A love letter to song

Spring 1994: the Williams College Elizabethans outside of our tour bus.

Looking back at college thirty years later, the two most formative experiences and communities for me were the Williams College Feminist Seder project (about which I've written before) and the Elizabethans, the madrigal ensemble of which I was a founding member in January of 1993.

For all four of my years of college we sang together -- if memory serves, for six hours a week? We held concerts. We piled ourselves and our luggage into a school van and drove all over the Northeast (and some of the Mid-Atlantic) bringing our blend of "madrigals and sundry chansons" and geek humor.

I sang with them for a year after college, even though I'd already graduated, because I lived here in town and why not? (The same was true of the Feminist Seder, where I participated for a post-graduate year too.) Every so often we hold reunions, where we catch up and hang out but mostly we sing.

Through the Elizabethans I discovered just how much I adore harmony, and polyphony, and the shared purpose of body, heart, mind, and spirit that make music real. We start as individual beings with notes on a page. And if we do it right, we become -- and co-create -- more than the sum of our parts.


Spring 2024: the Congregation Beth Israel choir at Tu BiShvat.

A few years ago a new member joined my congregation and asked if I were interested in CBI having a choir. We've had pick-up choirs off and on over the years, and I liked the idea. But we were entering a pandemic and there was no way to sing together safely at that point, before there were vaccines.

Eventually we started singing masked and outdoors at a distance. In time we started singing indoors, starting with simple rounds. (I remember remarking, "we'll never sing Rossi, but that's ok" -- Rossi being a just-post-Renaissance Jewish composer whose work I had sung with the Elizabethans.)

Adam, our director, wrote a setting of the prayer Ahavat Olam that was right at our proximal zone of development. With his encouragement, we started stretching a bit. We learned Shabbat repertoire and High Holiday repertoire. We offered a concert one year at Yom HaShoah; another at Tu BiShvat.

Over the last six months, as the world has turned upside-down, we've continued singing together every week. We're preparing for a Shavuot concert featuring Jewish music from the last several hundred years titled "This, Too, Is Torah" -- celebrating the revelation that flows into our world as song.

Adam's Ahavat Olam has become easy. We learned a Rossi Bar'chu a while back, and we're learning a gorgeous Rossi setting of Psalm 146 right now. I love its many voices and moving lines and gorgeous harmonies. We learn Sephardic melodies and modes as well as Ashkenazi ones. Old music and new.

I love about choral singing the same thing I love about community writ large: together we are more than the sum of our parts. We are all needed, and we all work to make space for everyone's voices. Together we make something beautiful, even sometimes ineffable, that none of us could make alone.

Thirty years ago I never thought I would be fortunate enough to get to be a rabbi for a living -- to do the holy work of serving God and community as my actual job. And I certainly never thought I would be lucky enough to have something akin to the Elizabethans in the synagogue that I'm blessed to serve.

Two other founding members of the Elizabethans live in town -- a therapist, and a librarian -- and both sing in my shul choir now. That brings me extra joy, though I've come to feel connected with all of my fellow singers: the ones I've known for decades, and the ones I've met through the choir itself.

Harmony itself may be the deepest form of prayer my heart knows. Meeting every week to make harmony with others is such a gift to me. Especially during this heartbreaking year of war in Israel and Palestine, and divisions across American Jewish community, harmony matters to me more than ever.

If you are local and you sing, you are welcome. (Learn more: Music at CBI.) All are welcome to attend This, Too, Is Torah at 3pm on June 9 (just please RSVP on that webpage so we know who's coming.) And to my fellow choir members: thank you. Singing with you is one of my life's greatest joys. 


The San Antonio Song

Weltron-2007_5The turntable had been my sister's before it became mine. In my memory it is black and white and sleek, standing on one foot like a cross between a mushroom and a flying saucer, with a smoky dark plexiglass lid that lifted up so you could put the record down on the turntable.

The stereo was dual-purpose, with an 8-track tape deck on the front side. I remember playing Barbra Streisand on 8-track, though I can't remember what else I had inherited on those big boxy cassettes.

My record collection was slightly more expansive. An album of what I grew up calling Mexican polka (though now know as norteño); an LP of Strauss waltzes; Prokofief's Peter and the Wolf (narrated, I think, by Captain Kangaroo); Simon and Garfunkel's Bookends, Bob Marley's Exodus; James Taylor's In the Pocket; and Lullaby Raft, by my childhood poetry teacher, Naomi Nye. She had inscribed the cover of the LP to me, from "Naomi and the chicken." 

The Naomi Nye LP recently came back into my possession. I don't own a turntable, so I can't listen to it now -- but as soon as I picked it up, I remembered the crackle of the needle in the groove and the sounds of her guitar.

I must have listened to the B side on infinite repeat, because 40 years later those are the songs I remember clearly: "When You're Not Looking," "Can't Complain," "The San Antonio Song." There's a lot to be said for a house and a bed...

50915842172_43eb7ef86b_cAs an adolescent I used to get desperately homesick at summer camp. (It started the summer I was eleven, at a camp in Wisconsin that just wasn't the right fit. The kids in my cabin teased me mercilessly, and after crying myself to sleep for a few weeks, I left the camp before the eight-week session was over. I struggled with homesickness for a few years after that.)

This was one of the songs that would run through my head when I yearned the most for my home, the sound of my mother's voice, my four-poster bed with the forest-printed coverlet. I want to run back to your loving arms...

It's been more than a year now since the last time I visited San Antonio. In a normal year, I would take my kid there a few times a year to see my dad and my brothers. The last time I went, I went alone for the unveiling of my mother's headstone.

I promised my dad that I would come back soon with my son. A few weeks later, we started hearing about something called novel coronavirus. Soon we were sheltering-in-place to slow the spread. For a while I thought it would be safe to go back to Texas by summertime. Then it became clear what we were facing...

