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Places to find my poems

Readers of The Journal of Pastoral Care and Counseling should check out the current issue (Spring/Summer 2008) -- my poem "First Night" appears in its pages. (If you own chaplainbook, you already have a copy of the poem, of course; some of you may even have read it here when it was first written, one on-call night at Albany Medical Center a few years ago. But it's still neat to see it in print.)

Also exciting: three of my poems appear in the current issue of Zeek! They're part of a group of poems called the Brakhot Cycle. Brakhot means "blessings," and is the name of the first tractate of the Mishna. The cycle is a group of nine poems, each one titled with the first line of a chapter of Brakhot.

So the first poem is called "From when does one recite Shema in the evening?" The second, "Someone was reading the Torah." The third, "One whose dead lies before him," is in Zeek. (And so on.) Richard published the third, sixth, and seventh poems in the cycle. Take a look, see what you think, and feel free to leave a comment there or here.

Oh, and while I'm at it: it's now possible to subscribe to Zeek in your aggregator or feed reader. Here's a link directly to the feed. Shabbat shalom!


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Theodicy meme

Iyov tagged me to respond to a theodicy meme which goes as follows:

1. if the nature of god is omnipotent, benevolent, and anthropomorphic (that god is a person, who sees suffering as wrong, and can change all of it), why does god not act to relieve all suffering, or at least the greatest amount of suffering for the greatest amount of people the greatest amount of time?
2. if you were god, and you were omnipotent and benevolent, how would you respond to suffering?
3. if this is not the nature of god, what is the nature of god, that allows suffering in the world?
4. if these are the wrong questions to ask, what are the right ones?

Whew. While I'm always pleased to see the blogosphere engaging with weighty questions, I can't really imagine answering these in a satisfying manner in a single blog post!

I don't think these are the right questions to ask. I get hung-up on the first phrase of the first question: "if the nature of God is..." If I had to try to characterize the "nature" of "God," the best quick answer I can offer is that God is multifaceted and arguably ultimately unknowable, at least through intellectual means.  The framing of the question seems to presume a pretty limited conception of God, and for me a sincere exploration of theodicy requires some different assumptions.

I took a powerful class on theodicy last summer. It helped me realize that we've always struggled to reconcile our understanding of a just and good God with the realities of suffering as we experience them. Over time, our responses to these questions have shifted as our paradigm has shifted. The Biblical answers to these questions differ from the Rabbinic answers to these questions which differ from the kabbalistic answers to these questions. (And so on.) I take comfort in the notion that our responses to these questions can shift, have shifted, must shift as we change and grow, both as individuals and as a community.

For me, the question to ask is not "how could God allow suffering," but "given the reality of suffering, how can we respond in a way that is whole and holy?" How can we respond to suffering -- our own, and others' -- with love and compassion? Near as I can tell, suffering is part of existence. Why that's the case isn't an especially compelling question for me. I'm much more interested in what we do about it; how we relate to one another, and to God, given the reality of injustice and suffering in our world. Sure, we can put God on trial for allowing suffering to occur...but while we're at it, we'd better do the same for ourselves.

I'm not big on tagging people to follow memes. If you find these questions compelling, or if you'd like to take this ball and run with it (in whatever form), please do, and drop me a comment so I can check out your response. Thanks for the tag, Iyov; this was a thought-provoking way to begin my day!


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This week's portion: census (Bamidbar)

CENSUS (BAMIDBAR)

Magnified and sanctified be the names in the census:
these print-outs piled on the kitchen island
like petals from some vast magnolia scented with toner;
these passenger manifests showing which ancestor
came when and lived with whom (and where.)

Family and boarders, all "Hebrew," all literate, together!

Blurred and scanned, puzzled and deciphered: praise
the crabbed handwriting giving us (now)
all these names, each a part
of the great name, just as stars
are part of the galaxy, burning on and on.

And may we all remember, their descendants,
that Poland wasn't black and white, but real, like here.
Endless database of names, hold our memories for us,
inscribe us on an everlasting hard drive, and we say: amen.


This week's portion is Bamidbar, the first portion in the book of Bamidbar, which in English we call Numbers. Most of the portion concerns the taking of a census of the whole Israelite community, "by the clans of its ancestral houses, listing the names, every male, head by head." (Numbers 1:2)

When I was in San Antonio last week, an aunt of mine who's deeply interested in genealogy showed me her printouts from Ancestry.com, passenger manifests from ships and records from the 1910 census that showed my great-great-grandparents' arrivals and living arrangements. So the notion of the census was immediately resonant for me.

