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A taste of 70 faces -- set to music!

I learned earlier today that four of the poems in 70 faces have been set to music! The composer is Michael Scherperel, who teaches music at Broward College. He set four of my Torah poems -- 1. Red Heifer / Chukat, 2. Sandals / Balak, 3. Caretaker / Behar, and 4. Korban / Vayikra -- to music as a 70th birthday gift for a friend. (It appears that I'm in excellent company; he's also set material by John Donne and by CP Cavafy.) He just sent me the sheet music for the four poems he set! What a delight to see my words on the score. I only wish my piano skills were a little bit stronger.

This is actually the second time a composer has set my words to music. A few years ago Michael Veloso was commissioned by Boston-based womens' musical ensemble Cantilena to write music for a Mother's Day concert (all music featuring mothers and motherhood in some way.) He set two of my Letters to Little Bean (part of a poem cycle I wrote while pregnant, otherwise as-yet unpublished) to music. On my first Mother's Day as a mother, I went to Boston to hear Cantilena perform Mike's music and my words -- an experience I hope I never forget.

Mr. Scherperel had apparently tried to reach me to ask permission to set the poems, but when his email didn't reach me, he took the plunge and wrote the music anyway. (And I am so glad he did.) This is probably a good time to say, on the record, that I am always happy when someone is inspired to create this sort of transformative work out of something I have written! Please feel free to remix, translate, create art inspired by, compose a musical setting for, and/or otherwise make art responding to or inspired by any of my work, poetry or prose.

I ask only that you credit me as the original work's author (and, if online, please link back to my site / my work) and that you show me whatever you make, because when someone likes something I've made enough to want to make something else in response, that brings me joy.


The black dog; the shadow; the fog


Vincent van Gogh's 1890 painting "Old Man with his Head in his Hands (At Eternity's Gate.)"

When I think about depression, and about the writers I've encountered who are able to write about it in a meaningful way, I always think of the poet Jane Kenyon, may her memory be a blessing. Her poem Having it Out with Melancholy is extraordinary. I have read it countless times over the years, and every time I read it, it teaches me something new about depression and about being a human being who suffers. (I also love her poem Back, which is about healing from depression. Both of these poems can be found in Otherwise: New and Selected Poems, published by Greywolf.)

Depression comes in many forms. Acute depression and chronic depression. Depression which is situational, and depression which is existential. I'm neither a therapist nor a psychologist; these gradations aren't my bailiwick. But as a pastoral caregiver, I think often about the people in my care who struggle with depression. I wonder when they most need to hear that I have been there, too -- and have, thank God, found my way back. I wonder when they most need to just speak their experience, without hearing about mine.

Often all I can do is listen. Listen, and say "I hear you." If they can't access hope that things will get better, I can hope it for them. If they can't find their way to prayer, I can pray on their behalf; can pray that they find their way back to being able to connect again with God, whatever they understand God to mean. I can be kind. I can urge them to try to be kind to themselves.

I can hold them in my thoughts and in my heart; I can hold them in prayer. Sometimes I don't believe that intercessory prayer makes a difference in any tangible way, and yet I can't imagine not doing it. My teachers taught me to pray for the people under my care, and that includes my congregants and friends and loved ones who live with the shadow of depression peering over their shoulder or stealing their breath. The black dog; the shadow; the fog.

The Hasidic master Reb Nachman of Bratzlav is said to have suffered from terrible depression. And yet he is often remembered for his powerful teachings about the importance of joy. (Many of these teachings are collected by Rabbi Debra Orenstein on her page Reb Nachman's "Rules" for Joy.) Some say that we teach best what we most need to learn; maybe he wrote so beautifully about joy because these were the teachings he needed to receive. "Depression," he wrote, "does tremendous damage. Use every ploy you can think of to bring yourself to joy."

Rabbi Debra also offers Reb Nachman's prayer:

God, I stand beaten and battered by the countless manifestations of my own inadequacies. Yet we must live with joy. [We must] overcome despair, seek pursue and find every inkling of goodness, every positive point within ourselves – and so discover true joy. Aid me in this quest, O God. Help me find satisfaction and a deep, abiding pleasure in all that I have, in all that I do, in all that I am.

I wonder how I would have responded if I had read this prayer when I was struggling with postpartum depression. I suspect that the words wouldn't have penetrated the fog. My inadequacies felt insurmountable: there I was, a new mother, supposed to be enjoying the precious moments of my child's infancy, and instead I so often felt broken. I am grateful even now for the family members who convinced me to seek the help I needed.

But reading Reb Nachman's prayer now, I'm struck by his insistence that we must live with joy, not despite our sorrow -- not in a way that ignores our perceived inadequacies -- but because doing so is central to spiritual life. "Joy," he writes, "is not merely incidental to your spiritual quest. It is vital." Maybe the most fervent prayer I can offer on behalf of those who struggle with depression is: may the clouds lift so that you can once again remember how to access joy.

No one "deserves" depression. The voice of depression often whispers, insidiously, that this is who one really is, this is what life really is, that anything which has seemed pleasurable or joyful was merely an illusion -- but it's not true. Depression does not mean that you are weak-willed or not trying hard enough. Depression is real and it is awful -- and there are ways to banish it. If one way doesn't work, there are others. Always.

