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A mother poem which is also a Sukkot poem

The permeable world




All the world is a room made of windows
with different views through every pane

sit with me, knock two bowls together
hold an etrog carefully in both hands

watch me gather palm, myrtle and willow
and turn in four directions, hoping for gifts

from the winds that quake the aspen,
from the earth, from the spiraling fire

last Sukkot you were snug inside
but now you've joined the permeable world

when the rains come the roof leaks
but you're safe in my arms

and at night we're surrounded by angels
twinkling on all sides, escorting us through

This week's prompt at Big Tent Poetry invites us to get out of our houses. As it happens, this week is the Jewish festival of Sukkot, when we're commanded to, well, get out of our houses! We build little temporary huts in our backyards and inhabit those instead. (If you're coming to this blog via Big Tent Poetry, and/or if Sukkot is unfamiliar to you, you're welcome to check out my Sukkot posts from the last several years.)

Anyway, this week's mother poem is my response to the Big Tent Poetry prompt and to the experience of introducing Drew to our sukkah.

Drew, sitting in our sukkah.You can see more of our sukkah here, and more of Drew here.

Part of what was fun about writing this poem was trying to figure out how to make the images work on two levels at once. For instance, the reference to angels at the end of the poem comes out of the twinkling lights strung around the sukkah's roof and also out of the the angel song I sing to Drew most nights before bed. And the line about spiraling fire is meant to suggest both the maple leaves falling from the trees overhead, and my friend Daniel spinning LED poi (which I've now learned is also called glowstringing) outside the sukkah on Sunday night. Of course, Drew missed that; it was well after his bedtime. But it's one of my sweet Sukkot memories from this year anyway.

Here's a link to this week's Come One, Come All post so you can see how others responded to this prompt.



Edited to add: this poem is now available in Waiting to Unfold, my collection of motherhood poems, published by Phoenicia Publishing, 2013.


Today is Hoshana Rabbah, the seventh day of the festival of Sukkot which is also a minor holiday of its own. The name means "The Great Hoshana" or "The Great 'Please Save Us'!" It's traditional, on each day of Sukkot, to make a circuit around the interior of the synagogue or around the Torah-reading table carrying our lulavim and reciting a hoshana (supplicatory prayer); on the seventh day, we make seven circuits and recite seven hoshanot.

R' Shlomo Carlebach singing a wordless niggun on Hoshana Rabbah.

My teacher Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi has written a set of contemporary poetic hoshanot in English. Reb Arthur Waskow notes that:

These Hoshanot in English by Reb Zalman follow the model of the traditional Hebrew Hoshanot, which are aimed at the protection and healing of the earth from locusts, drought, etc. These English versions do so not only in the line-by-line meaning, but also by celebrating, day by day, the aspects of the universe that (according to the first chapter of Genesis) were created on each of the original seven days. They also draw on the alphabetical pattern of the traditional Hebrew Hoshanot.

Here's how they begin:

Hosha'na for the sake of
the Aura of life
the Beams of Light
the Clearness of Light
the Dynamics of Light
the Effulgence of Light
the diFfraction of light
the Glory of light
the Haloes of light
the Illumination of light
the Joys of sight...

Even if you're not dancing around a sanctuary with lulavim and Torah scrolls, reading Reb Zalman's hoshanot and reflecting on their meaning is a lovely observance of Hoshana Rabbah. They're online here at the Reb Zalman Legacy Project blog, and also here at the Shalom Center (with commentary from Reb Arthur below the hoshanot themselves.) Reb Zalman has also written a separate bilingual hoshana (the Hebrew is an alphabetic acrostic; the English is a translation) which is online here, and which speaks out of contrition for how we've damaged creation.

Speaking of Reb Zalman, I'm happy to be able to report that his beautiful English-language siddur (prayerbook), Sh'ma, is once again available in print. I just ordered myself a copy; if you have any interest in Jewish prayer in English, it's $10 well-spent. You can order it online here.

Tomorrow will be Shemini Atzeret, "the pause of the 8th day" -- it's the extra day of celebration tacked on at the end of the seven days of Sukkot. It's customary to recite special prayers for rain on that day; last year I wrote a contemporary prayer for rain to be recited on Shemini Atzeret. If you're interested, you can find it here.

The likelihood of peace

I've been wanting to write something about the current round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, but haven't managed to do so until today. Unfortunately, the news doesn't look good. The Christian Science monitor reports today that the talks are still on, but it's hard to know how long they'll last, given that Israel's freeze on building new settlements has elapsed. At the start of this month, I was moved by this list of 10 reasons to be hopeful about the peace talks; today, I'm not so sure.

When I was living in Jerusalem two summers ago, I had the opportunity to travel a little bit around Jerusalem and the West Bank, and the experience was pretty overwhelming. (Here's my first post about that: A day with ICAHD.) Israeli settlements carve the West Bank into Swiss cheese, and as the settlements grow, creating a viable Palestinian state becomes harder and harder. Americans for Peace Now, the American counterpart to שלום עכשיו, recently released a new map of the territories called Facts on the Ground, available on the web and as an iphone app; if you want to know more, it's a good place to start.

It seems to me that if Israel doesn't stop the growth of settlements, they will soon reach a point where the creation of an independent state of Palestine is no longer possible. Which will mean that Israel will have to assimilate the Palestinian population wholly -- which will mean as a simple demographic reality that Israel will no longer be a Jewish state. I blogged about this last fall when I attended the first JStreet conference; the first session I attended was on the subject of West Bank settlements and the peace process. (The notes from that session are here: West Bank Settlements: Obstacles on the Road to Peace.)

To me, it is plain as day that the settlements are damaging the prospect of a two-state solution. I fear that if there is no two-state solution, there will be no end to the violence in the Middle East. And that is so disheartening to me that when I try to write about it, I wind up staring at my computer screen in despair. (I can't begin to imagine how disheartening it is to my Israeli friends and family or to the Palestinians I've met during my travels and online.) All I can do, from my home here in the beautiful rainy Diaspora, is pray that somehow, against all odds, a solution can be found. Speedily, and in our day, because I fear that time is running out.

