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Shelter and peace

Maariv -- evening prayer -- is short and sweet. Especially on weekdays, maariv often has a contemplative flavor. Often maariv is a little wistful. Day is winding down. Whatever we'd hoped to accomplish today, either we've done it or we haven't, but the gates of the day are closing.

I spent most of my day in the sukkah: davened shacharit here, hung out for part of the afternoon, returned after a walk past the beaver dam. As twilight began to turn into evening I ran back inside to grab my siddur, and davened maariv here. (Just in time, too; by the time I made it into the amidah it was growing difficult to see the letters on the page, so I took that as an opportunity for personal prayer on the general themes of the written text I could no longer make out.)

I write this from my chair in the sukkah, dimming the light of my computer screen so it doesn't drown out the subtle colors of the sky, which is a deepening blue overhead and tinged with pink at one edge of the horizon. Already the stalks of goldenrod and branches of sumac with which I roofed the sukkah have lost all definition; they're black silhouettes against the dusky eggshell of the sky.

During evening prayer there's an extra blessing added -- extra because it doesn't appear in morning or afternoon prayer -- which asks God to shelter us through the coming night. We pray ופרוש עלינו סכת שלומך, ufros aleinu sukkat shlomecha, "spread over us the sukkah of Your peace."

Of course, a sukkah is by definition permeable. The safety and comfort we seek as night begins isn't the comfort of armored gates and locked-down windows. This is a peace that's open to the changing sky, and to the sounds of crickets and cicadas playing their end-of-summer tune. A peace that knows the heady scent of new-mown grass, and the spiciness of woodsmoke.

The word שלום (shalom) comes from a root which means wholeness, completeness. What we're asking for in this prayer is to be made whole, to find our whole selves sheltered by the Infinite. This shelter is real, but it's permeable. Our wholeness is possible only when we embrace fragility. It's a paradox: protection comes when we embrace humility, not strength. The way to be safe is to open our hearts.


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Equinox at qarrtsiluni

I've written here about the amazing, overwhelming, and beautiful Yom Kippur retreat I attended last weekend. But I haven't posted anything here about the sunrise equinox ritual that Rabbi Jill Hammer offered up, before dawn, one week ago today.

That's because I was hoping a short piece I'd written about it would appear on the pages of qarrtsiluni, and to my great pleasure the guest-editors for this issue graciously accepted the piece.

It's here: Equinox. I'd love to know what you think, both about the piece as a short nonfiction vignette and about the ritual, which I found really remarkable and sweet.

You're welcome to post in response here, or there -- I've subscribed to the comments thread on that post (one of the perks of qarrtsiluni having moved to WordPress) so I'll see feedback in either place.

The current theme at qarrtsiluni is Making Sense; that link will take you to a description of the theme, along with the revised submission policy. Some real literary luminaries are starting to publish work there, along with bloggers and writers whose work you may not know yet but will soon be glad that you do. If you've got anything that fits the theme, or feel like writing something specifically for this one, hurry; you've got until October 15.


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And there was evening and there was morning

When the rain blew in last night, conversation stopped. I was sitting around a table with a dozen other poets, talking about bringing poetry into the schools and to people on the margins of our communities, and the sound of the downpour silenced everyone. We listened to the waves of rain hitting the roof and the streets. Even the air tasted like rain.

But by the time I was driving home, the rain had passed -- for the time being -- and the full moon illumined everything. The patches of fog I'd driven through looked, from here, like low-lying clouds. Trees were dark silhouettes against the moonlit sky. Our driveway was covered with the first batch of autumn leaves, shaken free by the rain.

I ventured out to the sukkah, thinking I might sit in it for a short while, but it was too wet. Yesterday afternoon I layered two tarps beneath the rugs, and did my best to tug a third partway over the roof (not exactly halakhic, I know, but it seemed worth a try) but they've proven ineffectual. So I returned to the house, poured myself a nightcap, put on some music.

This morning the world is humid and sticky, the light of day filtered by thick cloud, but no actual rain. (Storms are forecast for later on.) I took my siddur and my arba minim outside, and I davened a brief shacharit in the sukkah. I took the etrog into my left hand, loving its pebbly surface; and the lulav into my right, trying not to be bummed that this year it didn't arrive in very good shape; and I shook them in all six directions, beckoning blessing.

I recited Hallel, singing the bits for which I know tunes, and reading the rest in Hebrew and English. I wished I could remember more melodies, or that I knew an appropriate nusach (melodic mode) for chanting psalms on Sukkot. Nu: my sukkah is rainswept, my lulav looks battered, and I didn't manage to sing all of Hallel. Good reasons to release myself from the constriction of needing everything to be perfect, so instead I can inhabit what is.