For many of us, one of the challenges of depression is the fear that one's friends and loved ones don't want to hear about it. The little voice that whispers, "No one likes you when you're like this." I am here to say: that isn't true either. The people who love you may be worried about you; they may be frustrated with themselves for not being able to magically make you feel better; but that doesn't mean they don't want to hear.

We want to hear. Even if we can't fix it, we will sit with you in your suffering. We will not judge. We are here.




70 faces of Torah for Shavuot

As we count the Omer, we're counting down the days until Shavuot. (This year Shavuot begins on  the evening of Saturday, May 26 -- just under four weeks from now.) Like children counting the days until a birthday or vacation, like a bride or groom counting down the days until the wedding, we're counting the 49 days until we can celebrate the anniversary of standing at Sinai and receiving Torah.

The sages tell us that each of our souls was somehow mystically present on that day: not only the souls of every Israelite who had survived the Exodus from Egypt, but the souls of every Jew who ever was or will be. When we celebrate Shavuot with mindful intention, we can glimpse that ineffable moment of transmission.

My teacher Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi tells us that the divine broadcast is still happening -- that God broadcasts truth and love and kindness on all frequencies all the time. This is the frequency to which our community has historically been attuned. If we open the ears of our hearts and souls, we can hear it even now.

In my favorite understanding, the Torah we received at Sinai wasn't just the words we know and love, dance with and wrestle with, read each week in the scroll of Genesis through Deuteronomy. In that moment of mystical download we received too all of the commentaries, the Oral Torah, the writings of our sages of blessed memory, all the way down to every d'var Torah written even now.

Every insight, every interpretation, every mind-opening understanding was packaged with the Torah when it came down. Torah, the sages say, has 70 faces; turn it and turn it, for everything is in it.

If you're looking for a contemporary way to connect with Torah, allow me to humbly suggest my collection of Torah poems. It makes a great Shavuot gift for anyone in your life who loves poetry and/or loves Torah. If your community celebrates Confirmation at this time, consider giving it to confirmands! Or to b'nei mitzvah, or to your rabbi, or to a friend, or to yourself. Find out all about it, read the first few poems, etc, here at the Phoenicia Publishing website.


A great Shavuot gift for one and all!

There You Are

What in me resists
meeting You wherever I go?

The petals fallen
from the forsythia

the wind, the trees
flying wet chartreuse flags --

atop my filing cabinet
the receipts for jury service

and childbirth classes
which I finally throw away --

calendar chock-a-block with
Skype dates and board meetings:

all of these are You
clothed in the world.

From dreams of my teachers
to status updates

every message I receive
comes from You.

I don't have to meditate
in order to pray

in order to be ready
to feel Your presence.



Earlier this week I met with my mashpi'ah (spiritual director). This poem arose out of our conversation.

I welcome any thoughts, reflections, questions, or poems which arise in response! Shabbat shalom.

A birthday note for Yom Ha-Atzma'ut

Sunset over the Jerusalem hills, 2008.

Dear Israel,

There's so much I want to say to you on your 64th birthday* today.

First I want to say: it's amazing that you exist. That so many of us made our ways to your shores, battered and traumatized by the Shoah, and joined those who had been living in Mandate Palestine in building a new life, a new dream.

On this, your birthday, I celebrate your technology and innovation; your pioneering work on sustainable agriculture in deep desert; that our people's ancient language of scripture and prayer has been brought back to life as a modern spoken tongue. Nowhere else in the world does civic life move in Jewish rhythms.

It's true, there are some things I wish you were doing differently. It's frustrating that the version of Judaism which has become your state religion discriminates against other forms of Judaism. I hear things aren't necessarily so great for girls and women by you, either. I hope for better in the year to come.

I know that while you celebrate, Palestinians prepare to remember what they call the Nakba, the catastrophe: your birth. That even as you mourn 60+ years of endless fighting and terrorist attacks, they mourn displacement, the separation barrier which divides families from their orchards, settler violence, the harsh conditions in Gaza.

My Israeli friends tell me that when their grandparents fought in '48, they never imagined their grandchildren would still be fighting. I hope that in the coming year your government, and your neighbors, can make choices which lead to justice and peace. I pray for the day when you and your neighbors can celebrate side-by-side.

May the coming year bring blessings.


*On the Hebrew calendar, Yom Ha-Atzma'ut is celebrated on 5 Iyar, which begins tonight. On the secular calendar, the date of Israel's founding was May 14.


Related reading:

  • Yom Ha-Atzma'ut Resources from Rabbis for Human Rights. Don't miss Masekhet Ha'Atzmaut: a Talmudic-style Commentary on Israel's Declaration of Independence. Each of the eight tractates contains excerpts from Israeli founding documents, historical and contemporary commentaries related to the excerpt, and study questions.

  • Emily Hauser's Israel's Independence Day - same old, same old -- a powerful perspective from an Israeli-American who has chosen to live in exile.

  • Happy Independence Day Wishes From a Palestinian, Aziz Abu Sarah's essay, originally published in the Jerusalem Post and reprinted in +972 magazine.

In which my kids teach me about tefilah

So What Is Prayer?

It doesn't have to be services or words, though it can be both.
It can be a feeling that God is present.
It doesn't have to include asking for anything.
It can be just awe or wonder, or a wave of affection breaking over you.
It can be like plugging into an electric current.
It can change while you're praying.
It can be surprise.
It can be... Fill in the rest from your own experience.

