Three days at Knox

Old Main.

On my first day in Galesburg, after a walking tour of the Knox campus (including the site of one of the famed Lincoln-Douglas debates) and lunch with a handful of Knox faculty and staff, I had the profound pleasure of discussing my Akedah Cycle of poems (now published in 70 faces) with the students in the Feminist Methodologies class who had been assigned the task of reading the relevant sections of Genesis alongside the poems themselves.

We had a fabulous and free-wheeling conversation about the Bible (some of them had gone to years of religious school; others had never cracked open a Bible before), midrash (which one of the students compared with fanfiction, to my delight -- that's an argument which I'm going to explore in some depth in a forthcoming article), theology, names for God, the divine feminine, the Lurianic cosmogony and the task of lifting up the sparks, reproductive technology, the idea of reading beloved texts with awareness of their problematic qualities but still with love (I was thinking of Wendy Doniger's excellent essay Thinking Critically About Thinking Too Critically [pdf], though I couldn't come up with her name in that moment), the responsibility to wrestle with the texts we hold dear, and more.


That evening I gave a talk about midrash and poetry, which culminated in a reading of the Akedah Cycle and then some Q-and-A. That was a lot of fun, too; I had forgotten the extent to which those poems were intended to be read aloud (though of course they were; I wrote them as a sermon in the first place) and people asked excellent questions, like how becoming a mother had changed my relationship with these Torah texts and whether I'd explored the extent to which some of these same stories appear in the Qur'an. (I got to talk a little bit about the retreat I attended for emerging Jewish and Muslim religious leaders and the study of the Joseph/Yusuf story that we did there...)

Thursday morning was spent with a rotating group of Knox students (from SASS, Hillel, and other places), a giant latte, and a pile of mini-muffins from the local bakery. We talked about school and religion and theology and travel and life after college and all kinds of good stuff. And then I got to have lunch with three faculty members, during which we discussed everything from hadith about Isaac and Ishmael to the appeal of Eastern religious traditions to religious pedagogy to the theologies of Battlestar Galactica and the Sarah Connor Chronicles.

Having a latte on hallowed ground.

And finally, on Thursday afternoon, I read from my poems as part of the Caxton Club's literary series. I read mostly poems from 70 faces, though also some poems from chaplainbook, and even a handful of poems from Waiting to Unfold, my as-yet unpublished manuscript of mother poems. The crowd was smallish (perhaps because the posters had, it was discovered, been printed with a January date) but those who were there were receptive listeners, and they asked fabulous questions afterwards -- about my creative processes, about commitment, about Torah poems and motherhood poems. It was grand.

And now, as Shabbat approaches, I'm on my way home -- and getting ready to lead services at my shul tomorrow morning, and looking forward to seeing my sweet little boy again! I'm so grateful to the community at Knox for welcoming me into your midst. Thanks for giving this rabbi, poet, and mama a chance to spend a few days with you, discussing subjects I hold dear.


More 70 faces links

I wanted to take a moment to thank those who have helped recently to spread the word about 70 faces. Recent online mentions of the book have included:

  • Thursday Short Poem: Barenblat's 'The Psalm I Sing'", by Hugo Schwyzer, who writes:

    Rachel is a rabbi as well as a poet, but these poems aren’t just for Jews; they are for anyone raised with even a passing familiarity with these foundations stories of Western culture.

  • 70 Faces Torah Poems - Rachel Barenblat at Daily S Press, a blog dedicated to small press happenings and the literary life. The editors shared some basic information about the book, what it is, where to find it, etc.

  • Episode 49: Trees of Life, the (belated) Tu BiShvat episode of the fabulous podcast Radio 613. They write:

    radio613′s Tu Bishvat show for 5771 ends with a review of the recently published 70 Faces: Torah Poems by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat. 70 Faces eloquently blends feminism and classic traditions of textual interpretation. Listen for readings from parshas B’shalach and Yitro.

Thanks, y'all -- I'm so glad the poems resonate for you, and I really appreciate your taking the time to help share them with others!

Book tour!

There's a new page linked from the sidebar of this blog: The Complete 70 faces Book Tour. The book tour page contains information about all of the 70 faces events currently planned over the next few months: February events in Illinois, March events in Massachusetts, an April event in Vermont, May events in Vermont and in Montreal, and June events in South Texas. I'm awfully excited about all of them. A few more possible events are under discussion; if they materialize, I'll add them to that page, too.

