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Ten minutes with Reb Zalman

Courtesy of Ben Harris at JTA, here's a ten-minute video interview with Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, edited down from a 90-minute session. Reb Zalman talks about the work of eldering and how it needs to be done in a contemplative way, the paradigm shift away from triumphalism, new understandings of Shabbat, how paying taxes can be a spiritual experience, how he wants to be remembered, and more.

(If you can't see the embed, you can go directly to it here at YouTube.)

I am so grateful for the existence of Reb Zalman in our world. I'm so grateful to have found him and his work, to have found Jewish Renewal, to have found my teachers and my friends and my spiritual home. I'm so grateful that he was able to be part of my smicha. Anyway: this is a beautiful video and a wonderful glimpse of the teacher of my teachers. If you can find ten minutes in your day, watch it -- I don't think you'll be sorry.

Pluralism, prayer, and Women of the Wall

I'd like to signal-boost an article that's been going around my corner of the blogosphere, about Anat Hoffman of the Israel Religious Action Center and נשות הכותל / Women of the Wall. The article is called called Fighting for Religious Freedom. Here's a taste:

"Take a diet from the conflict for just one year," Hoffman appealed in a speech at my synagogue this weekend. "All I ask is for one year stop worrying about the conflict and worry instead about Israel's soul."

You've probably never heard of Hoffman, but you should. She's the quick-witted, smooth-talking head of the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), the legal advocacy arm of the Reform movement in Israel, and also Women of the Wall, a 22-year-old organization that prays each month at the Western Wall. In both positions, Hoffman has had to fight the religious extremist control of all things Jewish in Israel. Last summer, Hoffman was even arrested for carrying a Torah at the Wall, and she faces a year in jail if the attorney general decides to press charges.

"There's no word in Hebrew for pluralism," Hoffman says. "The word for 'integrity' is only a couple years old and 'accountability' has only been around for nine months. These are signs that the basic tenets of democracy and civil rights haven’t made Aliyah to Israel yet."

(The whole article is well worth reading -- I commend it to you.) Back in the summer of 2008 when I was living in Jerusalem, I had an experience of weekday morning prayer -- not exactly at the Kotel (Western Wall), but at an adjacent archaeological area called Robinson's Arch.

Me in tallit and tefillin at Robinson's Arch, 2008.

I wrote a post about my experience: Morning Prayer at the Western Wall...Almost. Robinson's Arch is where Women of the Wall have historically had to relocate in order to read from Torah and lay tefillin -- which is not a compromise which makes them happy. Many of them don't feel that Robinson's Arch is "the real thing," and they feel as though they've been relegated to an out-of-the-way area to protect the delicate sensibilities of those who are offended by the sight of women praying in the way that many liberal Jewish women choose to do. (As indeed they have.)

I can't blame them for their ire. Davening at Robinson's Arch was lovely -- there's nothing like a heartfelt shacharit service held outdoors in the cool of a summer morning in a beautiful place! But it's not the Kotel. And while I continue to have complicated feelings about the extent to which the physical site of the Kotel is often venerated, I also continue to feel that as long as the Kotel is considered one of Judaism's holiest sites, women like me ought to be able to pray there as is our usual practice. And God knows we shouldn't have to fear being pelted with rocks, chairs, dirty diapers, or nasty invective.

For more on Women of the Wall, a few links: The Women of the Wall, Twenty Years On - Feminists challenge the Israeli ultra-Orthodox by Phyllis Chesler (with whom I disagree on many things, but whose personal Women of the Wall story is very moving); and Rosh Hodesh Adar II: The Saddest Month, by Emily Shapiro Katz, which tells a very recent story about the Women of the Wall being cursed and hassled as they prayed.

I want to give tremendous kavod (honor) to the Women of the Wall. As sad as I am that religious pluralism as I know it here in the Diaspora doesn't yet exist in Israel (at least at the Kotel, and in terms of how the state-sponsored brand of Orthodoxy institutionally relates to other denominations) I am deeply moved by the women who particpate in that monthly prayer gathering despite all of the obstacles placed in their way, and by the men I know who support them with rhetoric and with presence alike. Healing, transforming, and renewing Judaism in Israel is not the work to which I feel most called, but I honor my friends and colleagues who are doing that work every New Moon -- and every day in a million tiny ways.

I didn't daven with Women of the Wall when I was living in Jerusalem. Each time Rosh Chodesh (new moon) rolled around I had a good excuse: I was overwhelmed with work, I was sick with a nasty summer cold, whatever. In retrospect, that's one of my greatest regrets. I wish I had gone to pray with them when I was nearby, back in my pre-mama life when travel (and missing a little bit of sleep) were so much easier than they are now! But though I missed that chance to stand with Women of the Wall in person, I stand with them from afar. And I hope that whenever I return, it's over a Rosh Chodesh so I can add my presence to theirs.

