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.


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.


Kate Inglis' Notes for the Everlost

Everlost...By the time you're an adult, you're rare if you have any less than three or four sizable chunks gnawed off your body, mind, or soul by one trauma or another. An apparently whole-looking person is not a wizard. They are a con man hiding behind a velvet curtain. Wholeness is something to prize only if you care most about the superficial. Let go of it and revel in plentiful company.

Every one of your emotions, outbursts, or lapses in social grace is 100 percent normal. In this extraordinary loss, you are ordinary. This is good. Your rage is normal. Your speechlessness is normal. Your running-off-at-the-mouth is normal. Your inability to know what you need is normal. Your difficulty occupying the same body that let you down -- that's normal. Your falling out with faith -- that's normal too...

I was browsing in a bookstore one day before lunch with a friend and my eye lighted on Notes for the Everlost: a Field Guide to Grief by Kate Inglis. When her twin boys were born prematurely, one survived and the other did not. Out of that trauma emerged this volume: part memoir, part "handbook for the heartbroken." It is dazzling. It is searing. It is holy wow.

Someday, you'll get as far as suppertime before consciously remembering. You'll be adding butter to rice, worried you've burned the almonds again. Your mind will chatter, as minds do:

Power bill

Snow tire appointment

Pretty sunset

Meeting tomorrow

Skype keeps crashing

Suddenly, putting on an oven mitt, you'll remember you ate a bomb.

The baby died

If you had asked me whether I wanted or needed to read a book about grief, and more specifically a book about a kind of loss I honestly cannot wholly imagine (and don't really want to -- who wants to imagine something this unspeakably painful?), I would probably have said no. I would have been wrong. I did need to read this book. It is a beautiful, real, raw, unflinching exploration of grief and loss -- and it manages to offer some redemption, not with platitudes or pretty words but with authenticity. 

I found that I couldn't read it all in one sitting. It's like poetry -- sharp, aching poetry -- and I found that the best way for me to consume it was to dip into and out of the book. To pick it up, read a few paragraphs or a few pages, and then set it down again. 

We sit outside by the creek. Josh and Kari tell me about someone who told them once, trying to normalize grief, that the aftershocks of loss never get better. We decide that's not true at all. We remember how it felt when it was new. And we know how it feels now. They say Liam's name, and I say Margot's name, and we all feel warm... we eat and talk while the fire burns high into the tree canopy, and they say Liam, and I say Margot, and together we decide being open is the way to better.

I've never experienced the kind of loss that Inglis chronicles here. I know that none of the loss I have ever known comes close, objectively speaking, to the grief she describes. But I feel at-home in her words, because I know what grief has been like for me -- the different griefs of my miscarriage, a loved one's illness, my divorce. Each grief is its own shape and color and dimensions. No two of mine have been the same as each other. None of mine are the same as hers. But I recognize my own heart in Inglis' words.

I commend this book to anyone who grieves, or has grieved, or might someday grieve. Inglis is wry and real and her words humble me and give me hope.

All we can do is be good company to one another, marking the most ancient of conditions: birth, love, longing, loss. Heartbreak, no matter its source, is the most universal tax on the human experience. We might as well share in the payment of it.

We might as well indeed. May all who grieve be comforted.

 

For those who are interested, here's an excerpt from the book.


Joy Ladin's The Soul of the Stranger

51oIX2gmicL._SX332_BO1 204 203 200_You know the feeling you get when you keep putting off something you want to do because you're waiting until you have time to really do it properly, and after a while you realize that letting the perfect be the enemy of the good means that you're not doing the thing at all?

For weeks now I've been meaning to review Joy Ladin's beautiful new book The Soul of the Stranger: Reading God and Torah from a Transgender Perspective. It is so good, y'all.

It is thoughtful and beautiful and clear. It is thought-provoking. It speaks to me on multiple levels at once. It deserves a long, thoughtful, quote-filled review that will entice y'all to go and get a copy and read it for yourself. 

And between one thing and another -- being a solo parent, serving my congregation, navigating this moment in my life when my parents are aging and far-away and my kid is here and very present -- I haven't had the spaciousness to write that long, thoughtful review. I still don't. So I'm giving up on that plan, and instead, I'm writing this.

Joy begins the book by exploring the power of binaries in the early creation stories (including, but not limited to, the gender binary.) She writes about gender and loneliness, about Genesis and transgender identities, about what it means that Torah teaches we are made in the image of God. She writes:

Torah doesn't tell us what being created in the image of God means, or explain how human beings are similar to the invisible, disembodied, time- and space-transcending Creator of the Universe. That, to me, is the point of reading God and the Torah from a transgender perspective: to better understand the kinship between humanity and the inhuman, bodiless God in whose image we are created, a God who does not fit any of the categories through which human beings define ourselves and one another.

Holy wow.

The second chapter looks at trans experience in the Torah, and here Joy does something that really moves me: she opens up what it means to have trans experiences, even for those of us who identify as cisgender. (Her exploration of the Jacob and Esau story is truly stunning, and I don't want to spoil it for you with an excerpt that won't do it justice -- take my word for it, read the book.) She writes about leaving our households of origins and about the journey of becoming, in Torah and in the lived Torah of human experience. She writes about wounds, about the nightmare of gender, about the stories we carry with us.

Joy writes in chapter three about different visions and understandings of God. She unpacks Maimonides' insistence that our words always fall short in describing God, and then makes a move that I think my teacher Reb Zalman z"l would approve: she talks about how even though "words cannot help but misrepresent God," we need words for God, and we need to be in relationship with the One Who those words attempt to describe. Of course, God is ultimately impossible to pin down or name -- as the story of the Burning Bush reminds us, God Is Becoming Who / What God Is Becoming, and so are we.

Chapter four explores life outside the binaries, the experience of being exiled "outside the camp," about the Talmud's long-ago recognition that human beings come in more varieties than the binary of M/F would imply, about messy human lives unfolding beyond binaries of all kinds and the spiritual implications of that reality for all of us who live it. She writes about Torah's concept of vows, and what it means when we make promises to ourselves, to each other, and to the Holy One about who we are.

And in the final chapter, she writes about knowing the soul of the stranger -- about what it feels like to be a "problem," and what it's like to be different -- about the existential and experiential condition of being a stranger -- and about how that condition might give us a new way to have compassion for God, a minority of One.

I wish I had the time and space to unpack each chapter for you with pull-quotes and words of praise. Each of these chapters stands up to rereading, to underlining, to sharing passages excitedly with friends. (My own copy already has dogeared pages, underlined passages, and exclamation points in the margins -- a sure sign of a book to which I will return.)

