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In Medias Res: Liturgy for the Estranged

I've mentioned Catherine Madsen's work on this blog before. She's the author of The Bones Reassemble, a powerful critique of modern liturgical language. (She's also a former contributing editor to the journal CrossCurrents; if you want a sample of her nonfiction online, try Notes on God's Violence, published in that journal.) I first encountered her work when I was editing The Women's Times, the regional women's monthly newspaper. That's when I got my hands on an Avinu Malkeinu variation she'd written, which startled me and moved me so deeply that I folded it up and carried it in my tallit case for years. She and I met for lunch a few years back, when I was hard at work on a manuscript about creative Jewish liturgy. (The manuscript has since been tabled; in writing it, I realized that rabbinic school was still calling my name, so it served its purpose.)

Anyway: I'm a longtime admirer. When I got home from Jerusalem this summer I found a copy of her latest book on my desk: In Medias Res: Liturgy for the Estranged.

Anyone who writes a deliberately controversial book about the failures of modern liturgy should be expected to follow it with a book that shows how the job should be done. This is not that book. In Medias Res was written some fifteen years before The Bones Reassemble, when I had only begun to feel my way toward the premises for liturgical writing that I set out there. I was in the fairly common position of being unable to accept any of the revelations on offer, but not wanting to live without shared ritual; I drew from the only scriptures I had, the poetry and prose I trusted, to imagine what that ritual might be. There are certainly things here that I would no longer write -- and I could prove by my own methods how much of it is not worth repeating -- but the approach may still be useful to other liturgists.

That's from the 2007 Author's Note which begins the book; it's followed by a preface (written in 1990) that talks about the challenge of making "certain thoughts sayable," of crafting a liturgy "not of revelation but of experience and uncertainty." Not top-down, but bottom-up; not ignoring or setting aside the uncertainties of our contemporary experience, but arising directly out of those uncertainties.

Continue reading "In Medias Res: Liturgy for the Estranged" »

This week's portion: not empty-handed


The gift of silence.
The gift of transforming stars

into constellations.
The gift of recorded voices.

The gift of bare feet
dangling over the pier.

The gift of blurred vision
doubling the moon.

The gift of the name
you gave me, and the one I chose.

The gift of the right tool for the job.
The gift of a gate opening

and the wide-open possibility
on the unknown other side.

This week's Torah portion, Re'eh, includes the lines, "Three times a year... all your males shall appear before the Lord your God in the place that He will choose. They shall not appear before the Lord empty-handed, but each with his own gift, according to the blessing that the Lord your God has bestowed upon you." (Deut. 16:16-17) Those lines sparked this week's poem: a meditation on some of the different gifts we carry with us into our interactions with the Divine.

This week's Torah poem is an associative one, which means it leaps from image to image in a way more intuitive than logical. I'd love to hear what the images (and the juxtaposition of images) suggest to you, if you're willing to share. And I invite you to imagine coming before God -- whatever you understand that to mean -- at these three sacred pilgrimage festivals, Pesach and Shavuot and Sukkot. What are you holding in your hands? What's the unique gift that only you can bring?

As usual, if you can't see the audio player at the top of the post, or if you'd like to save the audio to listen to it again, you can download emptyhanded.mp3.


Edited to add: this poem is now available in 70 faces, my collection of Torah poems, published by Phoenicia Publishing, 2011.


Retreating to savor the Days of Awe

Longtime readers know that I've spent the last four Yom Kippurim at Elat Chayyim / Isabella Freedman. (Last year, right after the retreat, I posted Thirteen ways of looking at Yom Kippur; at the bottom of the post you can find links to post-Y"K write-ups from 2004, 2005 and 2006.) The prayer is incredible, the physical setting is incredible, the people and the kavvanah (intention) are incredible. It's always a highlight of my year.

This year, the High Holiday retreats there will be co-led by Reb Shawn Zevit and Arielle Cohen. (Read more on the retreat center's website: Rosh Hashanah retreat; Yom Kippur retreat.) Spending the Days of Awe with Reb Shawn, in that glorious setting, sounds like a foretaste of heaven for sure.

I won't be there, because my Days of Awe are otherwise booked -- with something else that promises to be a spiritual highlight. (More on that soon.) But I want to put in a plug for spending the Days of Awe at Elat Chayyim / Isabella Freedman, even though I won't be there. I love to think of other people enjoying the experience that's given me so much spiritual sustenance over the years.

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Thank God for Sundays

If you'd asked me before I went to Jerusalem, I would have said that a two-day weekend is a two-day weekend, regardless of what those two days hold. But it turns out that a Friday-Saturday weekend feels very different to me than a Saturday-Sunday weekend does.

In Jerusalem I could sleep late on Fridays, if I wanted to; it was the first day of the weekend, after all! Though more often I didn't sleep in, because there was so much to accomplish before Shabbat. I would go to Machane Yehuda to buy fruits and vegetables and rugelach, marveling at the crowds and the chaos as I pushed my way past (it seemed) everyone else in town who was trying to do the same thing. Maybe we'd go to the takeout place that's only open on Fridays, next to Beit Avichai, and bring home pre-made food to eat on Saturday. But one way or another, the day always felt frenetic.

On Shabbat itself, I'd wake up early to shower and breakfast before walking to shul, thirty or forty-five minutes on foot (once, early in my visit, a slow limping hour; my feet were blistered from sightseeing and I kept having to stop to replace band-aids.) The davening was often wonderful, and then the afternoon stretched slow and lazy. Once I met a friend at the one place I knew of in West Jerusalem that was actually open on Saturday (the Three Arches café at the YMCA around the orner from our apartment) but since most places were closed, there was little reason to go out. My housemates often napped. I read books, mostly. By evening, the city was waking up again...but I wasn't inclined to go out, since Saturday night was a school night again.

