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A basket of Purim links

Happy Purim!

Not surprisingly, given the existence of our three-month-old son, I haven't had the chance this year to write anything new about the festival. So instead, I figured I'd point to this blog's Purim category, which includes all of the Purim-related posts I've made in years past.

And as a kind of virtual mishloach manot (basket of tasty goodies traditionally given to friends at Purim-time), I offer these links to three of my favorites among those posts:

  • 2009: The end of Esther. Let's be clear: in my understanding the Book of Esther is not a historical text. The story it chronicles never "happened." (Biblicist Marc Zvi Brettler calls it "more like comedy, burlesque, or farce.")

    But even if we relate to the megillah of Esther as pure story, as a rich and finely-crafted parable about masks and inversion and the challenges of living in an era when God's face may seem as hidden from us as God's name is absent from this traditional text, how can, or should, we deal with the violence at the end of the story?

  • 2008: מאי המנתשן / Why hamantaschen? As a kid I learned that Haman (boo!) wore a tricornered hat. These tricornered cookies are called "hamantaschen" which means "Haman's Hat" (actually Haman's Pocket, but close enough) and we eat them as a sign of our triumph over Haman. In adulthood it's become clear to me that this is an anachronism (among other things, tricornered hat? in ancient Shushan? really?) but it's still an entertaining drash, mostly because it allows me to picture Haman as a kind of arrogant little Napoleon.

  • 2006: Purim homily. On Purim we don masks and costumes, pretending to be someone else -- a king, a queen, a villain, a jester -- for the night. These masks and veils can remind us that the ordinary identities we wear -- mother, daughter, banker, doctor -- are also constructed. We wear them because they protect us, or they feel good, or they feel safe...but deep down, we are both more than and less than our public identities would indicate. Deep down, there is a part of each of us which never changes, no matter what mask we wear. That part of us is continually at-one with God.

Those are three of my favorites, but there are plenty of other posts which take different tacks. I hope you find something in these Purim posts which resonates with you, and I hope your Purim is joyous and sweet!

Another mother poem (for Read Write Prompt #115): Belief


The days will lengthen
the voice of the veery thrush
will be heard on our land

the tiny stars of crocuses
well-rested from the long dark
will adorn the icy mud of spring

the sap already rising
will feed a million tiny banners
unfurling across the hills

and this small blue pill
will banish anxiety, restore to me
the woman I only dimly remember

laughing in photographs
with her hand on her round belly
hope curled inside, waiting to unfold

This week's prompt at readwritepoem is #115: what do you believe? Back in 2005 I made a post called Credo, in which I articulated my own set of beliefs (though I carefully didn't look back at that post until I'd written this week's poem!) -- this time, I wound up taking a different tack on the question of what I believe. (For what it's worth, I still resonate with everything I put in that credo, though most of those statements are too general to feel like good poetry to me.)

If you're not familiar with the call of the veery thrush, take a look at (and listen to!) this 2008 post -- the veery's song is one of my favorites around here, though not at this time of year.

This is another in my continuing series of mother poems.

One in eight women suffer from postpartum depression (source: Or maybe the figure is somewhere between 11 and 20 percent of women nationwide (source: the CDC, cited in this article.) One way or another, like miscarriage, it's more common than I realized. It's also a source of shame for many women, and it shouldn't be. If you are the mother of a new baby and have been unhappy for more than two weeks, please seek help.

As always, you can read others' responses to this RWP prompt at this week's Get Your Poem On post.


Velveteen Rabbi's Haggadah for Pesach, version 7!

The first seder is five weeks from tonight: if you haven't started thinking about your seder this year, now might be a good time to start. To help get you psyched about my favorite festival, as promised, this year I'm releasing version 7.0 of the Velveteen Rabbi's Haggadah for Pesach...and here it is!

2020 Edited to add: you can always find the most up-to-date version of the VR Haggadah by going to and clicking through to the haggadah page.