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'Twas the night before Sukkot...

There are four days between Yom Kippur and Sukkot. One of my favorite teachings about this is that we need four days -- one for each of the four worlds of body, heart, mind, and spirit -- in order to really process the new insights that Yom Kippur granted us. Yom Kippur, a day of connection with God, offers us the chance to download a new way of understanding the cosmos and our relationship with our Source; these four days are our chance to install that software on the hard drive of who we are.

This is all well and good, but I'm here today with an entirely different kind of quandary: what should I do about the floor of my sukkah, since the forecast here is for rain (sometimes quite heavy) through the end of the week?

Remember that the roof of a sukkah must be open to the stars, and the schach (roofing material) of which it is made must be organic. The interior of the sukkah can be minimalist (empty; a chair or two) to maximalist (Turkish rugs, floor pillows, tables and chairs and sofas, lighting fixtures, the works.)

This year I wanted our sukkah to be slightly spiffier than last. I dragged several old rugs out of our garage and laid them over the grass. I picked up some autumn garlands at the grocery store -- shiny tinsel ropes festooned with little leaves, in shades of copper and red -- and looped them around the room. I put the usual wee table and deck chairs inside. I took a break from my desk this afternoon to cut schach -- first a handful of sumac branches, and when those proved difficult to work with (too 3-D), a few armfuls of goldenrod to lace over the top of the roof.

And then I checked the weather forecast. Clouds growing tomorrow, and at sundown when Sukkot begins we're expecting heavy rains. Thursday there's a strong chance of storms. Thursday night, rain is likely. Friday and Friday night, more showers.

So much for my fantasies of spending mornings davening shacharit and bentsching lulav in the sukkah. (Not to mention eating meals in it -- the rabbis are quite clear that if it's raining, the mitzvah of dining/hanging out in the sukkah is nullified, because the whole idea is to enjoy the experience, not to suffer through it.)

But should I run out there tonight and remove the rugs I so lovingly put down this afternoon? On the one hand, maybe I should; there's no reason to get them drenched when we aren't likely to be able to enjoy the sukkah until the weekend. On the proverbial other hand, none of them is precious; at the end of the festival I was assuming I'd hang them on the railing of the deck to dry out anyway. If I put a tarp over the roof, that defeats the whole purpose of being open to the sky. (Of course, if I don't, the schach -- merely laid over the roofbeams, not affixed in any way -- is liable to blow away during the first rainstorm.)

Can anyone offer advice on this front? If you have a sukkah in a region where it rains at this season, what do you do?


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Thirteen ways of looking at Yom Kippur

1. Homecoming

It's always a little bit hard to explain why I so deeply love going to Elat Chayyim for Yom Kippur. The answer has something to do with what I feel when I first drive across the threshold: gladness, relief, gratitude that the place and its community exist and that I have been blessed to find them. My first visit to Elat Chayyim was five years ago, at the old site in Accord, and I didn't know what I would find there. Ever since then, returning to Elat Chayyim feels like my soul is coming home.

Continue reading "Thirteen ways of looking at Yom Kippur" »


A personal Al Chet

One of the recurring themes of the Yom Kippur liturgy is that we have made mistakes. Several times during the day we recite litanies of sins. (A note on "sin." I understand the Hebrew חטא / chet to mean "aiming for what's right and missing the mark." I find our usual English shorthand translation uncomfortably loaded, but haven't found a concise replacement yet...)

The traditional vidui (a confessional prayer consisting of two parts, ashamnu and al chet; learn more here) is in first person plural. We have abused, betrayed, deceived. We have been obstinate, oppressed others, acted wickedly. No one has done all of the misdeeds our liturgy lists, but we recite in the plural to indicate that our fallibility is shared, and that forgiveness comes to everyone regardless of individual transgression.

I've been working on my own al chet prayer. Like my other liturgical poems, it's not a translation; it inhabits the space between poetry and prayer. And unlike the traditional prayer, it's in the first person singular. Maybe I'll post some thoughts about this piece next week, if anyone's interested? For now, though, I offer it as a sincere confession, and welcome response of all kinds.