This week's portion is full of names, which put me in mind of a teaching I learned from Reb Arthur Waskow about the shmeh rabbah, the Great Name, which we invoke in the kaddish (the prayer we say at the conclusion of study, as a gate or bridge between different parts of the service, and also in our mourning). The kaddish recited after study offers a chance to remember our teachers and their students and their students' students. Reb Arthur teaches that each of their names becomes part of the Great Name, the Name of God which includes and enfolds all of our names. The same might be said of a yarzheit list (the list of names we read in memory of those who have died), and of the long list of names in this week's portion.

The rhythm of the poem may be familiar. It mirrors the mourner's kaddish, which is typically spoken aloud rather than sung. (Though I suppose I could also sing this poem in weekday nusach!) These rhythms help me read the lists of names in this week's portion in a more personal way.

As usual, if you can't see the audio player at the top of this post or if you'd like a copy of the recorded poem, you can download census.mp3.


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Pastoral counseling assignment: response to a dirty bomb

Being temporarily cut off from my email is discombobulating on all sorts of levels. (I may write about that later today -- it's a little bit funny, and a little bit revelatory, how deeply I feel this disconnection!) One of the practical challenges it poses, though, is that in my low-residency rabbinic program we rely on email a lot.

Tonight, for instance, I have a pastoral counseling class, for which homework is due. But how can I hand in the homework if I can neither email it to the instructor nor access the google-group where our course discussions are held? Well, I can post it here. And hey, maybe it will be interesting to someone out there. Here's the assignment; my response follows beneath the extended-entry tag.

Imagine a dirty bomb set by terrorists has gone off in the closest major city to where you live and work, but not in your city of residence/work. Religious school happens to be starting in a week’s time – how will you change the opening week’s programming/classes to integrate this incident in a healthy way? Please write up a memo to parents and faculty describing procedures and program plans, recommendations for how to handle the situation with students/children, etc.

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Home, but not really online

I had an action-packed week in Texas; I'm home now, and looking forward to a quiet day of doing laundry and unwinding.

Unfortunately, I'm having some email issues today and am unable to log in to my gmail account. Since I don't have a secondary email account where they might send me a password re-set, I apparently need to wait 24h before trying to log in again, and then follow whatever next steps they offer me.

So if you've emailed me, I apologize for not responding; I can't get to my mail! Please bear with me; I hope that by tomorrow afternoon I'll be online in my usual ways again.


Edited to add: my account has been restored! "O frabjous day," etc! So I'm once again reachable at gmail. Thanks for your patience.


This week's portion: either/or (Behukkotai)


EITHER/OR (BEHUKKOTAI)

If you will follow my laws
and observe my commandments
I will grant you rain in its season
you will eat your fill
I will live in your midst.

I will untie your tangles.
Where there is rye bread
there will always be pastrami.
You and your mother will remain
on good terms, no matter what.

But if you do not obey
if you break my laws and spurn my rules
if you break my covenant
I will set my face against you
I will shatter your glory.

I will leave your boat becalmed.
You will never find
a good parking place again.
You will poison the skies
and your fields will not feed you.

I can be infinitely more hostile
than you, but I won't be.
In the end you'll realize
I was here all along,
waiting for you.



This week we're in Behukkotai, the last portion in the book of Leviticus. This portion begins with some truly fabulous homiletics: God telling the Israelites that if they follow the mitzvot (connective commandments) God will reward them, but if they break the covenant all manner of dreadful things will transpire.

I read this more as a descriptive text than a prescriptive one. I don't think the Torah is ecessarily offering a direct equivalency between righteousness and good fortune (or the inverses thereof.) I choose to read it instead as a suggestion that being in conscious relationship with holiness enriches our lives on emotional and spiritual levels, and that breaking that covenant damages our lives in those same ways.

The first and third verses of this poem are a patchwork of citations from the portion.

Writing these Torah poems has changed my relationship with the text. For the first time I find I'm genuinely sorry to see Leviticus go. But I'm curious to see where the book of Bamidbar -- which in English we call Numbers, though the Hebrew name ("In the Wilderness") is much more evocative! -- will take me.

