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Another mother poem: cresting the first hill


The rollercoaster     picks up speed
you assume boat pose     straining to sit

you discover     new vowels, try
the kick and roll     open your mouth wide

Half a year ago     you emerged slick
one skinny fist    clenched and bluish

now when I bend     to kiss your belly
your eyes crinkle     and you grab my hair

my glasses, whatever's     within reach
we zoom downhill     toward who you'll become

Drew turns six months old today. That simple factual statement blows my mind: how can it have been half a year since he was born?

This week's mother poem arises out of my sense that as he continues to change and grow, we're moving faster and faster into his life. The first few months seem, in retrospect, like the slow clicking of the rollercoaster cars climbing bit by bit up the first long hill -- and now we're about to go flying down into the unknown.

I reread my collected mother poems a few days ago. (In addition to posting them here, I've been adding them one by one to a Word file which, it seems clear, is going to be my next manuscript.) I'm humbled to remember what a wild journey it's already been so far. The early weeks feel like a dream to me now.

I didn't write to the prompt at Big Tent Poetry this week, but here's a link to this week's come one, come all post so you can check out all of the new poems which entered the world -- both those written in response to the prompt, and those (like this one) written out of other sources of inspiration.


Morning prayer, on retreat and after


On the first morning of Shavuot I had Drew in my arms. He had been asleep in the stroller during Reb Zalman's 4am teaching, but not long after we began to pray at 5am he woke up, and thereafter I was holding him on my lap or in my arms or wearing him in a sling. I didn't bother to hold a siddur (prayerbook) -- my hands were, quite literally, already full. This is what I've been doing at shul when I make it to Shabbat morning services, too: holding Drew and praying aloud without a written text. (I am grateful that the prayer life I developed during my early years of rabbinic school means I know the liturgy well enough to be able to do this!)

Anyway, back to Shavuot. That morning I danced Drew around the back of the room, dandled him on my knee, and nursed him on a couch in the adjacent lounge while listening to the community sing a psalm of thanksgiving responsively with Reb Zalman. (He would call out a line like "Praise God, all the whales and little fishes," and everyone would chorus "Hallelujah" in multi-part harmony.) I remember davening that way with him one Shabbat morning back in 2004; this time I wasn't part of the singing community, but we listened to it from the next room.

I enjoyed dancing Drew around the back of the room and singing along. I loved the feeling of enfolding both of us in my new Bnai Or tallit, and I loved thinking about how he is already steeping in the melodies of prayer. And I even enjoyed nursing him in the other room and listening to the psalm as it was co-created by the kahal, though I also felt a pang of wishing I were able to lend my voice instead of just listening in from afar.

Continue reading "Morning prayer, on retreat and after" »

The Torah of our Mothers: Reb Zalman, Shavuot 5770, 4am

My favorite thing about Shavuot is the tikkun leyl Shavuot, the celebratory all-night study session. We stay awake and learn Torah all night because we don't want to accidentally sleep in and miss the anniversary of the revelation -- and because the kabbalists of Tzfat used to teach that a special influx of Torah insight and divine blessing is available in the middle of the night, and all the more so when we're studying on Shavuot eve. It's one of my favorite forms of Judeo-geekery. I just love the fact that we celebrate one of the year's major festivals by learning all night long.

Of course, this year there was no way I was staying up all night, even given the amazing line-up of teachers scheduled at the Shavuot retreat at Isabella Freedman. I have a six-month-old, and sleep is a precious commodity in my life! Not to mention, I couldn't go gallivanting off to study Torah all night and leave Drew alone in the room, since he still wakes to nurse pretty frequently (especially when we're on the road.) On the first night of the retreat I put Drew to bed at 8pm, an hour after his usual bedtime, and -- regretfully -- I put myself to bed not all that long thereafter.

But we did make it to Reb Zalman's shiur (lesson), which was at 4am, followed immediately by sunrise services at five. As it happened, Drew was up to nurse at 3ish and I had trouble getting him back to sleep, so I put him in the stroller in his pyjamas and we headed over to the main building. He spent the next hour and a half or so in the stroller with the umbrella hood pulled over him and my raincoat thrown over that to keep his little enclosure nice and dark; I rolled him around the back of the room, slowly, and he slept through Reb Zalman's whole talk.

