Previous month:
February 2019
Next month:
April 2019

A beautiful newspaper article

I'm deeply grateful to Kate Abbott and the Berkshire Eagle for this beautiful profile of me and my work, both locally (serving Congregation Beth Israel) and on a larger scale (co-founding Bayit: Your Jewish Home). Here's how it begins:

Eagle

At the foot of Mount Greylock, a round building with a wall of windows looks out at the the stone path of a labyrinth in the grass. The center of the room is a sanctuary, and a woman stands taking in the light.

She moves with poised self-command and an undercurrent of laughter. Walking in, a neighbor might hear her singing a prayer to a folk melody on her guitar, or sharing and reflecting a friend's quiet triumph, or talking frankly about navigating a time of pain.

On a Saturday morning, she will welcome in the community, wearing a rainbow tallit, a prayer shawl. Rachel Barenblat is the rabbi and spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Israel, the only synagogue in Northern Berkshire...

Read the whole story here: One of 'America's Most Inspiring Rabbis,' The Berkshire Eagle, March 30, 2019.


Uncomplicated bereavement

At the doctor's office
a questionnaire
about sadness.

I answer honestly, then
backpedal: my mother died.
This is just grief.

Later a friend gives me
the medical billing lingo:
"uncomplicated bereavement."

I almost laugh. Find me
a daughter mourning her mother
without complication.

I think of the photo
on your bathroom mirror
from what you called

the best days:
"when Dad was thin, and we
were rich, and Rachel was easy."

For years I was convinced
you wanted a different daughter,
one who stayed

in Texas, pledged
the right sorority,
married up.

We got better
at being mother
and daughter by the end.

But I hate the fear
you might have thought
I wanted a mom who wasn't you.

 


Four weeks

Dear Mom: it's been four weeks
since we sat in flimsy folding chairs
beside a gaping rectangular hole.
The morning was raw, too cold

for my son's summer-weight suit.
Someone gave him a navy-blue blanket
-- the funeral home? the limo driver? --
and he curled up in it, half in my lap.

At the end, when most people returned
to their cars, he wanted to stay
and keep shoveling earth onto the box.
He brought the blanket home on the plane

and sleeps with it every night.
Maybe it feels like a last hug from you.
I haven't asked: he doesn't want
to talk about the sad things now.

You'd applaud that, but I don't know
how to live without looking back.
At the end of shiva I wrapped myself
in your monogrammed sable stole

and walked around my neighborhood,
blinking like a mole bewildered by sun.
Like my child, still wrapping himself
in the plush blanket from your funeral

carrying you with him from bedroom
to living room sofa and back again.
As I prepare to leave this first month
I'm still learning how to carry you.

 

 

 


Manicure

No haircuts during shloshim: once you died
I called the shop to say postpone my trim.

I don't know the rules on manicures, but
it felt right to leave my nails unkempt.

This winter I came down after you fell
and called the beauty shop for both of us.

You said sure, but when time came to go
just getting yourself dressed had wearied you.

You rallied, pushed your walker to the door
turned down the visor mirror and then frowned

"How can I go to the beauty shop like this?"
I tried to turn it then into a joke:

we go when we don't yet feel beautiful?
When we arrived at Holly's, the bombshell:

the pedicure chairs were up a flight of stairs.
You hadn't gone up stairs in years. You made it

step by awful step and then collapsed
into a chair and closed your eyes. Your calves

were bruised, your tiny ankles swollen tight.
They were so gentle when they washed your feet

I thought despite myself of taharah,
the way we wash the bodies of the dead...

Before you died I got a goodbye manicure
but now my nails are chipped, my cuticles

as ragged as my heart. Soon I'll let
my stylist bring repair, rejoin the world

still feeling strange without you there to see
my nails that look like yours again at last.

 


 

shloshim - literally "thirty," the first 30 days of mourning

taharah - literally "purification," the holy work of washing, blessing, and dressing the bodies of those who have died (see Facing Impermanence, 2005)


Fine

Dear Mom, today I was fine
until my son played piano

and crowed "make a video, send it
to Nonni" and then his face fell.