AL CHET SHECHATATI L’FANECHA...         ...על חטא שחטאתי לפניך

 

I need to speak these words aloud and to know that the universe hears them.
I get caught in old patterns and paradigms; I am stubborn and hard-headed.
In the last year I have missed the mark more than I want to admit.
Forgive me, Source of all being, for the sin I have sinned before you

By allowing my body to be an afterthought too often and too easily;
By not walking, running, leaping, climbing or dancing although I am able;
By eating in my car and at my desk, mindlessly and without blessing;
By not embracing those who needed it, and not allowing myself to be embraced;
By not praising every body's beauty, with our quirks and imperfections.

By letting my emotions run roughshod over the needs of others;
By poking at sources of hurt like a child worrying a sore tooth;
By revealing my heart before those who neither wanted nor needed to see it;
By hiding love, out of fear of rejection, instead of giving love freely;
By dwelling on what's internal when the world is desperate for healing.

By indulging in intellectual argument without humility or consideration;
By reading words of vitriol, cultivating hot indignation;
By eschewing intellectual discomfort that might prod me into growing;
By living in anticipation, and letting anxiety rule me;
By accepting defeatist thinking and the comfortable ache of despair.

By not being awake and grateful, despite uncountable blessings;
By not being sufficiently gentle, with my actions or with my language;
By being not pliant and flexible, but obstinate, stark, and unbending;
By not being generous with my time, with my words or with my being;
By not being kind to everyone who crosses my wandering path.

For all of these, eternal Source of forgiveness
Help me know myself to be pardoned
Help me feel in my bones that I'm forgiven
Remind me I'm always already at/one with You.


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Two readings before Yom Kippur

I offer, as food for thought, excerpts from two essays I read today which may resonate for others who are preparing for Yom Kippur. The first is by Jay Michaelson, in an article in The Forward which is, in turn, adapted from his book God In Your Body:

[T]he myth of Yom Kippur is problematic for many: Do we really believe in a "Book of Life" in which all our deeds are inscribed — even in a metaphorical way? Do we think that the unrepentant are punished?

The entire story of Yom Kippur — the sin, the forgiveness, the catharsis — is a psychological drama projected onto theology. All of us have done things that we regret. Yom Kippur is the day to release them. The point isn't whether you'll be good enough to be written in the right Book; it's about turning inward, looking at the dirty stuff and then being washed clean. This isn't about God judging us; it's about us judging, and finally loving, ourselves. The myth is secondary. The psychological drama is primary.

Speaking psychologically, teshuvah — return to one's deepest self — is not an intellectual process. It may make no sense to spend hours in synagogue banging one's heart with one's fist — but yearning, crying and begging are not meant to be sensible. Don't spend time worrying over the literal words of the Yom Kippur liturgy. The important thing is to do the practice of teshuvah, with your body leading and your heart following. Do the fast, the bowing, the banging-on-the-chest; do the standing, and notice as the body gets exhausted. Really, what is liturgy anyway but the verbal expressions of inchoate yearning? It's not theology, and it’s certainly not philosophy. It’s poetry.

— Jay Michaelson, Yom Kippur: A Personal Journey

And the second is by Rabbi Yehonatan Chipman; I found it over at his blog, Hitzei Yehonatan:

[W]hat is the purpose of fasting? On the one hand, fasting may be viewed — particularly by those influenced by modern rationalism and/or secular-humanistic ways of thinking — as no more than a catalyst for the really important tasks: ethical introspection, leading to moral reform, and ending in the individual recommitting himself to ethical behavior in the human world.... In this view, any fast which does not lead to inner change, to caring for those less fortunate than oneself, is seen as morally, spiritually, religiously, and ethically pointless.

On the other hand, there is a position which emphasizes a spiritual, even metaphysical dimension to fasting. By denying the body, one transcends one’s biological nature and attempts, so to speak, to live on a purely spiritual plane, like one of the angelic hosts. This is perceived as a valuable spiritual exercise in its own right...

Which one, then, is the correct path?

In the end, the high road of Judaism has always been the "unifying of opposites." Not to bifurcate purity–transcendence–God-relation vs. being in the world, ethical tikkun, etc., but to unify both. To be active in the world, in a way informed by purity and holiness.

— Rabbi Yehonatan Chipman, Yom Kippur - Months

May Yom Kippur open our hearts wide so that connection with our Source may bloom.


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Before the ecstasy

This morning it hit me: I still hadn't washed my Yom Kippur dress. The dress in question is flowing and white, made in India, embroidered and top-stitched; I bought it a few years ago for my first Elat Chayyim Yom Kippur. It has since become the dress I wear to honor and celebrate Shabbat anytime I'm blessed to be celebrating with a Renewal community...and it requires, of all things, hand-washing. Which I don't do very often. I unearthed it in our laundry room last Sunday while I was folding all of our clean laundry, and set it aside to wash before this Shabbat rolls around. And here it is Thursday, and where was the dress? Still on the floor of the laundry room.

