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Daily April poem: a poem of beginnings and endings


In through the double glass doors
with secondhand bathrobe in hand.
I leave sovereignty in the trunk.
I don't know what I'm losing
can't imagine new stars in the sky.
Once I start saying I can't
sure hands thread my spine.
I gaze at foam ceiling tiles.

Through the window: parking garage,
dark conifers, distant hills.
I climb the ladder to the room
above the clouds, the one
with a new incarnation inside.
Close my eyes and let go.

Luisa A. Igloria offered this prompt for today:

Every beginning, every end, has something of both the sweet and the not-sweet. Let me taste both, in a poem of beginnings and endings, endings and beginnings. Let it have doors and windows, ceilings, roofs, ladders, and stairs. Let it also have mountains and trees, the sweep of open spaces.

I did my best to comply. (I'm also delighted to see that she's posted a roundup of all of her NaPoWriMo prompts -- I mostly worked with #blogElul or NaPoWriMo prompts, so most of hers are new to me, and I hope to use them in coming weeks and months!)

Happy National Poetry Month to all!


Daily April poem: twenty little poetry projects


At sunset the city walls are on fire.
No one whose eyes take in that pink stone
will ever be the same. Pomegranate juice,
tart, stains the cobbled streets.
Cheap cigarettes and sweet smoking coals
duel for ascendance. The man dressed
like an eighteenth-century disciple
walks fast, his head down. Teenagers
call out in their incomprehensible dialect.
A man pushes a cart piled with breads
round loops encrusted with seeds and zataar
and a little boy tastes them with his eyes.
Abraham, God's beloved, would balk like a mule
if he walked these streets now. Cars
scraping through the narrow alleys
of the Old City, neon signs and loud music
just outside Damascus Gate. No:
Abraham would feel right at home here.
He'd raise an eyebrow at the motorcycles
but the press of shoppers demanding
fresh mint, dates, eggplants would feel
just like home. "Okay yalla bye," says
the girl with the blue rhinestone cellphone,
pushing past in the other direction.
Because this is a holy city, anyone
who hears God's voice here is right.
The soothing whisper of tradition...
Overhead, bright flags remind passers-by
how little we have in common. Abraham
climbs to the top of the mount, walks
quiet circles around the rock
where he almost made the worst mistake.
(Velveteen imagines this from her desk
overlooking still-bare Massachusetts hills.)
Ubiquitous cats prowl between trash cans.
The green lights of minarets dot
the jumbled roofscape, loudspeakers waiting.
Tonight the same messenger will visit
every foreigner's dream. Yerushalayim
shel zahav: you dazzle and seduce, promise
a direct line to the One Who always takes
our calls. At the staggered hours
of our evening prayers, cellphones buzz
reminders to stop, drop, and praise.

Today's NaPoWriMo prompt offers "twenty little poetry projects," and challenges us to include all of them in a single poem.

It's a neat exercise; it definitely stretched me beyond my usual writing habits. I want to tighten it before publshing the next version; some of the lines prompted by the 20 prompts are (I think) terrific, and others don't quite flow. But the prompt was fun.

Yerushalayim shel zahav means "Jerusalem of gold."


Daily April poem: words taken from a news article


The narrow bridge of mourning
spans generations.

Overnight every dream shows
destruction. Ashes and bones.

Remembrance wells up.
Not only at the cemetery

but when planting, or
listening to the radio.

The moment of silence
lasts forever.

Today's NaPoWriMo prompt invites us to write poems using words borrowed from a newspaper article.

On the Jewish calendar today is Yom HaShoah. Most of the words in this poem came from The History of Holocaust Remembrance Day in Ha'aretz.

May the Source of Peace bring peace to all who mourn, and comfort to all who are bereaved.


Daily April poem: inspired by a photograph of baseball


The wooden stands creak.
    Admire the forest of ballcaps.
        Teenagers text with T-1 thumbs.

Boys toss and catch
    effortlessly eighteen
        their calves limned with elastic.

Sunset delay: the lights flare
    painting the dirt Georgia red
        the field green as artificial turf.

Between innings
    children spin like dreidls
        then race drunkenly across the grass.

