« June 2015 | Main | August 2015 »

Tabernacle

20149794981_3123c127fc_k

The Tabernacle at the Martha's Vineyard Camp Meeting Association, built 1879.

 

We took a ferry to Martha's Vineyard not knowing what exactly we wanted to see. Our friends with whom we were vacationing offered to watch our kid for the day, which meant we had the option of exploring as grownups -- walking as much as our feet would bear, snapping photographs of things we found interesting, stopping to read on park benches -- the way we used to do before our son was born. Our feet led us to the Martha's Vineyard Camp Meeting Association, also known as Wesleyan Grove.

Back in the 1800s, there was a trend of summer religious camp meetings. People would come and set up temporary housing -- canvas tents, sometimes with wooden floors, sometimes with floors of earth and straw -- and several times a day, preachers would give over the gospel and the community would pray. Martha's Vineyard was home to the first religious camp meeting site in the United States. A group of Methodists set up camp here in what they described as a venerable oak grove.

19524844593_bd33796d6d_zAs the camp became established, a few things began to shift. The central preaching area became covered by a big canvas tent, and then by a giant wrought-iron open-air worship space called the Tabernacle -- still used today.

Those who came to camp for the summers stayed initially in small canvas tents with wooden floors and ornately scalloped canvas rooflines. When canvas became scarce, because of the American Civil War, families began erecting small wooden cottages instead -- with similar scalloped roofs.

Some say the cottages are meant to be reminiscent of the old canvas tents. Others say their designs are meant to evoke churches. They have double front doors which open like church doors, framed by the kind of windows one often sees in churches too.

In the one cottage which is open as a museum, we saw a framed yellowing printed sheet bearing the original campground rules. Those rules indicated, among other things, that a light was to be kept burning in each tent (or house) all night, not to be allowed to go out.

I don't know why that rule was established. Maybe, as the cottage museum guide speculated, it was to prevent hanky-panky in what was then a very conservative religious campground. (We also learned that when a secular summer resort was established nearby, the religious leaders built a 7-foot wall to keep bad influences out!) But reading it, I couldn't help thinking of the repeated exhortation in Leviticus that "a perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out." (See my Torah poem for parashat Tzav.)

I suspect my mind went immediately to the נר תמיד / ner tamid, the eternal light which burned in the Tabernacle (and which now burns in every synagogue) because these cottages are juxtaposed with a "Tabernacle" -- an English translation of our Hebrew משכן / mishkan, the portable tabernacle which our spiritual ancestors built so that the Presence of God could dwell within it -- or within them. (The Hebrew in Exodus 25:8 is ambiguous: "Let them build Me a sanctuary, that I might dwell within...")

Sitting in the wrought-iron Tabernacle, all I could think was: wow, it would be fun to lead a Jewish Renewal Shabbat service here with my hevre! I still remember my first Jewish Renewal Shabbat evening services, in the tent at the edge of the meadow at the old Elat Chayyim. There was a kind of tent-revival feel, and not only because we were literally davening in an open-sided white canvas tent. I'd like to daven in the Martha's Vineyard Camp Meeting Association Tabernacle someday.

 

Photo source.


Hortensias

The summer I was fifteen, I spent a month as an exchange student in a small city in Brittany. The city was called Lannion, and it was adjacent to Perros-Guirec, which was the hometown of my middle school French teacher. Each summer he took a handful of his students back to his birthplace. In retrospect, now that I have a child and live a few thousand miles away from my parents, I imagine he must have started organizing the homestays in order to help him afford to bring his kids back home.

I grew up in south-central Texas, where summers last a long time, and they're hot: really hot. (I couldn't quite fathom it when I was instructed to pack some things with long sleeves.) The beaches I knew were those at Port Aransas and South Padre Island, on the Gulf coast, where the water is warm. And the flora I knew was the stuff that grows at the intersection of subtropical and scrub desert -- very Mediterranean. I grew up with banana trees, bougainvillea, oleander, prickly pear cactus, magnolia.

Living in France was an amazing adventure. I remember dinners outside in the long light evenings -- and foods I had never before seen: langoustines, raclettes, buckwheat galettes. I remember the dolmens, erected four or five thousand years ago and weathered by rain and salt air. I remember side trips to Mont St.-Michel with its extraordinary tides, and to Rennes to visit my host family's family. I remember going to the beach. I was determined to swim in the English Channel, even if it were cold!

And I remember noticing that plants grew in Brittany which I had never before seen. I was especially struck by the lush bushes covered with giant flowers made up of many tiny blooms. I asked my host mother what they were called, and she told me hortensias. Some years later I visited the island of Nantucket for the first time with the family who would become my in-laws, and there I saw the same beautiful clusters of blossoms again, and learned their common English name, which is hydrangea.

