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How to build a sukkah

On the morning after Yom Kippur, call the local deli/nursery/farmer's market. Ask if they have ornamental corn stalks for sale. Make a gleeful sound when the answer is yes. Drive over and buy four bunches.

Explain to the girl in the green t-shirt that there's a Jewish harvest festival where we spend a week sitting -- or living, or eating, or meditating -- outdoors, in flimsy houses with roofs made of organic material. Wonder what she's thinking.

Try to stuff the corn stalks into your car. Try a different way. Squint at the hatchback.

Remove them and sheepishly ask if you can buy some twine. Stand around feeling useless while the young man in the green t-shirt whips out his Leatherman, flicks it open, and binds the cornstalks to the roof of the car.

Go to Target. Consider, but discard, the glitter-covered pumpkin ornaments. Choose three metallic autumn-colored pumpkins instead.

Notice that the Christmas lights are on sale, already. Find yourself, for once, delighted that the retail Christmas season apparently begins in September. Buy two bins of little white lights, and one of purple-and-orange lights on impulse.

Pick up two autumn-leaf-themed plastic placemats. Print Sukkot blessings and affix them to the placemats with clear packing tape. Punch holes in the edges and attach some string. Admire your handiwork and wish it were Sukkot already.

Wait for your husband to come home and assemble the big wooden sukkah frame he built last year.

Spend four days trying to resist obsessively checking the weather forecast to see whether you'll be able to spend any of the week in the sukkah.

Wake in the night to the sound of pouring rain. Burrow deeper into your comforter.

When Sunday afternoon rolls around, listen to the whine of the drill driving screws into waterlogged wood.

Once the frame is standing, shrug into a raincoat and head outside. Wrap the walls in old canvas. Drag wet cornstalks across the lawn and heave them one by one onto the roof, the least aerodynamic javelins ever.

Twine garlands and strings of lights. Take off your eyeglasses because they're fogged-up and water-spattered.

When the last ornament is hung, wipe your brow and notice that the rain has stopped falling. There's even a patch of blue visible through the holes in the roof.

A poem after the High Holidays


I empty the mother jar
    measure flour and water
        drape a dishtowel tallit

unearth one wilted celery
    and a faded fennel bulb,
        today's wholeness offering

soon diced onion hisses
    sibilant in the skillet
        glistening in chicken fat           

this is how I return
    after days of aching ankles
        heart cracked open from overuse

how can I cook
    when I'm faded as grass
        and empty as a shofar?

I turn old roots
    and sorrow's salt into
        soup fragrant as havdalah
the freezer yields
    what it's been withholding
        I invent the new year as I go
the humblest ingredients
    turn silky and transcendent
        after this long slow simmer

I began writing this poem right after Rosh Hashanah, and posted an earlier draft here -- After Rosh Hashanah. Here's the current version -- a slightly different shape, a new ending, a few revisions here and there. I think this version is better, though I'm curious to hear what y'all think. Maybe I needed to make it through both of the High Holidays before I could discern what this poem really wanted to be.

As always, I welcome feedback of all sorts.

Days of Awe 5773: a baker's dozen of moments to remember

4-DaysofAweSitting down with my family -- parents, in-laws, husband, sister, nephew, son -- for an early Erev Rosh Hashanah dinner. Fabulous food, good conversation, pumpkin panna cotta with hazelnut brittle, and most of all, the joy of seeing my far-flung family gathered around our dining room table again.

My friend and colleague David Curiel, our cantorial soloist for this year, teaching my community a three-part Ilu Finu melody (find it online here or here) on the first morning of Rosh Hashanah, and hearing my community enthusiastically singing along. The way the harmony rippled like sunlight on water.

Walking to the river for Tashlich, holding a young man's hand and talking about his lego creations all the way there. Tossing matzah into the river and thinking with each bit I threw about something I wanted to let go of, a place where I'd missed the mark in the year which just ended.

The impromptu pedicure my mom treated me to, after second-day Rosh Hashanah services were concluded. An unexpected gift. And oh, getting gently pummeled by the massaging spa chair felt so good!

Picking apples with my husband and son on the Sunday between the holidays. Drew knew apples, and he knew trees, but he never knew apples grew on trees! His glee at being able to pick apples himself. The sweetness of honeycrisps fresh off the tree. His proclamation that apples are his favorite fruit.

Leading a dear friend and her family through the process of taharah, in the family home, on the day which would become Yom Kippur. The love present in that room. The mikveh of tears. How putting on my white linen garb before Kol Nidre reminded me viscerally of the white linen shroud I had unfolded only a few hours before.

