Previous month:
December 2007
Next month:
February 2008

My spring semester begins!

Because of the vagaries of rabbinic school scheduling (so many students and teachers have pulpit commitments that we didn't begin our fall semester until after the Days of Awe were over), I just this morning had my last fall class. The sweet chatimah (seal) on my fall was the final session of my class on the Me'or Eynayim, the Chernobyler rebbe -- one of the best classes I've taken yet; I feel a real pang of loss at its ending.

My spring, of course, started a few weeks ago, with the Talmud class which began while I was at Ohalah. (This is the challenge of taking courses through different schools and seminaries: their academic calendars rarely match.) I have one more paper to write before my fall can really be considered "through," but two spring classes begin in the coming days, so I think it's now really, truly, and officially the spring semester!

My spring will feature a course on Biblical history and civilization (remember the academic grid I've blogged about in the past? this course will be filed under "History"), an immersion in Talmud ("Halakhic Literature"), a continuation of the Rashi work I began to do in the fall ("Exegesis"), and a pastoral care and counseling intensive which will last for two semesters (that one goes under the catch-all category "Various.") To learn more, read on...

Continue reading "My spring semester begins!" »

Another word for sky

Yes, I am checking you out on Simchas Torah.
You are sweating, you are dancing, your breath stinks of vodka,
Your white shirt is plastered to your chest,
Its buttons are partly undone,
You look like an entrant in a Yeshivish wet t-shirt contest.

That's from one of my favorite poems in another word for sky, a collection of poems by Jay Michaelson (Lethe Press, November 2007.) The poem is wry and startling, deliciously grounded in physical detail, and very, very Jewish. (So's the collection.)

I can't help reading the poem through the lens of Hasidism and homoeroticism, an essay of Jay's that I read in Zeek back in 2004. But the poem goes places the essay doesn't, and there are all kinds of reverberations and refractions for me in the spaces between them. Same goes for another of my favorite poems in this collection, "Foreign Thoughts," which begins:

I don't feel ashamed
when I spy you at the mikva,
out of the corner of my eye --
a body is a body,
and wants what it wants.

I love that it's when the narrator catches a peek at the object of his desire davening, in intimate connection with God, that he is abashed. Seeing a beautiful body is one thing; visually eavesdropping on a conversation with the Infinite is another. The poem gives a whole new cast to questions of boundaries and transgression. It knocks me flat. I want more.

Continue reading "Another word for sky" »

readwritepoem: Gematria


"Mother" is 66, like the highway
and "father" is 45, like
the records that used to spin
on the outdoor jukebox
while they danced under the moon.

"Child" is 36, double chai
for the two lives intertwined
in that act of creation.
"Worry" adds up to 99
varieties of fear on the wall.

"Faith" is 44, and so is
"hope," the prize tucked
at the bottom of Pandora's box.
"God" is 26, which sends
thrills up my spine

because in Hebrew, the tongue
where this code unrolled,
the letters of that most
unsayable name
add up the same way.

What meaning can we make
from the jumbled letters
of our DNA (3 and 1
and 20 and 7), the terms
they form as they combine?

If each word
in the unspooling scroll
of our lives could be
totalled, what would the sum
tell us about who we are?

This week over at readwritepoem, prompt #11 asks what equals metaphor plus math? Given that I just posted about gematria, the interpretive device which hinges on how Hebrew letters are also Hebrew numbers, I couldn't resist. Doing gematria in this way with English words is a bit of a stretch, but it was fun. Chai (חי) is the Hebrew word for "life;" it's also the number 18.

You can read the other poems submitted for this theme here, all week long.

Technorati tags: , , , , .

Sh'ma: roundtable on Israel

The editors of Sh'ma have put together a fascinating roundtable discussion on how the "next generation" of Jews perceives Israel. It merits a long, thoughtful blog post -- but I'm spending today buried in Talmud and in the Chernobyler, and I'm not sure when or whether I'll manage to really write about this. So instead, I'll just direct you to go and read it yourself; the discussion is here.