Reb Zalman's teaching was beautiful. He began with Mishlei (Proverbs) 1:8 -- " שְׁמַע בְּנִי מוּסַר אָבִיךָ וְאַל־תִּטֹּשׁ תּוֹרַת אִמֶּך / Shema, bni, mussar avicha, v'al titosh Torat imecha. / Hear, my son, the mussar (self-improvement teachings) of your father, but don't forget the Torah of your mother." That was his big theme, though he divagated from it and then returned repeatedly, each time turning it over to show a new facet of what it might mean.

I wasn't taking notes during his shiur, so what follows is an incomplete recounting of what Reb Zalman said. With that disclaimer, here are some of the ideas which stuck with me.

Once upon a time, he reminded us, we used to go to Jerusalem for the shalosh regalim, the three pilgrimage festivals. In those days, we understood that Jerusalem was the place to connect with God: not so much to see God as to be seen by God. He offered some wordplay on the word yirah, usually rendered as "fear" or "awe," which can also be creatively read as "being seen." So when the tradition tells us to have yirat Shamayim ("fear of heaven,") that doesn't necessarily mean we ought to feel afraid of God but rather that we should know ourselves to be seen by God.

That led him to a story about a Sufi master who had twenty disciples, each of whom wanted to succeed him. The master gave them each a bird and instructed them to go someplace where no one could see them and to kill the bird and then return and he would give them the next set of instructions. Nineteen of the twenty returned with dead birds in hand, but one of them returned with his bird still alive. When the master asked why he hadn't followed the instruction, he replied "I couldn't find any place where no One could see me!"

Reb Zalman hit some of the themes I've heard and read from him before: normative halakha versus illustrative halakha, paradigm shift, the need for a new cosmology and a new ethics which arises out of that new cosmology, how seeing the earth from space changes our perspective on who we are, the need to relate to one another as cells in the body of Gaia, how each religion is like an organ in the body of humanity (each organ needs to have its own integrity but also to communicate with the others in the system), how even within Judaism we can understand ourselves organismically (one part of our community is like the spine which keeps us straight; another part of our community is all heart; and so on.) Ultimately he brought all of this back to teachings about the mussar of our father and the Torah of our mother.

When I heard the phrase "the Torah of our mother," I immediately thought of how over the last few decades we've been adding women's voices to the tradition: female halakhists, female midrashists, the perspectives and stories of Jewish women which were for so long absent from the recorded tradition. But it turned out that Reb Zalman meant something deeper than just this. He talked about masculine consciousness, which is punctive (formed of points on a line), and feminine consciousness which takes slow change into account. (Both men and women can have each of these, of course.) Feminine consciousness understands, e.g., that a baby of six months has different needs than a baby of one week. In this era we need that kind of feminine consciousness, that kind of awareness of how our community's spiritual needs have shifted over time as we have changed and grown. We need the Torah of our mothers, and that's what he urged us to seek to receive at this anniversary of the revelation of Torah at Sinai.

On the Sinai front, Reb Zalman spoke about the Torah which comes down from above at Sinai, and the Torah which rises up from within at Sinai. There's the Torah which comes down like rain (this is a bit of wordplay, since the word "Torah" comes from an archery root and is related to the word for a kind of driving rainfall), and the Torah which rises up like dew. Dew in our tradition is a symbol for divine grace, unmerited but plentiful, and he linked dew with the Torah of our mothers as well as the Torah of our mother planet. We need to receive and be open to the Torah of our mother in this era, in order that someday we may be able to read both the black fire of the letters of Torah and the white fire of the spaces between them, to see and to value both figure and ground.

At that point I thought of Merle Feld's poem "We All Stood Together" -- both because of the motif of black fire / white fire, masculine wisdom / feminine wisdom which Feld's poem and Reb Zalman's remarks share, and because the poem is about how women were at Sinai too but weren't able to write our experience down because we were always holding the baby, and that's where I've been at during this retreat myself. (Which is new for me; as you may have gathered from my copious Elat Chayyim blogging over the years, I usually keep a notebook in my tallit case so I can jot things down constantly while I'm here.) Being here with Drew in my arms, instead of with a notebook in hand, has been a fascinating exercise. When I think of it as being in the moment, I appreciate it; when I think of the notes I wish I'd taken, and the things I know I'm already forgetting, I feel some chagrin.

