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Shabbat morning at the Libertad

The sanctuary of the Libertad synagogue in Buenos Aires. Image courtesy of the Jewish Virtual Library.

When I was an MFA student at Bennington, I spent six months studying Jewish literature with my advisor David Lehman. (The paper I wrote that semester is fifteen years old now and I'd revise it if I had the time, but if you're curious, it's called Nu: what makes Jewish literature so Jewish, anyway?) During that six months I read all sorts of poetry and prose, including two volumes in the Jewish Latin America series edited by Ilán Stavans (who I heard speak at Williams a few months ago.) Novels including Cláper (Venezuela) and The Jewish Gauchos of the Pampas (Argentina) reminded me that the Ashkenazic immigration story familiar to most North American Jews is paralleled by the story of Jews immigrating to South America, many to Argentina.

My great-aunt Vera (of blessed memory) and great-uncle Carlos emigrated to Brazil and lived there for many years before coming to the States. (My middle name, Evelyne, honors their daughter who died when I was a child.) And the grandmother after who I am named emigrated to Mexico and came to San Antonio once she became engaged to my grandfather who already had residence in Texas. So I'm keenly aware that Jews who left Europe came to the Americas through doors other than Ellis Island (see the Galveston Movement)... and went to places even further south than San Antonio where I was born and reared. But since I read those books at Bennington I hadn't thought much about the Jews of Argentina, until we planned a vacation there.

Buenos Aires is home to a sizeable Jewish community, including many synagogues and even a rabbinic school (associated with the Conservative movement, it's the only rabbinic seminary in the southern hemisphere.) Before we left on our vacation I did some reading about Jewish Argentina, and promised myself that I would try to daven b'tzibbur (with a community) while we were there. The day before we left the country, I went to daven shacharit at Argentina's oldest synagogue, Congregacion Israelita de la Republica Argentina (CIRA -- here's their Spanish-language Wikipedia entry, since the English one is pretty paltry) also known as "Libertad" because it overlooks a small plaza of the same name. According to the Fundación Judaica, CIRA was founded in 1862; the current building was constructed in 1897 and remodeled in 1932.

I must have been the tenth person to arrive. I got there around 10am, expecting the service to be well underway, but found instead a handful of people chatting in Spanish in the enormous ornate sanctuary. In front of us, a half-dome adorned with gold mosaic spelled out the words of the shema, topped by a round stained-glass window featuring a star of David. Above the ark I could see the workings of a massive pipe organ. About three minutes after I got there, the small crowd moved to the pews at the front of the room, and beckoned for me to join them, and began to sing.

Continue reading "Shabbat morning at the Libertad" »

This week's portion: red


Moshe's bloodied finger
paints slow lines

along Aaron's ear
his thumb, his foot

the shock of red
vivid and seeping

like what wells
behind your eye's cradle

diagnoses press in
what would I sacrifice

to heal you
what wouldn't I

Torah commentary

This week's Torah portion, Tzav, begins with a variety of ritual instructions for sacrifice and concludes with a narrative about the ordination of Aaron and his sons as priests, which features blood prominently.

Though the ins and outs of the sacrificial system may seem arcane or foreign to the modern sensibility, an obsession with blood is familiar to anyone who has spent time in a hospital. As a chaplain, a caretaker, and a patient myself, I understand the symbolic significance of blood.

There's something almost magical about the ordination ceremony Torah describes, and about the sacrificial system writ large. In today's world we like to see ourselves as rationalists, more or less, but when I allow this week's portion to speak to me on an emotional level, the focus on blood hits me hard.

Rationally, we know that bargaining with God for healing isn't necessarily helpful. But when blood wells where it shouldn't, the childhood impulses rise up again. (I'll do anything if You'll just make it okay...) Was this dynamic at work for our ancestors when they sacrificed animals on the altar, turning blood and fat and entrails to smoke?

Poem commentary

The Torah poem I wrote last year for this portion is one of my favorites: the pantoum Tzav, which has also been published in Frostwriting (scroll down the page.) This year, I riffed off of a different part of the portion, though the motif of blood still repeats, which is my way of hinting at the repeated motif in the Torah portion itself.