Here are two tastes, to whet your appetite:

[Editor Susan Berrin:] Israel has been for so many of my generation as essential to our Jewish lives as ether, a preoccupation so keen, so inspiring, often so exasperating that it was unavoidable and no less so for those, like myself, who have lived outside its borders. Judging from our roundtable, it seems that the next generation of Jews — including those actively engaged in Jewish life — do not experience Israel as a formative, crucial factor...

Shaul Magid: What would it take to acknowledge openly that we're in a Diaspora and it is not exile? Much of American Jewry in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was anti-Zionist, at least until the early 1930s. After the Holocaust and the establishment of the State, everything changed. Then the war in 1967 put Zionism into turbo drive in America. But by 1977, this enthusiasm started to wane slightly and it's been continuing on that trajectory ever since... There's a cycle to American Zionism, which we should confront honestly.

And what would American Jewry look like in the next 25 years if we didn't look to Israel or Zionism as a center? I think it would be healthy for us and for Israeli society, too, to separate our civilizations. Does Israel really want to be a refuge, or playground, for American Jews? I think not. I think it wants to be a normal country like any other. Maybe American Jews need to liberate Israel from our dependency on it and find other ways to cultivate our Jewish identities.

Thought-provoking stuff. Go, read, and if you want to talk about it (in a polite and thoughtful way, please) feel free to come back here and strike up conversation.

Technorati tags: , , .

Word connections

For reasons that don't bear exploration at this juncture, I spent a chunk of today emailing with a friend about gematria. (Not familiar with the term? Wikipedia entry; MyJewishLearning article.) His lawyer brain, he said, has difficulty with the notion of gematria as a valid interpretive device. Where do I come down on it? As I started writing him an email in response, I realized I had enough to say about it that perhaps I ought to consider a blog post. So here we are.

My favorite quote about gematria comes from my teacher Reb Elliot Ginsburg, who writes that "gematria is sometimes hermeneutics gone mad: in the right hands, anything can be made to mean anything else."  I completely agree. But he goes on to assert that when a gematria clicks, something powerful happens, and I agree with him on that, too. When a gematria works, suddenly mochin d'gadlut (expanded mind) bursts through the confines of mochin d'katnut (constricted mind) and a flash of insight can emerge. (If that sounds familiar, it's because I quoted him on this in a post last fall.)

Gematria crops up from time to time in Talmud and midrash, though I think it became prevalent later than that; the Tur used it heavily, it's all over the Zohar, and it's a popular exegetical tool in the mystical tradition and in some Hasidic commentaries. In Renewal, too, I encounter a fair number of teachers who work with the idea that words which have the same numerical value share the same qualities, and that these kinds of linkages may reveal words' hidden depths.

Traditional Jewish hermeneutics are filled with puns and word play, and I see gematria as a part of that same tradition.  Gematria's a kind of word game that can, from time to time, startle me with dazzling insight. Of course, it can also make me roll my eyes. At this point, I tend to hang on to the gematriot that wake me up, and to let go of the gematriot that feel far-fetched or absurd.

A lot of people get excited about the idea that gematria reveals all kinds of hidden codes and messages in Torah. For me, the lens of gematria is most revelatory in what it shows us about ourselves. Take, for instance, the tetragrammaton, which has a gematria of 26. That number doesn't have an innate meaning for me. But what other words can I find with that gematria, and what might I make of the connection between those words? (Here's a list -- Hebrew only.) What does it say about me if I link the Name of God with the phrase "My beloved father," or if I link it with the word meaning "honor" or "gravitas"? Linking two words because their numerical value is the same inevitably involves making choices, and those choices say something about who I am and how I see the world.

