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Key

Challot

I'd never before made a shlissel challah -- a challah shaped like a key. 

Some Ashkenazi Jews have a custom of baking shlissel challah for the Shabbat that comes after Pesach. It's a segulah, an almost magical folk practice: a kind of embodied prayer for parnassah (prosperity).

But why a key? Some teach that God holds the key to our good fortune, so we bake key-shaped challah as a way of asking God for what we need. One of our four new years opportunities is in Nissan --  an auspicious time to ask.

Others cover their shlissel challah in sesame seeds representing the manna that fell to sustain our ancient ancestors during the wilderness wandering after the Exodus. That, too, hints at prosperity.

Or maybe we do this because counting the Omer is a journey through 49 spiritual "gates" and each gate has a key. The shlissel challah represents the key to unlock the next step in the journey toward Torah.

Or because Pesach is meant to instill awe, and the Gemara compares awe to a key, saying: anyone who learns Torah but has no awe of heaven is like a treasurer who doesn't have the key to the door of the bank. 

The practice of baking a key-shaped challah turns out to have origins in early Hasidism. Hasidism is the world of ecstatic-devotional practice that began with the Baal Shem Tov, born in Poland in 1698.

One of his students, R. Pinchas Shapiro of Kovitz (b. 1726), taught that during Pesach and shortly thereafter, the gates of heaven are open. This challah focuses our prayers on (re)opening those gates.

R. Avraham Yehoshua Heshel, the Apter Rav (b. 1748), sees this as a mystical prayer to open the "gates of livelihood," as they were opened for our ancient ancestors when the manna stopped falling. 

Or maybe it's connected to Song of Songs, which many read during the week of Pesach. Verse 5:2 pleads, "Open for me, my sister." Does this key open a doorway to God -- or into one's deepest room of the heart?

Some press an actual key into the challah and bake it into the bread. I recently brought home a ring full of old keys from my mother's desk, and I briefly considered embedding one in the loaf. (But I didn't.)

I did my best to shape my usual challah dough into a key shape. I always sing Shalom Aleichem while kneading. While shaping, today I sang p'tach libi b'Toratecha -- "open my heart to Your Torah."

And as it began to rise, I sang along with Nava Tehilia's setting of Libi Er.  Ani y'shenah v'libi er: kol dodi dofek! "I sleep, but my heart wakes: the voice of my beloved knocks."  Or, in my own words (in Texts to the Holy):

Your voice knocks.
Like a magnolia
I open.

 

 

Sources for some of the above teachings can be found here and here.

Image: from a google image search. 


Interpretation

Forgetting where the car is parked
means something important left undone.

The structure deflated like punched dough
means vulnerability and self-blame.

The taxi that makes stop after stop for hours
is the same as the airport with no signs:

what made you think you had any control
over where you're going or when you arrive?

The suitcase that won't hold everything
means the same as the one left behind.

The empty hot tub at the top of the house
is ambiguous, but skylights mean hope.

 


 

None of these statements accord with any school of dream (or poem) interpretation I know. I'm also not sure how I feel about placing any single interpretation on a dream or poem. But both are worth holding up to the kaleidoscope, turning them to see what we learn from how the shapes (re)align.


Fine Dining

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The Italian place I remember
had dark walls, and candles
in cut-glass red votive bowls.
I thought the owner was Polish.

He and my dad were buddies,
talked business, smoked cigars.
I wore black-patent Mary Janes,
drank Shirley Temples, feasted

on baskets of crusty bolillos:
French bread reimagined
into perfect torpedoes
by Mexican hands.

That's where Dad taught me
how to relish soft-shell crab,
and the names of big wine bottles
like Jeroboam and Methuselah.

All I knew about Methuselah
was that he lived a long time,
maybe forever. I thought
Dad would too.

 


 

The restaurant that inspired this poem was the original Paesano's. Here's a reflection on the place written at its 50th anniversary, and here's an oral history from Joe Cosniak. I went to junior high and high school with the daughter of co-owner and chef Nick Pacelli, of blessed memory. 

The photograph above came from Vintage San Antonio - A Photo History (FB). Meanwhile, bolillos are a Mexican roll which some trace to the period of French colonization in Mexico. I baked some today. Mine aren't as beautiful as the ones from Paesano's, but they're still pretty good.

Obviously my household of origin didn't keep kosher. I don't eat soft-shell crab anymore, but I remember loving them when I was a kid. Shrimp Paesano, too. Maybe it's just as well: let them be a memory, along with Dad's cigar smoke and the way he laughed with his friends.


After (the) Death - Yizkor

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We're in a slightly strange position today, spiritually speaking. We are a Reform congregation, and in the Reform world, Pesach is a seven-day festival -- as it is in Israel for Jews of all denominations. Today is no longer Pesach; it's "just" Shabbat, like any other Shabbat.

