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November 2012
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January 2013

My top ten VR posts of 2012

The Gregorian year is winding down: time to go back through all of my 2012 posts, and choose the ones I think are best, or most enduring, or most worth highlighting one more time. I've come up with ten favorite prose posts from the last twelve months. And here they are, organized chronologically:

Living in Jewish time. "I used to wonder what it was like to be a dancer. To have a whole choreographed performance internalized in your body, such that even as you're dancing one movement, you know what movements come next, and after that, and after that. I still can't imagine the literal experience, but on some level, I think maybe it's a little bit like this experience of being rooted in the Jewish year. Doing the dance steps of Tu BiShvat, knowing that the Purim steps come next, and the Pesach steps, the Omer steps, the Shavuot steps. It's a balancing act, being wholly in this moment even as I try to lay the groundwork for moments to come."

Bedside. "It is humbling to sit by the bedside of someone who is transitioning out of this life."

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

Sleeping and waking, Torah and revelation. "In the Hasidic understanding, the Torah which we know in this world is a physical manifestation of -- and also a pale reflection of -- the supernal Torah which is known to God on high. Bereshit Rabbah (a classical commentary on Genesis) teaches us that when a person sleeps, a portion of their soul ascends on high and is united with God; upon waking, the soul returns to the body. Who can know what Torah was revealed to our ancestors in that holy sleep? Their souls (or, as another midrash has it, our souls -- since we all stood at Sinai, every Jewish soul which has ever been or will ever be) ascended on high and connected with God. And then they woke up, and received revelation in a different way."

The moment, here and gone. "Now that the big-boy bed sits in boxes in our entry foyer waiting to be assembled, I'm discovering that I wasn't exactly correct when I swore I would never miss those early days. There are things I miss, though most of them are hard to verbalize -- like his peachfuzzed baby head with its scent of milk. When Drew needs comfort now, it's a bit of a struggle to fold his long-limbed body into mine, his head onto my shoulder. When I put him to bed now, hefting him up into my arms and over the bar into the crib, I know our days of this particular bedtime routine are numbered. There's a poignancy in that."

Cultivating equanimity. " Maybe equanimity is the quality which enables us to encompass both the moments of blissful connection and the moments of agonizing disconnect. Because I can't stay in that lofty headspace and heartspace, no matter how I wish I could. At some point, we always have to leave mochin d'gadlut (expanded consciousness or "big mind") for mochin d'katnut (constricted consciousness or "small mind.") For me, the question is: once I'm back in "small mind," how will I respond to the world around me? How will I respond to injustice, to unkindness, to lack? How will I respond to compassion, to connection, to joy?"

Wishing for a different communal discourse. "Why does it matter to me that someone is "wrong on the internet"? Because this is part of a bigger picture of people trying to define who's "in" and who's "out;" because this is part of an attempt to define me, and my colleagues, with words we would not use to describe ourselves; because labeling us as "anti-Israel activists" is not only factually wrong, but also hurtful; because this is part of an attempt to bully and silence those of us in the Jewish community who criticize Israel's policies, and I don't think it's wise or healthy to create a situation in which anyone who critiques Israel is considered beyond the pale."

Ten years in Jewish Renewal. "I came home from that first week at Elat Chayyim and said to Ethan, "I've found my teachers. Someday I want to be a rabbi like they are rabbis." // Ten years. Could I have imagined, then, who and where I would be now?"

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

On 'Otherness' at Christmas. "I think there's something profoundly valuable in the de-centering experience of recognizing that one's own paradigm is not the only paradigm. But I recognize that it isn't always easy or comfortable. And if it isn't happening in a reciprocal way -- where I recognize that my way isn't the only way, but so does the other guy; specifically, so does the person with the privilege of being in the dominant / majority position -- it can feel alienating and painful. Everyone else is having a great time and I'm outside the party -- alienating and painful. That mainstream experience is "normal," and I feel perennially "other" -- alienating and painful. // Nu, what to do?"

Here's to 2013!

Jewish Renewal voices on the UN vote recognizing Palestine

Last week, OHALAH -- the association of Jewish Renewal clergy -- voted on a resolution regarding UN recognition of Palestine. The resolution is now posted on the OHALAH website: Majority Opinion Among OHALAH Members on the UN Vote Recognizing Palestine and its Aftermath.

I'm proud of our community on several levels. First: I know that this resolution was a challenge to draft. This resolution was drafted by several members of the organization's tikkun olam committee, where there is a wide diversity of political and spiritual stances when it comes to Israel. So reaching a resolution on which all of us on the committee could agree was a victory. Second: once we brought the resolution to the broader OHALAH community, there was a lot of discussion on our list-serv. The conversation there was impassioned but productive. From where I sit, that's a victory too.