Singing "Oh Jonah, he lived in a whale! Oh Jonah, he lived in a whale! He made his home in that fish's abdomen, oh, Jonah, he lived in a whale" in my very best sultry Gershwin style before my Yom Kippur morning sermon on Jonah. The ripple of laughter, and how it transmuted into rapt attention.

Going beneath my tallit during the silent prayers of Yizkor to engage in what my teacher Reb Zalman calls a "holy Skype call" with the spirits of my beloved dead. I talked to my grandparents, who I loved and who I miss. To our dear friend Dick, who I loved and who I miss. I told them what I needed to tell them. I imagined them right there in front of me, beaming at me.

Settling into afternoon yoga with Bernice Lewis, who leads such a loving and gentle yoga class. Rediscovering what I had forgotten since last year: that perhaps the sweetest gift of that yoga time is relaxing into letting someone else take care of me on Yom Kippur afternoon. Child's pose, and how it reminded me of the prostration of the Great Aleinu.

The amazing Avodah meditation led by David. The low hum of the sruti box. The way he brought the story of the rituals performed by the high priest once upon a time into right-here, right-now. His sweet chant of Ana B'Koach in place of every time the Great Name -- whose ancient pronunciation is, these days, lost to us -- arose. His teaching that every place can be the holy of holies, every person can be the high priest, every moment can be the holiest moment.

Bob blowing that one final tekiah gedolah. The long arc of the sound, the way it seems to tunnel right inside me, reaching that most profound place. The intermingled sadness and relief when it was over: the shofar blast, the holiday, the Days of Awe, all come to their inevitable end.

Breaking my fast with that nip of ice-cold vodka, as my grandfather Eppie -- may his memory be a blessing -- always used to do. The cold fire of it going down, the flush it brought to our faces, the laughter. The knowledge that people in my community who weren't blessed to know Eppie were thinking of him in that moment, if only because I was thinking of him, and that in this way, he is still here, still with me.

The gift I received from one of my dear congregants, one of the older fellows in our community, when he came up to David and me at the break-the-fast and told us that our services on this day allowed him to really understand the prayers, and made him happy to be Jewish. What more could I hope for? I feel so blessed.

Two poems in em:me

Page_1_thumb_mediumIt's a delight to see two of my mother poems in the current issue of em:me, "an online journal of poetry, visual art, and cross-genre creations" published seasonally and edited by Emmalea Russo.

The magazine is beautifully put-together, easily readable online, and full of interesting and poignant work. I especially like Kristi Nimmo's poem and Graham Hunter Gregg's poem, the film stills by Daniel Paashaus, and Emma Horning's photographs. It's neat to read my own poems in the context of this journal.

Read the issue here: em:me issue 3, fall 2012. Thanks for including them, Emmalea! I'm already looking forward to reading issue 4 when the winter solstice rolls around.

A Sukkot prayer for the Bedouin at Rabbis for Human Rights

Hope all of y'all had a wonderful Yom Kippur!

Earlier this summer the folks at Rabbis for Human Rights North America asked if I would write a Sukkot prayer which touches on the situation of the Israeli Bedouin. I was honored to be asked, and took on the task with some trepidation; I hope the result is meaningful.

Here's how my prayer begins:


Ribbono Shel Olam, Master of the Universe --
Shekhinah, Whose wings shelter creation --

Once our people wandered the desert sands.
Now we merely vacation in rootlessness

While our Bedouin neighbors perch
Without permission, their goats forbidden to graze.

Time after time the bulldozers tear down homes
And playgrounds, uprooting spindly olive trees

To make room for someone else's future forest,
As though saplings mattered more than children...


You can find the whole prayer on the RHR-NA website, in the Sukkot section -- A Sukkot Prayer for the Bedouin -- or in the Prayers section (Prayers | A Sukkot Prayer for the Bedouin) where the prayer appears alongside an image of, as it happens, me in prayer during the last Rabbis for Human Rights conference I was blessed to attend.

Sukkot begins on Sunday at sundown. May this prayer help us to remain mindful of the Bedouin and their situation even as we celebrate Sukkot, the season of our rejoicing. Stay tuned -- I'll share more Bedouin resources from RHR once they're online.


A sermon for Yom Kippur Morning: In The Belly of the Whale

This is the sermon I offered this morning at my synagogue.


Once there was a man named Jonah, "Dove," son of Amittai, "Truth."

And God spoke to him and said, Go to the great city of Nineveh and tell them to make teshuvah, otherwise I will destroy them for their wickedness. And in response, Jonah fled.

This is a familiar story. We'll read it again this afternoon during mincha, and we'll look at some fascinating modern commentaries during our Torah study afterwards. But I want to lift up a few details now, because some of you may not return for mincha, and there's something powerful about encountering this particular story on this particular day of the year.