Hydrangeas grow all over coastal New England. They grow in our backyard now, too -- though in our backyard their blooms are a simple ivory-white. In more acidic soils, like the seaside soil of Lannion (or, for that matter, the seaside soil of Nantucket and Cape Cod), the blooms are blue: ranging from periwinkle, to pale lavender, to a deep purple-blue. They're a kind of natural litmus paper. And every time I see them, I remember for an instant what it was like to be fifteen on my homestay in Lannion.

Hydrangea-in-brittany-france-21329254


Longing, Exit 16




Turn here
if your heart aches

if someone you love
is out of reach

if a beloved
is suffering

and you wish
more than anything --

Turn here
if you've wanted

what you didn't have
or couldn't have

if love overflows
like an open faucet

if yearning is as close
as you get to whole.

 


 

On the highway recently I saw one of those standard blue signs which reads "Lodging" and then the exit number. Out of the corner of my eye I mis-read it for a moment, and thought it said "Longing, Exit 16." Then I thought: wow, I want to use that as the title for a poem.

So I did.


Almost Tisha b'Av

Tisha b'Av is coming.

On the ninth day of the lunar month of Av -- on the Gregorian / secular calendar, that date is coming up this Saturday -- Jews around the world will gather in mourning. We will mourn the fall of the first Temple, destroyed by Babylon on 9 Av in 586 B.C.E. We will mourn the fall of the second Temple, destroyed by Rome on 9 Av in 70 C.E.

We will mourn our own shortcomings, as exemplified in the Talmudic teaching that the first Temple fell because of sinat chinam, baseless hatred -- or in the Biblical story of the scouts who, sent to get a first glimpse of the Promised Land, came back on 9 Av full of their own fears and as a result doomed their generation to wander in the wilderness.

We will mourn the beginning of the first Crusade which killed thousands of Jews and which began on (or near) 9 Av; the expulsion of Jews from England and, later, from Spain, both of which happened on (or near) 9 Av; and the Grossaktion (great deportation and mass extermination) from the Warsaw Ghetto, which likewise happened on 9 Av.

Some of us, on Tisha b'Av, will also be mourning the more generalized brokenness of creation; the damage done by humankind to humankind, whether in the destruction of a holy house of worship 2000 years ago or the destruction of Black churches in America today; the horrors of war throughout the centuries, from antiquity to Hiroshima to the present day.

Some of us, on Tisha b'Av, will also be mourning the brokenness of our earth and the fear that in our lust for fossil fuel we are destroying and burning our earth as surely as the holy Temple was destroyed. Some of us will also be mourning the brokenness in our hearts and in our relationships -- our own internal walls which have crumbled, our own shattered places.

On the secular / American calendar, this is the heart of summer; a fun season, a celebratory time. On the Jewish calendar, Tisha b'Av calls us to dip into awareness of mourning. It's a little bit like the glass we break at every wedding -- a reminder that even in our times of greatest joy, somewhere in the world there still exist brokenness and sorrow.

Tradition also teaches that on the afternoon of Tisha b'Av, when we are most deeply immersed in sorrow and grief, the seeds of redemption are planted. One midrash holds that moshiach, the messiah, will be born on the afternoon of Tisha b'Av. It's like in the Greek myth of Pandora which I loved as a child: there is hope at the bottom of the box.

 

As Tisha b'Av approaches

 

We begin our descent
toward the rubble.

Our hearts crack open
and sorrow comes flooding in.

Help us to believe
that tears can transform,

that redemption is possible.
The walls will come down:

open our eyes, give us strength
not to look away.

 

 

You can find more Tisha b'Av posts in my 9Av category.  I commend to you especially this pair of liturgies for the holiday assembled jointly by me and Rabbi David Markus last summer.

The above poem was originally posted in 2012, and will appear in my forthcoming collection
Open My Lips, due later this year from Ben Yehuda Press.


Revising my sermons; revising me

One of the things I talked about last week at Kenyon, with my students who were there to learn how to blog, was the question of whether one is an external or an internal processor. Some people think and ponder and mull and then sit down to write and everything pours onto screen (or paper) fully-formed. Others sit down to write, and as they do, the piece takes shape. The writing is integral to the thinking.

I am an external processor, for sure. I do my best thinking through writing. I suspect that this has always been true -- ever since I started writing in a cloth-bound diary at the age of ten, which I did for years. "How do I know what I think until I see what I say?" asked EM Forster. I know the feeling! Of course, revision is always part of my process. But I think best when I have keyboard at hand.

This is one of the reasons why my high holiday sermons go through so many iterations. I start jotting down ideas in early summer -- sometimes a quote, or a thought, or a yearning. Then three of those questions or ideas sprout their own documents, and when I can make the time, I sit down and write. Eventually I have drafts which are the right length -- but that's still only the beginning of my process.

I let them sit. I come back to them a day or a week later and notice, sometimes, that what I had thought was extraneous is actually the heart of the thing. Time to tear it apart and rewrite around that. Or I discover that what I've written would make a fine lecture for a class on a subject in which I am interested, but it isn't a sermon, especially not one for the Days of Awe, this lofty and powerful season.