And finally: we're putting forth a majority opinion which says some things which I haven't heard any of the other major Jewish organizational voices saying. Such as:

[W]e are aware that the recent recognition of Palestine by the UN General Assembly is a tremendously important and profound moment for the Palestinian people. We honor its importance to the Palestinian people, even though many of us greet the news with trepidation about what this will mean for Israel. Only time will tell whether or not this recognition will actually move the peace process forward. We pray that this is a moment when hearts can open, and steps can be taken to pursue peace, and we call on both Israel and the newly-recognized Palestine to do everything in their power to actively pursue a just, lasting and secure peace.

This is a beautiful articulation of how I felt about the recognition of Palestine by the UN General Assembly. I don't know what it means for the future, but I recognize and honor that it's a big deal for the Palestinian community. I hope that this gesture on the part of the UN will help to create a situation where both peoples can negotiate a just and lasting peace from a new vantage. And yes, I pray that this is a moment when hearts can open and steps can be taken to pursue peace. Absolutely. Amen!

I also like the fact that this statement grounds these hopes in text:

As our sages taught centuries ago, when they interpreted Psalms 34:14, "Seek peace, and pursue it": "So great is peace, that you must seek peace for your own place, and pursue it even in another place" (Leviticus Rabah 9:9). As we seek peace for our own place, for the home of the Jewish people, we also accept our obligation to pursue peace in another's place, for another people as well as for ourselves.

Therefore, we call upon Israel and the Palestinian Authority to enter into direct bilateral negotiations. We agree with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who said that "the only way to get a lasting solution is to commence direct negotiations." Therefore, we support the United States using its influence to bring the parties together for such negotiations.

We urge the three major parties involved in this process to avoid actions which may be seen as being retaliatory, reactionary, punishing or threatening to the commencement of direct negotiations.

What moves me here is the interpretation of the Leviticus Rabbah quote: that "seek peace and pursue it" means not only to seek peace for one's own place, but also to pursue it even in another place. We can read that as: seek peace from one's own place, and pursue it from the Other's place. Our tradition calls us to place ourselves in the position of the Other -- for me as a Jew, that means to try to stand in a Palestinian's shoes -- and seek peace not only from my own standpoint, but also from theirs. This is powerful stuff. (And I give kavod to R' David Seidenberg, who brought this particular interpretation to the table.)

I'm gladdened to be part of a clergy association which can accept this statement as a majority opinion among our members. May our hopes for peace be realized, speedily and soon.

The year winds down

There's no preschool today or tomorrow, so instead of spending these days at shul / at my desk, I'm spending them with our son. Today we'll alternate between watching Peanuts cartoons and playing with trains and paints at home, and running a few errands to prepare for our evening.

We're continuing last year's tradition of hosting some friends and family for dinner tonight (which I can't resist calling erev Christmas), and -- like last year -- Ethan's going to make zely and knedliky again -- Czech red cabbage and bread dumplings -- as a nod to my grandmother Lali, of blessed memory.

My online time is likely to be limited between now and early January, so I'll take this opportunity to wish all of y'all a lovely end-of-the-Gregorian-year! To those who celebrate Christmas tonight and tomorrow, may your holiday be filled with meaning, merry and bright.

Three poems from the book of Judges

The book of Judges contains some powerful stories. Some years ago I wrote a trio of poems exploring three of those stories and the women who feature in them: the judge and prophet Devorah, Yael who slew the general Sisera, and the nameless daughter of Yiftach (in English, his name is usually rendered Jephthah.)

Tekufat tevet, the winter solstice, is regarded as the date when Yiftach's daughter was killed. These are dark stories, but powerful ones. Today's the solstice, so I thought I'd share my trio of poems arising out of the book of Judges. If this interests you, don't miss Alicia Ostriker's long poem / ritual script Jephthah's Daughter: A Lament, available at Tel Shemesh.


1. Devorah

Beneath her palm tree, Devorah
    (the honey bee, her sting intact)
        judged the acts of the Israelites

the people came with gifts
     of oil and flour and yearling lambs
         and she answered them with justice

she sent for Barak in his leathers
    words fell from her mouth like honey
        and he yearned to taste her sweetness

come with me, he pleaded
    I will relinquish my own glory
        if I can have you by my side

nine hundred iron chariots thundered
    the Infinite cast panic like a spell
        and all Sisera's army was slain

and Devorah slept, and dreamed
     Sisera stumbles into a woman's tent
         Jael's doors open wide to let him in

he drinks milk fermented in goatskin
    he slides into sleep: her tent pin rests
        at his sweaty temple: she drives it home

Continue reading "Three poems from the book of Judges" »

Rejecting erosion

A Rabbi Without Borders: Doesn't worry, at least not very much, about dilution, or work from a narrative of erosion.