Learning about A Land Called Paradise

I've always come to tears more easily than I think most people do, and since I became a mother, that's even more true. I don't know if it's a lingering effect of last year's postpartum depression (though the tears now aren't always sad ones), or if it's because my whole emotional and spiritual self is more open now to both joy and pain. Who knows: it's just something in who I am. I try to consider it a feature rather than a bug, a gift rather than something to hide away.

The thing that made me cry this morning is a video for a country song. Well, actually: it's more like a vid than a video per se; it's a short film set to music, and the lyrics of the song act to highlight and accentuate the visuals (as well as the other way around.) Here it is:

A Land Called Paradise, a 3-minute short film by Lena Khan, set to Kareem Salama's song of the same name.

The song is by Kareem Salama, an Egyptian-American country singer. (If you can't see the embed, you can go directly to it here on YouTube -- and oh, please do; it's really something!) I found it via Emily Hauser's post on Muslim American Heroes.

The technique of featuring people holding up signs originates (I think) in the "film clip" released with Bob Dylan's Subterranean Homesick Blues; plenty of other bands have used it since (here's a partial list.) But none of those instances have moved me the way this one did.

The short film was made by Lena Khan, who was 23 at the time when it was made. This won the grand prize in the One Nation, Many Voices short film contest a few years ago. As this USA Today story explains:

Muslim Americans say they often feel like strangers in their own country, and the struggle to overcome stereotypes became more complicated after 9/11.

So when given the chance to tell their stories, more than 100 young Muslim American filmmakers poured their creative energies into producing four- to five-minute films about Islam and its followers for an online competition...

Frustrated with the myths and stereotypes surrounding Muslims in the media, Khan wanted to help viewers relate to Muslims in America. "The idea was, 'I really wish everyone knew this about Muslims,' " says Khan, a USC film school graduate. So she collected more than 2,000 comments from Muslim Americans, many of which she put into a music video set to Kareem Salama's song A Land Called Paradise.

And here's another article about Khan, slightly more recent: Muslim Filmmaker Looks at Social Issues with Humor, Warmth. The contest was in 2007; this film is a few years old, but holy wow, it still speaks today. All of the winning films can be seen at, and here's a link to a short news piece about / interview with winner Lena Khan.

One of the things I found most valuable about the Retreat for Emerging Jewish and Muslim Religious Leaders which I attended late in the summer when I was pregnant with Drew was the experience of connecting with the Muslims who were part of the group and beginning to collectively shatter the stereotypes that we held about them and that they held about us. Khan's video for "A Land Called Paradise" goes a long way toward shattering some of the stereotypes I think many Americans hold about the Muslims in our communities. Plus, it's a beautiful short film, and it brought tears to my eyes. Thanks, Lena.

Conversation with the President (a poem for Big Tent Poetry)






Although I have no recording device, only
old-fashioned reporter's notebook
they let me in. Mr. President, I say,

and he replies Rabbi, expectant.
The moment hangs. I have questions about
the 2012 election, I offer, and also

about storahtelling and midrash. His smile
is genuine: I've surprised him.
He rolls up his sleeves, preparing.

And then before the interview begins
I wake, wondering what signs or portends
I'm meant to take from this nocturnal trip.

Speaking truth to power, maybe, though
I remember a sense of connection
not anger juicing my veins.

Today the spring is windy and bright,
remnants of snow cresting the lawn
like seaweed left behind as the tide recedes.

Standing at the prow of our house I see
the road curving toward our tiny town hall.
I can't imagine my son turning three,

this presidency either lamed
or gearing up again. If this dream repeats
there's so much I'd like to say:

Mr. President, think midrashically.
The nation waits for you to interpret.
The real story inhabits the spaces between.

This week at Big Tent Poetry there are seven prompts. I don't think I'll be able to muster a poem a day this year during April, so instead of beginning the poem-a-day discipline, I chose one of this week's prompts -- "Write about standing on a balcony with someone you’ve read about in the paper."

I took the prompt in a direction which may not be quite what was intended. In my poem I do talk with someone I've read about in the paper, and I do stand on a deck, though those two things aren't simultaneous. As it happens, this poem arises out of an actual dream! I don't often dream about celebrities, so I was a bit baffled (and amused) when I woke from this one; I'm glad this poem opportunity came along so I could turn the dream into something.

Here's a link to this week's Come One, Come All post so you can see what others did with this prompt -- or with the six others!


