Interview at On Sophia Street

Banner-4-largerI met Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan when I was in rabbinical school, where she was one of my professors. These days I am honored to call her a colleague and friend. She recently visited my shul (via Zoom, of course) to share about her latest book, The Infinity Inside, a beautiful collection of essays and spiritual practices. 

She's also a blogger, and has been sharing her words at On Sophia Street for ten years. In celebration of her tenth blogiversary, she recently interviewed me for her blog (and will be interviewing two other spiritual bloggers -- subscribe to her blog to read those interviews too!) We talked about poetry, liturgy, spiritual practice, grief work, Crossing the Sea, and more. Here's a taste of our conversation:

Laura: You’re a life-long writer and a long-time blogger. Can you tell us a little bit about why you write? Do you see it as a spiritual practice?

Rachel: Writing is my most enduring spiritual practice. I’ve been writing my way through the world for as long as I can remember. Sometimes writing is a gratitude practice, a way of articulating to myself the things in my life for which I can honestly say modah ani, “I am thankful.” Sometimes writing offers a lens onto a tangled knot of thinking and feeling. Sometimes I look back at what I wrote and that gives me perspective on what’s constant and what changes.

EM Forster is reported to have said, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” I love that. Writing, like prayer, is how I come to know myself... 

Read the whole interview here: Rachel Barenblat: poetry, liturgy, spiritual practice

A week of building with Bayit


Within minutes of arrival, I'm drawn into a conversation about the meaning of the end of the Book of Jonah, its place in the arc of Yom Kippur, and what the ellipses implicit in that ending have to teach us. The guitars come out, and next thing I know I'm saying "wait, wait, show me that chord again," and I'm learning new chord progressions. We talk and sing and we sit by an outdoor fire for a while and I make dinner and we dine around a big table and then we move back outside, to the firepit this time, where we talk and laugh and talk and argue and talk under the wheeling spray of the Milky Way.


I wake to coffee. The sunlight on the lake is dazzling. There is yoga, expertly led. There is impromptu davenen on the pier, sunlight shining through my sheer rainbow tallit, my feet dipping into the waters of the lake. We do a core values exercise and talk about what animates us. We sit outside in the sunshine on Adirondack chairs and make giant lists of our hopes and aspirations, what we want to get out of the week, what's on our priority list, dreams and goals for Bayit and for ourselves. We spend a few hours combing through the pages of Doorways one by one. And then we go kayaking.


We look at plans for our Sketchnoting Jewishly book. We cook. We talk about working with college students. We study texts about masculinity and grace, and begin brainstorming modalities of menschlichkeit. Giant sticky-tab pages proliferate on the walls, covered with words, drawings, diagrams, charts, and ideas. We break for ice cream. We talk and laugh and sing and learn. I learn new melodies for prayers I know and love. The number of guitars in the room multiplies. Whoever finishes the coffee in the pot starts a new one. Whoever didn't cook, does dishes. We laugh and harmonize.


We talk about board functions, about growing our build teams, about how our different projects (should) interrelate, about growing from a startup into what follows. We take a break to walk all the way around the lake, past houses and summer camps, exclaiming over the softness of pine needles underfoot and the beauty of the woods around us. The walls of the living room fill up with more ideas, and pages, and bright yellow post-it notes. We praise each others' recipes. We bring all of the guitars out to the firepit with the Adirondack chairs and we sing and laugh under the stars.


We kayak onto glassy water, pause our boats under an arched stone bridge, and sing. We talk about the innovation pipeline and what we hope Bayit can accomplish next year. We come up with a new plan for Builders Blog, and learn how to use Trello. We break for mincha (afternoon prayer) overlooking the lake, two altos and a tenor with a drum and a guitar; the ashrei feels like heaven. The fabulous R' Wendy Amsellem teaches us Talmud on taking diverse opinions into our ears and hearts, on making our insides match our outsides, and on creating communities where it's safe to speak.


At the end of the week I make challah, and we work on high holiday sermons under the trees, and some of us do mikvah in the lake, and then we gather outdoors with guitars to welcome Shabbat. There is nothing quite like Shabbes at the end of a week like this -- a week of brainstorming and kayaking, visioning and singing, planning and building. I am so grateful for this week. It's been sweet and song-filled, intense and real. And now I'm ready to return to my kid... knowing that my Bayit hevre and I will continue the work of building Jewish together, in all of the different places we call home. 

