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Another mother poem: a few of your favorite things


Sitting up
beats lying down

like a lotion rubdown
beats a dose of vitamins

like peach yogurt
beats spinach puree.

Mylar balloons
filled with helium:

even better than
a stream of water

that splashes past
your grabby hands.

My palm stroking your head,
your arms around my neck.

In the morning,
the baby in the mirror

kicking his feet
to see you again.

This week's mother poem is pretty self-explanatory, I think.

I spent much of the week working on Torah poems again -- I'll be offering a "sermon in poetry" at CBI on the second day of Rosh Hashanah -- and it was fascinating to move back and forth between working on Torah poems and working on a mother poem. Not surprisingly, the two inform each other. I think my mother poems are richer for my study of Torah, and I think my Torah poems are richer for this experience of motherhood, too.

This poem wasn't written in response to this week's Big Tent Poetry prompt per se, but you can check out the Come One, Come All post to see what others wrote.


The height of summer

We're in the height of summer. The days may be growing shorter, but it's not perceptible yet. I brought home the first stunning red tomato from Caretaker Farm this week and ate it one day for lunch, diced into pieces and sprinkled with fresh-ground pepper and a few flakes of sea salt. The wisteria which grows up the side of our house beside my office window is in full leaf, and its tendrils are beginning to obscure the window in front of my desk. The evening air smells like newly-mown grass (which, at our house, also means rampant mint and wild thyme.)

Last winter it seemed that summer might never arrive. (This is not entirely uncommon for me, though having a newborn definitely exacerbated that sense in ways I hadn't anticipated.) Now it's almost unthinkable that summer will ever end -- though the goldenrod in our backyard meadow is tipped with bright yellow, and the full moon of Av is waning, which means the rollercoaster ride through the Jewish high holidays is right around the corner.

I've been working on pulling together a cd of high holiday music: some of the nusach and tunes we sing every year, plus a few new melodies we'll be incorporating into this year's services. It was fun to go digging through iTunes for recordings of some of the melodies in question, and to record others myself. Rabbi Goldwasser and I are planning to send the cd out to everyone on the Congregation Beth Israel mailing list, in hopes that it will help people get "in the mood" for the Days of Awe. This year my high holiday pulpit is right here at home; I'll have the pleasure of working alongside my rabbi at CBI. On a practical level it's a relief to know that we won't be traveling anywhere with Drew for the chagim -- and on a spiritual level there's something especially sweet about serving my own home community for the holidays!

The other projects on my plate also have me focusing on the future. I've been working on an essay that's due at the end of August (about which more anon, assuming that it's accepted for publication). And I've been working on my senior teshuvah. The big project required of every ALEPH musmach -- ordinee -- is writing a teshuvah, or legal responsum, to a contemporary question of Jewish law or practice; that's due in early fall, too. And this past Sunday morning, ALEPH's 2011 smicha (ordination) class met over conference call for our first conversation about preparing for smicha.

Each smicha class plans the ceremony anew. There are elements which must be included, but there's also room for creativity. The running joke is that it's like planning a wedding -- for ten people instead of just two! It's amazing and exciting to see that milestone approaching. Of course, we're not there yet. Each of us has coursework to finish; all of the rabbinic students are working on our teshuvot; most of us have at least a few classes left. (I'll be taking one class this fall -- and then, after I'm ordained, I'll still need to finish the hashpa'ah / spiritual direction program, which will end in January of 2012.)

One way or another, there's a lot on the horizon. My challenge is to keep all of those balls up in the air without losing track of what's wonderful about this moment right now: the long days and moonlit nights, the call of the veery thrushes in our woods, suppers of salads and fresh corn. So much to savor.