If you're interested in scripture, Jewish tradition, or spiritual life, I commend this book to you. If you're interested in gender and sexuality, I commend this book to you. It is beautiful and audacious and real. It's enriched my understanding of my tradition.  It's given me new lenses for reading Torah. It's given me new appreciation for the holy journey of becoming in which we all take part -- including, or especially, my trans and nonbinary congregants, loved ones, and friends. I am grateful.

 


On holding a printer's proof of Bayit's "Beside Still Waters"

42748909712_4ac3fbcfdc_zOne of the enduring mysteries of publishing, for me, is how different a manuscript feels once it's typeset and bound.

This shouldn't be news to me. I've been privileged to work with several fine publishers, from Pecan Grove Press (who published my first chapbook in 1995) to Phoenicia Publishing (who published 70 faces: Torah poems and Waiting to Unfold) to Ben Yehuda Press (who published Open My Lips and Texts to the Holy.)  And yet every time I hold a new printer's proof in my hands, I'm always awestruck by how real the volume feels, and how different that is from a PDF on my computer screen.

The volume in question this time is a printer's proof of the first third of Beside Still Waters: A Journey of Comfort and Renewal, the volume for mourners being co-published by Bayit: Your Jewish Home and Ben Yehuda Press.  This book contains poems, prayers, readings, and meditations from some 39 people -- including some of the poets, liturgists, and rabbis I most admire. (There's a list of contributors on the book's webpage.) That they entrusted us with publishing their work is humbling.

And I think this book will meet a real pastoral need, and that's a humbling responsibility, too. Beside Still Waters is something that I need as a congregational rabbi who ministers to people throughout the mourner's journey. It's something that I need as a person who will someday walk the mourner's path myself. And I think it will meet the needs of a lot of people, across and beyond the denominational spectrum, in synagogues and chavurot, hospitals and nursing homes and funeral homes.

42748909682_f9467be788_zMourning is at once deeply personal and -- at least in Jewish tradition -- also communal. The whole custom of shiva minyanim and kaddish is designed to embed a mourner in community. (Many meaningful books have been written about how  saying kaddish daily for a year changed someone's sense of self, God, and community.) Beside Still Waters is designed to help individual mourners on the mourner's path, but even more than that, it's meant to be used b'tzibbur, in community settings.

There are still several stops remaining on the journey toward publication. Based on this partial proof we've made definitive choices about fonts and typesetting style. Now the other two-thirds of the book needs to be typeset and designed. There's proofreading and copyediting work to be done, in English and in the transliteration and in the Hebrew (where sometimes nekudot, vowel dots and markings, get subtly shifted as an artifact of file transfer.) 

But seeing this partial proof makes the book feel real. I can imagine sharing the "Healing of Body, Healing of Spirit" and "Before Death" sections with someone who is dying. I can imagine leading a shiva minyan with the liturgy we've collected here. I can imagine using the book for yahrzeit and yizkor and times of remembrance. I can imagine this book going out into the world and making a difference in people's lives... and that gives me the energy I need to keep the behind-the-scenes work going.

I'm endlessly grateful to our publishing partner Larry Yudelson at Ben Yehuda Press, and to my hevre at Bayit, and to everyone who contributed their work to this book. I can't wait to bring it into the world and share it with all of you.

 

You can pre-order Beside Still Waters on the Ben Yehuda Press website. If you're interested in a bulk order for your community, let me know -- discounts are available.


The Sabbath Bee

6x9-1-416x624"Shabbat is different every week because we are different every week. Sometimes Shabbat shows up with dancing shoes, other times with a cup of cocoa and a bedtime story," writes Wilhemina Gottschalk in her introduction to The Sabbath Bee, her luminous new collection of prose poems, just released by Ben Yehuda Press. (It's part of the same Jewish Poetry Project beneath whose umbrella my Texts to the Holy was published earlier this year.)

"Some weeks Shabbat might be happy to give me a quick hug and let me return to my conversation with friends, while other nights the prospect of a mystical joining is so exhilarating that Shabbat and I sneak away together to the nearest janitor's closet." 

And that's just the introduction.

I adore this book of prose poems. If you've picked up a copy of the book, you already know that, because here's the blurb I offered for the back:

"Torah, say our sages, has seventy faces. As these prose poems reveal, so too does Shabbat. Here we meet Shabbat as familiar housemate, as the child whose presence transforms a family (sometimes in ways that outsiders can’t understand), as a spreading tree, as an annoying friend who insists on being celebrated, as a child throwing water balloons, as a woman, as a man, as a bee, as the ocean… Through the lens of these deft, surprising, moving prose poems, all seventy of Shabbat’s faces shine."

I love this book because these prose poems are familiar and surprising all at once. I love it because it shows how Shabbat can be different for us every time she comes, and it offers a window into what it can feel like to welcome Shabbat week after week: with bliss and with frustration and with joy.

Shabbat in this volume is a bride, a husband, a child, a storm, a blanket, a lover, a pair of dancing shoes. In one of the most delightfully surprising prose poems in the volume, Shabbat is a person and I become a puppy in her arms. 

Many of the pieces in this volume stand on their own as delicious little prose poems, but for me the real beauty of the collection is how each prose poem reflects and refracts the experience of Shabbat in conversation with the others. No one of these poems could stand in for the whole collection, because part of the point is that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. 

If you are a fan of prose poems (which I am, and have been ever since David Lehman introduced me to them in graduate school some 20 years ago!), and/or if you know Shabbat, or love Shabbat, or perhaps once flirted with Shabbat, this book is worth your time. Available for $9.95 at Ben Yehuda Press

 


"For one who truly loves..."

39911307485_352177954a_z"For one who truly loves, there is the commandment-like need to provide goodness for the beloved that turns the love from sentiment to substance."

My Wednesday morning coffee shop hevruta group is reading Mesillat Yesharim ("The Path of the Upright"), by Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, with commentary by Rabbi Ira Stone. This morning, one of the sentences that leapt out at me came from Stone's commentary -- the line I cited, above.

"Love of God" can be an abstract concept. What does it mean to "love" the infinite source of all? But we can understand love of another human being. The love of a (healthy) parent for a child, the love of a friend for a beloved friend. If we are lucky, we know what it is to love.

And when one loves, there is a yearning to do for the beloved. Not because it's "commanded," but because one just wants to. I give to my child not because anyone told me to, and not because of anything he will do for me in return, but just because my heart calls me to care for him.