Excerpts from a continuing conversation

This month marks fifteen years since I started blogging. I'm not alone in that milestone; I am blessed to have made several friends in early blogging days who are still blogging even now, and whose creative and literary lives continue to intertwine with mine. That may be part of why my sense of blogging as an art form is necessarily conversational. 

Recently I reached out to those fifteen-year blogging friends: Beth Adams of The Cassandra PagesDave Bonta of Via Negativa, Lorianne DiSabato of Hoarded Ordinaries, Dale Favier of Mole, and Natalie d'Arbeloff of Blaugustine. The question that animated the beginning of our conversation came from Dave: "Why the hell are we still blogging?" 



Buried Templeby Natalie D'Arbeloff. Acrylic on paper, 37cm x 37 cm.


Rachel: Writing is one of the fundamental ways I experience and explore the world, both the external world and my own internal world. I think it was EM Forster who wrote, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” Blogging as I’ve come to understand it is living one’s life in the open, with spiritual authenticity and intellectual curiosity, ideally in conversation or relationship with others who are doing the same.

Dave: At some level, it's easier to keep blogging at Via Negativa, the Morning Porch, and Moving Poems than it is to stop. Basically I'm an addict. Writing poetry is fun for me — entering that meditative head-space required for immersion in writing. As for the social aspect, I've been in, or on the periphery of, several distinct blogging communities over the years, and at one time, we all commented on each other's sites, but with the rise of social media, most blog commenting went away — and I'm not entirely sure that's a bad thing. Writing and responding to comments did take up a lot of my time ten years ago, and now that I can scratch that conversational itch on Twitter, or in real life with my partner, I'm OK with most interactions on my blogs being limited to pings. But I must immediately qualify that and admit that Via Negativa is a special case, because for well over half its existence now I've enjoyed the virtual companionship of a co-blogger, the brilliant and prolific poet Luisa Igloria, and a small number of occasional guest bloggers as well. I wouldn't say I'm competitive, but Luisa's commitment to a daily poetry practice has definitely forced me to up my game. Then there's Mr. Pepys. My Pepys Diary erasure project grew directly from sociability: my partner and I wanted to read the online version of the diary together, and I worried I might eventually get bored with it if I weren't mining it for blog fodder. 

Lorianne: I am not attached to the medium, but I am attached to the message, and the process of creating/sharing that message.  There has been a lot of hand-wringing among bloggers over the “death of the blog,” with long-time (and former) bloggers worried about attention divides between blogs and social media.  Where do “I” live if I post in multiple places: on blog, in a paper notebook, on social media? For those of us who do all three, the result can be confusing, distracting, and frazzling...or it can be creative, collaborative, and synergistic.

DaleI didn’t really expect ever to have readers, so in a way, having readership dwindle is a return to the early days... I’ve outlived some of my personas -- I’m no longer recognizeably very Buddhist, and my politics have morphed in some odd ways. I don’t think I’m as salable an item as I used to be :-) But the inertia, as Dave said. When I do have something to say and my censor doesn’t step in, the blog is still where I go. It’s been home for fifteen years: my strand of the web… The community that was established way back when is still important to me, and still a large part of my life. And there’s still a lot of value in having a public space. The act of making something public changes it, changes how I look at. I become the viewers and the potential viewers. It helps me get out of myself. It helps me work through my favorite game of “what if I’m wrong about all these things?”

Natalie: Why the hell still blogging? Not sure I am still blogging. I put something up on Facebook whenever I feel like saying hey, listen, or hey, look at this. Then I copy/paste the post to Blogger where I keep Blaugustine going, mainly out of a sense of imaginary duty. The idea that there are some real people out there who may be actually interested in some of my thoughts and/or artwork is undoubtedly attractive, even necessary. I live a mostly hermit life and don’t get much feedback of any kind. But my interior life is very active, all the time, and having a tiny public platform online where I can put stuff is really helpful. To be perfectly honest I think that’s about it for me and blogging at present. I don’t do any other social media, it would all take too much time which I’d rather devote to artwork.

