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November 2009
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Top ten posts of 2009

Each year I like to post a round-up of my top ten posts from the (Gregorian) year now ending. (Here's the list I posted at the end of 2008; here's the one from 2007; and here from 2006; and here from 2005. I didn't yet have this practice in 2003 or 2004.) This isn't a Letterman-style top ten list, with my least favorite post coming first and my most favorite at the end; the ordering is chronological. With no further ado, I present ten of my favorite posts from 2009. Here's to 2010! May the secular new year bring blessings for us all.

The Gaza war: so many worlds destroyed

I've been trying to figure out how to write about the crisis in Gaza. Watching it unfold has been heartbreaking. Spending last summer in Jerusalem gave me a clearer sense for how small the country is, and how interconnected. As I talk to my Israeli friends whose friends and family are called up to serve in the army in times like these, I feel afraid with them. I feel compassion as I read the stories of those who live in Sderot, who spend their days under constant fear of rocket fire. And I feel devastation as I read the stories of those who live in Gaza, whose lives have been upturned or destroyed by the war.

Unwrapping the body of Torah

First of all, the rabbis who wrote these texts spoke to an audience who would have recognized the quotations. They didn't have to puzzle over references as the modern reader might. (Imagine someone 500 years from now trying to read a 20th-century text which makes use of poetry references ranging from Chaucer to Mary Oliver, alongside quotations from widely-known tv shows, the kind of things that are so embedded in our pop culture consciousness that we hardly notice they're references anymore.)

Miscarriage poems: Through

In January, at Ohalah, I had a miscarriage. Every pregnant woman knows it is possible, but I doubt anyone feels prepared when it happens. // I was amazed by how many women came up to me, as word quietly spread, and said that the same thing had happened to them. Having tangible proof that I was not alone -- that this was survivable -- helped me through. // My mashpi'a (spiritual director) suggested that I consider writing poems as I moved through the experience and its aftermath. Writing offered me a way to externalize the roil of emotions. I wrote my way through the experience, and then as I felt ready I began to revise the drafts. To take the raw outpourings of my heart and turn them into poetry.

Continue reading "Top ten posts of 2009" »

The Interfaith Amigos, ecumenism, and Christmas blessings

Yesterday morning I caught part of On Point with Tom Ashbrook, featuring The Interfaith Amigos -- Rabbi Ted Falcon, pastor Don MacKenzie, and sheikh Jamal Rahman. (Later in the day, I listened to the whole show online, because I wanted to hear the whole hour.) Early in the show, Tom Ashbrook asks, what does interfaith mean to you? One of the men (I think it's pastor MacKenzie, though I'm not positive) responds:

I think interfaith means being willing to penetrate the seemingly impenetrable walls that surround each of our traditions, to locate three things: the universals that transcend those boundaries, the things we really have in common... second, the particulars in each of our traditions that support those core teachings; and third, the particulars that don't.

You can listen to the show online here at the On Point website if you're so inclined. It's an excellent radio piece, and a wonderful example of the kind of "deep ecumenism" that I, along with my teachers and colleagues in ALEPH, so value. As my teacher Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi asks, in his book Jewish With Feeling, "How do we engage with fellow seekers in a way that does not water down differences, but treasures them? How do we share our history, celebrations, and spiritual experiences with members of other faiths in a way that is real and deep, rather than just a 'You bring the Easter eggs; I'll bring the matzah' affair?" (I wrote more about that book back in 2005.) These three men seek to answer that question with their work together. As Rabbi Falcon says, "Every authentic spiritual path leads to a shared universal...[and] that universal is not 'owned' by any spiritual path."

At the end of the show, each man was asked to offer a blessing, bearing in mind that the show was airing on the day which would become Christmas eve. In response, Rabbi Falcon speaks about how even for those of us who are not Christian, this can be a time of year to contemplate what we want to birth and to nurture: in our families, in our spiritual lives, and in the world. It's a great blessing, and I want to extend it to all of you.

For those who celebrate Christmas: may your day be merry and bright! And for those who don't, I wish a Friday filled with light and wonder even so.