A mother poem for Shabbat Nachamu: Comforter


you wake in your crib's embrace
from the dream of a distant heartbeat

a voice says cry out!
and you cry out

bewailing the tragedy of separation
until I gather you to my breast

glowing numbers shift silently
and your desperation eases

someday you'll learn to fumble soft stars
into their places

to nuzzle your giraffe
and count adinkra like talismans

but for now I am consolation
I make the rough places plain

This Shabbat -- the first Shabbat after Tisha b'Av -- is called Shabbat Nachamu, a name which comes from the first word of tomorrow's assigned reading from the Prophets. That reading is Isaiah 40:1-26, and the first words are נַחֲמוּ נַחֲמוּ, עַמִּי / nachamu nachamu, ami -- rendered in one familiar translation as "Comfort ye, comfort ye my people."

Drew's sleep schedule has been tough on me since we went to Baltimore. Since we're waking up several times a night again, nighttime nursing became the subject of this week's poem. But I wanted to write something with broader resonance, so I also drew on imagery from the haftarah reading for this week -- several of the images in this poem are direct quotes or references to chapter 40 of Isaiah.

Adinkra are Ghanaian symbols, each of which represents an idea or teaching. We painted a dozen favorite symbols along the ceiling of Drew's nursery last summer. (It looks pretty neat.)

This week's poem wasn't written in response to this week's Big Tent Poetry prompt, but you can check out this week's Come One, Come All post if you want to see what others wrote.

Tisha b'Av and sounds of sorrow

The fallen stones date to the destruction of the second temple.

Tisha b'Av begins tonight at sundown. 

At the end of last year's post about the day -- Three scenes from Tisha b'Av -- I touched on the teaching from Talmud (tractate Yoma) that the second Temple was destroyed because of sinat chinam / senseless hatred (usually understood as hatred between Jews) and listed some of last year's egregious examples. It saddens me that I can reprise that teaching now with some of this year's instances of Jews being hateful to Jews: Anat Hoffman's recent arrest in Jerusalem for the "crime" of carrying a Torah scroll near the Kotel, the passage of a new conversion bill in the Israeli Knesset which gives the Orthodox Israeli rabbinate increased authority over who is considered a "real" Jew in the land of Israel. (That bill has troubling implications indeed.) Obviously we haven't solved the problem of sinat chinam quite yet.

My classmate Jonathan Zasloff has written an essay entitled What are you doing for assarah b'av? (Assarah b'av is the 10th of Av, the day which follows the mournful 9 Av.) He writes:

The time has come for us to acknowledge the dirty little secret of Tisha B’Av: the destruction of the Temple was one of the best things ever to happen to the Jewish people.

His essay is intentionally provocative, I think, but he's right that many blessings have arisen out of the paradigm shift occasioned by the Temple's fall. I've written before about the wondrous flowerings of post-Temple Judaism: rabbinic Judaism, diaspora Judaism, today's many-splendored variations on our religious theme. These are among the births which that death made possible. I have no yearning to restore temple sacrifice.

But I still find meaning in Tisha b'Av. Because we've all experienced the fall of walls and the destruction of something we loved. And once a year, together, we relive that experience -- we go down as a community into that pit of despair -- in order to remember that devastation and then rise up again. The spiritual work of the coming month of Elul, during which we prepare ourselves for the Days of Awe and strive to make teshuvah (to re/turn toward our Source), has a different valance when we come to it bearing the memories of a day of deep communal sorrow. Judaism calls us not to shy away from what hurts, but to confront it, to go deep into it -- and then to make our way out of it. This is part of our spiritual life too.

The destruction of the Temple so long ago may not feel relevant to some of us today, especially to we who prize the Diaspora Judaism which arose as a result of the Temple's fall. It's easy to argue that the fall of the Temple was a necessary birth-pang of the new paradigm. But I don't think Tisha b'Av is "just" about what happened then. Buildings fall and suffering continues in our own day, too. Via this post at Jewschool last year I learned about Rabbi Irwin Kula's recording of 9/11 voicemails -- from those on the planes, from those at the World Trade Center -- using Eicha trope [mp3], the traditional cantillation used for the Book of Lamentations which we read today in our 9 Av commemorations.

Above is an embedded media player which will allow you to listen to R' Kula's voicemail chanting. If you're reading this via an aggregator or via email and can't see the embed, you can go directly to the recording here.