As usual, if you can't see the audio player at the top of this post or if you'd like a copy of the recording, you can download EitherOr.mp3.


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Eat At Joe's

I'd never been to Joseph's Storehouse Restaurant & Bakery before. It was founded in 1992, the year I left town, so it wasn't even on my mental map of San Antonio. Not until we ate lunch there today.

Joseph's is run by a pastor named Patrick. When Patrick came over to our table, I told him it was my first visit, and asked if he would tell me about the place. He seemed happy to oblige, and told the story of how his wife got into milling grains and baking bread, back when he was a fulltime pastor. Eventually he founded his own non-denominational church, and his family found themselves in need of funds. One day his wife asked him whether if she baked some bread, he'd take it someplace and sell it.

Needing a name for the nascent business, he remembered the Biblical story of Joseph interpreting Pharaoh's dreams about the years of feast and the years of famine. He thought of how Joseph stored up grain so that the famine would be survivable. So they named the business Joseph's Storehouse. Out of that, the restaurant and bakery were born.

(I learned later in the day that Patrick ran for mayor of San Antonio last year. And from Rising to the Top I learned that the denomination he left when he struck out on his own was the Baptist church, and that he's been leading services at Joseph's every Sunday since 9/11/01.) As the window makes plain, the restaurant/bakery doubles as a small church:

From what I've learned so far, I'm guessing Patrick and I have fairly divergent theologies. There's probably a lot on which we wouldn't agree. But watching Patrick at work -- taking orders behind the counter; moving throughout the restaurant, checking in with everyone he sees, saying hello and clasping hands and greeting people -- makes me realize the extent to which running a restaurant is about service. Not just "good service," as in "that restaurant has terrific waitstaff" -- but "good service" as in serving one's fellow man.

On my last visit to San Antonio, I got into a conversation with my oldest brother and my father about the best desserts in town. They agreed that the best chocolate cake in the city comes from Joseph's, and my dad brought a tiny one home in a plastic container for me to sample: thick, rich, slathered with frosting that tastes like homemade fudge. We'll have some of that cake on Friday, at my mother's birthday dinner. I'm kind of tickled that Joseph's is catering our Shabbat supper!

Anyway. Joseph's. I like it there. Good simple food, and a blessing for the road.


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Hi ho, hi ho, it's off to Texas I go...

I'm off this afternoon to spend a week and change in Texas, visiting family and celebrating a number of family events at once.

I'm looking forward to eating good Tex-Mex (the cuisine of my childhood) and to hanging out with the extended Barenblat clan.

Based on prior experience, I'm guessing my blogging time there will be limited. So I wish all of y'all an early Shabbat shalom and a fine weekend, and I'll post when I can!


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Day 26 of the Omer: humility in endurance

Image by Pauline Frankenberg, from her series of 49 images for Counting the Omer.

Well, I broke my streak. I blogged about the counting of the Omer on the first day of the first week, the day of lovingkindness within the week of lovingkindness. During week two, I blogged on day two, the day of strength/boundary squared. During week three, I blogged on day three, compassion/harmony squared. To keep the pattern going, I should have blogged about the Omer earlier today, which was day four of week four, the day of netzach (endurance, fortitude, ambition) during the week of netzach.

Instead, here I am on the 26th day of the Omer, the day of hod she'b'netzach: humility in endurance.

"Buildings and bridges are made to bend in the wind / to withstand the world, that's what it takes," sings Ani di Franco. (I've probably just dated myself with that quote, eh? I hadn't listened to Out of Range in years, though I'm adding it to my iTunes library now...) She's on to something. We're deep in the week of netzach, endurance: inner strength, the ability to stand firm despite whatever winds of emotion or fortune may be blowing. But what really endures is what stands firm and humble at the same time.

Hod of netzach is the humble recognition and acknowledgment that the capacity to endure and prevail comes from the soul that G-d gave each person. This humility does not compromise the drive of endurance; on the contrary, it intensifies it, because human endurance can only go so far and endure only so much, whereas endurance that comes from the Divine soul is limitless.

That's Rabbi Simon Jacobson in היום יום אחד: A Spiritual Guide to the Counting of the Omer, which I've been unfolding like the world's slowest flip book over the weeks of the Omer count so far. I like the way he understands the unique combination of qualities that permeate this day.