Like poetry, gematria's an associative art. My rational brain doesn't always find it useful as an interpretive tool, but the part of me that writes poems finds it delicious. (In fact, next time I'm facing writer's block, this would be a fun poetry prompt: take a Hebrew word, figure out its gematria, look for other words with that same gematria, and try to write a poem that draws on or hints at the different words in the gematria cluster.) At its best, maybe gematria works like poetry does: prompting us to make connections between things, and reminding us to revel in that act of connection.

Technorati tags: , , .

Beginning to envision Pesach

It's been a few years since I last released a new edition of the Velveteen Rabbi's haggadah for Passover. I spent last winter and spring working on the siddur for my niece Emma's bat mitzvah, which was an awesome project but meant there was no way I could create a revised haggadah, because (alas) there are only so many hours in a day. I promised myself then that I would spend this winter working on a haggadah revision, and made a mental note that I ought to begin after Tu BiShvat. The sap is rising; it's time to think ahead to the festivals this divine flow will feed into.

Of course, this is a year with a leap month -- the Jewish calendar operates on a Metonic cycle of 19 years, wherein 12 are "regular" years and 7 are "leap" years with an extra month added in (this page explains it neatly, with a spiffy piano keyboard diagram to make it easier to visualize) -- so there's an extra month between Tu BiShvat and the spring festivals that follow it. This is excellent news for me, because it means I have some room to breathe before I need to be thinking about Purimspiels and haggadot! But I went ahead and opened up the haggadah file this morning, and now it's all I can do to keep myself from dropping everything else on my to-do list and just playing with the haggadah.

Over the last few years, I've received a handful of requests. Several people have asked whether I might consider adding more of the traditional Hebrew text to my haggadah, not instead of but in addition to the interpretive material and the poems and all that good jazz. (The short answer there is: yes, absolutely, I can do that quite happily! The haggadah is a kind of anthology of great texts; adding more interesting stuff just gives the users more options in the choose-your-own-adventure experience that is the seder.)

I've also been frustrated, in recent years, with the limitations of the Hebrew text that I typed, laboriously, backwards in Microsoft Word some years ago. There are no vowels, the font isn't very pretty, and every year we find a new typo or two, so it's clearly time to overhaul the Hebrew entirely. These days I use Mellel/Davka as my bilingual word processor (and oh, man, it is so useful to be able to toggle easily between languages; how did I ever do any of this work before?) so I decided to pony up twenty bucks to download the Haggadah texts from DavkaWriter. Now I have at my disposal the complete text of the traditional haggadah, in Hebrew and in (predictably old-fashioned) English.

Step one of the haggadah revision process was porting the last version of my haggadah over from Word to Mellel, which has created some intriguing formatting issues. (Most frustrating, so far, is the realization that all of my endnote numbers have been stripped from the text; that's going to take a while to fix. So maybe it's a good thing I'm getting started now, well in advance of when I'll want to put the haggadah out into the world!) Step two is folding in some traditional texts from the download I got from DavkaWriter, and beginning to think about creative interpretations and the good questions those texts push me to ask.

And step three is, actually, making this post. I figured I'd ask, since I know many of the folks who use the haggadah also read this blog: are there changes you want to suggest? Additions, interpretations, readings you like to include in your own seder that you think might be a good fit for this one? I can't promise I'll take everyone's suggestions, of course, but I'd love to know how you think the haggadah can be improved.

It's early, yeah, but -- for me, at least -- on a cold winter day like this one, there's something satisfying in thinking ahead to the light and liberation of spring.

Technorati tags: , , , .

Tu BiShvat poem: Birch Magazine

In honor of Tu BiShvat, I offer a poem I wrote a few years ago at this season. (Any guesses as to which magazine I was, at that time, submitting a query letter? It seems obvious to me, but has evidently stumped a few folks, so I'm curious to know what comes to mind...)


A typo transforms my cover letter
into one aimed at an editor at Birch

and I find myself wondering
what kind of articles they publish there.

Rebuttals of that famous Frost poem,
perhaps, from the point of view

of the trees getting swung-upon.
Praise-songs penned on curled bark

and sent, ironed flat, via post.
Recipes for soda and syrup.