By the end our mouths taste of hops.
    Peanut shells crunch underfoot.
        Kinsella tells us stories all the way home.

Today's NaPoWriMo prompt offers four photographs to inspire poetry. One of them is of a baseball field.

I named this poem after the old wooden ballpark in Pittsfield, and many of the sensory details were drawn from memories of games there.


Daily April poem: a curtal sonnet


For what endures. For old soles worn
    until a toe peeks through. For hands
        that press dough flat; for the griddle, hot.
For the Western Union sign behind glass,
    the sparse shelves of masa and gari
        give thanks. It's safe to speak in tongues.

Let all who are hungry come and eat.
    Inscribe Emma Lazarus at every border.
        Fire up crop dusters and drop greencards.
Trust the rains to fall. If not now --

            then when?

Today's NaPoWriMo prompt invites the writing of a curtal sonnet, a form invented by Gerard Manley Hopkins in the 1800s. One of my very favorite poems is a curtal sonnet -- Hopkins' Pied Beauty, which we read every year on the first night of Pesach as part of our creative Hallel, our poems and psalms of praise. I decided not to try for rhyme, but I did try to match Hopkins' use of four stresses per line.

In the Counting of the Omer, today is the day of netzach she'b'gevurah, endurance within boundaried strength. Thinking about endurance and about boundaries led me to a few of this poem's images, and the poem grew from there. The first line of the second stanza is from the Passover seder. The final question comes from the sage Hillel.

The December Project

Some of you may have read the recent essay by Sara Davidson in the Huffington Post titled Passover Asks: Are You Ready to Go? Here's an excerpt from near the beginning of the piece:

When I arrived that morning at his home in Boulder, CO, the rabbi's wife, Eve, was in the kitchen, preparing for Passover by removing "hametz" -- anything containing flour that's risen -- from every drawer, shelf and counter. I walked down to the basement, where Reb Zalman stood up from his computer desk and greeted me with a hug.

"What does Passover feel like in the December years?" I asked, as we settled in chairs facing each other.

"That's such a good question. Give me a moment to go inside." He closed his eyes, waiting to sense what would arise. "When we come to the end of the seder, we open the door for Elijah the prophet. I ask everyone to be silent and think, 'What question would I like to ask the messenger of God?'" He said people reflect on that, sitting quietly while the door is open, and after it's closed, he asks if they'd like to share what they heard.

"Then we come to the place in the ceremony where Elijah asks, 'Are you ready to go?'"

"Go where?" I said.

"Go forth from the seder into the world. But for me it's also, 'Are you ready to go?'"

Readiness is an essential quality in the story of the Exodus: readiness to leave, to head into the unknown, to trust. Readiness is part of celebrating seder. And readiness is required if one wants to face the end of life gracefully, whenever that end may come.

December_projectThis is a story which also appears in Sara Davidson's new book The December Project, subtitled "An Extraordinary Rabbi and a Skeptical Seeker Confront Life's Greatest Mystery." The book chronicles two years' worth of regular conversations between Sara and Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, "Reb Zalman," about navigating the December of one's life, doing spiritual end-of-life work, and approaching death with open eyes, clear heart, and untroubled mind.

The resulting book is somewhere between memoir (stories of Reb Zalman's childhood, upbringing, adventures, and spiritual life) and the kind of conversation one might have over coffee with a dear friend after many years of connection, when you can go straight to the stuff that matters.

For we who are students of Reb Zalman, or students of his students, much of this material will be familiar. Many of us will have heard him tell these stories, often more than once! But that doesn't make them any less a pleasure to read, and being able to imagine his presence, his humor, and his singing voice just adds to the experience of diving into the book. And for those who haven't been blessed with a personal relationship with this rebbe, the book offers some of those gifts in printed form.

Reb Zalman's been working with these ideas for years. Some of the practices at the end of this book are similar to the exercises in his From Aging to Sage-ing, a book which I also recommend. But this book takes a different tack. And Sara Davidson, this book's author, offers an interesting path in. She is open about both her doubts and her hopes. Over the course of the book, she takes us on her journey -- not only into these conversations, but also into her mother's illness and death, and into her own anxieties about the end of life and what comes after. She strikes a keen balance between sharing enough of herself that she is a real presence in the book, and withdrawing enough of herself that we can feel that we too are sitting in intimate conversation with Reb Zalman, gleaning some of what he's harvested over nearly ninety years of life.