Part of what makes the recording so devastating is the profound ordinariness of the messages. The little things we say to one another when we don't know the end is coming. Of course, I'm primed to find this melody especially poignant -- but I imagine it might resonate even for those who've never heard Eicha before. And these messages of sorrow, chanted in Eicha trope, give me a different perspective on the deaths chronicled in Lamentations -- and the needless deaths happening even now.

May listening to these words add power to your Tisha b'Av observance. May we together descend into darkness...and find our way again, by tomorrow's end, into the light.

Another mother poem: messages


in the curve of your head,
its whorls of soft hair

in your grasping hands
and your dolphin trills

some of your signals
are plain as speech --

your staccato kicking,
a fist pressed to your eyes

-- but no one can decipher
your most secret heart

This week's prompt at Big Tent Poetry has to do with steganography. I didn't wind up writing to the prompt exactly, but my mother poem this week was inspired by the idea of hidden messages. There's so much about Drew which is inevitably, and delightfully, a mystery to me.

As much as I adored smicha students' week and ruach ha-aretz, I think both Drew and I have benefited from settling back in to our home routine.

If you want to see what other poets wrote this week, inspired by the steganography theme, check out this week's Come One, Come All post.


Joel Hoffman on the perils of Bible translation

I went to Congregation Beth Israel last night to hear Dr. Joel Hoffman speak. His lecture was excellent. Joel is author most recently of And God Said: How Translations Conceal the Bible's Original Meaning, which I haven't yet read but am really looking forward to (especially now that I've heard him speak!) As a quick side note, the event was co-sponsored by Jewish Federation of the Berkshires -- thanks, Federation.

The sanctuary was packed, which made me happy. Rabbi Goldwasser had done outreach to the Christian community as well, and I know there was at least one pagan in the audience (hi, Rev Allyson!) in addition to the crowd of CBI regulars.

In his introduction, Rabbi Goldwasser told us that Dr. Hoffman's "History of the Hebrew Language" course was one of his favorite classes in rabbinic school. He cited the old Italian saying that the translator is a traitor, and noted that translation is even more challenging when the text is one about which we care as deeply as we care about the Bible.

Dr. Hoffman began by saying, "We're going to look at Bible translation, at what happens when you read the Bible in English" -- the Hebrew, the Greek, and the Aramaic parts of the Bible -- "and we'll look at what went wrong and why."

Take for instance, the Song of Songs / Song of Solomon: it's about romantic love, which is why it's often sung at weddings. We think of verses like "you have ravished my heart, my sister, my bride." But Hoffman quipped, "Here's the thing, though: not only is 'my sister, my bride' not romantic -- in America, it's illegal! So right off the bat we want to ask how is it that translations turn courtship into a felony."

He opened with a charming joke about Holmes and Watson and a stolen tent. "What something means depends upon what you are trying to do... There are lots of ways for something to mean something." He's interested in the original meaning of the text, what it meant when the stuff was written down. There are, of course, other ways to read these texts: devotionally, recited for comfort, in lifecycle events, and so on, and each of those gives different meaning to the text. "But people want to know when they are looking at the Bible what the words originally meant when they were written down, and what they have come to mean in the context of a religious community."

Continue reading "Joel Hoffman on the perils of Bible translation" »

Joel Hoffman is coming to town

Joel Hoffman is a Biblical scholar and translator. His latest book is And God Said: How Translations Conceal the Bible's Original Meaning. As you might imagine, it sounds right up my alley. (I've been meaning to read it for a while now, but somehow life has been too busy to permit much leisure reading. Go figure.)

Even the Table of Contents fascinates me. The chapters have titles like "The King's English: Why We're All Stuck in the Middle Ages" and "Virgins and Other Young People: How We Mark Our Years." There's also "Bridging the Gap: Writing Hebrew in English," where Hoffman writes:

"Out of sight, out of mind," sounds like it might be paraphrased as "blind idiot," but of course it cannot. Yet many translations of the Bible make this sort of basic mistake when they render ancient Hebrew in modern English...