That's item six on the Rabbis Without Borders FAQ. Of all the things we talked about during the two days of our first fellows gathering, this is the one I find myself continuing to mull over and contemplate as the week continues to unfold.

Messages about the dilution and erosion of Judaism are surprisingly pervasive. I think of the anti-intermarriage rhetoric which is rooted in the fear that the Jewish community is disappearing (see A New Demographic,, and the ways in which Birthright trips seem designed to encourage inmarriage (see Breeding Zionism, Tablet, 2010.) I think of the generalized sense that there were "good old days" and that our generation is sadly far from them: our Jewish educations aren't what they once were, our Jewish commitment isn't what it once was, that sort of thing.

Sometimes I'm susceptible to this narrative too. Not on the intermarriage anxiety front, but the Jewish education one. I imagine an earlier moment in time when -- at least in my fantasy -- every Jew was well-grounded in Jewish texts and practices, when basic liturgical and Torah literacy were a given. It's an easy thing to feel nostalgic about, in a moment when a lot of people don't necessarily have that grounding (and don't necessarily wish for it, either.)

But while it may be true that once upon a time we all knew our own tradition's canon, two other things were also true at that moment: the canon was a lot smaller, and the "we" was smaller too. (That insight comes from R' Brad Hirschfield.) I like being part of a diverse "we" -- diverse across all kinds of spectra: gender and sexuality, ethnicity, knowledge, practice. And I don't actually want to return to that more insular moment or to that time when our own canon was the only learning available to us.

I don't see today's intermarriage rates (or the rise in "nones" -- see Pew Forum: 'No Religion' on the rise, 2012) as dangers to Judaism or to Jewish community. Yes, our communities are more permeable than they used to be, and an increasing number of people are choosing and changing and crossing boundaries -- or, in R' Irwin Kula's terms, "mixing, blending, bending, and switching." (See his essay From the Cathedral to the Bazaar, HuffPo, 2010.) But I'd rather see those realities as opportunities to collaborate in writing a new chapter of our story than as occasion for sounding the alarm.

And I love the breadth and range of knowledge and passion which are open to, and cherished by, the communities I serve -- even if that knowledge isn't necessarily Jewish. I want to celebrate living in a moment when both our sense of our canon, and our sense of our "we," is expansive. A moment we can cultivate a cosmopolitan sense of ourselves as connected with other communities and cultures, not merely concerned with our own story or our own texts or our own ways of thinking. This potential for intellectual and spiritual expansiveness is one of our era's greatest gifts.

My teacher Reb Zalman speaks sometimes in terms of needing both the rearview mirror (so we can see where we've been) and the front windshield (so we can see where we're going.) I don't want to lose the rear view, but I'm also excited to be heading into new territory. And I don't believe that this new territory is one of disaster. The long and the short of it is, I don't want to buy into the negativity encoded in the narratives of dilution and erosion. They're not "the" story -- simply "a" story. I'd rather tell a different one.

Here's a different story: there are things I love, and I want to share them with you. I've inherited a deep toolbox of texts and practices passed down through generations, a box chock-full of wisdom and ideas and insights: old ones and new ones, useful ones and odd ones. I'd like to teach the use of these weird and wonderful tools. Not because they're endangered or because you "have to" learn them or rescuscitate them or save them, but because they're valuable ways of interacting with the history and the present, with the world around us, with emotional and spiritual life, with something beyond ourselves.

I love Jewish texts and teachings, Jewish modes of prayer, Jewish ways of experiencing the world and encountering God. I love them so much that I want to share them with everyone I meet. And one of the wonders of living in this moment of time is that I can do that, here on this blog. What an incredible gift it is to be able to share some of the riches of my tradition with people who are thirsty for -- or at least curious about! -- those riches. I don't know how to measure the impact of this work, and I don't ever expect to be finished with it, but I love that I get to do it in the first place.

And I love living at a time when there's so much capacity for bridge-building and interconnection. Between different cultures, between different communities, between different experiences, between different understandings of God. This is an amazing moment to be Jewish; it's an amazing moment to be a spiritual seeker; it's an amazing moment to be in the world. So the ground is shifting beneath our feet. Dare I hope that maybe we're on the verge of figuring out how to fly?


Rabbis Without Borders, kirtan, wow


I've done kirtan before. I've even done kirtan with the Kirtan Rabbi, Rabbi Andrew Hahn, before. So when I saw it on our agenda, this morning, I smiled, and I thought, wow, that's going to blow a few minds. I didn't realize one of them would be mine.

