Star

DownloadLast night my eighth grader began reading The Diary of Anne Frank, and he paused to ask if I have ever read it.

I read it for the first time in fifth grade. Probably too young, but my grandparents and mother fled Prague in 1939; I knew this history already. "It's probably the first reason I started keeping a diary," I told him.

"I just got to the part where it says everyone who was Jewish was required to wear a yellow six-pointed star."

"Did you not know that?" I asked, as gently as I could. He shook his head no. "Do you remember that at Nonni and Papa's house, there was one of those stars, in a little frame?" He shook his head no again.

I think the star they had framed came from my sister's mother-in-law, who was a survivor of the camps. My mother framed it and displayed it proudly, a reminder both of who we are and of how far Jews in America have come.

We have not come nearly as far as she thought, or as I used to think. Or maybe the world around us has backslid.

Even here in the state where I live, a Hitler-praising Massachusetts GOP candidate pledge[d] to 'exile all Jews'. (She is nowhere near me, and she lost, though she won 38 percent of the vote.)

I knew that Anne Frank's diary is part of the 8th grade curriculum. But I didn't imagine that when my son was reading it, I would be having so many pastoral conversations about feelings of unsafety.

This month the University of Chicago released a survey about campus fears after 10/7. Datapoint: one in ten Americans is "more willing to tolerate violent attacks against Jews" than they were a year ago. 

My son is home sick from school today. I sit with him as he watches a thirteen-minute movie on the history of antisemitism made by the US Holocaust Museum. My soul ties itself in knots.

Nothing in that film is new or news to me. But it lands differently now than it would have a few years ago, too. We all know that Jews in Europe thought they were safe, until they weren't. 

And then I make challah, quietly singing to welcome the angels of Shabbat as I knead the dough. We cannot erase the realities of today's antisemitism, but we can hold fast to our Jewishness.

 


Old hope

My parents collected haggadot for Pesach, many of which are now in my library. There is a slim, tattered haggadah from Prague, printed in Hebrew and Czech. A note tucked inside dates it to 1898.

(My mother wasn't sure, in the end, whether it had been a gift from her aunt -- born, like my mother, in Prague -- or something Mom found in a bookstore on one of her visits once the Iron Curtain fell.)

There is one bound in metal with full-color illustrations. There is one that's full of Chagall prints and illustrations alongside the Hebrew text. And there's this one, which just found its way to me:

 

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The cover just says "Haggadah for Pesach."

When I first opened it, I didn't see anything out of the ordinary. It's bilingual, Hebrew and English. The texts sketch the story of the Exodus in the traditional way, with quotes and snippets of narrative.

The graphic design is neat. The interior flyleaf has a stylized print of swirls and flowers, cups of wine and bunches of grapes. Vines and flowers and grapes twine around the words on every page.

And then I turned to a page that contained a photograph, and that's when I figured out what makes this haggadah different from all other haggadot. (You had to know I was going to go there.)

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The caption reads, in Hebrew and English, "And the children of Israel were fruitful and swarmed and increased," a line from Exodus that appears on the facing page as part of the story of the Exodus.

Something about this photo (the hairstyle on the woman in the center?) reminded me of photos of my parents in the late 40s and early 50s -- and also of photos of those I grew up calling halutzim.

I flipped to the first page, and found an explanation. Here it is in English. (You can find the Hebrew version here on Flickr.) The haggadah turns out to be from 1954, the year my parents married.

The very fact that for the past seven hundred years, Jewish illuminators and printers have been able to illustrate the Haggada in terms of their own times and surroundings attests to its timelessness and its message for every age. In keeping with this tradition, this new edition of the Passover Haggada has been prepared, illustrated and printed in the State of Israel, in an era which has seen the New Exodus, the Ingathering of Exiles and the rebirth of the Jewish State. And it is only fitting that the eternal truth of this ancient and stirring narrative should be reaffirmed in terms of living pictures of our own land and the people of our own time.

What an artifact. Oh, those capital letters on the New Exodus and the Ingathering of Exiles! It feels soaked in hope, the way baklava or teiglach are soaked in honey or knafeh soaked in rose water.