In one scene which has stayed with me, Sara has appeared for their regular appointment and Reb Zalman is clearly unwell, struggling with a variety of physical ailments which are dragging him down. They talk about his need to disengage even from beloved students in order to marshall his energy for his own survival. And then he tells her about how he used to maintain an open-door policy on Shabbat, where people were welcome to come and pray and sing and learn; now he spends Shabbat only with his wife. Here's how Sara describes it:

Before Friday night arrives, he writes his love-letter and slips it under her plate. On Saturday at dusk, they sit outside if the weather is mild and sing Shabbos melodies until it's totally dark. "It's so wonderful," he said, and I watched his body soften and his breathing become more relaxed. It was as if the words, like the smell of chickens roasting on Fridays at camp, had a Pavlovian effect, taking him to a Shabbos state of mind.

In telling the story of how he has come to adapt Shabbat practices for his late eighties, he models for us what it would be like to thoughtfully choose what to relinquish as we age.

Reb Zalman's sweetness, his sense of humor, and his deep hunger for God all come through in this book -- as do his idiosyncracies and some of the challenges which have resulted. Here are stories about Chabad, about meeting Howard Thurman and coming to deep ecumenism, about experiencing Christian and Buddhist mentors, even about experimenting with LSD as a path to God. He's also honest about his failings and his mistakes -- not in a self-congratulatory way, but thoughtfully. I was particularly moved by his frank and gentle words about his first marriage and its dissolution, and by the chapter where he asks to undergo taharah -- the washing / blessing / dressing of one's body after death -- in order to prepare himself for that experience when it comes.

5362606310_35a01cbb56_nOn a purely personal note, I got a particular frisson of joy while reading the chapter "You Can Take Me Now," in which Sara describes two different ALEPH ordination ceremonies. She describes Hazzan Shoshanna Brown singing a niggun which had been a favorite of the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, as a prelude to asking Reb Zalman to offer a teaching. Sara writes:

With high color in his face, Reb Zalman took the mike and faced the audience. He explained that the Rebbe used to sing that melody to prepare himself and his students for a transmission. "Want to hear my transmission?" he asked. Turning to the ordinees on stage, he threw out his arm. "You are my transmission."

That was at my ordination, and it is a moment I will never forget. (Photo source.)

Must one be in one's "December years" to get something out of this book? Not in the least. As a student in the ALEPH hashpa'ah / spiritual direction program, I spent a semester studying and engaging in the work Reb Zalman calls 'sage-ing' -- preparing, mindfully and consciously, for the transition out of this life. Many of you know that I am not yet forty. Then again, I'm also a multiple stroke survivor, so I'd already begun to approach some of these big questions.

I remember talking with my spiritual director about what it was like to begin doing this sage-ing work at a young age. She told me that she had done the same, and that doing this work had enriched her in innumerable ways. After all, our tradition prescribes making teshuvah on the eve of our death, and since we never know when that will be, the sages teach us to make teshuvah -- to do this inner work of discernment, forgiveness, and letting go -- every night before we sleep. (I've written about this before -- see my post The vidui prayer of Yom Kippur -- and of every night.) 

Death is perhaps the greatest mystery there is. In this book, Sara Davidson and Reb Zalman have given us a beautiful example of how to live with that awareness joyfully, and how to approach it not as something to be abhorred, but as a holy transition -- the end of this deployment, to use Reb Zalman's language, and the beginning of something new.

Daily April poem: anaphora


since the last time you told the story
since the children crossed the billowing sea

since you left that narrow corridor
since you craved the tastes of home
since the last time, last chance, last change
since the last cigarette you stubbed-out, unfinished

until a hand slips into yours and tugs
until you notice you're walking unfamiliar ground

until the words pour down like rain
until synaesthesia rewires your senses

until the next incarnation begins
until this ship carries you safe to shore

Today's prompt at NaPoWriMo invites the writing of poems which use anaphora -- repeated words or phrases.

This poem draws on a lot of different things, among them the story of the Exodus and midrash about how we experienced the revelation of Torah at Sinai.