(And I can send letters to President Obama asking him to put pressure on the Israeli government to halt the building of settlements, and I can register for Human Rights Under Fire: A Jewish Call to Action, the upcoming Rabbis for Human Rights conference in New York. But God, it doesn't feel like enough.)

God to Verse

From God to Verse

My friend Seth Brown is a writer, an improv comedian, and a celebrated slam poet. (His alter ego is a nerdcore hip-hop artist.) And for the last several years, he's been working on rendering the Hebrew scriptures in rhyme.

When I first heard about this project, I boggled: the whole Torah? In rhyming couplets? It's a huge undertaking, and as readers of the Bible know well, there's much in the Hebrew scriptures which is challenging to read, much less to recast in new metered prose. But Seth pulled it off, and the fruit of his labors is now available in print.

The end result is From God to Verse, a line-by-line rendering of the Five Books of Moses in iambic heptameter. Here's how it begins:

In the beginning when God was creating the heavens and all of the earth,
When the world was all wild and waste, and of light on the deep oceans there was a dearth,
And the wind of God hovering over the waters, God spoke and said, “Let there be light!”
And indeed, there was light. And God saw it, that light, and He saw that it was good and right.
After seeing his shining creation, God then separated the light from the dark.
So He called the light “Day” and the darkness as “Night” (and the difference between them was stark).
And then there was a setting and there was a dawning as earth’s creation had begun,
There was evening and then there was morning, and that was the first day, so ending day one.

Seth does a lovely job of hinting at the Hebrew's humor and wordplay. He's faithful to the original text, and yet his version of the Torah is unlike any other I've seen. From God to Verse is by turns serious, witty, and wry -- and it's a lot of fun to read. If you're a Bible geek like me, you should have this one in your collection. And if you've always meant to read the Bible but maybe haven't been able to connect with it, this version might be what you need.

Want to learn more? Here's Seth's blog post announcing the book's publication; here's more info about the book; and here's a link to buy the book on Amazon.

Kol hakavod (or, in contemporary English, props) to you, Seth, for this truly awesome undertaking!

The early history of Jews in Muslim lands

When you hear the name "Cordoba," what comes to mind? Maybe, in light of recent events, you think of Cordoba Initiative, the umbrella organization beneath which the much-bruited Park 51 is contained. When I first heard the name, I thought immediately of the so-called "Golden Age" of Jewish-Muslim relations in al-Andalus (medieval Spain). The Cordoba Initiative's FAQ page explains that they chose the name because "A thousand years ago Muslims, Jews, and Christians coexisted and created a prosperous center of intellectual, spiritual, cultural and commercial life in Cordoba, Spain." But I've learned, since Park 51 became a major subject of conversation in my corner of the blogosphere, that to some conservative commentors the name Cordoba implies an era of Muslim rule when Jews and Christians had second-class status and lived under a set of restrictive rules. Here's one fairly representative post which ascribes to the Cordoba Initiative the desire for Muslim rule in the west: "Cordoba House" suggests Muslim triumphalism. Here's another fairly representative post which reads the name as an indicator of the desire for religious coexistence: The Meaning of 'Cordoba.'

Which of these is the correct interpretation of "Cordoba?" The answer may depend on who's telling the story. So much depends on who's looking at that moment in history, what their agenda is, and what point they want to make about the politics and religion of that era -- or of this one.

In part because of recent conversations about Park 51, and in part because interfaith dialogue (and particularly Jewish-Muslim interaction) is a passion of mine, I've been wanting a more nuanced picture of that period in interreligious history. Fortunately for me, one of my fall courses is an independent study in medieval Jewish history. I'm following the syllabus for the class which Reb Leila Gal Berner offered last spring, when I was too wrapped-up in babycare to be able to participate. And I'm going to blog about what I'm learning, both because I find writing about ideas to be a great way to cement them in my memory and because the subject of Muslim-Jewish-Christian relations seems awfully timely this season.

This week I'm reading excerpts from Dr. Robert M. Seltzer's Jewish People, Jewish Thought, from Haim H. Ben-Sasson's A History of the Jewish People, and from Norman Stillman's The Jews of Arab Lands. (As a side note: in my past experiences with Reb Leila's history classes, she's intentionally assigned us texts which don't necessarily offer congruent interpretations of history. Caveat lector: different historians will inevitably offer different slices of the story! It's part of our job, as responsible students of history, to try to form a whole picture out of these different texts -- and also to discern each historian's stances and biases as we go.) Anyway, here's some of what Seltzer, Ben-Sasson, and Stillman have to say about how the relationship between Muslims and Jews evolved during the early centuries after the advent of Islam onto the political and religious scene.

At the beginning of the seventh century of the Common Era, Jews were largely in diaspora, scattered from Spain to Persia and from central Europe to the Sahara. Seltzer writes that although the institutions which had preserved Jewish unity in the past -- primarily Davidic kingship and the Temple -- no longer existed, they were preserved in the liturgy and as subjects for study. "Above all," writes Seltzer, "messianic hope for eventual ingathering and restoration served as an overarching bond between all the branches of the Jewish people." Onto this scene emerged Muhammad, and with him, the birth of Islam.

Continue reading "The early history of Jews in Muslim lands" »

Another mother poem: Weaning






You push me away
and reach for the bottle.

Once in Scotland I parted
spongy turf with my fingers

and water welled up like sorrow
its source unknown.

In my childhood playhouse
the table was always set

for guests who never came.
Already my body is shrinking.

You settle like a little king
into the crook of my arm

one hand seizing
the plush belt of my bathrobe

the other splayed
across the warm cylinder.

Your lashes drift down
and your restless legs still

exactly as they did
when I was everything.