I don't want everything I write to become an elegy or a lament. This was supposed to be a light-hearted remembrance of an old record and my old record player! But all paths seem to lead to remembered loss, or to the ache of yearning for something that isn't yet possible.

To meet my father and brothers for Mexican breakfast at our favorite brunch joint in the old neighborhood. To visit my childhood home where my parents haven't lived in decades. To hug my mother who's no longer here. To hug my beloveds who are (thank God) still alive, but we can't safely touch. 

The day after

Beethoven's 7th,
all day, on repeat.
Because I need to know
there is meaning
in how we circle back
to this lament in minor mode.
I want to trust
the swell of grief
will give way to hope.



If you don't know the second movement of Beethoven's 7th symphony, you can hear it here.



My voice teacher this summer, Rabbi Minna Bromberg, begins all of our lessons the same way. She walks me through grounding myself: feet on the floor, crown toward the sky, strong back, soft belly. The body is a connector between heaven and earth, as the singing that we do in leading prayer seeks to connect heaven and earth. Each week as she walks me through the litany I can feel myself shifting and settling into my body and into a grounded stance. And the first time she said "soft belly," I felt myself flinch. 

Of course, she's right, and I get why she says it every week. Singing is a full-body activity. I can't sing -- no one can sing -- while holding my breath or sucking in my belly to make myself as unobtrusive as possible. And yet I've absorbed decades of voices telling me that as a woman, maybe especially as a single woman, that's precisely what I'm supposed to do: take up as little space as possible. But physically I can't sing if I'm trying to shrink myself. And spiritually, I can't lead others in prayer if I'm hiding.

When I was fourteen, my mother signed me up for modeling lessons. I remember learning how to suck in all of my soft places to make myself as slim and taut as possible, and learning to walk as though my high heels enabled me to float above the runway. (I never enjoyed it, to mom's chagrin, and I never pursued the modeling career she temporarily had in mind.) Sometimes I still suck in my soft places without even thinking. And R' Minna reminds me, every week, that no one can sing in that posture.

Physically, no one can sing while trying to clench into smallness. And spiritually no one can sing while trying to clench into smallness. The message conveyed by that compulsive clenching is: take up less room. That's a be-quiet message, not a sing-out message! But prayer asks me to be ready to sing out with all that I am -- not just the convenient parts. I can't lead people into a place in prayer where I myself won't go. How can I give permission to be whole if I won't take that permission myself?

Last fall I received a blessing for taking up space in the world -- for feeling able to inhabit my 100 cubits of holy space, like the 100 cubits of the mishkan. That blessing has been reverberating ever since. Learning how to better use my voice in service of leading prayer is one of the ways I'm living into that blessing. And learning how to use my voice also turns out to mean learning how to love my body, including my belly, including the soft places of which I was taught (most of us are taught) to feel shame.

This is not something I expected to learn from my voice lessons. But it turns out that my soft places help me sing. It turns out that my soft places are holy. My body is the instrument through which I offer song and praise, and lead others in doing the same. And I can only do that if I'm willing to be in my body -- my whole body -- whole and holy, exactly the way God remakes me, every single day. Feet on the floor, crown toward the sky, strong back, soft belly, ready to connect, ready to lift my voice and sing.


With gratitude to Rabbi Minna Bromberg. 


How can we keep from singing?

Sea-rananIn this week's Torah portion (Beshalach), the children of Israel cross the Sea of Reeds. Upon experiencing that miracle, Torah tells us, three things happened: 1) they felt yir'ah, awe, and 2) they felt emunah, faith and trust, and 3) they broke into shirah, song. (And for me, the Torah is always both about what happened to "them" back "then," and also about us here and now: our journey, our spiritual lives, our emotional possibilities.) Some of the words they sang found their way into daily Jewish liturgy:

 מִֽי־כָמֹ֤כָה בָּֽאֵלִם֙ יְהֹוָ֔’’ה? מִ֥י כָּמֹ֖כָה נֶאְדָּ֣ר בַּקֹּ֑דֶשׁ, נוֹרָ֥א תְהִלֹּ֖ת, עֹ֥שֵׂה פֶֽלֶא׃

Mi chamocha ba-eilim Adonai? Mi camocha nedar bakodesh, nora tehilot, oseh feleh!

Who is like You, God -- majestic in holiness, awesome in splendor, Worker of Wonders?

And when we sing these words each day, we're called to remember. To remember the miracle of the redemption from slavery, the Exodus from Egypt, the crossing of the Sea. Take apart the English word remember and you get re/member -- to experience memory in the body; to re-inhabit lived experience. Singing Mi Chamocha is an opportunity to re-member liberation. To experience it again. To feel it in our bodies. To cultivate our sense of awe and trust, and from those emotions, to joyously sing.

The daily liturgy specifically mentions joy. "They answered You [and so we too answer You] with song, with great joy!" As the psalmist wrote -- the words that are inscribed over our sanctuary doors and over our ark -- "Serve the One with joy, come before God with gladness." (Psalm 100:2) Once we were slaves to a Pharaoh in Egypt, but once we emerged through the sea we became servants of the Most High. Slave or servant: the same word -- עבד / eved -- but the emotional valance is completely different.

Torah tells us that while we were in slavery, we experienced קוצר רוח/ kotzer ruach: constriction of spirit / shortness of breath, both physical and spiritual. Without breath, without spirit, it's hard to sing. And I want to acknowledge the fact that sometimes genuine joy is hard to come by. Sometimes life's constrictions -- depression, or grief, or loss -- steal our breath and our song. Pretending otherwise would be spiritual bypassing, using spiritual life to pretend that everything's okay when it's really not.

And. Every day our liturgy gives us the opportunity to remember -- to really re/member -- awe and trust and song. The Hasidic teacher known as the Sfat Emet writes that thanks to our faith and trust the Shechinah (God's own Presence) came to dwell within us, and our faith purified our hearts and then we were able to sing. He goes on to say: in fact that's the whole reason we were created in this world in the first place: to bear witness to life's miracles, to be redeemed from constriction, and to sing. 

