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October 2012
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December 2012

Second step

When we first greet one another, it's clear that we're both trying a little bit too hard. We trade one too many "how are you"s. Conversation stutters and starts.

But soon we settle into a rhythm. He received the bedtime shema prayer I sent, and the small pamphlets about Jewish prayer and about forgiveness in Jewish tradition. I show him the JPS Tanakh I brought for him (though I won't be able to give it directly to him; I have to leave it with the corrections officer for inspection, and it will be forwarded to him with the evening mail) and the copy of Anita Diamant's book Choosing a Jewish Life. He seems surprised and grateful.

We talk a little bit about what the journey to choosing Judaism usually looks like. I describe the general course of study, the usual timeframe, the mikveh immersion. Ordinarily, I tell him, I would ask a potential Jew-by-choice to start coming to services and experiencing Jewish life in community, but that's obviously not an option for him until he's out of jail. He tells me he might be out some months sooner than originally anticipated, and that he can't wait to try services.

We chat about how the Christian sabbath day became Sunday, about what "kosher food" means (and doesn't mean), about a friend of his in the jail who is Catholic and enjoys friendly argument about scripture and prayer. I tell him that friendly argument is a very Jewish mode of Torah study, in certain ways. I tell him about the Jewish weekly lectionary, and show him the dog-eared page in the book which marks this week's Torah portion. He asks me what Jews think about Jesus, and we talk about some different ways of understanding Jesus: as a Jew, as a teacher of Torah, as a rabble-rouser, but not as divine.

I ask him about what holidays are like, in this local house of corrections. He tells me a little bit about Thanksgiving, about a fellow inmate who gathered a group of them to eat together and who said they were like his family. He tells me he's never connected with Christmas and doesn't anticipate that he'll miss it. I tell him about Passover -- he's never been to a seder -- and I wonder aloud whether I might be able to orchestrate a seder here.

Over the course of our hour, I learn a little bit more about what his life is like here. He tells me that more than anything else, it's like a retirement community in there. Little foam couches, tables where guys play cards, two televisions (with headphones for the sound.) It's really quiet, he tells me. Most of the guys are taking classes through the local community college. The place is empty enough that they closed down one of the pods and had to let several COs go.

There are only fourteen women in the local jail right now, he tells me, and I think: wow, what would it be like to be one of those fourteen? What an insular little community that must be. The communal dynamics must be fascinating, and probably not easy to navigate. While we're chatting, a man in orange walks through the visiting room and he and my inmate (who is wearing navy blue) smile and exchange greetings. The orange jumpsuit means he's still awaiting sentencing. The two of them knew each other, before.

I depart with a promise to provide a Jewish calendar, and to return in a few weeks with thoughts on what we might study together. I still don't know where this relationship will lead, but I feel blessed to have the opportunity to find out.

Winter blessings to a medieval carol tune

Several years ago, Ethan and I saw Richard Thompson and his merry band (the acoustic version thereof) perform a 1000 Years of Popular Music show at the Iron Horse. One of my favorite tracks from that night was a medieval Scots carol called "Remember O Thou Man," often attributed to Thomas Ravenscroft, though Ravenscroft may only have collected or updated it -- some suggest it predates him, too.

Richard told us that night that this melody is often considered to be the source of what we now know as God Save the Queen, though this carol is in a minor key whereas that anthem is in a major one. (The footnotes to that Wikipedia entry on "God Save the Queen" confirm that this is a popular theory, though no one seems to be able to prove it one way or another.)

Anyway, the melody stuck with me. I love it. Here, watch Richard and two friends play "Remember O Thou Man" in the back of a English taxicab:

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

I associate this melody with the darkening days of deep autumn turning toward winter. Maybe because I first heard it in early November. Maybe because the original lyrics have a kind of wintery darkness to them -- "Remember, o thou man, thy time is spent..."

It ocurred to me, one cold and rainy day earlier this fall, that I might see if this melody works for any of the blessings of my winter season. (This isn't my first experiment with setting Hebrew words to Richard Thompson's melodies -- see A Richard Thompson Modah Ani.) So I tried putting the Chanukah candle blessing to this tune. You have to slightly rush a few of the words, but it works reasonably well:




I tried, also, setting the Shehecheyanu -- the blessing sanctifying time, which is recited on the first night of Chanukah -- to this melody, and it worked perfectly. (No elision or rushing necessary.) So maybe this melody works better for the Shehecheyanu than it does for Chanukah candles. Here it is:




I'm not sure how actually useful this is -- what are the odds that anyone reading this will want to sing either the Chanukah blessings, or the shehecheyanu, to a medieval Scots melody? -- but I figured I'd share, just for kicks. Chanukah is approaching (we light the first candle on the night of December 8), so the timing seemed appropriate. Enjoy!


Three gratitudes

I'm grateful this morning for colleagues who pause our phone calls to make the blessing for Torah study, mindful that the words we're going to exchange are themselves Torah; who remind me to pay attention to the movements and signals of my own heart; who urge me to recognize and to honor both the act of stretching my comfort zone, and the act of remaining safely within it; who offer their own stories and experiences to match mine.