This week's prompt at Big Tent Poetry was to write a haibun. So I did. It was an interesting exercise, but the form felt artificial to me; I wasn't sure I had used it well. So I kept revising, and wound up with a poem which has a more familiar shape. I think I like the verse version better, but I'm sharing both versions of the poem here in case anyone's interested in how they differ. (To read the haibun version, and a bit more commentary on the poem, go beneath the extended-entry tag...)

Continue reading "Another mother poem: Weaning" »

Yerushalmi on memory & history

The first book assigned for the medival Jewish history class I'm taking is Yosef Haim Yerushalmi's Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory. It's short but powerful. Because I learn best through writing, I jotted down some of the passages which spoke to me most deeply, and offer them here with some commentary -- if this is interesting to you, please read on!

"The Jews, after all," Yerushalmi writes, "have the reputation of being at once the most historically oriented of peoples and as possessing the longest and most tenacious of memories... We should at least want to know what kind of history the Jews have valued, what, out of their past, they chose to remember, and how they preserved, transmitted, and revitalized that which was recalled."

Yerushalmi writes that "[m]emory is always problematic, usually deceptive, sometimes treacherous...Yet the Hebrew Bible seems to have no hesitations in commanding memory. Its injunctions to remember are unconditional, and even when not commanded, remembrance is always pivotal." But the Biblical injunction to remember has, he argues, little to do with history or with curiosity about the past. We're commanded to remember the Exodus from Egypt and to remember the revelation of Torah at Sinai, and these are not historical events.

Yerushalmi goes on to argue that in Talmudic times, memory remained essentially ahistorical. Even into the medieval era, the relationship between memory and history in the Jewish community was not one we would recognize today.

We find in almost all branches of Jewish literature in the Middle Ages a wealth of thought on the position of the Jewish people in history, of ideas of Jewish history, of often profound and sometimes daring reflections on exile and redemption, but comparatively little interest in recording the ongoing historical experience of the Jews. There is much on the meaning of Jewish history; there is little historiography. Interpretations of history, whether explicit or veiled, can be encountered in works of philosophy, homiletics, biblical exegesis, law, mysticism, most often without a single mention of actual historical events or personalities, and with no attempt to relate to them.

Yerushalmi attributes this to the ahistorical character of rabbinic thinking which shaped Jewish priorities and possibilities. Talmudic Judaism was, he argues, the substructure for all of medieval Jewish life and creativity, and the sages of the Talmud were essentially uninterested in history as we understand it today. Exile and suffering were understood as fundamentally religious experiences, occasioned by the Jewish community's sins -- not by anonymous or areligious historical forces.

Continue reading "Yerushalmi on memory & history" »

Ten moments from the Days of Awe

Ten moments I especially want to remember:

  • The first tekiah gedolah, at the end of the shofar service on the first morning of the holiday, blown by a young man in our congregation who was one of my bar mitzvah students some years ago. The note went on so long it brought the room to laughter and beyond, and me to the verge of tears.

  • The eve of the second day of Rosh Hashanah. At that point, everyone who's there is there because they really want to be, not because they feel obligated to be; the crowd was small and intimate, the lights were dimmed, and the service was beautiful. Usually on that second evening, Jeff reads a story or a Yiddish folktale in lieu of giving a sermon. This year he offered someone else's sermon -- one he described as one of his favorites of all time, God is a Woman and She is Growing Older by Rabbi Margaret Moers Wenig. It blew me away.

  • Giving my sermon in poetry on the second morning of Rosh Hashanah. I'd read the poems aloud to my empty study and to my cat, but delivering them as a sermon from the bimah was a completely different experience, and a wonderful one. It felt like I was having a conversation about the many ways I understand the Akedah story.

  • On the afternoon of the day which would become Yom Kippur, I met an old friend at Caretaker Farm. The evening's sermon was going to be about happiness, and afterwards I was planning to sing Rabbi Shefa Gold's "Ashrei," because the words mean "Happy are they who dwell in God's house; they will praise You forever." We sat in the herb garden, me wearing Drew in an Ergo carrier, and practiced the harmonies. Around us, people picked flowers and herbs and smiled.

  • The beginning of the Kol Nidre service. Singing Shir Yaakov's "Or Zarua" as the Torah scrolls were carried around the room. Then singing Kol Nidre itself -- I sang it once, my friend sang it once, and I sang it the final time. The last time through, much of the room joined me quietly. I love the melody, I love what the words mean, and I love the experience of singing it as the sun is beginning to slip behind the hills, the last thing we do before we officially begin the holiday. Knowing what a long day of song and prayer and repentance lies ahead, and feeling ready to dive in to whatever's coming.

  • During the Yizkor (memorial) service, singing and playing "Teach us to treasure each day," a.k.a. Limnot Yameinu (psalm 90:2 -- "teach us to treasure each day, that we may open our hearts to Your wisdom.") It's a beautiful melody by Rabbi Yitzchak Husbands-Hankin, which you can listen to here: Treasure Each Day [mp3]. I just learned it this past summer, in the Lifecycles class I took at Ruach ha'Aretz week, and bringing it to my community felt poignant and sweet.

  • After the afternoon break, we reconvened for our afternoon service around 5pm. It was a beautiful sunny day, and chairs had been set up outside the synagogue, on the patio where our sukkah will soon stand. We held our Avodah service and our mincha (afternoon) service in the spectacular sanctuary of the great outdoors, surrounded by mountains and willow tree. As our opening and closing song for mincha, I sang the round which ends with the last verse of the Torah reading -- v'ahavta l'reakha camocha, "And you shall love your neighbor / your Other as yourself." Then, instead of carrying the Torah around the room, we did a "reverse hakafah:" as I sang the round again, everyone walked past the Torah and touched or kissed it as they re-entered the sanctuary, and then we put the Torah back in the ark and continued praying indoors.