Here in the States, Shabbat comes at the start of the weekend. I have the luxury of a schedule that lets me spend Friday preparing for Shabbat if I need to; then again, my Shabbat observance here also includes cooking and driving, so there's less need to prepare Shabbat's meals in advance. Friday night caps off my week. Saturday morning there's shul, which gives me singing and prayer and community, and then our afternoon activities vary with the season. But one way or another, Shabbat is followed by Sunday: a day to sleep in, have brunch, read choice selections from the New York Times. Soon it'll be football season, so Sunday will be time to ensconce ourselves on the couch with friends. For now, it's a day to work on the house, or explore as-yet-unknown corners of Pittsfield. Either way, it's a day off after Shabbat, not before.

I imagine that if I were really used to the Israeli system, the rhythm of the Friday-Saturday weekend would come to seem normal. But since I was only there for two months, I never stopped feeling a bit jarred when we went straight from havdalah to erev workweek. Today I'm savoring being back in the weekly rhythm I know best: five days of work, Shabbat, and then a day that's completely free.

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Jars of summertime

Summer is short in the Berkshires.

At least, compared to summer in south Texas, where I was born and reared. Warm weather there stretches for more than half the year. Here in western Massachusetts, especially in the hills where Ethan and I live, summer's really a three-month phenomenon.

And this year I spent two of those three months in Jerusalem. Where the climate feels much more like what I remember of Texas, actually -- granted, Jerusalem's dry in the summertime in a way that Texas isn't, but the heat was familiar to me, and the plant life. Oleander and crepemyrtle and bougainvillea all grew in my parents' backyard when I was a kid. Prickly pear cactus. Fig trees.

But now I'm home in the Berkshires. For once, I've gotten my share of heat for the season; I don't mind that the days here are already growing cooler, because I feel like I got enough exposure to sun to last me through the coming winter! But I find that I'm trying to pack a whole summer's worth of Berkshire experiences into the short time that remains before it's time to start celebrating the advent of fall.

I missed our local baseball season this year, and the nearby drive-in movie theatre that we love so much has closed early because the proprietors have moved. (Anyone want to buy a movie theatre and reopen it for next summer?) But some of our seasonal pleasures are still here to be enjoyed. We'll be ringing in Shabbat tonight by gathering friends on our deck for a barbecue, which makes me happy. And I've been savoring Caretaker Farm since I got back in town, and pickling up a storm.

I started a batch of cucumber pickles on Thursday. The container in which they're slowly fermenting is lined with grape leaves I picked in our own backyard. The pickling spice is made from scratch: fennel and cumin seeds, peppercorns, allspice berries, bits of cinnamon stick and chipotle pepper. Fresh dill and garlic cloves. Covered the whole thing with a saltwater brine, weighted the proto-pickles down, and draped a towel over the top so nothing falls in. In a few days I expect to see bubbles forming. Soon I'll start skimming schmutz off the top of the brine. They should be ready to eat in about three weeks; I might can some for the winter.

And I picked a bag of string beans, and put up six pints of them -- all with mustard seeds and garlic; some with dill, some with hot peppers, one with both. They'll make good gifts this winter. (I'd hoard them for us, but our baker's rack is -- delightfully -- already loaded with jars of pickled green beans from previous years' harvests.)

I have plans to do more, this weekend. I want to hit a local farm stand, get an armload of fresh local corn, and put up corn relish; it's one of our cooking staples, in the wintertime, and I love the sweetness of real fresh corn. And I keep dogearing pages in our canning and pickling books, finding new recipes I want to try.

There's a lot of joy in canning and preserving, for me. I like that it's a physical task, a nice break from sitting at my computer. I like that it's productive, a way of preserving the harvest. I like that it's a discrete task with tangible results. And I like the emotional resonance of it, the opportunity to consciously be grateful for the bounty of the life I'm blessed to lead. I'm grateful for the farmers who maintain Caretaker Farm, for the incredibly hard work of coaxing our hills into yielding this amazing abundance. I'm grateful for their time and energy, and for mine, which allows me to do the work of putting things up for winter. And I'm grateful for the knowledge that when sleet whisks against our windowpanes, I'll have some of this sweet Berkshire summer in gleaming rows of jars, waiting to be savored all over again.

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Brich rachamana

On my last day of ulpan, I got into conversation with a classmate about Birkat hamazon, the blessing we recite after meals. The idea of making birkat hamazon is rooted in a verse from this week's portion: "And you shall eat and you shall be satisfied. And you shall bless Adonai, your God, for the good land he has given you." (That's Deuteronomy 8:10.) Gella and I were talking, and I mentioned one of my favorite versions of the birkat hamazon, a one-liner in Aramaic: brich rachamana malka d'alma ma'arey d'hai pita ("blessed is the merciful one, ruler of the world, creator of this bread.")

The Babylonian Talmud (Brakhot 40b) describes how a shepherd named Benjamin coined the phrase after making a sandwich. It also describes the sages' conversation about that form of the blessing and whether it "counts." Intriguingly, although the Talmud records one opinion which says that anyone who alters the traditional formula of blessings has not fulfilled his obligation to bless the food, it devotes much more space to the opinion that one may make the blessing after food in any form: even if it's said without explicit mention of God's name, and even if it's said in secular language rather than the holy tongue.

The one-liner is often referred to as the minimum one may recite if one is strapped for time. (The example the Talmud gives is, what if one were being pursued by robbers on the highway and didn't have time to pray the whole grace after meals? I'm guessing that experience is a relative rarity for most of us in the modern world, but we can extrapolate.) Anyway, in this conversation about brich rachamana I mentioned that I know two tunes for it and I like both of them a lot. "Hm, I should learn those," Gella said. Oh, I'll record them for you, I promised. And then this week rolled around and I saw that the verse that sparked our practice is in this week's parsha, so I figured it was time to record the tunes.