Today was the first day of the first meeting of the fourth cohort of the Rabbis Without Borders fellowship. This morning we introduced ourselves by way of pennies, broke into small groups to talk about objects which matter to us (Jewish objects, "non-Jewish objects," and objects which others might think are non-Jewish but which feel Jewish to us -- after meeting with my small group I tweeted that I'm not sure there are non-Jewish objects anymore), and listened to Lisa Miller, religion editor at Newsweek, talk about religious demographics in the United States today.

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield led a fantastic afternoon session exploring and recontextualizing the statistics Lisa had placed before us. I want to blog about that, at some point. I have a lot of thoughts and ideas bouncing around my head now. I'm thinking a lot about the notion that the rising number of "nones" -- those who aren't affiliated with any religious tradition; who check the "none" box on surveys -- is not an ending but a beginning. An opening for a new chapter which we may, if we are awake and aware, be blessed to help co-author.

But the thing I want to write about tonight was our evening program, which was Hebrew kirtan with the Kirtan Rabbi. Kirtan is devotional chanting. In its original context, it's a kind of bhakti yoga -- a devotional practice of chanting divine names in order to open up the heart. Reb Drew led us in an evening of chanting, interspersed with narrative. He told us, over the course of the evening, how he came to explore this form of sacred practice and to integrate it with Judaism.

One of the chants which moved me was a variation on the shema. It features a variety of names for God: not only Adonai and Yah but also hesed, gevurah, tiferet -- the classical kabbalistic sefirot. I smiled as those names unfolded. I thought, ah, I see what he's doing there, that's very lovely. I enjoyed the chanting, and then when the chant was done I enjoyed the experience of singing the full shema once as our chatimah.

But the chant which really got me was his chant which works with the kaddish. There are several parts to the melody, and we chanted each one in turn. L'eilah min kol birchata u-shirata -- beyond all blessings and songs. Y'hei shmei rabbah m'vorach -- may the Great Name be blessed. One of the melodic lines is borrowed from the way the kaddish is sung on Friday nights, so I grinned the first time we sang it -- a familiar melody and familiar words, shifted and changed by their new context. I was surprised by how much joy and energy we brought to singing that line.

This is hard to describe; I'm not doing it justice. We reached a place where we were singing his kaddish kirtan in harmony -- the women singing one melodic line and set of words, the men singing another -- and all of a sudden my heart cracked open and I burst into tears. Quietly, mind you; I don't think most of the room noticed. I covered my face with my hands and took a few deep breaths and then I was able to sing again, though softly. By the time we finished the kaddish my face was wet and all I could think was that this must be what it's like to be part of the choirs of angels singing holy holy holy back and forth all day.

I've been blessed to have this kind of peak experience many times over my years in Jewish Renewal, but I wasn't expecting to have it tonight. (I've heard Reb Zalman speak several times about the challenge of "domesticating" the peak experience -- taking the peak experiences we may be blessed to have on retreat, and bringing them home with us, bringing that energy home to enliven our daily prayer lives.) I didn't see it coming, and there it was: a surprise from God, a moment of intense connection where my heart opened wide and God poured in.

Maybe it was because I was chanting kirtan in such an intimate setting -- this RWB cohort is a scant 18 people, so it was an intimate room, all of us seated close together and close to the music. Maybe because everyone in the room knew what the words meant (while I think most kirtan afficionadoes would say that the experience of chanting is meaningful even if the words are opaque -- come to think of it, that's one of the arguments I've used for davening in Hebrew even when one isn't fluent, too -- I do think that something is added when one knows what one is praying.)

One way or another, it was wonderful experience. I'm grateful to Reb Drew and his wonderful ensemble (especially Shoshanna Jedwab, whose drumming -- when I encounter it -- always enlivens my prayer). To my RWB cohort for willingness to enter into this admittedly non-traditional experience (which we'll be processing and discussing tomorrow morning -- that should be fascinating in its own right!) To RWB/Clal for creating the container within which this could all take place.

Several of my colleagues and I took the subway back to our hotel together, still talking about the evening. As I write this post now I feel as though I'm still vibrating faintly from this intense and wonderful day of conversations and connections and song.

Reading on the train

I wasn't paying attention when I chose where to drop my bags and settle in, but by sheer luck I picked the side of the train which runs right alongside the Hudson. At this season the hills are a deep brown-purple and the water reflects the grey sky. The tawny reeds and grasses are the brightest, most colorful things in sight. A long low dark-green barge moves upriver, leaving ripples in its long wake.

Every few moments our horn sounds. Warning people and animals off the tracks ahead, I guess. The train rattles slightly, shaking just a little bit from side to side. The journey from Albany to New York City doesn't take terribly long -- only a few hours. But in emotional and spiritual terms it feels like a great distance between here and there. Between rural America and the great metropolis.