And what he describes resonates strongly with me as Ethan continues the work of recovery. Endurance is definitely required; we learned yesterday from his doctors that they simply do not know when he'll have vision in that eye again. It may be a matter of weeks, it may be a matter of months -- they can't tell us.

But endurance alone won't cut it. This isn't something one can just tough out. We need the humility of recognizing that this isn't within our control. All we can do is face what arises, knowing that the healing will happen in its own time.

 

 


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This week's portion: Caretaker (Behar)

 

CARETAKER (BEHAR)

Six days you may visit
to pick sugar snap peas

to burnish your fingers
with basil and dill

to strip string beans
from their leggy bushes

and choose radishes
to stash in your bag.

But on the seventh
let the land rest:

the chattering chickens
and drowsy sunflowers

the garlic hanging
fragrant in the rafters

even the earthworms
ineffable, underground.

Keep them in trust
and let them keep you.


This week's portion, Behar, contains injunctions to let the land rest one day out of seven and one year out of seven, and after seven cycles of seven years to declare yovel (Jubilee), releasing all debts and returning land to its original owners. In a deep sense, the Torah reminds us this week that we never truly "own" land, we only borrow it from its Creator for a time. Opinions differ on the question of whether the yovel a) ever actually happened and b) is even possible in our imperfect world, but even if it's just an instance of Biblical utopianism it's a powerful teaching.

The verses about letting the land rest reminded me of Caretaker Farm, the CSA to which Ethan and I have belonged for years. So that's where this week's poem went: not to the grand Jubilee, but to the small cycle of work and rest in which each of us can take part. As usual, if you can't see the audio player embedded at the top of this post or if you'd like to hang on to the recording, you can download caretaker.mp3.


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Guest post at God's Politics

The folks at God's Politics, a blog by Jim Wallis and friends (presented by Beliefnet and Sojourners), asked me to write a guest post for them about the 60th anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel and how I wrestle with it as an American Jew. The post I wrote took the form of a letter to Israel on the occasion of her sixtieth birthday. It's here: The Velveteen Rabbi's Birthday Card to Israel.

Reb Zalman reminds us frequently that we should speak not only about God but also to God. So when the editors at God's Politics asked me to write this post, I decided to take that same tack, talking to Israel rather than merely about it. Writing the post as a direct address was both difficult and fruitful for me, and it made me realize that I'd love to see what others would do with the same assignment. If anyone else out there feels inclined to follow suit, drop a comment here and link to your post?

Thanks to the folks at God's Politics for the opportunity to send a guest post their way.


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Balancing learning and work

The next Talmud text I'm responsible for reprising with my two hevruta partners (study buddies) is a passage about the tension between Torah study and worldly work, from Brachot 35b. It's a nifty teaching, and surprisingly relevant in today's world. (The Jerusalem Post just published an article about it a few weeks ago, Let the Torah not depart by R' Levi Cooper.) I'm guessing it may resonate for many of y'all, as it does for me.

We begin with the prooftext "And you shall gather in your grain." That's Deuteronomy 11:14, and the rabbis of the Talmud ask: what does this verse mean to teach us? Rabbi Ishmael offers, well, we learn in Joshua 1:8 that "the book of this teaching shall not depart from your mouth," and one might imagine therefore that we're supposed to never stop studying Torah, so this verse from Deuteronomy is here to remind us that we also need to work toward worldly sustenance.

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai disagrees. If a man plows in the plowing season, he argues, and reaps in the reaping season, and threshes in the threshing season -- in other words, if he occupies himself all year long with the component acts of getting food on the table -- what will become of Torah? He brings a couple of prooftexts to show that if a person does God's will (and, one assumes, studies Torah all the time) then others will do his work for him -- whereas if a person doesn't do God's will, he winds up doing not only his own labor but also laboring on behalf of others.

Abayye pops in to note, rather archly I think, that those who've taken Rabbi Ishmael's advice and had "real jobs" in addition to learning Torah: things have gone well for those guys. But those who've followed the advice of Rabbi Shimon, focusing solely on learning in the hopes that God will provide the worldly material of living, haven't had it so good.

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Taking care

What a week: anticipation, tension, relief, and aftermath.