Like many in their generation (they were young children when the Holocaust began), my parents believed completely in the dream of Israel -- as they believed completely in the dream of America.  

In written instructions for her funeral, my mother asked for "America the Beautiful" and "Jerusalem of Gold:" for the nation that took her in, and the Jewish state she felt privileged to have lived to see.

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Mid-century graphic design... and photo.

This haggadah makes me wistful for the optimism my parents felt both about Israel and about the U.S. -- even as I know that the stories they held dear aren't the whole story about either place. 

It's a complicated knot of feelings: missing my parents deeply, and remembering where we disagreed, and feeling grateful that they aren't here to see some of what's unfolding today both here and there. 

A haggadah is a ritual object, not a history book, though this one feels steeped in history. And that history feels sharp with heartbreak, as it has every day since Shemini Atzeret / Simchat Torah. 

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Had Gadya - a parable in song about all the nations who've tried to destroy us.

In Hebrew the name מִצְרָיִם / Mitzrayim is both a place (Egypt) , and a state of being. The root connotes narrowness or constriction. It's the same root as in the word tzuris, suffering or sorrow.

All of the people, and peoples, who love that land are in a Narrow Place now. I keep returning to lines from Psalm 118: "From constriction we cry out to You; God, answer us with Your expansiveness!"  

Imagine a future where all the peoples of that place can flourish side by side in mutual safety and human dignity. Where is the Moshe, the Musa, who could lead the way to that Land of Promise? 


Dancing with our stories

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Bayit just launched our first Kickstarter to support publication of Daughters of Eve, a volume of 12 fabulous feminist essays about women of the Tanakh. The essays come with discussion questions and journaling prompts. It's a really neat project, and I'm excited to be midwifing it into print. The hope is that readers will come away not only with more knowledge about the Hebrew scriptures, but also with reflections on how these ancient female archetypes influence and reveal who we are today.

Backers can support Daughters of Eve at a variety of levels, most of which come with swag (coffee mugs, tote bags, even journals and jigsaw puzzles!). Or if you're part of a book group, consider the Book Group package that gives you books, book plates, and a Zoom conversation with the author. Or maybe you and a bunch of writer friends want to chip in together on the Storyteller package that gives you a Zoom with Sally to talk about writing, story creation, character development...

I especially love the cover design for this title. To me it suggests that all of us who study Torah are engaged in a circle dance throughout the generations. All the way back to our Biblical forebears, and all the way forward to the endless generations who will come after us: we're all learning and becoming and dancing together. If feminist essays on Biblical women and the Torah study journey of self-discovery sound like your jam, I hope you'll join me in supporting Daughters of Eve

Donate to the Kickstarter here.


Life lessons

Before I became a rabbi, I worked as an editor. I edited a monthly paper in south county for a few years after my first stint in graduate school (MFA in writing and literature at Bennington.) A good editor, I came to understand, is one who helps a work become the best version of itself: not imposing her own voice, but helping the writer refine their gem in the ways that will most allow it to shine.

Over the last few years I've been bringing that skillset to the publishing work I do at Bayit.  Y'all, it is so much fun. I love helping people uncover what's best in their work. I love uplifting voices that move me. (Arguably this is part of why I co-founded a Jewish spiritual innovation incubator in the first place.) I love how together we can bring forward something that is more than the sum of our parts.

About two years ago, a manuscript came our way that piqued my interest. It's by R. Mark Asher Goodman, a rabbi who at the time I only knew over Twitter. His book features Hassidic texts -- many of them translated into English for the first time -- and opens them up for a modern reader with wry and self-deprecating humor, pop culture references, and quotes from the Wu-Tang Clan.

It's called Life Lessons from Recently Dead Rabbis: Hassidut for the People. Would Bayit be interested in publishing this book?

Would we ever

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Introducing... Life Lessons from Recently Dead Rabbis: Hassidut for the People

by R. Mark Asher Goodman; cover art by R. Zac Kamenetz

published by Bayit: Building Jewish

The process of bringing the book to press has taken longer than I thought it would, of course. The last couple of years have been challenging ones. Not just the continuing global pandemic and American political upheaval, but also my father's illness and death, and my heart attack and continuing health quandaries, on top of rabbi-ing and parenting and all the normal things that need to get done.