The stakes feel high. When it comes to many of those whom I serve, this feels like my one chance this year to reach them -- to make them feel something, to awaken something in them, to give them hope and inspiration. And there's a lot going on in high holiday services: melodies we don't hear at other seasons, prayers we don't otherwise recite. Can I cut through that to reach people where they are?

By any ordinary count the journey toward the High Holidays has yet to begin. Some begin with Tisha b'Av, the emotional low point of our liturgical year, and from there count the days up toward Rosh Hashanah. (See, e.g., Rabbi Alan Lew's tremendous This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared.) Some count the 49 days between Tisha b'Av and Rosh Hashanah, a reverse Omer.

Some begin their preparations for the holidays at the start of the month of Elul, and dedicate those weeks to a process of internal teshuvah, repentance / return, perhaps focusing especially on relationship with self and with God in order to be able to focus on interpersonal teshuvah during the Ten Days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. (See, e.g., See Me: Elul poems.)

But for those of us who are blessed to be in my line of work -- and I mean that wholeheartedly; I still wake up some days and marvel that I get to do this! -- preparations for the Days of Awe begin months in advance. My community maintains a 90-item to-do list on a wiki page which begins with "seek and find cantor" and ends with "get volunteers to take down the sukkah after Shemini Atzeret."

There are a lot of balls to keep in the air. A lot of cats to herd, if you prefer that metaphor. A lot of details to manage. The danger for me is that I can get so caught up in the details that I don't do my own inner work of preparation. Over these last five years, I've learned that working on my sermons in bits and pieces all summer can be part of my inner work. As I revise them, I'm also revising me.

 


Airport havdalah




Sun slides behind the concourse.
It's still today, but the coming week
encroaches. My mind clicks through
obligations like prayer beads.

Then the chat window opens.
You type the first words of havdalah.
Behold! The God of my redemption.
I open to the week; I am not afraid...

Suddenly though among strangers
I am not alone. You are with me.
Your emoji and your texts
-- they comfort me.

As I board the plane
I catch a whiff of someone's perfume.
The seatbelt sign glows. In its light
my polished fingernails gleam.

Bless the One Who separates
and bridges. Even at a distance
we aren't really apart.
My cup overflows.

 


This poem was written on my second plane home from Beyond Walls. I was traveling on Saturday evening and there was no way to make havdalah in any formal sense, but this experience -- and the writing of the poem which ensued -- became my ceremony of separation between Shabbat and week.

Havdalah is celebrated with the scent of sweet spices (to revive us as the "extra soul" of Shabbat departs) and by holding up our hands to the light of the braided candle. The final havdalah blessing speaks of God Who separates; I follow a Jewish Renewal custom of adding "and Who bridges."


On being a blogging rabbi

Rachel-talk

Photo by Rabbi Jason Miller.

On Friday morning at Beyond Walls I gave a talk about being a blogging rabbi. I talked about how I began Velveteen Rabbi, the journey through rabbinic school and becoming a congregational rabbi, the gifts and shadow sides of blogging as a clergyperson, how blogging is part of my spiritual practice, living spiritual life in the open, how to begin blogging, and why I still think blogging is worth doing.

Here are the slides from that talk. In general I try to use slides to spark the things I say, rather than to contain all the words I'm going to say, so the slides aren't a reconstruction of the talk -- but they'll give anyone who was there some visual cues for remembering what I talked about, and for those who weren't there, they'll offer a glimpse of some of what I had to say about the clerical blogging life.

 


A mincha beyond walls

There has not been formal prayer at Beyond Walls, though each morning and evening someone leads a meditation which features some silence and some words or prayer or song. Midweek, one of the Jewish participants suggested that we gather to daven mincha, the short service named after the afternoon grain offering which was once shared on the altar at the Temple in Jerusalem. We met on the patio behind the dining hall just after dinner on Wednesday night. The dining hall was beginning to cast long shadows across the lawn, but we walked through those shadows and into the sunshine.

We were a group of perhaps ten Jews and at least twice as many curious Christians. Rabbi Jamie said a few words explaining mincha and led us in an ashrei chant which I know and love and have sung often -- and which I did not know was his own composition! Then I led the weekday amidah: the first three blessings in Hebrew, and then the remainder in extemporaneous English. As I came to each of the bakashot (requests) I glanced at the Hebrew in my tiny pocket Koren siddur, connected with its meaning, and sang out a sentence or two in English before closing with the chatimah, the final line.

This is a mode of prayer I learned from the teacher of my teachers, Reb Zalman z"l (of blessed memory -- see Remembering my rebbe.) It seems innovative, but is actually a very old way of approaching prayer in general and the amidah in particular. Once upon a time, the shaliach tzibbur ("delegate for the community," e.g. prayer leader) would riff on the set themes of the blessings; only the final words of each blessing, which express its theme, were fixed. I love davening the amidah in this way, especially when I'm with a mixed-faith group for whom the pure Hebrew would not hold meaning.

