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Reflections on reading aloud

WaitingToUnfold-smallThere's always something surreal about reading from a published book of poems. Once these were fragments of language and image which I snatched out of my consciousness and wrote down. Once these were drafts, going through revision, shifting and changing. Once this was a manuscript. Now it is a published book, no longer susceptible to my changes. I grew it, I revised it, and then my publisher midwifed it into being. (Thanks, Beth!)  It feels a little bit like we've cut the umbilical cord; the book exists on its own now, independent of me.

I remember writing these poems, one by one. I had no notion of a manuscript, not then. I started writing one poem a week because it kept me linked with the life I had known before I became a mother, and because in writing weekly mother poems I could aim to sanctify the experience of caring for a newborn. Writing weekly mother poems, as I had for years written weekly Torah poems, allowed me to assert that this new life of around-the-clock infant care was as holy as the words inscribed on parchment. I felt sometimes that writing these poems was an act of saving my own life. (Melodramatic, sure, but it was how I felt at the time. The endocrine sytem is a fascinating thing. Everything felt exaggerated, then.)

Life now is so different. Now we have a lanky, funny three-and-a-half-year-old who has favorite songs and favorite books and favorite cartoons and favorite repetitive jokes -- so different from the infant he used to be. And now there is a book which I can hold in my hands. Now there is a written account of this journey through the wilderness toward the promised land. There's also an odd feeling of glimpsing moments which would otherwise be lost to me. When I read Waiting to Unfold now, especially the poems from the earliest months, I'm humbled by just how difficult that journey was -- and I wonder whether I would remember any of it if I didn't have these poems as a record of what transpired.

The sleep deprivation, the exhaustion, the colic: some of these are the height of ordinariness. Every parent of a newborn learns to subsist on too little sleep. Every nursing mother and every nursing infant have to learn together how a feeding works. (And so on.) And some of what we went through (the postpartum depression) was difficult in extraordinary ways. My memories of those early months are fogged and blurred. I only remember this much because I wrote it down when it was happening. Had I tried to write these poems six months or a year later, I wouldn't have been able to do it. The incremental changes of infancy are lost to me now, except inasmuch as I managed then to capture them in poetry. When I read those poems now, there's a feeling of being outside of myself -- as though I were watching a movie of my own life, from a great distance.

The trajectory of the collection goes from anticipation to lived experience, and then from sorrow to joy. I'm hoping I can convey that trajectory when I read from the collection aloud. Individual poems are like stars in a constellation. Each one gleams, but in order to see the picture the constellation depicts, one needs to be able to draw the lines between them, to perceive the shape made up by their connections. I wonder how the poems will reach people, what response they will evoke. I am grateful to be able to carry this collection into synagogues and bookstores and into people's lives, to share these words with people who might find meaning there.



The first public reading from Waiting to Unfold is today at Knesset Israel synagogue in Pittsfield following the Kosher Hot Lunch at noon; the second one will be on Sunday June 9 at 4pm at Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams.

D'var Torah for Shlakh-Lekha: the scouts, growth, safety, and risk

Here's the d'var Torah I offered yesterday at my shul for parashat Shlakh-lekha. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

Twelve scouts were sent by Moshe into the Land of Canaan to find out what sort of land it might be: Moshe, Caleb, plus ten other men. This group of ten is called an edah, from the root which means "to witness." They are a witnessing-community, a microcosm of the entire Israelite community dispatched to bear witness to whatever they might find.

When they enter the land, they find amazing fertility and growth. They also find several native tribes, none of whom are known to be friendly.

The scouts spend forty days exploring the land. In Torah, the number forty represents growth and transformation and change. The Flood lasted for forty days; Moshe spent forty days atop Sinai receiving Torah; and now the scouts spend that same amount of time visiting Canaan.

In the end, most of the scouts quail at the prospect of fighting the people who live in a land where even the fruits are as large as a grown man. They say, "We looked like grasshoppers compared with the natives, and we must have seemed as puny as grasshoppers to them, too."

And God is sorely disappointed. God brought the children of Israel all this way, and now they're too scared to enter. So God says: fine -- none of you who are now alive will enter the land, except for Caleb and Joshua, who didn't doubt Me. The rest of you will wander in the wilderness for forty years, one year for each day that the scouts spent in the land.

I used to see this as a punitive response. Now that I'm a parent, I read it differently.

Continue reading "D'var Torah for Shlakh-Lekha: the scouts, growth, safety, and risk" »

Join me in Pittsfield tomorrow for lunch and poems!

Monday June 3, 12pm
Poetry reading and conversation / signing / Q-and-A / plus kosher lunch! $3
at the Older Adult Kosher Hot Meal Program sponsored by Jewish Federation of the Berkshires
Knesset Israel, 16 Colt Road, Pittsfield

Join Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, author of the newly-published Waiting to Unfold (Phoenicia, spring 2013), for a poetry reading and conversation. Rabbi Barenblat will read from Waiting to Unfold, which collects poems written during her son's first year of life, and will then participate in a conversation / Q-and-A about the poems and what they contain.

Please bring $3 to donate to Jewish Federation in thanks to them for orchestrating this event! (And of course, books will be on sale for $14.)