But it is so worth the wait. Hasidic texts are a particular passion for many of us at Bayit (I've been blogging about them since the early years of Velveteen Rabbi when I was in rabbinical school), so that aspect of the book is already my jam. If you're a longtime reader of Hasidic texts, you'll find familiar kinds of wisdom here -- plus also perhaps some texts from rebbes you haven't encountered before.

If you're new to the Hasidic world, if you can't read Hebrew, even if you're a spiritual seeker with no connection to Judaism at all: wow are you in for a treat. Each chapter contains questions for contemplation, texts in translation, and Mark's commentary. And Mark's voice is unique. Heartfelt and thoughtful, and also sometimes snarky, geeky, and irreverent. These are a few of my favorite things.

I wish I could say we planned to launch on Lag Ba'Omer, the holiday when we light bonfires to represent the fire of mystical Torah wisdom still shedding spiritual light in our day. Truth be told, it was a coincidence of timing and data propagating. Then again, maybe every coincidence is God's hand at work. Who am I to say that this wasn't the Kadosh Baruch Hu pulling some digital strings? 

Anyway, you can learn more about the book (and click through to buy a copy, if you're so inclined) on its page on the Bayit website: Life Lessons from Recently Dead Rabbis. And while you're there, I hope you'll click through to see Bayit's whole catalogue, e.g. the other books that we've published and are in the process of publishing. We've been entrusted with some really amazing work. I am so grateful.

Thanks for listening to me kvell about the newest book I've been blessed to midwife into being.  If you love the cover of Life Lessons, check out R. Zac Kamenetz's psychedelic portraits of rabbis and rebbes. (And here's a link to his work with Shefa, doing Jewish psychedelic support.) Find author R. Mark Asher Goodman here. And stay tuned for info on Bayit's upcoming books, coming soon. 

 

 


Old books

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These are not our books. But they could be.

Miles of books. Paper bags full of books. Boxes full of books. Loaded one by one into a car and driven away, or in some cases stashed in the cupboard labeled "genizah / for burial." In recent days I've been meeting up with my synagogue board president to sift through the books that had accumulated in our storage room, books that had piled up in every office, books that had been dropped off at the door anonymously like those extra zucchini that get hidden in people's cars or left on their front steps.

It's common, at synagogues. (Churches too, maybe?) We accumulate books the way children accumulate memories. And some of these books are themselves precious memories. And some are useful. But many of ours are now Goodwill-bound. I wonder what the local Goodwill staff must think, sorting this vast and sudden influx of books about Judaism. Books on Jewish history and thought. Books on Israel. Books from the 1950s on the critical challenges facing American Jewry "today." 

Old college textbooks from religion classes. (Okay, a few of them were mine. Will I ever again need that textbook on the Protestant Reformation? Probably not.) Hardbound Hebrew-English dictionaries. Old translations of Jewish texts, typeset in tiny print. We also have a full synagogue library packed with books that no one ever borrows, and that's in addition to these stacks of tomes and piles of texts. Someone dies or moves away, and next thing we know another pile of books has sprouted...

Old siddurim and holy books go in the cupboard to be buried in the sanctified ground of our cemetery. Once they are tattered from long use, we treat them with reverence and lay them to rest along with our beloved dead. But the secular books get stacked and bagged, or boxed, and hauled to the car, and taken away. It's hard to let go of books. We're the People of the Book! And yet there are so many books that haven't been touched in years. Books we'd forgotten we had. Books we just don't need.

I like to imagine some Jewish college student, maybe, browsing the bookshelves at Goodwill and exclaiming at some of these finds. I always loved finding Judaica in used-books stores or on the bookshelf at a thrift store. It felt like a little gift from the Universe: I see you.  A reminder that Jews have lived in all kinds of places... including the small towns around New England around which my beloved ex and I used to drive, searching for quirky secondhand things like those old church pews

Now the shul storeroom is manageable. We can find the Pesach dishes, the yarhzeit candles, the box of graggers for Purim. Some of my colleagues are establishing a "no donated books" policy -- all of our shelves overflow. It makes me a little bit sad, but I get it. I hope these books land in the hands of people who want them. And having joined in cleaning out my own parents' possessions after their deaths, I'm aware of how our objects persist, moving through the world long after we are gone.