Jonah flees from God, onto a ship bound for Tarshish. He heads in precisely the direction God didn't tell him to go. An actual Wrong-Way Corrigan. Does he really think he can escape from the Holy Blessed One, the King of Kings, Who can see him anywhere he goes?

My teacher Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi tells a Sufi story about a great teacher whose disciples wanted to learn his mystical wisdom. Okay, said the teacher; here is a dove; go someplace where no one can see you, and kill it, and when you come back, I will teach you what you want to know.

Of his 12 students, eleven came back with dead birds, and he sent them away. One returned with the living dove. "I couldn't find a place," said the student, "where no One could see me." It was to that student, who understood God's omnipresence, that the teacher chose to transmit his blessing and his wisdom.

But our Jonah, our dove, forgets that. He flies from his calling, flees from God.

Once his ship is at sea, a mighty storm arises. The sailors are in a panic. And Jonah is sound asleep belowdecks. This is comedy. Imagine the ship rocking wildly from side to side, sloshing with seawater and in danger of foundering: and our hero, or perhaps our anti-hero, is sound asleep!

It's also a deep spiritual teaching. How often, in our lives, do we hide from what we know we're meant to be doing? How often are we spiritually asleep?

Continue reading "A sermon for Yom Kippur Morning: In The Belly of the Whale " »

Kol Nidre Sermon: What Are We Here For?

Once there was a great rabbi named Yekhiel. Reb Yekhiel could discern the deepest truths in a person's soul just by looking at them. He would gaze at your forehead for a moment, and then tell you the history of your soul in all of its incarnations.

Some people sought him out, wanting to know who they had been before. Others avoided him. Some would pull their hats down over their faces to try to hide from him. Which was ridiculous, because surely a man who can gaze into the history of your soul just by looking at you can also gaze through a bit of leather or cloth!

It was said that Reb Yekhiel turned every day into Yom Kippur. In a good way! Because he was able to see into the depths of people's souls, and help them understand where they had gone wrong, and how to correct their mistakes in this life.

One year, on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, Reb Yekhiel saw an apparition. He recognized the man immediately: it was the cantor who used to chant so beautifully in Reb Yekhiel's hometown. "What are you doing here?" asked Reb Yekhiel.

"Surely the holy rabbi already knows," replied the soul of the hazzan. "On Rosh Hashanah, God opens the Book of Life. With every deed, we inscribe ourselves in that book. God looks at our sins and our good deeds, and weighs them both in the balance. Who shall live and who shall die? Who shall be born -- and to which family? During this night, souls are also judged to be reincarnated once again. I am just such a soul, about to be reborn."

"So tell me," the rabbi asked, "why are you being sent down into the physical world again?"

Continue reading "Kol Nidre Sermon: What Are We Here For?" »

The most amazing lead-up to Yom Kippur

On Monday morning the phone rang. The caller ID showed an unfamiliar number, but something told me I should pick it up. It was a dear friend, calling from a borrowed number. Her parent had just died. After I offered what comfort I could, she asked for my help. As the day unfolded, it became clear to both of us how I could be of service.

This morning -- the day which would become Yom Kippur -- I dropped my son off at preschool and then drove over the mountains. I met my friend there, and embraced her, and embraced the family. In their living room, overlooking beautiful woods and hills, I explained the traditional process of taharah, the bathing and blessing and dressing of the body of someone who has died. (See Facing Impermanence, 2005.) I explained the process as I have learned it, and I explained how we would make it work today here in this private home.

Ordinarily it is the chevra kadisha, the volunteer burial society, who lovingly prepare the body of someone who has died. In my experience, this is done at a local funeral home. In my town we don't have a Jewish funeral home, but we have a very friendly non-Jewish funeral home where the proprietors know our customs and welcome us into their space for this holy work. I suspect the same is true in the Pioneer Valley where I spent this morning. And the local chevra kadisha had offered to provide this service at the funeral home they work with...but the family wanted to do it themselves, at home.

Most sources indicate that family members do not participate in taharah because it would be too difficult, too painful. But this family yearned to do taharah themselves, there in the serene home where their loved one had died and had been kept company ever since. In our chevra kadisha, we have permitted family participation from time to time. When someone feels the deep need to care for their loved one in this way, we do not say no. Particularly in a case where a spouse or child has been caring physically for a loved one during illness, sometimes they need to tenderly offer this one last touch in order to say goodbye.

My friend's family didn't want to involve a funeral home or to enter the impersonal space of whatever room the local chevra kadisha uses for this process, and they didn't want to entrust their loved one to strangers, even the nicest of strangers. So together we centered ourselves, and went up the curving wooden stairs to the bedroom.

