my camera to shoot little movies...

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Love shack

A harvest festival. A celebration of the impermanence of human habitation. A chance to preserve the emotional abundance of the year just ended. A chance to seal the new spiritual awareness derived from the Days of Awe, like installing a new operating system on the hard drive of the heart. Time to build a little house, a reminder of the temporary dwellings the Israelites used to construct in their fields during harvest (or the tents they lived in during the years of desert wanderings, depending on which interpretation you choose), and to shake a bundle of symbolic plants in all directions. An excuse to have friends over for the express purpose of sitting outdoors, beneath an incomplete leafy roof, to savor what might be the last sweet evening of the season.

Sukkot is the third Pilgrimage Festival, when the ancient Israelites used to take harvest offerings to the Temple in Jerusalem. Today it's celebrated by the building of little booths -- called sukkot in the plural; a singular one is a sukkah -- which we're commanded to dwell in for a week. The standard interpretation is that eating in the sukkah qualifies as "dwelling," so it's become a holiday of al fresco dining. (Unless it's raining and unpleasant. We're supposed to rejoice in our sukkot, so if it's uncomfortable, we have to return indoors and be cosy again. Seriously -- that's mainstream rabbinic opinion.) We're supposed to say some blessings in the sukkah, especially when we fulfil the mitzvah of the Four Species. And it's customary to invite lots of people into one's sukkah to share in the enjoyment -- physical friends as well as ushpizin, Biblical/mystical invisible guests. Basically it's a festival of carpentry, seasonal celebration, and hospitality. What's not to like?

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Yom Kippur retreat report

What a wonderful Yom Kippur!

It turns out there are two Jewish retreat centers in this region, Elat Chayyim and the Isabella Freedman Center, and both were planning Yom Kippur retreats this year. Apparently the directors of the two centers had a longstanding agreement that they ought to find a way to work together, but the right occasion hadn't arisen. Then, about a week ago, the water at Elat Chayyim stopped working. Bennett called Adam up and said, "Hey! I just figured out how we can work together! Do you have room for us over Yom Kippur?" (Or something along those lines.) Thus a collaboration was born.

I found it slightly strange arriving on Wednesday afternoon for a familiar communal experience in a new physical setting, but it didn't take long for me to feel comfortable at the Freedman Center. I parked my car, took my things to my room, and headed for the synagogue sanctuary (a square room with enormous windows on two walls, an oriental rug on the floor, and a range of chairs and meditation cushions) for the first piece of the program.

The 36 hours that followed were intense, stimulating, moving, occasionally difficult, and above all joyful. What follows is a taste of the teachings and an overview of my experience; it's by no means comprehensive, but I hope it's enjoyable. (Warning: long post ahead...)

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Heading out for the holiday

Last year I celebrated Yom Kippur at Elat Chayyim for the first time, and had an amazing and transformative holiday experience. This year, the retreat is a collaboration between Elat Chayyim and the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center, and I'm looking really, really forward to it! I'm heading out shortly.

The retreat has four leaders. Two of them I know: Rabbi David Ingber (the rabbi-in-residence at Elat Chayyim, who I met this summer and who I like a lot) and Rabbi Jeff Roth (who taught my first meditation workshop there, and who co-led the Yom Kippur retreat there last year). The other two are new to me. I'm looking really forward to learning from Rabbi Shefa Gold; she wrote some of my favorite liturgical chants, so I'm hoping her presence means we'll sing a lot. The fourth is Kvod Wieder, about whom I know very little (except that he directs the teen philanthropy program at the Harold Grinspoon Foundation) so stay tuned for further information when I get home again!

Though I don't expect to davven for twelve straight hours like the folks at Jerusalem's 'Leader' minyan do, I do expect prayer, meditation, chanting, Torah study, and a sense of community that will pervade the 25 hours of the holiday and continue to resonate through my Jewish life in the year to come. Whatever your form of observance, I wish all of my readers a joyous and meaningful Yom Kippur!