Daily April poem: inspired by masonry


13332554873_c2eae8274c_nThe vaults of the sky arched overhead.
Beneath, men on scaffolding

tucked blocks of sandstone tight.
Once the keystone took its place

they hauled the wooden bolster free
and the stones stayed taut.

Pressure makes them motionless
even after two thousand years --

empire crumbled to dust, Iudaea
a forgotten name on mosaic maps.

Armies came and went, came
and went like the waves.

Today, tourists in Kelty hats
pose where chariots used to thunder.

The Slavic fishermen are gone,
their houses leveled and rebuilt.

Now a town on top of the ruins
of a town on top of the ruins.

A few kilometers away, lush green:
golfers stroll on manicured lawns.

Enough tension, nothing can shift
without bringing the whole place down.

Today's NaPoWriMo prompt invites the writing of poems featuring masonry. When I thought of stones and the laying thereof, I thought of how I'm drawn to photograph arches, and how very many of them I admired in my recent travels -- starting with the arch you see above, photographed on my first day after arrival. (If you're curious about those ruins, feel free to click through to my post about that day's journey: Walking in (ancient) Caesaria.)



Recent reading about Palestinians and Israel

13355906035_bea01a22fb_nOne of my Israeli friends on Facebook alerted me to a recent AP article: In West Bank, teen offenders face different fates. Here's how it begins:

BEIT UMAR, West Bank (AP) - The boys were both 15, with the crackly voices and awkward peach fuzz of adolescence. They lived just a few minutes away from one another in the West Bank. And both were accused of throwing stones at vehicles, one day after the other.

But there was a crucial difference that helped to shape each boy's fate: One was Israeli, and the other Palestinian.

The tale of the two teens provides a stark example of the vast disparities of Israel's justice system in the West Bank, a contested area at the heart of the elusive search for a lasting peace.

It's worth reading, though I'll caution you that it's not a feel-good article; I think the picture it paints is pretty bleak. Still, as I've argued at some length, we for whom this piece of land is meaningful have an obligation to pay attention not only to what brings us pleasure there, but also to what saddens us.

Also interesting is Bradley Burston's latest in Ha'aretz, How to lie to college students about Israel (part one). He deftly skewers many of the untruths peddled by the Jewish right. (I'm really curious to see what he puts in the forthcoming companion piece, in which he promises to do the same for the Jewish left.) I particularly appreciate his point about the difference between boycotting settlement products and boycotting Israel writ large -- a distinction which I think is too often ignored in the American Jewish press.

13357401854_8f5a272e4c_nThe final story I'll share is one which at least offers some hope: Palestinian Teaches Tolerance via Holocaust, in the New York Times:

JERUSALEM — Mohammed S. Dajani Daoudi is an unlikely advocate for peace between Palestinians and Israelis. He trained as a guerrilla with the Palestine Liberation Organization, was banned from Israel for 25 years because of his prominent role in Yasir Arafat’s Fatah group, and still refers to Israelis as “my enemy.”

But Mr. Dajani, now the library director and a professor of American studies at Al-Quds University, in East Jerusalem, has become a prominent activist for tolerance...[and] in March he took what is thought to have been the first group of students from the Palestinian territories to visit the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, in Poland.

Mr. Dajani has received some fairly predictable push-back from people in the Palestinian community who aren't fans of this sort of work. In response, he is quoted as saying:

My response to all this tirade is that my duty as a teacher is to teach, to have my students explore the unexplored, to open new horizons for my students, to guide my students out of the cave of perceptions and misperceptions to see the facts and the reality on the ground, to break the walls of silence, to demolish the fences of taboos, to swim against the tide in search of truth, in sum, to advance the knowledge and learning of my students in adhering to the verse in the Holy Quran, ‘And say My God increase my knowledge...’ If there are those who do not see or do not like that, it is their problem not mine.

(That latter quote comes from a Ha'aretz story: Palestinian professor who took students to Auschwitz responds to threats.)


Photos from my flickr stream: soldiers in Akko; olive tree and green door.