Rabbi Jamie led us in a wordless niggun as our prayer for peace, and then an ein od chant as our aleinu. Meanwhile, my eyes were riveted on a clump of mown grass near us where a glorious orange butterfly was resting. At one point it rose up and flew away a bit, but it returned to another nearby clump of grass. I liked imagining that perhaps it was listening to our prayer. (Can butterflies hear?) Afterwards as people were thanking us for the service, others noticed the butterfly too. "It's probably dying," noted Rodger Kamenetz wryly. "What -- I'm a realist!" Well, at least we gave it a sweet send-off.

19729846216_0493b50a2e_z

A butterfly very like the one we davened with.

Shabbat shalom to all who celebrate! And to everyone else, may your weekend be sweet.


Bedtime angels

On Tuesday evening I was blessed with the opportunity to lead our evening meditation at Beyond Walls. I had planned to sing two prayers, with some silent meditation in between, and that's exactly what I did -- first the ma'ariv aravim prayer which blesses God Who brings on the evening, and then the hashkivenu prayer which asks God to spread over us a shelter of peace as we head toward bed. But as I was finishing that second prayer I realized that there was something else I wanted to sing, something I sing to our son nightly: the invocation of the four angels who watch over us as we sleep.

The invocation of the angels is part of the liturgy of the bedtime shema. I grew up reciting the simple one-line shema at bedtime, but didn't learn about the other parts of the traditional liturgy until adulthood. One piece of that liturgy is a beautiful prayer of forgiveness (both seeking it, and granting it) which I have written about before. (See The vidui prayer of Yom Kippur...and of every night.) Another piece is birkat ha-mapil, which asks God to protect the sleeper to lie down in peace and rise up in peace in the morning. And a third piece is an invocation of a quartet of angels.

Here are the words to that invocation, as I learned it at Elat Chayyim many years ago:

בשם ה' אלוהי ישראל
מימיני מיכאל
ושמאלי גבריאל
מלפני אוריאל
ומאחורי רפאל
ועל ראשי ומעל תחתי שכינת אל

B'shem Hashem, elohei Yisrael
B'ymini Michael u-smoli Gavriel
Milfanai Uriel, u-me'acharai Raphael
V'al roshi, u-m'al tachtai, Shechinat-El

In the name of God, the God of Israel
On my right is Michael, on my left is Gavriel
In front of me is Uriel, behind me Raphael
And all above, surrounding me, Shechinat-El.

Sometimes this is called "the angel song." It invokes the presence of four angels. On the right is Michael, which in Hebrew means "Who is Like You, God?" -- in simple words, Wonder. On the left is Gavriel, which means "God's Strength" -- in simple words, Strength. In front is Uriel, which means "God's Light" -- simply, Light. Behind is Raphael, "God's Healing" -- simply, Comfort. And above us, and surrounding us, every present with us, is the Shechinah, the immanent divine Presence. (The idea of naming each angel with a one-word quality comes from the children's book The Bedtime Sh'ma.)

If you can't see the embedded video, above, it's here on YouTube.

The melody I used at Beyond Walls was one by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach z"l, and it's the one I most often sing to our son at bedtime. (Though when I was at Getting It... Together a few weekends ago, I learned a beautiful new melody for these words, written by Shir Yaakov.) I love this little prayer. I love the idea of invoking these four angelic presences to watch over us while we sleep. I love the fact that in our tradition there is an angel of Wonder, an angel of Strength, an angel of Light, an angel of Healing. And I love the use of this lullaby to gentle the transition out of waking and toward dreams.

The Talmud teaches that sleep is 1/60th of death. When we go to sleep, our tradition teaches, we place our souls in God's keeping -- and when we rise and sing the modah ani, we thank God for restoring them to us and for the gift of another day. Sleep means letting go of whatever we've been carrying all day, and letting go of control. When we sleep we have to trust that our hearts will go on beating and that the world will keep on turning. For me, invoking the presence of these four angels is a bolster against anxiety and a comfort. I'm grateful that I was able to share this practice with this community.

 

Related:

Calling all angels, 2010

Bedtime prayers and the alphabet, 2013

Vayechi: a blessing at bedtime, 2015


Beyond our broken walls

Brickwallscrumbledplaster97566On the Jewish calendar we're in the period called bein ha-meitzarim, "between the narrows" or "in tight straits." This three-week journey began with 17 Tamuz, the day when we remembered the long-ago first breach of Jerusalem's city walls.

It will end with 9 Av, the day when we will remember the destruction of both the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, and many other heart-wrenching catastrophes besides. This is a time of year for recognizing what is broken.

There's no shortage of brokenness to notice. Any dive into world news reveals tragedy and trauma. History is filled with broken places, and we carry those with us. And there are broken places in our individual lives. Relationships which have fractured, institutions which are damaged,  sorrows which make our hearts ache. I think we all know the feeling of being trapped in something that is broken.