I have homework to do while I travel: rereading three studies about religion in American life. (One of them is a 2012 Pew Forum study 'Nones' on the Rise. Another is the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey.) I read these a couple of months ago, before what was supposed to be the first meeting of my Rabbis Without Borders Fellows cohort -- but then Hurricane Sandy got in our way. Statistics don't stay in my head for long; I need to re-read.

It's interesting for me to learn that most people who self-identity as having "no" religious affiliation still consider themselves religious and/or spiritual. "[M]ost of the 'nones' say they believe in God, and most describe themselves as religious, spiritual or both," says the Pew study. I find myself wondering how many liberal American Jews -- those who are affiliated, who do belong to congregations -- would be comfortable defining themselves in those ways.

And I'm fascinated to read that among American adults who say that religion is important in their lives, one-third report attending services less than once a month. It makes sense to me that those who don't identify with a religious community don't come to shul. But that a third of those who do so identify -- and, more, who say that religion is important in their lives -- don't come to daven: what does that mean?

I'm looking forward to seeing what kind of conversations we have and what sort of learning we do over the next two days. For now, I'm alternating between digging into these studies and watching little birds startle from the branches and scatter as we pass.

This week's portion: on abundance and dreams

Here's the d'var Torah I offered yesterday at my shul. (Crossposted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

At the beginning of today's Torah portion, Pharaoh dreams two dreams. First, seven handsome cows arise, and seven lean cows devour them. Then seven fat ears of corn arise, and seven lean ears devour them. None of Pharaoh's soothsayers can interpret these troubling visions. Fortunately, Pharaoh's cupbearer remembers that when he was in jail a few years back, he met an Israelite named Joseph.

Pharaoh summons Joseph and says, I hear you can interpret dreams. But Joseph demurs. "Not I, but God." Joseph doesn't have the answers; God does. But Joseph can serve as a channel, opening himself to allow God's insight to flow through.

It's December in the modern world, and the commercials with which we are deluged remind me of Pharaoh's dreams. Every time my television tells me that if I really loved my spouse I would surprise him on Christmas morning with an expensive car, or diamonds, or electronics, or new clothes, I think of Pharaoh's sleek fattened cows. Richness. Abundance. That's the dream the television is selling.

But in showering our loved ones with lavish affection, it's easy to overspend our budgets and wind up with painfully lean wallets come January. In the Biblical model, that's the seven emaciated cows who devoured the seven fat ones. We fear that scarcity will follow abundance, good fortune dissipating like the smoke left behind when the Chanukah candles gutter.

Continue reading "This week's portion: on abundance and dreams" »

God, let me cry on your shoulder

A prayer after today's school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. (See also R' Menachem Creditor's Prayer in the wake of a school shooting.)

God, let me cry on Your shoulder.
Rock me like a colicky baby.
Promise me You won't forget

each of Your perfect reflections
killed today. Promise me
You won't let me forget, either.

I'm hollow, stricken like a bell.
Make of my emptiness a channel
for Your boundless compassion.

Soothe the children who witnessed
things no child should see,
the teachers who tried to protect them

but couldn't, the parents
who are torn apart with grief,
who will never kiss their beloveds again.

Strengthen the hands and hearts
of Your servants tasked with caring
for those wounded in body and spirit.

Help us to find meaning
in the tiny lights we kindle tonight.
Help us to trust

that our reserves of hope
and healing are enough
to carry us through.

We are Your hands: put us to work.
Ignite in us the unquenchable yearning
to reshape our world

so that violence against children
never happens again, anywhere.
We are Your grieving heart.


Bat Mitzvah-versary

My birthday is in the spring, but I celebrated becoming bat mitzvah in midwinter. During Chanukah, actually. I think we chose the date because some of my older siblings already lived far away, and Shabbat Chanukah would be a relatively manageable time for far-flung family to get away from their ordinary lives and join us in San Antonio to celebrate.

Practicing Torah reading, while my grandparents looked on.

(Photo taken a few days in advance, since no photography was permitted on Shabbat.)

It's been twenty-five years since I celebrated becoming a daughter of the commandments, and took on the obligations of Jewish adulthood, among them learning Torah, doing mitzvot, and praying in community. As it happens, I'm leading services this Shabbat, too -- as I do twice every month, blessed as I am to serve as my community's rabbi! -- and I'll be reading from Torah tomorrow and offering a d'var Torah tomorrow morning, just as I did 25 years ago.

I remember that when I was studying toward becoming bat mitzvah, I got the notion (from where, I can't say: from my tutor Sarah? from reading books? from somewhere in the cultural zeitgeist?) that proper preparation meant that if the rabbi were to call in sick, the bat mitzvah girl ought to be able to lead the entire service on her own. I don't think I quite managed that, even then, but I do remember leading much of the service. I remember thinking that it was really fun. I liked singing; I liked learning trope (cantillation) for Torah and haftarah. I liked leading the community in prayer.