I'm not committing to readwritepoem's napowrimo, but their first prompt is "metaphor," and it occurs to me that this poem does fit that bill. (Okay, this poem hinges around a simile. Close enough for government work, right?) Anyway, if you're into the poem-a-day thing, you can read other "metaphor" responses in the comments of this post.


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Poetry and Pesach at JBooks is perennially chock-full of good stuff. The handful of pieces which have been posted for the start of April and the Passover season are especially up my alley. Because, as the editors note, April is National Poetry Month (a month-long chag/holiday for those who hold poetry sacred) and this year April holds Pesach as well. What fertile ground for exploration!

My teacher David Lehman was invited to reflect on one of my favorite quotations from Harvey Cox (which appears in my own haggadah), about opening the door for an Elijah who is always a no-show. His piece is here (available both in finished form, and in a slow-mo version which allows the reader access into David's every keystroke as he composed the poem.)

Poet Joy Katz, in her essay Jewish Poetry?, explores questions of what makes a Jewish poem, and then uses the parable of the Four Children (wise, wicked, simple, and the one who does not know how to ask -- from the Passover haggadah) to explore four types of Jewish poetry.

And the editors there kindly invited me to share some reflections on the intersection of National Poetry Month and Pesach, which I did, in an essay called "All Who Are Hungry." Here's a taste:

Hametz comes from the verb l'chimutz, to sour or ferment. In the Hasidic imagination, hametz represents the sourness or puffery of excessive ego. Hametz is that within us which needs to be winnowed away.

The obligation to winnow is familiar to any poet. The weeks leading up to Pesach invite each of us to revise her life, cutting away the lines which don't serve the greater purpose of her poem.

You can read my essay in full here: All Who Are Hungry. Thanks for soliciting it, JBooks!

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April 8: Here comes the sun

Winter sunrise. December 13, 2008.

Once every 28 years, the Jewish community celebrates the return of the sun to the place which our tradition says it occupied in the heavens at the precise time and day of its creation. The celebration is called Birkat ha-Chamah -- the Blessing of the Sun.

Twenty-eight years! Last time Birkat ha-Chamah was celebrated, I was six. Next time, I'll be 62. Good thing I'm planning to make the most of it this time when it rolls sunrise on the morning of April 8, 2009, which is the morning of the day which will lead to the first seder of Pesach.

If you've been reading VR for any length of time, you won't be surprised to learn that I understand this not as a scientific celebration, but a metaphysical and metaphorical one. A few times in each life, if we are lucky, we have this opportunity to pause and take notice of the wonder that is our sun. To recite blessings and prayers. And to be thankful for this source of light -- and to the Source of Light which sustains it, and us, every day. How cool is that?

Spring sunrise light. March 18, 2008.

Interested folks can find a list of celebrations around the US and Israel here at Bless the (The list is growing; hopefully folks will add info on celebrations in other parts of the world, too.) I'll be at the 6am sunrise celebration at the entrance to Mt. Greylock Regional High School in Williamstown, sponsored by Congregation Beth Israel. (Sounds like an odd location, I realize, but across the street from MGRHS is an apple orchard which overlooks the Hopper and Mount Greylock. Gorgeous.)

Bless the also offers a listing of ceremonial materials and resources.  Hands down, my favorite liturgy for the ritual itself is written by my teacher Reb Marcia Prager, and is available on that page as a pdf download. It includes both traditional and creative texts in English, Hebrew, and transliteration. I also recommend Masekhet Hahammah, "Tractate Sun," a compendium of teachings and texts about the sun and this celebration which would make a great resource for studying between now and Pesach.

After celebrating the sun, I'll hop in my car and drive to Boston to celebrate Pesach with my sister and her family. I'm excited to see how and whether having begun my day with once-every-28-years sun celebrations shapes how the day unfolds, and how it reverberates into my celebrations of the festival of freedom which begins that night.

How will you celebrate the sun next Wednesday morning?

Summer sunrise. August 13, 2008.


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