And yet.

The brokenness isn't an end in itself. The year doesn't end with Tisha b'Av. On the contrary, some see Tisha b'Av as the first step toward Elul and the Days of Awe, the first step toward reorienting and realigning ourselves, toward our annual spiritual rebirth. Every life contains brokenness, but the brokenness doesn't need to define the life. Our broken places can also be openings for something new. As the great sage Leonard Cohen teaches, "There is a crack in everything; it's how the light gets in."

There's something interesting about reflecting on these broken walls (both historical and personal) while I am teaching at Beyond Walls, a retreat which encourages clergy to think about how our writing can take us beyond the walls of our religious communities, beyond the walls of our institutions, out into the world. Can we experience our broken walls as openings to a place of connection? When our walls break, can we respond by building doors? What holiness might we then be able to let in?


More from Kenyon

Last night Marie Howe gave a poetry reading. I'm a longtime fan. I still remember a commencement address she gave at the Bennington Writing Seminars some years ago, and I read an excerpt from her poem "What the Living Do" every year during yizkor (memorial) services at my shul on Yom Kippur.

Her reading was lovely -- from the serious (including the aforementioned poem, of course; and she also read one of my very favorite Jane Kenyon poems ever, "Let Evening Come") to the raucously hilarious (I can't wait until that Mary Magdalene poem is published so I can point y'all to it.)

Today may be my most densely-packed day of the week. From morning meditation to teaching all morning; to an afternoon book-signing along with Marie, Rodger, and Amy Frykholm; to teaching an evening workshop; to leading the evening meditation -- it's going to be a very full day, but a sweet one.

There's much about the experience of this retreat which feels familiar to me. Being in a temporary  community of people who seek to be spiritually open is familiar to me from ALEPH. Sitting down at meal tables and talking about writing life is familiar to me from long-ago Bennington residencies.

But when I've done writing retreats in the past they've been secular, so the integration of writing and spiritual life is a new adventure. And when I've done spiritual retreats in the past they've been Jewish, so being in spiritual community also with Christians of various stripes is also a new adventure.

I'm grateful this morning for the modah ani melody running through my head; for those beloved to me who while physically distant are nonetheless in my heart; for breakfast table conversations about prayer gear and retreat centers, and for discovering more about how interconnected we all already are.


First post from Beyond Walls

Kenyon-banner

I'm spending this week at Kenyon College as faculty for the Kenyon Institute's first-ever weeklong writing workshop for clergy, spiritual directors, and seminarians, Beyond Walls.

Last night at dinner I enjoyed a delightful dinner table conversation which ranged from "what we hope to get out of this week" to different weekly lectionaries, different death and funeral practices (I mentioned the hevra kadisha, or volunteer burial society, about which I first wrote in 2005: Facing impermanence), and the idea of "liturgical east." It was a lot of fun. (The fact that I find these conversations endearing and enjoyable is probably a sign that I have chosen the right line of work!)

I'm here this week to teach blogging, which I think is going to be neat. For advance assigned reading I chose six thoughtful, thought-provoking, interesting blog posts to share with my students. It occurred to me that y'all might be interested in seeing the advance reading too, so I'm sharing the links here:

Eucharistic Mitzvah, Tertium Squid

Struggle, Ima Bima

Psalm 75, Yedid Nefesh

Finding an authentic spiritual voice this Ramadan, Wood Turtle

Reflections on Holy Week 2012, The Cassandra Pages

Explicit, tacit, explicitly, 如 (thus) 是

I wanted the assigned reading to feature a range of writing styles; a range of religious traditions; and a range of forms (from the short poem/psalm at Yedid Nefesh to the multipart essay at The Cassandra Pages.) These are all bloggers whose work I regularly follow; three of these six bloggers have become dear friends of mine "offline" as well as online, though we initially met via our blogs, and we continue to maintain our correspondence and our friendship in part through this digital medium.

I'm looking forward to teaching my first workshop this morning, and hope to share some gleanings from my week with y'all as time permits.


Beloved



Again the ache
    floods my ribcage,
        wets my face with salt.

Missing you
    wells up in me:
        painful undertow.

The water is wide
    and I can't see you
        on the distant shore.

What use my hands
    if I can't touch you,
        my heart if it's alone?

When you're with me
    I can see new colors.
        All creation gleams.

What can I give you?
    My words, my offerings
        could never be enough.
        
I close my eyes.
    Maybe before I wake
        I'll see your face.
        
       


Jewish tradition is rife with poems of yearning written to God. I would feel chutzpahdik in the extreme were I to place myself alongside Yehuda Halevi or Solomon ibn Gabirol or the author of Yedid Nefesh (hear that poem sung by Nava Tehila, or read it in Hebrew and in Reb Zalman z"l's English translation at Open Siddur)...but perhaps this poem arises out of a similar yearning for the face of the beloved.