So I did. And I'm going to append them to this post, in case anyone else wants to learn a couple of nifty melodies for a one-line grace after meals. (Even though there's a part of me that wonders whether making recordings of myself singing birkot hamazon and posting them on the internet is endearingly dorky or incredibly lame.) Okay, enough with the disclaimers; time for the tunes. The melody I first learned at Elat Chayyim was written by Hazzan Jack Kessler and Rabbi Shefa Gold, and it's a round. Here are two recordings: one of the round sung straight through, and another that attempts to show how the parts of the tune interlock:

Download brich.mp3

Download brichround.mp3

In more recent years, the ALEPH community has added another melody to our box of tunes. I've heard it called "the gospel melody," but I don't actually know its provenance. (ETA: And now I do! It's from a Shaker hymn called "Sanctuary," which I've sung before -- in English and Hebrew -- though I didn't realize that "O Lord prepare me / to be a sanctuary" etc. were the hymn's original words.)

Download gospelbrich.mp3

The "Sanctuary" one sounds strange to me solo; I'm so used to hearing it in a medley of voices, usually with multi-part harmony. (I tried singing harmony over the track, but got weird static; apparently my setup isn't quite sophisticated enough to handle that. Sorry, y'all.) I have some sweet memories of singing that one in Jerusalem with my housemates and friends. On my last night in Jerusalem, after dinner at the Village Green a small cluster of us stood outside and sang it quietly together. I suspect I'll always remember that when I sing that tune now.



2012 Edited to add: I've posted sheet music for both of these melodies in my post Brich Rachamana - now with sheet music!

This week's portion: callus


"Cut away, therefore, the thickening about your hearts and stiffen your necks no more." -- Deuteronomy 10:16

But these calluses
are hard-won.

They protect me
from the places

where the world
rubs me raw.

Without my shrug,
my humor, my

insistence that this
too shall pass

I'll feel exposed
my heart pumping

where any stranger
could see me.

Couldn't you ask
for something easy?

Once I open
my locked chest

what if I
just fly apart?

This week's Torah portion, Ekev, includes powerful words. Like these: "And now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God demand of you? Only this: to revere the Lord your God, to walk only in His paths, to love Him, and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and soul[.]" (Good stuff, eh?)

It also includes the injunction that serves as this poem's epigraph, a line which has always resonated for me. Pharaoh is described in Torah as a man with a hardened heart. Sometimes we ask God not to harden God's heart against us. And here God is asking us to do the same: to make sure our hearts don't calcify, and to peel away whatever keeps us "hard-hearted" so that we can relate to the world in an open way.

It sounds so simple, but it isn't easy. In any given day, each of us has reasons to harden her heart. Personal reasons, like misunderstandings and harsh words -- and more global reasons, like the suffering and trauma we would see if we really looked at the wide world. Imagine walking through a supermarket with your heart truly open to everyone you meet there. (Imagine walking through a market like Makola or Machane Yehuda.)

Going on retreat at Elat Chayyim tends to open my heart wide. It's an amazing experience...though sometimes re-entering the "real world" leaves me feeling like I have the bends. These days I think about this in terms of ratzo v'shov, the ebb and flow of spiritual energies. (The term comes from Ezekiel, who applied it to angels.) I oscillate between protecting my heart enough to be able to function, and opening it enough to be able to love and feel and pray.

As usual, if you can't see the audio player at the top of this post or if you'd like to download the recording of the poem, feel free to nab callus.mp3.

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Mourning Mahmoud Darwish

The poet Mahmoud Darwish, regarded by many as the Palestinian national poet, died the day before I left Jerusalem. In A Poet's Palestine as Metaphor (New York Times, 2001) Adam Shatz notes:

In the Arab imagination, Palestine is not simply a plot of land, any more than Israel is a plot of land in the Jewish imagination. As the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish has observed, Palestine is also a metaphor -- for the loss of Eden, for the sorrows of dispossession and exile, for the declining power of the Arab world in its dealings with the West.

It's in that deeper sense, I think, that Darwish wrote about Palestine: grounded in the details of the physical place, but always speaking also of the metaphysical place, the significance of the place to him beyond hills and trees and stones. One of my favorites among Darwish's poems is called In Jerusalem. Here's how it begins:

In Jerusalem, and I mean within the ancient walls,
I walk from one epoch to another without a memory
to guide me. The prophets over there are sharing
the history of the holy . . . ascending to heaven
and returning less discouraged and melancholy, because love
and peace are holy and are coming to town.

Darwish's work is permeated with the ache of exile and the longing for home -- a thread which runs through Jewish poetry also. Of course, the land for which we're collectively longing is the same land, which...complicates things. Reading him, as a Jew, isn't always easy. But it's worthwhile. Take these lines, from With the Mist So Dense on the Bridge:

My friend said to me,
"I do not want a place to be buried in.
I want a place to live in and curse, if I wish."

Place passes like a gesture between us;
                     "What is 'place'?" I asked.

Continue reading "Mourning Mahmoud Darwish" »

This week's portion: image


We're made in the image
and the likeness
which means we're
chips off the God block.

Damut, likeness, sounds
related to dam, blood
as though God's DNA
inhered in our bodies

though the etymology
doesn't hold up. Still
maybe it's the God in us
that lets us form

clay into vessels, wood
into houses, words
into language--
but we need to take care

not to worship
the structures we build
not to confuse
our various capabilities

with the real source
of creative power, lest
the land spit us out
and our God consign us

to never remembering
there's something out there
greater than the work
of our limited hands.

This week's parsha, Va-etchanan, includes verses which exhort the Israelites to be careful and to remember that they saw no shape when God spoke to them out of the fire; therefore they should avoid making sculptured images and must avoid the temptation to worship the sun and moon and stars. (Deuteronomy 4:15-20.) Having just taken a course at the CY which examined different Jewish understandings of image, likeness, us, God, and idolatry, I gravitated immediately toward these verses, and this week's parsha poem sprung out of them.

To my mind, the critical part of the injunction is against worshipping the wrong things. Allowing our reverence for the natural world, or our reverence for the work of our own hands, to blind us to the ultimate reality that is beyond and behind all things. It's a paradox that we're made in the image and likeness of God (the tselem and damut) -- and yet God tells Moses that no one can see God's form and live, and the most Moses is granted to see is a kind of reflected or refracted afterimage once God has passed by. We're made in the form of something which has no visible form. So then what does it mean for us to be in God's likeness?