Read Write Prompt #106: repeat after me


I'm mesmerized by his form
even when he rouses me in the dark.
Nurse, burp, time for a change
then nurse again: it's all new,
this rhythm, his needs.
And for now, I'm his all:

source of milk, familiar sounds, all
the comforts of home. He forms
cries reedy and grizzled, need
which clenches my heart dark
and fearful. I never knew
my sense of God would change

but I see now that You are change
and these moments are holy, all
the ways he's always new.
Hard to believe his compact form
spent nine months in the dark
of my womb, every need

met. Me, I'm not sure what I need:
sleep, soothing, maybe a change
in perspective these dark
December days. For a time all
is well, but then I try to form
a sentence, an idea, something new

and my words trail off. The new
year will bring endless need
but I want to think we can form
a way through, a path to change
for everyone in this house, all
of us making our way in the dark.

Creator of light and dark,
every day You continually renew
the work of creation, all
the tiny miracles we need,
surprises and change.
Help my hands and heart to form

what these dark days need,
to embrace the new, meet change
with all the grace of this tiny form.

This week's prompt at ReadWritePoem is repeat after me, a prompt encouraging us to work with repetition. Life with a newborn has a certain repetitive quality to it, and as longtime readers know I'm a big fan of the sestina precisely because of its use of repetition, so this week I wrote a sestina in response to the RWP prompt. I'm not sure it's my finest work, but it feels good to be pushing myself to complete one draft of a poem each week, just to stay in the writing habit.

Once again, my apologies to RPW'ers -- I'm able to sneak the time it takes to work on one poem a week, and to more-or-less keep up with email (sometimes), but I don't have enough free time to be reading many blogs or to be keeping up with y'all's responses to these prompts. Please know that I appreciate your comments here tremendously, and I look forward to someday having more space in my life for reading your poetry again!

(Anyone who's interested can see how others responded to this prompt by visiting this week's get your poem on post.)

Read Write Prompt #105: borrowed words


Three in the morning:
you're curled on my shoulder

like a hermit crab out of its shell,
warm as a blanket out of the dryer

when I lift you down from your perch
your dark eyes are wide open

as a hind longs for water
my soul longs for sleep

but I pace the round carpet
until I can crawl into bed

praying that I get a whole hour
before you summon me with your cries

that call in equal measure
my milk and my tears

This week's prompt at ReadWritePoem is borrowed words. As it happens, several of these are words which were already rolling around in my head, so I grabbed the word cloud and this is what arose.

The fourth couplet is a play on Psalm 42 verse 1: "as a hind longs for water, so my heart longs for You, God." No disrespect to the psalmist is intended.

To see what other folks wrote in response to this prompt, check out this week's Get Your Poem On post. (And to my fellow RWP'ers: my apologies for not being able to get to your poems and read them and leave comments at this moment! My computer time is awfully limited. Speaking of which, I think I hear Drew now...)

Chanukah poem for Drew

On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, after services were over, two of my friends threw a Blessingway for me. That afternoon I received letters, blessings, beads, stories, and poems from friends. (All of the blessings for me, and for Ethan, are preserved in the Blessingway section of Drew's website.)

One such poem came from Kate Abbott of Spring Farm Almanac. She wrote a beautiful sestina about our first Chanukah with Drew, which I repost here with permission. (If you like it, be sure to visit her post and leave a comment to let her know.) Thank you so much, Kate.

A wish for your son's first nights

When you sit, all three wrapped in blankets,
in the early dark, blue on the shoulders
of the hills, letting pillows hold your heads,
and listen to the bubble of his breathing,
let the quiet instill warmth, in the new way
tinder and cardboard on the hearth kindle.

Your husband brings in wood. You light the candles,
sing she’hecheyanu and tuck in blankets.
While the candles burn, you may sit this way,
one head against your thigh, one on your shoulder,
and hum with the resonance of their breathing,
your hand on his head, your head against his head.

Continue reading "Chanukah poem for Drew" »

El Shaddai (Nursing Poem)


Was God overwhelmed
when Her milk first came in

roused by our thin cries
for compassion?