I imagine their mission statement:
giving voice to the thickets of saplings

rising slim and dark from snowy earth
heretofore considered silent, voiceless.

This would be their dormant period,
reading season, manuscripts considered

carefully before the spring rush
-- that heady upswelling

of sweet inspiration -- bursts forth
new pages that rattle in the wind.

I could offer something for their special
Tu BiShvat issue, a birthday song

for homes and synagogues worldwide
where we'll celebrate another ring

in every trunk, joining trees in traveling
from creation to essence, appearance

to ultimate reality,
holy roots to holy sky.

Technorati tags: , , .

ט’’ו בשבט שמח / Happy Tu BiShvat!

According to the Jewish way of counting, every tree in the world has its birthday today! At this full moon, the tradition teaches, the sap starts rising. Even though spring won't manifest here in the mountains of western Massachusetts for a solid few months yet, the trees are beginning to draw the sustenance they'll need for the coming year.

Though the holiday's roots are in an ancient tax system (whereby the fruits of trees could not be tithed to the Temple until they'd reached a certain age), Jewish mystics brought it to flower in a whole new way. They saw God as a tree Whose divine abundance flows like sap into creation, enlightening and enlivening all things. (We have them to thank for the custom of the Tu BiShvat seder, a ritual meal that's chock-full of symbolism, fruits, and nuts.) In our day Tu BiShvat is also an environmental festival, a time to celebrate not only trees but our obligation to care for the earth in which we are all planted.

For my part, I'm meditating today on the lessons we can draw from trees. My friend David sent me this quote, which I quite like:

In the Bible, as well as in later Torah literature, the tree is not regarded merely as a plant that gives fruit or provides shade. The tree is a symbol of life, and also the symbol of the upright man.  What impressed our sages was its endurance and tenacity.  The tree weathers all storms and yet keeps on clinging to the soil.  It suffers adversity, it is beaten by the winds and lashed by the rains, it is plucked bare in the autumn and snowed over in the winter.  Yet it does not wither away.  It retains its inner strength, and bursts forth into fresh blossom the moment the sun graces it again with its smile of spring.

For we know that it is in adversity that the tree collects its strength for renewed life.  Throughout the winter, the tree is not lifeless, even though it may appear so.  Beneath the crust of stem and branch, down below in the roots, hidden away in the soil, life goes on in undiminished intensity.

All the time, the tree is storing up new life energy and is replenishing its resources, to burst into full activity the moment Nature gives it the sign of spring's awakening: 'Gather strength through adversity, renew your life in times of suffering.'

That's what I was thinking about this morning as I breakfasted on an English muffin slathered with the etrog-ginger marmalade I made at the end of Sukkot. And I offer, again, a link to a Haggadah for Tu BiShvat [pdf] -- this is an amalgamation of two haggadot, one that I created and one that my rabbi created, and you're welcome to use it either as-is or as a jumping-off point for your own creative Tu BiShvat endeavors.

May we all know ourselves to be rooted, unshakeable; may we be able to find the sustenance we need to get through winter, on all levels; and may the light of the full moon bring us joy.

Technorati tags: , , .

A place where prayer can dwell

Last night I convened my synagogue's religion committee to begin the conversation about how to transition to Mishkan T'filah.

MT is the Reform movement's new prayerbook -- the first since the mid-70s. (If you want some historical context on that, I recommend The Prayer Book of the People, a conversation with liturgical scholar Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, and The Prayer Books, They Are A-Changin' by Rabbi Elliot Stevens.) MT differs pretty strongly from the Reform siddurim that preceded it. It also differs strongly from what my community has been using for the last several years -- indeed, for all the years I've been a member of my synagogue -- so the switch is going to feel pretty profound.