I'm grateful this morning for students who offer me the key to unlock their enthusiasm; who ad-lib interviews with Biblical characters, giggling wildly as they insert cows into scenes where, truth be told, cows were never meant to be; who earnestly ask permission to skip Hebrew this week so they can spend more time with the Torah story; who laugh and shout so loudly I know the whole building must be listening to their glee.

I'm grateful this morning for recordings of my beloved friends singing the morning prayers, with heart and harmony; for their presence, real with me again through the miracle of praying together across the miles and the months; for their reminder that I am most wholly the person I want to be when I take the time and space to enter into our liturgy, to be washed by its waves, to be rooted in its soil; for this ineffable togetherness.

Three responses to this week's Torah portion

As we enter into parashat Vayishlach, I wanted to share links to a few of the divrei Torah I've posted over the years which arise out of this week's portion:

Encounter, 2008, a Torah poem. "When Esau saw him he came running. / They embraced and wept, each grateful / to see the profile he knew better than his own..."

Beyond binaries, 2006. "Jacob earns the new name because he's open to transformation, but that transformation is neither instantaneous nor irrevocable; it's something he has to continue working at, a process rather than an endpoint. As a result, he's continually oscillating between his two sides, the part of him which lives in duality (Jacob) and the part of him which lives in continual awareness of the presence of God (Yisrael.) In a sense, his real new name is the back-and-forth between the two sides of who he is."

Blessing myself, 2010. "With whom did he wrestle? The text tells us that he was alone, and that he wrestled with a man. Jacob wrestled with himself: with the part of him that regretted cheating his brother, with the part of him that missed having a relationship with his twin, with the part of him that wanted a different ending to their story."

All feedback welcome, as always.


Rodger Kamenetz's the lowercase jew

Lowercase-jew-webA book of poems nine years old still deserves to be written about and to be read. This is true as a general statement, I think, though I'm saying it now with a specific title in mind: Rodger Kamenetz's the lowercase jew.

Maybe you know Rodger Kamenetz's book The Jew in the Lotus, the true story of the group of rabbis who went to Dharamsala, India, to meet with the Dalai Lama and offer him wisdom about surviving as a people in Diaspora. (When I first read that book, some 20 years ago, I remember thinking: wow, they took a poet along to tell the tale! I want to grow up to get that job.)

Maybe you know his The History of Last Night's Dream. (I interviewed him after that came out -- Dreaming with Rodger Kamenetz, Zeek magazine, 2008.) Or his more recent Burnt Books: Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav and Franz Kafka. But unless you're a lover of Jewish poetry -- which, given that you're reading this blog, you might be -- you may or may not know his poetry. And you should know it, because it's really good.

I read his The Missing Jew: New and Selected Poems years ago, I think shortly after getting out of college. (I thought I'd reviewed it somewhere, but can't seem to dig up a link; I guess I just wrote about it in my paper about what makes Jewish literature Jewish, back when I was getting my MFA at Bennington.) But somehow I failed to pick up a copy of the lowercase jew until this fall. Nu, the good news is, poetry ages well. So it came out in 2003 and now it's almost 2013 -- big deal. The psalms were written God-knows-how-long-ago, and we still read them, don't we?

Continue reading "Rodger Kamenetz's the lowercase jew" »

Another one from the archives: Kol Nidre poem

This poem was first published in What Stays, my second chapbook of poems (Bennington Writing Seminars Alumni Chapbook Series, 2002.) It has been used in congregations and independent minyanim during Kol Nidre services.



My people break our promises publicly.
We stand and say "Hey, God, you know,

you can't hold us to anything really,
I mean we're creation, right?" We declare

all vows, promises, and oaths
of the year to come -- all vows we're too silent

or too weak or forgetful to uphold --
null and void in advance.

We say, "God, you're listening, right?" We say,
"Don't worry, God. We still feel guilt."

We are like wild grapes.
We are beautiful, and we are sour.

Forgive us, and forgive
the stranger in our midst.

Continue reading "Another one from the archives: Kol Nidre poem" »

A Blessing for the Thanksgiving Meal

American Thanksgiving is almost upon us! The Thanksgiving category on this blog features a variety of Thanksgiving prayers and poems I've posted over the years, from the one by Reb Zalman (always a favorite of mine) to others by contemporary poets. Here's my own humble offering for this year, which you are welcome to use and/or to share if it moves you. Happy Thanksgiving to all who celebrate!