Ethan's surgery seems to have been successful. When they let me back into the recovery room and I saw him sitting in a chair, upright and becoming alert again (right eye bandaged tightly), a fierce relief grabbed hold of me that didn't let go for hours. The unmitigated good news is that the surgeon believes they were successful in doing the work they wanted to do -- baruch Hashem and alhamdolillah! Deep thanks to all who left comments, sent emails, and have been saying prayers of all sorts on his, and our, behalf.

Since then, the week has been a bit of a roller-coaster. The surgery is over, but the recovery is just beginning, and the elation of making it through the surgery has given way to some frustration with the limitations of this post-surgical period. Slowly and surely we're finding our way. Yesterday afternoon while I was teaching Hebrew school, a friend came over to read to him for a while. He's planning and cooking elaborate menus; he can't work, exercise, or read, but at least he can cook. (As long as he stays clear of our very sharp knives...)

And I'm learning how unlike chaplaincy is the experience of watching a loved one undergo surgery. I've facilitated lifecycle events for "strangers" (folks I didn't know until they engaged me to work with them), for old friends, and for family, and those three categories feel entirely different to me. When a relationship already exists, the work can be both sweeter and more challenging. Of course, I'm not here to do the work of pastoral care! Though the chaplain part of my brain keeps pointing out how I might try to do things differently if I were.

The counsel I would offer to someone else in shoes like mine this week is this: being family to someone who's undergone trauma -- physical or emotional -- can be difficult. So be gentle with yourself. Cut yourself some slack. Do something nice for yourself. Remember that it's not your job to make things "all better" -- you can't. What you can do is be loving, and be present, and be responsive as best you can. That's all anyone could ask, and it's important work, so kol hakavod to you for doing it.

Anyway. Today is the third day after the surgery and so far, so good. Thanks to everyone who's been with us along the way.

 


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Tiferet squared

Image by Pauline Frankenberg, from her series of 49 images for Counting the Omer.


I have endless respect for folks who are able to blog the counting of the Omer in a sustained way. To offer insights on a daily basis, tracking the practical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual resonances of the shifting grid of sefirot (divine qualities in which we as humans also partake), is a major undertaking. Each day is a unique intersection of the qualities of its week and the qualities of its place within the week, and as the seven weeks of the Omer pass we move through every possible point on the spectrum.

So far I've managed a single post each week of the Omer. Not, perhaps, the same degree of discipline as daily Omer-blogging, but it's working well for me. It's a commitment, but one that coexists nicely with the many other commitments in my life. There's a nice balance to doing it this way.

"Balance" is one way of translating tiferet, the dominant quality of this third week in the counting of the Omer -- and also the dominant quality of this third day of the week. Today is the seventeenth day of the Omer, a day of tiferet she'b'tiferet -- tiferet squared.

"Harmony" is another way to render tiferet in English. Where the first week of the Omer was all about lovingkindness, and the second week was all about boundaries, this third week of the Omer is resonant with the impulse to harmonize those two things. It's the triad that makes the chord, the synthesis that turns both thesis and antithesis into something new.

Two more translations for tiferet are "compassion" and "integration." Today -- the seventeenth day of the Omer -- is a day to aim for compassion and integration, balance and harmony, in their purest and fullest form.

In the wake of Ethan's surgery yesterday, I'm trying to figure out the appropriate balance between offering help, and hovering too much. Today may I, and we, begin the work of integrating the experiences we had yesterday, harmonizing it with our ordinary life, and balancing it appropriately and compassionately in the days of recovery to come.

 

 


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Rabbinic round-table on Israel

Zeek: Thank you all for joining us. The central issue I want to look at is how we relate to Israel as American Jews, in American communities and congregations and schools. The first question I want to throw out is, do any of you have experiences working in a community where your own relationship with Israel isn't mirrored by those you're working with?

Schiller: As I mentioned, I teach in a Modern Orthodox high school. The mood there is decidedly in line with the Israeli right, and has been since '67 war. My own perspective, favoring a two-state solution, is not that of the community in which I teach. The community in which I live, the Haredi community, is largely indifferent to these issues except to the degree that they share deep fear of Palestinians and of the gentile world in general.

...Angel: My experience is in some ways similar to Rabbi Schiller's, although from the other side. I'm in the Bay Area in San Francisco; this is the first time in my life I've been surrounded by so many Jews who developed a Jewish identity post-'67. By and large they're from secular backgrounds; they've felt marginalized by the mainstream for all sorts of reasons, and are deeply suspicious of mainstream ideas--and being pro-Israel is largely a mainstream idea.