BethI think a lot of it has to do with a sense of place. My blog is like a garden or a living room that I’ve put energy and thought and care into as a place that’s a reflection of myself and is hopefully welcoming for others.. The discipline of gathering work and talking about it coherently has been extremely good for me and for my art practice. And I’ve also really appreciated and been inspired by other people who do the same, whatever their means of expression. There’s something deeply meaningful about following someone’s body of work, and their struggles, over not just months but years. In today’s climate of too-muchness and attention-seeking and short attention spans, I feel so encouraged and supported by the quiet, serious doggedness of other people like me!


In humbling company

Os-1495650588-aa4h4pl014-snap-imageAlthough this came out a month ago, it only last night reached my eyes: Judaism Shines Through All They Do: Ginsburg, Sandberg, Barenblat. Written by Haley Codron, this opinion piece ran last month in the Orlando Sentinel, and it puts me in some truly humbling company.

As May is Jewish American Heritage Month, I want to honor three women whose Judaism shines through all they do: Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and “Velveteen Rabbi” blogger Rachel Barenblat.

As I contemplate the leadership of Ginsburg, Sandberg and Barenblat, I’m reminded of advice from my parents. They told me what to discuss – or not to discuss – at dinner tables: politics, religion and money. A part of me understands where my parents were coming from; the three topics are flashpoints. But there has to be an element of “picking sides.” Which is precisely why the three women make a difference – a positive difference, and have influenced me and countless people around the world...

Codron writes about Ruth Bader Ginsburg (one of the most extraordinary women alive today, in my estimation), Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg (whose book Option B I've been intending to read), and me. I'm honored to be in their company.

You can read the whole piece here: Judaism Shines Through All They Do: Ginsburg, Sandberg, Barenblat.

On being a blogging rabbi


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.


First post from Beyond Walls


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.

Reprint from 2004: Blog is my co-pilot

Cover-issue-26In 2004 I wrote an article for Bitch Magazine about women in what some of us were then calling the godblogosphere. It ran in their fall 2004 issue. I titled it "Women Who Blog Faithfully." They titled it "Blog is my co-pilot: the rise of religion online."

Here's my original post exhorting readers to buy the issue, which links to all of the bloggers I interviewed for the piece.  Amy Wellborn is now on Twitter, and The Revealer still exists. All of the other blogs I cited are now defunct, except for this one.

Anyway, I think the article is an interesting snapshot of what at least one corner of the religious internet used to look like. (Also, wow, I used to like long paragraphs!) Enjoy.


Blog is my co-pilot: the rise of religion online

In the beginning (or “in a beginning,” or “when God was beginning,” depending on which translation you favor) God created the heavens and the earth. Some millennia later, the earth’s stewards created blogs.

In early 1999, there were about 23 webblogs; today, there are thousands, many of them eschewing the characteristic links-and-commentary format in favor of straight-up personal pontificating. The blogosphere has turned out to be a great place to discuss the kinds of things we’re discouraged from airing in polite company: among them, politics, sex, scurrilous gossip, and religion. It’s this last subject that had always interested me—after all, God tops the list of polarizing topics one isn’t supposed to bring up at the dinner table. But since I’m the kind of person who itches for a good theology throwdown, godbloggers are, well, my people.

Continue reading "Reprint from 2004: Blog is my co-pilot" »

Beyond Walls faculty spotlight

BarenblatSpotlightI'm honored to be the subject of the Faculty Spotlight in the latest issue of Beyond Walls, the online journal dedicated to the program of the same name in which I'm teaching this summer. Here's a taste:

I think of Velveteen Rabbi as akin to an intimate coffee-table conversation, even though I know that my words are going out to thousands of readers. Through the blog I invite people in to my virtual home. Pull up a chair, pour yourself a cup, and listen to this beautiful Hasidic teaching I learned about the holiday cycle. Or here's a piece of Torah with which I'm struggling this week: how do you approach these verses? It's a back and forth, and I welcome conversation with my readers.

Read the whole thing here: Faculty Spotlight | Rabbi Rachel Barenblat. (I also really like the graphic they put together to accompany the piece -- now with the initial typo fixed!)

Beyond Walls: Spiritual Writing at Kenyon is a summer program at the Kenyon Institute designed to assist clergy in becoming more confident and expressive writers to both congregational and external audiences. Read about it and sign up now at their website.