Tasks which have no limit

The last time I performed a funeral, I was pregnant. I remember scrambling to find maternity clothing suitable for visiting the grieving family, and then cobbling together a "suit" out of assorted black items so I could look appropriate at the funeral itself. (Male clergy, I suspect, don't lose one tenth as much time as do female clergy to worrying about whether their clothing looks suitably clerical.) I remember that the family of mourners seemed delighted at the fact of the pregnant rabbi -- I think the sight of me germinating new life gave them a sense of hope in a difficult time.

Recently I've been called once again to minister to a family who is grieving, and I'm amazed at how different an experience it is for me now as a rabbi and a mother instead of a rabbinic student and a mother-to-be.

The first thing that has changed is that my sense of loss, and my understanding of the human capacity for emotion, have changed in ways which are difficult to define. Maybe because I now have a child of my own, I can imagine a new, deeper kind of loss to which I was never party before. Maybe because after Drew's birth I struggled so profoundly with postpartum depression, I have a different understanding of the valley of the shadow of painful emotion. I've often mentioned that my fellow chaplains at Albany Medical Center used to tell me that having a child was a profound theological education, and I think this is one of the things they may have meant by that statement. Becoming someone's mother has changed my relationship with theology and with God, and that makes me a different rabbi than I would have been before.

Continue reading "Tasks which have no limit" »

Torah poet Seth Brown reviews 70 faces


Seth Brown, the author of From God to Verse which renders the entire Torah in rhyming couplets, just reviewed 70 faces. Seth is another rare bird who writes Torah poetry. Although our approaches to Torah and poetry differ pretty substantially (for more on that, read the post I wrote about God to Verse when it first came out), I'm thrilled to read his review of my collection. Seth writes:

I think what I like best about this collection of poems is the immediacy they convey. Reading many of the pieces, I find myself drawn into the emotional landscape, rather than simply reading about the stories of the Torah as one usually does. There is a pervasive humanity throughout the collection, which I think shines through and makes the poems easy to connect with...

A favorite line of mine comes from the very first poem "Postpartum", based on the opening chapters of Genesis. Could the whole project be a wash? Aside from enjoying clever wording, I really appreciate the simplicity of the statement, the humanizing of the divine, and just how much is conveyed in seven words.

Read his whole review here. Thanks, Seth!

Remembering the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

Fire hoses aim at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory -- too late to save many of its workers. March 25, 1911.

Today marks the 100th Anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, which cost the lives of 146 people, mostly young immigrant women, many of them teenagers. It was the deadliest industrial disaster in the history of New York. I don't post about this kind of thing often, but I wanted to share the story of the factory fire here. (The history I'm sharing in this post is largely drawn from Wikipedia. Inspired by a request from the Jewish Labor Committee, we'll be reading a version of this story as our Torah study in shul tomorrow in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the fire.)

The Triangle Shirt Waist Company, founded by Max Blanck and Isaac Harris in 1900, was by 1911 one of the largest producers in New York City of the women's blouses popular at that moment in time, known as shirtwaists. Located in the Asch Building in what is now Greenwich Village, the factory employed 500 people, mostly young immigrant women who worked nine hours a day and seven hours on Saturdays. The factory occupied the eighth, ninth and tenth floors, which were the top three floors of the building.

As The Triangle Shirtwast Fire: 100 Years Later by Bill Singer notes, this was a newfangled fireproof building -- safer than the downtown sweatshops, though "safer" was a relative term. On Saturday, March 25, 1911, a fire started on the eighth floor. Work had ended at 4:30 that day and most of the workers were gathering their belongings and their paychecks when a cutter noticed a small fire had started in his scrap bin. No one is sure what exactly started the fire, though a fire marshal blamed it on an illicit cigarette and the New York Times suggested the fire might have been started by the engines running the sewing machines. Nearly everything in the room was flammable: hundreds of pounds of cotton scraps, tissue paper patterns, and wooden tables.

Several workers threw pails of water on the fire, but it quickly grew out of control. There were fire hoses available on each floor, but when workers turned the valves on to try to extinguish the fire, no water came out.

Continue reading "Remembering the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire" »

Two Jerusalem poems

As usual, Emily Hauser has written a powerful post about the recent bombing in Jerusalem: On the humanity of the grieving. I commend it to you.

For myself, I find that I cannot muster language to express my roil of emotions at this news, so I'm turning -- as I so often do -- to the poetry of others to express some of what I wish I could say. Here are two poems (of the countless millions) about Jerusalem, by two of my favorite poets. I read them today with a broken heart.