I want to say that again, because it's so radical. The whole reason we were created is to notice life's miracles, to be redeemed from life's narrow places, and to sing. "Everyone else has a purpose, so what's mine?" The Sfat Emet says: awe, and liberation, and song. Our purpose isn't to get promoted, or to climb the social ladder, or to rack up accomplishments. "If you want to sing out, sing out; if you want to be free, be free!" Our tradition says: the experience of freedom will naturally lead us to song.

Our daily liturgy reminds us of the Exodus. We remember it again in the Friday night kiddush, which tells us that Shabbat is a remembrance both of creation and of the Exodus from Egypt. Shabbat exists to help us re/member our liberation. Today we're freed from the workday, the weekday, ordinary labors, ordinary time. Today we can bask in a sense of awe and wonder: "Look around, look around, how lucky we are to be alive right now!" And from that place of wonder, "how can we keep from singing?"


This is the d'varling I offered at Congregation Beth Israel this morning during Shabbat services. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) It echoes the themes in Answering With Joy by Rabbi David Markus. Each week he and I study the Sfat Emet together with our fellow builders at Bayit, so maybe it's not surprising that this week our divrei Torah are quite parallel!

Art by Yomam Ranaan.

Nava Tehila at the #URJBiennial, and renewal everywhere


A glimpse of where and how I davened on Friday morning.


One of the highlights of my URJ Biennial was davening last Friday morning with Nava Tehila.

This is not surprising. Longtime readers of my blog know that davening with Nava Tehila has long been one of my favorite things in the universe, anywhere. Let's see: great music -- check. Deep heart-connection -- check. Awareness of the flow of the matbe'ah (the structure of the service) -- check. Attunement to body and to silence -- check. Balance of contemplative and ecstatic -- check. Davening with Nava Tehila feels like coming home.

I love how they set the worship space up, in concentric circles with space in the middle, a kind of emptiness echoing the ancient holy of holies. I love how Dafna and Yoel work (wherever they are) with a cadre of holy levi'im, musicians who aren't just accompaniment but are part of the active leadership team. I love their melodies and harmonies. And all of these add up to more than the sum of their parts. Every time I daven with Nava Tehila, I come away with my heart and soul feeling recharged, reconnected, and rejuvenated, and my body buzzing from the dancing and the joy.

It was neat to daven with them at a gathering explicitly created by and for Reform Jews, and to see that they don't change what they do in any way based on the denominational identity of the community with whom they're davening. And I know that last week they were at the USCJ, the big gathering of Conservative Jews, doing the very same kind of thing -- and, I'm guessing, meeting with every bit as much joy and enthusiasm and wow! as they heard from the Reform crowd on Friday morning.

When I say that renewal flows through all of the denominations, this is part of what I mean.

Colorful tallitot are everywhere, for instance. Not only the rainbow tallit that Reb Zalman z"l designed so many years ago, each color of the rainbow representing one of the seven "lower sefirot" or aspects of divinity -- though I saw a bunch of those at the Biennial, as I do everywhere! (And I'm guessing most people have no idea who designed that tallit or what its origins are -- though if you're interested, here's the story, which I love knowing.) But the very fact of multicolored tallitot was one of Reb Zalman's innovations in the first place, back in the 1950s. Now they're a natural part of Jewish prayer life almost everywhere. 

And renewal melodies are everywhere. I can't tell you how often I've encountered a liturgical melody by Rabbi Shefa Gold -- come to think of it, we sang one on Friday night at the URJ Biennial before dinner in the ballroom where I was seated! Her melodies are known and sung across the Jewish world (and as with the tallitot, most people may not know where they come from -- it's easy for melodies to seem miSinai, as though we received them with Torah at Mount Sinai.) There are other renewal composers whose work is becoming part of the canon, too, like Shir Yaakov. And, of course, Nava Tehila, who share both their melodies and their way of davening not only in their Jerusalem home but in places they visit around the world.

Beyond the music, renewal modes of davenen (prayer) are everywhere. If you've ever been to a chant-based service, a contemplative service, a service that drew on Jewish meditative or mystical teachings, a service where people danced in the aisles, you've had a brush with some renewal ways of connecting with prayer. (I say "some" ways, rather than "the way," because there is no single way to pray in Jewish renewal. That's why as a renewal rabbinic student I was expected to learn how to lead prayer-ful worship using any prayerbook there is, from full-text to minimalist, across the denominational spectrum... and to pray not only with books and received liturgy but also with silence, and music, and the unfolding prayers of the heart.)

And the flow of renewal continues.  Renewal as it's unfolding now contains elements of what came before, remixed in new ways. I see Svara: A Traditionally Radical Yeshiva as part of the flow of renewal. The Institute for the Next Jewish Future, the Jewish Emergent Network, the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute are all part of the flow of renewal. (Some of these people and places may self-identify as part of the renewal of Judaism. Others might not choose the term "Jewish renewal" to describe what they do. But they're all part of renewal from where I sit.) Bayit: Your Jewish Home -- the new nonprofit organization I'm co-founding; stay tuned for more on that! -- is part of the flow of renewal. And so are many other places and spaces besides.

Renewal flows through all of the denominations, and in and through post-denominational and trans-denominational spaces, too. As software developers say, this isn't a bug, it's a feature. It isn't an accident or a mistake -- rather, it's part of renewal's core design. Renewal was never meant to be a denomination. Renewal is a way of doing Jewish, a way of approaching Judaism and spiritual life, that can enrich and enliven Jewish practice of all flavors. I've been saying that for years, but there was something extra-special for me (as a rabbi who serves a Reform-and-renewal shul) about living out that belief at the Biennial this year. 