We said prayers to prepare ourselves. We spoke to the meit, the body of the person who had died, asking the neshamah -- the soul -- to forgive us if we happened to do anything improper or to offend in any way. Moving slowly and gently we washed the meit clean with washcloths, which we dipped into a beautiful ceramic bowl of warm water. My friend wept, from time to time. We offered one another words of comfort as needed.

We poured a stream of water, our symbolic mikveh, as I spoke the words which remind us that the soul is pure. And then we gently dried and dresssed the body in tachrichim, the white linen shroud in which every Jew is buried. Rich or poor, male or female, we are all alike in the end. Slowly the transformation took place: from the shell of a human body which had contained life to a white-bundled figure, arms and legs and head and torso all covered in white.

The last step was swaddling in a white linen sheet -- like the way parents swaddle newborns, I said, and my friend laughed through her tears, remembering my newborn son and how he would only sleep if swaddled (and sometimes not even then!) With the help of a few local friends, the meit was placed in the beautiful simple pine coffin -- handmade, sanded smooth as silk. A bit of earth from the home garden was sprinkled inside, a connection to the soil in which this beloved soul had thrived.

I left that home feeling lighter than I had when I'd entered. Feeling centered and connected. Feeling connected to my friend and her family -- to my own family -- to all the generations of my ancestry, and to my son and the generations I hope will follow -- most of all to God.

Yom Kippur can be understood as a day of rehearsal for one's own death. We wear white, like the shrouds in which we will be buried. We eschew food and drink, as we will do when our physical lives have ended. We recite a vidui prayer very like the one recited on the deathbed.

On Yom Kippur we try as hard as we can to make teshuvah, to correct our course and shift our alignment so that our actions, our emotions, our thoughts, and our spirits are aligned with holiness. We try to repair our relationships with ourselves, with each other, with God. We try to relinquish the emotional and spiritual calluses which protect us in ordinary life, and to go deep into awareness of our mortality and deep into connection with something beyond ourselves.

I can't think of any better way to prepare myself for the awesome task of leading my community in prayer throughout Yom Kippur than what I was blessed to do this morning. When I don my all-white linen garb tonight, I will remember the feeling of these tachrichim beneath my fingers this morning. When I invite my community to join me in experiencing this holiday as a reminder of our mortality, I will think of this family and their encounter with death.

And when I lead us in davenen tonight and tomorrow, I will do so in the hope that our prayers will rise to the Holy Blessed One as do the prayers of these mourners, and that God will grant compassion and healing to them and to us. Kein yehi ratzon -- may it be so.

One last post before Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur is fast approaching.

Tonight my community will gather around 5:40 to hear a pianist and violinist playing Kol Nidre and other appropriate melodies; on the dot of 6, we'll move into our recitations of Kol Nidre and into our communal observance of this tremendous, awesome, holy day.

Here are links to two posts I've made in previous years, each of which is a compilation of Yom Kippur materials: prayers, divrei Torah, YouTube videos, sermons, practices, translations, sheet music, poems, readings, liturgy, song, teachings, all kinds of good stuff:

I hope that all who need inspiration will find something meaningful among those pages.

If I have hurt or offended you in any way in the last year, please forgive me.

G'mar chatimah tovah -- may we all be sealed for good in the year to come.

A havdalah ritual for the September equinox


Equinox and solstice photo courtesy of NASA.

The September equinox was yesterday.

Back at the end of June, I was blessed to celebrate Rosh Chodesh (new moon) with the women of my congregation, and this past June, the start of Tammuz fell right around the time of the June solstice -- what is, in our hemisphere, the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. We celebrated with a havdalah ritual for the turn of the seasons, and it was wondrous.

Ever since then, I've been meaning to create a similar ritual for the fall equinox. And I did create one! I just didn't manage to post it in advance. (Please forgive me. Life's been a bit hectic around here lately.) Enclosed with this post is a havdalah ritual which marks and sanctifies the division between summer and fall.

What's the use of posting such a ritual after the equinox has passed? Well -- some sources indicate that while 9/22 is the equinox, the day when we will actually experience equal hours of daylight and darkness is Tuesday. So I think there is meaning in observing this special havdalah anytime between now and Tuesday, anytime between now and Yom Kippur.

Deep thanks to Rabbi Jill Hammer, whose Tishrei wisdom at Tel Shemesh provided much of the inspiration for this havdalah!


Download FallEquinoxHavdalah [pdf]

First day of fall

Leaves under water. Margaret Lindley Pond, Williamstown.

First day of fall. The hillsides' green has shifted, yellow beginning to reveal itself as chlorophyll starts to hide away. I think of John Jerome's Stone Work, of how he wrote about yellow leaves falling, about the old year becoming mulch.