"Let's be the same wound if we must bleed.
Let's fight side by side, even if the enemy
is ourselves: I am yours, you are mine."
-Tommy Olofsson, Sweden

I'm not interested in
Who suffered the most.
I'm interested in
People getting over it.

Once when my father was a boy
A stone hit him on the head.
Hair would never grow there.
Our fingers found the tender spot
and its riddle: the boy who has fallen
stands up. A bucket of pears
in his mother's doorway welcomes him home.
The pears are not crying.
Later his friend who threw the stone
says he was aiming at a bird.
And my father starts growing wings.

Each carries a tender spot:
something our lives forgot to give us.
A man builds a house and says,
"I am native now."
A woman speaks to a tree in place
of her son. And olives come.
A child's poem says,
"I don't like wars,
they end up with monuments."
He's painting a bird with wings
wide enough to cover two roofs at once.

Why are we so monumentally slow?
Soldiers stalk a pharmacy:
big guns, little pills.
If you tilt your head just slightly
it's ridiculous.

There's a place in my brain
Where hate won't grow.
I touch its riddle: wind, and seeds.
Something pokes us as we sleep.

It's late but everything comes next.

-- Naomi Shihab Nye

An Arab Shepherd Is Searching For His Goat On Mount Zion

An Arab shepherd is searching for his goat on Mount Zion
And on the opposite hill I am searching for my little boy.
An Arab shepherd and a Jewish father
Both in their temporary failure.
Our two voices met above
The Sultan's Pool in the valley between us.
Neither of us wants the boy or the goat
To get caught in the wheels
Of the "Had Gadya" machine.

Afterward we found them among the bushes,
And our voices came back inside us
Laughing and crying.

Searching for a goat or for a child has always been
The beginning of a new religion in these mountains.

-- Yehuda Amichai (Translator unknown)

May the source of Peace bring healing to all who mourn and comfort to all who are bereaved.

Supporting transformative works

23-29 March 2011 OTW Membership Drive

Longtime readers know that I'm on the board of directors of the Organization for Transformative Works, a nonprofit organization which exists to preserve and protect fans, fanworks, and fan cultures.

I've written before about how fanfiction is like midrash -- exegetical storytelling created in the context of an interpretive community. Where Jews write midrash to explore and explain things which delight or puzzle us about Torah, fans write fanfiction to explore and explain things which delight and puzzle us about all sorts of beloved sourcetexts, from Shakespeare to LOST. The OTW has created a home for fanfiction of all sorts, the Archive of Our Own, "a fan-created, fan-run, non-profit, non-commercial archive for transformative fanworks." If pop-culture midrash is your thing, the AO3 is definitely the place to look -- though it is vast and contains multitudes, so may contain things which aren't your cuppa as well as things which are. That's actually part of what I dig about it: it's like the vast shuk (or souq) of fandom, with stalls featuring everything from bolts of cloth to tin pots to bulk spices... though, unlike any shuk I've ever seen, of course, everything in the AO3 is shared for free.

There are other projects of the OTW which are near and dear to my heart, too: Fanlore, the wiki where we preserve our histories and memories; the journal Transformative Works and Cultures; the Fan Culture Preservation Project, which has already saved thousands of classic zines from the dust bin of history (both literal and metaphoric.)

Maybe what I love most about the OTW is that it is built, and continues to be built, by fans and for fans. In the poem An Horatian Notion (which I once upon a time knew by heart), poet Thomas Lux writes:

You make the thing because you love the thing
and you love the thing because someone else loved it
enough to make you love it.

For me, that's the perfect description of the literary life -- and of life as a creator and consumer of fan creativity -- and of life as a Torah poet, too. We make things because we fall in love with something; we share what we've made, and others come to share our love; and maybe in time others come to add their voice to the tradition, their ingredients to the pot, their creativity to ours. This is why I'm so delighted when my Torah poems spark other people's Torah poems (I'm thinking specifically of Calf, by Dale, though I hope there have been others) or when my posts spark other people's posts. And this is also why I do my best to give back: not only to leave comments where I can, to share stories and poems and posts when I am able, but also to support organizations like the OTW which in turn act to support and protect fans and fanworks so that we can continue sharing what we've made with each other for a long time to come.

The OTW is having its annual March membership drive; if you're so inclined, it's easy to donate online. Here's to many more years of community and creativity.

Ren Powell's Mercy Island


I read Ren Powell's Mercy Island (Phoenicia Publishing, 2011 -- yes, that's the same press which published 70 faces) slowly, in bits and pieces, in part because I had to (life with a toddler is full of interruptions) and in part because these poems are sometimes challenging to take in and I wanted to give them the attention they deserved.