Finding The Missing Jew anew

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I don't have a copy of the original 1979 edition, alas.

 

When I saw the words "Jews do not come from heaven" in the table of contents of The Missing Jew: Poems 1976-2022 by Rodger Kamenetz, unbidden my mouth said aloud, "they come from Russia."

I love this poem. I have been quoting its opening lines since I read a previous edition of The Missing Jew when I was in grad school the first time around, getting my MFA at Bennington. Here it is:

Jews do not come from heaven
they come from Russia.
With green eyes and olive skin.
Jews do not go to heaven
they go to Baltimore.

They do not come from heaven
because heaven is always
in the back of their minds.
They don't want to think about
heaven any more
it's too much trouble.

God bless Ben Yehuda Press (full disclosure: they published my books Open My Lips and Texts to the Holy, and they are Bayit's publishing partner on Beside Still Waters and Renew Our Hearts).

They've brought this new-old creation into print as The Missing Jew: Poems 1976-2022. The first section is the original 1979 collection. Rodger remixed his own work in 1992, and that's here too:

"Jews do not come from heaven..."

Jews are all people
in time
They are as plain
as day...

I thought to go back
to some Russia
of the eyes
Hazel eyes
green mixed with brown
young wheat, dark soil
streaks of sunlight
and a winter
of suffering...

I am here
in the thinnest sense
imaginable
an exile
wherever I go

Look how this poem speaks to its predecessor, like a great-grandchild answering a letter left by an ancestor. I hear melancholy Shostakovich, I feel my Russian grandfather looking over my shoulder.

And the remix of "Jews do not go to heaven" -- I will resist re-typing it here for you. I'm going to memorize that one, though. The one word he revised between 1992 and 2022 changes everything.

Is there a word in the world
waiting to be heard?
As if for the first time
and the only time is now?

That's from "Invisible Lines of Connection," dated 2020. Although this book was pieced from many sources -- published books, other poems from other moments -- it feels like an integrated whole. 

That integration makes me think of how the Talmud both holds and transcends the voices within. Even when the sages disagree, they are (as it were) on the same page. It's one interconnected conversation.

Here are psalms and songs from 1981-2021. Here are mourning poems, including "Lentil" which we reprinted in Beside Still Waters. It sometimes makes me gasp when I run across it again there.

This book is full of memory, and mysticism, and God speaking the world into being in Her own inimitable way, and Reb Nachman with his tears under the table pretending to be a turkey.

Fallen leaves recite kaddish. The infinite arrives on lightning feet. Every word is broken. Only the hidden can burst forth. We forgot what we were yearning for. Every one and every thing is for you.

I'm cheating: that paragraph is a pastiche of Rodger's lines. If that doesn't entice you, I don't know what would. I want to start a new commonplace book so I can copy these lines in my own hand.

 

The Missing Jew Poems 1976-2022 is available at Ben Yehuda Press or wherever books are sold.

 


A new feminist haggadah, and reflections on history

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

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

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

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

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

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


From Ukraine

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One of the books I brought back from my mother's library is The Bewitched Tailor by Sholom Aleikhem. That's how his name is spelled on the cover. Inside I see his name and another phrase in Cyrillic letters. There's no date of publication, and I don't know when or how the book became my mom's possession.

In the back of the book, it says Printed in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The publishing house -- Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow -- was a state-run publisher (of course it was), founded in the 1960s. That's probably when this edition, illustrated with woodcuts by Y. Krasny, saw print. 

Shalom Aleichem was his pen name. His given name was Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich. He was born in 1859 in a small town in what is now Ukraine. After witnessing the terrible pogroms that swept across the region in 1905, including Kyiv, he emigrated to New York in 1906, and died there in 1916. 