And yet we're saying the Yizkor memorial prayers today, which is a thing we do at the end of Pesach. We could have held a special service for the seventh day of Pesach and recited Yizkor yesterday, but most of us don't have the practice of taking off work for 7th day chag.

So here we are, preparing for Yizkor even though it isn't Pesach for us. This year, maybe because I am myself a mourner, I noticed something about the confluence of Yizkor and the Torah portion we read today, the first part of Acharei Mot, "After the Death."

The death in question is that of Aaron's two sons, who died after bringing "strange fire" before God. At the moment of their death, Torah tells us, Aaron was silent. Sometimes, loss can steal our ability even to speak. We have no words, because in that moment there are no words to have.

After the death of Aaron's sons, God tells Moses to tell Aaron not to come "at will" into the Holy of Holies, because God's presence there is so powerful that Aaron might die. Instead, Torah outlines a set of practices: here are the garments to wear, the offerings to bring, in order to be safe.

In Torah's paradigm, direct unmediated experience of God is dangerous. (That's why when Moshe asks to see God's glory, God covers him in the cleft of a rock face and passes by, and Moshe only gets to witness the divine Afterimage.) The rituals of sacrifice made contact with God safe.

Grief and loss can overwhelm us, even blow out our regular spiritual circuits. And they're meant to. This is what it means to be human: to love, and to lose. Our tradition's mourning rituals provide structure, telling us when to stay home and when to emerge, and when to give ourselves space to remember.

Reciting the Yizkor prayers four times a year gives a predictable rhythm to the ebb and flow of mourning. The prayers are the same, whether at Yom Kippur or Shemini Atzeret or Pesach or Shavuot, but the way we feel saying them might change over the course of the year -- or from year to year.

A loss that's brand-new can be raw and overwhelming, can steal our words and our breath. A loss that's decades old might feel familiar, more like a broken bone long-ago healed than like a stab wound. Yizkor carries us through from new sharp loss to old familiar recollection.

That shift might take years, and there's no way to rush it. Grief takes the time it takes, and we feel what we feel, and eventually the sharp edges become gentler. Saying Yizkor four times a year is our spiritual technology for plugging in to our losses in community in a way that's safe.

Suddenly it feels exactly right to me that this year's end-of-Pesach Yizkor coincides with reading this first part of Acharei Mot. Like Aaron, we are faced with the question of how to make meaning after loss... and how to feel everything we need to feel while also functioning in the world.

Aaron relied on ritual to safely enter behind the curtain into the place where God's presence was most palpable. And we rely on ritual in our practice of Yizkor, the words we pray as we remember our dead. This too is a kind of going-behind-the-curtain into direct personal encounter.

Even if you don't typically wear a tallit for prayer, I invite you to pick one up as we begin Yizkor. Wrap yourself in it; maybe it feels like an embrace. And when we enter into silence, go behind the curtain of your tallit and take some time to connect with memory and with those whom you've lost.

May our prayers and our song and our silence be a safe container for whatever each of us needs to feel. May this ancient practice hold us up and help us through. And may we emerge from today's encounter with loss and memory feeling present and whole, and sanctified, and not alone.

 

This is my d'varling from Shabbat morning services at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)


Four Children

 


Grief, sometimes
you're the wise child reminding me

you wouldn't even be
at my table if I didn't love.

Sometimes you're the unruly one
insisting life is nothing

but an invitation to loss,
over and over. You sneer

care isn't infinite, only
this sea of salt tears.

Mostly you're the one
who doesn't know how to ask --

or how to answer
when you will depart.

 


 

This poem arises out of the haggadah's four paradigmatic children. Shared with gratitude to my fellow Bayit board member and dear friend R. Pamela Gottfried, who remarked to me earlier this week that "Grief is a wayward and rebellious child" -- which sparked this poem.


New prayer-poems for the Omer journey

On Saturday night at second seder we'll begin counting the Omer: the 49 days between Pesach and Shavuot, between liberation and revelation. Here are seven new prayer-poems for that journey, one for each week -- plus a prayer before counting, and a closing piece that integrates the journey before Shavuot -- from Bayit: Building Jewish: Step by Step / Omer 5782.

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This time, seven members of Bayit's Liturgical Arts Working Group wanted to co-create together. So each of us took one week of the Omer. (I got hod, the week of humility and splendor.)

I also wrote an adaptation of a classical prayer before counting the Omer, and we co-wrote a kind of cento, a collaborative poem made (mostly) of lines from our other pieces woven-together, for the end of the journey. You can find all of this (in PDF form, and also as google slides) here at Builders Blog.