Dr. Hoffman is coming to Congregation Beth Israel, my synagogue, tomorrow night! He'll be giving a lecture at 7:30pm, and I'm planning to leave Drew with his grandmother so I can go and hear him speak.

If this kind of thing is interesting to you, and you live in or near the Berkshires, come and join us! (And if you don't live locally, never fear -- I'm planning to post about the talk later in the week.)

6 tastes of Ruach ha-Aretz


Pearlstone retreat center, home to this year's Ruach ha-Aretz East.

It is the evening of the fourth of July and the sun is beginning to cast low long shafts of light across the grass. A friend calls my name and I veer off the path back to the room, heading instead to a circle of women in the middle of the great grassy oval in front of the main building at Pearlstone. We talk and laugh and sing songs and crack ribald jokes and when I reluctantly rise to return to my room I am beaming. It is the first time since the first night of this two-week retreat that I've taken the luxury of staying out of the room "late," well after Drew's bedtime, and it feels so good to laugh and sing and talk with my chevre, my holy friends.

Continue reading "6 tastes of Ruach ha-Aretz" »

Another mother psalm: bringing the baby to morning prayer



Don't chew on your mama's tefillin
I say, dislodging the leather
from your damp and eager grasp.
We play peekaboo beneath my tallit,
hiding your face and revealing it
the way God is sometimes present
sometimes not. You like the drums,
the fiddle and clarinet.
You bang your rattle on the floor.
As we sing "Praise God,
all you elders and young children"
you bellow and and we laugh.
During silent prayer your yearning
opens my floodgates.
When the Torah is carried around
I waltz you in my arms, my own scroll.
All my prayers are written
in your open face.

This week's morning prayer arises out of the experience of going to morning prayer with Drew every day of this two-week ALEPH retreat at Pearlstone. Services here vary from day to day: sometimes it's all Hebrew in straight weekday nusach, and sometimes there are drums and instruments and chanting and all kinds of liturgical creativity. Drew seems to enjoy himself regardless; I hold him in my lap, dance him around the room, usually nurse him at some point. Fortunately, this crowd seems to dig his noises and his excitable little-boy energy.

The mini-anecdote about Drew calling out at exactly the right moment in psalm 148 is a true story, by the way. No sooner did we sing בַּחוּרִים וְגַם-בְּתוּלוֹת; זְקֵנִים, עִם-נְעָרִים ("men and young women; elders and youths") than Drew burst out with a squeal, and the room collapsed in laughter. It was pretty awesome.

There's no recording of this week's poem; I wasn't able to find the time and space to record it. Sorry, y'all.

This mother poem wasn't written in response to any prompts, but if you want to see what the other folks at Big Tent Poetry did this week, check out this week's Come One, Come All post.

Edited to add: this poem is now available in Waiting to Unfold, my collection of motherhood poems, published by Phoenicia Publishing, 2013. And you can find other posts, including other poems about tefillin, in my tefillin category.

My last smicha students' week

With friends on Friday evening.

My last smicha students' week as an ALEPH rabbinic student has ended. There were some amazing moments. Sweetest of all has been seeing my friends and teachers again; I missed them all desperately in January, and it's been a long year since we were together last! It was also incredible to introduce Drew to these people who I know and love, and to see them coming to know and love him in return. Seeing him kicking and burbling happily in my friends' arms. Watching some of my revered teachers trade raspberries with him. Dancing with him around the back of the room where we've been gathering for prayer. Sitting (and standing and waltzing) with him in my arms at the front of the room with several of my friends on Friday morning, and reciting my psalm as he clung to my neck.

Other highlights: watching friends roleplay the story of Job and his friends as though it were a pastoral care encounter. Facilitating my first group hashpa'ah (spiritual direction) session. Hearing Hazzan Jack Kessler chant the Declaration of Independence in haftarah trope on the Shabbat of the Fourth of July weekend. Being moved to tears when a friend held the Torah scroll and called out the shema for us to repeat on Shabbat morning -- he was caught up in such deep emotion that he took me along, too. Singing half a dozen different pieces of our liturgy to American tunes this morning in celebration of American Independence Day (my favorite: psalm 150 to the tune of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic.") Leading the student community, during this morning's closing ceremony, in singing a filk I wrote (set to the tune of "The Boxer") about being ALEPH students.