Rabbi Lionel Blue and Rabbi Jonathan Magonet

On Monday, I taught a lesson on tefilah to the students in our b'nei mitzvah prep program. The Hebrew word להתפלל (l'hitpallel) means "to pray;" it also means "to judge oneself / look inside oneself." Prayer, then, can be understood as a contemplative practice, a practice of looking inside.

Of course, it's other things, too. I offered a list of eleven approaches to prayer (courtesy of Steven Brown's Higher and Higher: Making Jewish Prayer Part of Us): prayer as a way of expressing feelings, as a way of making requests / bringing our desires to God, as a mode of developing / maintaining relationship with God, of articulating our fears, of connecting with our community through time and space, of sparking our sense of ethical responsibility, as a form of learning (Torah study is itself considered a form of prayer), as a self-discipline which makes one sensitive to connection with the sacred, as a way of accessing the joy of language and words, and as a mitzvah, e.g. a commandment given to us by God.

I asked my students which of the above ways of understanding prayer resonated for them, and which didn't. I was not surprised to hear that most of them found the idea of praying simply because it's commanded to be a little bit weird -- "like how reading a book for fun is fun, but reading it because a teacher told you to isn't fun anymore." Nor was I particularly surprised to hear that most of them liked the ideas of prayer being a way to articulate one's innermost feelings.

But the real a-ha moment for me came when we were talking about how making a blessing or saying a prayer can attune us to the wonders of the moment. Maybe saying a prayer, they told me, is like leaving a comment on a blog post written by God. Sometimes one just wants to hit the "like" button (as on Facebook) and give something a thumbs-up: this sunset? "Like!" This ice cream cone? "Like!" And other times, one has more to say than just the sign of approval, and that's when one might write a long comment, or post a video, to tell God thank you or to make a request or to continue the conversation in detail.

Can you imagine posting a video-prayer as a way of saying thank-you to God? I wouldn't have, until they suggested it. Moments like that one are why teaching b'nei mitzvah kids is so much fun. For every class when I wonder whether I'm getting through to them, there's a class like today, when they help me see something I thought I knew in a whole new way.

Teachings for the new month of Iyar

We've entered the lunar month of Iyar. This month unfolds entirely during the counting of the Omer. And I just read some really beautiful teachings about spring, the counting of the Omer, and meditation. Here, have a taste:

Did you ever hear the expression "something's in the air"? when we can feel something, but it's just out of our reach, and yet we know it's there, that's when we say "there's something in the air". Judaism tells us that at all times, there is "something in the air". At any particular time, there is a spiritual influence, an ineffable influx, just beyond us, waiting to be tapped into. The minute we tap into it, it becomes a part of us, and we become imbued with it...

During the month of Iyar, meditation takes on special meaning, because it's connected with the exodus from Egypt. The exodus required a spectacular burst of spiritual energy in order to spring us out of captivity in Egypt. But, once having achieved the hurried exit from the land of limitations, it was incumbent upon us to start incorporating that sudden burst of spiritual revelation into our lives. The way we do that, during the month of Iyar, is by meditating.

But how do we know upon what to meditate? The answer is: it's in the air. It's been in the air since Pesach, since the exodus, since the onset of spring. "It" is the spectacular burst which sprung us out of Egypt, and into a state of freedom. Our meditation must be on this burst of energy, but in such a way as to integrate it into our own lives. The way we do that is by counting. The commandment of counting the "omer", requires that for every day for forty-nine days, -seven weeks-, we take a facet of that initial spring energy, meditate upon it, and integrate it into our personalities. The word for "counting" in Hebrew is the same as the word for "telling" or "narrating", and it also means to "polish", or make shine. By counting, we are actually accessing this spirituality which is "in the air", and internalizing it in order to make our personalities shine.

Read the whole thing: Iyar - Jerusalem Connection. (You may find that some of what's on the page is a bit esoteric, and that some of it focuses on Yom Yerushalayim in a way which may not be universal, but I think there's some really beautiful material there.)

I love the idea that Judaism teaches us that all times, there is "something in the air" -- a spiritual tenor or tone to every moment of the day, to every month of the year. And I love the idea that at this season, through the contemplative practice of counting the Omer and focusing on how the divine qualities of lovingkindness and boundaried strength and harmony (and so on) unfold in us, we can access what's uniquely in the air at this time of year. A sense of transformation, maybe. A readiness to go beyond the initial plunge into the Sea, and to continue on toward the moment when we will celebrate our reception of Torah, our covenant with God -- or, framed in different language, our encounter with the ineffable which has left us, and will leave us, forever changed.


Ostriker and Amichai

As Yom Ha-Atzma'ut -- Israeli Independence Day -- approaches, I find myself reading a lot of poetry about the Middle East and/or written by Israeli and Palestinian poets. Here are two poems  which have particularly moved me this week.


A Meditation in Seven Days, part IV.