The last place I traveled before the COVID-19 pandemic began here was to see my niece in the national touring production of Fiddler on the Roof, the classic musical based in Aleichem's stories. It's set in Anatevka, a fictional village based on Aleichem's experience growing up as a Jew in shtetl Ukraine.

I remember being nervous that day. I was slightly anxious about traveling to Boston given whisperings of the virus, though we didn't yet know that COVID was airborne, so I had no fear of sitting in a crowded theater! Mostly I was nervous that my son wouldn't like the play. I so wanted him to like the play.

Fiddler on the Roof is a classic of Jewish American theater, of course. But more than that, it tells a real story about the real kinds of things that happened to real people, including my own forebears. My grandfather grew up in a shtetl in neighboring Belarus only a few years after Shalom Aleichem fled.

My kid loved the play, though he recoiled in horror when the Russians smashed up the wedding. That kind of casual, callous antisemitism was completely foreign to him then. He's a few years older now, and has learned more about a lot of things. He knows who Putin is. He knows what Nazis were, and are.

Aleichem left Ukraine after the 1905 Kyiv pogrom. Wikipedia says the perpetrators of those pogroms blamed Russia's problems on "the Jews and the socialists." Once I would have rejoiced that those kinds of views were history, and better yet, they were somewhere else's history. Lately I'm not so sure

When I picked up the book, it didn't evoke current events for me. Russia hadn't yet attacked Ukraine. I brought it home because I'm a rabbi, and a student of Jewish literature, and also it was my mom's and we are beginning to clear out their house. Now it might as well be bound in yellow and blue.

A friend noted recently how many people seem to want to claim or find a connection with Ukraine now. I don't think that's a bad thing. The real work, I guess, is figuring out how to feel that connection across the globe, not just with people in the places that were home to my literal or literary forebears. 

 

 

Worth reading:


Announcing From Narrow Places

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Co-creating new liturgy for these difficult times is one of the things that has brought me spiritual sustenance over the last eighteen months. I'm honored to have convened this extraordinary group of artists, liturgists, and poets, rabbis and laypeople alike, and I'm humbled by the knowledge that our work has uplifted hearts and souls in many places.

I hope you'll pick up a copy of this book, and I hope that what's in it will sustain you.

Now available for $18 -- From Narrow Places: liturgy, poetry and art of the pandemic era from Bayit's Liturgical Arts Working Group. Featuring work by Trisha Arlin, R. Rachel Barenblat, Joanne Fink, R. Allie Fischman, R. Dara Lithwick, R. David Evan Markus, R. Sonja Keren Pilz PhD, Steve Silbert, R. Jennifer Singer, and Devon Spier.

Rabbi Irwin Kula, co-president of CLAL, writes,

For too many, prayer is a vending machine experience and so unsurprisingly it no longer works. And then there are the poets and liturgists in this heart opening collection From Narrow Places who know prayer is a powerful way of consciously surrendering to the mystery and exquisite bittersweetness of Life. This collection of prayers will inspire and enchant you – the real job prayer is supposed to get done.

And Rabbi Vanessa Ochs, professor at University of Virginia and author of Inventing Jewish Ritual, writes,

From Narrow Places gives language and imagery to the Jewish spiritual creativity that is still holding us up through the pandemic. I pray that speedily in our days we will look back at this volume as a testimony to how Jews of one era weathered a crisis and emerged even stronger. For now, it chronicles how the richness of Jewish living, full and fluid, is holding us up in these challenging days. I will confess: each page unlocked doors to my unexamined disappointments, sorrows and even deep joys. Many tears, but good ones.


Essay on allyship in Chaver Up!

166332530_5471521699554903_7018149307394046596_oI was humbled and honored to be invited to contribute an essay on allyship to this new daily Omer series... also soon to be a book, featuring a spectacular range of voices, which will become available on Wednesday / Trans Day of Visibility.

Deep thanks to Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (and their scholar-in-residence R. Mike Moskowitz, my dear friend and Bayit cofounder) for putting this together and for inviting me to take part. Here's how my essay begins:

Allyship means placing myself in the shoes of someone experiencing marginalization or oppression, “taking on their struggle as my own,” recognizing where and how today's structures give me privilege that they don't have, and trying to transfer the benefits of my privilege to them. Allyship asks me to be active in standing up for those who are oppressed or marginalized. And allyship asks me, when I inevitably err, to take responsibility, to apologize, and to learn better and try better next time.

