Previous month:
August 2012
Next month:
October 2012

Five more mother poems published

Deep thanks to the editors of literary journals Bolts of Silk ("beautiful poems with something to say") and Toasted Cheese for publishing my work this week.

The editor at Bolts of Silk published "Mother Psalm 8;" the editors at Toasted Cheese published "First Night in Buenos Aires," "New World Order," "Sustenance," and "Push."

All five of these poems are part of Waiting to Unfold, my as-yet-unpublished second book manuscript. I'm delighted to see the poems online and am looking forward to browsing more of both journals.

Here are the links: Mother Psalm 8 in Bolts of Silk; Four poems by Rachel Barenblat in Toasted Cheese. Thank you, editors!

Brich Rachamana (now: with sheet music!)

Some years ago I posted about Brich Rachamana -- a one-line grace after meals which derives from Talmud, and for which I have learned two different melodies over my years in Jewish Renewal circles. In that 2008 post I shared simple recordings of both melodies -- Hazzan Jack Kessler's round (I offered one recording of the melody by itself, and another recording which shows how it works as a round) and also the tune borrowed from the Shaker hymn "Sanctuary."

I always wanted to share sheet music, for those who learn better by reading music than by hearing a tune. It's only taken 4+ years, but I finally have the capability of creating very simple sheet music. So, with no further ado, here are the two melodies for Brich Rachamana! (For reasons I don't wholly understand, there's white space at the bottom of each image which I can't seem to crop; apologies for the empty space on the page.) Feel free to use/share/teach these melodies if they speak to you.

Continue reading "Brich Rachamana (now: with sheet music!)" »

R' Dov Baer of Mezritch on righteous indignation


Righteous Indignation

Your anger should always be for "the sake of heaven."
Direct your anger toward the kelipot [forces of evil]
in the person who upsets you,
and not at the person himself.

Understand that the kelipot scare him into doing evil things.

Then you can use your anger
to bring the kelipot under the sway of holiness.


That's from God in All Moments: Mystical & Practical Spiritual Wisdom from Hasidic Masters, edited and translated by Or Rose and Ebn Leader. It's a quote from R. Dov Baer of Mezritch, from his text Hayim v'Hesed, #12. 

What are the kelipot? This concept (early medieval in origin) was re-imagined and popularized by mystic Isaac Luria (d. 1572.) Luria taught that God withdrew to make a space in which to place creation, and sent divine energy, in the form of light, into the newly-emanated world. But the vessels which had been created to hold that light were too fragile, and they shattered. The broken shards of those vessels are the kelipot -- shells or husks or shards -- and they keep divine light hidden. Our task, say the Hasidim, is to peel away the kelipot and lift up the sparks of holiness which they conceal.

What I love about this short passage from Dov Baer of Mezritch is this: he reminds me that anger should be for the sake of heaven, not for the sake of ego or vindication. I like his teaching that if someone makes me angry, I should direct my anger toward the broken shards embedded in that person's heart, toward the thick callus preventing compassion from coming through, and not toward the person themselves. If anger is necessary -- and it sometimes is! -- try to point it at whatever is preventing the other person from being compassionate and kind, not at the person themselves.

Happy election season, my fellow Americans. :-)

A poem for the cemetery


My mother thinks it's goyische
bringing flowers to a gravesite, but
she can't resist the tin shed on the
Austin highway. Three dollars and

one yellow rose later she's back
in her car wheeling around the left
turn, punching numbers on her cell
phone, waiting for an answer.

No luck. "I called Aunt V today,"
she tells my machine. "God forbid
any of us should get Alzheimer's.
Two minutes after I said heat wave

she forgot, asked if it would snow
for Yom Kippur." She sighs.
"I told her again, I’m going to the
cemetery, it's my mother’s birthday."

It must be September 9, Vera replied.
Words surfaced, a bubble, held breath.
"Isn't it amazing," the machine says
in my mother's voice.




Today is my community's annual pre-Rosh-Hashanah cemetery service. A small group will gather at our cemetery up in the hills to say memorial prayers and to remember those who are buried there. Some of us will also be remembering loved ones who are buried elsewhere. We'll recite some prayers, read some psalms and poems, and take some time to stroll the grounds, leaving pebbles to mark our passage.