The answer that most satisfies me is that we're in God's likeness because we too are able to create. In Biblical Hebrew there are two verbs which denote creation: one which means forming or making (this is an act in which we can easily engage) and one which means creating ex nihilo (this one is God's purview alone.) The verses in this week's portion which caution against making sculptured images are there, I think, to remind us that even our most sublime creations are formed out of building-blocks we didn't create ourselves. That our power is necessarily limited. That we should be mindful of the Source from whence our creativity flows.

For the first time since I left for Israel in June, I was able to record this week's Torah poem again! Over time I'll try to record & post audio files of the Torah poems I wrote while I was away, in case anyone out there is collecting them, or just wants to hear them all. In any event, if you can't see the embedded audio player at the top of this post, or if you want to download the mp3, here's the file: image.mp3.

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Home again

It's green here. Disorientingly green. After almost two months at the edge of the desert, my eyes are overwhelmed. A few days in Tel Aviv were helpful in this regard; it's humid there, almost tropical, and the neighborhood where my friends live (near the University) is pretty verdant. But that still didn't prepare me for the explosion of biomass here on my own hill.

It's rained almost every day since I left the country in late June. The email newsletter from Caretaker Farm (where I'll be going this afternoon, to get this week's fresh vegetables) tells me that the tomatoes and cucurbits are suffering, though the new potatoes seem happy as can be. Certainly the wildflower meadow in our back yard is happy, and bushy, and extraordinarily green.

This morning I made my way through the wet thyme and grass to the rock at the edge of our hill. I wrapped myself in my beautiful new rainbow tallit (courtesy of the Gabrieli weavers store on Yoel Solomon Street in Jerusalem; photos forthcoming, I hope) and davened shacharit, and gulped in great lungfulls of wet green air, and thanked God for the journey, and for bringing me home again.

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Lamentations Rabbah: demanding God's mercy

In my last midrash class at the Conservative Yeshiva, in preparation for Tisha b'Av, we studied a midrash from Eicha Rabbah which blew me away. Here's a very simplistic retelling, which I offer in the spirit of Tisha b'Av, the day when we remember the Temple's fall and mourn the brokenness of the world.

It's a gorgeous midrash, featuring quite a cast of characters who argue with God about the injustice of God's actions at this point in time. Most of the arguments try to prevail on God's sense of justice, but the one that finally sways God is an argument arising out of compassion. It's the female voice in the story that ultimately calls God to righteousness. May we walk in her footsteps, that the world may be healed in our day.

Find previous years' 9 Av posts here.

When the Temple was destroyed, Abraham came to God, weeping and wailing and rending his clothes. Even the ministering angels joined him in mourning. How, Abraham asked God, could You allow this to happen to my people?

Israel has transgressed my laws, God replied.

Says who? Abraham asked.

The Torah will testify against them, God said, and the Torah came forth. But Abraham convinced her not to testify, reminding her that when God brought her into the world, only the Israelites accepted her. [That's a reference to another midrash, in which God offers the Torah to every nation in the world but only the Israelites say "yes."]

Then God called the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet -- considered the building-blocks not only of Torah but of creation itself -- to testify. And Abraham convinced them too not to testify, reminding each of its place in the Torah and in our hearts. To the aleph he said: you're the first letter of the first commandment God spoke to us! To the bet he said: you're the first letter of the Torah! To the gimel he said: you're the first letter of the commandment to wear tzitzit, which only we uphold! And each letter was reminded, and chose not to testify against the house of Israel.

Abraham argued further with God: I was willing to sacrifice my beloved son for You. Won't You remember that, and have mercy?

Isaac added: I was willing to be sacrificed. Won't You remember that, and have mercy?

Jacob added, I spent my life tending to my children, the house of Israel, in service of Your plan. Won't You remember that, and have mercy?

Moses added, I was a faithful shepherd to the house of Israel for forty years. In the desert I ran before them like a horse, and You didn't even let me enter the land with them, and now You're allowing them to be exiled and killed? Won't You remember, and have mercy?

Moses and the prophet Jeremiah [author of Lamentations, which we read on Tisha b'Av] went to see the destruction with their own eyes. It was hard for them to walk because the roads were so filled with the bodies of the dead. And they saw people being killed left and right, death and suffering everywhere, fathers forced to kill sons in the presence of their mothers, and they returned weeping.

Moses cursed the sun, saying: Sun, why didn't you go dark when this happened? But the sun said, I tried, but I couldn't. Moses bemoaned the Temple's fall. He told the Chaldeans not to be cruel, and yet they were cruel.

And then Rachel spoke.

God, she said: You remember that Jacob loved me exceedingly, but my father chose to give him Leah in my place. Jacob and I had worked out a system of signals, so he would know whether or not it was really me in his bed. But then I had pity on my sister and I taught her the signals so he wouldn't realize it was her. I even lay beneath their bed, and when he spoke to her, she was silent and I responded in her stead.

If I -- a creature of flesh and blood, made of dust and ashes -- could overcome my jealousy in order to be kind to my sister...why are You, the sovereign of all existence, jealous of the false gods with whom the Israelites dally, false gods who aren't even real?! How can You let Your jealousy cause your children to be slain and exiled?

And the mercy of God was stirred by Rachel's argument. And God said: for your sake, Rachel, I will restore the house of Israel to their place. Have hope for the future. The exile -- not just physical, but existential and spiritual -- will come to an end.

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So long; farewell

"It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to." -- Bilbo Baggins, in The Hobbit

I feel like it's been years since I left home. And I feel like it's been a mere eyeblink, no time at all. Fortunately for me, I've gotten a lot of experience this summer at feeling two (or more) things at once.

The primary thing I've learned about Jerusalem is that it's always more complicated than one might imagine. Even the topography is complicated. Every place seems to be at least two things at once: where the Dome of the Rock now stands is where the Temple once stood. Where a house now stands, an orchard once stood. Where a pile of rubble now stands, a house once stood. Every place means something to somebody -- usually to at least two somebodies who don't agree. Even maps have an agenda, because if a map is using one set of names, it's not using the others. Nothing here is simple.