One way to understand allyship is through a Mussar lens. Mussar is a Jewish practice of self-refinement through focusing on and developing our middot or soul-qualities. When I think of allyship, the middah that comes to mind is achrayut, “responsibility.” The term is related to the word achar, “after.” We need to pay attention to what happens after we act (or refrain from action). If I ignore injustice or power disparity because I’m not the person being harmed, what happens after? If I speak or act (or fail to speak or act) in a way that causes harm, what happens after? Achrayut reminds us of our ethical obligation to keep impacts and outcomes in mind.

But put a different vowel in that word, and achar becomes acher, “other.” That suggests another, equally important, implication of achrayut. When we care for each other, we express and strengthen our achrayut. Achrayut means actively taking the responsibility of caring for another, or an “other.” Achrayut means centering the needs of the other. Unlike the term “allyship,” achrayut doesn't presume a power differential between the person with needs and the person with privilege who's centering those needs. Still, the middah of achrayut can fuel our allyship...

Click through to read the whole essay on FB. (And follow Bayit on FB to see each day's essay as it is posted.)
 
And in a few days you'll be able to purchase Chaver Up! 49 Rabbis Explore What It Means To Be an Ally Through a Modern Jewish Lens, edited by Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum and Rabbi Mike Moskowitz, coming in eBook and paperback very soon. 
 

Labor of love

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A glimpse of the Color The Omer Trello board: the digital "room where it happens."


I can't remember how we initially framed my role. Cat-herder, maybe. I'm the lead architect for Bayit Publishing, so our book projects (and liturgy projects and to some extent blog projects) are in my purview. Last summer, a new idea from Shari Berkowitz reached our doorstep: a contemplative coloring book for the 49 days of the Omer, with illustrations that each user can transform with color, and kavanot / intentions /reflections and questions on each page. The Bayit board approved the Build Plan, and we set the book in motion by creating a Trello board where collaborators could keep track of tasks and chat via digital post-it notes. That was June, and at first, I didn't think I'd be very involved until it was time to bring the book to print.

When Shari brought the concept to Bayit, our #VisualTorah sketchnoter Steve Silbert immediately volunteered to do the illustrations. Right away, they invited me as editor / publisher to partner with them on brainstorming and revising. What an unexpected delight. Over time we refined each page. We brainstormed visual elements and ideas for drawings, far more than the 49 pages that made it into the book. We took turns drafting text for each page, and then editing each others' work (usually a paragraph would get winnowed down to "slim text" which would then get revised a third time once we reached the page layout stage). Steve drew things, and sometimes drew them again and again, revising for visual impact or riffing off of our ideas. 

By the end of the process, Trello had become my daily companion. I kept it open in a tab all the time. (We use it for all Bayit builds, but the Color the Omer board became my default, for a while.) Any time a little red dot appeared on the tab, I knew that Shari or Steve had left a comment, and I'd click through to join the conversation and help however I could. Once all the pages were drafted, Shari put them in order. Then we handed the manuscript over to R. David Markus, who combed through it for misplaced nekudot (vowel markings) and Hebrew typos and asked great questions about text and formatting choices. Draft, refine, draft again. At last, after nine months of collaboration -- just in time for Pesach! -- the book was ready to be born. 

I love the idea of an Omer coloring book: as an Omer practice, an artistic practice, a mindfulness practice. I love the illustrations that Steve drew, and the ideas that Shari brought to the table, and how R. David helped us see beyond our blind spots. And maybe most of all, I love being part of a thoughtful, creative, collaborative build team. We learned to hold our own ideas loosely, to embrace each others' creativity, and to improvise and riff and revise together. All of us deeply respect each other and each others' work, so all of our comments were offered not in a spirit of tearing-down but in a spirit of building-up. We cheered and supported each other as we worked together to build this tool for spiritual life that we wanted to offer to the world.