I think of this poem as the other side of the connection evoked in Your voice knocks. I seem to be writing a series of these; the third is already in progress. Stay tuned...


Feminism then and now

Screen-Shot-2015-07-02-at-2.26.42-PM-130x174Someday I'll have time to write for Lilith magazine again. (Somehow between my congregation, our five year old, and ALEPH, I don't seem to pitch many articles to editors these days. Go figure.) But I'm honored to be quoted in the cover story for Lilith's Summer 2015 issue, Erica Brody's Confronting Generational Tensions to Build Our Badass Jewish Feminist Future.

Here's a taste:

Last year, I was invited to an Upper West Side seder in New York with several Jewish women who had, literally, stood shoulder to shoulder four decades ago and marched into the American fray for women’s rights, creating a distinctly American, Jewish, feminist space. Included in an effort to share this experience and space with younger women, I was humming a tune of gratitude — “Well done, Sister Second Wave!” — when I kicked off my boots and lined them up next to my heroines’ in the hallway.

It’s strange being a Generation Xer (ages 35–50 in 2015, if you go by Pew Research Center metrics), no longer the young guard, not yet the old guard, a small generation bookended by two mega ones: Baby Boomers and Millennials. I’d claimed the mantle of feminism as a 14-year-old purple-haired activist spewing Emma Goldman quotes, but it was only in my late 20s that I started thinking of myself as part of a long line of Jewish feminists, proud of their achievements, steeped in the criticisms, turning tides.

Ever since, from my perch — mainly behind a screen, as a writer, editor and strategist — I’d done my best to lift up progressive Jewish women’s voices, to build bridges. Yet for a long time, to be honest, I’d blocked out the white noise of tensions between generations of Jewish feminists. I tried extra hard when I was peppered with questions from some older feminists along the lines of Why aren’t you….? No one your age seems to care about….

My voice is one of 22 quoted in the article; we range in age from 18 to 76. It's an awesome piece -- go forth and read it online, and if you're moved by what you read, consider subscribing to the magazine or buying the current issue.


Your voice knocks



When I wake
your name is honey
on my lips.

All day long
you're with me.
My heart rests

in your hand.
I am safe
in your embrace.

You know
my innermost parts.
Nothing I say

nothing I am
could drive you
away from me.

Your voice knocks.
Like a magnolia
I open.

 


This poem arose in me on my way home from West Chester, PA, where I spent the last several days doing ALEPH things -- first the "Getting It... Together" weekend, then an ALEPH board meeting, then getting a tiny taste of Ruach ha-Aretz and doing a bit of listening tour work before returning home.

The final stanza is the one which came to me first -- probably because I had been listening to Nava Tehila's beautiful album Libi Er (Waking Heart). The title track includes the phrase קוֹל דּוֹדִי דוֹפֵק -- "the voice of my beloved is knocking." (It's a quote from Song of Songs chapter 5.)

"You know / my inmost parts" hints at Psalm 139.


Seven more gifts from "Getting It... Together"

19260593179_12d9774a2a_z

Leading Sunday morning prayer with a dear friend. (Gift #5.)

1.

One of the blessings of my Shabbat morning was davening with Hazzan George Mordecai. He has a beautiful voice, of course. Also a beautiful presence. And he frequently brings melodies I've never heard before. Sometimes this is because his knowledge is so wide and deep; his heritage is Iraqi, Turkish, and Indian, and he taps deep into Jewish melodic traditions which I don't know well.

And other times it's because he's written the melodies himself -- as with the setting of "Hallelu avdei Adonai," which I was blessed to hear him lead in March, and which he brought again this weekend. But even when he's leading melodies no one in the room knows, somehow he gets us all singing along within minutes. And oh, how his "Hallelu avdei Adonai" goes right to my heart and fills me with joy.

 

2.

I spent our menucha (rest) time on Shabbat afternoon sitting on the floor of a college dorm room with a guitar and a pair of prayerbooks and two friends, planning melodies for afternoon services and for morning services to follow. It was like a sweet little glimpse back into rabbinic school! And then I got to attend the Shabbat mincha services led by those two dear friends, and sing with them, and beam.

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg spoke about mincha as the hour of redemption and the time of greatest sweetness. And he spoke about living in a time when God is hidden, and how paradoxically that means that God is all the more present with us. God's transcendence may have withdrawn; we no longer live in an era of overt miracles. But we live in a time when Shekhinah, divine Presence, is everywhere.

 

3.

At se'udah shlishit, the "third meal" of Shabbat, my beloved friend and teacher Rabbi Elliot Ginsburg offered a vort, a word of teaching. He spoke about the powerful blend of fulfillment and yearning which characterizes that hour of Shabbat -- especially when we are together in community like this. We have moved so deeply into this "foretaste of the world to come," and we know it is about to wane.