The events which are furthest away in time are currently the sketchiest, detail-wise; I don't yet have all of the information about the Canada and Texas events. But that page is a good one-stop shop for information about where you can catch me, live in and person, reading from and discussing Torah and poetry and midrash and all that good jazz.

I should also mention that one more event has been added to my Boston schedule for next month; in addition to my visit to Bnai Or and my reading at First Unitarian Church in Arlington, I'm going to be speaking to the women of the Sisterhood of Temple Aliyah in Needham! Anyway: check out the book tour page, and if you're able to make it to any of these events, I'd love to see you there.

Please note that many of the events are taking place on Shabbat, when many Jews do not engage in financial transactions. If you're coming to a Shabbat event and want your book inscribed, you're welcome to either order your own copy in advance & bring it with you for me to sign (I do write on Shabbat), or you can leave a comment here requesting a copy and then Paypal me the money in advance so I can simply deliver your copy in person. If you're going to go the Paypal route, please do so early to ensure that I can order the books myself. Thanks!

The 70 faces book tour goes to Galesburg!

It turns out the 70 faces book tour is going to start a bit earlier than anticipated, and in a truly exciting way: in mid-February, I'll be spending a couple of days as a visiting scholar at Knox College in Galesburg, Ilinois!

While I'm there, I'll get to speak to some students who will have been reading and discussing part of 70 faces -- specifically, the cycle of akedah poems -- as part of their Feminist Methodologies class, and I'll give a poetry reading for The Caxton Club (the Knox Collge literary organization -- named after the first English printer, William Caxton.) Both of those events are designed for the college community.

I'll also have the chance to give a combination lecture-and-reading which will be open to the public:

Midrash: creativity which transforms

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, author of 70 faces: Torah poems, will speak about the Jewish art of midrash (exegetical stories which explore and explain Bible texts) as transformative storytelling, share examples of a few classical midrash which take Bible texts in fascinating new directions, and then share some of her own contemporary midrash in the form of poems from 70 Faces. Followed by Q-and-A / discussion and book-signing.

Wednesday, February 16th at 7pm - Ferris Lounge (in Seymour Union)
Knox College, 2 E. South Street, Galesburg, IL 61401
For more information, email cdenial (at)

If you're in or near Galesburg (or if you feel like a bit of an Illinois roadtrip in mid-February), I hope you'll join us! Here's information on getting to campus. My deep thanks are due to professor Catherine Denial and to everyone else at Knox who's worked to make it possible for me to visit -- and to my mother-in-law for watching young master Drew while I'm away wearing my professional hat (kippah?) for a few days!


70 faces on the Woodrat Podcast!

Not long after Drew was born, I had the pleasure of being featured in an episode of the Woodrat Podcast -- episode 3, one of the very earliest episodes, which Dave titled Embodied Miracles. I remember doing the interview standing up in our entry hallway with Drew strapped to my chest in a Didymos wrap, swaying back and forth to keep him quiet enough that I could experience the luxury of an hour spent talking not about diapers but about poems.

This week I got to enjoy having a conversation with Dave for the Woodrat Podcast again -- this time, along with Beth Adams of Phoenicia Press; the podcast is all about Torah poems, independent publishing, and 70 faces! Dave writes, "Rachel reads five poems from her new book plus a brand new Torah poem, and we talk about Biblical interpretation, Middle East politics, literary micropublishing, and more." It was an awful lot of fun to do. I hope it's fun to listen to, too.

You can listen to it (and enjoy the photos Dave chose to accompany it) at Dave's blog, Via Negativa: Woodrat Podcast 33: Rachel Barenblat and Beth Adams on Torah poems. Thanks, Dave!

70 Faces reviews

Thank you all so much for the kind words and good wishes on my ordination and in response to the publication of 70 Faces! My cup truly runneth over.

I wanted to give a shout-out and special thanks to those who have written or posted about 70 Faces so far:

  • Daily Faith and Poetry in The Berkshire Eagle: "[The poems in 70 Faces] take time to think about daily things -- a bottle of milk, talismans on a desk -- and ongoing things -- the names of animals, the urge to make -- and lifelong things -- a baby born in danger, a difficult reunion at a funeral. // They chronicle the round of the year and the quiet, continual effort to walk forward, to think about work and family and the light on the ridge lines."

  • 70 Faces at Tasting Rhubarb: "Here are characters and landscapes of old, familiar stories from the books of Moses retold, repainted in startlingly vivid thoughts and images - the flood wreaked by a God with post-partum depression, the investigation and conjuring of the often absent woman's perspective, the rueful wondering how these stories might have been less harsh and vengeful, how their harshness might serve now as a lesson in compassion. // And so the old stories come right into the texture of our own lives."