Euphoria, Curiosity, Exile & the Ongoing Journey of a Hasidic Rebel: A Q & A with Shulem Deen in Zeek magazine

I am thoroughly delighted that Zeek just published my Q and A with Shulem Deen, the man who used to blog as Hasidic Rebel -- now author of All Who Go Do Not Return, new this week from Greywolf Press.

You can find my interview at Zeek:  Euphoria, Curiosity, Exile & the Ongoing Journey of a Hasidic Rebel: A Q & A with Shulem Deen. It's long, but I think it's worth reading; I hope you'll agree. You can read the beginning here, and I hope you'll click through to read the whole thing at Zeek. Deep thanks to Zeek for giving me the opportunity to connect with Shulem, and to Shulem for a terrific conversation -- hopefully the first of many over years to come.




When I began blogging as Velveteen Rabbi in 2003, I spent a lot of time building my blogroll — the list of links to other bloggers with whom I felt some kinship or whose work I felt was interesting and worth reading. One of the first blogs I started reading, back in those early days of the Jewish blogosphere, was Hasidic Rebel — written by a Hasid who sought an outlet for opinions and ideas that would have been considered heretical in his community. His blog, named for his persistent pseudonym, was also thoughtful, witty, and insightful — some of the best writing in the J-blogosphere.

In 2010 Hasidic Rebel came out and acknowledged his name. I remember feeling happy for him that he felt able to publish online under his “real name.” But I had little idea at the time what he’d gone through in order to get there — or what kind of struggles still lay ahead.

This week, Graywolf Press is releasing All Who Go Do Not Return by Shulem Deen, the man once known as Hasidic Rebel who went on to become the founder/editor of the website Unpious: Voices on the Hasidic Fringe.

All Who Go Do Not Return is an extraordinary memoir. The writing is beautiful. The journey it chronicles is poignant, relatable — and also unlike anything most readers will ever have experienced. As a young man, Shulem Deen chose to join the Skverers, one of the world’s most intense and insular Hasidic communities. He married, and became a father to five beloved children. And then his natural inclination to learn and to question drove a wedge between him and the Skverer world.

This isn’t the first time we’ve featured his words here in ZEEK — don’t miss his 2013 essay Why I Am Not Modern Orthodox. But it’s the first time we’ve interviewed him. I’m humbled by his bravery and his openness.

His voice is an important one in our generation.

— Rachel Barenblat


ZEEK: Many of the people reading this piece won’t know about your background (and may not know of New Square). So for their sakes: tell us, in brief, about where you come from?

Deen-shulem-pearl-gabel-55104dedI was raised within New York’s broader, ultra-Hasidic (i.e. non-Chabad) community, which is composed of many sects, some stricter than others but all more or less of the same cloth: Yiddish-speaking, shtreimel-wearing, rebbe-centered, with strong emphasis on Hasidic custom and practice, and a near-fanatical insistence on remaining separate and apart from the outside world — geographically, intellectually, and culturally.

My childhood was mostly spent among the Satmars, in Borough Park, Brooklyn. As a young teenager, however, I grew close to the Skverers and found that it suited me more. I eventually went to study at the Skverer yeshiva in New Square, where I later married and lived for a dozen years with my wife and five children.

ZEEK: What was sweet, for a time, about life as part of the Skverer community?

The Skverers are more provincial than most other sects, due to the relative isolation of the New Square shtetl, so there is a degree of old-world simplicity that really appealed to me as a 13 year old. As a community, the Skverers are warm, hospitable, openhearted, and, on the whole, appear to be less preoccupied with materialism than some of the more “urbane” Hasidic groups. (Key words: “appear to be” — as appearances can be deceiving.) The shtetl is in fact a real shtetl (albeit American and suburban), and when I first encountered it back in the late ’80s, it had all the charms of a storybook setting...


Continue reading at Zeek: Euphoria, Curiosity, Exile & the Ongoing Journey of a Hasidic Rebel: A Q & A with Shulem Deen.

Bloggers and beer


Peter, Rachel, James: three bloggers in person!

Some years ago -- it was longer ago than I realized until I went to dig up the link; it was way back in 2008! -- I posted A minister and a rabbi walk into a coffee shop, about meeting UCC pastor and blogger James Lumsden of When Love Comes to Town after he moved to the Berkshires. Tonight I met up with James once again and also with his wife Di as well as the two visitors they recently welcomed to town, Peter and Joyce, visiting from Thunder Bay, Ontario.