Several people told me, before I came here, that everything is more intense in Jerusalem. That this place is a lens which focuses and heightens emotions, that it's an energy vortex of some kind. Who knows whether or not this is true? But I can tell you that my summer here has been intense indeed. Maybe because I've been away from home, and that heightens perceptions; maybe because I've been awash in new and overwhelming experiences. Maybe because this place has its own unique spiritual energy -- though whether inherent, or accrued over millennia of intention and prayer, I couldn't say.

Things I've loved: hearing the sound of Hebrew everywhere I go, like my ears are perennially praying, even when the words that enter them are mundane ones. Hearing the sound of Arabic in the marketplace. Encountering people who are different from me, and people with whom I have deep things in common. The landscape and the history. The evening light. The idealism.

Things I haven't loved: how Orthodoxy dominates the religious landscape. The bitterness and mistrust between Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians. How the forms of Judaism that feed my soul are so clearly on the fringe of the Israeli religious system. That there is an Israeli religious system -- I can't quite get used to my religion being the state religion, a system of power.

Being here has been sweet, and I hope never to forget that. Living with this wonderful family of friends; spending every day learning; evening walks to the windmill or the edge of the Old City, watching the late light gild the buildings pink and gold. My first Shabbat with the Leader minyan. My first Shabbat with Reb Ruth and Nava Tehila. Reading poems in Hebrew, the language slowly beginning to open itself to me. (It's such a dense and rich language. Every word has ten others hidden inside it.) Davening kabbalat Shabbat at the edge of the sea. Sipping cardamom-scented coffee beneath a tent on Abed's land, clapping along with the drum and the oud.

Being here has been difficult, and I hope never to forget that either. Spending almost two months away from my sweetheart. Bumping up against other people's expectations of what my experience ought to be. My day trip with ICAHD and my day trip to the West Bank, confronting the painful realities of the Occupation. Two attacks with construction equipment during my stay here, one right around the corner from my apartment. The trade of Samir Kuntar, and many others, for the bodies of Goldwasser and Regev. Sometimes I think everyone here has PTSD. Sometimes I wasn't able to feel very hopeful.

In the end, I've experienced so much I can hardly believe it. My brain feels full, my heart feels full. I know I'll be drawing on this experience for years in my writing, my divrei Torah, my prayers. And at the same time, I've experienced so little it's almost laughable. There are places I meant to daven where I never managed to set foot in the door; weekend trips I never managed to take; restaurants I never managed to try.

I think it's good that I'm leaving Jerusalem with a sense of unfinished business. Some part of me is already imagining my next visit, picturing how different it will feel to arrive in Jerusalem now that I know the city a little. Now that I have favorite places to walk, to eat, to daven. Now that I know people who live here who are working to transform the Israeli rabbanut, who are working to transform the peace process, who are working toward healing this particular piece of the broken world. But right now isn't the time to be planning my return. That can wait. Right now it's time to learn how to inhabit my ordinary life again, and to begin the long work of integrating my Jerusalem summer into my life in a way that will be fruitful.

I want to thank all of you for coming along for the ride, for reading my posts and my emails and my poems, and for your emails and comments and phone calls during my time here. It's been a privilege and a pleasure to share this Jerusalem journey with you.

The Tolkien quote at the top of this post came before my eyes the first day I was in Jerusalem, and I copied it into my journal and onto my computer screen. It's been on my desktop ever since. When I came here, I didn't exactly know where I was being swept off to. I'm grateful for the journey, grateful for the learning, grateful for what's been good and for what's been hard. And now I'm grateful to be -- soon! very soon! -- going home.

I'm leaving Jerusalem today. I'll spend my final Israeli Shabbat in Tel Aviv with friends, and then I'm flying home. I expect this to be my last blog post from Israel; see y'all on the flipside next week!

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This week's portion: travelogue


These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan. (Deut. 1:1)

We've been on the road a long time.
Feels like forty years.
In fact, are you the same travelers
who set out with me? Sometimes
I imagine you're their children.
Maybe you've just grown up
along the harsh and winding way.
Remember the day we set out,
a mixed multitude straggling
through the brackish waters?
Remember the day I realized
I couldn't lead this trip alone?
Remember the day we sent runners
to scout where we were going
but you were afraid of the prospect
of entering somewhere new, maybe
being changed by the experience?
The wandering, the fighting,
the wadis we crossed: the story
will take hours to retell. For now
close your eyes, take a breath
and remember where we've been.
What moved you, what surprised you.
After a journey like this one
no one is exactly the same
as on the day of departure
from that other home so far away.

In this week's Torah portion, Dvarim, Moshe begins to speak about the journey they've been taking. He'll spend a long while recapping where they've been, and what happened along the way. The whole book of Dvarim (Deuteronomy) can be read as a recap of the journeys of the Israelites. The book will end with Moshe's final blessing to the people, before he dies at the very cusp of the culmination of their journey.

There's a symmetry, for me, to reading about Moshe's recap of the Israelites' journey as I approach the end of mine. (Not in the macro sense of my life's journey, obviously; I mean, my journey to Jerusalem, since my seven weeks here are almost at an end.) I can relate to the impulse to pause before crossing a major spiritual and physical border. The desire to stop and say, "Before we move on, let's make sure we remember where we've been."

So that's where this week's Torah poem went. Like the Israelites, this week I'm remembering what it felt like to set off from home, to take the leap of entering into something new. Of course, the Israelites' journey was linear -- from one place to another. Mine is a circle, and for that I'm grateful, too: that at the end of this adventure, I get to go home.

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Language lessons

In my ulpan this morning, we got into a long conversation about Israel and the Diaspora, religion and politics, the difficulty of Israel aiming to be at once democratic and religious, the realities of the Orthodox rabbinate here and how the religious landscape here differs from that in the rest of the world. I asked whether the class-at-large thought the Israeli rabbinate would ever broaden beyond Orthodoxy. (Consensus: no; why would they share that religious and political power if they didn't have to?)