It's easy to say "I love you." But far more important, for Luzzatto, are the actions that underpin our words. It's not enough to say; we also need to do. In relationship with a human beloved, we do whatever we can to bring sweetness to that beloved. That's what "turns the love from sentiment to substance" -- that makes it real.

Our mystical tradition teaches that each of us is enlivened by a nitzotz Elohut, a spark of divinity. The love I feel -- that motivates me to yearn to provide goodness for those whom I love -- is, in a way, love of God. Because when I love another human being, I'm also loving the spark of God within them, whether I'm aware of it or not.

(That intersection between loving others and loving God is the place out of which Texts to the Holy was written.)

Our daily liturgy reminds us to love God with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our might. Saying those words is easy. More important, though, is doing those words. I think Luzzatto is saying that we (should) express love of God through seeking to act in a way that brings the Beloved joy. In this, we ourselves find joy. 

It's a tall order. In every moment of my day I have an opportunity to choose to follow my yetzer ha-tov, my "good impulse," rather than my yetzer ha-ra (my ego, my drive, my "evil inclination"). I know how often I fall short. It's easy to fall into asking, who am I to imagine that I can give God joy?

But when trying to bring joy to God feels like more than I can grasp or manage, I can shift focus from the macrocosm to the microcosm, from the cosmic Beloved to my smaller human beloveds. And then my anxiety vanishes, and I can feel the channels of my heart opening, and it is the easiest thing in the world to let love pour through.

 


Michael Twitty's The Cooking Gene

The-cooking-gene-book-coverI just finished Michael Twitty's book The Cooking Gene. It's a deep exploration of southern cooking, African cuisine, slavery and its continuing impacts, and how food shapes our sense of where we come from and who we are.

I'm an outsider to the African American cultural history this book chronicles. But I know good memoir when I read it, and this is good memoir. It's also a rich, complicated exploration of race and history and memory. And from time to time it's also a meditation on Jewishness and food, and on those subjects at least I feel some reasonable semblance of expertise. Twitty chose Judaism as a young adult, taking on the mitzvot and the Jewish people's long history along with the histories of his genetic ancestors. (In addition to being a culinary historian, he's also a Judaic studies teacher. Wow do I wish I could bring him to my shul to teach my b'nei mitzvah kids.)

*

I read this book on my phone, on airplanes to and from my own birthplace in south Texas. If I'd read it on paper, I would have annotated the heck out of the volume: there would be underlined passages and exclamation points in the margins at the passages that moved or surprised me most.

As it is, I don't have quotations to share with you. I can only reference some of the passages that have stayed with me: the part where he writes about cooking on a plantation using his ancestors' tools and ingredients -- the part where he traces ingredients from Africa, transplanted along with the people for whom they were familiar -- the part where he writes about tracing his white ancestry (because white slaveholders raped the women they "owned," and therefore he is descended from slave owners as well as slaves) -- the part where he offers quotations from historical sources about the "Middle Passage" and what slavery actually entailed -- the part where he's teaching seventh graders about the Holocaust, and slavery comes up, and one of the kids tells him it was a long time ago and he should "get over it" -- the part where he writes about picking cotton and almost glimpsing the ghosts of his ancestors around him, noting that the ashcake they ate in the fields was truly the bread of affliction. (I will hear echoes of that this Pesach when I take my first bite of matzah.) The conversations with Low Country chefs and experts who are preserving Gullah food and culture, and with southern "good old boys" who are Confederate re-enactors -- and the agony of not being able to trace his whole family tree, because during slavery families were broken apart and records didn't preserve data because these human beings were considered chattel, not human beings... 

What moves me most is Twitty's combination of love for where he comes from, and willingness to approach his history (which serves as a synecdoche for African-American history writ large) with generosity. He celebrates soul food without ignoring its roots in slavery and scarcity. He doesn't turn a blind eye to the horrors of slavery, nor the ugly ways in which those horrors still shape the relationship between whites and people of color in this country today. And, he makes the conscious choice to pursue connection, even with the descendants of those who enslaved his forebears, without spiritual bypassing or pretending away the damage done to African American communities to this day.  Maybe that's why this book feels redemptive to me. 

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Reading The Cooking Gene, I found myself thinking a lot about the foods with which I grew up as a white (Ashkenazi) Jewish woman with immigrant grandparents in south Texas, and the foods I've embraced as an adult seeking a more multicultural approach to cooking and eating, and how race and history play into all of these.

I was particularly struck by Twitty's tracing of West African ingredients and flavors into American forms. I learned to love (and to cook!) Ghanaian food thanks to my ex-husband Ethan. He lived in Ghana for a year on a Fullbright grant right after college, and has returned there often since then. I only went to Ghana with him twice, but those trips impacted me. (See Dancing with the widow, an essay from 2000.) Our son has a Akan day-of-the-week name, and was blessed with Ghanaian moonshine and a libation poured to the ancestors at his naming ceremony where he also received his Hebrew name.

My two trips to Ghana don't make me an expert on anything, but they give me a personal connection with the place and the people I met while I was there. That feeling of connection intensifies the awfulness of reading Twitty's words about slavery. (On my first trip to Ghana I visited Cape Coast Castle, one place where slaves were loaded aboard ship to sail across the sea in unthinkable conditions toward even more unthinkable futures.) And that feeling of connection intensifies my delight at recognizing African ingredients transplanted into the southern American culinary vernacular, and recognizing the indigenous and African roots of some of the foods I grew up eating. (Here's a blog post from Twitty about the Colonial roots of southern barbecue -- a story that you can also read, in somewhat revised form, in the book.)

If you are interested in food, memory, race, or American history, this book is absolutely worth reading. (And if you are not yet interested in the culinary traditions of the African diaspora, I expect you will be by the time you finish.) I recommend it highly.

 

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In the tradition of Rumi...

I'm proofing the pre-publication galley copy of my next book, Texts to the Holy, due soon from Ben Yehuda Press. (Pre-order a copy now!) Deep thanks to Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg for these kind words. 

Shabbat shalom to all!


Texts to the Holy: now available for pre-order!

TextsThis is a happy week for publishing news around these parts!

A few days ago I shared with y'all about Beside Still Waters, a volume for mourners to be released this spring by Ben Yehuda Press and Bayit: Your Jewish Home (now available for pre-order). Today I'm writing with more delightful Ben Yehuda news!