Peter and I have been corresponding for years. I've read his blog in a few different incarnations, and he's a frequent commenter here at Velveteen Rabbi. Most recently we just barely missed each other in Jerusalem. When I arrived there in March with my family, he and Joyce had just finished a three-month stint with the Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI) of the World Council of Churches. (Here's one of his posts about that work: Being faithful, or trying to be so.)

This evening we five met at one of my favorite places in the neighborhood, a venerable pub called the Old Forge, where we enjoyed a variety of fine beers and some truly terrific buffalo wings as well as delightful and wide-ranging conversation. We talked about travels in the Middle East, of course; also about the life of ministry (from which Joyce recently retired), about my congregation and my family, about food and art, parenthood, films, and more.

I'm honored that Peter and Joyce took time out of their brief visit to the Berkshires to meet me for a pint. And I'm delighted by the small-world quality of my corner of the internet, where people I've known for years as digital presences sometimes become in-person friends, too.

Meeting new (old) friends

One of the joys of being a longtime blogger is having the chance to meet people whose words one has read for years. I've had the opportunity to meet three bloggers while I've been in Jerusalem. First I had lunch with Chaviva (of Just Call Me Chaviva); then Ilene (of Primagravida) hosted me for a poetry reading; and then I spent most of a day with Vicky (of Bethlehem Blogger.)

On Thursday Chaviva and I met for lunch on Emek Refaim in West Jerusalem, where we chatted about life, parenthood (her baby is adorable), how I came to the rabbinate, how she came to Israel, how Israel has and hasn't been what she imagined before she made aliyah, what it's like living far away from family, and so on. Chaviva lives in Neve Daniel, which I had seen briefly from the bus on my way home from Hebron the day before. It is lovely and green and looks like a great place to rear a kid. (Of course, to its residents it is a  suburb of Jerusalem; to the residents of Bethlehem just down the hill, it is an illegal settlement. I did mention that I'm trying to sit with the contradictions, right?) I didn't think to snap a photo, so you'll just have to take my word for our encounter.

The poetry reading, moderated by Ilene and hosted by a lovely woman named Rachel in her Baka apartment, was wonderful. I read poems from both 70 faces and Waiting to Unfold, and talked about Torah and parenthood and poetry and postpartum depression and all kinds of good things. It was such a sweet evening that I almost missed my guesthouse's curfew!

And then the next day Vicky came to meet me at the guesthouse for spiritual pilgrims where I have been staying in the Old City. She took me to a fantastic bookstore-café in East Jerusalem where we ate sandwiches and chocolate cake, and browsed books, and talked about all sorts of things -- how she came to Bethlehem, her PhD research, the children with whom she works, how and why I became a rabbi, culture, theology, her Bethlehem host family, and more. It was the sort of meeting where one instantly feels as though one is with a longtime friend. Of course, we've been reading each others' blogs for years, so we have known each other for a long time, even if we hadn't met in person before. But I suspect that our blog-familiarity is only part of why we clicked so comfortably.

St. Peter in Gallicantu.

Then she took me to see one of her favorite places in Jerusalem, an utterly spectacular church on the far side of the Old City. It's called St. Peter in Gallicantu, and the name denotes the cock crowing -- as in the story of Peter rejecting Jesus three times before the rooster could announce the morning. I didn't manage to get any great photographs of it, so the one above will have to stand in. The interior mosaics which cover the dome and its pillars are incredible: a soft rainbow of colors, a ring of angels bearing trumpets whose robes resemble clouds. And although there was a tour group there when we arrived, we sat quietly off to the side and in time they departed and left us alone in the basilica, which was quiet and peaceful in a way I rarely associate with this city! The church was serene and I said a silent prayer that real peace may come speedily and soon to this place where so many people for so many centuries have sought connection with God.

With Vicky, post-falafel.

She came with me back to my guesthouse so I could don a clean white shirt for Shabbat. We had glorious falafel near the Damascus Gate, and she taught me how to say strawberries in Arabic (so I could buy some for the Shabbat potluck I would be attending), and then we regretfully parted ways. Vicky wrote a really lovely post about our day together: Meeting the Velveteen Rabbi.

I'm grateful that the internet has brought me into connection with so many wonderful people here.