Visiting the cemetery before Rosh Hashanah is an ancient custom. Some teach that this custom arose because it was believed that because of the merit of our deceased loved ones, our prayers and psalms would reach God more directly. In the Chabad tradition, it's customary to visit the graves of tzaddikim (righteous people) on the day before Rosh Hashanah for this reason. In our community, this service is always held on the day after Selichot services.

As it happens, today is the birthday of my maternal grandmother, may her memory be a blessing. I always think of her at this service -- she grew up in Prague, where it was customary to visit the cemetery and pay respects to loved ones regularly -- but today she is especially on my mind and in my heart. I'll be remembering my Great-Aunt Vera, too -- the "Aunt V" of this poem.

The above poem is reprinted from What Stays (Bennington Writing Seminars Alumni Chapbook Series, 2002.)

The Gates Are Opening: Selichot

We arrive in a torrential rainstorm. The winds are gusting and water is pouring off the metal roof of the synagogue in sheets. But the synagogue shines brightly (to my great relief, we do not lose power!) and all ten members of the cast of The Gates Are Closing make it in despite the rain.

We usually draw about 25 people for Selichot, and this year is no different. The weather advisories and tornado warnings surely keep some folks from joining us, but enough people venture forth in the rain to make the small sanctuary feel populated, and that's all we need. 

Every character in the play is struggling with her or his history and memories. Everyone is searching for something. Everyone has a deep sorrow or question with which they perennially wrestle when this holiday rolls around. I wonder, as the play is unfolding, which stories are resonating with which of our audience members.

For me, the most powerful parts of the play are the parts where the characters' individual stories interweave with the liturgy. I know that this is because I have learned and led and loved this liturgy, and I'm always looking to interweave it with the lives of the people in the room, to make it feel real and meaningful to the people in the room.

After the play is done, we break for a brief intermission. People eat pumpkin bread and blueberry cake, drink apple cider, and chat about the play while a few of us move chairs around and re-set the sanctuary for Selichot. Then I start playing guitar, and everyone files back into the sanctuary.

I dim the lights and we make havdalah. By now the rain has stopped and our voices fill the room. I offer this year's standing explanation of what Selichot is for: it's the sourdough starter which gets our process of teshuvah (repentance / return) into high gear. We'll have all week for whatever awakens in us tonight to percolate and rise.

We sing the opening songs of our shortened Selichot service; we read my selichot poem aloud. And then I play quiet guitar and sing wordless niggunim while people write down whatever they want to atone for this year, whatever they want to release. I play the Janowski Avinu Malkeinu and segue into the waltz refrain we all seem to have grown up with. Some people hum along.

As the last few people are finishing up their cards, I ask for a volunteer to choose one of the two poems in the middle of the booklet to read aloud. And then we move into our last songs. I offer a word about Ana B'Koach, about what it means to me to ask God to untie our tangles -- all of the places where we tie ourselves in knots over our perceived failings, the things we should have done but didn't, the things we shouldn't have done but did.

We end with Return Again, and I offer an impromptu closing benediction, and we sing it one more time, and then we are done, and everyone gathers their things and melts away into the dark but no longer stormy night.


As we gather at the synagogue, the hour of seven p.m. arrives. There are hellos and a few hugs and a few introductions. Some of us haven't seen each other since the start of the summer. Some of us may not know each other very well. We spend a while getting organized: do we have the right number of scripts? Are they all hole-punched and filed in three-ring binders? Does everyone have a pencil? And then we set up our chairs in the sanctuary and, with almost no preamble, we begin.

We're rehearsing for Saturday night's Selichot play, "The Gates Are Closing" by poet Merle Feld. Ten congregants (well: nine congregants plus me) will be playing the ten roles. The play takes place in a synagogue over the course of Yom Kippur. There is a rabbi in the play, though I'm not playing that role; I'm playing the fifty-something middle-aged hazzan (cantor.) There is some occasional laughter as we accustom ourselves to embodying people who we are not.

There are parts of this play which give me shivers, even on our first read-through. There are other parts which had seemed a bit overblown when I read them on the page, but when I hear them given voice -- especially in a synagogue sanctuary, the very kind of "stage" where the play is set -- they reach me in a different way.

I wonder what this experience is like for the other cast members. The play interweaves the personal stories of these ten people with fragments of the traditional liturgy for Yom Kippur. There are bits of the vidui (confessional prayer) and bits of Avinu Malkeinu ("Our Father, Our King.") Just singing the short snatches of prayer required for the play is opening an emotional floodgate in me.