After the rush and flurry of September -- the start of the Hebrew school year, the first Family Shabbat service, Drew starting preschool, the spiritual work of leading two days' worth of Rosh Hashanah services -- it feels strange and wondrous to have a weekend off. Ethan takes Drew to Caretaker Farm; I stay home with a cup of coffee, eat challah with honey, knead bread dough, get the dishwasher running.

It's time to begin moving the summer clothes back into the attic and bringing the fall wardrobe back out again. In the span of a week we've moved from weather which makes me want sandals and flowing linen to weather which makes me want bluejeans and layers, socks and closed-toed shoes.

I love summer. I was born and reared in south Texas; I bask in the heat. And every year I brace myself against the darkening of the days. In high summer I think: how will I ever survive when the sun goes down at 4:30 in the afternoon? It seems inconceivable that we will spend so much of the year in the cold and the dark.

But then the Days of Awe roll around, and the leaves start to turn, and I realize I have missed autumn. I'd forgotten how beautiful it is to watch the mountains' slow color-shifting dance. I'd forgotten the appeal of cozy sweaters, of patterned tights, of Sundays watching football, of pumpkins brightening our doorsteps.

It's not cold enough yet for the real winter wear -- the fleece-lined jeans, the heavy wool sweaters. They still seem as implausible as armor, so they stay in their boxes...for now. But the summer clothes go into the attic, armload by armload, and the autumn clothes emerge. By the end of the morning I am sniffling like mad, my allergies reawakened by the inevitable encounter with our household's particular brand of dust.

But my closet is transformed. Gone are the flowy bright skirts and tanktops, replaced with velvet and corduroy and denim. I remember again how much I gravitate toward brown and purple at this time of year -- a mirroring of the colors our hillsides will take on once the leaves have offered their final farewell.

We move through so many gates, so many doorways, at this time of year. From summer into fall; from the old year into the new; from anticipation into celebration; from the light half of the year to the dark half of the year. What will be nurtured and nourished in us during the season now beginning? What gifts will the velvety darkness of fall and winter offer this year? What qualities will I clothe myself in as the new season unfolds?

For an explanation of the equinox, including a truly gorgeous photograph of the earth seen from space at both equinoxes and both solstices, try Autumnal equinox: Equal Hours of Daylight and Darkness? Or Not?

You might also enjoy the poem I posted a few years ago on the autumn equinox, titled, appropriately, Equinox.

Notes from Shabbat Shuvah at Elat Chayyim, fall 2003 / 5764

From my journal, October 2003 / Tishrei 5764:

Elat Chayyim is every bit as fantastic as I remembered. When I arrived on Friday, I had this feeling of, "It's real! It's really here! I didn't make it up!" I walked around like I was in a dream.

The first thing we did on Friday night was daven the evening prayers, and I was transported. I really, really like the way they think about prayer here. I like the melodies, I like how easy they are to learn, I like that the focus is on saying fewer words with kavanah (intent) rather than saying lots of words. I like their approach to God-language. I like how prayer services become a vehicle for learning new things.

Saturday's classes were with Rabbi Miles Krassen. We studied a text by R' Schneur Zalman of Liadi, about teshuvah (turning/returning oneself toward God) and preparing for the Days of Awe. We covered a few interesting topics, among them ultimate reality, higher and lower levels of soul, the purpose of Yom Kippur, humans and angels, the views from different states of consciousness, the purpose of creation, transcendent God and immanent God, the true longing of the soul, Jacob-soul and Yisrael-soul, what it means that many religions have similar mystical teachings, the nature of mystical union, and how to prepare for Yom Kippur.

Saturday night we had a short havdalah service (the service separating Shabbat from the rest of the week). I always love havdalah: the singing, the wine, the spices, the flame. Word had come that there had been another bombing in Israel, so we sang a song to awaken compassion in ourselves. We sang it in Hebrew and English; the words in English are, "On behalf of my brothers and friends/ on behalf of my sisters and friends/ let me ask, let me sing, peace to you./ This is the house, the house of God/ I wish the best for you..." I found myself wondering: what does it mean to "wish the best" even for those who hurt us? Is that even possible? I found myself weeping.

After havdalah came more class; by the time we went to bed, my brain was completely full. So much to carry with me into Yom Kippur!


I know now that the melody we sang at that havdalah, the song meant to awaken compassion in ourselves, is L'maan achai v're-ai by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach:

R' Shlomo Carlebach sings "For The Sake Of My Brothers And Friends."

If you can't see the embedded video, you can go directly to it at YouTube.