Chanukah music

MusicA friend asked me recently for suggestions of "good Chanukah music," aside from Peter, Paul & Mary's "Light One Candle" and the Stephen Colbert / Jon Stewart contemporary classic "Can I Interest You In Hanukkah?"

The challenge, of course, is that Chanukah is a minor Jewish holiday in the grand scheme of things. There are a few decent Chanukah songs, but this isn't the holiday that has inspired the greats of my tradition to plumb their musical depths.That said, I promised her I'd come up with a list of a few things, and I'm sharing it here in case anyone else has similar needs.

The first thing that comes to mind is Anander Mol, Anander Veig, a compilation of remixes released by Tablet magazine a few years back at Chanukah-time. At that link you can listen to individual tracks or download the whole album.

Bare Naked Ladies put a Chanukah song on their holiday album a while back, which is actually pretty charming.

If you are a fan of a cappella, you might enjoyS ix13's Chanukah (Shake It Off).  On a similar note, there's the Maccabeats' All About That Neis.  And, of course, don't miss this year's release, Hasmonean, a delightful Hamilton medley parody. 

Nava Tehila, the Jewish Renewal community of Jerusalem, is led by a trio of extraordinarily talented musicians. Here's an excerpt from a concert they put on at a Benedictine monastery in Israel at Chanukah a few years ago, which begins with their performance of "Maoz Tzur" (a.k.a. Rock of Ages.)

The next track that comes to mind is Shir Yaakov's "Or Zarua." It's not a Chanukah song per se, but it is a song about light -- which seems fitting to me for these dark days as the winter solstice recedes. 

Shir Yaakov is part of Darshan. Their album Deeper and Higher is terrific. I'm especially fond of the track "Before Darkness," which remixes the "Or Zarua" I linked to above. My other favorite track on that album is probably "For the Sake of Unification." Now we've moved firmly out of the realm of Chanukah music and into the realm of "good Jewish music to which one could listen at Chanukah (or any time)."

Another fun one to put in a holiday playlist -- again, not a Chanukah song, but one that makes me smile -- is this version of "Adon Olam" sung to the tune of Pharrell Williams' "Happy." (My other favorite setting of Adon Olam these days is this one by Cantor Azi Schwarz, to the tune of "You'll Be Back" from Hamilton.)

If you have recommendations of Chanukah music that works for you, feel free to leave them in comments!

Renewing my relationship with haftarah

31456168932_b7025790ef_zAt the shul where I serve, we don't usually read the haftarah, the reading from the Prophets that in more traditional synagogues is paired with the weekly Torah reading. This decision was made years ago, largely for reasons of attention span and time. People don't want services to be "too long," and generally don't have much patience for lengthy chanted texts in a language that's not the vernacular. 

The downside of this is that my community almost never hears the beautiful melodies of haftarah trope.  The only time I typically chant haftarah is on Rosh Hashanah, and on that day I always chant the traditional blessings before and after the haftarah, too. But in place of the traditional haftarah text I chant a contemporary poetic rendering of the reading for that day, in English, set in that melodic mode. 

Chanting English language poetry in haftarah trope is something I learned from my teacher Hazzan Jack Kessler. He's crafted some beautiful settings of contemporary poetry for use in this way -- and not only contemporary poetry, but also other prophetic texts. I've been blessed to hear him chant the Declaration of Independence in haftarah trope when I've been with my ALEPH rabbinical school community on the Shabbat nearest to the Fourth of July. 

I love this practice for at least two reasons. I love the fact that it keeps the plaintive lilt of this melodic system in our hearts and minds -- especially since this is a melodic system that would otherwise be lost in communities like mine where we don't chant the classical haftarah most of the time. The system of the טעמי המקרא / ta'amei hamikra (the markings on the text that denote snatches of melody, a.k.a. trope) is a fascinating one, and I love the way the trope markings serve to give the text phrasing and nuance. I also love how this practice offers an opportunity to lift up texts, contemporary and otherwise, that serve a prophetic function. As a lover of poetry, I am always delighted by opportunities to uplift poems that might speak to people where they are. 

One of this year's b'nei mitzvah students at my shul expressed an interest in haftarah. We looked at the haftarah reading for her Torah portion, and found it not particularly engaging. So I told her about this practice I learned from Hazzan Jack, and invited her to consider whether there is a contemporary poem that speaks to her. I reminded her that she's heard me chant contemporary poems in haftarah trope before -- a setting of the story of Chanah on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, a Marge Piercy poem on the second day.  She did some digging, and came back to me with one of my poems from 70 faces (Phoenicia, 2011) -- the one that goes with her Torah portion. I've set it to haftarah trope, and will work with her on learning it. 

Setting one of my own poems in this melodic system was a moving experience for me. It gave me occasion to reflect on how I phrase the poem when I read it aloud, and how I want the trope marks to "set" the poem musically. And it made me realize that there's no reason for me to limit my English-language haftarah poetry chanting to once a year. I could make a more regular practice of chanting a relevant poem, in the place in the flow of the service where the haftarah goes. I would have to abbreviate somewhere else, of course, in order not to run overtime. Perhaps I'll chant a haftarah poem on weeks when I don't write a d'var Torah, or will shorten p'sukei d'zimrah (the introductory poems and psalms of praise) on weeks when I have a haftarah poem to share. But I love these melodies, and would love to weave them into the consciousness of the community I serve. 

I'm grateful to my b'nei mitzvah student for making this request, which has re-enlivened my desire to renew and reclaim this piece of the tradition in a way that my community can access and enjoy.



More on this:

You who love my soul

HEBREWFONTOne of my very favorite pieces of Friday night liturgy is a medieval love poem by R' Eliezer Azkiri called Yedid Nefesh. (There's a gorgeous setting of this poem on Nava Tehila's second album Libi Er / Waking Heart.) Our mystics imagined God as the cosmic Beloved, yearning for connection with creation even as we yearn for connection with divinity. Shabbat is when we and God meet in love.