Earlier this year, I had the honor of facilitating a round-table discussion in which Rabbis Camille Angel, Lynn Gottlieb, Fred Guttman and Meyer Schiller discussed the impact of Israel on their rabbinates. That discussion has now been published over at Zeek.

The panel of rabbis that we assembled spans a few different gamuts. Rabbi Schiller is a ba'al teshuva and a Hasid who works in the Orthodox world, while Rabbis Angel and Guttman were ordained Reform. Rabbi Guttman used to serve in a combat artillery brigade in Israel, while Rabbi Gottlieb is co-founder of the Muslim-Jewish Peace Walk. (And so on.) Our conversation was fascinating, thoughtful, and often surprising. Given that I've been wrestling with my own relationship to Israel, and how it might impact my rabbinate, this conversation was thought-provoking and fruitful for me. I hope it was for the participants, too.

You can read it here: The Synagogue/Israeli Politics Mashup. And if you have thoughts in response, please feel free to let me know, either via commenting on this blog post, or via commenting on the round-table article itself.


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T-minus one day and counting

A few weeks ago Ethan blogged about eye trouble and forthcoming surgery, a pars plana vitrectomy on his right eye. That surgery is happening tomorrow, as per his latest post. We'll wake up at 5am and drive the three hours to Boston. After the surgery we'll spend a night there, and have a follow-up visit with the doctors on Wednesday morning. Assuming all goes according to plan, we'll get home by Wednesday evening.

I don't entirely know what to expect. We've read everything we can get our hands on, and Ethan's doctors have told us about how the procedure works and what its aftermath is likely to entail, but that kind of advance knowledge is only so helpful. Beyond the bare outlines -- surgery, recovery, an estimated three weeks abstaining from reading (!) -- we don't really know what's ahead.

I'm chagrined to discover the extent to which I'm more comfortable being the patient than the worried family member in the waiting room. I'm reminded, too, of something I learned from my supervisor during my year of CPE: ministering to one's family doesn't really work. In this situation I'm not the chaplain, I'm the wife. It's fascinating to be reminded how discrete those two roles are.

Anyway, we have high hopes that the surgery will be successful; that's something to, er, focus on. Meanwhile, if I'm somewhat slow to respond to emails and blog comments for a few days, I ask your understanding. And if you're so inclined, good thoughts and prayers are always welcome.


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A minister and a rabbinic student walk into a coffee shop...

Meeting other bloggers is one of the perennial pleasures of blogging. In some ways, meeting a blogger is like meeting an author whose works one knows well. Though in the latter case, the relationship tends to be asymmetrical (which is to say: given the opportunity I would totally fangirl Annie Dillard or Michael Chabon, but they don't know me from Eve) whereas when two bloggers meet the odds are good that we'll already know some things about each other. In an ideal world, that means one can skip the awkward pleasantries phase and leap right to the good stuff.

This must be a pretty ideal world, because I got to have lunch today with James Lumsden, a UCC pastor who moved to Pittsfield last August, who blogs at When love comes to town. I can't entirely remember when I first started reading his blog, but I've been a fan for a while now. His posts during Holy Week were especially resonant for me; most weeks he posts his sermons (illustrated by all manner of images), which never fail to be thought-provoking. But what speaks to me most in his blog is the sense I get of his joyful service, especially filtered through the prism of his simultaneous engagement with church and with rock music of various forms.

Lunchtime conversation ranged from who we are (how he came to the ministry, how I came to the rabbinate), to community and the Berkshires, to architecture and how it shapes the worship experience, to brokenness and wholeness, to the tension between love of liturgy and the desire to facilitate an accessible experience of prayer, to the desire to help (and how frustrating, and valuable, it is to be reminded that making things better isn't always in our hands), to Jewish Renewal and the emergent church, to deep ecumenism, to what it might mean if we understand ourselves to be walking parallel paths toward the same ineffable Source. And more. 

One of this blog's origin stories goes, "I started Velveteen Rabbi because I wanted to be having conversations about God and prayer and scripture, and my local friends were good sports about listening to me ramble, but I knew they were basically humoring me. I wanted to be engaged in conversations about all of this, so I started blogging." The pleasant surprise, five years in, is that my circle of conversationalists has been broadening both online and off. And today I got to make another online relationship into a f2f one, which was a treat. Thanks for lunch, James! Next time it's on me.