My community has spent the last several years using a homegrown siddur called B'Kol Rinah ("With A Joyful Voice.") The siddur was created by our rabbi specifically for us, designed to fit our multi-denominational history. Our shul began as an Orthodox institution more than a hundred years ago; first hired a Conservative rabbi in 1969; and joined the Reform movement about seven years ago. Many of our members have never used a standard Reform siddur. B'Kol Rinah incorporates a lot of traditional text, alongside readable translations. It's looseleaf, so it's easy to edit. And it's what we're used to.

But we bought 100 copies of MT more than five years ago, long before the book actually existed in print, as a sign of good faith as we formally joined the Reform movement. We're a Reform shul; it makes sense for us to use the standard Reform siddur, in order to be aligned with the movement as a whole. I think it's the right thing to do -- but I'm also hyper-conscious that shifting from our current siddur to this new one will pose some challenges. Perhaps for those of us who lead the services, most of all.

Continue reading "A place where prayer can dwell" »

Fifteen years of song

Fifteen years ago this month, my friend David dragged me to spend an afternoon singing. (Longtime readers may remember him as the friend who gave me the tefillin I'd blogged about wanting, as a gift for my thirtieth birthday.) I was a freshman in college with no formal background in voice, but he knew I liked to sing, and he had spotted a notice that folks would be gathering to sing madrigals in the Rathskellar, a basement hang-out space in what was then Baxter Hall.

The vicissitudes of my first year of college had gotten me down, that month. Initially I didn't want to go. I didn't even know what madrigals were! But David insisted. So I went. What I couldn't have imagined then was that that afternoon of singing was going to change my life.

The group that sang together that Winter Study had so much fun we decided to keep on keeping on. We held auditions, and intense conversations about how we wanted to tread the fine line between singing beautiful music really well and having a ridiculous lot of fun while doing it. That's how the Williams College Elizabethans -- purveyors of madrigals and sundry chansons -- were formed. We performed at May Day that year, in Renaissance costumes we'd borrowed from the theatre department. The following year we went on tour for the first time: fifteen collegiate madrigal singers crammed into a college van, with our stuffed animals and our props, our baggage of all varieties, off to sing in churches and at colleges and sometimes in subway tunnels and culverts and restaurants, anywhere one of our merry band could hum an opening note.

At first we worried that we might not find others who wanted to carry the torch from year to year, but boy did that fear prove unfounded. We discovered over time that there's a certain type of person who chooses to sing madrigals (and sacred music, medieval chant, settings of folk tunes, and the occasional snippet of Monty Python) -- and that folks who fit that bill tend to like one another, even if they cross the arcane social strata of campus life. Outside of 'bethans we were theatre geeks and Christian Fellowship regulars, queer activists and martial artists and swing dancers -- but inside 'bethans we were colleagues, and more than that, we were friends.

I sang with the 'bethans for a record five years: my four years of college, plus the year immediately thereafter (when I was working at the bookstore in town and still knew enough students that I didn't yet feel like an interloper on the campus I had once called home.) We got into the habit of having reunions every January, so that current students and the old fogies like me could meet, share backrubs and stories, and sing. Five years ago, to mark the group's decennial, we held a reunion concert: forty or so Elizabethans of varying collegiate generations, bringing our voices together in celebration of life and of music and of the reality that we are, together, so much more than the sum of our parts. To me, we felt like the Pan-Bethan Tabernacle Choir. It was awesome.

This weekend we're celebrating our fifteenth anniversary, and we're gathering to create a concert again. (If you live locally, come and see us: 2pm, Thompson Memorial Chapel in Williamstown, Sunday afternoon!) My great thanks to the local journalists who wrote such wonderful articles about it, and about us: Modern Madrigals, in the Berkshire Eagle (written by Kate of Spring Farm Almanac fame) and 'Bethans Are Back which features quotes from yours truly!

It's hard for me to believe that it's been fifteen years since this adventure began. I feel so blessed to have been a part of the organization: to have known these people, and sung with them, for so much of my life. I'm excited about spending the weekend getting to know a whole new crop of Elizabethans -- in the best possible way: by joining together our voices in song.