At my shul we sometimes sing Yedid Nefesh in English, using Reb Zalman z"l's singable translation which captures much of the poetry of the Hebrew. "You who love my soul," the song begins, "sweet source of tenderness..." I am always moved by that way of describing the Holy One of Blessing: not as Lord, not as King (nor as Queen), but as the One Who loves us with infinite tenderness.

This love song imagines that as we welcome Shabbat, our tired souls can bathe in divine light and find comfort. By the end of the week we are worn out -- maybe in practical terms; maybe in heart or spirit. When we usher in Shabbat, we open ourselves to being healed. This song imagines us basking in divine light as one might bask in the presence of a beloved, deriving joy from the fact of that presence.

"My heart's desire is to harmonize with yours," writes R' Eliezer Azkiri (as rendered by R' Zalman z"l.) I love that line. I love the idea of singing in harmony with God, of having a heart which beats in harmony with God's. (The fact that I used to be a choral singer, and that I still derive tremendous joy from singing in harmony, probably contributes to how deeply that metaphor speaks to me.)

"As a deer thirsts for water, so my soul thirsts for you," writes the Psalmist. I know that feeling -- the feeling of a soul thirsty for sustenance, for connection. The feeling of a soul which yearns for God. I remember ten years ago, early in my rabbinic school journey, hearing one of my teachers describe me as "thirsty for connection with God." It was true then; it continues to be true now. It is core to who I am.

At its best, Shabbat offers me an opportunity to drink from that well of living waters, to satiate my thirst. No, that's not quite right. At my best, I'm able to take advantage of what Shabbat offers. The offer is always there; I'm the one who isn't always able to access it. Rabbi David Wolpe has written:

Friday night arrives. I know what my task is at this moment. I am to stop affecting the world and live in harmony with it. Even though I am a tangle of yearnings, on this day everything is to be perfect. I am to be satisfied with the many blessings that I have in my life. For once, I am to be at peace with the universe.

I find that idea incredibly compelling... and also often challenging. And I don't want to shame myself (or anyone else) for times when yearning, or mourning, or grief gets in the way of being able to experience the perfection which Shabbat is meant to encapsulate. But I take comfort in calling God "Beloved" -- whether or not I feel connected; whether or not I'm able to fully feel that "extra soul" of Shabbat; whether or not I can set aside my weekday strivings and be present with the perfection of what is.


Like sapphire

This week's Torah portion, Mishpatim, contains one of my favorite verses: כְּמַעֲשֵׂה לִבְנַת הַסַּפִּיר וּכְעֶצֶם הַשָּׁמַיִם לָטֹהַר. I love the verse (it's the second half of Exodus 24:10) because it's one which Nava Tehila has set to music. Had they not written this melody, I might never have paid much attention to these words... but because of this melodic setting, the verse has become one of my favorites in Torah.


 If you don't see the embedded video, you can go directly to it at YouTube

This verse comes from the scene where Moshe and the 70 elders, having ascended with God, are preparing for a banquet in heaven. Torah describes the floor where they are sitting as being like sapphire, though not actually sapphire. I think of this as a metaphor for how difficult it is to describe deep connection with God: our words always fail us. "It was like sapphire," we say, and words fall short.

Sometimes melody can deeply evoke an experience which doesn't quite translate into language. I don't know how Moshe and the elders might have tried to describe their ineffable experience with God once they got home again. Maybe if they could hear this melody and these harmonies, they would be satisfied that their experience had been communicated, with feeling and with heart if not with words.

Aleph Bass

The folks behind Darshan just put out a new single, with a stunning psychdelic animated video:


(If you can't see the embedded video, you can go directly to it at YouTube.)

I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the Sefer Yetzirah and the Jewish mystical idea that because creation is ultimately made up of Hebrew letters, we can use meditative linguistic techniques to un-do language and ascend to union with God. This track draws on those kinds of teachings, so it was guaranteed to be up my alley -- even before the beautiful animation which moves from Middle Eastern cityscapes to the furthest reaches of outer space.

The English words are on the track's YouTube page, and I'll share them here also:

Letters are the building blocks of all of God's creation
Kabbalistic keys unlock the heart of human nature
Metaphysic molecules of mystic nomenclature
Torah is the Tree of Life in musical notation

Speaking into being, existential occupation
For servants of the Source of Light and Root of Revelation
Reading into meaning, covenantal calibration
For students on the path of learning language liberation

The Hebrew words (when they're not a recitation of the letters of the aleph-bet) come from an alphabetical acrostic of praise recited on weekdays as part of the Yotzer Or blessing, the blessing for God Who creates light. (If you can read Hebrew, you'll find the words at the top of this blog post.) It's a neat interweaving of classical text and contemporary form. 

Anyway, enjoy the song on YouTube. (And I believe it's available on iTunes, Spotify, Amazon, etc, for those who are so inclined.) Happy Chanukah!

I seek your face (for #blogElul 3: Search)


show me your face
in the face in front of me

show me your light
in familiar eyes

show me your heart
in the overflowing of mine

show me how to be hollow
so you can pour through me

show me your name
written in the wheeling stars

show me my name
written across lifetimes

in the face of my beloved
show me your face


Many years ago I heard Rabbi Jeff Roth offer the teaching that the mind is like tofu: it takes on the flavor of whatever one marinates it in. During the four weeks of Elul, I'm marianting in two melodic settings of parts of Psalm 27.

One is the Kirtan Rabbi's set of chants which use verses from that psalm, tracks 2-4 on his CD Achat Sha'alti (One Thing I Ask.) And the other is Nava Tehila's setting of verse 8, Lach Amar Libi:

This poem arose out of these two excerpts from the psalm. "One thing I ask of You --" and "You called to my heart, 'seek My face' -- Your face, Source of All, is what I seek!"