Recent reprints

My thanks go to the editors at the Reform Judaism blog for reprinting my post Why I love havdalah. I serve a Reform shul and I'm delighted to have that post circulating to the broad Reform community.

And my thanks also go to the editors at Kol ALEPH, the voice of the Alliance for Jewish Renewal, for reprinting my post What was the ALEPH rabbinic program like? (retitled as An ALEPH rabbi reflects on the journey.) I'm delighted to have that post circulating in the broad Jewish Renewal community too.

(And hey, if more Reform readers click through to Kol ALEPH and more Jewish Renewal readers click through to the Reform Judaism blog, that's lovely too!)

Shabbat shalom to all, and chag Purim sameach -- a happy and joyful Purim starting on Saturday night.

Dr. King, z"l (may his memory be a blessing)

I want to say something to honor Martin Luther King Day, but I don't know that I have words meaningful enough for the occasion. And as a white woman, I don't want to co-opt the memory of a great African American leader.

But one of my rabbinic and civil rights heroes, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, was a friend and admirer of Dr. King's. So I'll share a brief quotation from him, speaking after Dr. King's assassination. He said:

Martin Luther King is a sign that God has not forsaken the United States of America. God has sent him to us...his mission is sacred...I call upon every Jew to hearken to his voice, to share his vision, to follow in his way. The whole future of America will depend upon the influence of Dr. King.

(I found that in the essay Two Prophets, One Soul, written by Rabbi Harold Schulweis in honor of Rabbi Heschel's yarzheit.)

We have a long way to go before we reach the America of Dr. King's yearnings. But -- as the sages in Pirkei Avot remind us -- though it's not incumbent on us to finish the task, neither are we free to refrain from beginning it.

I'll leave you with a two-minute excerpt from the film Praying With My Legs, which speaks to how these two great men informed and inspired one another. May we, their descendants, do the same.

May the memory of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King be a blessing.

Ten-plus years of Velveteen Rabbi

Blogiversary1Whoops! I missed my tenth blogiversary.

It was sometime in October. I meant to make a post celebrating ten years of Velveteen Rabbi, and I just...forgot. Maybe that's appropriate, since I'm not sure what day I actually started. (This blog was briefly hosted at blogspot, and then I discovered that blogspot didn't have commenting capability built in -- and what's the point of a blog with no conversation? -- so I moved to TypePad, copied my first few posts to their new home, and have been here ever since.)

The simple fact that I've spent ten years writing regularly feels like a victory. I remember hearing, at the end of my MFA journey at Bennington, that many MFA grads are no longer writing by ten years after the completion of their programs. I'm proud to be able to say that fourteen years after I got my MFA, I'm still writing poetry regularly -- and still reviewing books regularly -- and still engaging in the writing life as a daily and weekly practice. This blog has surely been a big part of that.

Many of the blogs I remember reading when I first got started have gone dark or defunct, succumbed to linkrot, or disappeared entirely. Beth Adams' The Cassandra Pages is a notable exception. So is Dave Bonta's Via Negativa. Dale Favier's mole was around back then, and is still vibrant. Lorianne DiSabato's Hoarded Ordinaries is still going strong. I know that Rabbi Josh Yuter of YUtopia celebrated his tenth blogiversary a while back, as well. (And, of course, my husband Ethan Zuckerman's My Heart's In Accra is still wonderful. Come to think of it, I should thank him for suggesting that I start a blog all those years ago. Thanks, sweetie.) It's a perennial delight to me that I've made so many enduring friends through this medium of curated self-revelation and correspondence, and that those friendships persist both online and offline.

When I started this blog, I yearned to "run and play with the real rabbis" -- hence the blog's name and original tagline. (Which, as I noted in my very first post, was borrowed with permission from cartoonist Jennifer Berman and her wonderful "Velveteen Rabbi" cartoon.) Over the years of this blog's existence, I applied to rabbinic school -- was accepted -- began my formal studies -- posted endlessly about the things I was learning, liturgy and Hasidut and Jewish history and on and on -- and after nearly six years of hard work, made it to ordination. Many of you accompanied me on that journey.