Of course, that was also the moment when I realized we were out of Woolite. After some scrounging, I came up with half a packet of a fancy detergent intended for washing "delicates," and stoppered our bathroom sink, and immersed the dress in cool suds. When the time came to scrub and rinse the dress, I had a flash of inspiration: instead of kneeling over our bathtub, I'd take the dress outside to the little deck and wring it out over the grass of the lawn, and then drape it to dry in the open air. Soon the sun would edge over the hills and paint that side of the house gold, and my holiday dress would shine in the morning sun. So I took the dress and went outside.

I wish I'd had my camera with me. (Well, my hands were full of sopping dress, so maybe it's just as well I didn't. I've taken similar pictures at other times, but that doesn't quell the impulse to take them again.) The view this morning is breathtaking: the dark green world is starting to be tinged with yellow and red around the edges, and the valleys are filled with mist, gleaming in the early morning light. I couldn't help singing Modah ani l'fanecha -- "I am grateful before You, living and eternal God; You have lovingly returned my soul to me; abundant is your trust!"

Somewhere along the way I've heard a teaching from Reb Zalman about morning prayer, to wit, that the impulse behind shacharit was originally the mere sight of morning -- the light of new day, the glory of creation. When we're really tuned-in, our morning prayers arise naturally out of our over-brimming hearts.

I've been talking with my friend Maria about Jack Kornfeld's After the Ecstasy, the Laundry. [Read an excerpt here.] After any intense spiritual experience, we always have to return to ordinary reality, and the disjunction between the ecstasy and the laundry can be painful. That's one of the great challenges of the "spiritual life" -- what my teachers call "domesticating the peak experience."

I thought about Kornfield's teaching as I sang and arranged the dress in the sun. Yes, laundry comes after the peak experience, and before it, too, but every now and then even the laundry itself can spark awareness and praise.


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Welcoming immigrants as Sukkot approaches

Last night, Ethan mowed the lawn in preparation for Sukkot, which is coming surprisingly soon.

As we think ahead to that next holiday, I want to pass along these wise words from Jewish FundS for Justice. I hope they'll resonate for you, as they do for me. Sukkot is a beautiful holiday with gorgeous symbolism, and it can be enriched even further when we connect our celebrations with our politics. Don't leave our country's immigration conversation at the door of your sukkah this year.

On Sukkot, many of us invite ushpizin -- honored guests, both living and dead -- into our sukkah. During this period of vicious anti-immigrant rhetoric and raids, too often immigrants are viewed with suspicion rather than treated like guests to be honored. 

We hope that you will join with individuals and institutions across the United States in extending a welcome to the immigrants who care for our children and aging relatives, work in our synagogues and schools, and add to the cultural and economic life of our communities.  On Sukkot, when we remember the experience of being gerim -- sojourners without a permanent home -- we commit ourselves to helping others to find permanent homes for their own families.

To help us build sukkot that demonstrate our desire to welcome immigrant communities, the Jewish Task force for Comprehensive Immigration Reform has created a special poster.  We hope that you will place this poster in your personal or institutional sukkot as a sign of your commitment to making America a safe place for immigrants.

This poster is available for purchase at www.cafepress.com/jewishjustice . Three sizes are available, in prices ranging from $6 to $18. Order soon to ensure delivery before the holiday begins next week. Click here to read the poster's text.

For more information about immigration and Jewish perspectives on immigration, please visit our online resource center.  There, you will find immigration fact sheets, time lines, text studies and divrei torah. 

Gmar chatimah tovah -- may you be inscribed and sealed for goodness in the year to come.


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Basil harvest

We leave our desks at 6pm and drive to Caretaker Farm. It's a weekday evening, so the farm is quiet, although we pass one member in the flower garden and another walking back up from the fields. The air is clear and cool and the mountains around us are darkening. Soon only their tops are tipped with angled golden light.

This weekend was first frost, and the tops of all the basil plants are browned from cold. But the lower leaves are still green, still good. We walk the length of the field row, alongside the high sunflowers whose drooping heads form a gauntlet, whacking me in the shoulder and breast as we pass.

We settle in to pick. It's time to pull the plants up by the roots, shaking clods of rich earth free. We upend them and strip the inedible leaves onto the ground, the good ones into our black plastic garbage bag. My hands get cold, and dirty, and fragrant from torn basil.