I'm participating again this year in #blogElul, an internet-wide carnival of themed posts aimed at waking the heart and soul before the Days of Awe. (Organized by Ima Bima.) Read #blogElul posts via the Elul tag; last year's posts are now available in print and e-book form as See Me: Elul poems.

It's Adar! Let's be happy!

Chodesh tov -- happy new month of Adar!

This is the month of which our sages said, "When Adar enters, joy increases." In light of that, here's a setting of the c. 11th century hymn "Adon Olam," which is part of traditional daily prayer and which we sing at my shul every single Shabbat, set to the melody of Pharrell Williams' 2014 hit "Happy." 

(Speaking of which -- if you missed Ethan's piece in The Atlantic last year, YouTube Parody as Politics: How The World Made Pharrell Cry, it's worth reading. And there are some amazing international "Happy" videos at We Are Happy From -- the one I remember from Madagascar seems to have been taken down, but there's a lovely one from Namibia...)

Here's to Adar and to being happy!


Four poems from 70 faces set to music

Several years ago, composer Michael Veloso set two of the poems from the manuscript which would become Waiting to Unfold to music. I had the extraordinary experience of being able to hear them in concert, performed by the Boston-based ensemble Cantilena, at a concert of music about mothers, on my first mother's day as a mother.

70FacesSmallI'm delighted to say that another composer has found inspiration in my words. Michael Scherperel set four poems from 70 faces for piano, violin, and voice in a series called "שבעים / Shiv'eem" ("Seventy"). The series was recently performed by Michael and vocalist Susan Boardman at two recent concerts, one at Penn State and one at Studio 37 Recital Hall in Fishers, Indiana. (He tells me the songs were very well received!)

You can read about the composition, and if you are so inclined order the score, at his website. You can also click on the Soundcloud link there and listen to a live recording of one of those performances -- or you can listen to it at Soundcloud. (I'd embed the audio here but that doesn't seem to be possible, so if you want to hear the songs, you'll have to click through.)

This kind of creative collaboration is part of why I make my poems available online for free, and why I'm such a big supporter of Creative Commons and of remix projects like the Poetry Storehouse. I'm honored that Michael Scherperel liked my poems enough to set them to music, and hearing them performed is an amazing experience. Thank you, Michael and Susan!

Chanukah and the obligation to sit still and notice

One of the customs of Chanukah is to sing a couple of hymns after we light Chanukah candles. One of them is Maoz Tzur, "Rock of Ages." (Here's an abbreviation of the traditional version. Here's Reb Zalman's version, which is singable to the same tune but celebrates the miracles of Chanukah in a different way.) And the other hymn is Hanerot Hallalu, "The lights which we light." Here's that second one:


"We light these lights for [commemoration of] the miracles and the wonders, for the redemption and the battles that you made for our ancestors, in those days at this season, through your holy priests. During all eight days of Chanukah these lights are sacred, and we are not permitted to make ordinary use of them except to look at them in order to express thanks and praise to Your great Name for Your miracles, Your wonders and Your salvations." (From Talmud, Sofrim 20:6)

This little song is often overlooked and is not well known. Which is a shame, because it's quite wonderful.

Hanerot Hallalu teaches us that we light the candles of the chanukiyyah in order to remember miracles and wonders, and that their light is holy -- so holy, in fact, that we're not supposed to use that light for ordinary things. Instead, our job is to just enjoy them. To look at them. To contemplate them, and their small beauty, and to cultivate an upwelling of thanks and praise. In this way, Chanukah invites us into contemplative practice.

The Shabbat candles which we kindle each week are also holy. But they don't come with this same obligation. It's perfectly permissible to eat one's Shabbat dinner by the light of the Shabbat candles. But the Chanukah candles aren't meant to be used in any mundane way. The shamash candle, the "helper" which lights the others, casts ordinary usable light. But the eight candles in the chanukiyyah proper are there not to give us light to do the dishes by -- they're there to give us a meditative focus, something to look at as we coax wonder and gratitude to arise within us.

At this hectic season -- Thanksgiving and "Black Friday" just past, Christmas and New Year's on the horizon, everywhere around us a tumult of coveting and shopping and spending, the academic semester racing to its finale -- the very idea of taking the duration of the Chanukah candles as a time for quiet and meditation seems like a miracle. May we all be blessed to find our moments of stillness and peace as the candles burn low.

Here's a choral setting of Hanerot Hallalu. And here's a solo setting of an unknown melody. If your tastes run more toward a cappella, here's Six13's version. And here's a simple sung version, accompanied beautifully on piano.

#BlogElul 3: Bless

Bless, O my soul, the transcendent and immanent One !
My Holy One, You are great beyond measure.
Splendor and beauty You put on;
You don light like a garment
Spreading the heavens like a curtain.
How precious is Your love, Holy One!
Humankind takes refuge in the shelter of Your wings.
They will be satisfied from the abundance of Your house
And from the stream of Your delights You give them to drink.
For with You is the source of life
And in Your light, we will see light.
Extend Your love to Your knowers,
And Your charity to those righteous of heart.

That's a setting of Barchi Nafshi performed by Hazzan Richard Kaplan, who is a hasid, a loving disciple, of Reb Zalman's. Some have the custom of reciting these verses when putting on a tallit for morning prayer.

I love the idea that God is robed in light as we robe ourselves in garments. And I love the idea that when we pray, we bless God.

It's easy to think in terms of asking God to bless us, or to bless our loved ones. But this prayer calls us to remember that we too are sources of blessing. That despite God's infinite greatness -- "my Holy One, You are great beyond measure" -- we bless God.

Maybe our ability to bless God, and to bless each other, arises out of the reality that we are made in God's image. Like God, we can create and destroy with our words. Like God, we can choose to speak curses or to speak blessings.

Today, on the third day of this journey into the month of Elul, may we find it in our hearts to bless God, and to bless everyone we meet.