Shared with deepest thanks to collaborators and co-creators Trisha Arlin, R. Dara Lithwick, R. Bracha Jaffe, R. David Evan Markus, R. Sonja Keren Pilz, and R. David Zaslow. We hope these new prayer-poems uplift you on your journey toward Sinai.


Vintage

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I found it in one of my mother's desk drawers. Mostly the drawer contained pens, mechanical pencils, a few thick yellow highlighters. And then there was this little metal case, shaped like a teardrop with a rounded tip. At first I mistook it for a white-out tape dispenser, though Mom hadn't owned an electric typewriter in years. When I pried it open, I found a vintage pitch pipe. The cylinder is silvery (probably made of tin) with a shape like a stylized cloud at one end, engraved with letters representing the chromatic scale. On the back it says MADE IN CZECHOSLOVAKIA. Crafted there, but engraved in English: it must have been made for export. An internet search suggests that these were common in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Did this one come with my grandparents from Prague in 1939? Did Mom pick it up to sing camp songs with her friends in 1950, the year she returned home and told her parents she'd met the man she planned to marry? There's no one left who can tell me its story, but its sound is pure and clear.

 

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Mom and three friends at Camp Bonim, circa 1953. She's second from the left. 

 

Related: Keys


Four weeks

I'm fine
except when I'm not.
Four weeks since
the big green tent.
I can't bear to listen
to the saved voicemail.

Most days
I make coffee, pack
my son's lunch for school,
dodge the cold spring raindrops.
Then I remember seder is coming
and you're gone

not here
not anywhere, not even
in that plain wooden casket
that we lowered into the ground.
Minutes go by, sometimes hours
before I shake it off.

How do I get
this postcard to you?
If I light a cigar, will the smoke
reach where you are? Should I
burn this with the hametz
my son will find by candlelight?

Grief rises up,
becomes my spiritual practice.
Like a meditation retreat
it makes my skin thin,
opens my bruised heart.
My mikvah is tears.

 

If this speaks to you, you might also find comfort in Crossing the Sea and/or in Beside Still Waters.


A new feminist haggadah, and reflections on history

9780827615519-768x1122The most formative experience of my college years wasn’t in a classroom. It was the collaborative work of the Williams College Feminist Seder Project, which began in 1992. My classmates and I were awakening to the realities of patriarchy and the relative absence of women’s voices in Jewish tradition. We read the works of feminist theologians Judith Plaskow (Standing Again at Sinai) and E.M. Broner (A Weave of Women, The Women’s Haggadah). We rewrote Hebrew blessings one letter at a time backwards because our word processors couldn’t handle text that ran from right to left.

The bricolage that we assembled and staple-bound each year feels clunky to me now. Parts of our Haggadot were more like footnoted arguments than liturgy. And the feminism of the early 1990s lacked an awareness of intersectionality, how axes of oppression intersect and refract each other—not to mention an awareness of gender beyond the male-female binary.

Still, our collaborative work taught me that liturgy could be iterative, evolving to meet the needs of the moment. Looking back, I can see the roots of my rabbinate in the realization that our traditions are living, not set in stone—and that together we can build the spiritual and ritual life that this moment needs...

That's the beginning of my book review of Marcia Falk's new haggadah, Night of Beginnings. The review is also a meditation on feminist seders, liturgical adaptation, and the work of building Judaism anew. Read it at Moment magazine: A Seder Reimagined by a Feminist Poet

(If you want to learn more about the Williams College Feminist Seder Project, referenced in the review, here's some history.)

I'm grateful to Marcia Falk for her beautiful work, and to Moment for asking me to write the piece. I'm glad to have this haggadah as part of my collection.


Questions

Was the roast meat smoky, maybe
charred from fire? We'll never know.
Back then everyone knew
only free people got couches.

Gemara says: a wise child asks.
Any gender may ask.
Two scholars can ask each other.
If there’s no one, ask yourself.

Why these questions, why now?
Matzah and maror say slavery.
Dipping and reclining say freedom.
Tonight we lean into both:

where we were, and where we are.
Kruschev hated Jews because
“We always ask why,” but
God loves it when we question.

 


Roast meat - see Mishna Pesachim 10:4:2. Originally the text we now know as "The Four Questions" had a different form, and included a question about roasted meat, a reference to the lamb sacrificed just before the Exodus and the paschal lamb sacrificed while the Temple stood. Only free people - see Pesachim 108a.  When reclining on a dining couch was a known practice, there was no need to ask a question about it. Gemara says - see Pesachim 116a, about who asks the questions. Two represent - see Zevach Pesach, Don Isaac Abravanel.  Kruschev and God loves questions - see Rabbi Steve Greenberg, “Wrestling with God and Men."