We talked about Americans who give money to Israel and tend to want influence over Israeli policy in return, and why that's incredibly problematic for some Israelis. We talked about how hard it can be for Americans to understand Israeli realities and vice versa: because people here are dealing with baggage and trauma and danger which we don't have in the States, and because we in the States are accustomed to separation of religion and state which doesn't exist here, and because our two cultures relate to pluralism in different ways.

And all of this, we said in Hebrew! I had to remind myself to pipe down and let other people talk, because I kept having things to say. In my broken Hebrew, naturally; I fumble for words, I mis-match gender and forget that plural nouns take plural adjectives, I make all the mistakes that foreigners make. But I've come a long way. On the first day of class I was amazed that Michal wasn't using any English in the classroom. When we went around the room and introduced ourselves, I was shy about even venturing my name and where I'm from. And now I'm leaping into animated discussions of religion and politics. Not in elegant Hebrew -- I want to be clear about that. I speak a clunky and incorrect Hebrew! But I'm still pleased.

We've done surprisingly little drilling of verb conjugations (it's arguably not a good use of class time; I should do more of it at home.) Prepositions still kick my ass, especially when it comes to verbs which take specific prepositions and not other ones. But we've covered some new-to-me Hebrew grammar. We've spent a ton of time talking, which is good both for my comprehension and for my ability to speak. We've read a bunch of texts, some of which even transcend their textbook setting -- a very short story by Etgar Keret, an excerpt from a script and some poems by Hanoch Levin, and poems/songs by Naomi Shemer (I posted about one), Zelda, Yehuda Amichai, Arik Einstein. The poems have been a perennial source of joy to me. (I suspect that not every ulpan instructor has a genuine love of poetry. I really lucked out.)

Now my question becomes, how do I keep myself from losing the Hebrew I've acquired? I know that once I settle in to normal life again, Hebrew will be jostling for position alongside my coursework, my work with Zeek, my (first-ever) High Holiday pulpit, a few lifecycle events for which I'll be preparing this fall -- not to mention poetry, blogging, davening, and the workout regimen I really want to try to follow.

But I don't want to lose the ground I've gained. So: can y'all recommend Hebrew radio stations which stream audio, or Hebrew periodicals I might try to follow online? I was given a book of poems by Leah Goldberg, which I plan to read when I get home; tonight I bought books of poems by Zelda, Rachel, and Amichai. I'd like to find someone who wants to study contemporary Hebrew poetry with me when I get home, maybe even for course credit. Anyone out there have other ideas? How do you hold on to a foreign language when you're not in the place where the language is spoken anymore?

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At home with the Bible

Some months ago, my friend Betsy mentioned to me that she has cousins in Jerusalem who run a Bible translation school here. "Maybe you'll get to meet them," she said. I shrugged and said sure, maybe, who knows? To my pleasant surprise, her cousins reached out to me, and we managed to make a date to meet one another. I spent Tuesday late afternoon and early evening at the Home for Bible Translators, the program run by Betsy's cousins Mirja and Halvor.

Mirja in the library at the Home for Bible Translators.

The Home is an actual house in the suburbs of Jerusalem, where scholars come (usually from the developing world) to study Biblical Hebrew and translation. The program is run in partnership with Hebrew University. Over the course of six months the students study the history, geography, archaeology, and culture of the Hebrew Scriptures; engage in close analysis of Biblical Hebrew, and study Hebrew as a modern language; and participate in workshops on exegesis and translation, with an eye toward going home and translating the Bible into their native tongues.

Mirja and Halvor started the program in 1995. Since then, they've trained 80+ Bible translators and scholars from 29 countries, who between them speak 53 languages. (To learn more: Found in translation, an article by Mordechai Beck in The Guardian.)

We sat in the living room / social space, sipped strong Finnish coffee and ate amazing enormous grapes, and talked about Judaism and Christianity, the Jewish traditions of the historical Jesus, and Bible translations ranging from Everett Fox's poetic Torah to the Finnish translation of Genesis which Mirja did some years ago.

The social space and dinner table.

We talked some about life and family and so forth. Halvor is Norwegian-American, and Mirja is Finnish; they met at Hebrew University, and have lived in/around Jerusalem since 1967. (Mirja's been here since 1949.) They kvelled about their son the veterinarian, their daughter in Boston, and their daughter the nurse who's involved with a pediatric AIDS program in Ethiopia. (You can see her on that webpage -- the young woman with her hair in cornrows, who appears in two photos there.) In turn, I told them about the ALEPH rabbinic program and about Ethan's work, including Global Voices.

But mostly we talked about their work. Why training Bible translators matters to them. Their love of Tanakh and of Hebrew. The importance of reading the Hebrew Scriptures in context: understanding the resonances of each word, catching references, and reading the text in the context of this place. So many "translations" are in fact versions, renderings that aren't faithful to the original. And there's something empowering (and anti-colonialist) about teaching people to craft their own thoughtful translations of Torah instead of depending on versions generated by people who may not have a nuanced understanding either of the Torah or of the varied cultures in which the Torah is read.

The program is small: seven to ten students at a time, who live together, dine together, and learn from one another. (It sounds like an amazing cultural exchange experience.) On Friday nights, the group celebrates Shabbat together. When they're here during Pesach, the program tries to find host families for them so they can experience the festival in a Jewish context. Students come from Cameroon, Nigeria, India, Papua New Guinea, Mongolia (and many other places too). One recently completed the first translation of the Bible into Wolof. Another of their students, from Burkina Faso, is working on a new translation into Dagara, the tribal language of our friend Bernard.

They drove me back to Jerusalem in the waning pink light of evening, and we wished each other shalom and l'hitraot. What fascinating people there are in (and around) Jerusalem! How nice it was to meet two more of them during my last days here.