Technorati tags: , , .

Velveteen thanks

Many thanks to the folks at the Performancing Blog Awards for the kudos! Velveteen Rabbi was nominated for "Best Blog Name;" although the popular vote declared John Cow the winner (evidently it's a play on John Chow, which I fear was lost on me), this blog won Editors' Choice; the editors of the awards called this title the "most beautiful play on words [they've] seen in a long time."

Todah rabah (many thanks), guys! I can't take credit for inventing the title; it comes from this cartoon by Jennifer Berman, which has hung over my desk for fifteen years in postcard form. But I'm delighted that y'all like it, and I appreciate the kind words. Congratulations to all who were nominated, and to all who won!

Tackling Talmud to start my spring

Because I take courses through many different institutions at once, my semesters don't always align. Right now, for instance, two of my fall classes are still going strong; meanwhile the first of my spring classes began last week while I was at Ohalah. So I'm working toward finishing the fall even as I'm already, frustratingly, behind on beginning the spring. (I figure this is excellent preparation for the work of being a rabbi. The work is never completed; it's up to us to figure out how to do it, accepting our own limitations while striving to do the work as best we can.)

The course that's already begun is Fourteen Sugyot Every Jew Should Know, an online class offered by the Conservative Yeshiva which aims to introduce students to fourteen foundational pieces of Talmud.

In the first week, we were asked to study a passage from tractate Rosh Hashanah which asks the question, "does the observance of commandments require kavanah (mindful intention)?" This is not, it turns out, a simple question to answer. Take, for instance, the mitzvah of hearing the shofar blown: must one hear it with conscious intent? What if one hears it, but isn't sure what one is hearing (e.g. an inept shofar-blower like me makes animal noises instead of pure tones)? What if the person blowing the shofar is merely amusing himself with the horn, rather than blowing with conscious intent? 

If I'm reading the passage right, it seems that both the hearer and the performer have to put their minds to the act before either of them "become yotzei" (before it "counts" as a fulfillment of the mitzvah.) I like that idea, because it suggests to me that what's critical here is (what Buber might call) the I-Thou relationship between the actors. One person alone can't fulfil the mitzvah of hearing the shofar, or blowing the shofar; there has to be a conscious actor and a conscious listener. Mitzvot only come alive when we engage with them together.

As a meta-note, I find it quite cool that we preserve these conversations in the first place. Because we have this circuitous reasoning set down in print, we have a kind of mental labyrinth to enter; as we walk the steps of the labyrinth (following each step on the page), we retrace the logical leaps of our forebears, and wrestle with the same questions in similar ways. And, as in walking a real meditation labyrinth, what matters isn't the endpoint of the walk, but what we may learn from tracing and retracing the steps.

In honor of my diving in to this formal Talmud study, let me point you to a short piece by my teacher Reb Laura: Tractate Laundry. It may not be funny if you've never studied Talmud, but it makes me laugh every time I read it. Pitch-perfect parody, and a delicious piece of writing, too.

Technorati tags: , , .

readwritepoem: Rosh Chodesh Shvat

The current prompt at readwritepoem is "resolutions." This poem began there, though it went some places I didn't expect. It might help you to know that the new moon that dawned this week kicked off the lunar month of Shvat, during which falls Tu BiShvat, the "New Year of the Trees."


I'm one of two hundred
decked in rainbow stripes and
washed Parisian silk, tefillin
like head lamps lighting our way

as an impromptu waltz
breaks out in the aisle,
a love song to creation
the dancers stately and twirling.

How the psalms of praise
chanted this new moon morning
shake the room
and leave me quivering, hands uplifted!

Here's what I want to remember:
I don't have to be thirsty.
In slow capillary trickles
sweet sap is rising.

Technorati tags: , , .