Receiving the Torah from the generations before me. L to R: my grandmother Alice z"l, my mother Liana, and me.

I'm not sure I would have believed it, twenty-five years ago, if someone had been able to travel through time and inform me that some quarter of a century hence I would be a rabbi. But then again, maybe I would have taken that in stride. One way or another, I'm unendingly thrilled to be leading davenen tomorrow -- parashat Miketz, shabbat Chanukah -- as I did all those years ago. Happy Bat Mitzvah-versary to me!

The beating heart of music in Israel / Palestine

Hearing this track, and learning about this nonprofit organization, brought a bit of light into my Chanukah. (Thanks, A Way In, for sharing this song as one of your Chanukah posts!) So I figured I'd share it with y'all too. The song is called "Bukra Fi Mishmish," Arabic for "when pigs fly" or "when the impossible happens." It's written, and performed, by Israeli and Palestinian youth aged 16-20. It's terrific.

(If you can't see the embedded YouTube video, you can go to Bukra Fi Mishmish at YouTube.)

The song comes out of Heartbeat. Here's how that org describes itself:

HEARTBEAT is an international community of musicians, educators, and students using music to build mutual understanding and transform conflict. Founded in 2007 under a grant from Fulbright and MTV, Heartbeat offers a variety of programs to enable Israeli and Palestinian youth musicians to build trust and actively participate in defining their futures, by developing and spreading their music.

Fear, violence, ignorance and a pervasive lack of trust define the political and cultural reality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Most Israelis and Palestinians have only encountered the other side through televised reports of extremist violence, soldiers at checkpoints, or politicians. As violence intensifies in this small corner of the world, people retreat to their side, and are too often unable to trust in the humanity of the other. To break the status quo of separation and violence and to build a future of peace, security, justice, and freedom for all, people on both sides must know the other; they must communicate and understand each others needs, fears, hopes and shared humanity. People on both sides must be shown tools of change more effective than violence.

Music has an amazing ability to connect people, build trust and inspire hope in the darkest of places. Modern, popular music has long been the voice of change all around the world and a powerful means for youth expression and nonviolent action. By bringing together young Jewish and Arab musicians and strengthening their voices, we are working to build a global culture of trust, compassion, and respect.

I give tremendous credit to everyone involved in this project; I don't imagine that this kind of creative and spiritual work is easy, but I do believe that it matters.

If this sounds like something you might want to support, consider donating to Heartbeat. They're in the process of applying for 501(c)3 status, but for those who are in the United States, tax-deductible contributions to Heartbeat can be sent to their fiscal sponsor, Jewish Renewal congregation Am Kolel, by clicking on the PayPal link on that donate page.

Happy Chanukah to all! I'll be humming this song long after this festival is through.

December Dialogue

There's some time this morning.
We could go to Target.

    We have plenty of Dora pull-ups.
    Why would we go to the mall today?
But they sell shiny decorations.
Maybe there's a Chanukah banner.

    We browsed that aisle last week.
    There weren't any banners then.
There might be one now! Or --
how about that hanging chanukiyyah?

    We don't need a chanukiyyah made of felt.
    And neither does the synagogue.
But our lone banner looks sad.
There ought to be more sparkle.

    Why the yearning for glitz and glitter?
    What are you really hungry for?
My glands hurt. It's dark so early.
I want to be swaddled, cuddled.
     I understand. I feel that way too.
     December's never easy.
I keep thinking: maybe more money,
more glamour, more presents...

    I think you mean more presence.
    And if it's the dark that's getting you --
It is. And the rain adds insult
to injury. Maybe I need a lamp.

    -- try lighting one thin candle.
    Then tomorrow, just one more.
But they're so tiny, flickering,
against the maelstrom, the juggernaut.

    That's what makes them real.
    Like a child's jam-smeared kiss.
Or a little voice saying
I love you mommy at bedtime.

    Or the faith that, against all odds,
    what's imperfect is enough.



One of the things I value about my spiritual practices, meditation among them, is that they offer me opportunities to pay attention to the thoughts and ideas and stories which pop up in my mind all the time. When I started paying attention to one of those trains of thought, responding to it with openness and curiosity to see where it would take me, the idea for this poem arose.

All responses welcome, as always.

Another poem for Chanukah

A poem by Aileen Lucia Fisher for Chanukah. (Today we're in day three of the eight day festival; we'll begin the fourth day tonight at sundown.)


Light the first of eight tonight—
the farthest candle to the right.

Light the first and second, too,
when tomorrow's day is through.

Then light three, and then light four—
every dusk one candle more

Till all eight burn bright and high,
honoring a day gone by

When the Temple was restored,
rescued from the Syrian lord,

And an eight-day feast proclaimed—
The Festival of Lights—well named

To celebrate the joyous day
when we regained the right to pray
to our one God in our own way.