It's been two years since the last revision came out, and since then I've been collecting edits, changes, and additions. Changes in this edition include:

  • new! a meditation on the 3-legged stool of the Jewish year (accompanied by a beautiful new illustration by Alison Kent)

  • new! a practice of asking 3 questions at the start of the seder, and a meditation which offers 3 answers

  • new! a chant for hand-washing, written by Rabbi Shefa Gold

  • new! an alternative reading about the Four Children, written by Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi

  • revised! an expanded Hallel section, featuring more psalms in both Hebrew and English

  • new! an alternative shfoch chamatecha / "pour out Your wrath" reading (this prayer is part of the classical haggadah, but has never before been a part of this one)

  • new! a meditation before opening the door for Elijah, again by Reb Zalman

  • revised! an expanded songs section at the back, featuring Ken supiese y entidiense ("Who Knows One" in Ladino), Adir Hu (traditional) and Orah Hi (Rabbi Jill Hammer's feminist adaptation of Adir Hu)

  • revised! some typos fixed, in Hebrew and in English; also attribution for the Ballad of the Four Sons

  • new! a beautiful new cover, courtesy of graphic designer Daniel Beck.

As is my custom, I've replaced the old version on my website with this new version, so if you've linked to, your link will still work -- it'll just point to the new edition instead of the old one.

Praise for the previous edition:

  • For the second seder this year, I knew that I was going to have a diverse group of guests and was looking for a haggadah that would help make it traditional enough for everyone to experience a ritual that would be recognizable to Jews anywhere, but accessible enough for everyone to connect without difficulty. With your help, it was an amazing experience for all - 6 Jews (secular to Orthodox, Ashkenazi and Sefardi, American and Finnish), 3 Tibetan Buddhists, 1 French Catholic, and 1 German Presbyterian. -- Rabbi Rebecca Joseph

  • I used your haggadah as my foundation for leading the second seder for my family... They told me afterwards it was the most meaningful seder they had ever attended -- actually they told me it was the FIRST meaningful seder they had ever attended. -- Rhonda, Massachusetts

  • The seder went BRILLIANTLY! Folks loved your haggadah (although we did shorten it a bit since there were 50 people and it was a bit mayhem-like.) There were some smiling moments of, "hey, this isn't my grandma's haggadah!!" and then huge grins. -- danah, Massachusetts

  • My wife and I used your Velveteen Rabbi Haggadah for our Seder last night and had the most incredibly gratifying experience. Everyone loved it. We were all so grateful for the absence of sexism and the persistent call for peace - we had everyone eat an olive when we introduced that feature on the Seder plate. We are so grateful to you for putting this together. -- Clifford, California

Thanks to everyone who's contributed to the haggadah over the years -- and to all of you who use it. I hope this new edition makes your seder even more meaningful and sweet.

Please feel free to share the haggadah widely: link to this post, email the file around, spread the word! And if you do use the haggadah, let me know what you think; I love getting feedback of all kinds.

Anticipatory Psalm 1 (Read Write Prompt #114)


Even now, the hills frosted
like children's corn flakes,
summer's wild effusion waits
in the wings. As we walk
on eggshells past the nursery
the promise of a night's sleep
gleams just beyond our grasp.
Hidden in your babbling patter
are the words you can't yet speak.
All the seeds are curled tight
but I believe with a perfect faith
beneath the snow red tulips
are forming. Today plate glass
presses me like a dead flower
but three dimensions are coming.
I crown you with baby oil
and fold tomorrow after tomorrow
into your clenched fists.

This week's readwritepoem prompt is a word cloud, from which I chose the words frosted, eggshells, patter, red, crown. As I began working on this week's poem, my spiritual director suggested that I try writing psalms which work with the idea that the things we hope for are already present, so I brought that assignment to bear on the word cloud and this is what emerged.

This poem is another in my unfolding series of mother poems. The line "I believe with a perfect faith" is an allusion to the prayer Ani Ma'amin, which speaks of faith in the coming of the messianic era; the baby oil line is also a nod in that direction, since the word moshiach means "anointed one." Parenting a newborn definitely feels like a perennial leap of faith: faith that things will get better, that someday we'll get a good night's sleep again, that Drew will continue to develop and grow, that we're doing the right things, that someday our lives will feel normal again.