Coming soon: Reb Zalman's glorious new translation of psalms

Many years ago I wrote a post about new translations of psalms, and one of the translations I referenced was from my teacher Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, a.k.a. Reb Zalman. His creative, heartfelt, pray-able, earth-conscious renderings of psalms weren't published anywhere in print, but there was an audio cd available through the ALEPH store, and I loved hearing him speak the psalms in his own inimitable language.

Now, during the Omer this year, there's a project afoot to fund a print edition of Reb Zalman's renderings of the psalms. Here's a short video -- featuring, among others, Father Matthew Fox, Rabbi Sharon Brous, Brother David Steindl-Rast, and Pir Shabda Kahn -- reading his Psalm 100:

(If you can't see the embedded video, you can watch it at IndieGoGo or watch it at YouTube.) Here's a little bit about the project:

Published by ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, Psalms in a Translation for Praying will be the definitive edition of Reb Zalman’s heart-felt translations for praying in English, developed and refined over decades. Newly edited, punctuated, and formatted for ease of use, the book will be a beautiful devotional companion.

Psycho-spiritually accurate for our age, this translation is gender-balanced (neither God nor God’s people are exclusively masculine or feminine) and understands that, in Reb Zalman’s words, “often [our] ‘enemies’ are not on the outside.” Although oriented to use in Jewish liturgy, care has been taken to ensure that Christians, Sufis and others can use this volume in prayer with ease.

I can't wait to pray from this volume. The hope is to publish it by Shavuot / Pentecost, the time when Jewish communities celebrate the revelation of Torah -- the yahrzeit (death-anniversary) of King David, to whom the psalms are traditionally attributed. I just donated to help fund the project. I hope you will, too: Reb Zalman's Heart-Psalms at IndieGoGo.

Daily April poem: instructions for drawing a map



Draw the lines firm: give no doubt
where the boundaries between us

and them. Your choice of alphabet
will locate you on one side

or the other. Think of the man
walking for seven years from where

the human story began. "I forget
the names of towns without rivers."

He wakes in the morning
to the footprints of desert beetles.

As we told the story of the Exodus
he took ship across the Red Sea

on a Syrian vessel full of mourners.
Hardboiled eggs rolled on their plates.

Will he climb the Harei Yehuda
or the Jibal al-Khalil?

Overhead, cranes following his route
chivvy him with rattling calls.

From their vantage his footsteps blur
into the sinuous tracks of a snake.

His path, the great rift
no negotiations can heal.

Luisa A. Igloria offered this prompt today:

Using couplets, write a poem of literal and metaphorical transplanting in the form of instructions for drawing a map.

In the poem, make reference to a specific mode of travel, a body of water, and a mountain range. Also include only the tracks or sound made by two types of animals that creep along the ground, and one that flies.

As I began the poem I had in mind my recent travels. Was I in Jerusalem or al-Quds? Judea and Samaria, or the West Bank, or Palestine?

That, in turn, reminded me of tweets I've seen recently about Silwan / the City of David from the team chronicling Paul Salopek's Out of Eden walk from Ethiopia to Tierra del Fuego. (If this is new to you, read about it -- it's extraordinary.)

The quote comes from one of Paul's recent dispatches, as does the image of the eggs rolling on the plates of Syrians aboard ship. That image particularly resonated with me because in Jewish tradition we eat hardboiled eggs (and also lentils) at the meal of consolation after a funeral. A reminder of life even in the face of death.



Edited to add: thanks to the team at Out of Eden for featuring this poem alongside a beautiful photograph from the crossing of the Red Sea on their blog: Couplets and Kilometers.

Daily April poem: about Elijah the prophet


Elijah walks the streets
with Moshiach's phone number
programmed into his cellphone.

In his messenger bag
gift cards and cigarettes
he hands out to the homeless.

He always buys roses and gum
from the kids who peddle
at busy intersections.

He doesn't visit
every seder in the world
anymore. He still loves

the old melodies, the way
the story rewrites you
from the inside out if you let it

he finagles invitations
to the houses with great singing
and eager children, but

he's learned that our words
only matter so much.
When we box Pesach away

he holds his breath:
will we really emerge different
this time? Will we admit

we choose comfort over conscience
we cling to the neverending hametz
of our painful history --

or will we whistle Had Gadya
and recreate Mitzrayim?
Elijah sits back down

on the crumbling stoop
in the overcrowded hospital
at the enemy's table and waits.