Both of the day's traditional Torah readings are woven in to the script -- though our shul follows Reform practice; we don't read either of those Torah passages on Yom Kippur, preferring alternative readings instead. By the same token, the script features interplay between the characters' stories and the Martyrology, and I don't think we've touched the Martyrology in a decade. I wonder whether those who come to the play will notice either of those things.

Yom Kippur is sometimes called a rehearsal for the day of our death. We wear white, like our burial shrouds. We eschew food and drink, as though our bodies didn't need them. We make teshuvah, we turn toward God and take stock of our actions, as though we were on death's door. Yom Kippur teaches us that there is no time like the present to connect with our loved ones. As Rabbi Shefa Gold has written, "On Yom Kippur, Death becomes our rebbe."

But now we are rehearsing for that cosmic rehearsal. Some congregations present this play on Yom Kippur, before Ne'ilah, before the final service of the day. I'll bet that's intense. But I love that we're presenting this play at Selichot, at the beginning of our High Holiday season. Whatever magic it works in us will have time to percolate and deepen before we reach Yom Kippur, before that wondrous day unfolds, before the gates of the season begin to swing shut.


For more information: CBI Presents "The Gates Are Closing," Selichot services, Saturday 9/8. All are welcome.

Thanks for the reprints!



Two Velveteen Rabbi posts have been reprinted recently -- one at Kol ALEPH, "The voice of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal," and one at, the blog which shares "News and views of Reform Jews." And they are:

I'm delighted for these posts to be reaching a broader audience -- and I'm charmed to have my posts reprinted, during the same week, in both the blog of the Jewish Renewal movement and the blog of the Reform movement! What a lovely encapsulation of the truth that Renewal isn't a denomination, but rather a way of being Jewish which can dovetail with any denominational affiliation (or with none at all.)

Anyway. Thanks, Kol ALEPH and editors! (And for those of you reading this who aren't yet following those two blogs, they're both terrific, and both worth adding to your aggregator or feed reader, for sure.)

On a semi-related note, I'm also delighted that my sermon in poetry for the second day of Rosh Hashanah was reprinted as part of the set of resources for the Days of Awe provided this year by the J Street rabbinic cabinet. I'm looking forward to reading the other sermons and materials shared there.


A poem for the month of Elul


How to make it new:
each year the same missing
of the same marks,
the same petitions
and apologies.

We were impatient, unkind.
We let ego rule the day
and forgot to be thankful.
We allowed our fears
to distance us.

But every year
the ascent through Elul
does its magic,
shakes old bitterness
from our hands and hearts.

We sit awake, itemizing
ways we want to change.
We try not to mind
that this year’s list
looks just like last.

The conversation gets
easier as we limber up.
Soon we can stretch farther
than we ever imagined.
We breathe deeper.

By the time we reach the top
we’ve forgotten
how nervous we were
that repeating the climb
wasn’t worth the work.

Creation gleams before us.
The view from here matters
not because it’s different
from last year
but because we are

and the way to reach God
is one breath at a time,
one step, one word,
every second a chance
to reorient, repeat, return.



This is the poem I wrote and shared with friends and family during Elul of 5765 (also known as 2005). I suspect the beginning of the poem was influenced by Ezra Pound's poetic dictim of "make it new." The "it" in question was poetry, though I think it's an interesting instruction for life, too. What might it mean to make life new when even the most cursory process of discernment reveals the ways in which we repeat our old patterns year after year? This poem offers one possible answer.

A short service for Selichot

Selichot is coming up -- the service of prayers designed to help get us "in the mood" for the Days of Awe, the formal kick-off to this season of teshuvah / repentance / return. In the tradition of which I am a part, Selichot services are held on the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah -- assuming that there is a Saturday which is at least three days before the holiday. Since this year Rosh Hashanah begins on a Sunday, Selichot services will be held a week prior -- Saturday, September 8. If you'll permit me a baking metaphor: Selichot services are the sourdough starter which activates our souls. The services need a few days to percolate in us before we can really rise.

This year, my congregation will be presenting a staged reading of a play on the evening of Selichot -- Merle Feld's The Gates Are Closing. So, I've abbreviated the Selichot service we've done in recent years. What I'm sharing here is a stripped-down version of the service, the parts I absolutely couldn't bear to let go of!