You can find all of these source texts and more in David Schwartz's excellent Sefaria source sheet The Story of the Four Questions. And if this interests you, I'm teaching a Zoom class on this at my shul at 5pm ET on Sunday; click through to learn more and to register to get the Zoom link.


Tazria and What Community Is For

 

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This week's Torah portion, Tazria, speaks in detail about a condition called tzara'at.

Many translations render tzara'at as leprosy, though that's clearly not what this is. Some other year I'll teach about the different ways our tradition has understood tzara'at, e.g. as a spiritual sickness, or a metaphor for slander, or a punishment for racism. This year I want to talk about something else.

Torah teaches this week that a person with tzara'at is considered tamei. So is someone who's given birth, or who's been in contact with a dead body. A lot of translations use the language of "unclean" and "clean" for the Hebrew terms tamei and tahor, though I really don't like that translation.

Rabbi Rachel Adler teaches that tum'ah (the state of being tamei) implies being charged-up with a kind of spiritual electricity. Something about contact with blood or birth or death makes us vibrate spiritually at a different frequency for a while. (I have written about this before.)

This isn't about uncleanness, and it isn't a value judgment. All of us are tahor sometimes and tamei sometimes, and being postpartum or in contact with death really is a different spiritual space. Okay. But what does this have to do with tzara'at, whatever it is, and what is this text calling us to do?

When the priest determined that someone had tzara'at, that person would be quarantined from the community for seven days. Then there was another examination. If the affliction was still there, the person was instructed to call out, "Tamei, tamei!" as they went about their business.

Reading this, I've often felt sorry for the m'tzora (the person with tzara'at). It isn't bad enough that they have this condition; now they have to proclaim their situation everywhere they go?! But this year a friend pointed me toward a passage in Talmud that completely changes how I feel about this verse:

As it is taught in a baraita: It is derived from the verse: “And he will cry: Tamei, tamei” (Leviticus 13:45), that a person with tzara'at must publicize the fact that he is tamei. He must announce his pain to the masses, and the masses will pray for mercy on his behalf. And likewise, one to whom any unfortunate matter happens must announce it to the masses, and then the masses will pray for mercy on his behalf. (B.T. Chullin 78a)

The reason for calling out "Tamei, tamei!" is not to shame the person who's afflicted. After all, as R. Adler notes, everyone is tahor sometimes and tamei sometimes. Talmud means to teach that when we are afflicted, we need to make that known to the community so the community can pray for us.

This leads to the question of what prayer is for. Do we pray in order to effect an outcome, or do we pray in order to sensitize ourselves to the needs of those around us? Both of these are legitimate Jewish theologies of prayer, though for me, the second one is the one that really resonates.

When I pray for someone's healing, I know that my prayer may not change their medical condition. But the act of extending my heart to God on their behalf can change me. And from that changed place, I am more aware of their needs, and that's what impels me to take action to help them.

Maybe that means checking in to see how they are. Or paying them a visit. Or providing a meal. Or wearing a mask because they're immunocompromised. Or avoiding perfume because scents give them migraines. Or sending a note. Or even just asking if they're okay, and really listening in response.

These aren't the rabbi's job. (Though I do try to do these things!) These are the responsibility of the community.  This is why we we list aloud each week those for whom we pray for healing -- so that the community will know that so-and-so is sick and in need of our prayers, our support, and our care.

The same is true of someone who's grieving, or who's lost a job, or who's grappling with depression or mental illness, or -- you name it. After all, Talmud tells us that when we are experiencing "any unfortunate matter," we should communicate that to our community so the community can step up.

Jewishly speaking, that's the purpose of community: to feed the hungry and comfort the mourner. To pray for each others' well-being, and then take actions that uplift those prayers and make them real. The purpose of community is to take care of whoever's in need. I really love that.

Returning to Torah's teaching that someone with tzara'at is tamei: yeah, our afflictions -- whether illness or another kind of suffering -- can make us feel disconnected, different from everyone else. But when we can admit that we're in that place, that's when others can reach in and be with us where we are.

This year I'm also noticing an aural connection between the words m'tzora (a person with tzara'at) and Mitzrayim (Egypt, the Narrow Place, constriction and tsuris) In two weeks we'll celebrate the Exodus from Egypt, Y'tziat Mitzrayim -- going forth from the constriction of suffering into expansive hope.

Tazria reminds us that when we've got tsuris, it's our job to let the community know so the community can pray for us -- and act in ways that make those prayers real. That's how we get to Y'tziat Mitzrayim: by taking care of each other. No one needs to be alone in suffering. No one crosses the sea alone.

 

This is my d'varling from Shabbat morning services at CBI of the Berkshires (cross-posted to my new From the Rabbi blog.)

The image at the top of this page combines a photograph by Len Radin with a parsha poster by Hillel Smith, available on his website.