  • Read this book at Awkward Offerings: "Reb Rachel engages head-on with a question that nags — what is the downside to this whole taking over Canaan business? There is nothing heavy-handed or polemical here. She could be talking about the ancient Israelites, the modern Israelites, or any of us caught in the situation of getting the better of someone else. In my humble, really good poetry tackles big questions in such a way as to leave the reader with more questions, shaking our collective heads heads in wonder. The good stuff – and here I'm quoting another poem from the book - builds a structure to house what you long for."

Thanks to Kate Abbott, Jean Morris, and Sue Swartz for these generous and thoughtful reviews. (If any of y'all out there who've bought the book feel inclined to review it, please do, and drop me a line to let me know you've done so! I appreciate it so much.) Support independent publishing and order a copy of the book here!

On an only semi-related note (hey, it relates to me and to poetry), thanks to The Forward for publishing my poem Birch Magazine in honor of the upcoming Jewish holiday of Tu BiShvat.

Announcing 70 Faces


I have awesome news! As of yesterday, I became a rabbi -- and Seventy Faces, my collection of Torah poems, has been published by Phoenicia Publishing, an independent press based in Montreal. Here's what the back of the book has to say:

Each of the poems in 70 Faces arose in conversation with the Five Books of Moses. These poems interrogate, explore, and lovingly respond to Torah texts -- the uplifting parts alongside the passages which may challenge contemporary liberal theology. Here are responses to the familiar tales of Genesis, the liberation story of Exodus, the priestly details of Leviticus, the desert wisdom of Numbers, and the anticipation of Deuteronomy. These poems balance feminism with respect for classical traditions of interpretation. They enrich any (re)reading of the Bible, and will inspire readers to their own new responses to these familiar texts.

Poet Alicia Ostriker, blogger and pastor Gordon Atkinson (a.k.a Real Live Preacher), and Rabbi Shefa Gold have kindly lent their praises to the collection:

"These poems are so out there, so radical, and at the same time so gentle and inviting. Barenblat manages to do work that has passion and truth behind it, without ranting. I love the simple and confident way she deals with the akedah -- and I love the final poem in this collection -- gliding right past heartbreak into renewal, which is what her poems all seem to do." -- Alicia Ostriker, author of For the Love of God: the Bible as an Open Book and The Book of Seventy

"In the poetry of 70 Faces, Rachel Barenblat continues the work of translation and commentary that has occupied her for years as the Velveteen Rabbi. She is as young as our century and as old as Judaism. Her poems have the classic cadence of the scriptures and the fresh wonder of a new mother. These are old words for the modern mind. This is ancient wisdom we can feel and know." -- Pastor Gordon Atkinson, author of and Turtles All The Way Down

"Rachel Barenblat's Torah poems open the doorway into sacred text so that we can walk in and make it our home. She invites us to bring all of our passion, doubt, humor, humility and chutzpah as we encounter these ancient words and bring them to Life. Through Rachel's skillful, joyful, playful and profound poetry, the Torah opens her secrets to us and invites us into an intimate conversation with Truth." -- Rabbi Shefa Gold, author of Torah Journeys and In the Fever of Love: an Illumination of the Song of Songs

And now you can buy it online for a mere $14!

Here's the page about the book at the publisher's website. (Click on the book cover there to view a preview of the first few pages, and to listen to me reading the first few poems in the book aloud.)
Here's the link where you can buy the book directly from the publisher.
And here's the link where you can buy it at Amazon. (More money goes to Phoenicia Publishing if you buy it through Phoenicia, but I understand that Amazon makes life easy; do what works for you.) Berkshire locals will be able to buy copies soon at Papyri Books and Water Street Books in Williamstown; it's also going to be available at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center's bookstore.

Some of you read early drafts of these poems here during the couple of years when when I was posting Torah poems each week. Several of you asked whether they would ever be available in book form. And now they are! I'm ridiculously excited.

I'll be doing events to promote the book in a variety of locations around New England and south Texas as the year unfolds. (Right now I've got readings and workshops lined up in Berkshire County and in San Antonio; others are in-progress. I'll keep y'all posted.) Anyway: I wanted to share my joy with all of y'all, and I hope you will choose to pick up a copy of the book -- and, if you like it, to share it with your Bible study groups, your Torah study chevre, your poetry students and friends, and anyone else you think might dig it too.