Low light on the fields. Though some rows still burst with produce, others have been ploughed under, seeded with soft green winter rye. It's counterintuitive how it sprouts so verdant when everything else is going to seed. We talk quietly about the day we've each had, the work we're each doing. Plans for gathering friends.

When we get home we whirl the leaves in our salad spinner. We peel garlic, and drip dark green olive oil over the whir of the Cuisinart blades. We freeze two half-pint containers and an ice-cube tray full of pesto, already darkening from exposure to air. We dine on penne, tossed with what I imagine is the last fresh pesto of the year.

I wish I could have brought all of you with me to breathe this air -- to be washed by this light -- to feel the leaves yield to the pinch of a thumbnail, releasing themselves into our care.

Reb Arthur has taught that the Hebrew word for "year," שנה (shanah), can also be translated as "cycle." 5768: a new year, a new cycle, a new turn of the wheel. The new year begins with the last harvesting of the old. So many conversations, embraces, benedictions: I salt them away in my memory, my journals, my blog, to sustain me into the days to come.


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Embodied trust

Rabbi Shalom Noah Barzovsky, the previous Slonimer Rebbe, teaches that there are three kinds of emunah (elemental trust): trusting mind, trusting heart, and trusting body. And the highest of these is emunat ha-evarim, trusting with one's limbs, where deep trust penetrates every fibre of one's being. The classic example he offers is the crossing of the Sea of Reeds. In that moment of leaping, he writes (in his commentary on parashat Beshalach), the children of Israel trusted fully in the One, and therefore the holy spirit rested upon them and sang in them (this is a Hebrew pun -- שרתה / shartah, rested, relates aurally to שירה / shirah, song) and song burst forth not only from their lips but in their very limbs. 

Trusting with one's body: what a radical notion. Not just trusting one's body (which is challenging enough, sometimes) -- but trusting with the body. This has never been my strong suit. I am not, thankfully, one of those people who wrestles with feeling disembodied per se. I like having a body. Often I even like my body itself and what it can do. But I get attached to my illusions of control, and I have a hard time letting go. (Those of you who know me in person can stop laughing any time now. :-)

I carry a lot of tension in my body. My neck and shoulders are the worst, though of course everything is interconnected; throw something stressful at me and you can watch my shoulderblades crawl up my spine as though they wanted to knit themselves to my ears. It's not something I'm proud of, but it's a hard habit to break. How to unlearn a lifetime of habits? I want to become capable of singing songs of praise which aren't only fueled by my body, but which are actually in and through my body itself. I want my body to have emunah, deep trust.

Continue reading "Embodied trust" »


Rosh Hashanah: holding on, letting go

It is the day which will become the eve of Rosh Hashanah. My mother and I are cooking together, a rare occurrence; I had little interest in cooking until after I had left home, so we never did this when I was growing up. I shape loaves of challah, round like the cycle of the year. She slices zucchini, minces parsley and mint, and tells stories about my grandparents. When we gather family around the long table, set with the silver my mother chose in 1954, she lights candles and I make kiddush and together we all sing blessings over bread and over the first fruits of local apple trees.

And now it is morning and we are sitting in the sanctuary of my little shul -- which feels almost like a big shul, today; the folding wall has accordioned to the edges of the building, and the whole grand semicircle is filled with people -- and I am flooded by awareness of what a blessing it is to be davening beside my parents on Rosh Hashanah for the first time in fifteen years.

As I hear my parents singing beside me, time collapses. I am walking with them into the big domed Reform temple in San Antonio on a hot September day, all dressed up, carrying my tallit bag proudly under my arm. No: we are sitting on folding chairs at the JCC attending services at the nascent Reconstructionist congregation in town, and the young bearded rabbi has just turned toward the makeshift ark to lead us in prayer, which he is chanting -- to my amazement -- in English as though it were Hebrew. No: I am running around the Conservative shul of my earliest childhood, looking for friends to play with, as the voice of the hazzan reverberates over the loudspeakers into the back of the building...

Some part of me wonders, even as I follow the davening in the pages of our machzor, what it will be like someday to remember, "that was the year Mom and Dad came to the Berkshires for Rosh Hashanah." Or maybe "that was the first year" -- maybe we're inaugurating a new family tradition; there's no way to know until time passes. Still, this will always have been the first time.

There's a feeling I associate with mincha time on Shabbat, as afternoon begins to shift toward evening. It's a simultaneous wash of gratitude for the sweetness of Shabbat, and sorrow because the day is already on its way out. It's a kind of full-body, full-heart "I'm so glad you're here; don't go!" But of course it's always already going. Shabbat -- the summer -- the holiday -- the long-anticipated visit -- always already flowing into the river of things past, and there's no holding on. All I can do is savor it while it's here, and be grateful even for the ache of letting go.