For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. -- Isaiah 2:3-4

Here is another story: the ark burned
The marble pillars buried, the remnant scattered

A thousand years, two thousand years
In every patch of the globe, the gentle remnant

Of whom our rabbis boast: Compassionate sons
Of compassionate fathers

In love not with the Law, but with the kindness
They claim to be the whole of the Torah

Torn from a whole cloth
From the hills of Judea

That rang with praise, and from the streams
That were jewels, yearning for wholeness, next

Year in Jerusalem, surely, there would be
Milk and honey, they could see

The thing plainly, an ideal society
Of workers, the wise, the holy hill flowing

Finally with righteousness --
Here they are, in the photographs of the 1880s,

The young women with their serious eyes
Their lace collars and cameo brooches

Are the partners of these serious young men
Who stand shaven, who have combed their hair smoothly

They are writing pamphlets together, which describe
In many little stitches the word shalom

They have climbed out of the gloomy villages
They have kissed the rigid parents goodbye

Soon they will be a light to the nations
They will make the desert bloom, they are going to form

The plough and pruning hook Isaiah promised
After tears of fire, of blood, of mud

Of the sword and shame
Eighty generations

Here in their eyes the light of justice from Sinai
And the light of pure reason from Europe

-- Alicia Ostriker, from The Book of Life: Selected Jewish Poems, 1979-2011


Jerusalem, 1967

On Yom Kippur 5728, I donned
Dark holiday clothing and walked to Jerusalem's Old City.
I stood for quite a while in front of the kiosk shop of an Arab,
Not far from the Nablus Gate, a shop
full of buttons, zippers and spools of thread
Of every color; and snaps and buckles.
Brightly lit and many colored like the open Holy Ark.

I said to him in my heart that my father too
Owned a shop just like this of buttons and thread.
I explained to him in my heart about all the decades
And the reasons and the events leading me to be here now
While my father's shop burned there and he is buried here.

When I concluded it was the hour of N'eilah
He too drew down the shutters and locked the gate
As I returned homeward with all the other worshippers.

–-Yehuda Amichai, from Achshav B' Ra'ash ("Now, Noisily", Schocken 1975), transl. Richard Silverstein

(That book appears to no longer be in print, but if you are interested in Amichai's work, there's a lovely Selected Poetry edition.)




Revisiting Tazria-Metzorah, after death and after birth

This week we're reading Tazria-Metzorah (Leviticus 12:1-15:33) -- a double Torah portion chock-full of birth, blood, tum'ah and taharah, leprosy and eruptive afflictions, nocturnal emissions, and purification rituals. This stuff is, I suspect, what makes many moderns squeamish about Leviticus. It's easier to relate to the family stories of Genesis, the stirring freedom motif of Exodus, the wilderness wanderings of Numbers and the lofty sermons of Deuteronomy...but how can these fiddly details of purification rituals no one's practiced in two thousand years really speak to us as part of our holy text?

And to be fair, some years, I've really struggled with these portions of Torah myself. Parashat Tazria begins with injunctions about how when a woman gives birth, she becomes tamei for a certain period of time. (That word is often translated as "impure;" I've written before about how and why I dislike that translation -- I think it has connotations, to the modern ear, which the original Hebrew doesn't necessarily intend.) But now that I have my own experience of giving birth to a child, I find that I can relate to these verses in a different way.

My memories of labor are distant and hazy now. (I know I'm still grateful to our doula, to the nurses, to my terrific OB, and to the anesthesiologist who administered the epidural, may there be a blessing on his house.) But I remember feeling, as Drew emerged from my body, that I was touching something deep and ineffable. It was so intense that I had to close my eyes. I remember the total astonishment of holding our son for the first time, pressed to my chest, a warm blanket fresh out of the dryer draped over both of us. Realizing that I had changed, as if by magic, into someone new.

When I read the Torah verses here about how a woman is tamei for 33 or for 66 days after birth, I think of spending my first two months of motherhood swimming against the current of postpartum depression; a different kind of tum'ah which nonetheless separated me from my community. Let me be clear -- I'm not saying that that's what the Torah verses are about, per se. And I know that every woman's experience is different. But I suspect that many women experience the first one or two months of motherhood as a different time, an overwhelming time, a time which is set apart from ordinary life.

Labor and birth were a one-time thing for me. But I am blessed now to be able to minister to people through the journey of sickness and death and burial -- and I know that every time I touch death in these ways, I come away feeling changed. Changed and charged. Electrified, almost, as though I had shed everything extraneous in myself and my life in order to go somewhere very deep. I think that deep place is the same place I touched when I closed my eyes and Drew was born. And I know that every time I go there, it takes a little while for the experience to "wear off," as it were.

When I emerge back into ordinary life, when the spiritual tingliness wears off, I'm often exhausted...but deeply grateful to have touched those depths. That's how I understand tum'ah now. Tum'ah is the stuff of blood and birth and death and ineffability. Most of us don't live our lives in constant awareness of our blood and our mortality and our deep mystical connection with something Beyond, something from which we emerge when we are born and to which we return when we are die. But birth and death, blood and semen and mysterious bodily suppurations are part of this human life. Leviticus offers us one very old framework for understanding these things and how they impact us.

As we immerse in the waters of this week's Torah portion, a question to ponder: when do you feel most connected with your body, with life and death, with God?


For those who are interested, here are the posts I've made about this parsha in previous years:

Counting the Omer in the Toddler House


The year I was pregnant
I counted the weeks
until I could reveal your presence.
With each turned page

you were the size of an aspirin,
a raisin, a grape.
Your tiny heart fluttered.
You grew fingernails and kidneys.

Who could focus on the journey
through God's qualities?
I was a kaleidoscope
for splendor.