If you're coming for lunch, please RSVP to Knesset Israel so there are enough kosher hot meals for everyone. (All are welcome for the reading / conversation, whether or not you want to enjoy the kosher hot lunch, but if you do want a meal, let them know.)

A blessing over a Middle Eastern apéritif

170px-Glassofarak_enI'm not sure when I first tasted arak. Wikipedia tells me that it's the traditional alcoholic beverage across Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and Iraq. It turns out that arak is typically made from the distillation of fermented grapes and/or vines, making it a sort of grappa, though on the second distillation aniseed is added -- hence the drink's characteristic liquorice taste.

I have a distinct memory of drinking arak with Ethan at a bar in Amman back in 2002. That was a business trip for him and a pleasure jaunt for me; I spent most of my days sightseeing, he spent most of his days in meetings, and then in the evening we'd meet for dinner and to stroll around the city and explore Amman by night. And one night we wound up at a bar sipping arak. I seem to remember that I'd tasted arak before that, though. Or maybe it just reminded me of other anise-flavored beverages from other corners of the Mediterranean. I've always loved anise, especially when its setting is at least as much savory as sweet, so arak and I were immediate friends.

2620310565_7b97df9231_m During the summer when I lived in Jerusalem, I used to walk from our sublet on Rechov Lincoln to a nearby restaurant and bar. This is five years ago now. It seems both far more recent, and far more distant -- an artifact, I suspect, of the ways in which life shifts when one has a child. But this was in our pre-child days. And because Ethan and I have lived in rural America for the better part of twenty years, I took pains that summer to go out from time to time, if only to experience the unique gifts of city life.

My housemates were a dear rabbinic school friend, her husband, and their daughter, who was three and a half that summer. Their kid was the same age then that our son is now, which is humbling and amazing when I stop to think about it; that was my first experience of living with a little one, and it was part of what made me feel able to take the leap into trying to get pregnant the following fall. Anyway, that kiddo and her mama went to bed early, for reasons I understand now all too well. So sometimes, in the evening, I'd walk to the nearby Restobar by myself, wanting to get out of the apartment and to take advantage of living in a city for a change.

Restobar was usually busy in the evenings, but I could usually find a table where I could nestle out of the way by myself. When my server came around, I would order kos arak, b'vak'sha. When it arrived, I would open up my laptop and use their wireless internet to correspond with Ethan or with friends back home (there was no internet in our apartment) as the melting ice turned the clear liquor cloudy and my mouth tingled with anise. Their menu also featured arak with grapefruit juice, but I was never able to imagine that combination of flavors -- and anyway, my blood pressure meds make grapefruit generally contraindicated. So I stuck with drinking it on the rocks, and was quite content.

Despite living in a small town in western Massachusetts, Ethan and I live a fairly cosmopolitan lifestyle -- but there are certain flavors which are hard to come by around these parts. None of the stores in our entire county stock arak, and for whatever reason, sambuca (which is easy to find) doesn't have the same zing for me. At the end of my Jerusalem summer, I spent my final wad of shekels on a bottle of arak at the airport duty-free shop, meaning to bring it home for Ethan to enjoy with me...only to have it poured into a trash can by an overzealous customs agent at Heathrow, because it hadn't been in a sealed ziploc bag when I got off the plane. Needless to say, I was miffed. (Obviously on some level I still am, or I wouldn't remember the story so well.)

On a recent trip to the big city -- for the final Rabbis Without Borders retreat -- I happened into a liquor store and noticed that they had Israeli arak on their shelves. Bingo: I picked up a bottle and schlepped it happily home. After that, the Berkshires were cool and rainy for a while (there was even danger of frost) so I forgot about the arak entirely. In my mind it's a hot weather beverage, something to sip slowly over ice on a warm night. But this weekend, summer has arrived wholly. And after I put our little guy to bed, my eye chanced on the bottle, and I poured myself a few fingers over ice. It swirled milkily as the ice began to melt on contact with the room-temperature anise-flavored liquid. I wondered whether I would still like it, after all this time.

The first sip was extraordinary. If I closed my eyes I could be right back at the Restobar, listening to people cheering and shouting in Hebrew at a televised soccer match, knowing that an endlessly ancient and endlessly complicated city was just outside the door. Or back at that bar in Amman, sitting on a barstool beside Ethan, listening to the sounds of Arabic around us. Instead here I am at our house in western Massachusetts, listening to local birdsong, surrounded by the rustle of green leaves, our son (God willing) at last falling asleep in his downstairs bedroom. But the taste of the Middle East is delicious and complicated on my tongue, and I am grateful for it.

Is there a bracha for an apéritif? The traditional answer is that alcohol which isn't wine is blessed with the blessing known as shehakol; it's the garden-variety all-inclusive one, the blessing for anything that doesn't have its own dedicated bracha. (It goes like this: "Blessed are You, Adonai our God, ruler of the universe, Who creates all things with Your word.") But I can't help thinking that the right blessing is actually the shehecheyanu, the blessing through which we sanctify time. Blessed are You, Adonai our God, source of all being, who has kept me alive, and sustained me, and enabled me to reach this moment -- and enabled me to be so immersed in memory -- and enabled my connections with places and moments which are far away, but which still live in my mind, and in my heart, and on my tongue.



Related: Foods of Israel: Arak cocktails in The Jew and the Carrot.