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You get what you need

For a long time it seemed strange to me that on the first day of Rosh Hashanah we read about the casting-out of Hagar and Ishmael, and on the second we read the story of the akedah, the binding of Isaac.  (The first sermon I ever wrote was about that text.) Why on earth do we spend our new year's day reading about our first patriarch's dysfunctional family? If it's the birthday of the world, why not read the creation story from the start of Bereshit?

Well, I can't actually answer that. But today in synagogue, as I listened to the story again, I was struck by the way the ram appears when Abraham has given up hope of getting the outcome he presumably wanted in the first place (a way to reconcile his stated obedience to God, and his love of Isaac, who is -- especially now that he has cast away Ishmael -- his only remaining son, and according to our story his most beloved.)

The akedah can be read as a story about how sometimes we have to relinquish even the hope of control, of receiving what we think we're seeking, before we can become capable of recognizing that the door was already open and what we're seeking is already within our grasp. How often do we write scripts for ourselves, projecting what's going to arise and how we will feel when it does? What in our lives might change if we really opened our hearts and eyes?

Once Abraham goes all in, an angel of God dashes into the picture and stays his hand. The rest of us don't get that kind of treatment (at least I don't; if you're guided by voices, your psyche is even more interesting than mine.) But what this story calls us to do, I think, is to be capable of pausing, taking a deep breath, and opening our eyes to the possibility of transformation that might be waiting just outside the frame.

(Ideally, without irrevocably scarring anybody else in the process, of course. What Isaac may have learned from this absurd near-miss is a whole 'nother blog post. But I like the idea that this story can serve as a ritualized reminder that sometimes we need to release our expectations before we can see the gifts that are already in our hands and hearts.)


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Blessings for Rosh Hashanah & Ramadan

Rosh Hashanah begins tonight at sundown, and with it the new year 5768. I'll be spending today tending to a variety of details both personal and congregational, so I'm signing off now -- this is my last post of the old year.

To all who celebrate the Days of Awe, I wish a shanah tovah! May we all have a good and sweet new year, and may we find it in ourselves to make teshuvah and re/turn in the right direction.

And to all who celebrate Ramadan, which I understand will begin tomorrow at sundown (along with our second day of Rosh Hashanah), I wish a Ramadan mubarak! May the coming month bring us all closer to holiness, and may all we children of Ibrahim be blessed by our connections.

Each year, Ethan and I send, as our new year's card, one of my poems written during the month of Elul. This year's poem is enclosed (below the extended entry link), and I offer it with warmth and good wishes to all of you. May we all inscribe ourselves in the Book of Life for the coming year.

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Honeyed expectations

Last night my honeycake fell. This is not a problem I've ever had before, and it unsettled me. Let's be clear: I'm a decent cook, though not a great one. But the dishes I make well, I generally make really well, and honeycake is one of them.

Or it has been, anyway. I use a recipe from Love and Best Dishes (the old Agudas Achim Sisterhood cookbook), one which we decided years ago is similar to the one my Nana (of blessed memory) used to make. The sweetness of the honey is tempered with a cup of cold coffee, and the resulting cake is golden-brown and light as air.

Not this year. This year I messed up one honeycake by trying to get it out of the pan too soon (it tore, all along the bottom), and the other -- to my deep chagrin -- fell like a soufflé, leaving a rift of unbaked batter down the center of the loaf pan. I've never had trouble with my honeycakes before. What gives?

Continue reading "Honeyed expectations" »


Weekend in Brooklyn

I wake to early light streaming past a benevolent Buddha. We nod and smile in the dawn silence. There is real chai.

When everyone has risen, the dial on our perennial conversation turns back up to audible volume. The nature of poetry, oral and written. The perils of translation. Photography, the implications of archiving, the marriage of image and word. Regionalisms of language and of food. We're serious and silly and earnest and hilarious. We sling innuendo, we cackle, we groan at each others' puns.

Wise hands leave me half an inch taller and feeling immeasurably cherished, a blessing I want to carry in my body for days.

We're buffoons on the subway. We snap pictures of each other. We marvel at modern art and at ad copy and at tiny lady Liberty seen from far away. We buy red bean popsicles and then, realizing it's too hot to walk home with them, eat them right there on the sidewalk, shopping bags full of chicken parts and striped bass, spinach and okra and ginger root, piled at our feet.