Late night at the Corner Bar

We pulled three tables together; as our numbers swelled we added a fourth. We crowded around them, textbooks and miniature siddurim jostling for place alongside bowls of chips and salsa and a reasonable handful of drinks (I had a pint of Fat Tire, which was pretty tasty stuff.) By the time we were done we'd attracted a small crowd of onlookers, rabbis and rabbinic pastors hanging out on the margins and occasionally chiming in.

Yes: we spent the hours between 10pm and 12:30 in the morning having a meeting of our liturgy class with Reb Sami in the Boulderado's Corner Bar.

It was a blast. First we talked about our synagogue visits (I blogged about one of mine a while back here); then about questions of liturgical message, and the strengths and weaknesses of Jewish services and Christian services in that regard. And then, toward the end, we moved to a close reading of the piyyut "Adon Olam," which -- I kid you not -- took us through questions of infinity, philosophy, relationship, divinity, and the human condition. At lightning speed. It was kind of breathtaking.

Going out for drinks with teachers and colleagues is probably old hat to my friends who attend, or have attended, traditional bricks-and-mortar seminaries. But we in the ALEPH ordination programs are so geographically dispersed that this kind of experience is an impossibility for us, most of the time. It's a pleasure just seeing one another's faces, motions, body language. Laughter and gestures and making faces and chiming in on top of each others' sentences.

Plus which, we were talking about incredibly interesting stuff. Services and deep ecumenism, medieval poetry and philosophy and theology. And we closed by singing the last verse of "Adon Olam" to the tune of "Amazing Grace," in multipart harmony, to an audience of waitstaff clearing tables at the otherwise empty bar.

I haven't been a real night owl in years. I'm short on sleep, and have been for some days now. Today was an incredibly full day (great talks, study sessions, a meeting with my spiritual director, and so on) in a string of incredibly full days. But this late-night liturgy class at the pub lit me up; I'm flying.

Technorati tags: , , , , .

Leyning at Ohalah

Sunday night found me sitting on the floor outside my hotel room with my laptop, practicing the beginning of parashat Bo. The rabbi who led this morning's "Renewal davenen" (the two other shacharit options were "traditional" and "movement") had asked me to leyn a short Torah reading -- just one aliyah, the first verses of this week's Torah portion, in which Moses is commanded to go before Pharaoh (whose heart has been hardened) to instruct him to let God's people go.

I'd meant to practice in my room last night, but by the time I got there after the evening's session my room-mates were asleep. So I sat in the hallway, using as my tikkun, and practiced my verses silently until I could look at the unvowelled, unpointed Hebrew text and fluently chant both the Hebrew and the English translation. As friends walked past, en route to their rooms, I got a lot of greetings and laughter. I had the feeling at the time that this would be one of those rabbinic school moments I'd remember for a long time to come: learning Torah on the floor of the hotel Boulderado at the start of 2008...

The minyan this morning was awesome. We've been blessed with some fantastic services so far (I come away from each one feeling blessed and connected -- and having learned something new about service leadership, every single time) and this morning's was one of my favorites. So many sweet melodies, good drumming, impromptu harmony! And then it came time for the Torah reading. I looked up at the faces of all those who'd come up to offer the Torah blessings -- friends, colleagues, teachers, wrapped in a rainbow of tallitot -- and just marveled at how amazing it is that I've found this community.

And then I chanted, and my voice carried the words of the parsha through the room. And the English chanting went as smoothly as did the Hebrew. And at the end I offered a spontaneous free-form blessing for those who'd come up, that they too might find themselves -- like Moses and Aaron -- able to speak truth to power, and to speak the truths people need to hear in order to become freed from narrow places. And then Reb Richard offered a blessing for me in my studies, which I hadn't expected and which was incredibly sweet.

And then I had breakfast with new friends (a rabbi from Hebrew college, a rabbi from Maine) and old (some of my DLTI chevre), and as I write this it's almost time for the morning's opening session. Me, I'm still flying high: from this incredible Shabbat, from this morning's service, from the privilege of chanting Torah before this awesome assembly.


Technorati tags: , , , .