This Shabbat Shuvah retreat, back in 2003, was my second time at Elat Chayyim. There was something amazing about discovering that this community of passionate and committed spiritual seekers was still real, that I hadn't dreamed it up the first time I went.

The awful news we mourned that night at havdalah was the Maxim restaurant bombing. I hope and pray for comfort for the families of the victims as Shabbat Shuvah approaches once again. I hope and pray for comfort for all who are impacted by cycles of hatred and violence, there and everywhere.

I wish I knew which texts from R' Schneur Zalman we studied with R' Miles Krassen that weekend. I'd love to return to them now. My jotted scribblings suggest that we talked about what the text called "lower" teshuvah (repenting for our misdeeds) and "higher" teshuvah (a kind of reaching-for-God in response to the knowledge that we are alienated from our Source.)

Shabbat Shuvah means "Shabbat of Return," and the name is meant to evoke teshuvah, repentance / returning-to-God. That first Shabbat Shuvah retreat I attended was when I first learned to sing "return again, return again, return to the land of your soul" -- which felt, at the time, like a chant about returning to Elat Chayyim and to conscious community, but which also carries a much deeper truth.

Shabbat, Shabbat Shuvah, Yom Kippur -- all of these are opportunities to connect with God, to make teshuvah, to re/turn to the place where we live out our highest aspirations and our hearts feel most unfettered and free.

Shabbat shalom, y'all.

A post-Rosh Hashanah poem


I empty the mother jar
measure flour and water
cover the bowl
with a dishtowel tallit

browse the fridge
for one wilted celery
and a faded fennel bulb,
today's wholeness offering

soon uneven dice hiss
their comforting song
as the freezer yields
what it's been withholding

this is how I return
after days of aching ankles
and a heart cracked open
from overuse

stir the unctuous richness
of the holiday now over
match it with pepper
make up the recipe as I go

there's no time
for sourdough's spaciousness;
and how can I cook
when I'm empty as a shofar?

but I feed my own hunger
by turning sad odds and ends
into something fragrant
and sustaining



This is an early draft of a new poem. I suspect that in a week or two or six I'll see ways of improving it. But for now, I wanted to share it.

All feedback welcome, as always.

Claudia Serea's Angels & Beasts

Angels & Beasts, the newest release from Phoenicia Publishing, is a strange and wondrous collection. Here's how the publisher describes the collection:


1346421538In this largely autobiographical collection of 74 short prose poems, the poet presents her life in three sections. "Angels & Beasts" recalls her early years under the regime of Nicolae Ceasescu, a world of secret terror in which the child interweaves reality and malevolent creatures from Romanian folklore. "The Little Book of Answers" covers the years between the Romanian Revolution (1989) and Serea's emigration to America in 1995. Finally, "The Bank Teller's Name is Jesus" involves the immigrant's impressions of her new home, always colored by the past she carries with her. Serea's masterful use of brevity, surrealism, irony, and black humor allow her to express -- and the reader to confront -- unspeakable horrors. She is a survivor, but a survivor with wide-open eyes, determined to move forward holding the darkness and light together."


That's the book jacket text. But as descriptive as it is, it doesn't do these prose poems justice. Here's one of my early favorites -- one of the lighter ones, I think:

Some angels walk among us looking just like regular people. Sometimes they even play football, like this guy with a sweaty t-shirt. He takes a long drink of water and looks at me knowingly. When he pulls his shirt overhead, I can see the scars where the wings fasten. I'll bet he has them neatly folded in the duffle bag he carries after the game.

I love the image of the sweaty footballer whose scars suggest the temporary amputation of great beating wings.

Continue reading "Claudia Serea's Angels & Beasts" »

A teaching from the Sfat Emet for Rosh Hashanah

This is my second-evening-of-Rosh-Hashanah offering, in lieu of a second-night sermon.

A teaching from the Hasidic rabbi known as the Sfat Emet. (Translation mine.)


"Inscribe us for life." [From the High Holiday Amidah: "Remember us for life, O King Who desires life, and inscribe us in the book of life, for Your sake, God of life."]

There is a holy spark in each person's heart. This is the soul, the breath of life. Our Torah blessing says that God "planted eternal life within us." This holy spark within us is what the blessing is referring to.

Over the course of each year, as we grow accustomed to sinning, the material self overpowers that holy point of holiness. Each of us needs to ask for compassion from the Holy Blessed One, so that God will renew the imprint within us at Rosh Hashanah. This is what we're asking when we ask "inscribe us for life."

The two tablets (Exodus) were also inscribed (engraved). Our sages creatively mis-read "engraved" as "set free" -- free from the angel of death and the evil impulse. Upon receiving the Torah, the children of Israel were ready for their engraving -- the words on the tablets and the imprint in their hearts -- never to be erased. But our misdeeds each year mess that up for us. Now each year we need to have that "for life" inscribed within us again.