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A history of Jaffa

I just read City of Oranges: An Intimate History of Arabs and Jews in Jaffa, by Adam LeBor, and I'm really impressed. The book tells the history of Jaffa (and to some extent also Tel Aviv, its neighbor) through the histories of six families: three Arab (Christian and Muslim), and three Jewish. Through letters and diaries and interviews with the current generation of these families, LeBor paints a picture of what life was like in Jaffa ninety years ago...and how it has changed, repeatedly, between then and now.

In Jaffa, in the spring of 1921, a young Jewish woman called Julia Bohbout was planning her wedding. Julia was twenty-one, dark-haired and vivacious with lively eyes, a popular girl who made friends easily. She was fluent in Arabic and French, played the piano and was gifted at needlework. Julia danced the waltz and even a daring new import from South America, the tango. The Bohbout family lived on Nagib Bustros street, the heart of Jaffa's commercial centre, which drew shoppers from across the Levant. The shop windows displayed the latest European fashions and household goods, while neighbouring cafés were crowded with customers drinking coffee, smoking, and eating ice cream...

That's how the first chapter, "A Battered Bride," begins. (The bride in question isn't Julia, don't worry. It's the city of Jaffa, known in those days as the "Bride of the Sea.")

LeBor has chosen a fabulous way to make history clear. It's one thing to say "Muslims and Jews and Christians used to interact in a mode of genuine respect and friendship," but it's another thing entirely to tell the story of an Arab family attending a Jewish wedding, or how Jews and Arabs both used to gather at a Jewish-owned spice shop or an Arab-owned bakery. The stories of real families make the history engaging and meaningful.

LeBor has a real eye for detail and attention to historical reality, which makes these tales of interaction and connection really satisfying for me. Of course, that talent means that once the story gets darker -- the pogroms of the 1920s, the wars in 1948 and 1967 and 1973 -- the realities of this new world order hit home for me in a powerful way. This book was occasionally deeply depressing to me. I had to put it down several times, because the suffering on all sides was so palpable. But each time, I had to pick it up again and read further, because I wanted to know what would happen next. This is one of those rare history books that reads like a novel.

And I came away from the book with a much clearer sense of the history of this land over the last eighty years, as Israelis tell it and as Palestinians tell it. I'm embarrassed to admit that I wasn't entirely familiar even with the details of the Israeli side of the story -- I'm not sure I could have distinguished between Irgun, Haganah and Lehi (the Stern Group) before I dove into this book, and I certainly didn't know much about Jewish life here in the 20s, 40s, 60s, 80s. The Palestinian narrative was all-but unknown to me, and there too I lacked the details that would make the Arab history of this place come alive.

Having read City of Oranges, I feel like I have a sense of the impact of 1948 (and the wars that followed it) on the lives of ordinary inhabitants of Jaffa, Palestinians and Israelis alike. (Well: not alike. That's part of the point.) LeBor doesn't take sides, and he doesn't editorialize -- though I come away with the sense that he loves Jaffa a great deal, and that he respects and admires all of the families he interviewed over the course of writing the book. In the end, it seems to me that Jaffa serves as a microcosm for all of Israel/Palestine. The narratives of these interwoven families stand in for all of the narratives of every family who's inhabited this land in reality or in memory, through arrival and departure and return.

You can download an extract from chapter one here [pdf]. If you're interested in the Middle East, or in history written in a clear, readable, engaging style, this book is really worth a read. (And if you read the book and enjoy it, the author has collected a set of links to audio interviews wherein he discusses the book with NPR, the Economics, and Budapest-based Liquid Books -- good stuff.)

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Sestina on impending departure


I love the way the evening light
washes pink and gold across stone.
If I could freeze this moment in time,
would that ensure I wouldn't forget
the call of mourning doves, the sound
of muezzins, church bells ringing holy

as Friday shifts from profane to holy,
the streets streaked by dimming light
and from high apartments the sound
of blessing rings out across stone...?
Jerusalem, I don't want to forget
although I know I will, in time.

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Shabbat morning, Italian-style

Two weeks ago I went on a tour of the Conegliano Veneto Synagogue, the Italian Synagogue on Hillel street. Our guide told us that the shul was originally built in Conegliano, between Venice and Padua; in 1398, the government there sought Jews to come and be moneylenders in town, and by 1500 there were about 100 families in the Jewish community. Venice was a metropolis and a center of Jewish printing, and hundreds of Jewish books were printed there each year. A yeshiva opened there in 1604. But soon it became forbidden to learn Talmud in Italy, and the Talmud was burnt in Italian cities. By 1637, the Jewish population was required to live in the ghetto.

The Jews of Conegliano built the synagogue in 1701; in 1900, because there were no more Jews there, the synagogue was closed. The key was left in the care of a local woman. In 1918, during World War I, a group of Jewish Austro-Hungarian soldiers found her just before the Days of Awe and asked her to open the shul; they cleaned it and made it fit for use again, and an army chaplain named Rabbi Harry Deutsch led davenen there during the holidays. Then it was closed again, and remained so until 1952, when the decision was made to disassemble it, ship it to Israel, and reassemble it in Jerusalem.

The ornate golden aron/ark, with ornate parochet/curtain.

I had initially thought the liturgy there was Sefardic, but it's not; they follow their own liturgical rite, Minhag Bnei Roma (a.k.a. minhag Italki.) We had the chance to leaf through a siddur, which was neat; the bulk of the liturgy is familiar, but then there are things I'd never seen before. In the Shabbat ma'ariv aravim blessing (the blessing praising God Who brings on the evenings), the text describes God in words that aren't part of the Shabbat liturgy I know: "אשר כלה מעשיו ביום השביעי. ויקראוהו שבת קודש. מערב עד ערב (התקין) מנוחה לעמו ישראל בקדשתו / Who completed His work on the seventh day; and He called Shabbat holy, and brought on the evening; and gave rest to His people Israel, for His holiness." That language is said to date back to the Second Temple era, but it's new to me. To a liturgy geek like me, that's totally fascinating. So I decided to go to the Italian shul on my last Shabbat morning in Jerusalem.

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Waltzing through erev Shabbat with Nava Tehila

The Nava Tehila leaders in Reb Ruth's living room, singing the "Lecha Dodi" we davened this week.