Off to my third Ohalah

En route to my third Ohalah, I finally feel like I know where I'm going. Yes, the grand old Boulderado, obviously, a few easy blocks from the pedestrian mall, in the glorious shadow of the Front Range (even with my deep Berkshire pride, I can admit that the Berkshires are gentle rolling hummocks beside the wrinkled grandeur of the Rockies.) But I mean more than that.

My first year at Ohalah everything was new and unfamiliar. I knew some people, sure; no one starts an ALEPH ordination program without already being a part of the community, and I'd met fellow students and teachers at assorted Elat Chayyim retreats. But I felt like a newcomer. The celebration of liminality -- welcoming new students; bidding farewell to those who were about to be ordained -- brought me to tears of joy. So did witnessing my first smicha ceremony. I had a conversation with one of my teachers one night at dinner about how merely saying the words "I'm a rabbinic student" lit me up like a flame.

My second year at Ohalah I was newly out of the hospital, and everything was colored by that lens. The backs of my hands were still marked from the IV ports I had worn at the hospital. At the Shabbaton and the conference my consciousness was alternately fogged-in and weirdly sharp, like some part of me was in another world. I had a panic attack one day, sparked by a high BP reading. But I felt cushioned by the love and prayers of my community, and on my last morning Reb Zalman placed his hands on my shoulders and offered a prayer for my healing that left me luminous.

And this year, my third Ohalah? I finally feel rooted here, in this community and in these rhythms. Almost everyone at the student Shabbaton will be not only known to me, but dear to me; even once we become a crowd of 200+ on Sunday I think I'll feel at-home. Of course, there's a voice in the back of my mind that cautions me against the hubris of imagining I know what's coming; surely these days will hold unexpected blessings and surprises, challenges and even disappointments. But I'm excited about entering into this experience. About seeing, hugging, singing with, praying with, and learning from teachers and colleagues alike.

As usual, blogging will be light while I'm at the conference, though I'll try to post from time to time with tidbits that seem appropriate for sharing. For now, I'm checking in to say that it feels really good to be on this journey, and that makes me happy indeed.

Technorati tags: , , , , .

Quiet and community

As has become our custom, we gathered some of our nearest and dearest to spend the turn of the calendar year at our house. We're a hands-on, do-it-yourself kind of crowd; over the course of the weekend we rebuilt our ger, and half a dozen of us slept the first night of the year within its walls, which is a treat. I love the transition from the dance party in our living room to the crisp quiet of a snowy night, and ringing in the new year by sleeping in the outside air always feels sweet to me.

Our New Year's gathering is rich, full, and overwhelming. It tires me out, but it also recharges my emotional batteries, leaving me profoundly aware of how lucky I am to be part of such a loving community.

I'm lucky to be part of several such loving communities, actually. And another one is about to gather; tomorrow morning at an absurdly early hour I'll head out to Ohalah (the annual meeting of the Jewish Renewal Rabbinic Association), preceded by a student-led Shabbaton, in Boulder, Colorado. It's something of an embarrassment of riches, going from New Year's to Ohalah within the span of a few days.

The Myers-Briggs personality test tells me I'm neatly balanced between introvert and extrovert. The classic question that aims to determine where on that spectrum one falls is, "At the end of a busy day, do you recharge by being alone or by being with people?" My answer tends to be, "I need more information -- who are the people?" At the end of a busy day (or a busy week), being with strangers can be tiring and being alone can feel lonely. What I really want is to be in community.

Fortunately for me, the folks involved with the various ALEPH ordination programs constitute a pretty wonderful community, and I'm eager for  the chance to talk and sing and pray with all of them again. Though I suspect that by the time I come home from that trip, I'll be more than ready for the quiet solitude of our snowy backyard! (As seen in the above photograph, taken during a quiet moment on the cusp of New Year's Eve.)

Here's hoping 2008 will hold the right balance between conversations and quiet time, for all of us.

Technorati tags: , .