Today's poem arose all on its own, without a prompt. It draws on some classical midrash about Elijah.

Had Gadya is a Passover song. Mitzrayim means Egypt, though it relates to the word root meaning narrow, so it can be rendered as "The Narrow Place."


Daily April poem: à la New York school



It's the twenty-first of April (and
the same in Nisan, though
more than three thousand years separate
the Gregorian calendar from the Jewish one)
also the seventh day of Passover, sixth
day of the Omer, Patriot's Day though
only in Massachusetts, Marathon Monday
though only in Boston, city
of duck boats and blooming tulip magnolias,
Charlie cards and the neon CITGO sign,
where I first closed my eyes in rapture
over creamy North End cannoli,
hint of pistachio on the tip of my tongue.

What kind of New York School poem
mentions Boston? Do I betray
the cramped Lower East Side apartment
where my immigrant grandparents
settled with my mother, younger then
than my son is now? But they set out
for McKinney and Temple, Texas towns
not known for their bagels, though
in the big city of San Antonio
thirty years later someone would sell
"Shalom Y'all" trivets painted
in the Guadalajaran style. They missed
subways, pastrami piled on Jewish rye.

Me, I'd give my eyeteeth for a decent taco --
carnitas with fresh cilantro and red onion,
or Panchitos' chilaquiles with cheese
beside creamy refritos and fried potatoes
each perfectly crisp coin yielding
to pillowy interior -- though
I'm not sure what eyeteeth are, whether
I'd need them to eat the meal in question.
Some day like Wil Wheaton I'll tweet
"New York, I am in you" on my iPhone
and watch my son's eyes grow wide
at the sight of more cars and taxis
than he's ever imagined in his rural life.

But it's not my Jerusalem, the city
into which one ascends as though in a dream.
Even Jerusalem isn't my Jerusalem sometimes.
Am I the quintessential Diasporan, discontent?
No: give me a cat and a sunbeam, a few
crumbs from a Pesach almond cake
and a keyboard to write a poem on
and I'm happy as a clam at high tide --
a treif metaphor, odd from a rabbi
but I contain multitudes, like the crowds
lining the marathon route today
three hours to my east, in the city
of Irish pubs and Fenway, Boston strong.

Today's prompt at NaPoWriMo invited the writing of a poem in the style of the New York School of poets. They linked to Thom Donovan's recipe for doing so. His list features 23 items to consider including; I think I managed about half of them. 

I'm a big fan of the New York School, ever since studying with David Lehman at Bennington (and reviewing his book The Last Avant-Garde, about the New York School, fof Pif) so I had a blast with this prompt.


Daily April poem: in a family member's voice



Because we had to hurry
to go through the river
and our bread fell off our backs.
I was an Israelite.

I love the daffodils best.
They're all growing.
That's what spring is.
Matzah is a kind of bread.

There's water on this side
of the bridge. And on
the other side too. I think
over there is a different river.

Today's prompt at NaPoWriMo invites us to write a poem in the voice of a family member. One of the suggestions they offer is one's four-year-old niece. I opted for the voice of our four-year-old son.

The first stanza contains his explanation of why we eat matzah at Passover. And we did actually walk over a bridge of flowers this morning.


Reprint: Field trips into Easter

Six years ago, I attended Easter services in Williamstown for the first time. Our friend Bernard was here that year and needed a place to worship. He was far away from his home church of St. Kizito's in Nima, Accra, and he'd had a rough Holy Week, which had included the death of one of his sisters and the  robbery of his house back home. Easter that year fell on his birthday, so we offered to take him to church and then out for a birthday/Easter brunch...but Ethan came down with the flu, so I gathered a couple of friends and we took Bernard to daven at St. John's.

Going in to the experience, I felt oddly nervous. I was worried that I might stand out as an obvious outsider -- and worried too that I might blend in, that it might be spiritually dishonest of me to "pass." Mostly I worried about whether I would feel comfortable. In college I sang with a madrigal ensemble which often performed in churches during Holy Week, and on one memorable occasion the sermon was about how the Cross is meant to be a "stumbling block to the Jews." (I don't remember where that was; only that I ran out of the sanctuary in tears, and that the most ardent Christians in the a cappella ensemble followed me to offer comfort, bless them.)