(For those who wish: here's a downloadable pdf containing Reb Zalman's prayer, my prayer, and sheet music for a one-line grace after meals, cross-posted to my congregational From the Rabbi blog: ThanksgivingTrio [pdf])

A Blessing for the Thanksgiving Meal

by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

Source of all being, we thank You
for the meal on this table before us:

for the earth from which this food emerged
and Your blessing which sustains that earth

for the hands which planted and weeded and watered
and tended animals with loving care

for the drivers who ferried ingredients to our stores
and the workers who stocked the shelves

Continue reading "A Blessing for the Thanksgiving Meal" »

Prayer for the Children of Abraham / Ibrahim

For every aspiring ballerina huddled
scared in a basement bomb shelter

    For every toddler in his mother's arms
    behind rubble of concrete and rebar

For every child who's learned to distinguish
"our" bombs from "their" bombs by sound

    For everyone wounded, cowering, frightened
    and everyone furious, planning for vengeance

For the ones who are tasked with firing shells
where there are grandmothers and infants

    For the ones who fix a rocket's parabola
    toward children on school playgrounds

For every official who sees shelling Gaza
as a matter of "cutting the grass"

    And every official who approves launching projectiles
    from behind preschools or prayer places
For every kid taught to lob a bomb with pride
And every kid sickened by explosions

    For every teenager who considers
    "martyrdom" his best hope for a future:

May the God of compassion and the God of mercy
God of justice and God of forgiveness

    God Who shaped creation in Her tender womb
    and nurses us each day with blessing

God Who suffers the anxiety and pain
of each of His unique children

    God Who yearns for us to take up
    the work of perfecting creation

God Who is reflected in those who fight
and in those who bandage the bleeding --

    May our Father, Mother, Beloved, Creator
    cradle every hurting heart in caring hands.

Soon may we hear in the hills of Judah
and the streets of Jerusalem

    in the olive groves of the West Bank
    and the apartment blocks of Gaza City

in the kibbutz fields of the Negev
and the neighborhoods of Nablus

    the voice of fighters who have traded weapons
    for books and ploughs and bread ovens

the voice of children on swings and on slides
singing nonsense songs, unafraid

    the voice of reconciliation and new beginnings
    in our day, speedily and soon.

And let us say:




On "every aspiring ballerina huddled," see Twenty minutes in a Tel Aviv bomb shelter, Jewschool.

On children distinguishing bombs by sound, see A message to Israel's leaders: Don't defend me – not like this, Ha'aretz.

On "mowing the grass," see Israel, Gaza, and the patterns of the past, Washington Post.

On "projectiles / from behind preschools or prayer places," see Dealing with Hamas's human shield tactics, Jerusalem Post.

"Soon may we hear..." is a reference to the final blessing in the set of Sheva Brachot / Seven Blessings recited at every Jewish wedding.

Edited to add: this prayer benefited tremendously from the suggestions of rabbinic student David Markus, who read several drafts and offered substantive feedback. Thank you, David. The prayer is stronger for your contributions.


This is meant to be prayed in community as a responsive reading.

As a mother, as a human being, as a Jew, and as a rabbi, this prayer/poem is the best articulation I can offer of what my heart and soul are feeling right now. I pray for God to heal the hearts of all who suffer: Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and non-Jews, "us" and "them," combatants on both sides, those who fear on both sides, those who mourn on both sides, those who benefit from the existing systems in place and those who struggle within those systems. Please, God, speedily and soon.

I welcome comments. (If you are a new commenter, please read the VR comments policy before chiming in.) And all are welcome to share and to use this prayer in your community if it speaks to you, as long as you preserve its origin / attribution.

A pdf file is available for download if that's helpful: PrayerForChildrenOfAbrahamIbrahim [pdf]

A visit to Sagrada Familia

Gaudí's Sagrada Familia is amazing. I've never seen a cathedral like it. And I have seen a fair number of cathedrals. (I guess it isn't technically a cathedral; it won't be home to a bishop. But what else can one call such a grand and soaring Christian religious space?)

Beams of light.

It's a bit as though an art deco - modernist worship space had been built in Tolkien's mythical Lothlorien. I think it's the giant soaring columns modeled to look like plane trees, holding up the exquisite skylight-riddled roof, which put me in mind of golden elvish Mallorn trees. It's almost as though the columns (several different shapes and diameters, each made of a different stone) grew organically from the floor to create the ceiling. Which I guess would be one explanation for the wonderful and whimsical finials on the roofs which look like unearthly fruit.

Seen from outside.

It is enormous. Mind-bogglingly enormous. It can hold thousands of people. In the way of cathedrals, it has already taken well over a century to build. Most of the main building is complete, and there are three extraordinary towers (into which visitors can ascend) -- though the plan calls for a total of eighteen towers, so there's a lot more left to build. When Gaudí died in 1926, only a quarter of the project was complete.

Pillars and light.

There are spiraling staircases and great openings and amazing light. There are sculptures which tell stories. At the top of the many spire / tower roofs there are the kind of giant and fanciful mosaic fruits I saw on the roof of a Gaudi-designed mansion the day before. One side of the church (known as the Glory facade) has exterior pillars which appear to rest on a giant tortoise and a giant turtle -- symbols of land and sea. This is a structure which praises God through lifting up aspects of nature, aspects of creation, in their beauty.