One piece of his teaching which made me swoon was the image that when this community comes together for Shabbat in this way, together we are like a Tibetan singing bowl. We become a musical instrument together, an instrument of song and praise. Our hearts and souls resonate in harmony. He said that and I thought: yes. Yes. We are. And even after we go home, the music still reverberates.

 

4.

Saturday after dinner, I sat on the floor in a packed room and listened to Rodger Kamenetz speak about dream work -- not only what's in his book The History of Last Night's Dream, but also the way he's working with (and his students are working with) dreams now. He spoke about life lived on the horizontal plane and how dreams can operate on the vertical plane, taking us deep -- or lifting us high.

And then someone in the room volunteered to share a dream, within the safe space of our coming-together, and Rodger worked with that person and with the dream. And even though I wasn't the person whose dream was being explored, I came away with deeper insights into my own dreams.

 

5.

One of the sweet surprises of my weekend was that I got to lead Sunday morning davenen (prayer)! My friend Rabbi Aura Ahuvia led with me. The building in which we were supposed to meet turned out to be locked, but that wound up being a blessing; instead we sat in a rough circle outdoors on a patio instead, and davened along with birdsong and crickets. It is delicious to daven in the open air.

We began the morning with some gentle and melancholy melodies. Saturday was 17 Tammuz, when we remember the first breach in the walls of Jerusalem so long ago, but because it fell on Shabbat, this year that remembrance took place on Sunday. We sang the last line of Psalm 150 to "By the Waters of Babylon" and as our voices interwove I thought of the broken walls, the broken places, in our hearts.

And by the end of our davenen we had shifted mood. I said a few words about how I've come to think that the way to deal with the brokenness in the world and in our lives is to seek to find God's presence in the experience of what's broken. (As that great sage Leonard Cohen wrote, "There is a crack in everything -- that's how the light gets in.") We closed with sweet and heartfelt song.

I love leading davenen for a room (or, in this case, a patio) full of people who are dear to me and to whom the words of the prayers mean as much as they do to me.

 

6.

At the Sunday "Living the Legacy" event which served as the culmination for the weekend, we heard from several of those who were on that historic trip to Dharamsala, and from other luminaries as well. Of course, Rodger spoke beautifully. I was so immersed in listening that I failed to take a single note! And he showed a video clip from Dharamsala, including a few moments which weren't in the film.

Rabbi Moshe Waldoks pointed out that adopting techniques -- acculturating, not assimilating -- has always been part of our tradition. We can take the best of what's outside to help us strengthen inside. Rabbi Yitz Greenberg said that this moment in time is either an age of tikkun olam (repairing the world) or chorban olam (destroying the world) -- and the choice is up to us.

Alaa Murad said that we can cherish our differences, even feel pride in those differences, and still be able to learn with and value each other. My friend and teacher Rabbi Shaya Isenberg, who moderated the discussion (and who taught the first ALEPH class I ever took, which was on deep ecumenism) spoke about dialogue and spirituality, saying, "I can learn from you without becoming you."

Rabbi Leah Novick taught that we don't need to lose our specificity when we come together. She said, "Learning from other traditions has made me a better Jew and a better rabbi." Dr. Rachael Wooten urged us, "Know your teachings deeply enough to use them in service of what you believe in." She said, "go deeper into what you already do." She said, "The real work is inner work."

 

7.

Right on the heels of "Getting It... Together," we began a two-day ALEPH Board meeting. The first thing we did, upon gathering around the table, was sing a blessing for the dinner we had just eaten. Then Rabbi Shohama Wiener, who acts as Rosh Hashpa'ah (head of spiritual direction) for our Board, offered an opening blessing and niggun and we sang more. Oh, impromptu ten-part harmonies!

And then we went around the table and spoke a few words about how each of us is. The dear friend who was sitting beside me said that being here with our hevre -- the singing, the davenen, the love of Torah, the companionship -- fills her up. When it was my turn, I said, "I feel exactly the same way." What a gift it is to be able to serve, as co-chair, this community of which I am so blessed to be a part.


See me: poems for Elul

In fall of 2014 I participated again in #blogElul, posting each day on themes relating to teshuvah (repentance / return) and inner growth during the month leading up to the Days of Awe. Last year, for the first time, I wrote poems in response to each of the 29 prompts.

As a working rabbi, I tend to find Elul pretty busy. But these poems poured out of me. Writing them gave me a touchstone, a sustaining thread of spiritual practice, which helped me connect with my own inner work even as I was preparing for the High Holidays in a practical way.

After the month was over I took some time to let the poems rest, and then returned to them with an eye to revising and improving them. I shared them with some trusted readers. And now I am delighted to be able to share them once again with you -- now in printed and bound form, and also as an e-book.

SeeMe-frontcover

See me: Elul poems

The lunar month of Elul (leading up to the Days of Awe / Jewish high holidays) is a time for self-examination, contemplation, and the inner work of teshuvah, repentance or return. Here are 29 poems, one for each day of Elul, which aim to open the reader up to awe, reflection, and the spiritual experience of being truly seen.

