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More 70 faces links

I wanted to take a moment to thank those who have helped recently to spread the word about 70 faces. Recent online mentions of the book have included:

  • Thursday Short Poem: Barenblat's 'The Psalm I Sing'", by Hugo Schwyzer, who writes:

    Rachel is a rabbi as well as a poet, but these poems aren’t just for Jews; they are for anyone raised with even a passing familiarity with these foundations stories of Western culture.

  • 70 Faces Torah Poems - Rachel Barenblat at Daily S Press, a blog dedicated to small press happenings and the literary life. The editors shared some basic information about the book, what it is, where to find it, etc.

  • Episode 49: Trees of Life, the (belated) Tu BiShvat episode of the fabulous podcast Radio 613. They write:

    radio613′s Tu Bishvat show for 5771 ends with a review of the recently published 70 Faces: Torah Poems by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat. 70 Faces eloquently blends feminism and classic traditions of textual interpretation. Listen for readings from parshas B’shalach and Yitro.

Thanks, y'all -- I'm so glad the poems resonate for you, and I really appreciate your taking the time to help share them with others!

Melodies for gratitude

A while back, I posted about setting the Modah Ani -- the morning prayer for gratitude -- to the tune of a Richard Thompson song. After that post went live, a number of people wrote to tell me that they'd never heard Modah Ani before and that they appreciated hearing it. I love Modah Ani -- it's probably the prayer I say most often -- and I wanted to share a few other tunes here for anyone who's considering adding this to their morning routine.

Modah Ani is the prayer for gratitude, meant to be recited first thing upon waking in the morning. ("Modah" is the feminine form of the first word, "Grateful;" men recite "Modeh ani" instead.) Here's the prayer's text in full:

מודה אני לפניך מלך חי וקים שהחזרת בי נשמתי בחמלה, רבה אמונתך.

Modah ani l'fanecha, melech chai v'kayam, shehchezarta bi nishmati b'chemla, rabbah emunatecha!

("I am grateful before You, living and enduring God, that you have mercifully restored my soul to me. Great is Your faithfulness!")

On my first trip to Elat Chayyim back in 2002, I attended a contemplative morning service led by Rabbi Jeff Roth. I remember him telling us that he wanted us to focus on gratitude while we were singing these words, and that if we couldn't access gratitude in that moment, then we might choose to focus on praying that someday we might be able to feel grateful again. His version is extremely simple: just the first two words of the prayer, repeated again and again. It's also a round, though this recording is just me singing solo, so you'll have to extrapolate how the round would sound:

Continue reading "Melodies for gratitude" »

Book tour!

There's a new page linked from the sidebar of this blog: The Complete 70 faces Book Tour. The book tour page contains information about all of the 70 faces events currently planned over the next few months: February events in Illinois, March events in Massachusetts, an April event in Vermont, May events in Vermont and in Montreal, and June events in South Texas. I'm awfully excited about all of them. A few more possible events are under discussion; if they materialize, I'll add them to that page, too.

The events which are furthest away in time are currently the sketchiest, detail-wise; I don't yet have all of the information about the Canada and Texas events. But that page is a good one-stop shop for information about where you can catch me, live in and person, reading from and discussing Torah and poetry and midrash and all that good jazz.

I should also mention that one more event has been added to my Boston schedule for next month; in addition to my visit to Bnai Or and my reading at First Unitarian Church in Arlington, I'm going to be speaking to the women of the Sisterhood of Temple Aliyah in Needham! Anyway: check out the book tour page, and if you're able to make it to any of these events, I'd love to see you there.

Please note that many of the events are taking place on Shabbat, when many Jews do not engage in financial transactions. If you're coming to a Shabbat event and want your book inscribed, you're welcome to either order your own copy in advance & bring it with you for me to sign (I do write on Shabbat), or you can leave a comment here requesting a copy and then Paypal me the money in advance so I can simply deliver your copy in person. If you're going to go the Paypal route, please do so early to ensure that I can order the books myself. Thanks!

Welcome to the blogosphere, Reb Jeff

The latest addition to my blogroll is a brand-new blog which just entered the world this week. The blog is called RebJeff: A Blog About Jewish Joy, and it's written by my dear friend Rabbi Jeff Goldwasser.

Here's an excerpt from the first post:

The first psalm in the book of Psalms begins with the word "Ashrei," which means, "Happy." Yes, the beginning of Judaism's oldest collection of prayers begins by telling us that we should be happy...The psalmist compares a happy person to a tree that draws only what it needs from the world around it, and which produces only what is natural for it to produce in the time that it is meant to produce it. The psalm makes no promises of superabundance, of conquests, or of any pleasure beyond simply living in harmony with ones surroundings.