My next collection of poems -- Texts to the Holy, a collection of love poems to the (divine) Beloved, or to a lower-case-b human beloved, as you prefer -- is coming out soon from Ben Yehuda Press, and is now available for pre-order at an advance price of $9.95. 

I'm starting to schedule readings for this spring. The book will officially premiere at a reading at the Tarrytown JCC (in Tarrytown, NY) at 1:30pm on March 18, where I will appear alongside two other Ben Yehuda poets, Maxine Silverman (author of Shiva Moon) and Jay Michaelson (the pseudonymous author of Is).

Stay tuned for information on other readings (and if you'd like to explore bringing me to your community for some combination of scholar-in-residence event and poetry reading, let me know!)

Meanwhile, here's some advance praise for the collection: 

From Merle Feld, author of A Spiritual Life and Finding Words:

These poems are remarkable, radiating a love of God that is full bodied, innocent, raw, pulsating, hot, drunk.  I can hardly fathom their faith but am grateful for the vistas they open.  I will sit with them, and invite you to do the same.

From Netanel Miles-Yépez, translator of My Love Stands Behind a Wall: A Translation of the Song of Songs and Other Poems, and co-author (with Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi) of A Heart Afire: Stories and Teachings of the Early Hasidic Masters.

Rachel Barenblat’s Texts to the Holy bridges the human and Holy, so that we realize the bridge is really just an illusion to get us to realize that the human is itself Holy—“Bless the One Who separates / and bridges. Even at a distance / we aren’t really apart.” And yet, in every honest line, she also comforts us in the uncomfortable knowledge that realization does not exactly bridge the unavoidable separation from That to which we are so close, and that sometimes, “yearning is as close as you get to whole.” The Ba’al Shem Tov or the Aish Kodesh couldn’t have said it better.

(You can see other kind things people have said about the book on my website.)

This collection has a special place in my heart, and I think it's the best work I've put into the world. I hope you'll agree. Pick up a copy now!


Coming in 2018: Beside Still Waters from Bayit and Ben Yehuda Press

UnnamedOne of the things I'm most excited about in the secular new year is a new publishing partnership between Ben Yehuda Press -- the press that published Open My Lips, and will publish Texts to the Holy this spring! -- and Bayit: Your Jewish Home, the new nonprofit organization I recently co-founded with six colleagues and friends.

The first book published jointly by Bayit: Your Jewish Home and Ben Yehuda Press will be Beside Still Waters: A Journey of Comfort and Renewal, a volume to support the journey through grief and remembrance, and you can pre-order a copy now.

 

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One of the things I'm already loving about working with Bayit is that the Senior Builders span the denominational spectrum. I serve a Reform-and-Renewal shul; one of my fellow Senior Builders comes from the Conservative movement; another serves in a Reconstructionist context; still another comes from Orthodoxy. We have roots in, and connections to, all of Judaism's major denominations -- as well as to the trans-denominational world of Jewish Renewal. I'm hopeful that those roots and connections will help us collectively meet needs that aren't otherwise being met in the Jewish world. We're beginning our work with three keystone projects -- Publications, “Doorways” (a curated lifecycle resource), and a "Builders' Blog" (exploring how real innovation "works" in the Jewish world) -- and there are others in the pipeline about which I'm equally excited. 


This Publications project arises out of several things that are important to me: serving as a conduit for the flow of Jewish Renewal texts and materials into the world, and the editorial work that was my passion before I entered rabbinical school. I couldn't be more thrilled about this first book that we're bringing to print, and about the fact that it's coming out in partnership with Ben Yehuda Press.  Here's a description of the book:

Beside Still Waters: A Journey of Comfort and Renewal invites a timeless journey both classical and contemporary, spanning illness, death, grief and remembrance.  This volume offers individuals and communities an easy-to-use, emotionally real and textually elegant companion for aninut (between death and burial), shiva (mourning’s first week), shloshim ( first month), yahrzeit (death-anniversary) and yizkor (times of remembrance).  It includes resonant new translations, evocative readings, complete transliterations, and resources for circumstances often overlooked in other Jewish texts (miscarriage, stillbirth, suicide, when there is no grave, abusive relationships, etc.).

Developed in Jewish renewal’s trans-denominational spirit, Beside Still Waters is crafted for use in synagogues inside and outside the denominational spectrum, in hospitals, chaplaincy and pastoral contexts, funeral homes and home observances.

The volume features contributions from some of my favorite writers, artists, spiritual directors, and liturgists, among them Trisha Arlin, Alla Renee Bozarth, Shir Yaakov Feit, Rabbi Jill Hammer, Rodger Kamenetz, Irwin Keller, Rabbi David Markus, and the teacher of my teachers Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi z”l. (Some of my own work also appears in the volume as well.) The full contributor list is online here (and also at the bottom of our book announcement on FB.)

You can pre-order a copy at the Ben Yehuda website, and you can read more about the book via the announcement we just posted on Facebook.

Thanks in advance for sharing my joy!

 

 


The Book of Separation, by Tova Mirvis

BookI don't entirely know how to write about Tova Mirvis' The Book of Separation. It is beautiful, of course. It is painful. It is rich. It is hopeful. It is the intertwined story of her divorce and her leaving Orthodoxy. And it's especially poignant for me to read as my own divorce continues; I can't help reading her journey through the lens of my own.

To leave a marriage, to leave a religion, you never go just once. You have to leave again and again.

Our divorce stories are not the same (moving out on my own was my first opportunity to keep a kosher kitchen; moving out on her own was her first opportunity to eat non-kosher pizza). But I am dazzled and sometimes griefstricken by how familiar her story feels to me. You never go just once. You have to leave again and again. Yes, that's my experience too. 

Once the dishes are put in the oven -- my zucchini lined up in the pan like a fleet of green canoes -- I leave the kitchen to go check on the kids, who are playing happily. I study them as if searching for symptoms of a dreaded fever, worrying that the divorce fills their minds as persistently as it does mine, that they too cannot stop noting that this is the first Sukkot of the divorce, that during this year, everything is a first.

There were times when I had to put the book aside because reading it was too resonant with my own experience of ending a 23-year relationship and coming unmoored from every certainty I used to think I knew. There were other times when I eagerly picked it up again, unable to set it aside. Not only because it's well-written, although it is. Because it's authentic and real, and that's something I crave, especially now.

When the kids come to the table, we sing "Shalom Aleichem" -- the song that has started every Shabbat dinner I've ever attended, my whole family gathered round -- but with only our four voices, the prayer feels slight and vulnerable. // Here is the freedom and, alongside it, the price to be paid: loneliness.