Here's a taste, from the long multi-part poem called "Red-Eared Slider" which takes up most of the first section of the book:

Suddenly, like rotting wood shooting out of the lake:
The photograph of Toby
straddling the cement tortoise...

I remember the huge snake
slide that wasn't quite slick enough
    it burned our thighs
        before spilling us into
            the sand pit with
            the tortoise

This poem turns and returns to its subject matter: childhood, memory, loss. Sickness and death. The turtle, a symbol maybe for the child who retreats inside protectively -- or maybe meant to suggest a creature nesting in the muck -- a hint of sex, a hint of death, always seen through the uncomfortable lens of a child's not-quite-comprehending eye.

Many of my favorite poems in this collection draw on memories of childhood. Like this one, "Bakersfield":

air conditioners hang from first story windows
dripping imploding stars
retracting irises on the sidewalk

I wear red canvas sneakers
tattered over the toes
a shorts overall with metal clasps

that burn my skin
like cigarettes flung in gesture
like whispers

Anyone can notice air conditioners which drip, but it takes a talented eye and mind to turn those wet drops into imploding stars and retracting irises. (That's the kind of image that makes me go "ooh, I wish I'd thought of that.") Childhood, in these poems, isn't necessarily safe: even the shorty overalls (I dress my son in those in the summertime!) are dangerous, and the comparison to cigarette burns speaks obliquely of a suffering worse than scuff-toed boredom on hot summer sidewalks.

Most of these poems are not overtly political, though one speaks of the 250 dead and missing women in Paso del Norte in 2005, and another -- "Girl-talk with the Poet from Ramallah" -- is shocking in its matter-of-fact references to violence and abuse:

She puts her hand on my hip
the heel of her hand on my hipbone
puncturing my social bubble.
She says they tortured her
fifteen year-old body
in front of her mother

And of course that poem breaks my heart twice over: once for the eponymous poet who endured such treatment, and once for the Israel of my hopes and dreams which would never have stooped to torturing children. That's my own baggage, I want to be clear; Powell doesn't mention Israel at all. But I can't read the poem without my own awareness of Israel, the West Bank, how often around the world women's bodies become the stage on which power struggles are played.

I seem to be citing the poems which most made me clutch at my heart. But there is also tremendous beauty here, and somehow the beauty is even more striking for its juxtaposition with the suffering. I'll close this review with one whole poem, the last one in the book (also published at Poemeleon) which I read as being written from the coast of Norway where Powell now lives:

A View from an Island

I am a Russian Doll
land within land

Sacred painting's
yellow ochre
my skirt
trimmed with lichen

Something is lost
leaving the heather:

The craggy beauty
of an old woman's throat
the mellow man's joy --

Something is lost
to the morning's mackerel
as they slap Hallelujah

I love the opening couplet with its suggestion that each of us contains multitudes within ourselves. Lichen, heather, craggy beauty, mackerel slapping on the dock: despite all of our human sorrow, these beauties remain.

This is a gorgeous collection of poems. Thanks, Ren, for writing them -- and thanks, Phoenicia, for bringing them to a wider world.

Understand (a poem for Big Tent Poetry)

Wordle: Velveteen Rabbi wordle

A wordle word-cloud featuring words I've recently used on this blog. See it full-sized here.





If you want to understand
    the God of the Torah,
        of the Exodus, if you want

to experience that first
    redemption along with
        the children of Israel

you need to learn
    how to breathe new air
        how to receive

how to cup your hands around
    the name of the person
        you are still becoming

together with your family
    open your home, inner-city
        or country, to all

who hunger, to the harbinger
    of the future who sips
        every Pesach from his cup

your children can teach you
    to experience revelation
        they remember the wonders

our story is old
    but today is new
        come, find the miracles

This week's prompt at Big Tent Poetry invites us to use their various poetry tools to spark a poem which will take us somewhere new. I decided to try creating a wordle word cloud; I went to and gave it the URL of this blog, and from this blog it drew the words I've used most often of late. (You can see the word cloud it created at the top of this post.)

The word cloud fed my own words back to me in a new way. Stripped of their context, they gleamed like new jewels. It was fun to take these words (which are, after all, the words on which I've lately leaned the most) and reorganize them into something new.

I did something like this back in 2005, when I used an online blog profiling service to tell me which ten words I used most often and then crafted a sestina using six words Blogpulse chose for me. Intriguingly, the two poems generated out of repeated words on this blog don't share many repeated words, though I think they're thematically pretty similar.

Here's a link to the Come One, Come All post so you can see what others did wth this prompt.


Live in the Northeast? Host a Fresh Air kid!