As this book enters print, I feel like a proud midwife. I love getting to be a thought partner, a helper in the background: the cat-herder, the holder of the container. This has always been part of our mission at Bayit: we collaborate broadly as we build and test and refine tools for a Jewish future always under construction. And we love lifting up meaningful work so that it can shine.

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Order Color The Omer now --

and may it enrich your Omer journey in countless ways!

$13 on Amazon (and Amazon's global affiliates)


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


Fellow travelers

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Later this month I'll begin teaching a class at the Academy for Jewish Religion (NY). It's part of their Sacred Arts program, and will interweave text study (Tanakh, liturgy, psalms, prophets, lifecycle) with creative writing. The syllabus was due to the dean a few weeks before the beginning of the spring term, and I've been assembling my text packet: essays, poems, prayers, classical midrash, sources ranging from ancient to contemporary. And that sent me on a journey of rediscovering my own bookshelves.

A year ago I installed new bookshelves in my home office. In those days, of course, I only worked in my home office a few days a week; the other days were spent in my synagogue office doing synagogue work. Over the last ten months everything has turned upside-down, and now I work from home almost all the time. I used to keep most of my rabbinic books at shul and most of my poetry books at home. ("Most," because the two categories aren't entirely separable.) But that too has shifted.

My Aish Kodesh volumes (the rabbi of the Warsaw ghetto, whose work my Bayit colleagues and I studied last year) are piled now crosswise in front of a section of bookshelf that holds Mark Doty, John Jerome, Jane Hirschfield, Yehoshua November, and Seamus Heaney's Beowulf. There's a small shelf full of Hasidut directly above Muriel Rukeyser, Jane Keyon, and The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (now no longer "new" by a long shot -- my MFA was more than 20 years ago.)

The book I wanted to find was Diane Lockward's Eve's Red Dress. In the Torah module of my class, we'll be doing a close reading of the creation stories in Genesis and a close reading of the Akedah (the Binding of Isaac). We'll read some classical midrash arising out of both. And we'll read some contemporary poetry arising out of both. "Eve's Red Dress," I thought. "It's somewhere in this room. I think the spine is red. Is the spine red?" My books are not alphabetized. Surely I could find it.

I did find it, eventually. (The spine is not, in fact, red.) I had forgotten that my copy is inscribed; we hosted Diane for a 2003 reading at Inkberry, the literary arts nonprofit that I co-founded with two friends before I started rabbinical school. Along the way I unearthed other books that have been beloved to me: Rodger Kamenetz' The Lowercase Jew. Muriel Rukeyser's The Life of Poetry. Brenda Euland's If You Want to Write. I wished I had the space and time to get to know those old friends again.

I did pull a few things off the shelf to reread, in bits and pieces, as my scattered pandemic focus will permit. (I resonated a lot with Jess Zimmerman's essay It's Okay If You Didn't Read This Year, published in Electric Literature last week.) If nothing else, there's comfort in recognizing these spines as fellow-travelers, voices who have accompanied me over the years. I don't see anyone in person outside of my quarantine pod, but encountering the many voices in these volumes helps me feel less alone.

 

 


On the far shore

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I heard that President Obama's memoir had to be printed in Germany because there is a paper shortage in the United States. The paper shortage is because we've been using so much cardboard to make so many more shipping boxes since the pandemic obligated us to stay home. I don't know if any of that is true, though it seems plausible. A parable about unintended consequences. I thought of it often in the days after Crossing the Sea launched, because I didn't yet have a copy in my hands.

Then I started getting photos from friends and family who had pre-ordered the book from Amazon or from the publisher. I was starting to wonder whether my copies were uniquely held up somewhere when the box landed on my doorstep. It's a cliché to say that my heart rate quickened as I cut the packing tape and lifted the first copies out of the wrapping, but it's also true. I'd seen the manuscript in PDF form many times, but there's something fundamentally different about a paper book.

The poems have a realness now that they exist in the tangible world. The collection is no longer the proverbial tree falling with no one to hear it.  The journey it chronicles feels so far away now -- evidence that "doing the grief work" actually does work, I guess. I remember what it was like in those early days and weeks, but I remember it at a remove. Through a glass darkly. Like rereading my poems from my son's infancy. I know that was me, but I can't inhabit that space anymore. 