Now that you're two
I know what the kabbalists
hid in plain sight:
to God, we're all toddlers

pushing boundaries, sulking
exaggerated on the floor, then
beaming, earnest and sweet
and our Parent meets us

with lovingkindness
with boundaried strength
with perfect balance
which endures forever...

Sometimes She lays down the law
but Her arms are always open
when we run too fast in new sandals
and skin our tender knees.

I think I'm really getting into the groove of this toddler house series. This poem riffs on the practice of counting the Omer, the weeks between Pesach and Shavuot. (Here are my previous years' posts about the Omer; this year I'm posting daily Omer reflections at my congregational blog.)

In the kabbalistic understanding, each day of the 49 represents a different combination of divine qualities: chesed (lovingkindness), gevurah (boundaried strength), tiferet (harmony / balance), netzach (endurance), hod (humility / splendor), yesod (foundation), malchut (nobility / sovereignty.)

This year I can't seem to help relating to each of these divine qualities as a quality necessary in parenting. As I take note of each day, I think: how do I experience these qualities in my relationship with God? And how can I manifest them in my relationship with my son?

A poem for today


                on  the  train
                you  had  left me
                a  message   scrawled
                across  brown  paper
                wrapping  hung  like
                an  empty  garment
                bag  hooked  in  the
                baggage  net
                overhead  it  all
                seemed  upside  down
                no  safety  from
                that  direction
                i  could  not  reach
                having  inch  by  inch
                shrunken  into
                myself  pacing
                the  moving  compartment
                upside  down
                no  safety in
                any  direction
— Gertrude Halstead


This is one of the poems we'll be reading tonight at my shul during our Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day) observance. I'll be leading an evening service in which the prayers of the daily liturgy are interspersed with poems arising out of the Shoah.

Here's an interview with poet Gertrude Halstead. (Reading the interview, I just learned that apparently she is in Pittsfield, right down the road -- apparently she's now local to us.) Thank you for your poems, Gertrude. May the memory of all who endured the Shoah be a blessing.


Edited to add: here's the handout of poems we'll be using tonight, which I share in case it's helpful to any of y'all, or in case you're looking for something you can read / pray on your own today: YomHaShoahPoems [pdf]

A glimmer of hope coming out of Hebron

I want to signal-boost something I read recently which gave me hope: a post on Jewschool called The Hebron Matza Cover Initiative.

Video about the Hebron Matza Cover Initiative; if you can't see the embedded video, you can go directly to it at YouTube.

Here's a quote from the post on Jewschool:

Project Chayei Sarah is a group of rabbinical students, rabbis, Jewish educators and lay-leaders who have spent time in Hebron and are grappling with the difficult realities we encountered there...

At seder tables all over Jerusalem, friends of Project Hayei Sarah used matzah covers hand made especially for them by Women in Hebron. Purchased as an act of solidarity and of hidur mitzvah — beautification/elevation of a commandment — the matzah covers remind us of the liberation we need to continue working towards in Hebron.

“While everyone is busy debating about to boycott or not to boycott, we wanted to raise a new question: how might we, as Jews, support Palestinian economies?” relayed project coordinator Alana Alpert.

The project takes its name from the Torah portion Hayei Sarah (sometimes spelled Chayei Sarah -- transliteration is tricky stuff!), which means "The life of Sarah" -- it's the Torah portion in which Avraham purchases the cave of Machpelah in order to bury his wife there. (Here it is in English.) In that very place, the cave of Machpelah, there later came to be a house of worship, which in recent memory has been divided in two, with one end for Jews and the other for Muslims (who also venerate Ibrahim.) That place became the site of the Cave of the Patriarchs massacre in 1994.

A few summers ago when I was living in Jerusalem for the season, I took a day trip to Bethlehem and Hebron which moved me deeply. Here's a taste of the post I wrote about it at the time:

Cue the first serious cognitive dissonance of my day. Thinking of Reb Zalman davening zhikr with Sufis there in Hebron gave me such joy. Thinking of Baruch Goldstein killing people at prayer in the same room where I was reverently walking made my stomach twist with sorrow and anger. Feeling these two things at the same time -- well, facing that tension is part of why I wanted to visit the West Bank, but wow, this never gets easy, does it?

After we left the mosque, we walked down to the shopping street below. Most of the shops are boarded up, with stars of David and Jewish graffiti scrawled on the doors and lintels...

It heartens me to see my hevre (the Hebrew word means "friends," though it implies colleagues and study-partners as well; it's the root of the name "Hebron," actually) grappling with this tough stuff, and taking a simple and direct action to help create a world in which Jews can choose to beautify our festival observance while doing the good deed of directly supporting some of the Palestinian artisans whose lives are constricted by the situation in Hebron. I think we who are rabbis (or soon-to-be rabbis), Jewish educators, and lay leaders in the Jewish community have a particular obligation to educate ourselves about the Middle East and to take a leadership role in figuring out how to educate others.

I especially like the way this project spurs us to focus on real questions of how we treat one another, how our holiday celebrations can be engaged with real world realities, and how to work toward the creation of a world in which the Palestinian community and the Jewish Israeli community can live side-by-side in justice and prosperity. As Hebrew College rabbinic student Alana Alpert notes, "to boycott or not to boycott?" is a major question in the American Jewish community these days, and so often that's a conversation which generates a great deal of heat but very little light. The Chayei Sarah project is a glimmer of light.