The folks at the Fresh Air Fund sent me the following information and asked me to share it. I think what they do -- giving inner city kids a chance to spend part of a summer in the suburbs and the country -- is awesome, so I'm signal-boosting:

In 2010, The Fresh Air Fund's Volunteer Host Family program, called Friendly Town, gave close to 5,000 New York City boys and girls, ages six to 18, free summer experiences in the country and the suburbs. Volunteer host families shared their friendship and homes up to two weeks or more in 13 Northeastern states from Virginia to Maine and Canada...

The majority of Fresh Air children are from low-income communities. These are often families without the resources to send their children on summer vacations. Most inner-city youngsters grow up in towering apartment buildings without large, open, outdoor play spaces. Concrete playgrounds cannot replace the freedom of running barefoot through the grass or riding bikes down country lanes.

Friendly Town host families are volunteers who live in the suburbs or small town communities. Host families range in size, ethnicity and background, but share the desire to open their hearts and homes to give city children an experience they will never forget. Hosts say the Fresh Air experience is as enriching for their own families as it is for the inner-city children. There are no financial requirements for hosting a child. Volunteers may request the age-group and gender of the Fresh Air youngster they would like to host.

I hope we'll be able to host a Fresh Air kid someday when Drew is old enough to enjoy and appreciate the experience of having a city kid spend some time here.

Learn more here.

Kedushat Levi on Torah, God, Pesach, and becoming

Here's a teaching from Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev about Passover, becoming, understanding God and understanding Torah, all sparked by the verse (Exodus 3:14) "Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh / I will be what I will be."

God, he writes, led us forth from Mitzrayim for two reasons: in order that we might serve God and in order that we might receive Torah. Given this, we might imagine it fitting that right after the Exodus, we would immediately have received the Torah -- but the Holy One of Blessing "passed over" or skipped the receiving of the Torah, presumably because in the immediate aftermath of the Exodus, the Israelites weren't ready to receive Torah yet, and wouldn't become so until they'd undergone all of the experiences of the wilderness which helped transform them from slaves into people who were capable of holy service. (We recapitulate this in our practice today, as we spend the seven weeks after Pesach moving through the Counting of the Omer and spiritually preparing ourselves to receive Torah at Shavuot -- we're not ready to re-experience the revelation of Torah at Sinai until we've done some spiritual work, ourselves.)

Kedushat Levi suggests that because God "passed over" the revelation of the Torah, choosing to skip it and come back to it later when we were ready, that's why this holiday is called Pesach, Pass-Over. (That's not the traditional explanation for the name, but I like it.) Anyway: he says that the first Ehyeh ("I Will Be") in God's name speaks in terms of the future, in terms of becoming: that which has not yet come to pass.

Continue reading "Kedushat Levi on Torah, God, Pesach, and becoming" »

Happy new year, of a sort

Happy Norouz -- Persian New Year -- to all who celebrate! And for all who inhabit the northern hemisphere, happy vernal equinox / first day of spring, regardless of whether or not you know today as Norouz.

Today is a holy day, Wikipedia tells me, for Zoroastrians, Persians, Sufis, Ismailis, and Baha'is. Today is a holiday in my house too, though for a far more prosaic reason -- it's my birthday, which I share with such luminaries as J.S. Bach and Benito Juarez.

Today I turn thirty-six, double chai. I'll be celebrating by giving an after-lunch reading from 70 faces at Knesset Israel in Pittsfield -- if you're around and free, please come!

I wish all of y'all a lovely day!

Family (a poem about being stuck, for Big Tent Poetry)





We're stuck with each other:
the woman in patchwork crochet
with her picket sign
and the man whose fury
fills an emailed cascade

the students who say
give us a seat at the table
and the ones who say
you are beyond the pale
go have dinner somewhere else

everyone heartsick and weary
and everyone hopeful
and everyone who wishes
they could elide
the entire conversation

each of us, wherever we are
bound by this thin filament
which does not care
whether we like each other
or how passionately we disagree

This week's Big Tent Poetry prompt invites us to write a poem about being stuck somewhere. I took that in a slightly different direction, reflecting on my sense that -- as this poem's first line indicates -- we're all "stuck" with each other.

Some of the things I was thinking about as I wrote this poem include the story of ideological clashes between students at Brandeis (see JTA's Brandeis Hillel excludes a controversial group on Israel, generating debate and the Globe's Brandeis groups clash over stance on Israel) and the killings in the settlement of Itamar about which I wrote a few days ago. But the poem arises out of a bigger sense of connectedness beyond our disagreements.