(Source: Light the Festive Candles, at the Poetry Foundation.) Wishing a joyous festival of lights to all who celebrate.

On "Otherness" at Christmas


With family, at holiday party, 1982; with friends, in uniform, 1992.

From the age of eleven on, I attended an Episcopal school called Saint Mary's Hall. Six years of white sailor middy and pleated skirt, saddle shoes, "dress uniform" (white skirt and knee socks) on Mondays for chapel. I loved it there. The yellow brick archways and live-oak-filled courtyards, the motto which appeared on the entrance steps I climbed every day ("teach us delight in simple things"), the years I spent learning Latin and French, literature and biology. The friends I made, many of whom are still in my life.

And I didn't mind going to chapel every Monday, or learning the Lord's Prayer, or even singing the school hymn, which was "Fight the Good Fight." I enjoyed going each December to Christmas vespers services at the church we could walk to, down the street from the campus, where students would tell the story of the birth of Jesus, and students would play handbells, and we would all sing "Adeste Fideles" which I was unreasonably proud of actually understanding in Latin.

I didn't mind being one of the few Jewish kids at my school. I'd been going to synagogue with my family my whole life. I'd spent two years at Jewish day school. After my celebration of bat mitzvah, I became a teacher's aide and a bat mitzvah tutor at our congregation. I'd gone one year to Jewish summer camp. Nothing about attending an Episcopal school felt strange to me. It was just normal, and it was where my friends and teachers were, and I loved it there.

In retrospect, it's a little bit amazing to me that I felt so perfectly comfortable in my "otherness," especially given that adolescence is so often a time when our differences pain us. But I don't remember ever experiencing a disjunction around being a Jewish kid at a school where most of the kids were Christian or where attendance at weekly Episcopal chapel services was mandatory. Nobody expected me to be, or to become, anything other than what I was. I was different, but that felt safe.

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Sufganiyot in the Saturday Poetry Series

Thanks to the Saturday Poetry Series for reprinting my Chanukah poem Sufganiyot (which was originally published in Zeek in 2004.)

I particularly appreciate Saturday editor Sivan Butler-Rotholz's kind comments:

With today’s piece Rabbi Rachel Barenblat elevates these phenomenal holiday treats from the realm of the epicurial to a heightened world where femininity, sexuality, and deep fried delicacies become one...

Read the poem, and her commentary, here: Saturday poetry series presents: Rabbi Rachel Barenblat. Happy Chanukah to all!

A new poem for Chanukah


Some days I can enter
the holy of holies
by snapping my fingers:
the door swings open.

Other days I ransack
every pocket to find the key
and when I get inside
the room is darkened.

There's mud on the floor,
the intricate altar
is grimy, askew,
its heartbeat silenced.

I sweep the ashes away
open my thermos of tea
re-hang the tapestries,
great branches arching.

At last I light the lamp:
the glint, the glow
regenerating, the homefire
eternally burning.

Learn to trust again
that this oil is enough
to open my eyes
to God, already here.

In our Friday morning meditation yesterday, in preparation for the start of Chanukah (which begins tonight), I led us in a guided meditation, imagining what it was like to enter the temple which had been desecrated and to rekindle the ner tamid, the eternal light. Then I invited us each to enter into the holy of holies of our own hearts, and to see ourselves rededicating our own internal altars.

This poem came out of that meditation. I offer a bright shiny piece of virtual Chanukah gelt to anyone who recognizes its recasting of images from some perhaps unlikely secular sources!  For more on the idea that we each carry the holy of holies in our own hearts, I recommend Rabbi Menachem Creditor's Within Our Hearts the Holy of Holies, in Sh'ma.

A happy and joyous Chanukah to all who celebrate. May our eternal lights burn brightly, and may we rededicate ourselves at this season to the task of bringing light.

Sfat Emet on Chanukah and on light

What there is to learn from this portion is to prepare yourself during the good days in which holiness is revealed, to set that light solidly within the heart so it will be there during the bad days when the holiness is hidden.

That's from the Sfat Emet -- the Hasidic rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter of Ger -- on Miketz, the Torah portion in which we read about Pharaoh's dreams about the fat cows and the lean cows which devour them. We'll be reading Miketz not this Shabbat, but next -- on the Shabbat which falls during Chanukah. Chanukah, when we celebrate the triumph of hope over despair, the triumph of light over darkness.