When hospice began you told us
to stop moping. You'd tell me now

to make hay while the sun shines,
suggest that I hire a sitter

and go out with friends --
just dab a little concealer

so no one can see I've been crying.
Mom, I'm trying. But nothing

feels real without you here to see it
and I just sang my son

the lullaby I sang to you
as you were dying.

 


To the Management

I would like to register a complaint
about grief. Whose stupid idea was this?

Whichever angel was in charge
of giving human beings capacity

to move through sadness and then
feel better -- they screwed up.

Even after four weeks, grief is a wave
that hits sometimes at chest height

and sends salt water up my nose.
To make matters worse, it's

an ocean wave that swamps me
at the grocery store -- I'm not even

at the goddamn beach. Grief is
a pane of glass two feet thick

that crushes me like a pressed flower.
Grief is the same menu over and over.

Grief is banal as a crayon drawing
by someone else's kindergartener.

I would like to exchange this grief
for something that fits me better,

in a more flattering color.
I would like to set it afire, kindled

on a bed of crumpled tissues
and return it to Sender.

 


Dream

In last night's dream you laughed
about being sick, making light

of our fears. I heard your voice
but I didn't see you: I was caught up

trying to fix a garbage disposal
that wasn't working anymore.

In last night's dream I stood
in front of a room full of strangers

to say kaddish for you. I turned
every page in every book

but couldn't find the words...
Awake now, I remember the story

my chaplaincy supervisor told
about the patient who went on and on

about dysfunctional plumbing.
The punchline was, she was talking

about her own body and didn't know it.
And in my dream I focused

on the pipes, the broken housing
instead of on the laughter

that still flows. As for
my fear of forgetting the words --

you'd say I don't need them anyway.
You said once that all you want us to do

is visit your grave with a roadie in hand,
pour a splash on the thirsty earth.

I'm pouring out poems to water the soil.
We buried a box, but you aren't inside.

 


Happy news

Here's a piece of happy news: Beside Still Waters, the volume for mourners that I edited for Bayit which we published in partnership with Ben Yehuda Press, is the #1 new release in Jewish life on Amazon!

BSW-number-1

I'm endlessly grateful to everyone who contributed poems and prayers and readings. The book is reaching people because of the breadth and richness of the work assembled therein, and I am humbled and honored to have been able to midwife it into being.

You can find the Table of Contents, the introduction, and assorted other excerpts via the Look Inside This Book feature on Amazon, and those same excerpts are mirrored on the book's page at Bayit and on the book's page at Ben Yehuda, where discounts are available for bulk orders of ten or more copies.


Remember and forget: a dvarling for Shabbat Zachor

Amalek-soferetToday is Shabbat Zachor -- the Shabbat of Remembrance. That's the special name given to the Shabbat before Purim.

It's traditional today to read Deuteronomy 25:17-19 (from the end of parashat Ki Teitzei), describing the attack by Amalek. Amalek attacked as we were fleeing from Egypt. Amalek attacked the back of the winding train of footsore refugees. Amalek attacked those who were vulnerable and in most danger. The Talmud recounts a tradition that Haman, the antagonist of the Purim story, was descended from Amalek. As we prepare for Purim, we remember Amalek who attacked from behind. 

Tradition instructs us to blot out the name of Amalek -- to erase the name, the identity, of those who harmed us. I see in this injunction an echo of those who today say that when there are, God forbid, mass shootings and acts of terror we should not publicize the names of those who committed the atrocities, because the perpetrators want to be known. Their twisted egos want fame for their horrendous acts, and therefore we shouldn't talk about them by name, we should deny them the fame they crave.

And tradition also instructs us to remember. Today is Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat of Remembrance or Memory. We blot out the names of those who harm (indeed, there's a tradition in sofrut, the scribal arts, of writing the name of Amalek and then crossing it out with a bold stroke of ink)... even as we remember our wounds and our traumas, because those harms are part of what has made us who we are. Because we owe it to the victims to remember their names, and never to let their sacred memories die.