When I was there on a Friday morning, they were piping in choral music which completed with the sounds of construction continuing overhead. As I sat in a chair in the huge and spacious nave, and quietly davened some morning blessings to myself, I heard the strains of Duruflé's "Ubi Caritas," one of my very favorite Christian sacred pieces to sing. Where there are charity and love, there, one finds God -- yes indeed.

Crane at work.

I wandered the building in a daze, dodging other tourists who, like me, were attempting to capture the ineffable on film. I took an elevator up to the top of the tower named for the Passion, and marveled at the views of Barcelona, and then slowly, slowly, walked the 425 steps back down to the ground. I trailed my fingers along the narrow staircase as I went, and marveled at the work of all of these combined human hands.

Light on columns.

I always love visiting sacred spaces. Even if they're not "mine" in the sense of being Jewish sacred spaces, I feel an affinity for them because they are someone's idea of holy; because they are built for community and prayer; because they are meant to reflect a tiny fraction of the glory of the Infinite. I'm really glad to have spent a morning in this one.

(For more images from our few days in Spain, including a few more of Sagrada Familia and a few of a mansion designed by Gaudí called Palau Guell, here's my Barcelona photoset on Flickr.)

One from the archives: morning blessings poem cycle

Around 2002-2004 I worked on a series of variations on some of the traditional morning blessings. These were among my first experiments with creative work meant to be experienced both as prayers and as poems. This poem cycle includes the prayers known as Elohai Neshama, Asher Yatzar, Nishmat Kol Chai, and Baruch She'amar. The "Asher Yatzar" poem was first published in Zeek magazine, spring/summer 2005. (ETA: if you like these, you might also like Daily miracles, a poem/prayer variation on the birchot ha-shachar / list of morning blessings.)



My God, my
own, my breath
that you have given me
is pure
she is clean, clear
like mikvah waters

the spark
which makes me more
than automated clay,
than cells
sprouting cells
is holy

Continue reading "One from the archives: morning blessings poem cycle" »

On preparing a nondenominational funeral

It was a challenge I had not sufficiently pondered: how to create a meaningful nondenominational (read: non-Jewish) funeral service which would serve its ritual purpose, bring comfort to the mourners, and use language familiar and accessible to those assembled, without taking me out of the comfort zone of what I can authentically pray as a rabbi and as a Jew?

One of my dearest teachers, when I was in rabbinic school, taught me that a funeral is the one time when we always say yes. If someone asks me to do a wedding, and I say no -- because the date isn't convenient, or because I'm not comfortable with their stipulations, or for whatever reason -- they can always find another officiant. There are a lot of rabbis who do weddings, and generally speaking, a nuptial couple approaches potential clergy well in advance of the blessed date. But if someone needs a funeral, the need is immediate, and it is incumbent on me as a rabbi to say yes. It's my job to be there for them and to use the prayers, skills, and teachings at my disposal to help them navigate the shoals of grief.

So when I was asked to officiate at the funeral of a congregant's loved one, I said yes without hesitation. The only question in my mind was what words, exactly, might be appropriate to the situation, because this family member was not Jewish. I have a fair number of dual-faith-heritage families in my community, which means I have a lot of congregants who have Christian family members. When those family members belong to their own faith-communities, then their funerals are a matter for their clergy. But when they're unaffiliated -- "unchurched," in Christian parlance -- a different situation arises. (Other liberal Jewish clergy, I expect you've run into this situation too; I'd love to hear from others about how you've handled it.)

I knew that most of the family members who would be gathering to mourn would not be Jewish. But all of them were grieving a loss, and all of them were in need of a liturgy which would create a safe container to hold them in their grief. This was a new spiritual assignment for me, and an opportunity to think about how I understand funerals to work and what I understand my role at a funeral to be.

First I looked to the funeral liturgy I usually use, which is based in Ma'aglei Tzedek, the Reform Rabbi's Manual, though has grown from there. (I've adapted my practices over the years, drawing on Orthodox, Reconstructionist, and Renewal liturgies and teachings.) I turned also to poetry, thumbing my copy of Beloved on the Earth, which I reviewed here some time ago. I knew I wanted some things which the assembled could read or recite together, ideally familiar words and cadences. Psalms, then: I chose parts of Psalm 90, and Psalm 23, and also the Lord's Prayer. (For all that it's a Christian prayer, there's nothing in it which is uncomfortable for me as a Jew -- actually when I've heard it rendered in Hebrew I've been amazed and moved by just how familiar its turns of phrase are, and how similar to the liturgy I love and know.)

What might the mourners be expecting, what forms and structures would be most comforting to them in their grief? I consulted Google to see what I could learn about Christian funeral liturgies. (I'm grateful to those who've put the Book of Common Prayer online!) Of course, there are certain central elements of Christian funeral ritual which are foreign to me. Christians and Jews have different teachings about what happens to our souls after death, and I can't in good faith affirm Jesus as the resurrection and the life or as the only path to God. But I fashioned a prayer of committal to recite at graveside, which I hoped would serve to sanctify, with our words and intentions, this place in the earth into which this beloved body would be returned.