Of course, the week wasn't all easy. These retreats used to be a time when I could set my mundane responsibilities aside and immerse in the exquisite joys of praying and learning and community. It's different with Drew here. I didn't attend the beit midrash in the evenings last week, or make it to mincha/maariv after the first night; I didn't stay up late with friends studying and talking and singing. He doesn't sleep well when we travel, which means many night-time feedings, and less sleep than either one of us is used to getting at home. I nodded off one afternoon during an in-class meditation. I missed most of Kabbalat Shabbat because he was so overstimulated, and Shabbat dinner, too. The week has been an exercise in being present to what is, enjoying the unique blessings of being here with my son instead of longing for the experience I remember I used to have.

And, of course, there's the bittersweet knowledge that this is my last student retreat. It's not entirely the end; for one thing, we'll be here for a second week, the Ruach ha'Aretz retreat, where I'll be taking a lifecycles class that I'm really looking forward to. I'll see everyone again in January at Ohalah, and again next summer at the 2011 ALEPH Kallah (in Redlands, CA, June 27-July 3 -- save the date!) Still, this is the end of an era, and that's a strange thing to contemplate, especially since this retreat has been so different from all the ones I experienced before Drew's birth.

Despite the challenges, though, it's been wonderful. Once again I'm reminded of how blessed I am to have found this community and to be able to learn with and from them. I am incredibly grateful.

Another mother psalm: song for the sixth day


On the sixth day I labored
to birth a world.

To make room for you
I contracted myself, touched

the place where I disappear.
And for you, the journey

from my endless embrace
into the world of separation...

But when my work was completed
I gazed into your bottomless eyes

-- my image; my likeness --
and I was not alone

rest with me now
and remember.

This week's poem was written to serve two purposes. It's part of my mother poems series, and it was also written to be read as the "psalm for the day" in Friday morning services at smicha students' week. Five of my classmates and I collaborated on leading the morning service today, and this psalm was my offering.

In the traditional framework, the psalm for the sixth day (Friday) is psalm 93, which I love, though I read this psalm in its place. This is a much more personal psalm. It's autobiographical (the day I spent laboring to bear Drew was, indeed, a Friday) and is very much about the two of us -- but it can also be read as God reminiscing about the process of creation and the resting which followed it. Now that I've given birth, I understand the kabbalistic notion of God's tzimtzum, self-withdrawal or contraction, in a new way. My sense of God-as-mother is rich and vivid these days.

Wishing all who celebrate a Shabbat filled with sweetness, a taste of paradise! And to everyone else, hey, have a great weekend.

This poem wasn't written in response to a Big Tent Poetry prompt, but if you head over there, you can check out this week's "get your poem on" post to see what others have written.


Supporting ALEPH

If you've been reading this blog for any period of time, you know that I've wanted to become a rabbi for a long time, and I've been formally studying to become a rabbi since fall of 2005. I'll be ordained, inshallah, in January of 2011.

The ALEPH rabbinic program has been an amazing experience for me. The very first time I experienced Jewish Renewal, at a week-long retreat back in 2002, I felt as though I'd spiritually come home -- and when I got home, I told Ethan, "I want to become a rabbi like they are rabbis." It's been awesome to be able to actually pursue that goal.

I love Jewish Renewal for its deep ecumenism (its insistence that there are many valid paths to God); how it combines the joy and God-consciousness of Hasidism with the social justice work and feminism of Reform Judaism; its deep commitment to a future in which the descendants of Abraham and the descendants of Ishmael can live in mutual respect and peace in the Middle East; and because this community has taught me how to pray, how to connect with God, and how to help others do the same.

Continue reading "Supporting ALEPH" »