Today we reach Shabbat Zachor in the immediate aftermath of a horrendous terror attack in Christchurch, New Zealand. A white supremacist who proudly called himself a fascist opened fire during Friday prayers at a mosque and at an Islamic center. When I woke to this news yesterday I had no words. I still have no words to wholly encompass my horror or my grief -- or my fury at a person who would attack others in sacred places of prayer and community. I stand today with our grieving Muslim siblings.

The gunman in this horrendous, atrocious, unspeakable attack is Amalek: attacking the vulnerable, attacking those on the margins, attacking innocents at prayer because of their different mode of prayer or dress or connection with the Holy One. 

The gunman in the Pittsburgh shootings at Tree of Life synagogue a few months ago was Amalek. 

The gunman behind the Pulse nightclub shooting of GLBTQ people a few years ago was Amalek.

The gunmen behind every school shooting, every house of worship massacre, every predatory attack on children and worshippers and those who are "different" -- those at the "back of the community," those who are vulnerable -- are Amalek. 

And today we are called to remember and to mourn -- and also to blot out the names of those who would commit such atrocities. Blotting out their names doesn't (only) mean redacting news articles to deny them publicity. It means blotting out the identities of hatred, the self-concept that would lead anyone to pick up a weapon and attack the innocent for any twisted reason. It means blotting out white supremacy and white nationalism, homophobia and hatred, antisemitism and Islamophobia and xenophobia.

It means we must build a world in which those virulent hatreds are no more. Only then will we truly be able to honor the memories of those whom Amalek has taken from us. Y'all know that I am mourning my mother right now, and you have seen me weep -- you will see me weep again! But she died surrounded by family, at 82, after a life that was long and full of blessing. Those whom Amalek attacks do not have that luxury. And those who mourn them experience an entirely different kind of grief.

May we blot out the hatreds that animate Amalek in every generation.

May we stand in solidarity with all who are victimized.

And may our actions bring about the Purim when these hatreds are inconceivable, and when no one ever need mourn again as the Muslim community around the world is mourning today.

 

This is the d'varling I offered at my shul this morning. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

Image source: soferet Jen Taylor Friedman


Second letter: challah

My house smells like challah.
Three weeks ago I went through
these same motions in your kitchen.

You gave me the best gift:
you came down in the wheelchair
you hated to use, tethered

to the oxygen tank, and heard
my son sing kiddush one last time.
When we whisked the napkin

off the spiraling challah loaves
tiny sugar ants were exploring
their swirls and curves. I almost

cried, but we brushed them off
and declared the bread intact
so three generations could bless.

That night, back in bed, you said
"it's been too short, but
it's been sweet." Did you mean

our visit, or your eighty-two years?
We flew home the next morning
not knowing we would return

within a week. For days I kept
marveling, "she ate steak
at Shabbat dinner," as though

that mattered. What I meant was
you were so alive. Shabbes is coming
and I can't FaceTime with you

from the place where you are now.
You'd say "don't be maudlin."
I'm trying, but every minute

takes me farther from the one time
I baked challah for you, deeper
into this world where you are gone.

 


The details: Vayikra

GOD-IS-IN-THE-DETAILS-ARCHITECTURE-POSTER-CINQPOINTS-0-e1468415713734Little meditations on this week's Torah portion.

 

This week we're reading from Vayikra. The name means "And [God] Called" -- it's the first word of this week's Torah portion, and indeed, the first word of a whole new book of Torah, the book known in Hebrew as Vayikra, known in English as Leviticus.

My first Talmud teacher, Rabbi Judy Abrams z"l, used to say that she loved Leviticus most of all. When I was a new rabbinical student, I struggled with that. Why would one love Leviticus? So many details about offerings, ashes, kidneys -- holy barbecue!

But I've come to see Vayikra / Leviticus in a different light. Vayikra is all about details. Those offerings on the altar were how we used to say Thank You, and Please, and I'm Sorry. They're written down in detail because details are how we show what matters.

My mother, of blessed memory, used to say that we show respect for each other by dressing well. For her, that meant always having manicured nails, always choosing nice jewelry, always wearing lipstick, always a spritz of Bal á Versailles perfume.