Now I just want to know how I can buy one of those matzah covers for next year...

(Project Chayei Sarah also has a Facebook page, where they've shared several of their YouTube videos, so if that's your cuppa, feel free to follow them there.)

Ana b'Koach / Untie our Tangles (a melody for the Omer count)

The words of "Ana B'Koach" in Hebrew and transliteration.

Back in 2010, I posted about a prayer called Ana B'Koach:

My friend Reb David Seidenberg calls Ana B'Koach  one of the 'masterpieces of mystical prayer.' (Here's the NeoHasid page on Ana B'Koach, which features some explanation, some history, and the words of the prayer in Hebrew, transliteration, and English.) I first encountered this prayer when I started hanging around in Jewish Renewal circles. It's a favorite prayer in that community because of Renewal's neo-Hasidic roots.

Nowhere in the prayer do any traditional names of God appear -- but the prayer itself is considered to be one long name of God, which is why it ends with the line "baruch shem k'vod malchuto l'olam va'ed," "Blessed is God's glorious kingdom forever and ever" (or, in Reb Zalman's translation, "Through time and space, Your glory shines, Majestic One.")

In his book All Breathing Life (which I posted about a while back) Reb Zalman writes that "[This prayer] is considered by many to be a very potent passkey that takes our prayers directly to God, even when other avenues are blocked," he writes. It's also traditional, as NeoHasid notes, to sing this prayer every day after counting the Omer.

Here's Reb Zalman's translation, which can be found in All Breathing Life. It's singable to the same melody as the Hebrew. Like Reb Zalman, I like to sing it using the melody which comes from the Rhiziner Rebbe (the great-grandson of Rabbi Dov Baer, the Maggid or 'storyteller' of Mezritch).

Source of Mercy,
With loving strength
Untie our tangles.

Your chanting folk
Raise high, make pure
Accept our song.

Like Your own eye,
Lord, keep us safe
Who union seek with You!

Cleanse and bless us
Infuse us ever
With loving care.

Gracious source
Of holy power!
Do guide Your folk.

Sublime and holy One,
Do turn to us
Of holy chant.

Receive our prayer
Do hear our cry
Who secrets knows.

Through time and space
Your glory shines,
Majestic One.

(There's a more traditional translation alongside the Hebrew text at NeoHasid's Ana B'Khoach liturgy page.) You can hear Reb Zalman singing this chant to the Rizhyner's melody here at this compilation of melodies from All Breathing Life. And if you're so inclined, you can listen to me singing it, too -- I sing the first and last verses in Hebrew, and the remainder in English.


I love the idea of praying these words during the Omer journey. Spending these seven weeks contemplating God's qualities (of lovingkindness, boundaries and strength, balance, endurance, humble splendor, foundation / rootedness, and sovereignty) inevitably means also contemplating the ways in which these qualities do or don't manifest in us. It's easy to come away feeling tangled. This prayer reminds us that God can help us unsnarl our internal emotional and spiritual knots.


(This is cross-posted to the CBI From the Rabbi blog, since this melody is going to be our Song for the Month next month. To anyone who reads both blogs, apologies for the repeat!)

Poem in Spirit Voyages

5286340I'm delighted to be able to announce that my mother poem "Psalm for the Sixth Day (Mother Psalm 5)" appears in the April 2012 issue of Spirit Voyages, "a quarterly art and literary journal with a spiritual twist."

As the journal's website suggests, "Feed your spirit, spark your imagination, explore images and words that tell the story of the soul. Each issue is built organically around a theme and features work by a variety of voices working in the domain of the creative, the mystical, the empowering."

My poem appears in 2012 issue #2, which is themed around "The Feminine Divine," and you can purchase copies for a mere $8 at the magazine's website.

The journal is edited by Lori-Lynn Hurley; this issue features work by Carmen Costello, Lindsay Drya, Christine Long, Megan Monique, Shanna Sandmoen, Jackie Stewart, and Laurie Zak-Richardson -- and yours truly, of course. I don't yet know the work of any of the other contributors, so I'm psyched to read this issue.

If you're interested, please consider buying a copy! And my thanks are due to Lori-Lynn for accepting my work.

New toddler house poem


It's only a zoo
when we throw a party:
two-year-olds squabbling
over the flowered magnifying glass,
seven-year-olds borrowing
every blanket in the house
for their palace under the stairs.
But even our own lone monkey
creates chaos by day's end
swinging from toy trains
to ball pit to iPad.
Once his door's pulled shut,
white noise machine engaged,
this zookeeper collapses
with glass of wine in hand.
Life was different once.
Now spontaneity means inventing
new sounds for wooden trains, not
deciding to drive north
until we find exactly the junk store
we never knew we were missing
or catching a Richard Thompson show
in a smoky bar three hours away.
But my heart grows three sizes
every morning before breakfast
when I spy my little simian
beaming through the bars
of his cage.


The newest installment in the "...toddler house" series is the first which wasn't sparked by a moment of specifically Jewish time (morning or evening prayer, Shabbat or havdalah, Pesach) but just by the big-picture experience of parenting our toddler. When I named the first toddler house poem, I was thinking of the toddler house as being a bit like the monkey house at the zoo: this is the house which is defined by its sometimes rowdy inhabitant. The zoo metaphor isn't a particularly original one, but it stuck with me, and I decided to run with it. Voila.