Museums and street corners and window wedding cakes. Merengue in the kitchen, drinking cold white wine, peeling potatoes and stirring curry as though we were accustomed to cooking together.

Late at night we read aloud, hearing our own poems in each others' voices. In turn we recite Yoruba blessings for baby-naming, French song, the first few lines of the Aeneid. The beginning of The Wanderer feels like a sacrament. After a while the intensity dims and I fall asleep to a debate about the best dirty limericks and whether there are any new rhymes for "Nantucket." When I wake, we're talking about saying the unsayable, gurus, the yearning for apprenticeship, what goes into scrapple. Ridiculous and sublime.

Next thing I know I'm on my way home, your voices blurring into the rattle and clack of the train. The kaleidoscope of my memory turns and the weekend's jeweled moments are jumbled and juxtaposed.

How they shine.


Getting to know Shalom Auslander

The other night we listened again to one of my favorite episodes of This American Life: My Big Break, which features one good story (about a comedy duo who went on the Ed Sullivan show the same night as the Beatles), one very good story (about two young men who went to Baghdad during the war to try to make their mark) and one absolutely fantastic story (Shalom Auslander's "The Blessing Bee.")

Here's how the TAL website describes Auslander's story:

Shalom Auslander reads his true story, "The Blessing Bee." It's about the time when, as a third-grader at an Orthodox Jewish school, Shalom saw his chance to both make his mom proud, and push his drunken father out of the picture. Part of his scheme involved winning the school's bee on the complicated Hebrew blessings you say before eating certain foods. The other part of the scheme: sinning.

The piece first aired in January of 2006. I remember listening to it in the garage. We were refinishing a piece of furniture, and the garage was cold, and I had been tempted to come inside where it was warm, but the story was so good -- so dark, and poignant, that I laughed out loud -- that I couldn't stop listening.

The first time I heard it, I hadn't yet studied tractate Brakhot, in the mishna, which addresses (among other things) the question of which blessings to recite over which foods. (The piece is funny without that context, but it's even funnier with it.) I also didn't catch the name of the piece's author, or if I did, I didn't recognize it.

I do now; he writes regularly for Nextbook. (His column is called First Person Ambivalent -- go ahead, click on the link, read a few.) So when we listened to the piece the other night on the iPod, I made a mental note to look up whether he'd written, you know, books. It turns out "The Blessing Bee" will appear in his forthcoming memoir, Foreskin's Lament -- and another short piece from that memoir is online at his website, in short film form.

Continue reading "Getting to know Shalom Auslander" »


Animal psalms

Good used bookstores sometimes put me in a kind of fugue state. I roam slowly, waiting to recognize which of the books I've browsed need to accompany me home. My traffic patterns are predictable; I always scan the religion shelves, of course, and the travel-writing shelves. I visit the "arctic/antarctic" section, if there is one. I stop over in poetry.

On our recent trip to the Big Chicken Barn (where Ethan picked up an amazing coffee-table book of photographs from around the world, circa 1892) I wasn't sure what I was looking for. Their religion section is big, but doesn't usually do much for me. It's heavy on pop Christianity, but not so great where other religious traditions are concerned. So I tend to skim it and move quickly on.

This time, though, I found a gem: a slim paperback with a very 1974 cover (a line drawing of a cluster of smiling animals, surrounded by lime-green swirls and leaves) titled From Television: Captain Noah's PRAYERS of the ANIMALS.

"Captain Noah," it turns out, was the television moniker of the Reverend W. Carter Merbreier, a Lutheran pastor and former police chaplain from Philadelphia. His television program, Captain Noah and His Magical Ark, aired locally on weekdays from 1970-1978 and continued as a weekend program until 1994. The show featured puppets, cartoons, celebrities, songs, and -- from time to time -- "Captain Noah's prayers of the animals."

Each poem is in the voice of a different animal, all speaking directly to God in the manner of the psalmist. One poem makes oblique reference to the Christian story of the birth of Jesus, but otherwise these psalms are nondenominational, and each is paired with a pen-and-ink drawing by by Mary Ellen Bilisnansky. (Bat, vulture, and bison are my favorites.)

Like most poetry written for kids, these poems are direct, devoid of artifice, and above all gentle and approachable. The very brief prologue indicates that "this collection of prayers is meant for those who, like myself, are incurably whimsical and forever children," so I figure I'm within the book's target market.