  • The final moments of Yom Kippur. Singing that final "Avinu Malkeinu" before the open ark. The change in the wording -- "inscribe us in the book of a good life" becomes "seal us in the book of a good life." My eyes were closed, the metaphorical gates of repentance were beginning to slide closed, and my heart finally began to crack open in those last instants of the holiday.

  • The final tekiah gedolah. Everyone in the room who had a shofar joining together, a holy cacophony of sound. The littlest kids had toy shofarot, and there were real shofarot of all shapes and sizes. And one by one, their voices dropped out until there was only one person who still had the breath to keep blowing, and his tone rang out, and rang out, and rang out, and then it was gone. And then -- surprise! -- a vuvuzela from the World Cup emerged, and its loud blast made everyone laugh with joy.

  • Ending these two weeks of intense introspection and cheshbon ha-nefesh (taking an accounting of the soul) with havdalah, the same way we began. Guitar and niggun, wine and sweet spices and fire, and then the new week had begun and we were singing "Eliahu Hanavi," the song of yearning for the advent of Elijah the prophet who -- according to tradition -- will usher in the messianic age when the brokenness of creation will be healed. And then we transitioned into singing "Shavua tov! A good week, a week of peace, may gladness reign and joy increase!" And we returned to ordinary time, with gratitude for the journey and for its completion.

What were the sweet moments in your Days of Awe which you especially want to remember?

Velveteen Rabbi on Radio 613

I'm a big fan of Radio 613, "a collective and radio broadcast dedicated to Jewish politics, culture, and religious life. Diasporic tones find auditory homes through featured interviews, music, readings, discussion, and documentaries. Each week radio613 presents Jewish perspectives on religious/spiritual thought and practice, race and racism, gender and feminisms, anti-semitism, identity politics, colonialism and resistance… and more!"

A few days ago, they interviewed me -- and now that interview is online as an hour-long podcast, available to listen to online or to download for later listening. It's here: Episode 44: Velveteen Rabbi interview. We talked "about rabbinical school, High Holy day preparation, new translations, and the transformation of ritual to social justice." Also about the fundraising I recently did to help a New York City mosque. Tune in and enjoy!

More Yom Kippur resources: video, liturgy, song

A few years ago, a reader in rural Japan asked me for some Yom Kippur resources to help him celebrate the holiday despite his distance from Jewish community. I wanted today to point to that post again, in case it's helpful to any of y'all, and I also wanted to offer some newer resources I've found in recent days. So first, that original Y"K resource post is here -- Grab-bag of resources for Yom Kippur. And secondly, here are some other things you might find useful if you're looking for inspiration before the holiday or if you're rolling your own observance:

  • At the journal Kerem, a few pieces from the current issue are online, including this Unetaneh Tokef article [.pdf download] by my friend and teacher Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan. The article contains a creative rendering of a few lines of the prayer, plus beautiful commentary on what it means to her. "Every day is the Day of Judgement, but some days are more the day of judgement than others... For me, a Day of Judgement is a day that demands I open up to the flow of compassion."

  • From a homegrown machzor (HHD prayerbook) we used at Elat Chayyim in 2004, here's a beautiful Prayer Before Yom Kippur.

  • Maybe you're not going to be in synagogue this Yom Kippur. Maybe that feels to you vaguely like yet another thing for which you need to atone. But it's not necessarily so, and you're not alone: for more on that, read Rabbi Rami Shapiro's What To Do If You Don't Go To Shul? "I don’t relate to the metaphor of God as father, king, and lord; I don’t believe that God is in control of my life; and I find the medieval worldview of the machzor (High Holy Day prayer book) incompatible with what I know to be true about life. So rather than sit and complain, I stay home. // I am not alone in this, and this post is for those Jews who choose to stay home for the Holy Days. What shall you do with your time? Let me share what I do with mine."

  • In my previous list of resources, I included sheet music for Kol Nidre, the prayer releasing us from our unmet vows of the year now ending so we can begin the new year with a clean slate. For many Jews it's one of the most poignant musical moments of the year. Here are a few different renditions on YouTube: Mordechai Ben David, with piano; sung in beautiful harmony by Kol Achai, an a cappella trio; sung by Reb Shlomo Carlebach, with instruments and whistling and heartfelt song; Max Bruch's Kol Nidre (instrumental, with cello and orchestra). Unfortunately I couldn't find a recording of a woman singing Kol Nidre...

  • A few years ago I posted 13 Ways of Looking at Yom Kippur, a series of short vignettes about the experience of Yom Kippur on retreat at Elat Chayyim / Isabella Freedman. I'm linking to it here because some of the sections contain teachings which might be meaningful for others this Yom Kippur.

  • My rebbe, Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, has some wonderful wisdom to give over about the Days of Awe. Here's some of that wisdom: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Rosh Khodesh [4 minutes, YouTube]. He uses occasional Hasidic and kabbalistic terminology, which may or may not be familiar to you, but even if some of the words fly past you, his teachings are beautiful.

  • Here's another Reb Zalman video -- this one very recent; this is Reb Zalman speaking via Skype to Nava Tehila, the Jewish Renewal community in Jerusalem, on September 14, 2010: Reb Zalman on Yom Kippur at Nava Tehila, Jerusalem. "Yom Kippur is when we can press the defragmentation button on our souls to put ourselves back into onement, clear out the accumulated cookies and links that take us to places we’re no longer interested in, remove downloads that are no longer relevant, erase a lot of the accumulated junk that has penetrated and clutters the operating system, create more space on the disk of our lives..." If you can read Hebrew, here's a link to the various texts from Zohar and midrash etc to which he refers. This is a long one: about an hour in duration.

  • If you're looking for shorter nuggets of wisdom, here are a few brief videos of some of his teachings on the Days of Awe, these recorded a few years ago: Reb Zalman on High Holidays, part 1 of 4 [9 minutes, YouTube]. And part 2 of 4 [9 minutes, YouTube]. And part 3 of 4 [9 minutes, YouTube]. And finally part 4 of 4 [2.5 minutes, YouTube]. These remarks are pretty far-ranging: kabbalah, the Days of Awe, the holiday cycle, feminist theology & more.