When we speak of being "sealed" for a good year -- in the Ne'ilah prayers of Yom Kippur -- that's a reference to this holy spark within us, which needs to be "sealed" safely away, like a fountain in the garden of Eden.


Let me unpack and re-state that, because it's beautiful, and it's worth really grasping.

There is a holy spark inside each of us -- something living and eternal, planted there by God.

Each year, our poor choices, our misdeeds, our sins obscure that holy spark.

On this day, we ask God to inscribe us for life -- to uncover and re-awaken the holy spark, the divine imprint, inside us.

Accepting Torah, as our ancestors did at Sinai, frees us from our worst impulses. But when we sin, we lose sight of that.

Today we ask God to inscribe us for life. Not just to inscribe our names in some mythical book, but to inscribe us: to write "to life!" on our hearts.

Our job, says Rabbi Art Green, is to keep the inner tablets of our hearts "free enough from the accumulated grime caused by sin, guilt, the insanely fast pace at which we live, and all the rest," that we maintain the spaciousness to nurture our inner spark.

May we arouse and sustain the inner spark which calls us to holiness, to righteousness, to compassion.

May our prayer on this Rosh Hashanah sluice the grit and grime out of the imprint inscribed on our hearts.

Being Change (A Sermon for Rosh Hashanah)

"Think of Rosh Hashanah as the stem cells of the year." So says my teacher Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, known to his friends and students as Reb Zalman. Stem cells can become anything as they mature and grow; they contain infinite potential. This day on the Jewish calendar is the same way.

The old year has become fixed in time. We know what happened; our memories, both bitter and sweet, are already formed. But we don't know what the new year will contain. The shape of 5773 depends on what we decide to grow out of the stem cells of this day.

The Jewish mystics we know as kabbalists teach that today the door of wisdom and insight opens for us. Tomorrow, on the second day of this holiday, the door of discernment and understanding swings open, too. These are the origin points of our year, our springboard into whatever's coming next.

And who decides what's coming next?

We do.

Continue reading "Being Change (A Sermon for Rosh Hashanah)" »

Good and sweet

There may be working rabbis who have time to cook when the Days of Awe roll around. I can't really imagine what that would be like. The days leading up to the chagim are always full. There's a near-limitless list of pre-holiday tasks, from making sure all of the honors were assigned, to rolling the Torah scrolls to the right places (ow, my wrists), to generating holiday songsheets and handouts, to making sure my own Torah readings are ready to go, to checking and double-checking that all of the pages of my sermons are printed and are filed in the right places in my machzor...

And I know it could be worse. I'm one of those people who's psychologically incapable of leaving a major writing assignment to the last minute. I know people who operate best in the eleventh hour -- who procastinate until right before a paper is due and then whip out pages upon pages of brilliance. Not I. The process would make me miserable, and the resulting text would reflect the tension and anxiety of its over-fast creation. Instead I wrote my High Holiday sermons slowly, over the summer. So at least I haven't been agonizing over those this week; they are as perfect as they are going to get, and that is all I can do.

It also turns out that life doesn't entirely come to a halt in order to facilitate high holiday planning. (You're stunned, I know.) While doing all of the above, all of us in this line of work are also preparing for Shabbat services, and teaching Hebrew school, and offering pastoral care, and rising to the occasion of whatever illnesses or funerals present themselves in the final days of the year. I don't have statistics on this, per se, but a casual census of my friends tells me that a surprising number of people seem to die during the last days of each year. And we need to care for, and be with, our families; they need us, too.

The point is, I don't cook grand festive meals anymore. This year Ethan is making our erev Rosh Hashanah dinner, which we'll eat early this evening with family before I go to shul for soundcheck. Before Yom Kippur I'll dine at the home of a congregant who has graciously offered a meal at 4:30. (Oy. But that's what one has to do, in order to get to shul before the violinist and cellist begin to play at 5:30, before Kol Nidre at 6.) I'm buying two round challot for Rosh Hashanah -- one with raisins, one without, just like my mother used to have -- from the A-Frame Bakery where Drew and I go every Friday for Shabbat challah. But the one thing I feel the need to make myself, with my own hands, is honeycake.

Although I only make it once a year, the recipe is so familiar I barely need to look at the page. This is the only recipe I cook from the Sisterhood cookbook of the synagogue to which we belonged when I was a kid. (Otherwise it's not really my style -- it's more a nostalgia item than a useful cookbook to me, per se.) The book opens naturally to this page, which is stained with coffee and smeary with honey. I no longer need the note I scribbled years ago in the margin, that two loaf pans work as well as a 9 x 9 square. The only thing I adapt is the kind of nut I use; I prefer pecans, because they were the native nut where I grew up, but if we don't have them on hand, I improvise.