As always, you can read what other people wrote for this prompt by going to this week's Get Your Poem On post.


Erev Shabbat at Elat Chayyim

It felt strange to drive down the familiar roads to the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center with Drew in the carseat behind me. Last time I made that drive, I was pregnant; I was heading down for my last pre-parenthood Yom Kippur retreat. Now, two months and a bit later, my entire life has turned upside-down. I feel already like a different person than the one who made that trip last time.

It's been two years since I completed DLTI (the Davenen Leadership Training Institute.) I was in DLTI IV, the fourth group to complete the training. Today the fifth cohort of DLTI-niks are finishing their formal learning together, so this past Shabbat was their final Shabbat of the program. A few of them are dear friends of mine, and since I missed Ohalah this year, I'd been feeling somewhat bereft of my rabbinic school community's physical presence. So when I realized they were going to be so nearby -- a scant 90 minutes by car -- I decided to head down to Isabella Freedman for erev Shabbat with Drew.

In the world of assiyah (actions / physicality) it felt slightly risky. Drew tends to get overstimulated by evening-time, which can mean a lot of fretful screaming, and he's also often especially colicky in the evenings. So I wasn't sure what the evening would hold or how Shabbosdik it might (or might not!) feel. But in the world of yetzirah (emotions), I really needed the connection with friends. So we went.

Just arriving at the retreat center felt good. I've had so many powerful experiences there that merely setting foot on the campus evokes layers of memory. I arrived in the late afternoon. I carried Drew in his carseat into the main building and settled with him by the fire, talking with him softly about how last time he was there, he was still inside me. As mincha (afternoon services) ended and people began to emerge from the lounge, I realized that I actually know a lot of people in the fifth cohort of DLTI -- all of whom were delighted to see me and to meet Drew.

Services were wonderful. The singing was terrific, and there was impromptu dancing (I held Drew and danced him around the back of the room.) The abundant love in the room was palpable -- very much what I remember from the end of my own DLTI experience. And I guess Drew was lulled by the singing and my dancing/swaying -- or else we just need to have fifty people davening and dancing in his nursery every evening -- because he was either asleep, or reasonably contented, all the way through Kabbalat Shabbat! (That he had napped in the car on the way down surely didn't hurt.)

And then I managed to eat a quick supper with everyone before Drew began to melt which point my friend David and I exited the room and he helped me get Drew into his fleecy outerwear, singing Brich Rachamana softly as we got Drew and me ready to hit the road for the dark drive home. Thanks, Isabella Freedman: I really needed that.

Another mother poem (for Read Write Prompt #113)


Remember the warm flat river
which smelled like walnuts,

the hum of the motor idling
the peel of wet rope through your hands

how it felt to bob, cradled
in the life jacket's embrace

then the boat would pick up speed
and you'd rise out of the water

feeling it thrum underfoot
as the cliffs whirled by

falling asleep is that way too
you have to learn how to float

in these warm waters, to hold fast
to the rope towing you forward

until the great green world blurs
and you fly away

This week's ReadWritePoem prompt, the therapeutic cleanse, invites us to look over our recent work and identify repeated words, themes, stylistic quirks...and then try to write a poem which doesn't lean on any of those usual crutches.

So this week's poem has a different setting than my other mother poems: we've moved out of the nursery! (The subject matter is related, though -- can you see how?) And I tried not to repeat words or images from the other poems in the series. The title is also longer than my titles usually are; it's an allusion to a Laurie Anderson piece.

The one place where I found I couldn't break with my old habits is the visual prosody of the lines on the page. I tried writing all in one big block, but the poem naturally shaped itself into couplets, so I let it take that form. Otherwise, though, I think this "spa day" was good for my writing; I hope you agree!

As usual, you can see what others did with the prompt by reading the links in the comments at this week's Get Your Poem On post.