For the priests, a few thousand years ago, dressing well meant linen garb embroidered with bells and pomegranates. For our Torah scrolls today, dressing well means a woven mantle depicting words from psalms, and our willow tree and our mountain.

Could we store a Torah scroll in a sack? Sure, if we had to. But we show respect for the scroll, and for its contents, and for God, by dressing the Torah in beautiful garb, down to the carved wooden or filligreed silver yad (hand) hanging from one handle.

We used to say Thank You, and Please, and I'm Sorry to God through offering pigeons, or meal offerings, or fat on the altar. Now we use the words of the siddur (prayerbook) and the words of our hearts. And maybe we also use music, or meditation, or tears. 

But the details matter. We show respect for the tradition, and for God, and for each other, with our attentiveness to detail. The details of how we pray, or how we dress the Torah, or how we make a practice of reaching out to each other in community.

After my shiva for my mom had concluded, someone asked me why we need ten for a minyan. Why can't we just say the prayers with however many people we have? And indeed, we do say Mourner's Kaddish at my small shul regardless of numbers.

But the tradition says that ten constitutes a symbolic community. Ten is a community that can bear witness to someone's words, and to someone's grief. And in my time of mourning, it mattered to me to respect that tradition -- to honor that detail together.

Because God is in the details -- or can be, if we take the time to look. That's the message I find in Vayikra this year. God is in the details of how we come together, whether for shiva or for a simcha (joyous occasion). God is in the details of ensuring a minyan.

God is in the details of the casserole brought to a mourner's home so they don't have to worry about cooking. God is in the details of my mother's manicure and her jewelry. God is in the details of the offerings that once helped us draw near to the Holy.

May we seek God in the details, and may we find God there, now and always, every day of our lives.

 


First letter

Your grandson has taken up needlepoint.
I see you rolling your eyes. I remember
when he was five and asked to do ballet:

you demanded, "is it because you wanted
a daughter?" I snapped at you no, Mom,
it's because he wants to try dancing.

And when he asked me to paint his nails
blue and purple and green you averted your eyes.
My fervent hope today is that wherever

you are -- the World to Come, the afterlife,
getting fabulous manicures with Shechinah
or simply resting, pain-free, in God's embrace --

all of the old life's pre-judgements
about "boys" and "girls" and what we can be
have fallen away. Look, Mom, he's taking up

needle and thread to be like me, and I'm
taking them up to be like you, to finish
the canvas you started. Isn't that what

we all do, in the end: add clumsy stitches
to the unfinished tapestry of generations?
He's trying to make something beautiful

from hard work and yarn. I told him
I'm proud of him. I told him
wherever you are, you're proud of him too.

 


By the numbers

Miles I moved
in order to define myself

not as anyone's daughter
but as the center

of my own story: two thousand,
more or less.

Years she lived
with a diagnosis: eight.

Weeks since she died: two.
Number of times

I've reached for my phone
to show her something

(look, Mom, I'm finishing
the needlepoint you started)

-- without limit.

 


Beside Still Waters: now in print

Bsw postcard v2 4.5x6.5 in_Page_1Now available!

 

Beside Still Waters: A Journey of Comfort and Renewal

New from Ben Yehuda Press and Bayit

$18 

 

Beside Still Waters: A Journey of Comfort and Renewal is a book for mourners, for those who will someday become mourners, and for those anticipating their own journey out of this life.  It offers liturgy both classical and contemporary for different stages along the mourner’s path, from prayers for healing (even when “cure” may be out of reach) and prayers to recite before dying, to prayers for every stage of mourning: from aninut (the time between death and burial), to shiva (the first week of mourning), to shloshim (the first month), the culmination of the first year, yahrzeit (death-anniversary) and yizkor (times of remembrance).

This volume features  traditional words alongside renewed and renewing interpretations and variations.  It contains complete liturgies for shiva accompanied by resonant new translations, evocative readings, and complete transliteration.  It also contains prayers for a variety of spiritually difficult circumstances (miscarriage, stillbirth, suicide, when there is no grave to visit, mourning an abusive relationship, and more.)

In the trans-denominational spirit of Jewish renewal, Beside Still Waters is for individuals and communities across the Jewish spiritual spectrum.