  • The prayer "Avinu Malkeinu" -- "Our Father, Our King" -- is central to the Days of Awe, and my previous Y"K resources post included links to some written variations on it. Here are two versions of the prayer (both on YouTube) which you can listen to rather than reading on the page: Avinu Malkeinu, sung in Hebrew and in Arabic. And: Avinu Malkeinu on piano.

  • On the Shalom Center's YouTube channel, here's a six-minute video called A New Martyrology. It's a contemporary reconceptualizing of the traditional martyrology service. In the traditional service, we remember ten great rabbis who were martyred by the Roman Empire 2000 years ago. This video interweaves those martyrs with remembrances of more contemporary martyrs, including Harvey Milk and Yitzchak Rabin, may their memories be for blessing.

  • It isn't the Days of Awe unless you've heard the sound of the shofar! Here's a link to a page which contains embedded video of Rabbi Shai Gluskin blowing shofar.

  • If you're looking for more inspirational reading material, I recommend Feeding the God of Compassion, a Yom Kippur eve sermon by Rabbi Brant Rosen. "[I]f the Torah teaches us that human beings are made in the image of God, which image of God will we proclaim? The God of fear or the God of forgiveness? The God of hatred or the God compassion? The God of xenophobia or the God of justice?" This sermon enters some fascinating territory (neuroscience!) and I really like where it goes.

  • I recently posted a new translation of the haftarah (reading from the prophets) which we read on Yom Kippur, and I'm including it here as well: a new translation of Isaiah for Yom Kippur. "This is the fast I want: / unlock the chains of wickedness, / untie the knots of servitude. / Let the oppressed go free, / their bonds broken..."

One practical thing I wanted to mention is that it's customary in many communities to wear a tallit for the Kol Nidre service on the eve of Yom Kippur. Although we traditionally don't wear tallitot at night, Kol Nidre is meant to be recited before sundown -- before the festival technically begins -- and the wearing of the tallit on erev Yom Kippur can be seen as a tangible gesture of enfolding oneself in the holiday's holiness. It's also traditional in many communities to wear white on Yom Kippur. Traditional Jewish burial garments are made of simple white linen; Yom Kippur is sometimes understood as a rehearsal for our death, which wearing white can symbolize. (Another interpretation holds that we wear white on Yom Kippur in emulation of ministering angels; still another, that we wear white as an external sign of internal purity.)

Many of us may have grown up thinking of Yom Kippur as a day of affliction. Tradition prohibits bathing, perfumes, wearing of leather, sex -- not to mention eating food, which is one of ordinary life's pleasures! But the Misnha tells us that Yom Kippur was historically a day of joy. We have many metaphors for the extraordinary closeness between humanity and God on Yom Kippur: the Gates of Repentance are open, God's presence is especially palpable, the King is receiving His subjects, the division between transcendence and immanence collapses, etc. It's a solemn day, but also a day which is meant to contain deep joy.

Whatever your Yom Kippur may hold, I wish you a Shabbat shalom and a g'mar chatimah tovah -- may you be sealed for a good year to come.

Another mother poem: mother psalm 8


Three times a day I lift the tray table
from its moorings, unsnap your plastic bib
and carry them both to the same kitchen sink
where I bathe you. A few swipes of soapy sponge
and both come clean, half-eaten blueberries
and fallen cheerios (dinner's debris, evidence
of the excited swipe of your fist) swirling
into the drain's aluminum basket. This week
you prefer rotini to purees. You answer us
with chanted vowels, embellishing with trills.
You tip your head to one side, beaming, then
wave to your breakfast, to your mother,
to the colored bowls you like to knock together
to hear their percussive sounds. Some days
grind like a broken mobile from the start:
barely out of the crib and you're already cranky,
refusing sleep's comfort because you can't bear
the world going on without you. But we make it
to the finish line (pear yogurt, open mouth)
and then the slate's washed, you're in PJs
and I remember again that everything's temporary.
Your tired tears may endure for the night
but breakfast comes in the morning. Child,
I dress you in gladness; sing praises, open wide.

This week's mother poem was written in response to a wordle prompt at Big Tent Poetry. From that wordle cloud I chose the words debris, child, evidence, chant, half-eaten, embellish, answer, and temporary. The end of the poem contains allusions to psalm 30, one of my favorite psalms.

Before Drew was born, I spent a couple of years writing and sharing weekly Torah poems (all of which are linked from my VR Torah Commentary page.) When I started writing these mother poems last December, I didn't realize I was entering into a new weekly discipline. But I've come to look forward each week to seeing where my mother poem will take me, much as I used to look forward to seeing what would arise for me in studying the weekly parsha. I hope to write Torah poems again someday, but for now, I'm immersed in the lived Torah of the experience of motherhood, and these weekly lines are my way of celebrating this experience as it unfolds.

I've started collecting these mother poems into a new manuscript. (Would you believe that this is the 39th mother poem so far?) Taken together, they offer an amazing chronicle of the journey. As I collect the poems, I'm beginning to revise here and there; a few poems have new titles, and others have changed shape slightly. The one thing I'm not doing, at least not yet, is changing the order of the poems. I like having them in chronological order, a mirror held up to Drew's changes -- and mine.

I'll edit this post on Friday to include a link to this week's "Come One, Come All" post so you can see what other folks did with this wordle prompt.


Love one another

Behold, I take upon myself the mitzvah of the Creator...

The Mishna teaches that "for transgressions between one person and another, Yom Kippur does not atone until you appease your fellow-person." If we have hurt one another, we have to reach out to each other, or else Yom Kippur won't work. The Sfat Emet turns that teaching into something even more radical: on the day of Yom Kippur, he says, all Israel -- the whole community of God-wrestlers -- is meant to become one.