Print edition: $10 on Amazon | £6.25 on Amazon.co.uk | €7.98 on Amazon Europe

E-book edition: $6 on Amazon |  £4.07 on Amazon.co.uk | €5.72 on Amazon Europe

(And if you buy the print edition, you can add the digital edition for 99 cents.)

 

If you are at ALEPH's Ruach Ha'Aretz summer retreat this week, you can buy this book at the shuk! Copies of my collection of Torah poems, 70 faces (Phoenicia, 2011) are also available at the Ruach shuk.

Elul doesn't begin until mid-August, but I wanted to share word of this collection now. Feel free to buy it for yourself, or for a friend, as an early Elul present! I'll  post about it again as that lunar month approaches. (And if you lose track of this post, you can always find See Me: Elul Poems listed on the chapbooks page of my website.)


The first five gifts from Getting It... Together

The first gift of the "Getting It... Together" weekend came when I arrived in time to sit in on the last hour of a morning class. The week leading up to this celebratory weekend was "smicha students' week." The ALEPH ordination programs students, faculty, and some musmachim (alumni), have been here all week learning, praying, being together. I got to sit in on the last hour of Reb David and Reb Shohama's morning class, which meant that not only did I get to see some dear friends teach, but I also got to hear the new melody for the angel song which Shir Yaakov had written during the class. (Holy wow.)

The second gift of the weekend came during the opening program, when I got to hear our special guests -- among them Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, Blu Greenberg, Rabbi Moshe Waldoks, and Rodger Kamenetz -- offer reflections and remembrances of Reb Zalman. I particularly remember Reb Moshe making us laugh and also reminding us of Reb Zalman's profound teaching that each of us can be a rebbe -- and it's not only that we can, but that we're obligated to. And Rodger's words to Reb Zalman, spoken so sweetly, about how in Reb Zalman's voice and heart one became lebn, beloved.

We closed that program by singing again the three-part zhikr which we sang at the Remembering Reb Zalman celebration last year. The power of those melodies and words is multiplied in the experience of singing them with others to whom they have meaning. Then came the gift of evening prayer. I got to daven with two of my beloveds beside me, and others in front of me, and still others behind me -- like the angels in the angel song.  What was I just saying about the power of prayer being redoubled in the experience of singing with others to whom the words of our liturgy have meaning? That.

The fourth gift came when two of the ALEPH student hazzanim led us in the full Birkat HaMazon, the grace after meals. Which we sang with all of the well-loved rigamarole, from pounding on the tables, to the silly and sweet after-joys of the niggunim which naturally follow. ("What's the fifth letter of the Hebrew alef-bet?" "HEY!" Yai, di dai, di dai, di dai dai dai di dai di dai di dai dai dai dai dai, HEY!) I rejoiced watching people who are dear to me dancing arm in arm as we sang praises. Then there were niggunim and zemirot. Shabbat melodies, sung with gusto and heart. Songs of yearning; songs of joy.

And then I retired with a few dear friends, and a bottle of wine and a bottle of fig arak and two guitars, and we sang and reminisced and sang (and sang) for another few hours. It was as though the davening had never stopped -- prayers, Hebrew songs, melodies old and new, we just kept singing. I stayed up far too late. I woke far too early. Usually I guard my sleep fiercely! But I woke with a song on my lips and in my heart, and the joy of the melody lifted me. Perhaps I have been temporarily transmuted into an angelic being who subsists not on food and sleep but on the sheer joy of togetherness and praise.

 


Feels like coming home

Kallah-2016-postcard1-970Two years ago yesterday I wrote, "Anytime I enter a place where my Jewish Renewal community has gathered, it feels like coming home."

Have you ever heard anyone say "Welcome home to a place where you've never been?" That was how it felt for me, the first time I gathered with my Jewish Renewal hevre. Here were people who cared about Judaism, who cared about God, who blended the passionate God-focus of Hasidism with the kind of feminism and social justice underpinnings I hold dear. I struggle to describe it; ultimately it's a feeling, an experience. I have always been quirky, spiritual, different. From the moment I first set foot in a Jewish Renewal retreat setting, I could tell that I wasn't alone. I knew that I had found my spiritual tribe.

(Read the whole post, written at the start of the most recent ALEPH Kallah: Welcome home to a place where you've never been, 2013.)

Kallah-2016-postcard2-970I know that when I arrive in West Chester, PA, on Friday for Getting It... Together, I will feel the same way.

And it will be true again next summer when I travel to Colorado for the ALEPH Kallah. (Next summer I'm planning to bring our son with me, to the Kids' Kallah -- that will be a first, and one which I anticipate with some eagerness!)

Save the dates of July 11-17 2016 -- we're already hard at work planning next summer's Kallah, and I know it's going to be superb. And to those who are joining us this coming weekend, travel safely and I look forward to seeing you soon...