She'd birthed creation
from amoebas to galaxies

but did she expect to see
her own changeability

mirrored behind our eyes?
Nothing could have prepared Her

for the shift from singularity
to multiplicity.

And the blank-faced angels
offered their constant praise

without understanding her joy
or the depth of her fear.

"El Shaddai" is a traditional Hebrew name for God. It can be translated as "God of the mountains" or "God of breasts."

My teacher Reb Marcia Prager has taught that one way of understanding Jewish prayer life is to think of our prayers and God's response as analagous to the process set in motion when a baby cries and the mother's milk lets down.

The kernel of this poem came to me during a 3am feeding last week on our second night home from the hospital with Drew.

This week's prompt at ReadWritePoem is How to write the sex poem right. Needless to say, I didn't manage to write to the prompt (though I suppose you could argue that a nursing poem is one of the possibilities which could follow some months after the completion of a successful sex poem!) but if you want to see how others responded, check out this week's "get your poem on" post.


On naming our son

This past Saturday was Drew's eighth day outside the womb, which meant it was time for us to officially welcome him into the world. We held a two-part ceremony: a bris (brit milah) which was attended by nuclear family, and a babynaming/welcoming ceremony which was attended by members of our extended community of family and friends.

I started working on the naming ceremony midway through my second trimester. I've done a number of babynamings over the years (my first was for my nephew Max, who will be nine in about a month), so my first step was to reread the ceremonies I'd written for other folks and to remind myself what I'd done before which I might want to repurpose. I spent a while researching, too -- reading up on brit milah and on the newer and more creative (and more gender-neutral) tradition of baby-namings in Judaism, and thinking about what we might want to include in ours. I'll include the ceremony in pdf form at the end of this post, for those who want to read the whole thing, but wanted to highlight here two pieces of the ceremony which make me particularly happy.

A traditional bris often begins with birkat ha-gomel, a blessing thanking God for bringing one through a potentially dangerous / traumatic experience -- in this case, birth. Instead of reciting the traditional text, I wrote my own blessing for having survived childbirth, which I recited at the opening of our ceremony. I was working on that when I attended the Retreat for Emerging Jewish and Muslim Religious Leaders, which may be why the final version of the prayer uses both the Hebrew and the Arabic terms which name God as "the merciful / compassionate" -- a word-root which denotes the womb in both sacred tongues:

Holy One of Blessing, thank you
for bringing me through pregnancy

through labor and delivery
safely and (w)hol(l)y.

Thank you for sustaining my body,
my emotions, mind, and spirit.

Ha-rachaman הרחמן
ar-rahman, ar-rahim الرحمن الرحيم

You nurture all creation
in Your compassionate womb.

Praised are You, my God,
creator of embodied miracles!

We also drew on Ghanaian cultures in crafting the ceremony. Ethan's time in Ghana was incredibly formative for him, and we have deep ties there. (There's a reason his blog is named "...My Heart's in Accra.") So in addition to giving Drew two English names and a Hebrew name, we also gave him a Ghanaian name (following Akan/Twi custom) -- his Ghanaian name is Kwame, since he is Saturday-born. And in a display of tribal ecumenism, in addition to bestowing the Akan name, Ethan offered a beautiful Dagara blessing which came to us from our dear friend Bernard Woma:

Using a calabash of akpeteshie and another of water, place a drop of water on Drew's forehead.

"Drew, you are welcome to this world. Your name is Andrew Wynn Yitzchak Kwame Zuckerman, and may your many names make you welcome wherever you roam in the world."

with a second drop

"Drew, this water is for all the blessings you'll need on this earth - blessings of peace, prosperity and fertility."

use a drop of akpeteshie

"Drew, this is what the world has to offer you. If this taste sweet for you, take it in moderation. If this taste bitter, advise yourself."

Pour libation and declare that all of us gathered here are witnesses to this ceremony and we ask their blessing and wisdom to help Drew become an honorable member of this world.

I think it's safe to say that the ceremony is uniquely our own! Anyway, if you're interested, here it is; I've also added it to the ceremony archive at

Welcome to the World, Andrew Wynn Kwame Zuckerman! [.pdf]