The batter goes into the pans. It is smooth and slightly bubbly, thicker than syrup but thinner than dough, a brilliant honey-coffee color. This is a tautology, but it is a color I think of as "the color of honeycake batter." I can't resist licking the spoon as I scrape out the last bits of batter from the bowl after the two pans are full. It's the taste of proto-honeycake; the taste of the season turning; the taste of the new year that's almost, almost, almost upon us. The taste of this liminal moment, one year almost over, a new year almost ready to begin.

Have you ever wondered why the traditional greeting is the wish for a "good and sweet" new year? (Why both?) The traditional interpretation goes like this. Every year is a good year in the eyes of God. God can see the truest and deepest reality of all things. From God's high level of consciousness, it's quite literally all good -- even death, even suffering. But from where we sit, in our limited human consciousness, there's a binary distinction between good and bad, sweet and bitter. When we wish each other a "good and sweet" year, we are saying: I know the coming year will be good in God's eyes, even if some of it doesn't seem good to our way of thinking -- so may the coming year also be sweet in ways which we can discern.

Here's to a good and sweet 5773.

10 questions

This will be the fourth year that I participate in 10Q, a chance to reflect as the new year begins. 10Q takes place during the Ten Days of Teshuvah between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Every day during that period the organizers email out a question, and participants are invited to post our answers to "the vault," where they are stored until the following year. Here's how they describe it:

Logo10 Days. 10 Questions.

Answer one question per day in your own secret online 10Q space. Make your answers serious. Silly. Salacious. However you like. It's your 10Q. When you're finished, hit the magic button and your answers get sent to the secure online 10Q vault for safekeeping. One year later, the vault will open and your answers will land back in your email inbox for private reflection. Want to keep them secret? Perfect. Want to share them, either anonymously or with attribution, with the wider 10Q community? You can do that too.

Next year the whole process begins again. And the year after that, and the year after that. Do you 10Q? You should.

Click here to get your 10Q on.

As Rosh Hashanah approaches, the 10Q folks have emailed our responses from last year back to us. There's something intense and wonderful and strange about reading what I wrote last year in response to these questions about who I am and who I aspire to be. Here's one of the question-and-answer combinations which resonates most for me now:

How would you like to improve yourself and your life next year? Is there a piece of advice or counsel you received in the past year that could guide you?

I would like to be more grounded, more serene, more kind, more compassionate. I would like to be more attentive to the wonders of my daily life, including my husband and my child. I would like to write more, spend more time with friends, squee more, look at the sky more.

The piece of advice which is coming to mind for me right now is from a Stanley Kunitz poem: "live in the layers, not in the litter." Live in the multilayered, complicated, beautiful world of emotion and time and change. That's what I'd like to do this year.

My response still feels right to me. And I would still list all of these as among my perennial goals. I think I've managed to live up to these hopes, sometimes. (And at other times I've fallen far short, of course. Still human over here.) I used that Kunitz poem in my Yom Kippur sermon last year. It still resonates with me, too.

Now that I'm a working rabbi, answering the ten 10q questions as they arrive each day has become more challenging. (I'm kind of busy during the Days of Awe.) But it's probably good for me; it means I have to answer fairly quickly, offering the answer that's at the top of my head and heart, instead of overthinking.

Anyway. One more reason to look forward to the Days of Awe. Ten good questions, on their way.

A prayer for Tashlich

On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, after morning services, it's customary to go to a body of water and perform the ritual of tashlich, in which we throw breadcrumbs or pieces of bread into the water as a symbolic releasing or casting-away of our mistakes from the previous year.

There are elaborate liturgies for tashlich. In my community this year, we'll use a simple one-page sheet which contains a brief explanation, this prayer, one song, and a shofar call. The pdf is enclosed, below; and here's the prayer. Feel free to use/share if this speaks to you -- I ask only that you keep my name and URL attached, as always.

(This prayer has also been crossposted to Ritualwell: A Prayer for Tashlish at Ritualwell. Thank you, Ritualwell folks, for giving us such a wonderful open-source compendium of ritual materials!)

A Prayer for Tashlich

Here I am again
ready to let go of my mistakes.

Help me to release myself
from all the ways I've missed the mark.

Help me to stop carrying
the karmic baggage of my poor choices.

As I cast this bread upon the waters
lift my troubles off my shoulders.

Help me to know that last year is over,
washed away like crumbs in the current.

Open my heart to blessing and gratitude.
Renew my soul as the dew renews the grasses.

And we say together:

One Page Tashlich [pdf] (82kb)