I hope and pray that the words I assembled were the right ones, and that my presence was a comfort. For those who are interested in the end result of my labors, two short services are enclosed here: a memorial service intended for use in the funeral home, and a graveside service intended for interment. (Neither includes any identifying information or anything specific to this family.) I welcome your thoughts, questions, and feedback in response. And if these liturgies are useful to someone else, by all means, use them elsewhere; I share them freely, with hope that all who are bereaved will find comfort.

Memorial [pdf]

Interment [pdf]

One from the archives: Preparations, a Shabbat poem

Here's one from the archives, written in 2001. Shabbat shalom to all!




Breathe deep, from the belly,
as if for singing.
Notice your vertebrae, the curve
where spine tilts to pelvis,
and inhale everything into place.

Blanket the mind
as trees blanket grass with leaves.
Drape woven wool over
every sharp worry and task.
They'll survive a night without you.

Drizzle cornmeal on cookie sheets
like a sand painting
of the chaos in which creation begins.
Let challah dough rise and fall
like slow breathing.

Tonight the sky arches
like bent boughs roofed with cloud,
spangled with constellations.
The Breath of Life spreads peace
over creation.

Unexpected gifts

At an airport restaurant in Boston I withdrew my kindle from my bag. It's the kindle Ethan gave me when Drew was born; I think of it still as "the nursing kindle," because it made possible the act of reading-while-nursing (and, even more importantly, reading while my sacked-out son slept on me.) Reading a book while holding a sleeping infant was impossible; the crinkle of turning pages (not to mention the movement) would wake him straight away, but the small thumbclick of the "next page" button didn't. It was a godsend.

Anyway, last week I purchased a few books I've been wanting to read -- Ted Conover's book on roads, Anne Lamott's journal of her grandson's first year -- and last night as I sat down for a sandwich before my flight, I pulled out the kindle, ready to read. Alas! The screen was broken. I fiddled with it for a while, but it was pretty clear: this was, as Monty Python might have said, an ex-kindle.

I hastily downloaded the books onto my phone (now doing triple duty as phone, camera, and e-book reader) and resolved to look into the kindle paperwhite when I got home. Then it was time for the transatlantic flight. The so-called "sleep" over the ocean is better left undescribed. Upon arriving at Heathrow, though, a real gift was waiting: breakfast with my parents.

My parents live in Texas, where Drew and I visited them a few weeks ago. Long story short, they're joining some friends on a tour of (parts of) India this month. To make the travel and the shift in time zones slightly easier for them, they flew into Heathrow a day before the rest of their group and spent the night in an airport hotel, getting a good night of sleep in a real bed before embarking on the eight-hour flight to Delhi. As it happened, they had a few hours of layover between waking up in their airport hotel and departing for India. And those few hours matched precisely the few hours of my layover between one flight and the next!

Even though it had sounded as though the stars might be aligned for us, I was dubious. (For one thing, there's a transportation strike in Barcelona which had caused my first flight to be canceled; though the airlines claimed they were rebooking me on a later flight, who was to say it too wouldn't disappear?) And Heathrow is enormous. Who was to say we would actually be able to find each other, even if our layovers did magically overlap?

I didn't entirely believe it was going to work until I saw my mother standing outside a Duty Free shop. What a joy, to see my parents in this unlikely way, so far from home! We found a place which served oatmeal (just the thing for our slightly travel-addled systems) and we talked about their trip and my trip and how incredibly blessed we all feel to be able to do this travel at this moment in our lives. They'll see a few things in India which Ethan and I saw on our 2002 trip (I told them to keep an eye out for the monkeys at the Taj Mahal at sundown), though they'll also see places I didn't get to go. And I'll see things in Barcelona which will be new to them (it's a city they haven't yet visited), though our trip will be far shorter than thers -- a mere 3.5 days, attached to Ethan's speaking obligation at News X Change.

When we saw our gates listed on the overhead board, we regretfully hugged and parted ways, wishing wished one another bon voyage. "Enjoy every moment," we said to each other, and beamed.What a sweet little interlude. The chance to sit down for breakfast with my parents is rare enough now that I live a thousand miles away, but the chance to do so in London, as our paths temporarily crossed on our various arcs across space and time zones? Priceless.


Breakfast at Heathrow with Mom and Dad!

What I cherish about shiva

Shiva-candle copyIs it strange to say that I cherish shiva minyans? Of course, a shiva minyan means that people are grieving. In that sense, I can't say that I look forward to them. But loss and death are a natural part of every life. We can't imagine them away, no matter how we might want to try. And given that reality, I find the custom of sitting shiva, and of convening a shiva minyan, to be both meaningful and sweet.

The custom of the shiva minyan originated at a moment in time when it was presumed that all Jews prayed three times a day. Imagine that you're in the habit of daily prayer, and then you lose a loved one. There's a gaping hole in your life. Your heart and soul feel raw and bruised. You don't want to put on a fancy suit and high heels (or whatever your version of getting all dressed up might be) and venture out of your house in order to daven in community.