Anyway. On Easter morning in 2003 I parked my car down the block from the church and emerged to see the rector of St. John's standing outside. He'd just come from the early morning service, and was getting ready to do the 10am. He saw a friend across the street, beamed a hundred-watt smile, gave him two big thumbs-up and called "He is Risen!"

In that moment, I knew I was going to be just fine.

That's the beginning of a 2009 post (five years old now!) called A field trip into Easter. Feel free to click through and read the whole thing! To all who celebrate, I wish a joyous Easter.

Daily April poem: named after a seashell


Once I would have woken at three
to see our planet's shadow
carving a black crescent.

To watch her face disappear
only to return, round and red
as though hiding aroused her.

But after the year
of night wakings,
breasts full as the moon

I don't want to see
the numbers on the digital clock
creeping unavoidably toward day.

I hear she was coy, anyway --
did the striptease
behind a billowing sheet of cloud.

Today's NaPoWriMo prompt invited us to write poems inspired by the names of the seashells on the list. I was drawn immediately to the shell named "incised moon," and thinking of the moon being incised or carved-away made me think of the recent lunar eclipse.

(My friend David and I wrote something about the eclipse -- about the tetrad of eclipses, on four Jewish holidays in a row, and how we might interpret them -- which is online here: Four eclipses; four worlds; four holidays; four holy perspective shifts.)

If anyone knows what an incised moon seashell looks like, link me? I tried searching but haven't been able to find a photo, and now I'm curious...


Omer links and resources

Omer earsI'm about to begin teaching a weekly Omer spiritual study group at my synagogue, and as a result, I've been collecting materials to share.

We'll be working sometimes with the kabbalistic paradigm which assigns to each week of the Omer, and to each day within each week, one of seven qualities which we and God share (chesed / lovingkindness, gevurah / boundaried strength, and so on) -- and sometimes with the Mussar paradigm which assigns to each day of the Omer one of the 48 qualities with which one acquires Torah (attentive listening, joy, humility, and so on). My intention is to use both of these paradigms as lenses for the real focus of our study, which is the inner work which each of us needs to do in order to be ready to receive Torah at Shavuot.

Of course, I'll be sharing with them excerpts from my cherished collection of Omer books, among them Rabbi Min Kantrowitz's Counting the Omer: A Kabbalistic Meditation Guide, Rabbi Jill Hammer's Omer Calendar of Biblical Women, Rabbi Yael Levy's Journey through the Wilderness, Shifrah Tobacman's Omer/Teshuvah, and Rabbi Simon Jacobson's The Spiritual Guide to the Counting of the Omer.

I'm also handing out this colorful Omer chart; a teaching from the Slonimer rebbe about how Pesach lifts us to spiritual heights and then the Omer gives us the opportunity to make that climb under our own power; an excerpt from an essay by Rabbi Elliot Ginsburg about leaping and waiting; some Omer teachings from Rabbi Chava Bahle; and this annotated edition of Pirkei Avot 6:6. I'll also be sharing some links with that group, and I figured I'd post them here, too, for anyone who's interested.

Here's the first one:

There’s a place, halfway between now and tomorrow. It’s the place where the road shifts, where time slows and choices open into every possibility, every future.

There’s a place, halfway between Egypt and Sinai. It’s the place where the echoes of slavery fade, the music of freedom begins its song and the thunder of G-d’s voice can almost be heard...

That's from the essay Halfway Between Green and Yellow, by Alden Solovy. Alden also has a list of daily Omer prayers and meditations at Omer | To Bend Light.

Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan offers an excellent introduction to the Omer. In her first post of this year, she explains:

Last year I reflected in dialogue with the writings of the Ramak, Kabbalistic teacher Rabbi Moses Cordovero (1522-1570). This year, I am exploring the names of the sefirot as they appear in their original contexts in the Tanakh, Hebrew Bible.

Each exploration showcases a different facet of the week’s quality, and suggests a different focus for spiritual self-questioning, action, and growth.