We are naturally close (the Sfat Emet continues) to one another and to God. Our sins -- the places where we miss the mark -- create separations between us and God, between us and each other, and between us and our deepest selves. Yom Kippur is a chance to repair those separations. To choose unity over division. To become one with my whole self, with my God, and with my fellow human beings.

Jewish tradition teaches that after the people sinned by worshipping the Golden Calf, Moshe smashed the tablets he had just brought down from his mountaintop encounter with God. And then Moshe went back up the mountain and spent another forty days with God, and when Moshe returned, he was holding the second set of tablets. Yom Kippur is the anniversary of the day when he came back down the mountain -- when the whole community of Israel was assembled to hear God's words. The tablets were given on the day when the community assembled as one, when the community became unified in love.

On this teaching from the Sfat Emet, Rabbi Art Green writes:

Torah could not have been given without unity among Jews; it cannot exist in the absence of its most basic principle: "Love your neighbor as yourself." How, then, does Torah exist in our day? Perhaps it does not exist at all. New and convincing readings of the texts elude us because we do not love enough. Until we can all open our hearts to one another, crossing all the lines defined by "Orthodox," "Secular," "Reform," "Zionist," and all the rest, there will be no revelation for us; we are not yet singularly "encamped" at the mountain.

Responsibility for this division falls heavily on the heads of "leaders," each of them so committed to an intractable position that nothing is allowed to change, no new Torah can be received. But for how long can Jewish souls be nourished by mere repetitions of teachings or translations (even one such as this) of old sources? God will bring about the real renewal of Judaism only when we put down our loudspeakers of division and hatred long enough to listen.

(That's from The Langage of Truth, R' Art Green's translation of and commentary upon the teachings of the Sfat Emet -- several of the Sfat Emet's teachings about the festival of Yom Kippur are included in this book, and this is one of them.)

This Saturday, during the afternoon service on Yom Kippur, I'll be reading Leviticus 19:9-18, a reading which culminates in the verse which is most central (both literally and figuratively!) to Torah: ואהבת לרעך כמוך, "And you shall love your neighbor / your Other as yourself." Before and after that service I'll sing a round which I love -- hareini m'kabel alai, et mitzvat ha-Borei: v'ahavta l'reakha camocha, l'reakha camocha. "Behold, I take upon myself the mitzvah of the Creator: to love my Other as myself."

The Sfat Emet says that Moshe returned with the tablets on the day when all Israel was connected in love. Rabbi Art Green adds that the new revelation we need in our day won't arise until we can love one another across all of the various boundaries which divide the Jewish community. I want to take the teaching even further. Not only do Reform Jews and ultra-Orthodox Jews, Zionist Jews and anti-Zionist Jews, secular humanist Jews and Hasidic Jews need to find a way to love one another: we also need to find a way to love our "Others" across religious and cultural lines. Jews and Muslims, Christians and Jews, theists and atheists, Democrats and Republicans, those who staunchly support Park 51 and those who strongly oppose it -- when all of us can embody the "mitzvah of the Creator," that's when the Torah we need in our day will emerge.

May it happen speedily and soon. And may this Yom Kippur open our hearts to deeper and broader love.

My final semester begins

I didn't manage to post about it last week -- things have been a little busy around here, for reasons which are probably obvious! -- but my final semester of rabbinic school has begun. (If you're new to this blog, and are curious about my program, you might enjoy the post ALEPH Rabbinic Program Q and A; you're also welcome to peruse the rabbinic school category of posts here, which collects what I've written about school over the last five years.)

I spent the summer working on my senior teshuvah (legal responsum paper) on the question of working with couples who choose hospital circumcision. It was a terrific project, and a challenging one. I'm grateful to have had the chance to work on it. Anyway, that was due at Rosh Hashanah, so I've turned it in, and am hoping that I won't be asked to revise it further. My fall semester formally began just before the high holidays started up; this fall I'm taking one class, doing one independent study, and finishing up my one incomplete.

My independent study will be in Jewish History and Life in the Middle Ages. ALEPH offered a course in medieval Jewish history last spring, taught by Reb Leila Gal Berner, but I wasn't able to take it because I didn't yet have childcare for Drew. (Last spring I participated in the ALEPH senior seminar, "Halakha and Paradigm Shift," but that was all I could manage in the days before daycare.) This fall I'll work from the syllabus from that medieval Jewish history class; I've just tracked down a bunch of fascinating-looking books, among them Under Crescent and Cross: Jews in the Middle Ages (Mark R. Cohen) and Exclusiveness and Tolerance: Studies in Jewish-Gentile Relations in Medieval and Modern Times (Jacob Katz.) I'm going to do all of the reading, then ask Reb Leila for the set of paper topics and write a final paper to show that I've synthesized the learning. I wish I'd been able to take the class with my chevre last spring, but I appreciate Reb Leila's willingness to work with me on an independent study. (I also appreciate ALEPH's general flexibility, which is incredibly helpful now that I'm juggling school and parenthood.)

I'll also be studying some feminist exegesis this fall. Last fall I dove into that subject with a hevruta partner, but then I wound up in the hospital unexpectedly, and then we induced Drew's birth a bit early, and all in all my schoolwork got left by the wayside. So my hevruta partner and I will be finishing that up this fall after the holidays.

And my third class this fall is on Parashat ha-Shavua as a Mirror for Spiritual Development, taught by my friend Rabbi Shawn Zevit. This class is part of the three-year training program in hashpa'ah / spiritual direction. We'll be studying the parashiot (weekly Torah portions) and selected other texts (like Rabbi David Wolfe-Blank's Metaparshiot anthology) for the general themes of spiritual development they represent. The guiding question is, "How is God speaking to you through Torah (or how do you discern God's presence in your life through the parshah or sacred text being engaged), what is the message, and how can you incorporate this into your personal and professional life?"