When I used to teach introductory poetry workshops at Inkberry, I used to assign the project of writing a poem in the voice of someone or something non-human. (I wanted to dislodge the often subconscious notion that poetry has to be personal, confessional, and drawn from the "real life" of the writer.) As examples, I would offer Mark Doty's Beau: Golden Retrievals and Louise Glück's The Wild Iris. Next time I teach such a class, though, I may have to use one of these. Like the poem I'm enclosing in this post, below the extended entry link, which reminds me of The Weakerthans' Plea from a Cat Named Virtute (mp3.) The last stanza makes me smile.

Continue reading "Animal psalms" »


Soul, world, and two days of Rosh Hashanah

The Ari (the kabbalist Isaac Luria) teaches in the Etz Hayyim that the worlds are comprised of two elements: soul and world. We draw our attention to this when we pray [each Shabbat morning] "nishmat kol chai/ the breath of all life blesses You." This is the dimension of the soul-breath / neshama. Later in the same prayer we conclude "min ha-olam ad ha-olam atah el / from world to world, You are God" -- this is the dimension of world / olam. Now Israel [all who engage with God] is enjoined to heal the worlds [le-takken ha-olamot] on the level of neshamah [soul-breath] and on the level of olam [space/time.] And so you find that ישראל (YiSRa'eL) in gematria is equal to נשמה (NeShaMaH) plus עולם (OLaM) [541 = 395 + 146]... And so on the day of Renewal [Rosh Ha-Shanah], we need two days le-haqiqah me-khadash, to re-inscribe our commitment, to healing both soul and world.

This is a teaching from the Bnei Yissaskhar (Rabbi Tzvi Elimelekh of Dynov), found in Ma'amarei Hodesh Tishrei 2:1 and translated by Rabbi Eliot Ginsburg. I imagine that some of you reading this right now may be nodding your heads and going "right on!" and others may be utterly plumb baffled. Let me unpack this a little, because it's really beautiful.

The Bnei Yissaskhar is talking here about the nature of being Yisra'el, of being a Jew. What does it mean to be Yisra'el? He says it means two things: to strive to heal the soul (neshamah) and to strive to heal the world (olam.) Olam is one of my favorite Hebrew words, because it can mean either "space" or "time" -- it's the whole space/time continuum, in other words.

So to be a Jew, he says, means to work toward healing both the microcosm of one's internal landscape, and the macrocosm of all of space/time. He offers a couple of quotations from one of the Shabbat morning prayers, nishmat kol chai, as prooftexts for the assertion that ha-olamot, "the worlds" -- spaces and times, the whole shebang, the multiverse -- are made up of soul and world. With me so far?

Where this gets kind of far-out is, well, where he brings in gematria. Hebrew letters have numerical values, so every word can be understood either as a unit of alphabetical meaning or as a string of numbers. Add up the numerical values of each letter in a word, and you've got that word's gematria.

"Now I know that gematria is sometimes hermeneutics gone mad: in the right hands, anything can be made to mean anything else." So writes Reb Elliot (allow me to digress: if I ever start another blog, hermeneutics gone mad is a really tempting title) and I completely agree. But he goes on to assert that when a gematria clicks, something powerful happens. Suddenly mochin d'gadlut (expanded mind) bursts through the confines of mochin d'katnut (constricted mind) and a flash of insight can emerge.

The gematria of Yisrael turns out to be the same as the gematria of neshamah (soul) + olam (spacetime). "Yisrael" -- we who dance in covenant with God; we who engage with God; we who are, in Reb Arthur's term, God-wrestlers -- is the sum of "soul" and "world," the two arenas we are called to heal. Deep down, each of us is fundamentally singular (a person, a soul, a subjectivity) and also fundamentally part of the unity of all things that have ever been or will ever be. And it's upon us to bring healing to both of those levels. That's our job. That's what we do.

This, he says, is the reason we celebrate two days of Rosh Hashanah: in order to re-inscribe on our hearts our commitment to working in both of these ways. We need two days of prayer and reflection and song in order to process both parts of our life-work.

There are a number of holidays which in the Diaspora have an extra day not observed in Israel, but Rosh Hashanah isn't one of them. Rosh Hashanah extends over the first two days of the lunar month of Tishri regardless of where in the world one celebrates. This year, this teaching gives me a sweet new understanding of that two-day celebration.

Granted, some of us in Reform and Reconstructionist communities only celebrate one day of the holiday. So I find myself wondering, how can this sweet new year's reconsecration be carried over to the second day of the chag for those who won't be in shul next Friday morning? Because I really like the notion that in taking two days to celebrate the new year, we seal our commitment to being Yisrael: fully engaged in the work of internal and external renewal and repair.


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