Chesed: risky love and kindness, offered in a situation that might be tricky, dangerous, or emotionally fraught. An act of chesed may have only a long shot at success but, if it succeeds, it has a far-reaching effect. At least, that’s how our Biblical ancestors spoke of chesed...

That's from her post Chesed | Love and Kindness.

Rabbi Leila Gal Berner has written a poem for the Omer which I think is terrific:

Forty-nine days,
wandering in the wilderness
newly-birthed to
moving toward
where the Holy One
will entrust us with
the Teaching...

You can read the whole thing at Kol ALEPH: Sacred Harvest.

If you're looking for daily Omer meditations which will come to you via email (and which will remind you to count each day!), I'm receiving two and can recommend both. One is from Mishkan / A Way In; the other is from Journey of the Soul: Making the Omer Count. Also, Rabbi David Seidenberg of has created an Omer app which is available for iPhone and for Droid.

May your journey through the Omer be fruitful.

Daily April poem: a ruba'i (with bonus Torah commentary)



God, do You ever grow weary, snap at Your children, say
things you regret once they leave Your mouth and we shrink away?
Slice the words off before they're spoken. Revise Yourself
into lovingkindness. Be the One we call on when we pray.


In today's NaPoWriMo prompt we're invited to write a ruba'i, a four-line stanza with an AABA rhyme scheme. (A series of these is called a rubaiyat.) Mine arose out of the Torah reading for this Shabbat. This week's passage contains the Thirteen Attributes, which we recite in our liturgy on Yom Kippur. But our liturgical use revises the Torah text in an interesting way.

In Torah God is described as "compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and trangression and sin -- yet not remitting all punishment, but visiting the iniquity of parents upon children and children's children, upon the third and fourth generations." Our sages chose to leave out the part after the dash, so that when we call upon God in prayer, we're calling upon the positive attributes, not the negative one.

I've often been asked about the "visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children" verse. I read it as descriptive rather than prescriptive. It's a psychological truth: parents who don't do their own spiritual work will almost inevitably replicate their patterns and their traumas in parenting their children, who will replicate them in turn when they become parents. Parents who do the inner work they need to do -- which our tradition calls teshuvah, re/turning-toward-God -- are more able to break those cycles.

Sometimes the God of Torah speaks from a place of anger. As a parent, I choose to read those passages as God learning to parent on the job, as it were. Sometimes frustration overcomes the intention to speak kindness. But in my understanding of God, the lovingkindness and compassion are always there, even when God speaks harshly. And we, made in the divine image, have the divine capacity to revise ourselves each day into the people we mean to be. That's what these seven weeks of the Omer are for.


Daily April poem(s): one about coffee, one about wine


cold coffee splashes
over half-moons of ice

scattering splenda
into the morning air

-- far from the thick mud
scented with cardamom

which I drank from thimbles
beneath vaulted ceilings --

this is sweet and milky
thin as a rain puddle

ice knocking the glass
like muted wind chimes


vinho verde winks
promising a good time
beneath cheap eyeshadow

Today's NaPoWriMo prompt invites the writing of a poem which uses three of the five senses. After a while it became clear that my first draft needed to split into two poems, so I wound up with one longer one, one shorter one. The short poem doesn't really fulfill the prompt, but I like it anyway.

Moadim l'simcha -- for those who are celebrating Pesach, I hope your festival is full of rejoicing! And for those who are counting the Omer, happy second day of the Omer -- the day of gevurah she'b'chesed, boundaried strength within lovingkindness.



Daily April poem: ten lies


We didn't open the door for Elijah last night.
Miriam's Cup wasn't full of living waters.

The hidden matzah languished, unlooked-for.
Costumes for the pageant never left their box.

No one asked about the seder plate stowaways.
We decided to skip all of the poetry.

I didn't wake to the melody of imagined trumpets
summoning me to join the pilgrimage.

When I close my eyes, I don't see my ancestors.
No glimpse of my great-grandchildren up ahead.


Today's NaPoWriMo prompt invited us to write a ten-line poem in which each line is a lie.

The couplet about the imagined trumpets is a reference to the melodic motifs of festival nusach, the melodic mode used for chanting prayer on the Three Pilgrimage Festivals.