My dear teacher R' Daniel Siegel recently published, on his blog, a series of teachings from the Sfat Emet on Chanukah. Reb Daniel writes:

The S'fat Emet is, I believe, a uniquely organized Hassidic text because not only do the teachings follow the annual Torah reading cycle, but they are subdivided by the years in which they were given. And what I noticed is that the Gerer Rebbe gave nineteen teachings between the years 1870 and 1903, eighteen of which begin with the same citation from the same midrash and the first, while not citing that particular text, sets the themes for those that follow.

Such a discovery requires sustained reading, and I am so grateful to Reb Daniel for sharing it. How remarkable that over the course of thirty-three years, the S'fat Emet offered nineteen teachings on this week's Torah portion, eighteen of which began with the same midrashic citation. Perhaps -- operating on the theory that one teaches best what one most needs to learn -- this was an idea with which he struggled, and therefore kept turning and turning it to find what was in it.

Year after year, the S'fat Emet returns to this idea that God sets limits around darkness, that darkness will not endure forever. Darkness, which he links with the yetzer ha-ra or evil inclination, has its limits; light, which is linked with blessing and with Torah and with Shabbat, is endless.

Living in the northern hemisphere, I find in this teaching the same message I find in the experience of kindling Chanukah lights: the light is always increasing. The darkness won't be forever. Of course, the darkness in these teachings is always more than merely literal.

The light which was created during the six days of creation shone from one end of the world to the other and was beyond time and contraction. The Holy Blessed One saw that the world wasn't worthy of it because of sin and hid it away for the righteous...Therefore, anyone who needs to attain an enlightenment must first pass through the hiding of the light in darkness.

I've only just begun reading and processing these S'fat Emet texts. I should spend the time to pore over each one in Hebrew as well as reading them quickly in English -- I know from experience that going into the Hebrew often gives me a different, a deeper, grasp of the concepts and the teachings. But on a first reading, in English, I'm struck by what I'm finding there. And today, I'm moved by this idea that in order to access the light, one often finds oneself moving through darkness.

For all who feel trapped in darkness right now -- the literal darkness of northern hemisphere winter; the emotional and spiritual darkness of trouble and sorrow -- I hope these glimpses of the S'fat Emet's teaching on next week's parsha may offer some glimmers of light.

Two reprints for these darkening December / Kislev days

Here is what I have to offer: be kind to yourself during these days. Pay attention to what your body is saying, to what your heart is saying, to the places where your mind gets tied in knots. What are the stories you tell yourself about this time of year? What are the old hurts to which you can't help returning, what are the old joys which you can't help anticipating?

Listen to your heart. Discern what awakens joy in you, as you anticipate the month of Kislev unfolding, and what awakens sadness or fear. Tell your emotions that you understand, you hear them, they don't have to clamor for your attention. Gentle them as you would gentle a spooked horse or an overwrought child.

-- A call for kindness during Kislev, 2011

[T]he matter of having enough, or not having enough, is surely an emotional one, as much as or more than it is a fiscal one. Scarcity is a kind of mitzrayim, a narrow place. And the fear of scarcity can be even worse, in the way the fear of a thing is usually worse than the thing itself. Fear of scarcity can be existential, can make the whole world seem constrained.

Fear of not having enough can blur into fear of not being enough. Fear that if we're not smart enough, or rich enough, or thin enough, we won't be valued. Won't be seen for who we really are. Won't be loved.

-- Enough, 2007

Kedushat Levi on seeing God "face to face"

For those who are so inclined, here's a short text from Kedushat Levi which arises out of one line of last week's Torah portion. This was our Torah study text at my shul this past Shabbat. This text can be found on p. 82 in my edition of KL. You can also find KL's teachings on this week's parsha, in Hebrew with slightly clunky English translations, at Kedushat Levi Translations: Vayishlach.

Kedushat Levi is the compilation of Torah teachings from Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev (1740–1809), who was known as the "defense attorney" for the Jewish people because it was believed that he could intercede on our behalf before God. He was known for his compassion for every Jew.

"And he called the name of that place Peni'el [lit. "The face of God"], 'for I have seen God face to face, yet my life (soul) has been spared.'" (Genesis 32:31)

Some people serve the Blessed Creator in order that good things might flow from God because of their service.

This is a great spiritual level to attain: serving the Blessed Creator without the intention of receiving goodness for oneself. As a result of this, one becomes great and in control.

The essence of this is called "face to face," because that person serves the Blessed Creator and receives greatness and control, and God meets that person face to face.

The second way of relating to God is called "face to back," for the blessed Creator faces him with the divine face, and the person, as it were, serves in order to receive goodness upon himself.

This is the second (lower) level of "for I have seen God face to face." At this level, "and my life has been spared" speaks in the language of separation.

This is the hint: that it did not arise upon that one's heart to serve for the sake of something close to his soul, e.g., in order to receive goodness from the blessed God. This is a level of serving for one's own sake, and the other is a level of serving God not for one's own sake.

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