At an unveiling, a moment of grace

First I was distracted because I didn't have a cemetery map.

There's a custom in Jewish tradition of having an unveiling of the matzevah, the grave marker / headstone, usually a year after burial. I was privileged to do an unveiling this weekend -- my first, actually, so I'd spent some time in recent weeks reading up on the ceremony and how it evolved. I felt certain that I had put together good materials (including R' Brant Rosen's beautiful interpretation of Psalm 23). But I realized, when I woke this morning, that I wasn't exactly certain where in our cemetery I would find this headstone. I should have thought of it sooner, but I was so focused on the ritual that I forgot to think about the physical place in which the ritual would unfold. Grumbling at myself, I went to shul early to look for a cemetery map.

I thought I knew where such a map would be. I was wrong. And I had just finished my search for the map when my cellphone rang. It was my husband, calling to ask where his carseat was. I clapped my hand to my mouth, realizing all in a flash: oh, no, it was in my car, with me. I had driven away with both carseats. I'd had the spare one in the back of the car in case it was needed for our son's most recent playdate, and I'd forgotten to remove it. And by the time he called, I needed to dash to the cemetery to stroll the aisles in search of the headstone which needed to be dedicated. There was nothing I could do; he and our son would be stuck at home until I was done. I grumbled at myself some more.

When I arrived at the cemetery my distraction took a partial backseat to beauty. We're having a spectacular May weekend. All the trees are bursting into unbelievable chartreuse leaf. The grass at our cemetery is carpeted with tiny violets. I could hear a rooster crowing nearby. The horses stabled across the street whinnied and snorted. And, thank God, I found the headstone right away, and was able to drape it with a white linen cloth before the family arrived. Once people started arriving, I was able to focus on them; the morning's distractions and my exasperation with myself receded into a dull buzz at the back of my consciousness.

But what really shook me out of my distraction and brought me square into the present moment was the music. The daughter of the deceased stood before his stone and sang L'dor vador. "From generation to generation we shall tell of Your greatness..." Her voice was pure and quavered slightly. Time slowed down, and I could feel that moment as a pause, a pearl, strung in a string of moments stretching back to time immemorial and forward forever. The whole world seemed hushed and still, listening. The words come from the daily amidah prayer, and the song evokes our generations -- what connects us to our ancestors, and to our children -- the melodies, the heritage, the love which bind us to each other and to our tradition. By the time she had finished singing, my day was transformed.

It's those little moments of grace which make everything worthwhile. They can't be planned or presumed-upon; they come when they come. I don't know if she knew she was giving me such a gift, but she did. I am endlessly grateful.

The daughter who sang so gloriously was Gloria Lenhoff. She's the subject of the PBS documentary Bravo Gloria; you can hear her on YouTube, though not singing "L'dor Vador." For more: For woman with Williams Syndrome, music was the key.

A melody before the seder's cups of wine

הִנְנִי מוּכָן וּמְזוּמָּן לְקַיֵּם מִצְוַת כּוֹס רִאשׁוֹנָה מֵאַרְבַּע כּוֹסוֹת לְשֵׁם יִחוּד קוּדְשָׁא בְּרִיךְ הוּא וּשְׁכִינְתֵּיהּ.

Hin'ni muchan u-m'zuman l'kayem mitzvat kos rishonah m'arbah cosot l'shem yichud kudsha brich hu u-schinteh.

May my consumption of this first of four cups of wine create healing, effecting a unification between the Holy Blessed One and Shekhinah, God far beyond & God deep within.

That text appears in both of the current editions of the Velveteen Rabbi's Haggadah for Pesach (the 48-page version and the 82-page version) -- with the obvious changes ("first of four cups" becomes "second," "third," then "fourth") -- before each of the seder's prescribed cups of wine.

The formula which invites one to perform a mitzvah for the sake of the unification of the Holy Blessed One and the Shekhinah (לשם יחוד קודשא בריך הוא ושכינתיה) appears in a variety of places in traditional Jewish practice. Some say those words before putting on tefillin, or before counting the Omer. The Baal Shem Tov urged his followers to say those words before doing any mitzvah. I like to say them before each of the seder's four cups of wine.

When we read this little pre-prayer intention before each cup of wine, we invest our consumption with the hope that as we bless and drink, we will be able to effect a unification between the Kadosh Baruch Hu and the Shekhinah. Between the transcendent aspect of God which is beyond our ken, and the immanent aspect of God which is embodied in creation. Between divinity we can scarcely begin to comprehend, and divinity we experience in our daily lives.

These words presume that mitzvot have meaning, and that when we do them mindfully and with a whole heart, we have the capacity to impact the very being of God.

In recent years I've been aware of wanting some way to really enter into this prayer before each of the seder's four glasses of wine. And aware, too, that while the kabbalistic language speaks to me, these concepts may be strange or unfamiliar for many seder-goers. I'm not sure that pausing the seder and offering further discursive explanations actually serves the purpose of helping people enter into this practice.

Enter melody.



I'm not a songwriter, so I was surprised when this chord progression and this simple melody came to me. But I was casting about for some way of making this small prayer more accessible, and the melody arose. So I said thank-you for it, and I recorded it in three ways: as a niggun (above), as a song (intended to be sung before the first time this kabbalistic formula is recited), and in a shortened version which leads right into the blessing over wine. Here's the song:



And here's the version which uses only the first few words (הִנְנִי מוּכָן וּמְזוּמָּן) and then moves into the blessing over wine.


If this practice speaks to you, and if this melody speaks to you, feel free to make use of them in your seder(s). The first seder is four weeks from tonight! I want to be attentive to what quickens in me as this festival approaches. Behold: I am ready...