Reading this book, I often found myself thinking of Leah Lax's beautiful and heartbreaking memoir UncoveredUncovered is about living a closeted life in the Hasidic world -- and eventually leaving Hasidism and, in her own words, finally coming home. Both of these are stories of painful growth and self-discovery and ultimately coming home into a self that the author tried for years to pretend that she didn't need to authentically be. 

"Life," I continue on, wanting to impart this not just to Josh but to my younger self, "is about exploring and grappling and growing. You're allowed to change, even when it's painful. You're allowed to decide who you want to be."

On some level this is a story about claiming one's own truth, even when it flies in the face of what was "supposed" to be. It's a book about choosing to live honestly, instead of staying within the safety of pretending that everything is working when it's not. And that's enough of a universal theme that I suspect this book will resonate not only for those who have left a religious community, and not only for those who have ended a marriage, but for anyone doing the difficult spiritual work of growth and change.

Nothing can change, my mantra of so many years. Nothing can change. All this time, I saw it as a prison, a curse, but I hadn't realized that it was also a crutch, an excuse, a prayer. Change felt as alarming as anything I might have done -- so afraid of falling, so afraid of finding myself severed from all that was secure. All this time, I'd preferred to stay unhappy rather than to take a chance on what was unknown.

Change is scary and hard. Being severed from what was once familiar is scary and hard. I recognize myself in these words. Maybe some of you do, too. It's natural to be ambivalent about change: to resist it, to resent it, to crave it, to fear it. And yet I am increasingly certain that facing change is the work of midlife. (I think Father Richard Rohr might agree.) Reading Mirvis' words, I re-experience my own tumultuous journey from resisting change, to fearing change, to embracing change even when it comes with grief.

Now, without either ring, my finger looked naked. All that remained were the indentations the bands had carved into my skin.

I know that feeling. I still reflexively reach with my thumb to confirm that my rings are still there, even though I know they are not. I wore them for almost eighteen years. They shaped me, the marriage shaped me, indelibly. It's like when I wear tefillin. They leave a winding spiral on my arm, an inscription on my body that fades in the physical realm but sometimes lingers emotionally and spiritually. The promises I have made -- to the people in my life; to the tradition with which I wrestle and dance -- shape me. So do the promises I once made that I can no longer keep. 

When we learned about [the Exodus] in school, the desert Jews were depicted as a foolish, ungrateful lot -- how could they bemoan such a painful past? Back then, I had yet to understand that leave-takings are slow and painful and carry their own losses, that you can miss even what you needed to leave.

I come away from this book awestruck by Mirvis' courage. I'm awed by the courage it took to leave an all-encompassing religious system that no longer fit, the courage it took to leave a marriage that no longer fit, the courage it took to write this dazzlingly authentic and honest memoir. I'm grateful that this book exists, and I recommend it highly. The Book of Separation gives me hope that even when change is difficult and painful, it can be redemptive, even holy. Kein yehi ratzon -- may it be so, for Mirvis, and for me, and for all of us. 

 

Related:


Support new Jewish poetry in 5778

I'm a longtime admirer of Ben Yehuda Press. They published Rabbi Jay Michaelson's The Gate of Tears, and Sue Swartz's we who desire, and Rabbi Shefa Gold's Torah Journeys, and they've recently brought out Jews Vs. Zombies. (No, really.) They also published my most recent volume of poetry, Open My Lips -- and will be publishing my next one, Texts to the Holy. And I've had the opportunity to read a couple of the other poetry volumes they'll be bringing out in the coming year, and oh, wow, are they fantastic. 

They're doing a Kickstarter to support the publication of six volumes of new Jewish poetry in the year 5778 (that's 2017-2018, for those of you on the Gregorian calendar). Here's some of what they have to say about that:

People need poetry. Jewish people need Jewish poetry. Not only Jewish poetry, God forbid — we would never part with our Robert Frost or Wendell Berry or Mary Oliver or the rest of our shelf — but we also need poetry that expresses our specific culture and language. "Poetry," Frost wrote, "is what gets lost in translation." So too, translated yiddishkeit isn't quite the same. Hence, Jewish poetry. At Ben Yehuda Press, we publish poems (and other genres) whose Jewishness is integral.

Our Jewish umbrella casts a very wide shadow. Some of the poets we publish are intoxicated by God. Others look for spirituality in a world without God. Some allude to the Bible, others to Jewish experience. Ben Yehuda Press believes there is no one true Judaism, no one authentic Jewish voice. It is the multiplicity that defines our community, and our Judaism, and, optionally, our God.

With this Kickstarter campaign, Ben Yehuda Press is launching its poetry volumes for the Jewish year 5778. Immediately after Rosh Hashanah, we hope to publish three books of poetry. Three more volumes will be published in the spring.   

These six titles come on the heels of the four we already published, starting with one volume in 2007, then three more in 2015. Now, with our ambitious line-up for 5778, we hope to begin a regular commitment to publishing Jewish poetry. But we need your help, to prove that there is a community of readers open to these new Jewish voices, and to help us grow that community.

I've donated toward this project, because as far as I'm concerned this is holy work that the world needs. (In the words of William Carlos Williams, "It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.")

Take a look at their Kickstarter, and if you can throw a few bucks toward the project, please do. Support the bringing of new Jewish poetry into the world!


Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg's Nurture the Wow

9781250064943Somewhere in my first year or two of parenthood, it dawned on me -- through the haze of fatigue, laundry, diapers, and tantrums (Yonatan's and mine both) -- that I actually had access to a treasure trove of wisdom that could help me do the exhausting, frustrating, challenging work of loving and raising my kid. It took me a while to realize it, though, because how I was changing as a mom seemed to be taking me away from my tradition's ideas about what spiritual practice is supposed to be. It had been panic-inducing for some time there, honestly, feeling like I was on a boat that was drifting, slowly, from the island on which I'd made my home for almost fifteen years.

And yet, when I looked more closely, I realized that the treasures that had sustained me for so long could nourish me through this new, hard, bewildering thing. In fact, the Jewish tradition (as well as other religious traditions that I'd studied, even if I didn't live as intimately with them) can actually illuminate the work of parenting -- the love, the drudgery, the exasperation, all of it.

That's from the first chapter of Nurture the Wow by Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, and it is as good an encapsulation of this beautiful, thoughtful, necessary book as any review I could write. (You'll also find a good encapsulation in the subtitle: Finding Spirituality in the Frustration, Boredom, Tears, Poop, Desperation, Wonder, and Radical Amazement of Parenting.)