My dear friend Rhonda spoke in an email this week (quoted with permission) about modeling that we are all responsible for each other... about making Shabbos with people you seriously disagree with, and realizing that we are all part of Clal Yisrael. I wish I could feel, right now, that more of us were interested in seeing one another as family despite our differences. In the Jewish community, or in the world at large.

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


On Rosh Hashanah in Adar

Last week my congregation had the opportunity to help the Reform movement beta-test its forthcoming new machzor (high holiday prayerbook.) This is an early version in draft form; the best reports I've heard hold that the new machzor might be finished in 2014, so it's not coming out anytime soon! Anyway, we held a Rosh Hashanah service last Thursday night, using the new machzor as our roadmap for the service. It was surreal on many levels: praying the morning liturgy in the evening after nightfall, davening this liturgy which I so strongly associate with late summer in these cold, sleety days of not-yet-spring, davening with an intimate crowd a service which I associate with our sanctuary being packed to the gills, and maybe most of all, singing melodies which are intricately woven into one time of year at a different time of year altogether.

One of the things I love best about the way Jewish liturgy works is our system of melodies. There are a couple of melodic modes for weekday prayer, and another for Shabbat. (In many liberal congregations, the traditional Shabbat melodic modes have been largely replaced with what I'd call "tunes" -- composed melodies, written for various pieces of liturgy -- but the older tradition is to daven the Shabbat prayers in the Shabbat musical mode, as distinct from the weekday ones.) And it's not just a matter of weekday and Shabbat. There are melodic modes for different liturgical times of year, like High Holidays and Shalosh Regalim (the once-upon-a-time pilgrimage festivals of Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot.)

Ten years ago I was almost entirely unconscious of this. But one of the happy side effects of 5+ years of rabbinic training is that I'm much more steeped, now, in liturgy and its attendant music than I used to be. I love the way that the different melody-systems play off of each other and the way they are distinct from one another. Shabbat prayer is meant to sound different from weekday prayer; festival prayer is meant to sound different from Shabbat prayer. Each one shines against the backdrop of the others. And each one feels connected with the particular time of year when it takes place -- which is why preparing to lead High Holiday liturgy, using the High Holiday melodic mode, at a time of year when the sleet and slush are piling up outside and I'm starting to think ahead to Pesach, just feels weird! But it gave me an opportunity to think about prayer in an interesting way.

One of the staples of the DLTI experience was co-leading services with my fellow students. And after services, we would "workshop" what we had done. After morning prayer had ended, for instance, the service-leaders might be called back up to the front of the room to run through some particular part of the service again, and our teachers would encourage us to take risks, try new things, or maybe try the same things we'd already done but with different intention or posture (physically and spiritually.) One of the things they would stress was that when we entered into a service again in that way, we were davening "in realtime" -- we weren't pretending to pray, we were re-entering the flow of the actual service and re-entering that moment of prayer as though it were happening for the first time right now.

That's how I thought about our "Rosh Hashanah in Adar" service. It wasn't a "mock" service; I didn't want to be merely pretending to pray this liturgy, even if the liturgy and its attendant tunes felt out-of-season. It was weird, re-entering the emotional and spiritual headspace of the Days of Awe in this moment just before Purim, but it was an opportunity to re-inhabit teshuvah (repentance / atonement) and to remember the joy of a new year beginning. In truth, teshuvah is something we're meant to be doing all year 'round; and every moment can be a new beginning if we're open to seeing it in that way.

It did feel good to run across prayers and melodies which are like old friends to me. And as far as the beta-test itself went, there's much that I enjoyed about the new Reform machzor... though they also made some decisions which I'm uncertain about. I'll be curious to see what form the machzor eventually takes; I'm guessing that by the time it reaches print, it may look pretty different from what we used in our davening. Anyway, it was a fascinating experience. Thanks, Reform movement, for giving me an opportunity to pray-test the new liturgy.

Two 70 faces events in my own home county


A quick bulletin for any readers in the western Massachusetts area (or within reasonable driving distance of Western MA) -- I wanted to let you know that I'm doing two events around 70 faces in days to come:

In Berkshire / western Massachusetts:

  • Reading/signing at Congregation Beth Israel, March 16, 7pm. (Books provided by Papyri Books.) I'll read from the book and to talk about poetry, midrash, and finding a mirror for our own lives and spiritual experience in Torah. 53 Lois Street, North Adams.

  • Lunchtime reading at Knesset Israel synagogue, March 21 (presented as part of Jewish Federation of the Berkshires' celebration of Women's History Month).  Lunch at noon; reading / presentation at 1pm. 16 Colt Road Pittsfield, MA 01201.