Beside Still Waters is a treasury of loving, comforting Jewish wisdom offered to support us in times of loss and grief. It is like having a wise, warm friend when you need that most. In my own time of loss, it became that for me. — Rabbi Marcia Prager, author of The Path of Blessing and dean of the ALEPH Ordination Programs

This is a wisely constructed and genuinely beautiful book. Beside Still Waters weaves ancient practice and new traditions into a totally approachable and readily usable companion that will help carry people through each phase of illness, death, mourning and healing, with honesty, compassion, wisdom and love. May those who turn to this book in time of need discover that they are not as alone as they likely feel, are more supported than they may know, and that a place of genuine comfort is there for them no matter what. — Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, Co-president of CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership

Beside Still Waters is a sensitive, beautiful and contemporary re-invention of Jewish liturgy, ritual, and wisdom surrounding the end of life.  Many talented poets and liturgists have contributed to this companion to those who are grieving, healing, and accepting. Their words offer a variety of practices and beliefs, addressing a multitude of human circumstances — some that are traditionally marked and others once overlooked.  Facing into the dilemmas and mysteries of our existence, Beside Still Waters is a friend to those who mourn, those who face their own death, and those who ask questions about the meaning of life and its end. Whether you are facing a dying, a funeral, a shiva, a yahrtzeit, or the lack of a mourning structure to hold your grief, there is something for you here.  — Rabbi Jill Hammer, Author of The Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for All Seasons and co-founder of Kohenet: The Hebrew Priestess Institute

It's been an honor and a privilege to midwife this book into being. My deepest gratitude to Rabbi Jonah Rank for his help with Hebrew proofreading and transliteration, to Larry Yudelson at Ben Yehuda Press for his enthusiasm for this project, and to the book's 40+ contributors:

Includes work by: Trisha Arlin, Helene Armet, Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, Alla Renée Bozarth, Debra Cash, Rabbi Eli Cohen, Rabbi David J. Cooper, Cate Denial, Rabbi Lewis Eron, Shir Yaakov Feit, Lev Friedman, Rabbi Chaya Gusfield, Rabbi Jill Hammer, Rabbi Cynthia Hoffman, Rabbi Burt Jacobson, Alison Jordan, Rodger Kamenetz, Anna Belle Kaufman, Irwin Keller, Rabbi Evan Krame, Rabbi Janet Madden, Rabbi David Markus, Rabbi Jay Michaelson, Mark Nazimova, Amy Grossblatt Pessach, Faith Rogow, Rabbi Brant Rosen, Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Kohenet Taya Shere, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi z”l, Soferet Julie Seltzer, Rabbi Jennifer Singer, Maxine Silverman, Devon Spier, Jacqui Shine, Elliott bat Tzedek, Rabbi Shohama Harris Wiener, Rabbi David Wolfe-Blank z”l.

Those who are interested can find the Table of Contents, the introduction, and assorted other excerpts via the Look Inside This Book feature on Amazon. I hope you'll take a look, and consider buying a copy (or several). Order Beside Still Waters at Ben Yehuda Press now. The book retails for $18.00.

May comfort come to all who mourn.


At Builders Blog: Build for Loving Balance: Fire and Water, Justice and Repair

IMG_0459

...Like fire, justice is a flame that heats and illuminates, but without proper insulation fire can do harm. Like water, love wants to flow where it’s needed, but without proper channels flow can become a flood. Fire and water need to be tempered, balanced, channeled. That’s the first building lesson I find here. In God’s image, we must ensure that as we build we balance judgment and love, fixity and flexibility, container and flow.

This is the first building lesson in the first Torah portion of the book of Leviticus, which is where traditionally observant children begin learning Torah. It’s traditional to start not with the Genesis story of creating heaven and earth, not with the Exodus story of liberation, but with this.

Why does traditional Jewish pedagogy begin here? Maybe to signal from the very start the need to balance justice and repair, strong container and free flow. This balance is the energetic foundation of the spirit-infused society that Jewish tradition asks each generation to build...

That's from my latest post for Bayit's Builders Blog, with sketchnotes by Steve Silbert. Read the whole thing here: Build for Loving Balance: Fire and Water, Justice and Repair.