From what I just quoted, R' Danya continues:

This fact isn't necessarily intuitive, though, because, let's face it, for thousands of years, books on Jewish law and lore were written by men, mostly talking to other men. These guys were, by and large, not engaged in the intimate care of small children. Somewhere else, far from the house of study, other people -- women, mothers -- were wrangling tantrumy toddlers and explaining to six-year-olds that they really did have to eat what was on their plate. At least, I assume that was what was happening -- again, for most of history, the people who were raising children weren't writing books, so we don't totally know.

This means a few things. This means that a lot of the dazzling ideas found in our sacred texts about how to be a person -- how to fully experience awe and wonder; how to navigate hard, painful feelings; how service to others fits into the larger, transcendent picture -- was never really explicitly connected to the work of parenting. It just didn't occur to the guys building, say, entire theological worldviews around love and relationships to extend their ideas to the kinder -- probably because the work of raising children just wasn't on their radar screen.

Oh, holy wow, do I wish this book had existed when my son was born seven and a half years ago!

Continue reading "Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg's Nurture the Wow" »


Falling Upward

DownloadOne day recently, two friends from completely different quadrants of my life sent me a gorgeous Rilke poem that Father Richard Rohr had posted on his website. I had run across the poem myself a few months before, and had already tacked it up over my desk. But when two people sent it to me within an hour of each other, I couldn't help feeling as though someone wanted me to be paying attention -- both to that poem once again, and to Richard Rohr who had posted it.

Then my friend and teacher Rabbi Jeff Fox, with whom I was privileged to study a few weeks ago, recommended Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, by the same Richard Rohr. I ordered the book right away.

Rohr writes:

There is much evidence on several levels that there are at least two major tasks to human life. The first task is to build a strong "container" or identity; the second is to find the contents that the container was meant to hold.

The basic argument of Falling Upward is that most of us get caught up in "first half of life" issues and struggles and never make it to the work of the second half of life -- work that can only be done after one has done the internal work of the first half. Of course these two halves don't necessarily map to chronological age, and Rohr acknowledges that; it's possible to be quite young and already be doing one's second-half-of-life work, and vice versa. (If these ideas resonate, I recommend From Aging to Sage-ing, by Reb Zalman z"l.)

One of the challenges of spiritual life is staying open to being changed. Father Rohr writes:

The familiar and the habitual are so falsely reassuring, and most of us make our homes there permanently. The new is always by definition unfamiliar and untested, so God, life, destiny, suffering have to give us a push -- usually a big one -- or we will not go. Someone has to make clear to us that homes are not meant to be lived in -- but only to be moved out from...

The soul has many secrets. They are only revealed to those who want them, and are never completely forced upon us. One of the best-kept secrets, and yet one hidden in plain sight, is that the way up is the way down. Or, if you prefer, the way down is the way up

The Hasidic masters had an aphorism for that one: ירידה לצורך עליה / yeridah l'tzorech aliyah -- descent for the sake of ascent. That's a frequent theme in Torah (the Joseph story is a paradigmatic example), and it's a frequent theme in spiritual life. Often we have to fall in order to rise. We descend or fall further from God (the language of distance is of course metaphor, but it's a good way of describing internal experience, even if we know that God isn't any "further away") and that descent itself sparks the yearning to ascend and seek closeness. 

Reading this book during the Three Weeks, I was struck by how Rohr's teachings suit this season in the Jewish calendar year:

By denying their pain, avoiding the necessary falling, many have kept themselves from their own spiritual depths -- and therefore been kept from their own spiritual heights... The human ego prefers anything, just about anything, to falling or changing or dying

Of course the ego wants to avoid falling or changing or dying -- that's the ego's job. Part of our work is ensuring that one has enough ego to be able to live healthily in the world, without necessarily allowing the ego to be in the driver's seat, as it were. It's natural to resist change and loss and "falling." And yet all of those things are built in to the rhythms of human life. As I learned recently in a beautiful text from R' Shlomo Wolbe, our times of distance and sorrow are an important part of spiritual life too. If we deny our pain and avoid falling, we're slipping into the trap of spiritual bypassing, and that's not a path of genuine growth.

If change and growth are not programmed into your spirituality, if there are not serious warnings about the blinding nature of fear and fanaticism, your religion will always end up worshiping the status quo and protecting your present ego position and personal advantage -- as if it were God! ... This resistance to change is so common, in fact, that it is almost what we expect from religious people, who tend to love the past more than the future of the present. 

Change -- or one might say התחדשות / hitchadshut, renewal -- is core to spiritual life. One of my tradition's names for God is אהיה אשר אהיה / Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, "I Am Becoming Who I Am Becoming." God reveals God's-own-self to us through the unfolding of perennial change. The voice of revelation always sounds from Sinai, and it's our task to be attuned so that we can continue to enliven the world. That's the work of renewing Judaism, and the work of my rabbinate, and it's the work in which I believe Rohr is engaged, too, on his Christian path. And... I resonate deeply with his words about the profound irony of religious people, who should be pursuing growth, becoming attached instead to the status quo and fearing change. 

There's much in this book that puts me in mind of my spiritual direction training and my experiences in spiritual direction, both as someone who has worked for many years with a spiritual director and as a mashpi'ah myself. The Hebrew term for spiritual direction is השפעה / hashpa'ah, which comes from a root connoting divine abundance or flow. In Rohr's words:

More than anything else, the Spirit keeps us connected and safely inside an already existing flow, if we but allow it... Like good spiritual directors do, God must say after each failure of ours, "Oh, here is a great opportunity! Let's see how we can work with this!"

I love the idea of God as the ultimate spiritual director, sitting across from me and helping me grow. Often on long drives I imagine God sitting in my front seat -- a practice I learned from Reb Zalman z"l, who spoke of imagining Shechinah "dressed down" in blue jeans as his listening passenger -- and I pour out my heart to the One Who always hears me. Sometimes I even hear a response in return. (The title poem of my next collection of poetry came out of that experience...) On that note, the final quote I'll share here is one about being in I-Thou relationship with God, and being wholly seen. Rohr writes:

Many of us discover in times of such falling the Great Divine Gaze, the ultimate I-Thou relationship, which is always compassionate and embracing, or it would not be divine. Like any true mirror, the gaze of God receives us exactly as we are, without judgment or distortion, subtraction or addition. Such perfect receiving is what transforms us.