If you come to the reading on Monday at 1pm, you'll have the chance to wish me happy birthday in person; if you come tomorrow evening, you'll get to see me at my own home congregation. Anyway, if you're nearby and are able to come, please do -- it's always nice to have friendly faces in the crowd!

Hidden - a poem for Purim

As my final project for the feminist exegesis class I took in my last year of rabbinic school, I wrote a series of poems exploring Biblical women. One of those poems has already been shared here -- Seven Miriam stories -- and I'm sharing another one now in honor of the festival of Purim which is almost upon us. This is written in the voice of Esther, the hero of the megillah of Esther which we read on Purim.



Vashti, the first favorite
was well before my time, though
I still wonder sometimes
why he asked her to strip.
Maybe he’d grown tired of her
and needed an excuse.

Of course I use my body
to get what I need: what woman
doesn’t? But until now
all I’ve needed were clothes,
bread, the freedom to read
in a quiet corner of the room.

The king thinks I hung the stars
but when the time comes
to make my play my hands shake.
And Haman leers. He’s thinking
casual threesome! score!
but I know karma's a bitch.

The story ends in celebration
and bloodshed, a revenge fantasy
your children will retell
for generations, but listen--
I’m not a paragon of virtue.
I’m not your blank canvas.

I was never hiding. I’m not
a Torah scroll to be concealed
behind ornate walls, then
revealed bit by bit (here a flash
of ankle, there a glimpse of hip)
for your viewing pleasure.

I’m not God, veiling My face
like the newest of moons.
I’m a dark-skinned Persian girl
raised on twisty Shushan streets
who gambled for a favor
and won.

The heartbreak of Itamar

I've been heartsick, these last few days, at news of the stabbing of an Israeli family in the West Bank settlement of Itamar. I've written before about the settlements and why I think they are a problem (see my 2009 post [JStreet] West Bank Settlements: Obstacles on the Road to Peace, and last October's We are family) but that doesn't keep my heart from cracking at this awful news. Rabbi Brant Rosen's short and eloquent post says pretty much what I wanted to say: the Itamar massacre is horrifying, and the fact that on both sides the story was immediately seized-upon for political gain is shameful.

Though Mahmoud Abbas condemned the attack, calling it "despicable, immoral, and inhuman," there are those within Hamas who hailed it as a heroic operation. The slaughter of a family, including a three-year-old toddler, an eleven-year-old boy, both parents and their four-month-old daughter, leaving their last three children orphaned and traumatized: I'm not sure my heart can break enough to encompass this kind of tale. And I cannot begin to understand anyone who could call this heroism. Shame on those within Hamas who would say such a thing.

In response, members of the Israeli Knesset have called for pogroms and the demolishment of the village from which the attacker came (for more, read Yossi Gurvitz' The Itamar victimization dance is disgusting) and the Israeli government has approved construction of 500 new homes in the West Bank. Pogroms, the demolishing of villages, collective punishment of Palestinian communities, and the construction of more apartments which continues the settlement enterprise -- it seems to me that these are the most counterproductive of responses, and I fear that they will lead to further sorrow down the road.

Continue reading "The heartbreak of Itamar" »

Thanks... the folks at Bnai Or for the music, the delightful hand-drum and guitar and even wee triangular mandolin, and the chance to offer a d'var Torah and then to share some poems from 70 faces which sparked excellent conversation;

to my dear friend Kris, who watched Drew on Shabbat morning so I could be a focused and present guest at Bnai Or;

to my dear friends Ora and Yossi, who brought a havdalah candle and guitar to my sister's house at the end of Shabbat so we could make havdalah, for the sweet singing and the Thai food and the connection;

to my sister for hosting Drew and me, and especially for watching him on Sunday while I went to meet more people and have more conversations about Torah and poetry and Judaism;

to the women (and one man!) of the Sisterhood of Temple Aliyah in Needham, for welcoming me into such a beautiful home with coffee and pastries and fruit, for listening attentively as I spoke about my journey to the rabbinate and as I shared poems, and then for asking wonderful questions about feminism, theodicy, miscarriage, liturgy;

to the folks at the Jewish Connections group at First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church in Arlington, and especially to my host Lori, for inviting me to share poems -- listening with such focus -- and then asking great questions about my spiritual practices, my favorite blogs, how I balance looking out and looking in, and more.

Rachel reads

"Rachel reads," photo by Lorianne DiSabato.

It was an exhausting but honestly wonderful weekend. I'm home now, trying to find the right balance between looking at the news of what's happening in the world (and finding myself pretty heartsick -- I may write about that later) and buckling down to begin learning Esther trope and doing the other work which is on my plate today. Anyway: thanks to everyone who came to each of these 70 faces events. It was a joy to share this weekend with you.