Beyond these things, I'll be building a group spiritual direction practice here in my community, and hopefully also doing some writing, enjoying the season, and spending quality time with Ethan and with Drew! I'm really excited about the semester... and I can hardly believe that the end of this journey is actually in sight.

Of course, my learning won't end in January. The journey of Torah study is endless. But this period of formal study is only a few months away from coming to an end -- and while I'm perennially aware of how much I don't know and how much I have yet to learn, I also feel increasingly ready to be done with school. There's value in cultivating a lifelong state of "beginner's mind," but there's also value in acknowledging how far I've come, and acknowledging and honoring the teachers and the community who have helped me get here over the last 5+ years.

I'm starting to feel ready for the end of this chapter and the beginning of the next, whatever it may be. I'm not quite there yet, though! For now, it's time to do some homework for my Thursday class (reading Barbara Breitman's essay "Spiritual Transformation: A Psychospiritual Perspective on Jewish Narratives of Journey")  and then to dive into preparing to lead services on Yom Kippur...

Welcome, new readers!

To all who are here via the very kind mention in Nick Kristof's Sunday New York Times column Is This America? (the online edition links to my post A gesture of repair, about raising money for new prayer rugs for the Al-Iman masjid in Queens) -- welcome. Come on in, make yourselves at home.

If you're new to Velveteen Rabbi, here are a few links by way of introduction. First of all, you might want to start with About Me -- a page which aims to offer a general introduction to who I am and what I'm doing here. (While I'm at it, allow me to point you toward my comments policy.) If you'd like to get a sense for who I am and what kinds of things I post here these days, here are five links to check out:

  • Roundup of JStreet conference posts -- I liveblogged the first JStreet conference last fall, shortly before my son was born. This post contains links to my eight writeups of different panels and sessions, plus a concluding essay about the experience overall.

  • The Akedah Cycle: a sermon in poetry for the second day of Rosh Hashanah -- This is the sermon I gave at my shul this year on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, when we read the story of the binding of Isaac. It's a series of ten linked poems which offer a variety of midrashic interpretations of the story. This is the sweet spot where my MFA and my rabbinic education overlap!

  • The Velveteen Rabbi's Haggadah for Pesach -- My own haggadah for my favorite festival of the year. Features traditional texts alongside contemporary poetry and illustrations.

  • Jewish/Muslim retreat chronicled at Zeek -- This post offers an outtake from the essay I wrote about a retreat I spent with emerging Jewish and Muslim leaders last year, and then points to the published essay in Zeek magazine.

  • Through -- My self-published collection of miscarriage poems, which I've made available for free in hopes that the collection will speak to the experience of the many other women who've endured this sorrow. For the other side of the coin, you might also enjoy my weekly mother poems which I've been posting since last November when my son was born.

Anyway: welcome! As an FYI, I moderate comments here, and sometimes it may take a while before your comments appear, so thanks for bearing with me. I hope you'll stick around a while.

The Akedah Cycle: a sermon in poetry for the second day of Rosh Hashanah

In years past, our visiting cantorial soloist has offered a "sermon in song" on the second morning of Rosh Hashanah. This year, I'm doing something along the same lines, but in my own home genre: I'm offering a "sermon in poetry."

My sermon -- a set of ten linked poems -- centers around the Torah reading for today: the story of the akedah, the binding of Isaac. It's a powerful story, and a difficult one. I hope that these poems may offer you some new ways of thinking about this story at this moment in the year.

At some later juncture I may post about how I wrote these, and about the references and allusions in them, but for now I want to just place them before you. Read, and let me know what you think. Shanah tovah.

Edited to add: these poems can now be found in my collection of Torah poems, 70 faces, published by Phoenicia Publishing in 2001. (Click on the link to read more and/or to purchase a copy.)

The Akedah Cycle

1. Acharei ha-dvarim ha-eileh / After these things

—the hidden ache of infertility,
their marriage straining at the seams
beneath everything unspoken—

Sarai's desperate play for control,
claiming she wouldn't mind
if Avram slept with the maid

—then watching Hagar's belly swell,
how she carried unborn Ishmael
as though she were dancing—

after jealousy arose between them
like brackish water, after Hagar
spoke with the Almighty

—after Avram changed their names
and circumcised his heart,
after the angels came—

after Avraham argued with God
and Lot offered his own daughters
to a mob of angry men

—after Avraham and Sarah moved
to Abimelech's lands, desperate
to escape their own story—

after they returned home
and Sarah became pregnant
and they named their son Laughter

—after Sarah had laughed
to think of milk flowing
from her withered breasts—

after Sarah saw the boys at play
and fury overwhelmed her
and she sent Hagar away

—after Avraham, distraught,
accused Abimelech of stealing
his source of inspiration—

after the men made a treaty
and planted a tamarisk
and they stayed there a while

—after Avraham had forgotten
Sarah’s exhausted radiance
when she first held their son—

after these things
the sweet and the bitter
God tested Avraham

Continue reading "The Akedah Cycle: a sermon in poetry for the second day of Rosh Hashanah" »

Another mother poem: a sweet year


No honey until you're a year old, but
I can pop the seal on a pint
of last year's applesauce.

The afternoon light was thick and gold
the day we cored a bushel and a peck,
hands sticky and kitchen fragrant.

The jars were earmarked: for latkes,
for breakfast, and for you --
whoever you might turn out to be.

I remember resting my palm on my belly.
I can't remember not knowing
your voice, your eyes, my expanded heart.

This week's mother poem arises out of the fact that Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, begins tonight at sundown. It's traditional in many Ashkenazic communities to eat slices of apple dipped in honey as an embodied prayer for a sweet year to come.

Tonight as we ring in the new year, Drew will (God willing!) be comfortably asleep in his crib at home while I serve my congregation as co-shaliach tzibbur (prayer leader.) 5770 has been a pretty incredible ride; here's to 5771!