So we come to you, and you get to daven weekday prayers and say kaddish for your loved one, and while we're there, we also do our best to take care of you. Usually, in my experience, people brings food. There are hugs. People will sit together with the mourner(s) and listen to them talk about the person who has died. Sometimes we look through photo albums and we tell stories. We cry and we laugh in remembrance. And -- traditionally -- the next night, we gather and we do it again. And again, until the first week of mourning after the burial is through. Sometimes we talk. Sometimes we sit in companionable silence. The conversation ebbs and flows. And at the appointed time, we pray.

Ma'ariv, the evening service, is short and sweet. It's very like the morning service, though there's an extra blessing after the shema, the hashkivenu prayer, in which we bless God who spreads a shelter of peace over us at evening when we go to sleep. There is something particularly poignant, I think, about davening the evening service (including that hashkivenu prayer) in a shiva house. Sleep, says the Talmud, is 1/60th of death; every night when we recite the bedtime shema and its prayer for forgiveness, we are clearing our spiritual slates in preparation for death. And there's a parallel between the way that we ask God to spread a shelter of peace over us as we sleep, and the way that we ask God to spread a shelter of peace over our loved one who has entered eternity.

Most of all, I just love that this is our custom when someone is mourning. We come to them. We comfort them with our presence as best we can. We pray with them. We give them the witnessing-community in which they can recite the mourner's kaddish, which never once mentions death, but which has rhythm and cadences which take me (take many of us, I suspect) into a different headspace and heartspace than we otherwise inhabit. There's nothing else one has to "do" during a shiva call, no fancy rituals or elaborate social expectations. It's really mostly about presence, about being present with and present to the person who has suffered a loss.

I find the shiva journey meaningful in all four worlds. In assiyah, the world of action and physicality, it's about being there, sitting with the person who has experienced the loss. (And in today's increasingly interconnected world, when we may have loved ones around the globe, I've known people to pay shiva calls via Skype. Telepresence is meaningful, too.) In yetzirah, the world of emotions, it's a chance to connect heart-to-heart. To open ourselves to someone else's loss, and to create a safe container in which the person who has experienced the loss can grieve. In briyah, the world of thought, shiva is an opportunity to reflect and remember together. And in atzilut, the world of essence, it's an opportunity to connect with the ineffable.

The traditional blessing spoken to someone who is grieving is המקום ינחם אתכם (Hamakom yinachem etchem), "May God comfort you." Or המקום ינחם אתכם בתוך שאר אבלי ציון וירושלים (Hamakom yinachem etcham b'toch sha'ar avelei tzion v'Yerushalayim), "May the Holy One comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem." Some choose instead to say תנחמו מן השמים (tinechamu min hashamayim), "May your comfort come from heaven." But I appreciate the reminder offered by Rabbi Irwin Kula and Vanessa Ochs in The Book of Jewish Sacred Practices that "The right words -- which may be no words at all, just a rich, holding silence -- will come from our hearts." In a tradition so attached to words, I love this reminder that it's okay that sometimes our words may fail us.

This week's portion: The Blessing


All I wanted was for him to love me.
And I knew he couldn't. I reminded him

too much of himself: thin as tzitzit
with wispy hair and watery eyes.

I was always mommy's boy; Dad smiled
only for my rough and tumble brother.

Mom hung my watercolors on the fridge,
took me to the library on rainy days;

the two of them spent endless weekends
crouching in camouflage. They never asked

if I wanted to join. They knew I'd weep
the first time I turned a duck or a goose

from something living, flying, moving
into a limp pile of feathers and meat.

Then Dad got sick. His hornrim glasses
thickened til I could barely see his eyes.

His hands shook. He couldn't hold a gun.
My brother went out alone. I reread

books I already knew by heart, too numb
to imagine the change I knew was coming.

I never met my grandpa, though I heard
he went a little crazy once, almost

killed his younger son. I wish I could ask
whether Dad was scared, if he cried...

And now Mom comes upstairs, Dad's lunch
neatly arranged on a tray, the sweater

my brother likes best draped over her arm.
The wool is bulky and smells like smoke.

I barely recognize myself in the mirror.
I take the tray to the darkened study

where we've stashed the rented hospital bed,
I place it gently on Dad's bony knees.

When he reaches out I can't breathe.
I want him to know who's standing here

and to love me anyway. Is that you? he asks.
His voice is tremulous; I swallow hard.

It's me, dad, I tell him. I'm here.
The rest of my life I'll remember

his papery hand on my arm. I'll never know
whether he knew which son he blessed.



This poem arises out of this week's Torah portion, Toldot. It draws substantially on the Torah teachings of Aviva Zornberg; I drafted this after studying the chapter on Isaac's blessing of Jacob in The Murmuring Deep, which the local Jewish clergy Torah study group spent the last year reading together.

Our conversation, when we read Zornberg's chapter on this story, took us into some deep places: the nature of love and the nature of blessing, the essential tragedy of Jacob yearning both for his father to bless him and perhaps, also, for his father to recognize his deception and know who he truly was. What might it have been like to grow up as Isaac's sons, and to be the one who knew their father loved the other one better? Was Isaac's inability to love Jacob related to his own childhood trauma, the akedah?