From Reb Zalman's shiur we moved directly into our morning davenen -- he sent a messenger outside to report on whether the morning star was visible, and when it was, we began to sing and to pray. Drew woke up shortly after we started praying. I moved in and out of the service, sometimes holding him in my arms, sometimes pushing him in the stroller, sometimes nursing him on a couch in the adjacent room, sometimes wearing him in a didymos wrap on my chest with both of us enfolded beneath the big rainbow-striped tallit I recently inherited from my sister (who had no idea it was a Reb Zalman-designed Bnai Or tallit when she used it as her chuppah 25 years ago!)

In the late afternoon, I ran into a friend from a previous retreat who asked me to tell her about Reb Zalman's talk, which she had missed because she needed sleep at that hour. I had taken a few moments while Drew catnapped before breakfast to jot down the outline of the above reflections, so I did my best to report it to her. She thanked me -- and told me that she had made the same request of several other people and that no two of us had told her the same things! She mentioned a few things that other people had chosen to recount, and as she listed each one I realized that yes, he spoke about that, too. It was a wonderful blind-men-and-the-elephant moment -- realizing that what each of us takes away from a Reb Zalman lecture says a lot about who we are and what Torah we each need to receive.

All in all, the Shavuot retreat was pretty terrific. I was mildly frustrated that I missed some evening programming because of Drew's bedtime. But that's a pretty minor complaint (and has more to do with my life right now than with the retreat per se.) It was a real blessing to be able to be there with Drew, to introduce him to so many of my rabbinic school teachers and friends, to see him receive a blessing from Reb Zalman, and to experience for myself the blessing of Reb Zalman's early-morning teachings while my son slept in the stroller.

I love knowing that someday I'll be able to say to Drew, "You don't remember it, but the first Shavuot of your life I took you to Isabella Freedman, and we woke up at three in the morning to hear Reb Zalman teach..." And there was something very powerful about hearing Reb Zalman's teaching on the Torah of our mothers at this moment when I am so immersed in discovering the Torah of my own motherhood.

Mother poem: croup


The angel who taught you Torah
in the comfort of the womb
might have warned you

the world holds this too:
night stretching endless,
your breathing labored

every hoarse and broken cry
a wordless plea for comfort
no one here can give, but

the tap above your lip
just before you emerged
into this great wide open

made that otherworldly wisdom
recede, and all I can offer
as you bury your face in my neck

is the ache in my chest
to match yours, my murmured
request for healing

ascending like water vapor
and dissipating
into the listening skies

Another mother poem this week. Before anyone gets worried, let me assure y'all that Drew is doing fine -- though I'm here to tell you, croup is no fun for anyone.

This poem draws on a text from Talmud (tractate Niddah 30b) which holds that before each of us is born, "A lamp shines over our heads with which we learn the entire Torah and see from one end of the universe to the other." At the moment of birth, the angel who had been holding that mystical lamp taps the unborn child on the mouth (some say this is the origin of the facial feature known as the philtrum) and all of that learning is forgotten -- maybe so that the child can experience the joy of re-learning it all during her or his lifetime.

This week's prompt at Big Tent Poetry is a wordle word cloud. I love those, and I like the words, so I wanted to write a second poem this week -- but the draft I came up with never made me happy, so I'm not sharing it. Instead, I'll just link to this week's come one, come all post so you can read what others wrote too.


Shavuot is coming

Last year at Shavuot I was just barely at the end of my first trimester of pregnancy. My shul and the shul up the road held a Tikkun leyl Shavuot (an all-night study session on the eve of the festival) where I taught a Hasidic text about seeing God in one another's faces. I wound up studying all night, which I wrote about briefly in the post Standing again at Sinai. What I didn't write about then, because I wasn't ready to share the news of my pregnancy with the wide world, was what it felt like to study Torah all night knowing that inside me a whole new kind of Torah was waiting to be revealed. I figured it was probably the last time for a long while that I'd be up for learning Torah all night, but I couldn't really imagine what my life would be like by the time the festival rolled around again.