This poem wasn't written in response to a Big Tent Poetry prompt, and I won't be able to edit this post on Friday to link to the "Come One, Come All" post (I'll be in synagogue for the second day of the festival -- though my sermon for Friday morning is slated to auto-post, I can't auto-update this post because I don't know the link of the Come One, Come All post.) So if you want to see what others wrote this week, you'll have to navigate over there yourself.

Studying the Qur'an on Shabbat Shuvah

It's going to be a long week, filled with prayer and song. I'll be co-leading services on Wednesday evening, Thursday morning, Thursday evening, and Friday morning. And where will I be on Shabbat morning? Will I be sleeping in at last? (Well, I never get to do that anymore. I have a nine-month-old. "Sleeping in" is when he lets us stay in bed until the princely hour of seven, instead of waking us at six or earlier.)

No; on Saturday morning, after having spent several days in synagogue, I'm going to be... in synagogue! Not just because Shabbat Shuvah, the "Shabbat of repentance/return," is a particularly sweet and special Shabbat, coming as it does between the two High Holidays -- but also because my shul is doing something special to mark the fact that this year Shabbat Shuvah will fall on 9/11, and I want to be there when we do.

As I'm sure y'all know, there's a church in Florida which is planning to burn the Qur'an on 9/11 -- they're calling it International Burn-A-Koran Day. This is appalling to me on many levels, from the simple fact of burning books (could there be any more potent symbol of hatred and silencing?) to the fact that the book they plan to burn is another tradition's holiest text. (By the by, Nicholas Kristof's recent America's History of Fear puts recent Islamophobia into historical context and is very worth reading.)

In response to the rising tide of Islamophobia and especially to those who intend to burn the Qur'an on 9/11, my teacher Rabbi Phyllis Berman suggested that as Jews gather to worship on Shabbat Shuvah, we might consider reading from the Qur'an as a gesture of respect toward our sister Abrahamic tradition. At my synagogue, we typically gather for Torah study after services, around 11am. On 9/11, our text for sacred study will come from the Qur'an.

I took a class on the Qur'an a few years ago. (That class inspired me to try my hand at Arabic-Hebrew translation...) I'm looking forward to seeing which passages my rabbi chooses for us to study together, and how my community responds to them.

On September the 11th, demonstrations are planned in protest of Park 51, the Muslim community center in Lower Manhattan. One demonstration is slated to feature Geert Wilders, an ultra-right-wing Dutch politician who is on trial in the Netherlands for anti-Muslim hate speech. (For a sense of some of the anti-Park51 rhetoric, one resource is Media Matters' post What Fox has wrought: Anti-Park51 protests full of right-wing hate.) I am gladdened that on that day, my small synagogue in my small town will be quietly enacting a different relationship with Islam: one of mutual respect for fellow-travelers who are walking a different path toward God.

Happy new year to all!

Rosh Hashanah is almost upon us! Here's the new year's card that Ethan, Drew and I sent to family and friends this year. With this post, I'm sending it to all of you, too.

(All of my new year's poems -- 2003-2010 -- are archived here, and you're welcome to share them with friends, use them in sermons, quote them in blog posts, etc. Just please keep my name and URL attached to them. Thank you kindly!)

And below the extended-entry cut, those who are interested can read the poem translated into Hebrew by my friend and colleague Simcha Daniel Burstyn. Thank you so much, Simcha Daniel!

New Year's Card: photo and poem

Continue reading "Happy new year to all!" »

The holiday season is almost here

Tonight's Selichot services will begin with havdalah, the ceremony of wine and spices and fire which formally ends Shabbat. With this havdalah, we'll enter into the holiday season, which will end with havdalah two weeks from tonight, when we once again make havdalah to formally mark the end of Shabbat and Yom Kippur. Two weeks of self-examination, reflection, and repentance, bookended with two havdalot.

I'm excited about my high holiday pulpit, which is right here at home -- I'll be behind the amud with my friend and colleague Jeff, serving as CBI's cantorial soloist for the Days of Awe. I'm excited about offering some poems this year as part of our services; tonight I'll be reading Petition, and our Rosh Hashanah shofar service will feature some new poems written just for this occasion.

Of course, I'm also aware that the task of leading a community in prayer at this holy season is a big one. Especially since so many people come to High Holiday services who don't necessarily attend Shabbat services during the rest of the year. I hope that we can create opportunities for real prayer and for real teshuvah.

If I have offended or hurt you in any way in the year now ending, I hope that you will accept my regret and will forgive me.

For now, it's Shabbat -- time to rest and enjoy. And when this Shabbat ends, the rollercoaster begins...

Another mother poem: Fever



You're on fire beneath my lips,
hot as the coal that Moshe grabbed
when the angel forced his hand.
As we rock in the dark
I want to pray for healing
but I'm muddled with sleep.
I sing to you in two holy tongues.
You whimper. My eyes are closed
but I have known your face
since it first appeared, blurred
and grainy, on the ultrasound screen.
When I replace you on cool sheets
you cry out once and then curl
clutching yellow bunny in one hot hand.
The white noise machine croons.
What do your fever dreams show you?
How long will you remain a furnace,
incandescent in my arms
and exhausted from the burning?

This week's mother poem arises out of the experience of Drew's first summer virus. The opening lines are a reference to the midrash which says that Pharaoh resented the infant Moses and feared that Moses might someday seek to depose him. So Pharaoh placed a jewel and a hot coal in front of the baby, with the intention of killing him if he reached for the jewel (which would be a sign of his ultimate desire for Pharaoh's riches.) According to the story, an angel pushed Moshe's hand to the coal in order to save his life. When Moshe lifted it to his lips, he burned himself, which is why he was (as Torah tells us) slow of speech.

There's no need to worry about Drew, by the way; his high fever has broken, and while he's not quite his usual happy self, he's doing okay. (Now if only he would nap...)

This poem isn't written in response to this week's prompt at Big Tent Poetry, but here's a link to the "Come One, Come All" post so you can see what others wrote in response to this week's challenge.