As I imagined the scene, I pictured them as a modern family, and this is the poem which arose. All feedback welcome.

(If you enjoy this sort of response to the parsha, you might enjoy 70 faces, my collection of Torah poems, published by Phoenicia in 2011.)

Charlotte Mandel's The Marriages of Jacob

MarriagesCharlotte Mandel's The Marriages of Jacob (Micah Publications, 1991) is a "poem-novella" which explores the story of the Biblical patriarch Jacob and his wives, and it is extraordinary.

As a reader, I relate to this volume on at least two levels. It's been more than thirteen years since I finished my MFA at Bennington, but I'm still interested and invested in contemporary poetry. So on the one hand, I approach this collection as a poet and a reader of poetry.

And my other set of lenses is my love of Torah and of the midrash which flowers-forth from Torah.  I cherish our stories and the wealth of commentary which form the core of our tradition. I'm interested and invested in stories from Torah and in their various retellings.

This collection moves me and inspires me on both of these levels. I appreciate the craft of this poetry, Mandel's choices of word and turn of phrase. And I appreciate the love of this scriptural story which led her to write these poems, and the ways in which she fleshes out Torah's sparse narrative into something multifaceted, three-dimensional, and real.

Longtime readers know that writing Torah poems is part of both my creative and my spiritual practice; I wrote one every week for a few years, and collected the best poem for each parsha into 70 faces (Phoenicia, 2011). But I've never gone as deeply into a single story, a single Biblical narrative, as Mandel does here. Here's how the collection begins:

Silence veils this bride
no less than her lowered hood
sewn with seven stems of silver wheat

Seven years this virgin groom
has buried his fists in her father's harvests,
bound sheep's wool into humps

A bargain -- the heat of his body
for the fragrance of Rachel,
Laban's daughter.
                      A swollen moon,
thorned stars and fruitful vines
pattern the roof of the wedding tent

loomed by the hummingbird fingers
of girls too young to have bled.
Her bearded brothers are grinning

with closed lips at their father's wit:
"Did he not ask
for my daughter, and do I not give him

my daughter Leah?"

I like the alliteration and assonance of "sewn with seven stems of silver wheat," of "buried his fists in her father's harvests," of "loomed by the hummingbird fingers." (And what images! Fists buried in the thick springiness of wool, weaving fingers flying fast as tiny birds.) And I like the visual prosody of the turn at the middle of the poem, the indented line a hinge between the first half and the second, between one part of the story and the next.

Continue reading "Charlotte Mandel's The Marriages of Jacob" »

Nice interview in the North Adams Transcript

The editors at The North Adams Transcript asked their religion writer, Seth Brown, whether he would write something about me and my blog. Seth and I had a lovely interview earlier this week, and the article is online this morning. Here's a taste:

The blog, Velveteen Rabbi, is about what Barenblat refers to as "Judaism writ large," which covers a wide range of topics including Torah, festivals, holidays, texts and poetry. More recently, her blog has also stretched to encompass a little bit about parenthood and life as a congregational rabbi.

"I think my blogging has changed as I’ve gone from being interested in the rabbinate, to moving through the rabbinic school, to now being a practicing rabbi," said Barenblat. "On the other hand, I’m still writing on a lot of the topics that captivated me 10 years ago. That’s a nice thing about Torah, God, religious practice and poetry -- they never get old."

Read the whole thing at the Transcript: Local rabbi's blog keeps conversation moving. Thanks, Transcript, and thank you, Seth!

Insights on Babel: how groupthink damages our relationship with God

SubversiveSequels_softcoverThis year my clergy Torah study group is reading Judy Klitsner's Subversive Sequels in the Bible: How Biblical Stories Mine and Undermine Each Other. We've begun with the chapter which links the Tower of Babel with the story of the Exodus. So far we're still working our way through the first half of the chapter, which explores the Babel story. (Need a refresher? Babel on Wikipedia; Genesis 11:1-9 at Mechon-Mamre.)

The primary thing which has struck me, as we've been reading this commentary, is the extent to which the Babel story can be read as a commentary on the dangers of groupthink. "And all the earth was of one language and of one set of words..."

The commentator Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, known as the Netziv, writes:

We must understand why they [the builders of Babel] feared some people leaving for another land. This was certainly related to the devarim ahadim, the "one speech" among them. They feared that since not all human thoughts are identical, if some would leave they might adopt different thoughts. And so they saw to it that no one left their enclave. Anyone who deviated from the devarim ahadim, the "one speech" that was among them would be sentenced to burning...What emerges is...they decided to kill anyone who did not think as they did.

It's easy to think of this mythical era when all the earth was of one language and one set of words as a time of peaceful agreement. But the Netziv is drawing out what's sinister here.