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Three Yom Kippur posts

In honor of Yom Kippur, which begins at sundown, I offer three of the Day-of-Atonement-themed essays which have resonated most strongly for me this year. First, from Rabbi Shefa Gold's website, a terrific teaching for Yom Kippur about the nature of prayer, sacrifice, and the Yom Kippur experience. Here's a taste:

Before the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies, he would make atonement for himself, for his family, and for his community. You had to enter empty-handed, all your baggage checked at the door.

The Holy of Holies is the place between Life and Death.

Each of us is the High Priest bidden, on Yom Kippur, to enter.... To leave our ordinary lives -- by praying all day, by fasting from food, drink, sex, washing, and wearing leather -- and enter into a timeless and placeless realm. This act was essential to the well-being of each individual and for the people as a whole. It was essential then and it is essential now. So how do we do it? And what is the Holy of Holies?

(Read the whole thing here.) I love the idea that we need to check our baggage, let go of the old hurts and familiar emotional patterns, before we can enter in to the holiday fully. And I like her suggestions for how we can achieve this, and what the Holy of Holies might mean in today's world.

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Continuity and change

I wasn't going to submit to Qarrtsiluni again this soon, but their October theme is "change and continuity" -- and given how resonant that theme is with the Jewish holiday season, how could I resist?

So I wrote a short piece I titled Spiral, and e-mailed it in, and the editors there have been kind enough to publish it. It's about Rosh Hashanah, and how this year differs from any other, and then again, how this year doesn't differ from any other at all. Enjoy!

Yom Kippur and the kitchen sink.

So there's this plumbing problem. The details of the mishap don't bear repeating, though because we're off-grid where water and plumbing are concerned it's cascaded into a much bigger problem than it might otherwise have been. And because there's been heavy flooding in our region this week, the plumber can't begin fixing our problem until next Monday.

What this means in practical terms is that we're using our plumbing as little as need be, e.g. washing dishes the old-fashioned way, like in Ken Waldman's poem "Washing Dishes on my Thirty-Third Birthday" (in To Live on This Earth.) It's annoying, but we can survive a week like this. We'd do it without even grousing in some of the places where we like to travel (okay, without grousing much), and we can handle it at home.

But what this means in spiritual terms is that I've spent a lot of emotional coin on feelings of frustration and worry during the very week when I most want to break away from the detritus of mundane life. During these last few Days of Awe I want my kavvanah (intent) to be especially pure and focused. And, of course, it isn't -- at least not yet -- because I've been caught up in the drama of the kitchen sink. Of course, some would argue that there's a valuable lesson here, and an opportunity to practice reaching for holiness despite the garbage that gets in my way.

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What Blog Has Joined Together...

My friend Jane was kind enough to alert me to an article on the Toronto Star website today: What Blog Has Joined Together.... Naturally, it's about Wendy and Joey, and the piece features a beautiful photo of the two of them, the story of how they got engaged, and a nice quote from my blog post about the wedding.

It's a really nice article, and boy, do I wish I'd thought of that headline! I do want to note that I'm not yet entitled to the honorific "rabbi," which the writer of the Star article gave me, since I'm not yet ordained. It's not the first time I've been granted the title; when I officiated at my first funeral this summer, one of the local papers that published the obituary conferred smicha on me, too. (This kind of inadvertant professional elevation seems to happen a lot in our household; in a recent article about Global Voices, the BBC referred to Ethan as "Doctor Zuckerman," which we thought was pretty entertaining.)

Of course, I couldn't be happier this fall about finally officially beginning the journey I hope will culminate in ordination; with luck, someday the article will be right! And I'm thrilled to see Wendy and Joey's beautiful wedding in the paper, and I do appreciate the good press for Velveteen Rabbi.

Anyway, to any new readers who found me through the Star, welcome! Blogging is a little bit light at the moment because the Days of Awe are a busy season, but I hope you'll stick around.

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In print

Where can an Orthodox rebbetzin, a radical Jewish Renewal poet and the world's only certified soferet (female Torah scribe) meet -- across continents and ideological divide -- to discuss Torah and politics, family and gender roles? This is my corner of the Jewish women's blogosphere, and it's not your mama's Sisterhood.