When I set off to spend my summer in Israel, I blogged about it here, and I posted frequently about my adventures both challenging and sweet. That was 2008, the same year that TIME named VR as one of the top 25 sites on the internet. I also blogged here when I had my strokes. And when I put forth my chapbook of miscarriage poems. And when our son was born. I posted a few years' worth of weekly Torah poems here, which later coalesced into my first book, 70 faces: Torah poems (Phoenicia 2011.) I posted a full year of weekly mother poems here, which later coalesced into my second book, Waiting to Unfold (Phoenicia 2013.)

I didn't use categories to sort my posts when I started out (instead I used Technorati tags -- remember those?), but I started to do so pretty soon. My tag cloud tells me that the things I post about most frequently are Torah and poetry; community, prayer, and the daily round are the next on the list. That sounds about right. I've made 2,452 posts (so far) and hosted 10,880 comments. (Not bad.)

I've heard a lot of people say that the golden era of blogs has passed, giving way to Twitter and Facebook and instagram and other forms of bite-sized, mobile-phone-accessible communication. People don't have the patience to read long-form blog posts anymore, nor to enter into sustained conversations in the comments sections. Today's internet isn't interested in the substantive or nuanced -- at least, that's how the conventional wisdom goes. That may be true, by and large. But some of us are still writing, and still reading, and still conversing. Maybe long-form blogs are like poetry: not everyone's cup of tea, requiring as they do a fair amount of focus and attention, but endlessly rewarding for those who choose to take part.

Thanks, everyone, for being a part of Velveteen Rabbi for the last ten years and a bit. Here's to many more.


Perhaps also relevant: my list of Favorite Posts.

Image source: this post, which attributes the image to "anonymous."

Answers to good questions

I posted last week about being interviewed by the readers of Rachel Held Evans' prominent Christian blog. As is her custom, Rachel posted a short bio and then opened the floor for her readers to ask questions. Out of the questions they asked, Rachel chose eight for me to answer, and they're terrific (and substantive) questions:

Are there any common assumptions that Christians tend to make about Jews that bug you?

Who do you feel you have more in common with religiously - Christians who take a progressive/liberal theological approach to their faith similar to the way you approach Judaism, or Jews (conservative or Orthodox) who take a significantly more literal/conservative approach to the Jewish faith than you do?

How do reformed Jewish clergy address the questions raised by the historicity of scripture? For example, the Exodus clearly plays a significant role in the scripture, yet no historical evidence exists that it actually happened.

I'm interested in reading about the Bible from a Jewish perspective but don't know where to start. I love the idea of Midrash, but the literature seems so vast and I feel overwhelmed. What would you recommend for a Christian who wants to try reading some Midrash?

How do you interpret the passages where God seems to command things that are immoral? As God-inspired for a point in time? Or purely human writing? (i.e. Kill unruly children, Deut 21:18-21; Kill people who work on the sabbath, Ex 35.)

Hi! I was wondering your thoughts on the eschatological views on Israel and the Middle East held by many Christian Evangelicals/ How do they compare with your own views about the end times, and how it relates to present-day Israel/Palestine?

I'd love to hear more about Emerging Jewish and Muslim Leaders. What did you learn about interfaith dialog from that experience? What strategies for productive conversation around religious differences proved most effective from your perspective?

As a clergywoman in a Christian denomination, I wonder what your journey was like – were you always accepted because you were in Reform congregations, or were there still struggles over gender issues?

You can see my answers here: Ask a (liberal) rabbi...Response. Go and read, and feel free to comment here to let me know what you think (and/or to comment over there, or ping Rachel Evans on twitter, to let Rachel Evans know what you think!) I'm grateful to have been invited and I hope my answers shed some light. Thanks, (other) Rachel!

First come the questions...

Christian writer (author of A Year of Biblical Womanhood) and blogger Rachel Held Evans does a lot of interesting things with her blog. Last year, for instance, she ran a series of posts exploring the Biblical figure of Esther through a variety of lenses, and she asked me to contribute an essay, which I did: Esther, Actually: A Jewish Perspective. It was a neat chance to share Jewish interpretations of Esther with a wide group of Christian readers.

Another of her projects is the Ask A... series, in which she invites people with different perspectives (a universalist, a mixed-faith couple, a stay-at-home dad, a transgender Christian) to be guests on her blog and to take questions from her readers. Her (many) readers post questions, and give thumbs-up to the questions they like best; out of the questions she receives, she chooses 6 or 7 to send on to the person being interviewed, and that person gets to answer the questions on her blog.