On the Jewish liturgical calendar we will shift soon (at the end of this Gregorian month -- erev Tisha b'Av is July 31) from the Three Weeks of mourning and brokenness to the Seven Weeks of consolation that lead us from Tisha b'Av to the Days of Awe. The challenge now is to let ourselves experience the "falling" of these Three Weeks, and to let ourselves be fully seen and fully known not despite our falling but even in and through it, so that our falling can be what Rohr might call "falling upward" -- descent for the sake of ascent, and for the sake of growth, and for the sake of becoming who we are most truly meant to be. 


The Book of Joy

9780399185045When a friend told me that she was reading a series of dialogues between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu on joy, my first thought was "I need to read that too." Their dialogues are published in a book attributed to the two luminaries along with Douglas Abrams, called The Book of Joy.

Here's the first place in the book that drew forth my impulse to make marginal markings. This is the Archbishop speaking:

Discovering more joy does not, I'm sorry to say, save us from the inevitability of hardship and heartbreak. In fact, we may cry more easily, but we will laugh more easily, too. Perhaps we are just more alive. Yet as we discover more joy, we can face suffering in a way that ennobles rather than embitters. We have hardship without becoming hard. We have heartbreak without being broken.

We may cry more easily, but we will laugh more easily, too -- that feels right to me. Joy is not the antithesis of sorrow. It doesn't cancel sorrow out, or make one less prone to the sorrows that come with human life. But joy can help us face our sorrows in a different way.

Abrams seizes on this, and brings it back to the Archbishop: "The joy that you are talking about," he says, "is not just a feeling. It’s not something that just comes and goes. It’s something much more profound. And it sounds like what you’re saying is that joy is a way of approaching the world." The Archbishop agrees, and adds that as far as he is concerned, our greatest joy arises when we seek to do good for others.

Coming from anyone else, that might sound insincere, but from Desmond Tutu I am inclined to believe it. Reading his words made me aware that I fear I don't spend enough time seeking to do good for others. But then I realized that he could be speaking not only about vocation or community service, but also on a more intimate scale about trying to do good for people I love. Doing something to brighten the day of someone I love brings me intense joy. (Maybe the real work is figuring out how to broaden the sphere of those whom I love.)

The Archbishop also says some things about hope that resonate deeply for me:

"Hope," the Archbishop said, "is quite different from optimism, which is more superficial and liable to become pessimism when the circumstances change. Hope is something much deeper..."

"I say to people that I'm not an optimist, because that, in a sense is something that depends on feelings more than the actual reality. We feel optimistic, or we feel pessimistic. Now, hope is different in that it is based not in the ephemerality of feelings but on the firm ground of conviction. I believe with a steadfast faith that there can never be a situation that is utterly, totally hopeless. Hope is deeper and very, very close to unshakable..."

"Despair can come from deep grief, but it can also be a defense against the risks of bitter disappointment and shattering heartbreak. Resignation and cynicism are easier, more self-soothing postures that do not require the raw vulnerability and tragic risk of hope. To choose hope is to step firmly forward into the howling wind, baring one's chest to the elements, knowing that, in time, the storm will pass."

I love his point that optimism depends on feelings, and it's the nature of feelings to be malleable. Often I know that the way I feel isn't necessarily correlated with how things "actually are" -- intellectually I can see that things aren't so bad, but emotionally I feel as though they are. (Or the other way around.) If my optimism depends on feeling good about the situation at hand, it will necessarily falter sometimes.

Hope, for the Archbishop, is something different. Hope is a choice, a way of being in the world. Hope is an affirmation that whatever challenges, or grief, or sorrow may be arising will pass. Hope says: there is more to life than this, even if we can't see that right now. In a sense, it requires a leap of faith. It asks us to operate on the assumption that there is more to life than whatever we are experiencing right now.

Abrams writes:

We try so hard to separate joy and sorrow into their own boxes, but the Archbishop and the Dalai Lama tell us that they are inevitably fastened together. Neither advocate the kind of fleeting happiness, often called hedonic happiness, that requires only positive states and banishes feelings like sadness to emotional exile. The kind of happiness that they describe is often called eudemonic happiness and is characterized by self-understanding, meaning, growth, and acceptance, including life’s inevitable suffering, sadness, and grief...

"We are meant to live in joy," the Archbishop explained. "This does not mean that life will be easy or painless. It means that we can turn our faces to the wind and accept that this is the storm we must pass through. We cannot succeed by denying what exists. The acceptance of reality is the only place from which change can begin."

I'm struck by the Archbishop's assertion that we are meant to live in joy -- and that this doesn't mean that life can be, or even should be, devoid of pain. Joy and sorrow are so often intertwined: at the happy occasion when one remembers a loved one who has died, at the celebration of a joyous milestone when a loved one is struggling. We shatter a glass at every Jewish wedding to remind us that even in our moments of joy there is brokenness. Authentic spiritual life calls us to hold this disjunction all the time.

Archbishop Tutu is right that authentic spiritual life also calls us to begin by recognizing what is, and sometimes what is is painful. But we can hold that painful reality loosely, alongside awareness of the gifts we receive from loving others and aspiring to sweeten their circumstance. As the Archbishop also notes, when we seek to do good for others, we open ourselves to some of life's deepest joy. And that's a joy that is rooted not in what we have, but in what we give away -- in the love and caring that comes through us. And because it comes through us, rather than from us, it has no limits.

The Psalmist wrote, "Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes in the morning."  The "night" in question may be long. It may be personal, or national, or global. But we can live in hope that morning will come and will bring joy, even if we don't know what that will look like, even if we don't know when or how that will be.

 

Related:

Joy, 2009


Learning to Walk in the Dark

51LLOq4rwuL._SY344_BO1 204 203 200_If you are in the middle of your life, maybe some of your dreams of God have died hard under the weight of your experience. You have knocked on doors that have not opened. You have asked for bread and been given a stone. The job that once defined you has lost its meaning; the relationships that once sustained you have changed or come to their natural ends. It is time to reinvent everything from your work life to your love life to your life with God -- only how are you supposed to do that exactly, and where will the wisdom come from? Not from a weekend workshop. It may be time for a walk in the dark.

-- Barbara Brown Taylor

When we were in Tuscaloosa, my friend and colleague Reverend Rick Spalding mentioned to me that he was reading Barbara Brown Taylor's Learning to Walk in the Dark. "That sounds like a book I need to read," I said. Not long thereafter, I found his copy in my mailbox, waiting for me to read it.