That's the first paragraph of Jewish Feminist Blogs -- An Unlikely Online Sisterhood, an article by yours truly that found print in the fall 2005 issue of Lilith (that's vol. 30, no. 3, if you're keeping count).

Most of you who're interested in Jewish feminism are probably already reading this magazine, but just in case you're not, or in case you've let your subscription lapse, you can subscribe here. (You can also buy individual back issues here, though that won't land you a copy of the fall issue for a while.) Lilith is great stuff; it's one of the rare magazines that I read cover-to-cover as soon as it arrives in my mailbox.

On a related note, I just got word that the new issue of Bridges is out. I had the pleasure of reviewing Shirley Kaufman's poetry collection Threshold for them, and the review appears in the fall 2005 issue of the magazine, vol. 10, no. 2. Bridges was on hiatus for a while, but thanks to Indiana University Press, they're back on their feet; you can subscribe here. (Here's the post I wrote about Bridges last spring.)

I think of  Lilith as a Jewish feminist magazine, and Bridges as a Jewish feminist literary journal. Both are deeply worth supporting, and both are publications of which I'm delighted to be a part.

I'd love to know your thoughts on either or both of these pieces -- though especially the Lilith article, since the subject of the feminist J-blogosphere is pretty germane here at Velveteen Rabbi. Think of a point I should have made? Got suggestions of other Jewish feminist blogs that should have been in the article sidebar? Drop a comment and let me know.

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Happy holidays!

Shanah tovah (a good year) and Ramadan mubarak (a blessed Ramadan) to you! This year, for the first time since 1967, the Jewish holy month of Tishri (which contains within it the Days of Awe as well as the festivals of Sukkot, Hoshana Rabbah and Shemini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah) overlaps with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Today is also the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi. (Here's a nifty essay about that conjunction of holy times, which some are calling "God's October Surprise.") May the confluence of sacred moments enrich us all with blessings.

I've had a wonderful Rosh Hashanah so far.

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The Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah, in 100 words

Buying groceries, and learning Torah. Making a pot of joe (because my grandmother Rachel's honeycake recipe requires a cup of cold coffee) and practicing the last section of Tuesday's Torah portion, in which God hears Ishmael’s soundless cries. Marveling at the rainbow of Caretaker Farm flowers (snipped in early morning dew), and at the Breath of Life behind them. Thanking God that the Price Chopper in Pittsfield is well-stocked with frozen kosher chicken breasts, and reading about the symbolism behind the sounds of the shofar. Preparing my table (white damask cloth; wedding china; my mother's silver) and preparing my heart.


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Everyday I write the book

Tonight after services, several of us clustered around a table in one of the CBI classrooms to learn a little bit about the liturgy for the Days of Awe. We focused on a prayer I've always found fascinating: the Unetaneh Tokef.

This prayer makes use of a central metaphor of the Days of Awe -- God as King/Judge -- to show us a pageant in which every living being passes before God as a flock of sheep passes before its shepherd. Here is the Book of Remembrance which speaks for itself, for each of us has signed it with our deeds. And here we read that "on Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed:" who shall live and who shall die, who shall perish by fire and who by water, who shall rest and who shall wander, who shall be at peace and who tormented, who shall be humbled and who exalted.

But "teshuvah, u-tefilah, u-tzedakah" (repentance/returning, prayer, and deeds of righteousness) can avert the severity of the degree. From there, the prayer reminds us that God desires not our death but our redemption. Man, it says, is "like a clay vessel, easily broken, like withering grass, a fading flower, a passing shadow, a fugitive cloud, a fleeting breeze, scattering dust, a vanishing dream." In stark contrast: God, eternal and everlasting, who has linked our names with the Holy Name.

This prayer is a motif, repeating throughout the Days of Awe. As a poem, it has tremendous power. (Man, I wish I could claim to have written something with this kind of majesty and resonance.) But as a path to God, it can be problematic for many modern Jews.

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