Shavuot is in just a few days, and sure enough, my life has changed in ways I couldn't have imagined. (It's also remained constant in ways I couldn't have imagined.) This year I'm celebrating the festival of first fruits and revelation in a new way: I'll be spending two nights at Isabella Freedman, enjoying the Shavuot retreat with Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, his wife Eve Ilsen, and my friend Reb David Ingber. Reb Zalman has celebrated Shavuot at Isabella Freedman before (last year I posted the first in a set of YouTube videos, filmed there during a previous Shavuot, of Reb Zalman reading-and-translating the book of Ruth in his own inimitable way) but this will be my first time spending the holiday with him. Of course, I'm taking Drew with me. He's been to Isabella Freedman before, but only for an evening; this will be his first time on retreat with me.

I'm looking deeply forward to the learning and the davening and the singing: all the things I always love about spending time with my Jewish Renewal chevre (friends.) That said, I know that this retreat won't be quite like any other I've ever attended. Drew's needs are still paramount; they trump even my desire to imbibe Reb Zalman's teachings at this time of holy downloading! I'm hoping I'll be able to dance Drew around the room as we daven, play with him quietly on a quilt as Reb Zalman teaches, and if needed pass him around the room to other friendly folks who like babies. Of course, if he fusses I'm also prepared to take him out of the room or walk him around the campus...and to wake up often at night to nurse, since he's reached a stage where he doesn't sleep well away from his own familiar crib. If there is all-night Torah study at Isabella Freedman during Shavuot, I won't be able to participate in it, but perhaps I can regard our inevitable late-night feedings as a chance to receive a unique flow of blessing.

Knowing that this retreat will be shaped by my new obligation to juggle my desires with Drew's needs feels like a good encapsulation of my life right now. These days I can't focus all of my energy on learning Torah the way I used to. But I keep remembering something that my previous spiritual director, Reb Burt Jacobson, said to me last year: that Drew would be one of my greatest teachers of Torah. I remember, too, my fellow chaplains at Albany Medical Center telling me that someday when I became a parent I would enter into a whole new kind of theological education! Maybe the critical thing is that I can't focus my energy on Torah the way I used to. But I can still immerse myself in Torah: now in new ways, changed and enriched by this experience of motherhood which is changing and enriching me.

I'm looking forward to seeing what insights arise for me during this festival of Shavuot: through the study and davening and singing, and also through the continued experience of learning how to be the mother to Drew that I want to be.

Another mother poem: eating the apple


The first time
I spoon applesauce

your long shiver
makes me laugh

one bite, then
you turn away

this new flavor
not yet familiar

in my imagination
I'm introducing you

to mangoes already,
to fresh bread,

halvah and tamales,
injera and kimchi

but you're not
ready for difference

or new discovery,
hot fists clinging

to the Eden
you've always known

This week's mother poem arises out of a comment that Sue left on last week's poem, which got me thinking about (in her words) "the Eden of those early weeks of life." There's something poignant for me in thinking about what constitutes Drew's experience of a kind of Eden, where all his needs are met before he's expected or able to make his own way in the world.

I didn't manage to write to this week's Big Tent Poetry prompt, which invited us to listen to a podcast on an unfamiliar subject and then write a poem -- the only podcast or recording I listened to this week was on a subject I do know something about, which is lifecycle rituals -- but here's a link to this week's "come one, come all" post where folks are leaving links to their poems in comments.


Signal-boosting the Open Source Siddur

My online wanderings recently led me to the Open Siddur Project, which is -- as you might imagine -- so far up my alley it's in my backyard. 

The Open Siddur Project aims to produce a free software, web-based toolkit for users to prepare siddurim and other high quality Jewish liturgical works (such as haggadot and bentchers) to be printed out, shared online, or accessed via e-readers. In a general sense, the application we’re developing might be called a collaborative publishing platform: collaborative like a wiki but designed with the ultimate goal of generating print media. Online, the platform will provide a space for individual users to select from, author, and share all the components of a siddur including prayers, translations, commentaries, art, and layout templates for incorporation in new, custom designed siddurim. Alternately, the platform could be used as a novel educational tool for the study of Jewish liturgy.