I'm starting this blog because I know that today's Jews need Judaism. They need a tradition that points to a way of living life that leads to happiness. I believe that we are beginning an era in which Judaism will be reborn as a tradition that allows people to find the joy of being part of a community, the joy of celebrating life's sacred moments, the joy of being a part of the natural world, and the deep and difficult fulfillment of finding meaning and purpose in life, even when life is hard.

Check it out; add it to your aggregator if you're so inclined; and drop Reb Jeff a comment to welcome him to the virtual block!

Entering Adar א

I mentioned a few days ago that 5771 is a leap year on the Jewish calendar. Unlike the Gregorian calendar, where a "leap year" means that February 29th enters the picture, on the Jewish calendar a leap year means a whole extra month is added. In a leap year, there are two months of Adar, called Adar 1 and Adar 2. Or, in Hebrew, Adar א (Aleph) and Adar ב (Bet), since Hebrew letters double as numbers.

Why do we engage in these calendrical shenanigans? The Jewish calendar is metonic, also known as lunisolar. If our calendar were purely lunar, our festivals would move around the Gregorian calendar by a few days each year -- much as the festivals on the Muslim calendar do; that's why Ramadan moves by about 10 days each year. But the rabbis of the Talmud felt it was important that Pesach be in the spring, so they instituted a system whereby we add this extra "intercalary" month 7 years out of every 19, to ensure that our calendar is "re-set." (The Talmudic rabbis were, of course, operating in the northern hemisphere; it never occurred to them that for Jews in the global South, Pesach would fall in the autumn and Sukkot in the spring. To anyone reading this in the southern hemisphere, my apologies for our tradition's borealcentrism.) Anyway. This is a leap year! Which means there are two months of Adar this year.

I have two different teachings to offer on this front. First, from Rabbi Jill Hammer of Tel Shemesh: in Hebrew, a leap year is called me'uberet -- pregnant. There's a tradition which associates the 12 months of the ordinary calendar with the 12 tribes of Israel, each of which is linked with one of Jacob's sons, and associates this occasional 13th month with Dinah, Jacob's daughter. Rabbi Jill Hammer has written a powerful poem arising out of those ideas: Dinah's Month: Poem for Adar Aleph. She begins:

Adar Aleph is the month most often missing
as you are most often missing, your story
lacking like a year without a season,
your life events reduced
to a syrup of rape and vengeance,
a place to pour out anger...

It's a gorgeous poem; go and read.

And, taking an entirely different tack: Rabbi Arthur Waskow of The Shalom Center recently emailed out a beautiful teaching about Adar, and I want to share part of it with y'all. He writes:

The Adar we are about to proclaim is a strange Adar because it has no Purim -- yet that makes it the most Purimdik Adar of all. For by omitting Purim it is pretending not to be Adar. It is hiding behind a mask, just as we do on Purim, and the hiding actually reveals the deeper truth beneath the mask. In Megillat Esther, God hides – is never mentioned – and the name "Esther" itself echoes "nistar," hidden, just as she hides her identity in the palace so as to be more fully who she really is when the time comes.

We usually think "Adar Aleph" just means "the first Adar, "Adar 1." But it could also mean "the Adar of The ONE." The Adar that speaks through silence, through hiddenness, just as some say that the only sound God actually spoke at Sinai was the sound of the first letter, Aleph, of the first word, "Anokhi, I" – and the sound of the Aleph is silence. An open throat.

On the surface, Purim is a festival that's all about merriment and revelry. We wear costumes, we dress up as people who we are not, we swing loud noisemakers in synagogue to drown out the name of the bad guy in the story. It's Carnival-esque. And God is never once mentioned in the megillah, the scroll of Esther, which we read on that day.

On a deeper level, God is all over the megillah, the hidden Presence Who is never named but always felt. Look at the scroll itself in Hebrew and you'll note that many columns of text begin with the word המלך, "the king." Scanning the scroll, one sees "the king," "the king," "the king," again and again. On the surface, that king is Achashverosh; but he's a laughable ruler, barely in charge of anything. The real King in the story is the one who's never named. The real Jew in the story is the one whose identity is hidden. Reb Arthur sees wordplay between "Esther" and nistar, "hidden" -- a word which the Hasidic tradition also often applies to God.

I love Reb Arthur's idea that Adar 1 is the Adar of the א -- that silent letter in which the whole aleph-bet is mystically contained. That's the month we're entering today. What do you make of this koan that the aleph speaks through silence, that the hidden divinity is the divinity which may be most present, that sometimes the masks and veils we wear allow us to show who we most truly are?

And I love Reb Jill's suggestion that our years are pregnant with the stories of our ancestors, the tales we tell and the tales we keep silent in our own minds and hearts. What is growing in you this month as we move slowly toward (northern hemisphere) spring?