I'm not sure I like the line "Life was different once." (Talk about unoriginal.) But I haven't been able to come up with a succinct other way of saying it. Anyway, if you have thoughts on that line or on the rest of the poem, feel free to drop a comment.

The seventh day: crossing the Sea

Crossing the Sea. Image by Rina bat Tzion.

Today is the seventh day of Pesach. (For Jews in Israel, and for Reform and Reconstructionist Jews everywhere, this is the last day of Pesach; for Orthodox and Conservative Jews outside of Israel, there's an 8th day. Reb Jeff explains it all if you're curious to know more.) Tradition says that the seventh day is the anniversary of the day when our ancestors entered the Sea of Reeds and crossed through the sea to freedom.

The crossing of the Sea of Reeds is one of the most powerful parts of the Pesach story for me. Imagine reaching the edge of the waters, an army in pursuit, and realizing that there is nowhere else to go. Imagine what it was like for Nachshon ben Aminadav, who our tradition says was the first to step boldly into the ocean. Imagine the anxiety mounting as he walked in all the way up to his neck before the waters parted.

Imagine walking across the muddy ocean floor, an unfamiliar world revealed. Maybe there were walls of water on both sides, a living aquarium. Maybe the waters receded as in a tsunami, and when the children of Israel had crossed, came rushing powerfully back in. Imagine reaching the other side, arriving somewhere new and unknown, and recognizing the miracle inherent in the journey.

Is this a historical story? For me, that question misses the point. What matters is that the story contains spiritual truths. That sometimes we have to take the plunge, even when we don't feel ready. That when we take the first step, trusting in ourselves and in divine providence, amazing things can happen. That moving through the birth canal into an unknown world is terrifying, but the blessings on the other side are limitless.


For more on this, try this post I made a few years ago: Song for the seventh day - a teaching from the Slonimer Rebbe about elemental trust.

Glimpses of Pesach 2012

One end of the table, first-night seder.

Mrs. Fausto and I were invited to celebrate the Passover seder last Friday with the family of one of our daughter Faustoette's friends.  I was delighted to learn that the friend's aunt, who presided over the seder, was Reb Rachel Barenblat -- better known in the liberal religious blogosphere as The Velveteen Rabbi!

...Throughout last Friday's seder, Rachel repeatedly drew the figures and tropes of the old Exodus tale forward into the present:  Who is your Pharaoh?  How are you a Pharaoh to others? What chains bind you?  How do you, intentionally or not, forge chains that bind others?  How will you break those chains and wander toward the Promised Land in the coming year, and with whom will you make your journey?  Next year in Jerusalem! -- indeed, but where is your Jerusalem, and who will be there with you?

-- Fausto's post Happy Pascha!, at The Socinian


Frog plague puppet, foreground; me, background. Photo by Len Radin.

Local Jews recounted the story of their ancestors' liberation from slavery more than 2,000 years ago and reflected on strides they have made toward their own freedom during a community Second Night Seder on Saturday.

...During the community seder, which contains 15 steps, participants were asked to share the ways they had been liberated from bondage over the past year and how they hoped to bring themselves closer to their place of freedom in the present year.

-- Meghan Foley's article Community seder retells the history of the Exodus, in The Transcript

It was lovely to celebrate the first two nights of Pesach with two such wonderful groups of people -- first my sister and her family and some of their friends, and then members of my community and my nuclear family and in-laws and a variety of community seder visitors. Moadim l'simcha to all -- wishing all of you a joyful remainder of the festival!

Robbi Nester's "Balance"

BalanceDave Bonta at Via Negativa is reviewing a ton of poetry this month. One of the books he reviewed early in April sounded right up my alley, and I liked the excerpt he posted, so I got myself a copy. The book is Balance, by Robbi Nester. It features fifteen poems, each paired with an ink-and-brush drawing of a yoga pose. The yoga poses are part of B.K.S. Iyengar's system; the brush paintings are by Nina Canal, and they are both beautiful in themselves and useful illustrations of the poses out of which the poems arose.

The poems relate to the yoga poses, or offer new interpretations of the yoga poses, or open windows into the author's life experience through the prism of the yoga poses. They manage to both be rooted in the yoga, and to transcend it.

I suspect these poems would work for readers who don't do yoga; reading them, I'm reminded of my own experiences with yoga (which are, alas, some years ago now, and I've never committed to the practice enough to call myself any kind of yogini!) but I'm also able to relate to poems which arise out of poses I never attempted or never managed. Ultimately I relate to these poems as poems about life and spiritual experience, rather than poems about anything my body can (or can't) do.

The quote on the back of the book from R. H. W. Dillard reads, "Whether one is nimble and supple enough to actually practice the fifteen yoga positions that form the subjects of the poems in Robbi Nester's Balance, one will discover that these poems do what both yoga and the best poetry have always done: take one deeply within the confines of an experience while simultaneously expanding one's awareness of the limitlessness of that very same experience." Word.

Here's one of my favorites:


I am rowing my boat
along the quiet river.
My ribs open like a magnolia
flower, its stiff white petals
only this morning furled
in the burnished bud.
Legs strung tight as sails
I hoist myself up, out of the hip,
arranging my torso, vessel
of previous cargo, over the knees.
Currents lap at my sides
as I surge forward, pulling
the oars of my feet
till the miles fall away.