Our project’s mission encompasses the values of pluralism (acceptance for the diversity of Jewish cultural expression), historical awareness (the text of the siddur is an aggregate of thousands of years of creatively inspired works), and individual freedom.

(That's from their What we do page.) The project is at the intersection of three things about which I care deeply: Jewish liturgy, liturgical creativity, and free culture / open source. Someday when I have a little more time again (this probably means in 2011 after my ordination!) I'd love to find a way to really lend a hand. For now, I don't have the time for Hebrew transcription work (and don't have the tech chops for coding work), but I do have some contemporary prayers kicking around; I just contributed my dvar tefilah on the prayer for dew, and I'm planning to contribute a few of my morning blessing variations too.

Anyway: kol hakavod ("all the honor" -- in other words, props) to the folks behind this project! If this is your cuppa too, check out the How you can help page.

My spring semester ends

Last week brought the final meeting of Halakha and Paradigm Shift, the ALEPH rabbinic program senior seminar. It's been a fantastic class. Reb Daniel is a tremendous teacher, and I have so much love and respect for the other students in my cohort that learning with them is a perennial joy.

We spent the first part of class talking through the final teshuvah (halakhic responsum paper) which we had been assigned to read and translate. And we spent the second part of class collectively brainstorming a list of the halakhic principles we derived from the texts we'd each taught to the group over the course of the semester (most of which were not explicitly halakhic texts -- mine was Reb Nachman on the cosmic need for opposition -- though we were asked to bring them to bear on the halakhic process, which sparked excellent conversations all semester long.) In recent weeks we'd been focusing closely on the teshuvot we were translating; this week it felt like we were zooming up and out, seeing the big picture which arises out of the pointillistic little details of each verse and opinion.

Our conversation was free-wheeling and wide-ranging, and it reminded me of exactly why I'm going to miss this class. When else in my life do I get to sit around a virtual seminar table with dear friends in New Mexico, Ohio, and Israel (among other places) and talk about what it means to us that the will of the majority trumps even a bat kol (divine proclamation) though majority rule also has its downsides and we want to remain conscious of the need to balance the will of the community with a sense of illumination from God? About how halakha exists and operates within human community, and it can't be divorced from that community? About the need to have a sense for what teachings and what rulings are needed in this moment?

We talked too about how as the world changes, God's relationship with the world may change, and we need to be flexible and open to change because God is ever-changing. How we create worlds with our words. How to balance the idea that halakha arises in the spaces between our differing opinions with the idea that klal Yisrael (the greater Jewish community) needs cohesion. How halakha must remain flexible in order to uphold principles which are higher than the laws themselves. How we each interpret Torah and halakha in accordance with our own qualities and points of view. How we need to bring beginner's mind, expert mind, and "sage mind" to each question we consider, because each of those gazes may lift up a piece of information which the others wouldn't...

It was a terrific conversation. We were going to talk also about the principles we'd discerned in the teshuvot we studied, but we realized we'd already gone well beyond our allotted two hours this time around, and that the time for this iteration of our learning was through.

Now each of us will turn to her or his own work: researching and writing our own teshuvot this summer. I've formulated the question to which I want to respond -- a question which has arisen more than once in my rabbinic student life -- and now I have to respond to it in a way which shows both awareness of existing halakha and an understanding of Reb Zalman's teachings about paradigm shift. It's a tall order! But I'm excited about beginning to do this work next month when I can turn to my studies a bit more intensively again -- and I'm grateful to have a cohort of such terrific colleagues to whom I can turn for support, brainstorming, and advice, not only now but in months and years to come.

For now, I'm feeling wistful. The learning has been fantastic. I'm going to miss this class a lot.

Another mother poem: taste


This thin gruel is your first step
toward strawberries warm from the sun

wedges of cheddar made from grassy milk
Macs and Cortlands pressed into cider

but once this spoon passes your lips
I have to curb mine from proclaiming

I made every ounce of exuberant you,
your chubby thighs and chipmunk cheeks

hesitation stills my hand, but
you don't know what bittersweet means

what blessing should I make
over this first bite, your open mouth

a door to the wide world waiting
to be brought inside?