Expanding on this theme, Klitsner writes:

There is much literary evidence for Netziv's hypothesis that the sin at Babel was the creation of a coercively conformist society... The insistently repetitive rhythms of the text point to a generation's intellectual and ideological homogeneity, in which every element of culture is mandated, from language and thought to meter and melody. Through structure and sound, this passage informs us that the sin at Babel is the achievement of consensus at the expense of individuality.

This isn't a matter of people finding consensus and agreement. It's more like being assimilated into the Borg, or the creepy unison ball-bouncing of the children of Camazotz (A Wrinkle in Time.) I'd never thought of the beginning of the Babel story in this way. The notion that God is somehow threatened by the people's intention to build a tower reaching the heavens has always seemed a little bit overblown to me, but the notion that God is troubled by the suppression of individuality -- that's a powerful idea.

Klitsner continues:

One aspect of the people's rebellion against God lies in their attempts at effacing the individual. Their attempts constitute a negation of God's plan for humanity to be unique as God is unique. But there is another facet to their mutiny. By quashing freedom of thought, the tower builders preclude any human-divine engagement...While religious behavior may be coerced or feigned, such acts by definition are meaningless. Religious worship has meaning only when the individual freely and sincerely chooses to submit to God's authority. By eroding the individual, the builders at Babel render impossible any hope of a human-divine covenant.

Without freedom of thought, no relationship with God is possible. I keep returning to that idea. We're called to live in relationship, in engagement, with the divine -- and we can't do that without choice and diversity and difference. Coercion and groupthink make connection with God impossible.

I resonate with the idea that in order for religious practice to have meaning, it has to be something we enter into willingly. Of course, I'm speaking in terms of practice and meaning, not in the terms she used (submission to divine authority). I think for many liberal Jews today, the language of practice and meaning is more accessible than the language of commandedness, much less the language of submission to something greater than ourselves. My question is always, how can I help open up the richness of the tradition such that more people will want to understand themselves as choosing to enter into relationship with God?

Anyway, I'm finding a lot of richness in this approach to the Babel story, and I'm looking forward to seeing how she reads Exodus as a commentary on, and/or a subversion of, the Babel narrative. If you've read Klitsner and want to share your response, or if you want to natter about these interpretations of the Babel story, feel free to chime in.


New toddler house poem, about waking early


The wail -- wet pyjamas --
drags me bleary

past the flickering nightlight
at the red-eye crack of dawn

I wrap our cosiest blankets
at the wrong end of the bed

unwilling to flip the switch
and admit that it's daytime

but there's no more sleep
for either one of us:

I give up and make coffee
as early sun gilds the floor

Modah ani l'fanecha
living and enduring God

You wake me at 5:30
to remind me how good it is

to be awake
and to be dry

and to bring this mug
to my grateful lips



This is the latest poem in my occasional Toddler House series. Most, though not all, of these poems have appeared here at Velveteen Rabbi in draft. (The most recent was Morning Cartoons, Morning Prayer.) I'm keeping all of them in a single manuscript; I don't know if this will evolve into a full collection, but for the moment I'm enjoying how they play off each other.

The first Monday morning after the time change is always hard. Our little guy (not so little anymore; he's almost three!) goes to bed early and rises early, and though he hasn't batted an eye at going to bed an hour later than he used to (before the time change), he's also not sleeping any later than he used to, which has made this a week of earlier mornings than I might have strictly preferred. I'm aware, though, that sleeping through the night until 5:30 would have seemed unthinkable luxury when he was an infant.

Modah ani l'fanecha are the first words of the Modah Ani prayer, the morning blessing for gratitude. "I am grateful before You, living and enduring God: You have restored my soul to me with mercy; great is Your faithfulness!"


Shared hope

Watch-barack-obama-victory-speech-for-election-2012Democracy in a nation of 300 million can be noisy and messy and complicated. We have our own opinions. Each of us has deeply held beliefs. And when we go through tough times, when we make big decisions as a country, it necessarily stirs passions, stirs up controversy. That won’t change after tonight. And it shouldn’t. These arguments we have are a mark of our liberty, and we can never forget that as we speak, people in distant nations are risking their lives right now just for a chance to argue about the issues that matter -- the chance to cast their ballots like we did today.

We want our children to live in an America that isn’t burdened by debt, that isn’t weakened up by inequality, that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet...We believe in a generous America, in a compassionate America, in a tolerant America open to the dreams of an immigrant’s daughter who studies in our schools and pledges to our flag, to the young boy on the south side of Chicago who sees a life beyond the nearest street corner, to the furniture worker’s child in North Carolina who wants to become a doctor or a scientist, an engineer or an entrepreneur, a diplomat or even a president. That’s the future we hope for.

I have always believed that hope is that stubborn thing inside us that insists, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us so long as we have the courage to keep reaching, to keep working, to keep fighting... I believe we can keep the promise of our founding, the idea that if you’re willing to work hard, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from or what you look like or who you love. It doesn’t matter whether you’re black or white or Hispanic or Asian or Native American or young or old or rich or poor, abled, disabled, gay or straight. You can make it here in America if you’re willing to try.

(Source: Transcript of President Obama's Election Night Speech.)