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This week's portion: Shall (Emor)

SHALL (EMOR)


And God said to Moses
When you reap the harvest of your land
you shall take choice flour, clear oil of beaten olives
they shall be holy
you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger

No man of your offspring throughout the ages
may eat of the food of his God
he shall not enter behind the curtain
None shall defile himself,
it will not be accepted in your favor

You shall not leave any of it until morning
You shall count off seven weeks,
you shall celebrate each in its appointed time,
you shall observe this
I am the Lord

 


This week's Torah poem is a cento, a kind of patchwork poem composed entirely of found lines. Some centos draw from multiple sources; others draw from a single source, but the lines wind up (ideally) recontextualized in their juxtaposition. Mary E. Moore has written a lovely cento which draws  on Emily Dickinson, and this one from the SemiCento project draws on sources from Dante and Shakespeare to Thich Nhat Hanh and Old Norse eddas.

As you've probably guessed, the lines in this cento are from this week's parsha, Emor (JPS translation.)There's much in this portion which evokes an intellectual response in me, from the injunction against priests coming in contact with death to the various laws having to do with blemishes (forbidden both in priests and in sacrifices -- as though blemished creatures were improper transformers, incapable of stepping-down God's high voltage into the gentle form with which we can interact.)

But when I went into the portion with an eye toward finding lines for this cento, the verses and half-verses that leapt out at me weren't necessarily the same ones that make me want to respond in prose. That's part of the joy of this practice: in digging my fingers through the portion, I find gems I didn't realize were there.

As usual, those unable to see the audio player embedded at the top of the post, or those who want a copy of the recording, can download shall.mp3.

 


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Joann Sfar's "The Rabbi's Cat 2"

On a cold and damp Shabbat afternoon I curled up on the couch with my cat to read Joann Sfar's delightful graphic novel The Rabbi's Cat 2.

Both Rabbi's Cat books are set in 1930s Algiers. The narrator is the eponymous feline, who eats the rabbi's talking parrot in order to shut it up and is thenceforth capable of human speech. Hijinks, as they say, ensue. The cat is in love with the rabbi's daughter Zlabya, and the rabbi decides quickly that a cat who can talk circles around him is not appropriate company for an unmarried Jewish girl. Majrum's solution? He asks to become bar mitzvah. (You can read that story in Volume 1: The Bar Mitzvah, which Pantheon graciously put online.) He asks not because he cares about God or Jewish tradition, but because he wants to be able to hang out with Zlabya, which would be more proper if he were, well, a nice Jewish cat. Meanwhile, there's a new rabbi in town, who is young, and smart, and French. Will he steal our rabbi's job -- or our cat's owner -- away?

I won't answer that question for you. If you haven't read the first book, it's worth picking up, and I don't want to spoil its twists and turns. (It's one of my very favorites.) Anyway, book two begins where book one left off.

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Announcing Zeek @ Jewcy

Big news in the Jewish literary world today: Zeek, the Jewish journal of thought and culture where I'm a contributing editor, has formed a partnership with Jewcy. Zeek's new home is here.

This isn't a merger; it's a joint venture. Jewcy wants to move toward hosting a publishing network of editorial sites serving "young, culturally omnivorous [readers] looking for meaning and community," and Zeek wants more readers and a more robust and flexible web presence. From where I sit, it's a win-win.

Zeek's 2002-2007 archives are still hosted at the old domain, and they'll remain there. But new material will be published now at jewcy.com/zeek, now on a more blog-like schedule (so instead of getting a batch of new content once a month, readers will be treated to an ongoing stream of articles a few at a time.) Zeek will retain editorial independence, and we'll continue to publish our print journal (of which the most recent issue, published last month, is a 120-page anthology of Russian-Jewish art, fiction, and poetry.)

Our May online issue focuses on Israel, in celebration of Israel's 60th anniversary. The first few pieces are online now, including three poems by Rivka Miriam and Joel Schalit's interview with Beaufort director Joseph Cedar. (My contribution to the issue will go live on Tuesday, and I'll point to it when it does.) Nu, go and read -- and feel free to leave a comment, since interactivity is one of the features of the new site. Here's to a long and happy publishing marriage.


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