This week's portion: Home (Terumah)






Palm the hammer's handle
worn soft by callused hands

run a thumbnail along your blade
and don't let it stutter

let saws whine
against the darkening of day

let sandpaper grind pine
into dust, fragrant as incense

cabinetmaker, rotate
every joint and hinge

float the angled panels
of these heavy doors

put what you treasure inside
this house of gold and thorn

make a safe place
where I may dwell in you

This week's prompt at Big Tent Poetry is a wordle word cloud, from which I borrowed the words handle, blade, rotate, grind, cabinet, float, darkening, angle.

In the cycle of the Jewish lectionary, we're in parashat Terumah, and as I looked over the words in the word cloud, I knew that I wanted to write a Torah poem this week. (If you're curious, here's the Torah poem I wrote for this parsha back in 2009: The gifts. That poem can be found in 70 faces, my new collection of Torah poems...)

The Torah portion speaks about building the mishkan, the portable Tabernacle. The root of the word "mishkan" is the same as the root of the word "Shekhinah," the indwelling divine Presence of God. Probably my favorite verse in the parsha is Exodus 25:8 -- "And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them." (Or: "that I may dwell in them.") That verse has found its way into both of the Torah poems I've written for this parsha over the years.

The poem is also inspired by the experience of slowly watching a house be built -- over the last year, two of our close friends have built their own house from the ground up. I wasn't able to help out much, thanks to the baby (I spent one afternoon painting interior walls, and that was it) but I dropped by the site pretty often, and have distinct memories of how it felt to visit the construction site. I like laying those memories over my imagining of how building a portable tabernacle might have been.

Here's a link to this week's "Come One, Come All" post so you can see what others wrote in response to this prompt.



Our back deck: table and chairs buried in snow.

I've spent enough time around neopagans of various sorts to know that today is a cross-quarter (a day which falls precisely between a solstice and an equinox.) In the Northern hemisphere, today is the midpoint between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox. We're halfway between the first day of winter and the first day of spring.

Some call today Imbolc. In some traditions, the festival is celebrated with hearthfires, consumption of dairy, and weather prognostication; Wikipedia suggests that this might be a precursor to the North American Groundhog Day, which is also celebrated today. Others know today as the Feast of St. Brighid or as Candlemas. (The Wikipedia page is pretty good; if you're interested, you might also check out Imbolc 2011 -- The Spring Quarter.)

Call it what you will; I'm just happy to be able to mark the midpoint of winter! A week ago our local newspaper ran an article with the headline Whole winter's worth of snow already here. And it's snowed several times since then. I'm not sure I need to add much commentary to that.

The solstices and equinoxes have become meaningful to me since I moved to New England. I'm keenly conscious of the dark days of December, and I celebrate every drop of increased light we receive. These days I derive quiet satisfaction from the fact that if Drew and I stop to buy diapers on the way home from daycare, it's not pitch-black outside by the time we exit the store. Little steps.

On the Jewish calendar, 5771 is a leap year. (Seven out of nineteen years are leap years, containing an extra month.) We'll insert an extra month of Adar into our calendar, and the festivals which fall during Adar will be celebrated during the "real" Adar -- the second one. That extra month, Adar I, begins this coming Friday. In a non-leap year, it's one month from Tu BiShvat to Purim, and another month to Pesach; this year, Purim and Pesach are still a long way off.

Maybe that's why I'm making a point of paying attention to today. Our spring festivals won't be here for a while yet, but today marks a seasonal midpoint between winter and spring. The snow may still be falling, but I believe that spring will come.

On Egypt, protest, and liberation

It's been amazing to watch from afar as recent events have unfolded in Egypt. (For more on that subject, check out the Global Voices "Egypt Protests 2011" page; Marc Lynch is always worth reading; Ethan wrote an interesting post a few days ago; and I also enjoyed The poetry of revolt, about the poetry of the slogans and signs and about what changes when words are spoken in verse. What -- I'm a poet; how could I not find that compelling?)

When I was fourteen, I visited Egypt with my parents and sister. I remember the stunning spectacle of the temples at Karnak and Luxor, the story of the temple moved on account of the Aswan Dam (and my amazement at the precision with which it was originally built, which allowed sun and stars to shine in particular ways at particular moments on the liturgical calendar), a madcap horseback ride in the stony desert not far from the pyramids, the glorious bustle of my first souq (marketplace.) In more recent years my familiarity with Egypt has largely been through the lens of story -- Naguib Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy, Jo Graham's fabulous "Numinous World" books Hand of Isis and Stealing Fire.

But what's awe-inspiring about the protests in Egypt goes well beyond my own familiarity (or lack thereof) with Egypt or Egyptian history. Egypt has been under a state of emergency since 1967, and in that state of emergency "police powers are extended, constitutional rights suspended and censorship is legalized." (That's according to Wikipedia.) I can't imagine life under that kind of regime. It's inspiring to watch the Egyptian people taking to the streets -- largely peacefully -- and demanding change.

Continue reading "On Egypt, protest, and liberation" »