On page 5, there is a mention of pausing to write down what we need to release. This is a tradition I learned at Elat Chayyim many years ago. We'll provide index cards and pencils; as I play quiet music on my guitar, people will be invited to write down whatever they need to let go of, whatever sins or missings-of-the-mark they want to atone for during this season of repentance, and we'll collect those cards in a basket. I'll use some of those texts (anonymously, of course) in one of the Al Chet prayers of Yom Kippur.

Anyway: if you are looking for a Selichot observance but won't be able to attend one at a shul near you, you're welcome to use ours. It's enclosed. (And if you live nearby and want to attend our production of The Gates are Closing, or our Selichot service, you are most welcome! The reading of the play will take place at 6pm and the service will be at 8, followed by a dessert reception and a chance to talk about what the evening has opened up in us.)

May the coming Days of Awe bring you discernment, transformation, and blessing.




סלח לנו

S'lach Lanu

Forgive Us


a short service for Selichot


Rabbi Rachel Barenblat


Download Selichot2012 [pdf]

This week's portion: How to treat the poor, the foreign, the powerless

Here's the d'var Torah I offered yesterday at my shul, for parashat Ki Tetzei.

Today's Torah reading began, "When you make a loan to your compatriot, you must not enter the house to seize the collateral." The word translated as "compatriot" is re'acha: your fellow, your other, your neighbor. A lender may not enter the home, burst into the space, of a borrower. A lender must see the borrower as a fellow human being. If someone is truly needy, they may have given you their only blanket as collateral. You must not keep it overnight, Torah teaches; even if it's collateral for a loan, give it back at night so the borrower can be warm.

Can you imagine a world in which creditors operated this way?

"You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow Israelite or a stranger in one of the communities of your land." If someone who is poor is working for you -- whether they are a fellow member of your tribe, a citizen of your community, or a stranger, an immigrant -- you must pay them their wages at the end of the day.

Reading this, I think of Barbara Ehrenreich's book Nickel and Dimed. She chose to live for a time working for an hourly wage, cleaning houses and hotel rooms, in order to write about the difficulties of that life. Her book offers an unflinching look at the "hidden costs" of being poor: for instance, paying more to rent a daily hotel room than one would pay for a comparable apartment, but if you can't afford the first + last month + deposit, you can't escape the cost of the daily rental. The poor have to buy food which is both more expensive, and less healthy, because they have no access to refrigeration or appliances with which to cook.

Can you imagine a world in which even the person mopping hotel rooms or doing janitorial work received a living wage, not waiting two weeks until payday but getting paid each day as the work is done?

"You shall not subvert the rights of the stranger or the fatherless; you shall not take a widow's garment in pawn." The stranger: the immigrant, the migrant worker, the person from across the border, the person from another town, the farm kid who's moved to the city, the refugee, the person whose race or skin color or features are different from everyone else around. The fatherless: the child, the one who is uncertain, the one who has no protection, the powerless. Ensure that someone who has no one to take care of them knows that they wil be safe and cared-for, not preyed-upon or mistreated.

Can you imagine a world in which no one oppressed another person because they are poor or foreign or powerless?

"Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Eternal your God redeemed you from there." Torah repeats this time and again. Remember that you have been mistreated, and never mistreat others. Remember that you experienced degradation, and never degrade others. Remember that you were caught in the narrow place, and have compassion for everyone who is in dire straits.

"When you reap the harvest in your field and overlook a sheaf in the field, do not turn back to get it; it shall go to the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow -- in order that the Eternal your God may bless you in all your undertakings." When you are harvesting your olive grove, the same is true. Whwn you are gathering grapes in your vineyard, the same is true. Share your abundance with those who don't have enough. Share your abundance with immigrants and refugees, foreigners and strangers, people who are powerless, people who don't look like you or talk like you. This is the path of blessing. Can you imagine walking on this path?

"Always remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore do I enjoin you to observe this commandment." Get this through your heads, Torah seems to be saying. How many times do I have to tell you? Treat the widow and the orphan, the stranger and the immigrant, your neighbor and your "Other," with kindness and compassion. Make sure they have warm clothes for winter and enough food on the table. Always remember that you have known loss and lack, confinement and constriction, and let that memory impel you to be righteous, to be kinder to others than the world has been to you.

Can you imagine what it would be like if we made our world really work this way?