We recently began giving Drew his first solid food. It's been a treat to watch him begin to figure out how to eat in this new way, and I think he may be figuring out that this is food, not just some strange new game that mom and dad want to play! I'm thrilled that his culinary horizons are expanding.

But there's also part of me which felt a pang when we began this process. As happy as I am that he's beginning to eat food which doesn't come from me, there's something poignant for me about this new step along the road of individuation and independence. That's what sparked this week's mother poem.

From the moment of his birth, Drew has been moving slowly and inexorably into his own life, like an astronaut pushing off from his craft and beginning to float into the vast uncharted reaches of space. Of course, he's still dependent on me and on us for all kinds of things, but a million tiny separations are already beginning. It's amazing. I can't wait to see what he discovers as he continues to grow.

ETA: While I didn't write this poem for this week's prompt at Big Tent Poetry, I'm delighted to see a potential successor to Read Write Poem emerging -- and if you've been jonesing to see what other poets wrote this week, the first "come one, come all" post is the place to look!


Music about mothers on my first Mother's Day

When I first discovered that I was pregnant, I began working on a series of poems which took the form of letters to the baby. I meant to write nine of them, and had vague notions of maybe someday making a single-edition chapbook to give to my son when he was old enough to appreciate them. As it turned out, I only wrote eight. Since I started the series long before we had a name in mind, I called them "Letters to Little Bean."

Two of those poems have been set to music by the composer Michael Veloso, who is a dear friend of mine. They'll have their world premiere at a Mother's Day concert by Cantilena, a women's chorale dedicated to performing music written for women's voices. Cantilena is directed by Allegra Martin, also a dear friend.

Longtime readers of this blog may remember Through, the collection of poems I wrote about my miscarriage a few months before Drew's conception. My anxiety about having a second miscarriage sparked the beginning of my first poem to Drew, which begins:

I don't like to cough too hard,
to move too fast.
Something twinges
and I'm afraid I'll shake you loose,
little bean...

That's the first poem for which Mike composed music. On his website, Mike writes:

I'd like to call attention to the first poem, Little Bean, written during the early weeks of Rachel's pregnancy, which is about her constant fear of miscarriage in the first trimester; many, many babies never make it past the first months, and I found her poem particularly moving in how it captures the fragility of that time, the daily terror of waking up and wondering if your baby is still alive. It's something that few people talk about -- miscarriage is, of course, an intensely personal and private trauma -- and I'm glad to have had the opportunity to bring something normally kept silent out into the open.

The second poem that Mike set to music -- one of the later poems in the Little Bean series -- is about getting the nursery ready for Drew's arrival and hoping that I, too, was as ready as I could be. It begins, "Less than a month now / until we meet face to face, / skin to skin..." I've seen the sheet music for his compositions, and I'm really looking forward to hearing them performed!

The concert will also feature settings of Ave Maria by Fauré and Poulenc, Duruflé's Tota Pulchra Es, Irving Fine's Caroline Million (which Allegra describes as "raucous and malicious!"), and several other pieces as well -- quite a remarkable range of music about motherhood.

The concert is at 7pm, which is Drew's bedtime. After much reflection, I've come to the conclusion that bringing him to the concert would not be kind to anyone (not the audience, not the singers, and especially not him.) I'm planning to buzz the dress rehearsal on Saturday in order to introduce him to the singers who've been rehearsing music about him for months, and on the night of Mother's Day will put him to bed at my sister's house and then tiptoe out to hear the concert by myself.

If you're in the Boston area and this kind of thing appeals to you, please come! (And hey, if you'd like to see Drew, though I can't offer you the chance to ooh and ahh over him in person, you can always enjoy his flickr stream, which is updated every few days...) Here's the scoop about the show:

Music About Mothers: From the Divine to the Deranged

Performed by Cantilena

Allegra Martin, Director

Sunday, May 9, 2010 at 7 PM

First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church
630 Massachusetts Avenue (corner of Mass Ave and Route 60)
Arlington Center, MA
(This venue is handicapped accessible)

Hope to see you there!