A few of Mom's friends have written to say that they see her in this book, and a few people who are grieving now have written to say that their own journey feels mirrored here. There's no higher praise. I hope that Mom would be honored by the existence of this book. (I hope that, "wherever" she is, she approves.) And I hope other mourners will find comfort and consolation here. That's why I write. It's always why I write: not for solipsism's sake, but to shine a light for others in the darkness.

 

Available at Phoenicia, on Amazon, or wherever books are sold. 

 


And everything in between

A rabbinic friend of mine just had a baby, so I am sending her a copy of Waiting to Unfold, the volume of poems I wrote during my son's first year of life, published in 2013 by Phoenicia Publishing. I had a few quiet minutes before an appointment, so after I inscribed the book to my friend, I started reading it, and I read the whole thing. 

Reading it felt like opening a time capsule: inhabiting a reality that is no longer mine, a strange world I had almost forgotten. Pregnancy and nursing and colic and postpartum depression and emerging into hope again... I'm not sure how clearly I would remember any of those things, if I hadn't written these poems while they were happening. 

It's not just that the poems open a window to then. They temporarily cloak me in then, like a shimmering holographic overlay. Rereading them, I feel grief and joy and most of all compassion and tenderness. For myself, back then. For everyone who's experiencing those realities now. For all of us, fragile and breakable and strong.

It makes me wonder what it will be like in ten years to reread Crossing the Sea, forthcoming from Phoenicia. Those poems were written as I walked the mourner's path between my mother's death and her unveiling. It wasn't written as systematically as Waiting to Unfold, but both volumes chronicle a kind of metamorphosis.

I think -- I hope -- that both volumes inhabit that sweet spot between my particular experiences (of new motherhood, of grief) and a kind of universality. Every parent of a newborn has some of the experiences I wrote about in Waiting to Unfold. Every person walks the mourner's path someday, for someone, because human life comes with loss.

It feels right to turn to poetry to distill and find meaning in birth and death. I mean those words as a merism: not only the beginning and endpoint of every human life but also everything that comes between. I wanted to quote Anne Sexton, "There is holiness in all." Though what she actually wrote was "there is joy in all."

So I'm thinking today about what kind of joy really is in all things, even the painful ones. For me that kind of joy is integral to authentic spiritual life. There's joy in being real, with myself and with others and with my Source, even when the path I'm walking takes me into the shadows. Writing is part of how I find my way back to life.


Two great reviews of Beside Still Waters

Bsw-smallTwo fantastic reviews of Beside Still Waters were published this week.

In the Berkshire Jewish Voice, Rabbi Jack Riemer -- whose liturgical work I have often used and admired -- writes:

...Ours is a death-denying culture, in which we are taught to ignore the oncoming of death so as not to make those around us feel uncomfortable. And so it is good to have a few different versions of the Vidui here, which is the prayer that we are supposed to say before we die.

Ours is a culture that tries to repress pain and anger, and so it is good to have a prayer to say in memory of someone who has hurt us, and whom it is hard to forgive.

Ours is a society in which most of us stand before the yahrtzeit candle with no idea of what to say, and so it is good to have a meditation for this sacred moment that can help us give expression to the feelings that we have inside....

Read that whole review here.

And for the Association of Jewish Libraries, Fred Isaac writes:

...This small book is filled with wisdom, both ancient and modern. It is meant specifically for spiritual leaders, i.e., rabbis, Chevra Kadisha staff, prayer leaders, and counselors. But its readings can provide comfort for mourners at all stages of the process. It should be considered for every Jewish library...

Read that whole review here.

I'm so grateful to everyone who contributed their work to this volume, to my hevre at Bayit: Building Jewish, and to our publishing partner Ben Yehuda Press, for midwifing this book into being with me.

Buy Beside Still Waters from your favorite bookseller or directly from the publisher. Single copies cost $18. (Discounts are available for bulk orders of 10 or more at the publisher’s website.)


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!

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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.