Nava Tehila, the local Jewish Renewal minyan, meets once a month. This Shabbat I attended my second monthly service there. In many ways it was like the first one, only more intense, and correspondingly more wonderful.

The basic structure of the service was what I've come to expect there: pearls from psalms, chanted repeatedly (to original melodies); singing and dancing; space for exultation and space for meditation; and, after the peak which is Lecha Dodi, a short and simple ma'ariv (evening) service. Once again, the service was co-led by the trio of shlichei tzibbur. Alongside them, Father Zachariah in his brown and white habit played violin soulfully; a few talented hand-drummers drummed. But tonight our dominant metaphor was the journey, because this week we're in parashat Mas'ei in which we read about the Israelites' journeying. Reb Ruth invited us, at the beginning, to think in terms of the journey of the evening, and to choose a real journey in our own lives on which to reflect deeply during our davenen. Since I've been on a literal journey this summer (with emotional resonances galore), that was my lens for the night.

So before each psalm in kabbalat Shabbat, Reb Ruth related each psalm to our own internal journeys. Lechu n'ran'na l'Adonai ("let us sing in joy to Adonai"): about getting ready to go, together. Hod v'hadar l'fanav ("splendor and beauty are before God"): about preparing for the journey -- figuring out what baggage we're bringing with us, and which personal/spiritual gifts too. (And so on.) When we reached "Ana B'Koach," which many Hasidim (and Renewal folks) sing after the six psalms and before "Lecha Dodi" which welcomes the Shabbat bride, one of the instrumentalists picked up a digeridoo and its eerie hum accompanied us along with the drum.

This week our "Lecha Dodi" was a waltz, which I loved. (See YouTube video, above.) Soon the whole room was filled with whirling waltzers, who slowly morphed their dance into a three-beat circle dance. It was extraordinary.

After the service was over, we walked to Reb Ruth and Michael's house where a long table was set outdoors. We piled the potluck foods on it, clustered around, and sang for a while: a Shalom Aleichem which I've grown to love during my time here (the song welcomes the angels of Shabbat; the link goes to a page where you can listen to a demo recording of the melody in question, which is another waltz), the blessings over wine and our children and bread. After we ate, people moved chairs indoors, and we clustered into the living room for postprandial good stuff: more singing! We sang new melodies for beloved psalms, again with guitar and violin, sometimes riotous and sometimes gentle.

My friend Nachshon gave the first d'var Torah because he is recently engaged; it's an honor accorded to those who are newly-engaged or newly-wed. He gave it in Hebrew, which meant I couldn't follow all of it, but I followed more than I would have two months ago. More singing. Another d'var Torah, this time in English, from my friend Reb David Ingber: a wonderful story about doubt and about the possibilities opened up in us when we allow ourselves to let go of the need for certainty. We were in stitches as he told us (true story!) about arriving in Jerusalem with a key to a door that doesn't open -- the punchline being, of course, that once he walked 100 feet up the street to the right door, the key worked immediately. How often do we trap ourselves in thinking that because our key is "supposed" to open a given door, we need to stand in front of it and try and try and try, instead of accepting that there might be another place we're meant to be opening?

More singing (Pitchu li sha'arei tzedek, "Open for me the gates of righteousness"), and then dessert. I had the chance to chat briefly with the man I'd spotted last month who I'd thought might be Ghanaian. I'm close; he's from Togo, here studying Hebrew in order to write his doctoral dissertation on the meanings of the word shalom. He was delighted to hear about my connections with Accra. We agreed that surely our paths will cross again, here or in West Africa or somewhere in the wide world.

At midnight, I took my leave, just as the group was gathering to sing again. The walk home would take about an hour; it pained me to leave such a sweet gathering, but I knew I needed to get on the road. Some part of me is already looking forward to my next chance to immerse in Renewal davenen, some months from now. (And clearly, whenever I return to Jerusalem in years to come, I'll want to make sure I'm here over a weekend when Nava Tehila meets.) My deepest, deepest thanks to everyone who co-creates this community, and who welcomed me so warmly into your midst.

By the way, the Nava Tehila gang is working on a cd. Learn more on their blog. I'm glad to know that someday I'll be able to listen to their melodies back home.

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Jerusalem panopticon

 As I prepared to walk to Machane Yehuda for the first or second time, early in my Jerusalem summer, I hesitated over my choice of shirt. My trousers were of flowing black linen, pretty standard for me, but I was torn about whether or not to put on a tank top. By mid-morning here the sun is pretty intense; if I were home in Massachusetts, or back in Texas where I grew up, I wouldn't have thought twice about wearing the tank top. It's hot out! And I like feeling the sun on my skin. (Yes, Mom, I'm wearing sunscreen.) What's to question?

But here in Jerusalem, I felt uncomfortable for a moment at the prospect of baring my shoulders. Not because I mind showing my arms to the world, but because most of the women I see on the street are wearing some variation on "modest" religious dress. Long sleeves and long skirts; wigs and snoods and hats; sometimes even stockings beneath sensible summer shoes.

Even at the Yeshiva where I'm studying -- a Masorti/Conservative institution, hardly a bastion of Orthodoxy -- it's forbidden to wear sleeveless shirts. (One of my colleagues showed up at school in what we thought was a very modest long skirt and a lovely button-down blouse which had only cap sleeves; one of the teachers gently cornered her and told her that her dress was inappropriate. We've been talking ever since about whether the critique would have stung less had it come from a woman; something about the experience of being chastised by a man for one's sartorial choices, however politely, rankles.)

No one has told me what to wear, or not to wear, when I'm not at school. On a shopping trip to the market on a hot morning, there's no reason to cover up. (And, indeed, when I recognized the circle my thought patterns were going in, I chose the tank top with some vehemence.) What weirds me out is that I was policing myself. There was a temptation to cover my arms, to abide by someone else's notion of what's modest and appropriate women's dress, in order to avoid the risk of offending the religious people of this city by distracting them with my skin.

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