And oh, wow, did I need to read this book. The copy I was reading wasn't mine, so I didn't give in to the temptation to underline and highlight -- but if I had, it would be marked up everywhere, because so much of what Barbara Brown Taylor writes here resonates with me. Like this:

Even when you cannot see where you are going and no one answers when you call, this is not sufficient proof that you are alone. There is a divine presence that transcends all your ideas about it, along with your language for calling it to your aid... but darkness is not dark to God; the night is as bright as the day.

Sometimes we feel that God is agonizingly absent from our lives, but this is a matter of epistemology, not ontology -- a matter of how we experience the world around us, not a genuine indicator of how that world actually is. This is a core tenet of my theology. I felt a happy spark of recognition, reading it in Brown Taylor's words.

Continue reading "Learning to Walk in the Dark" »


Book news!

I'm delighted to be able to announce this happy news: Ben Yehuda Press will be publishing my next collection of poems, Texts to the Holy!

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Many of the poems from Texts to the Holy have appeared on this blog over the last few years. It is my collection of love poems to the Beloved, and I am so excited that it will see print.

Ben Yehuda published my most recent collection, Open My Lips, in 2016. You can find all of their poetry collections on their website -- celebrate World Poetry Day by supporting independent poetry publishing!

(And while you're at it, please support Phoenicia Publishing, too -- they published my first two collections, and they've published some amazing work since.)


Dave Bonta's Ice Mountain

Icemtn-cover-500pxI've been a fan of Dave Bonta's poetry for a long time. (I reviewed his chapbook Odes to Tools at the Best American Poetry blog some years ago.) So when I learned that his new collection was coming out from Phoenicia Publishing -- the same press that brought out his Odes to Tools (and, full disclosure, also the same press that published my first two books of poetry, 70 faces and Waiting to Unfold) -- I pre-ordered a copy instantly.

Ice Mountain: an elegy is spare, elegant, and deeply moving. These are daily poems arising out of walks on Dave's home territory, a mountain which he describes in the foreword as "a high section of the Allegheny front across the valley to the northwest of our own mountain," in 2013 "desecrated by an industrial wind plant[.]"

In that introduction he writes eloquently about the price paid by wildlife for those wind turbines, and about the extent to which the Appalachians remain a "national sacrifice area" in our perennial quest for cheap energy.

The introduction offers a geopolitical framing. The poems simply offer windows into the landscape, interspersed with Beth Adams' linocut prints, as spare and elegant as the words themselves.

Some of them explore an interior landscape that hints at the outside world, like this one:

4 February

In a dream I run
through my half-remembered high school
still an outcast

I grew up with a woodstove
instead of a television
I know all the theme songs of oak

the crackle and bang
the hiss and whistle
and sudden sigh of collapse

I love "all the theme songs of oak," and how the phrase "sudden sigh of collapse" hints at (but does not directly reference) the ecosystem in distress.

Others are explicitly about the mountain and its power installation, and hint at an interior world, like this one:

4 March

Ice Mountain's propellors
spin at different speeds
face this way and that

you can't hear them from here
their low-frequency moans
like lost whales

what won't we sacrifice
to keep the weather just right
inside our homes

I love that he compares the propellors to whales -- lost indeed, so far from any ocean -- seeing even in their deadly monstrosity an analogy to something found in nature.

The natural world and the manmade world are always in uncomfortable proximity here, as in this poem:

15 March

the highway's tar has been bleached
by a winter's worth of salt
and in the mid-day sun

it almost shines
I squint at the shapes on the shoulder
as I pass

here some saltaholic's crumpled fur
there a fetal curl
of flayed tire

Dave resists easy binaries. There is a kind of beauty in the salt-bleached highway that "almost shines." But our human needs for progress come at the cost of animal lives, and this collection never lets us forget that. 

Because it is deep midwinter in the hills where I live, I am most drawn to the February and March poems, the ones that unlock the austerity and beauty of winter landscape. The summer poems feel dreamlike to me now, both in their beauty and in their dark undertones. I'm looking forward to rereading this collection at different times of year and seeing what speaks most to me on future re-readings.

Ice Mountain: an elegy is available at Phoenicia Publishing.

 


Not by Might

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I'm honored to have a poem in Not By Might: Channeling the Power of Faith to End Gun Violence, edited by Rabbi Menachem Creditor with a forward by Shannon Watts of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense

Shannon Watts writes:

"The emergence of Rabbis Against Gun Violence and this powerful collection of American faith voices reassures me that citizens of every variety are ready to stand together, to speak, preach, and act to demand an end to the ongoing American gun violence epidemic."

The anthology features work by Sarah Tuttle-Singer, Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin, Rabbi Michael Bernstein, Rabbi Matt Rosenberg, Lorraine Newman Mackler, Rabbi Michael Knopf, Rabbi Simcha Y. Weintraub, Rabbi Evan Schultz, Rabbi Hannah Dresner, Rabbi David Evan Markus, Alden Solovy, Rabbi Jesse Olitzky, Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Hermmann, Diane O'Donoghue, Rachel Weinberg, Rob Eshman, Rabbi Ben Greenberg, Rabbi Richard Myles Litvak, Rabbi Ron Fish, Rabbi Noah Farkas, Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, Margo Hughes-Robinson, Rabbi Marcus Rubenstein, Eileen Soffer, Rabbi David Lerner, Amy Ramaker, Rabbi Salomon Gruenwald, Marc Howard Landas, Rabbi Seth Goldstein, Rabbi Daniel B. Gropper, Rabbi Rick Sherwin, Rabbi Aryeh Cohen, Francine M. Gordon, Rabbi Gary S. Creditor, Rabbi Jeremy Markiz, Rabbi Yael Ridberg, Rabbi Daniel Kirzane, Rabbi Menachem Creditor, Rabbi Annie Lewis, David Paskin, Rabbi Denise Eger, Rabbi Larry Bach, Rabbi Danielle Upbin, Barbara Schutz, Stacey Zisook Robinson, Lisa Rappoport, Liav Shapiro Gilboord, Nicole Roberts, Rabbi Sara O'Donnell Adler, Rabbi Jill Berkson Zimmerman, Maxine Lyons, Rabbi Kim Blumenthal, Rabbi Shawn Israel Zevit, Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt and Rabbi Aaron Alexander, Rabbi Ben Herman, Rabbi Philip Weintraub, Rabbi Michael Adam Latz, and Joy Gaines-Friedler. (And me, of course.)

Here's a review of the collection on the URJ website. Copies are available on Amazon. Deep thanks to Rabbi Menachem Creditor for putting this volume together.