Twenty years of song

In January of 1993, a woman named Kate put out the word that she was looking for people who were interested in singing madrigals during Winter Study, Williams College's January term. My dear friend David told me in no uncertain terms that he was going, and he was dragging me with him. I was mourning the break-up of my first real relationship, and I was morose; he knew that singing would cheer me. I was as dubious about that proposition as only a self-centered and heartbroken seventeen-year-old could be, but I agreed to give it a try.

To my surprise, David turned out to be right. The singing was grand, and it lifted me out of myself. We had so much fun during Winter Study that, when the spring semester began, we decided to constitute ourselves as a "real" a cappella group, specializing in madrigals and early Renaissance music. David and Kate became the group's first pair of directors, and they opened auditions to the campus-at-large. To my great relief, I made it into the group. Once the group's line-up was settled, we spent an afternoon brainstorming names. And the name we chose for ourselves was the Elizabethans.

The women, and the men, of the Elizabethans. Spring 1994.

I sang with the 'bethans all four years of college, and the year afterwards, too, when I was working at the college bookstore. Infinite hours of rehearsals -- concerts on campus, music interspersed with skits and patter and silliness -- annual tours when we packed ourselves into a college van or two and drove all over the Northeast (and sometimes as far south as North Carolina) to perform at colleges and churches, doing guest stints with other madrigal groups, singing wherever we could line up a gig, and then cooking meals for ourselves at night in borrowed kitchens -- these make up some of my fondest college memories.

It turns out that the era of making memories with the Elizabethans isn't over. Not entirely, anyway.

Continue reading "Twenty years of song" »

Rabbis Without Borders, kirtan, wow


I've done kirtan before. I've even done kirtan with the Kirtan Rabbi, Rabbi Andrew Hahn, before. So when I saw it on our agenda, this morning, I smiled, and I thought, wow, that's going to blow a few minds. I didn't realize one of them would be mine.

Today was the first day of the first meeting of the fourth cohort of the Rabbis Without Borders fellowship. This morning we introduced ourselves by way of pennies, broke into small groups to talk about objects which matter to us (Jewish objects, "non-Jewish objects," and objects which others might think are non-Jewish but which feel Jewish to us -- after meeting with my small group I tweeted that I'm not sure there are non-Jewish objects anymore), and listened to Lisa Miller, religion editor at Newsweek, talk about religious demographics in the United States today.

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield led a fantastic afternoon session exploring and recontextualizing the statistics Lisa had placed before us. I want to blog about that, at some point. I have a lot of thoughts and ideas bouncing around my head now. I'm thinking a lot about the notion that the rising number of "nones" -- those who aren't affiliated with any religious tradition; who check the "none" box on surveys -- is not an ending but a beginning. An opening for a new chapter which we may, if we are awake and aware, be blessed to help co-author.

But the thing I want to write about tonight was our evening program, which was Hebrew kirtan with the Kirtan Rabbi. Kirtan is devotional chanting. In its original context, it's a kind of bhakti yoga -- a devotional practice of chanting divine names in order to open up the heart. Reb Drew led us in an evening of chanting, interspersed with narrative. He told us, over the course of the evening, how he came to explore this form of sacred practice and to integrate it with Judaism.

One of the chants which moved me was a variation on the shema. It features a variety of names for God: not only Adonai and Yah but also hesed, gevurah, tiferet -- the classical kabbalistic sefirot. I smiled as those names unfolded. I thought, ah, I see what he's doing there, that's very lovely. I enjoyed the chanting, and then when the chant was done I enjoyed the experience of singing the full shema once as our chatimah.

But the chant which really got me was his chant which works with the kaddish. There are several parts to the melody, and we chanted each one in turn. L'eilah min kol birchata u-shirata -- beyond all blessings and songs. Y'hei shmei rabbah m'vorach -- may the Great Name be blessed. One of the melodic lines is borrowed from the way the kaddish is sung on Friday nights, so I grinned the first time we sang it -- a familiar melody and familiar words, shifted and changed by their new context. I was surprised by how much joy and energy we brought to singing that line.

This is hard to describe; I'm not doing it justice. We reached a place where we were singing his kaddish kirtan in harmony -- the women singing one melodic line and set of words, the men singing another -- and all of a sudden my heart cracked open and I burst into tears. Quietly, mind you; I don't think most of the room noticed. I covered my face with my hands and took a few deep breaths and then I was able to sing again, though softly. By the time we finished the kaddish my face was wet and all I could think was that this must be what it's like to be part of the choirs of angels singing holy holy holy back and forth all day.

I've been blessed to have this kind of peak experience many times over my years in Jewish Renewal, but I wasn't expecting to have it tonight. (I've heard Reb Zalman speak several times about the challenge of "domesticating" the peak experience -- taking the peak experiences we may be blessed to have on retreat, and bringing them home with us, bringing that energy home to enliven our daily prayer lives.) I didn't see it coming, and there it was: a surprise from God, a moment of intense connection where my heart opened wide and God poured in.

Maybe it was because I was chanting kirtan in such an intimate setting -- this RWB cohort is a scant 18 people, so it was an intimate room, all of us seated close together and close to the music. Maybe because everyone in the room knew what the words meant (while I think most kirtan afficionadoes would say that the experience of chanting is meaningful even if the words are opaque -- come to think of it, that's one of the arguments I've used for davening in Hebrew even when one isn't fluent, too -- I do think that something is added when one knows what one is praying.)

One way or another, it was wonderful experience. I'm grateful to Reb Drew and his wonderful ensemble (especially Shoshanna Jedwab, whose drumming -- when I encounter it -- always enlivens my prayer). To my RWB cohort for willingness to enter into this admittedly non-traditional experience (which we'll be processing and discussing tomorrow morning -- that should be fascinating in its own right!) To RWB/Clal for creating the container within which this could all take place.

Several of my colleagues and I took the subway back to our hotel together, still talking about the evening. As I write this post now I feel as though I'm still vibrating faintly from this intense and wonderful day of conversations and connections and song.