She graciously asked me to return to her blog as part of the "Ask A..." series, and I said sure, why not. Here's the question post: Ask a (liberal) rabbi. I'm curious to see what sorts of questions I get, and I hope and pray that I can answer them wisely and well, in a manner which gives honor to my teachers and those who have helped me learn along the way! Stay tuned -- I'll post about this again once I've answered the questions...

Interview at A Little Yes

I'm not sure when I started reading Heather Caliri of A Little Yes, though I think it was around the time that she moved with her kids to Argentina for six months. I've enjoyed vicariously sharing her adventures and looking through her window on the world -- and I'm frequently moved by her (Christian) perspectives on the intersections of faith and parenthood. 

So I was delighted when she asked to interview me. Here's a glimpse of our conversation:

You’re a poet, and often write liturgical poems; what parallels do you see between the practice of faith and the writing of poetry?

I would say that both require me to get out of my own way. They both require a trust that if I pour out my heart, something good will come. And in both, it’s okay if things aren’t perfect on the first try.

One of the reasons I love that morning prayer I use is the verse, “Great is your faithfulness.” That somehow implies that God has faith in us. Which is wild—we would only think the opposite.

But thinking that God has faith in me as a person, a mother, a poet, there is something greater than me that has faith in my endeavors...

You can read the whole thing here: On the road to ordination: wildflowers, grief, and the joyous faithfulness of God. (By the by, these interviews are a long-running series on her blog; you can see some of her favorites linked from her Best Of page.)

Thank you, Heather, for a thoughtful and sweet conversation and for this lovely interview post.

Today on the Best American Poetry blog: poems of Noah

And then, tucked into the end of the Torah portion -- after the Flood -- there's an entirely different story, the wild parable of the Tower of Babel. Judy Klitsner makes a compelling case that the sin of the people building that tower was a kind of coercive groupthink. It's fascinating to notice that that story begins with the observation "And all the earth was of one language and of one set of words..." What would our world, what would our poetry, be like if we had only one language available to us?

The story of Babel's given rise to some great stuff too, like Barbara Hamby's collection of that same name.

What can we take from the juxtaposition of flood and tower? The lens of poetry is one of the hermeneutics I like best. Read the portion itself as though it were poetry. Look for repeated words and images, for surprising turns of phrase...

That's from my final post this week at the Best American Poetry blog: The poetry of Noah [by Rachel Barenblat]. Thanks again to the BAP editors for inviting me to share some ideas there! It's been a lot of fun.

Today on the Best American Poetry blog: looking for great parenting poems

It's the very opposite of romantic or adventuresome, this parade of toaster waffles and endless PB&J sandwiches. (Of course there are orthodoxies. In our house the only acceptable option uses whole wheat bread and is cut in triangles, featuring nothing but creamy peanut butter and seedless blackberry jam, and heavens forfend we should call it "grape" by mistake.)

It could be the stuff of prose poems, I suppose: the voice yelling "boo!" in our doorway at six-thirty in the morning, then hollering hello to the moon; negotiations about pyjamas and experiments with rhythm. When he tries to curl in my lap for our nighttime lullaby, he's all angled elbows and pointy knees which don't actually fit, like my best friend's golden retriever attempting to regain the lap dog status he dimly remembers from puppyhood...

That's from today's post at BAP: Where are the great poems of parenting a four year old? [by Rachel Barenblat]. Click through to read the whole thing.

Today on the Best American Poetry blog: music for this season

Today I'm thinking about these lines from John Berryman: "Fall is grievy, brisk. / Tears behind the eyes // almost fall. / Fall comes to us as a prize / to rouse us toward our fate." (From his Dream Song 385, which someone has put online here.)

I've been listening to Jon Appleton's The Russian Music this fall. The first disc, mostly: the piano concertos. They ripple and roll. They're a bit akin to Philip Glass (his Metamorphoses -- also well-suited to fall, if you ask me.) But this piano music is moodier. More Russian, I suppose. Though when I ran across the Berryman quote (above) in my commonplace book, it made me think of Appleton, too...

That's how today's post at the Best American Poetry blog begins. Click through to read the whole thing: Russian music [by Rachel Barenblat] at The Best American Poetry blog.

(I posted about music last time I blogged there, too: Music for fall, 2010. I still like all the stuff I linked to in that post, too.)