This is lovely stuff. Thanks Dave, for the rec, and thanks Robbi for the collection. (It's available on Amazon for a mere $12.)

VR Podcast Episode 2: Bedtime Practices

I did warn y'all that the podcast was going to be "occasional," right? Though I'm not sure I realized, when I said that, that four months would go by between episodes...




VR Podcast Episode 2: Bedtime Practices.

The "angel song;" the ritual of the bedtime shema; a Bedtime Prayer of Forgiveness; making teshuvah each night; gratitude and release; why adults need this at least as much as children do; a blessing for the end of your day. Duration: 19:03.

To listen online:



If you're so inclined, you can subscribe via iTunes.

Give it a listen, and let me know what you think? All comments / feedback welcome!

Leonard Felder's "Here I Am"

Every so often, it's a good idea to sit down and ask yourself, "How am I going to improve the way I deal with the pressures, complexities, and stressful moments that are now an undeniable part of my life?"

Such a question doesn't mean that you've been doing something terribly wrong or that you need to turn your entire life upside down to improve things. Rather, it's about being honest with yourself and looking for realistic ways to be healthier, more centered, and more effective in your work and personal life.

That's the beginning of Dr. Leonard Felder's book Here I Am: How to Use Jewish Spiritual Wisdom to Become More Present, Centered, and Available for Life. In today's world, who isn't dealing with pressures, complexities, stressful moments, the occasional bout of overwhelm? (Take me, for instance: I received this book to review back at the start of August, a mere month after I'd begun my new job. Here it is April and I'm only now getting around to reviewing it. Oy.)

HereiamDr. Felder offers eight methods/remedies for stress and overwhelm, drawn from Jewish sources. He writes, "What I find most helpful about these methods for stress reduction and refocusing is that they address not only the physical aspects of stress but also the deeply spiritual and personal questions that tend to arise when you feel constantly interrupted by too many challenging situations on a hectic day." Not surprisingly, I like his point that

What are the eight remedies? In a nutshell:

For times when you're feeling fragmented or pulled in two directions at the same time, there's the "Hineini / Here I Am" method. When you're impatient with yourself or others for something which is not perfect, he recommends the "Radical Amazement" method. When you're too busy to listen to what your body requires, try a daily moment / prayer of gratitude for your body. When it's hard to delegate, the "tzimtzum / pulling back" method (named for the kabbalistic concept of tzimtzum, God's withdrawal or pulling-back in order to make sapce for creation.) When there are draining people or situations in your life, try the method he borrows from "Pirkei Avot / Sayings of the Ancestors" to increase compassion and wisdom even in the face of harsh and irritating situations. If you're dealing with loss or trauma, try "Gam zu l'tovah / even this can be for good." When you lose sight of your inner strength or your purpose, there's a meditation on the "pure soul" to help with that. And when you feel stuck in a rut, he offers the shehecheyanu practice (named after the Jewish blessing for sanctifying time) to lift you up.

Felder explores these teachings from a practical point of view (via stories from his practice of psychotherapy), a neurological point of view (examining what neuroscience has to teach us about these ideas), and a spiritual point of view. Not surprisingly, I gravitate toward the spiritual material, but it's all well-interwoven. And I like his point that regardless of which of these aspects of the teachings draw you in, they work equally well in every paradigm:

Regardless of whether you say, "Hineini. Here I am," as a way of answering God's still small voice or simply as a way to activate a greater portion of your brain's capacity, each day of your life will present you with crucial opportunities for choosing either to show up more fully or to run away and hide.

Many of the chapters end with direct suggestions or questions for the reader. For instance:

When you feel frustrated that your busy day is overloaded or stressful and you're not able to be fully present or focused, take a deep breath in and out as you clarify where you are. Then a few moments later, take another dep breath in and out as you switch on the strongest and wisest parts of your essence by saying silently, "Hineini. Here I am!"


One of the things I like about the phrase "Gam zu l'tovah. Even this could possibly be for the good" is that it has a humble openness and a gentle curiosity about it. The Hebrew words have a rather Zen-like equanimity about them, as you essentially say to yourself, "I am going to breathe calmly and keep my heart open to all the various possibilities, even though I am witnessing a lot of pain and distress right now."

(Felder also takes care to explore how "this could turn out for the best" can be a hurtful and insensitive thing to hear -- after, for instance, the loss of a pregnancy. But, he notes, times of crisis and suffering are often times when we learn who we can really count on, sometimes in ways we never imagined before.)


If I truly believe that God or life has given me this extremely precious and fragile gift of a complicated body that has hundreds of openings, valves, and organs that can easily be ruptured or made ill, what am I willing to do -- starting today -- to be a better guardian or caretaker of this gift?

I find that, in reading this book, I gravitate toward the spiritual lessons with which I'm currently working the most: remembering to be present in the moment, increasing compassion and wisdom in the face of interpersonal challenges, pulling back when I need to. You may find that different parts of the book speak most to you.

I'm not sure anything in this book surprised me. But that may have more to do with my own immersion in these practices and these ideas over the last several years than it does with the book per se. The book's website features a free excerpt; take a look, see if this is something which might be helpful to you.