Returning to rabbinic school

This week I return to rabbinic school...a little bit. I'm taking one class this spring, called Integral Halacha, which is functionally ALEPH's senior seminar; I'm taking it with the other six rabbinic students who are, like me, aiming for ordination next January.

Integral halacha: transcending and including is the title of one of Reb Zalman's recent books, co-written with Reb Daniel Siegel, who'll be teaching the class I'm about to take. Ideally, integral halakha aims to maintain continuity with the past and also to provide flexibility for the present. Reb Zalman has written:

How do we find meaning by continuing to be Jews? How do we connect to joy, to purpose, and why should we want to within a Jewish context, if it has been the cause of so much pain?

The way I can answer these questions is by creating a new, transcending, Judaism which honors the past and goes beyond it. Our practice must reference the larger purpose of the Jewish people in the world, our commitment to God and to what we call tikkun olam, to being agents of redemption. We now also know that we are not alone in this commitment, but part of something greater, a sharing with other people and paths.

We'll be reading Reb Zalman's book as part of this class, among other contemporary texts. But the heart of the class will involve studying some of the major halakhic codes and various teshuvot (halakhic responsa), in preparation for each writing our own responsum to a halakhic question  -- that's the senior project required of every ALEPH musmach (ordinee.) We'll be learning in three broad areas of subject matter: marriage & divorce, the perennial question of "who is a Jew," and relating to other denominations (though the halakhic questions we each answer in our teshuvot will not necessarily arise in these areas.)

Our first assigned reading is an excerpt from Rambam's Mishneh Torah on the subject of the agunah -- the "chained woman," e.g. a woman who is stuck in her marriage. Today the term is often used to describe women whose husbands refuse to grant a writ of divorce, though it can also mean someone whose husband is missing and may (or may not) be dead. (Think Enoch Arden.) Anyway, over the last several days I've been grabbing time while Drew is napping to try to begin working on my homework, which means sitting down with that first chunk of Rambam.

The first hour I managed to spend working on Rambam was a little bit disheartening. It's been two months since I did any schoolwork at all, and both my concentration and my word recall are rusty. (I haven't used my language skills since before Thanksgiving... and I haven't been getting much sleep since then, either, which I'm pretty sure makes my brain measurably less functional.) I also haven't taken a halakha class in a while. I did a lot of text translation this past summer and fall, but it was almost all Hasidic material -- which has both a different style and a different basic vocabulary than legal texts do.

But the second day that I sat down with the text, the reading was easier. Maybe it's a matter of getting back into the groove. One way or another, I'm looking forward to our first class. I'm excited about having a little bit of school folded in to my childcare-centric new life; I'm looking forward to the learning we're going to do; and I'm really looking forward to the chance to learn with the rest of my rabbinic ordination class. I know these six people pretty well, but over the year to come I anticipate getting to know this cohort even better, and I expect that the learning we will do with and from each other will be pretty wonderful.

Read Write Prompt #112: the narrative wallpaper


Moonlight slants across the floor
as I scuff down the stairs to your yellow room

you've thrashed loose from your swaddling
and scooted halfway down the mattress

fists clenched and mouth open
in a caricature of fury

the moment you attach your face goes slack
and unconcerned, eyes shut, one brow raised:

tiny Vulcan, commenting with a silent gesture
on humanity's quirks and misconceptions

what will you recall of these long nights
when I watched the moon cast shadows on snow?

This week's prompt at ReadWritePoem is #112: the narrative wallpaper. The poem I wound up writing is set against the backdrop of my son's nursery, which has yellow walls adorned with Ghanaian adinkra symbols. (The color isn't meant to be a subtle commentary on my mental health, I swear!)

Anyway, this is part of my ongoing series of mother poems. Thanks again to all of you for reading, and especially to the RWP folks who are gracious enough to read & comment here even though I'm not yet able to make time to read and comment on what y'all are writing these days.

As always, you can see what others did with the prompt by checking out the links in the comments to this week's get your poem on post.