Things I didn't know

That morphine is pale blue
sickly-sweet baby blue
like every cutesy sleeper
I didn't want for my infant son.

That I would feel
like a mother bird
tenderly tucking the drops
under her waiting tongue.

That the gasp and hiss
of the oxygen pump
would be both comforting
and terrible.

That when I closed my eyes
by her bedside, trying
to envision her
enrobed in light

the vision would morph
to a white Chanel suit
and I would see her
wearing her life's mitzvot

woven into a white pillbox hat
and a smart white suit
and white heels with open toes
and a cream-colored pedicure

vivacious and flirty
as a 1940s movie star
taking God's hand,
ready for the honeymoon to begin.

 


 

[W]earing her life's mitzvot. There's a teaching in the Zohar, that germinal work of Jewish mysticism, that says that in the world to come each soul will wear a garment of light, woven out of the mitzvot one fulfilled while living in this world.

 

Written after my mother entered hospice care. May her memory be a blessing. 


Experiencing shiva from the inside

Faces-of-mom

For years, presiding over funerals and shiva minyanim, I have thought: someday this will be me. I suspect that every rabbi with living parents has had those thoughts. Someday this will be me burying my parent. Someday I will be the one at the center of this emotional and spiritual whirlwind. Someday I will say kaddish for my parent.

I didn't know how different it would feel to say the words of mourner's kaddish for the first time as a mourner for my mom, standing at the lip of the hole in the earth into which we had just shoveled dirt atop her casket. I didn't know how different the words would feel, or how I would cling to them like a lifeline of meaning.

I didn't know how it would feel to stand at the bimah of Temple Beth El to offer a eulogy, looking out at a room full of people who'd known her. I didn't know that she would request the singing of Taps to close her memorial service, in honor of the summer camp bugler with whom she fell in love at fourteen, who is now a widower.

I didn't know how it would feel to sit shiva in the home that was hers, without her in it anymore, surrounded by family and by their friends. I didn't know how it would feel to return home and finish shiva here. To sit in my condo with mirrors covered and door open. To tell stories about her, and show photographs, when friends come sit with me.

I didn't know how it would feel to reread the letters she wrote me at camp when I was twelve, which I'd saved in one of my dad's cigar boxes. To reread years' worth of emails, most of them banal but significant now because they came from her. To discover that recordings of her playing piano make me weep as though the world were ending.

I keep remembering that I can't email her daily photographs of her youngest grandson anymore. What does it mean to document my life now for my own sake, and not for the sake of sharing it from afar with her? I will never hear her play the piano again. For how long will the sound of piano keys played expertly and with heart bring me to tears?

Shiva is a foreign country for which I don't have a reliable map. And next time I visit it will be different. Sometimes I feel like I'm getting the hang of it. Other times I am bewildered, fragile, red-eyed from crying. Just as I'm getting accustomed to sitting with these memories, it will be time to exit this stage of mourning and move to what's next.

Sometimes I think: it will be good to return to normal life when shiva is done. Other times I can't imagine how I will re-enter the world of working life, and the news, and life's million assorted obligations, when my skin feels so thin and my heart feels so bruised and so exposed and so tender. Time distorts: was that a week or an hour?

I've learned this week (again) that I can feel bereft and grateful at the same time. I've learned that my sense of fragility, of what death means, of what loss means, has shifted. I've learned that ordinary acts, like putting my child to bed and singing his usual bedtime lullabies, feel both the same and not-at-all the same as they did before.

I've learned that I can still talk to her, though I haven't heard an answer. When I speak aloud with God (talking with Shechinah in blue jeans in the front seat of my car) I can speak now with Mom, too -- hoping, imagining, that part of her is still with me, freed now from all of life's constrictions of body and spirit, freed from all misunderstanding.

Because we did misunderstand each other, sometimes. This week I've been learning how to begin letting that go. During my mother's last week of life, I thanked her for my life and told her how glad I am that I got to be her daughter. I will always be glad that I got to be -- that I get to be, that I will always get to be -- my mother's daughter.